By James Draven
This once mysterious nation now grants visa-free travel to 90 countries, part of a plan that may change its character forever.
A smooth-faced border officer at the glossy Samarkand -International airport was -scrutinising my passport. Standing in his booth, wearing an oversized -uniform, he inspected my photograph and asked where I was staying. He had already checked all of its 60-plus stamps and visas, and studied each of the security holograms, foil inlays and perforations; and he was now holding it up to a lamp, examining the -watermarks on every page – much to the quiet, shuffling irritation of the long line of Uzbek citizens behind me. Finally, he waved me through.
Registan, an old public square in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand. Credit: iStock
I offered another European -passenger a weak smile as I passed her. After similar scrutiny, her passport had been rejected until it could be seen by a senior official. But it wasn’t -Soviet-style bureaucracy slowing things down – it was naivety. The entirely redeveloped airport opened only in March 2022, and the young border officer had no idea if her document was genuine, having never seen a Norwegian passport before.
Home to some of the finest -examples of 14th to 20th century Central Asian architecture, Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Uzbekistan and among the most ancient in Central Asia, dating back to 1500 BC. Renowned for its craft -production, it was one of the most important stops on the -legendary Silk Road, a 6500-kilometre jumble of trade routes that crossed Eurasia from as early as the 2nd -century – running from the far east of present-day China to western Turkey – along which silks, spices and jade were transported. Attracting -merchants from far and wide, -Samarkand is recognised by UNESCO as having been a crossroads of world -cultures for more than two millennia.
And then came the late 19th -century. The Soviets invaded – controlling the country until 1991 – after which Uzbekistan spent several decades under the isolationist rule of President Islam Karimov, notorious for human rights abuses and enforcing slave labour in the country’s ubiquitous -cotton fields.
Although widely regarded as the jewel of the Silk Road, a shining -beacon on innumerable bucket lists, during this time Uzbekistan and Samarkand became relative strangers to visitors from far-flung lands. To locals, Norway might as well have been Neptune.
Samarkand is home to some of the finest -examples of 14th to 20th century Central Asian architecture.Credit: iStock
But when Karimov died in 2016, all that changed. International isolation had resulted in youth unemployment and a collapsing economy, so Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, made swift judicial reforms and opened up the country to tourism and foreign investment. By 2020, the -number of countries granted visa-free travel to Uzbekistan had jumped from nine to 90 (including Australia). Accommodation options almost doubled, and the number of tour operators more than tripled. -Foreign visitor numbers increased from two to 6.7 million as the country focused on attracting tourists from farther afield, and in early 2020, Uzbekistan was named the fourth–fastest-growing country for tourism by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
Unsurprisingly, in a city long defined by the iron rule of dictators – captured by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, ravaged by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, capital of -Tamerlane’s Empire throughout the 14th – this thunderous surge into modernity is largely welcomed by Samarkand’s -citizens, and by a government looking to the Gulf, and the glittering United Arab Emirates, for inspiration. But it is a blueprint that hasn’t always treated the culture and traditions of historic places with -kindness – just look at Dubai’s Old Town, and the likes of Chinese Lijiang, which now feel more like tribute bands than the real deal, forced to compete with the likes of Dubai’s Madinat -Jumeirah, a “modern reimagining” of a traditional Arab village.
There are, at least, attempts to weave the past into the present in Uzbekistan. Samarkand’s airport terminal building itself is a nod to Ulugh Beg, the 15th–century astronomer who remains the city’s most celebrated citizen, with the design intended to resemble an open book (his cosmological tome, the Zij-i Gurgani), all lamp-gilded pages fanning away from the central spine of the entrance hall, the roof twinkling with a star-map of spotlight constellations.
The redeveloped airport opened in 2022.Credit: iStock
This impetus to carry past into -present is evident, too, in the country’s newest – and most daring – foray into the future, the nearby Silk Road -Samarkand development: a huge, -futuristic tourism complex that became the largest in Central Asia when it opened in August 2022. With eight -luxury hotels (1200 rooms, increasing the city’s offering by about 50 per cent), 20 miles of pavement, and a congress hall with the capacity to hold 3000 -people, this “image of the new -Samarkand” cost more than $875 -million to build and was, -according to hotel management, the brainchild of President Mirziyoyev. There is even a four-star property, named in honour of the country’s favourite astronomer – the Lia! by Minyoun Stars of Ulugbek.
Nevertheless, standing on the 20th floor of the neighbouring Samarkand Regency hotel, the sprawling estate laid out below me, it was hard not to feel that this is the kind of resort an extraterrestrial might create — a seemingly infinite liminal space, the grounds stretching on endlessly, -illuminated at night by a galaxy of fairy lights spiralled around thousands of freshly planted saplings.
The mammoth resort’s centrepiece is the 28-acre Eternal City: a brand-new tourism hub designed to mimic a -medieval Silk Road town, mirroring the old city’s mosaics, golden arabesques and ribbed, cobalt domes. Its shops and -restaurants bustled with curious locals, despite being just 15 minutes from the architectural wonders of ancient Samarkand, among them the majolica-clad madrasas of Registan Square; the brilliant-blue tiles that adorn the avenue of 14th-century mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda; the jade tomb of Tamerlane; and Ulugh Beg’s impressive 15th-century observatory. But that, apparently, is kind of the point.
“The Eternal City is even better than Madinat Jumeirah,” says Roland Obermeier, general manager of the Samarkand Regency hotel. “Everybody goes to Registan Square, to these -architectural monuments – but we have our own, so people can stay in the resort and not necessarily go to the Old City.” He pauses, adding: “People go to Paris just for Disneyland.”
A local market. Samarkand was once one of the most important stops on the old Silk Road trade route.Credit: iStock
The Disneyfication of Samarkand is an ongoing debate, and one that is likely to rage on for some time. Clearly, -tourists with culture in mind are not the focus of these efforts – the target -markets are business travellers, -conference stays, and medical tourists (Obermeier believes that, just as -Istanbul is the global capital of hair transplants and “Turkey teeth”, so -Samarkand might become the beating heart of cardiology holidays).
So where does the culture-hungry tourist fit into Uzbekistan’s future? It is certainly true that the push for -modernity has made visiting the -country easier and more comfortable than ever before. Equally, as long as its dreams of globalisation remain only half realised, the Uzbekistan of yesterday can continue to exist in tandem. –
Venture beyond the golden bathrooms and smoked-glass exteriors of the mega-complex and jump into one of the resort’s fleet of cars (Chinese, all–electric hunks of chrome that resemble the love child of a Rolls-Royce and a Range Rover) and you can be in the foothills of the Fann Mountains or city’s markets within minutes, where all ideas of -Middle-Eastern ostentation are -forgotten.
Friendly pottery pedlars slurp tea surrounded by teetering -towers of china cups; roadside chefs give impromptu cookery lessons as they roast chickens in homemade, clay -tandoor ovens; and gold-toothed women crack gleaming grins while selling sticks of crystallised sugar.
Perhaps now – while modern -comforts beckon, but before a final facelift makes this Silk Road staple unrecognisable from its former self – is truly Uzbekistan’s moment to shine.
There are limited flight options from Australia to Uzbekistan, with the simplest way to fly with Emirates to Dubai and connect to a FlyDubai flight to Samarkand. Turkish Airlines also operates flights to Samarkand from Istanbul.
The writer was a guest of Silk Road Samarkand (silkroad-samarkand.com)
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