Just the name of Samarkand is evocative. The city was the centre of Timur's medeival empire that spread from Delhi to Damascus. Timur forcibly relocated artisans from his kingdom to Samarkand so they could create this trophy city. Nowadays Samarkand is a small regional town except that on every corner there is a majestic landmark. At Samarkand's centre is The Registan. The square is a masterpiece, surrounded on three sides by monstrous blue tiled maddrassas. The nearby Bibi Khanum Mosque was the largest of it's type when constructed with the help of elephants brought from India. The remains of Ulug Beg's observatory show how Timur's grandson was at the forefront of scientific discovery and at Gul-i-Mir is the mausoleum that contains the jade tombstone of Timur himself.
Shakhrisabz is the birthplace of Timur and as such he transformed this small town into a second Samarkand. Shakhrisabz is very much an Uzbek town with little Russian influence and is peppered with remnants from the 15th Century like Timur's white palace, the mosque of the blue dome and the tomb of Jehengir, Timur's favourite son.
Bukhara is many people's favourite stop on the silk road in Uzbekistan. The 2,500 year holy city contains many fine examples of Islamic Central Asian architecture such as the Kalon Minaret, built in the 12th century and left standing by Genghis Khan when he raised the city so awestruck was he by it's size.
Bukhara became a household name in Britain in the 19th Century after the execution of two British spies by the ruthless Emir. His fortress, the Ark, still stands and fans of the Great Game can stand in the footsteps of these barbaric deeds.
It is also the best spot to soak up some of the atmosphere, imagining what it would have been like for the silk road traders or when Marco Polo visited. Walking through the winding back streets, discovering small squares, seeing the shops selling the array of local rugs and hats or relaxing under mulberry trees in a chaikhana (tea house) are some of the pleasures of the holiest city in Central Asia.
Khiva and Khorezm
Khorezm is an oasis in the delta of the Oxus river. Although a backwater today it was a crucial trading post for caravans crossing the Kyzlkum and Karakum deserts. The province was a centre of learning, mathematics, religion and poetry 1000 years ago. The landscape contains ancient desert citadels that protected this route as well as containing the city of Khiva.
With it's bare mud walls, Khiva is the most complete ancient city on the silk road. Famous for a centre of slave trading that existed into the late 19th century the old city of Khiva is frozen in time. It is now a city museum with the spectacular turquoise and green Kalta Minaret the visual highlight.
Aral Sea and Karakalpakstan
Karakalpakstan, the land of the black hats, is a place blighted by the soviet years in Central Asia. The most striking example of this is the Aral Sea. It stands as a monument to what man can do with the earth it we are not careful. Forty years ago this was the world's fourth largest lake. A passenger ferry would take a full day to cross it's 400km width. Fishing fleets fuelled the local economy. Now Moynaq, a once thriving port, sits 150 kilometres from the sea edge as the lake has all but dried up. Whilst not a tourist attraction as such a trip to a sea side town with no sea is a memorable if sobering experience.
Nuqus, the capital of Karakalpakstan is also home to the Savitsky museum and it's unique art collection. In the 1930's all art that was not socialist realism was banned. However one art curator spent his life secretly collecting other Russain art from the period creating the world's only Russian avant garde art collection from that period with an astonishing 80,000 pieces.
Uzbekistan's capital city was the administrative centre for Russian central Asian and grew to become the fourth largest city in the old USSR. It dwarves any other city in the country. At first glance the wide boulevards, orderly monuments and gaudy metro system suggest that any remnants of traditional Central Asian life has long gone. However, there are still areas pockets of traditional life in some of the bazaars and madrassas.