I still remember my last night in Samarkand, one the oldest cities in Uzbekistan.
It was 7 pm, and my boyfriend and I were back at Registan for the third time during our stay. Registan – the pearl of Samarkand – is a square home to three of the most distinctive madrasas in Uzbekistan. It was a place we simply couldn’t stay away from. We were staring at the lit up madrasas in silence, trying and failing to comprehend how something so breathtaking could even exist. And then, a tear started rolling down my eyes. Though I’ve travelled extensively, never have I been so moved by the sheer beauty and surrealness of a place. In that moment, I was in disbelief that years ago, I had never even heard of a town called Samarkand and that in just three short days, it would completely capture my heart.
Uzbekistan is a place you simply have to see for yourself. I can write pages about its majestically striking architecture, the intricate mosaic patterns we found in every corner, the genuine kindness of its people, and the mouthwatering food we had. But I could never do it justice. Walking through the streets of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – the three major Silk Road cities – it was hard to keep my eyes and focus on just one place. Every corner I turned, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of speechlessness, and it happened over and over again. I questioned reality as I tried to absorb all the exotic colours, smells and sounds around me, because what I had seen and experienced during our ten days there were scenes I thought only existed in the mythical chapters of One Thousand And One Nights.
One thing that surprised me about Uzbekistan is that although it is not considered a popular destination, it is actually quite packed and touristy. Samarkand was filled with local and foreign visitors. At night, parts of Bukhara’s Old Town resembled the Vegas strip, with rows of lit up restaurants and groups of tourists roaming around. And though you can hear mellow traditional Uzbek music playing on one street, incredibly, just a few alleys away are the familiar beats of ‘Despacito’ blasting from a busy restaurant.
Despite the commercialization these cities have faced, never once did we feel like we were stuck in a tourist trap. Yes, vendors want to make money, but they were never pushy. They were genuinely nice and interested in getting to know visitors. And if they lead you into their shop to show you some remnants of Uzbek history that remained there, they won’t get upset when you walk away without buying anything. Uzbek locals always went out of their way to make us feel welcomed, and not only were they some of the friendliest people we’ve met, they also had inspiring stories to share.
I won’t forget about the woman from Khiva who told us about her conservative family that urges her to get married and settle down, but how her dream is to travel the world so she has been practicing English by working hard as a tour guide. Nor would I forget about the vendor in Bukhara who studied painting for eleven years, and whose hard work got her recognized internationally. She does exhibitions in France and sleeps in train stations so that she can finance her dream of exhibiting all around the world. These stories were so humbling to hear, and to me, they made Uzbekistan shine even brighter than its glittering minarets and colourfully-lit madrasas.
So if you are considering a visit to Uzbekistan, my advice would be to explore it from many different angles. There are stunning mosques, madrasas and minarets everywhere – even upon first glance, this country is a photographer’s ultimate heaven. But it’s hearing the locals’ stories, taking a walk under the starry night to see a deserted city, and climbing a 400-year-old minaret that will make you fall even more in love with this country.
To me, it will always be the one place I never knew I’ve always dreamt of seeing.
All images belong to Jiayi, subject to copyright.