Uzbekistan must be one of the most obscure countries in the world. For a long time the image we had of the country was one of a mysterious and dubious character. A totalitarian government that was run by a dictator in an isolated country, shrouded in a cloud of secrecy with little information ever reaching us, formed the enigmatic image we have of Uzbekistan.
Today, Uzbekistan is working hard to shake off this image. Since the dictator Karimov (president from 1990 to 2016) past away, the new president has been working hard to open up the country and establish a more transparent government.
Years of isolation and authoritarian rule caused the country to lag behind in development, a collapsing economy and little employment opportunity for youth. Recent developments on the road to a more open country include abolishing forced labour in the cotton fields, improving the deplorable human rights and torture record, reforming corrupt courts and the liberalization of the economy.
Especially in the tourism sector, work is being done such as visa-free regulations for many countries and less bureaucracy, such as the required hotel registration (you need to receive an official registration of every hotel that you stayed in to show when leaving the country which is problematic for staying in guesthouses, camping etc.) to attract more visitors.
The citizens are excited about the path to a more democratic and open society and the opportunities that it brings.
Oppression has led to fear of expressing your opinion but now people feel more at ease to talk about matters like their government (although we didn’t hear any critique). Most people we spoke to are raving about the new president, especially the young people we met in the modern capital. They are working hard to learn English and are incredibly curious of the outside world and many express desires for a western lifestyle.
The totalitarian regime had its impacts which cannot be erased just like that and the current government still has lots to do to prove the reform commitment, but progress is being made and the country is changing fast with more international tourists visiting every year.
We expected Uzbekistan to be much different than what media and people’s prejudices led us to believe, however we certainly did not expect to see big tour groups and coaches full of Europeans.
Kitted in full-blown tourist outfit they were ready to check some highlights off their list, like it was Paris or Barcelona. Most tourists visit Uzbekistan to marvel at the incredible Islamic architecture, stemming from as long ago as the 14th century. Stories about the Silk Road and legendary tales of people as Alexander the Great, Djenghis Khan and Timurlane are connected to Uzbekistan and are guaranteed to instill fascination about these tumultuous periods.
After the Silk Road period faded, the region had fallen into oblivion.
Until the so called Great Game of the 19th century, when Russia and England fought a secret war here. Back then this was all uncharted territory for Western and Russian explorers, navigating their way in this hostile region that was ruled by cruel Khans and Emirs.
The major tourist destinations in Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva) definitely found their way in smartly exploiting this history into tourism products.
Nothing wrong with that, that’s how tourism works, but they lost a lot of their authenticity in the efforts to make them appealing tourist destinations. The rather aggressive restoration works of the architecture, such as mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs, has received criticism as it leaves little authenticity.
The cities are now rather polished up and often dubbed as open air museums, complete with many gift shops. It’s hard to imagine those ancient Silk Road times now that trade caravans have been replaced by tour coaches cueing up for the famous Registan Square in Samarkand or Bukhara’s Lyab-i Hauz.
Nowadays, many of the Madrasahs (Islamic schools) have received new purpose as gift shops. Although the Islamic architectural marvels are still very impressive and interesting, busloads full of 65 plussers from France and Germany were not exactly our thing. And besides checking off the most impressive buildings on your list, we were looking for some true interactions with locals.
So after the crowds and the Islamic architecture overload in Samarkand, we were ready for some peace and quiet in nature and to experience more of local life. Cue in the Nuratau mountains: the perfect getaway in-between the architecturally fuelled destinations of Uzbekistan.
Once we left the sombre town of Jizzakh the scenery slowly started to change. Grey buildings were disappearing and mountains slowly came in sight. When you reach the Forish region, the road stretches straight ahead with the mountains on the left and the vast expanse of the Karakum desert with the massive Aydar lake at the end on the right. The long range of mountains rising from the plains doesn’t seem to have any way in, but every now and then a dirt road veers off from the main road into the mountains, after which the small villages reveal themselves.
We were exploring a few of these villages for a week to look at the result of the sustainable and community based tourism project here, as part of our general study of the impact of tourism development in Central Asia.
Responsible travel Nuratau was founded in 2007 as a non-profit to help people in the region set up guesthouses so they could generate income from tourism, as an alternative to livestock farming that often does not provide a sustainable income.
At first it was hard to convince the locals that anyone would come to this area for leisure purposes at all and would even pay money to stay in their homes. The idea of homestays was to spend time with a local family and learn about their traditions and way of life. This type of tourism did not exist yet in Uzbekistan, thus faced some obstacles in setting up and marketing. In the end the project was very successful and now there are several homestays spread out over five villages.
Every village is tiny and centred around the small basin from the meandering creek or river. Most of the houses are built in a rustic style from locally sourced materials and often surrounded by a large garden that is fenced off by low, dry stone walls. All sorts of cattle are roaming around the houses lazily. A donkey is braying in the distance. Fresh fruits and nuts are ready to be picked from the green gardens. There is no rush and the pace of life is considerably slower here than in the cities.
Settlement in this area has a long history. The inhabitants are mostly Tajiks who found refuge here when fleeing from Alexander the Great’s army when he marched through Tajikistan. Trade caravans used to pass by here until the 19th century. During Soviet times, some of the villages were almost completely emptied as people were forced to move somewhere else to work in factories. Nowadays, the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere in the villages is attracting tourists that want to experience village life.
It was a beautifully crisp, autumn week when we arrived, full of sun but also chilly: a perfect mix of summer and autumn. The tiny creek that meanders through the mountains brings forth a colourful array of bright yellow and orange autumn foliage, stemming from the trees that follow the meandering shape of the river, like a colourful snake that contrasts heavily to the dark grey mountains.
Centred around the lush vegetation, the villages arise as an oasis in the otherwise barren landscape. Little clay wall houses are dotted at the foot of the hills and increase in density upon reaching the centre of the valley floor. At the end of the day you’ll see tiny black dots moving from the mountain, growing in size until you recognize them as flocks of sheep being directed down the mountain by the sheepherder, back to their home.
We spend our days hiking up random mountain tops to watch incredible sunsets and sunrises over the vast, expansive scenery. Peering into the never-ending distance of the Karakum desert with a cold wind in your face, making a fire, contemplating about stuff or just thinking about nothing at all. Then, with that immensely satisfying glow of being outside all day, return to our homestay to have some delicious locally sourced dinner. During the day we were also strolling around the quiet villages, greeting curious kids and colourful dressed old ladies, who reveal their gold teeth when they smile.
We were on one of these strolls, just entering the village of Hyat again, when a sheepherder in front of us turned around to say hello. We returned the greeting and we both continued our way. A bit later he turned again and asked ‘chai’?
After a few months in Central-Asia this is probably the word we heard most, as it means tea. And they just love tea and inviting strangers to drink tea with them. So we accepted his invitation and followed him to his house, situated in the middle of a spacious and charming property, where we sat down on the ground (as is usual in Central-Asia) around a table in an otherwise empty room.
Soon we would learn that he only speaks Tajik, as most of the population in this area is actually Tajik. No Uzbek and no Russian either, not that we are fluent in those but so far offline Google translate in Russian had helped us a great many times. Unfortunately his (and undoubtedly ours too) sign language was not as good as others, so communication was difficult to say the least. We both acknowledged this by smiling awkwardly at each other when another attempt to unravel what we were saying clearly failed. This didn’t stop him from being incredible hospitable though. Delicious meal after delicious meal appeared on the table. A cup of tea had expanded into a full blown lunch.
About 4 pots of tea, some uncomfortable smiling here and there, a full belly and two hours later we ran out of things to ‘talk’ about and continued our way to the village. Just an example of the tremendous hospitality found everywhere in Central Asia. People here are happy to welcome foreigners and interested to learn more about you or make a connection, despite the language barrier. Everywhere in the Nuratau villages would greet us with a smile or try to chat and we felt incredibly welcomed and at ease.
Such was the warm welcome as well in Mosrum village, our last stop.
We were given directions by the previous guesthouse on how to find the homestay. Upon entering the village, a man dressed in an army print jacket and a worn out beanie, was standing at the fork in the road. He stopped us, opened up the door and sat down in the car without saying a word. Apparently this was our host, who seemingly had been notified of our arrival (there is no cell reception so we don’t know how). Kuldosh was the name and Kuldosh wore a beaming smile across his kind face that would not fade until we left.
While he directed us to his home we exchanged the usual small talk that we could handle in Russian. Almost always the first thing that someone asks, is if we speak Russian. We reply with no, after which said person will then ask where you are from, in Russian. After repeatedly hearing this question we just started saying our country and it turned out that it was the correct answer to the question. Every time we answered with ‘Gallandia’ (the Netherlands) they always responded with surprise and amazement, as if it was some mystic land far away. Usually they were able to mention a famous Dutch soccer player or two, even in the most remote areas.
Kuldosh owns a large property and only recently started his homestay. An immense yard is filled with trees that bring forth delicious fruits and nuts, such as walnuts, apricots, mulberry, pistachio and more. Chickens, a donkey, dogs, a cow and his sun called Mohammed Ali were strolling around in the garden all day and it was perfect to just relax in the autumn sun, play a game of chess or lay on your back in the grass.
Our host did not seem to be engaged in too many activities either and sure had lounging around nailed down. He did dutifully accompany us when we were climbing a mountain top at sunset to make sure nothing happened but other than that he never ventured outside his property. The main attraction in the village that everybody got excited about though was a very large and old tree that supposedly was planted by soldiers of the army of Alexander the Great.
In the evening a delicious dinner was always waiting for us.
With a big grin Kuldosh pulled out a bottle of vodka and some ‘pivo’s (beers). We were getting used to the drinking mentality in Central-Asia but it still had us floored, as within 10 minutes he had emptied the bottle by refilling us as soon as we swallowed the last drop of our drink.
Suddenly the communication barrier was lifted considerably, we could understand each other a whole lot better and I wasn’t afraid to show him my sudden incredible proficiency in Tajik, Uzbek and Russian. In turns, we had to make a toast before emptying our cup and eating.
The next morning at breakfast Kuldosh conjured up a bottle of red wine and looked at us questioningly. Our heads still sore from the previous night we decided to decline this one, upon which Kuldosh sadly put the bottle away.
After one of the most affectionate farewells I ever had with people I barely know, we drove out of Mosrum. In the rear-view mirror we saw Kuldosh folding his hands, sticking them into the air and shouting ‘Gallandia, Gallandia’, still smiling broadly.
Even without speaking the language, we learned more about some of the locals, who went through a lot of effort to get to know us too.
Nuratau is a perfect place to see a different side of Uzbekistan in a very relaxed way and to have a taste of local life and hospitality.
We were surprised that mass tourism had found its way already to Uzbekistan, but once you venture outside the well-known attractions and places, you certainly don’t feel like a tourist anymore and are welcomed with open arms.