Solo Along The Silk Route: Guide To Samarkand, Tashkent & Bukhara

A trip along the Silk Route was a journey of many revelations, the beginning of lifelong friendships, and a discovery into Central Asia’s grand past
The 15th-century Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand
The 15th-century Bibi-Khanym Mosque in SamarkandPhoto: Shutterstock

I have travelled solo for a decade, navigating the journey of being fearless, of finding solace in solitude and unearthing joy in curiosity. This decade has moulded me in ways beyond my imagination and ignited in me a perpetual desire for adventure.

Through all those journeys, I have discovered that the most memorable experiences often lie beyond the guidebooks and tourist brochures.

Whether it's stumbling upon a tucked-away local hangout in a nondescript alley, sharing stories with new friends in distant lands, or witnessing a traditional festival off the beaten track, these are the moments that resonate deeply within me.

An Uzbeki man plays the dutar at the Sayilgoh Street
An Uzbeki man plays the dutar at the Sayilgoh Street

Hence, in the past couple of years, I've made it a point to visit a new country annually, preferably one with a different language and culture. This tradition has become my personal birthday gift to myself, a celebration of life and the endless possibilities it offers.

Last year, my journey led me to Uzbekistan, where I traversed through its ancient cities, majestic monuments, and rich trading history.

Finding A Safe Haven in Tashkent

Tashkent was my point of entry and exit for Uzbekistan, and on one particular night, I found myself out in the streets at 3 am. In most parts of the world, this would have been a safety concern, especially for a solo female traveller. But, Tashkent felt so safe throughout my time there. I was comfortable taking a late-night stroll between two of the city's most iconic buildings, Hotel Uzbekistan, an incredible example of the Soviet Brutalist architecture of the 1970s and Alisher Navoiy Theater, Uzbekistan’s national opera theatre, named after national poet Alisher Navoiy.

Pauline, a friend made on the road, looks out to the Sher Dor madrasa
Pauline, a friend made on the road, looks out to the Sher Dor madrasa

The novelty of this inexplicable feeling of safety prompted me to look at rentals in the city and make a mental note, with the hope that someday I will be able to come back to this city and live for a bit like a local.

Besides the safety, what drew me towards Tashkent is its truly cosmopolitan nature. Tashkent’s largest mosque, with a capacity of 2,400 people, Minor Mosque, and Tashkent’s largest church, the 19th century Holy Assumption Cathedral Church, both fit right into the city and are integral parts of its culture.

Hand-embroidered caps on display at Taqi Telpakfurushon in Bukhara
Hand-embroidered caps on display at Taqi Telpakfurushon in Bukhara

At Sayilgoh Street, Tashkent’s version of Broadway, you will find traditional games like shooting and ultra-modern 5D gaming consoles juxtaposed next to each other. At Amir Timur Square, you will find some buskers playing traditional musical instruments like the rubab and doira and some others pulling off some incredible stunts on their skates. Across its 15 districts, you will find everything, from a traditional tea house or chai khana to an underground speakeasy, from the oldest metro or rapid transit system in Central Asia to futuristic vehicles including the Tesla, from traditional bazaars like Chorsu Bazaar to multi-outlet malls like Next.

Things To Do

  • Explore the Tashkent metro. With themed stations, which are an ode to the country’s art and culture, the transit system is an attraction in itself.

  • Walk around Chorsu Bazaar, where you can pick up everything from horse meat sausages to Uzbekistan’s trademark ikat fabric.

  • Catch a glimpse of the oldest recorded Quran preserved at the Muyi Mubarak Library Museum.

  • Watch an opera or ballet at the Alisher Navoiy Theater to immerse yourself in the Soviet influence on Uzbekistan.

  • Tour the various exhibits at the Museum of Applied Arts, from embroidery to metalware and furniture to musical instruments.

Where To Stay

  • Budget: Art Hostel, Topchan Hostel

  • Mid-range: Mirzo Boutique Hotel, Hotel Uzbekistan

  • Luxury: Lotte City Hotel, Ichan Qala

Uzbeki dishes at one of Samarkand’s best restaurants, Platan
Uzbeki dishes at one of Samarkand’s best restaurants, Platan

What to eat

  • Plov at Beshqozon

  • Samsa at Minor Samsa

  • Shashlik at National Food

The author resting in the shade of the Ulugh Beg Madrasa on a hot summer day
The author resting in the shade of the Ulugh Beg Madrasa on a hot summer day

New Friends, Old Traditions: Toasting to My Birthday in Samarkand

Travelling solo can often be a hit or a miss when it comes to making friends, but I truly lucked out on this trip to Uzbekistan. As I walked into my hostel in Samarkand, I met Umama, a finance manager from UAE, Eric, a graduate student from China; and Ilaria, a massage therapist from the UK. Over the next 24 hours, we bonded over a host of activities, including a tea brewing and tasting session, a history lesson on the tea and coffee culture in China, going on walks around the walled city, solving a 1000-piece puzzle, ringing in my birthday by cracking open a wine bottle from the largest winery in Central Asia, and enjoying a leisurely brunch sampling local delicacies.

I also met and became friends with Pauline, a graphic designer from Italy, Jan, a banker from Switzerland and Tuba, a school teacher from the USA. When one travels, the experiences of the place enrich us, as do our interactions with fellow travellers and locals. Throughout my time in Samarkand, I also drew a lot of comfort in my conversations with locals as we discovered similarities in the words we use and the customs we follow.

A popular Turko-Mongol proverb says, “If you want to know about us, examine our buildings," and there probably couldn’t have been a better way of describing Samarkand. The city stands at the crossroads of cultures and civilisations and effectively blends its various influences—Persian, Islamic and Central Asian. Often hailed as the jewel of the Silk Road, the city’s vibrant blue mosaics and geometric patterns will stay with you forever. It’s not difficult to understand why the entire city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

In Samarkand, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, the region’s historic past comes alive through its architecture, offering a glimpse into a world where art, culture, and history converge.

Things To Do

  • Spend an evening at the Registan Square. Amidst the light show illuminating the madrasas of Ulugh Beg, Tilya-Kori, and Sher-Dor, the city truly comes to life.

  • Admire the intricate majolica tilework, majestic domes and breathtaking sunsets at the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis.

  • Hop on the tram as it slowly takes you through the city, offering an excellent opportunity for people-watching and get an insight into the locals’ ways of living.

  • Enjoy local delicacies at the Bibikhanum Teahouse while admiring the beauty of the 15th-century Bibi-Khanym Mosque next door.

  • Experience a unique ethno-cultural performance at El Merosi, the Theatre of Historical Costume, where actors demonstrate the costumes of different historical periods in Uzbekistan, from the Bronze Age to the present day.

Where To Stay

  • Budget: Heartland Hostel, Old Radio Hostel

  • Mid-range: Rabat Boutique Hotel, Bibikhanum Hotel

  • Luxury: DiliMah Premium, L’Argamak

What To Eat

  • Manti at Platan

  • Non at Samarqand Non Markazi

  • Shurpa at Bibikhanum Teahouse

The author, Nabiha Tasnim (centre), with her hosts at UTSO Art House in Bukhara—Umida (left), matriarch of the house, daughter-in-law, Ruxsora, and granddaughter, Behtarin
The author, Nabiha Tasnim (centre), with her hosts at UTSO Art House in Bukhara—Umida (left), matriarch of the house, daughter-in-law, Ruxsora, and granddaughter, Behtarin

In Search of Modern History in A Medieval City in Bukhara

Bukhara’s history spans over 2,500 years, and it is one of the best-preserved Islamic cities in Central Asia. Often referred to as the "City of Trade," Bukhara boasts being a popular trading stop on the Silk Road, a city with a rich history as a bustling centre of commerce and culture. At the heart of this vibrant cityscape used to lie its dedicated markets alongside the historic caravanserais, which used to act as lively hubs of activity and commerce. Three of these dedicated trading domes exist today as well—Taqi Sarrafon—the market of money changers, Taqi Telpakfurushon, the market of hat makers and Taqi Zargaron, the market of jewellers.

However, when I added Bukhara to my itinerary, I was primarily in search of something quite different. I was in search of the modern history that photographer, artist and art curator Shavkat Boltaev had put together. I first came across Boltaev’s work several years ago, through his photo exhibit, “The 21st Century: Bukhara without Bukhara Jews,” when I was reading up on the Jewish diaspora across the world. I remember reading one of his interviews where he shared, “I was born in Bukhara, I live in Bukhara, I create in Bukhara,” and I immediately had a sense that this man knew Bukhara like none other. He also went on to establish Bukhara’s first photo gallery in 1985. Unfortunately, Boltaev passed away after a battle with cancer in 2022.

However, I got an opportunity to get a peek into his life and work when I decided to stay at the over 100-year-old traditional Bukharan home, which his wife, Umida, and he had opened up to guests. Every corner of USTO Art House was reminiscent of Boltaev. You could see it in his rare and precious collection of photography books from around the world, in his photographs, paintings and murals which adorned their homes’ walls and in his collection of vinyls which featured music from all over the world, including Bollywood. The crafts made by his wife and daughter-in-law, Ruxsora, and the photographs captured by his sons, Behzod and Hofiz, all drew inspiration from him.

Beyond my time with the Boltaev family, the walks inside the Ark of Bukhara and the Old Town in the day, and around the Samanidov Park and Lyab-i-Hauz in the evenings, the leisurely afternoons and nights at the Silk Road Tea House and Ayvan will always remain close to my heart.

What To Do

  • Take in the grandeur of the Kalon Minar. It is indeed a sight to behold, and it is said that even Genghis Khan spared it from destruction as he was impressed by its beauty.

  • Pay homage to Ismail Samanid, Tajikistan’s national hero, at the oldest monument in Bukhara, the Samanid Mausoleum.

  • Witness the city come alive around the Lyab-i-Hauz, with families coming out for picnics and artists busking around the corners.

  • Step into history as you walk through the inner courtyards of the massive Ark of Bukhara.

  • Venture out of the city to admire the unique mirror mosaic work at the last Emir’s summer palace, Sitorai Mokhi Khosa.

Where To Stay

  • Budget: USTO Art House, Rumi Hostel

  • Mid-range: Sasha & Son, Hotel Malika

  • Luxury: Lyabi House, Mercure Bukhara

What To Eat

  • Lagman at Lyabi House

  • The High Tea at Silk Road Tea House

  • Qovok Shorva at Ayvan

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