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LAST STOP ON THE SILK ROAD

A month of driving the silk road lead me to the only place it ever could - a centuries old silk factory in a remote town in Uzbekistan

Let’s jump 5000km backwards to the beginning - The hottest day in Pakistani history - or at least that’s how it felt to the odd assortment of travelers standing awkwardly together in an empty Lahore hotel lobby.

Troy Collings, (pictured below) Our fixer, leader, and the glue that stuck us all together, briefed us on the month long journey that would pull this strange mix of backpackers, stateless wanderers, and retirees together in ways we never expected.

The long journey to Dushanbe, where our group eventually parted ways, is a long story for another post - but the experience set the stage for an equally unique trip along train lines across the deserts of Uzbekistan with my new friend Pierre.

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THE END AND THE BEGINNING 

It all starts with goodbyes, long hugs and promises to do it all again together soon. Pierre and I squeeze into a taxi heading to the Tajik border with Uzbekistan, without a plan in place. Passing through customs here is a breeze compared to where we just came from (Xinjiang) and we’re a little skeptical about how easily we manage to pull the trip together.

Somehow after crossing into yet another Stan and bartering for a ride, our taxi driver pulls us out of the car and we find ourself in the middle of an Uzbek wedding.

I guess we needed to wait for more people to share the ride, so Pierre and I simply enjoy the oddity of it all. Men Ride on Horseback through the streets, families celebrate below a huge tent, staining the ground with cyan light, an older woman presents me with her grandchild - all is as usual here in the rural town of Dainabad. We're on local time now, and the world moves just a little be slower here. 

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A SLOW START

Eventually we get moving, but the road to Samarkand is painfully slow. The roads are horrific and traffic leaves us in a standstill, but late that evening we finally arrive - the lights of the Registan Madrasa shine upon us, and it all becomes worth it in that moment.

Uzbekistan proves to be one of the simplest countries to travel across. Connected by a long line of railways, the trains are comfortable, extremely cheap, and go basically everywhere you’d want to go. Booking is easy, trains are on time, and sleeper cabins are clean - you can’t get much better than that as a backpacker on a budget.

Pierre and I decide to head west from Samarkand, towards Bukhara, and Kiva - then backtrack to Tashkent, marginal, and Andijan where we eventually part ways. Let’s break down the route.

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SAMARKAND

The three Madrasas of Registan square are the cultural heart of Samarkand. The night we arrive, the crescent moon raises above the minarets and the city feels a bit magical. Much of what you see in Uzbekistan, and Samarkand in particular is due to the rule of Amir Timur, and the subsequent Timurid Renaissance which brought about the classic Uzbek style of architecture we see today. 

When taking new land, Timurids often spared the lives of local artisans, deporting them to the capital of Samarkand. Consequently, after conquering Persia in the early 15th century, Timurid artwork became interwoven with islamic styles - which is classically non-representational and focuses on the beauty of geometric forms and patterns. 

These designs sometimes seem to defy three dimensionality and provide the viewer with endless interpretations as the patterns radiate limitlessly. Islamic art a pure unification of math and design. It highlights a marriage between art, the mind, and even biology itself, as these seemingly structured designs often mimic the natural world - flowers, seashells, minerals, etc. 

Samarkand is a city with a depth of history that can be hard to comprehend. It is one of the worlds longest inhabited cities, rich with culture, stunning artwork, and so much to uncover. 

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TRAINS THE WHOLE WAY

Your main mode of transport awaits you at Samarkand station. Fast train, slow train, full cabin, or just a seat, all of these options are quite attractive as Uzbekistan isn't such a large country. Even the slow trains will get you to the places you want to go in a reasonable amount of time. 

While other travel sites recommend booking online here - we found that it can be much simpler to plan your route using the website, then book the tickets in person at any main rail station. Rail workers may not speak much english but they are happy to lend a hand to foreigners. Google translate is your best friend as usual.  

Avoid booking trains with an agency, booking tickets yourself is a very convenient option and significantly cheaper. Just be sure to plan your trip a few days in advance, or remain flexible as some trains may sell out, especially the fast trains leaving Tashkent. 

The trains themselves, and the journey they take you on is something really special. Slow Trains and their cabins are stuck in the past with a retro feel that takes you back to the soviet days. On these trains, half the fun is the meal-car and sharing the trip with locals. People are generally excited to see travelers and happy to pass the time together. Fast trains are more modern, and don't offer quite the same nostalgic vibes, but if comfort is more important to you, I'd recommend booking on the fast track.

Trains are on time, stations are clean and uncrowded, you'll always feel safe aboard, the whole system just works. This point alone has pushed me to say several times that Uzbekistan is one of the most traveler-friendly and easily planned un-seen destinations in the world. No real pre-planning needed, everything can be booked on a whim, just arrive and enjoy. 

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BUKHARA

The old city greets you with massive inflated fortress walls, bulging forward as if holding back water. The unique design is ancient and protects the city within. Just as the rest of the country, Bukhara is home to Mosques, Mausoleums, and Madrasas. Each city has its own flavor, and every ancient site seems to be unique in new and interesting ways. A good example of this is the Chor Minor Madrassa, just outside of the main center of town.  Four rounded minarets topped with azure tiles, stand awkwardly between average homes surrounding the Madrassa, or what's left of it, only the gate still stands.  

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KHIVA

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