The world is growing smaller, nowhere is inaccessible. Travellers can visit the ends of the earth and inform the world and their neighbours about their experiences immediately through social media. This instant information delivery knows no bounds but do the people posting these notices really take time to enjoy the experience or do they just move on and tick the relevant destination box?
Let me suggest a different image of a modern tourist ‒ someone who wants a truly memorable experience of history and culture from bygone ages, who can wonder at the untouched splendour of ancient forts or breath-taking scenery, never before experienced. Many tourists today are more educated and adventurous than their predecessors and they want an experience which will live with them forever. Uzbekistan is such a destination ‒ a country full of diversity, with a centuries-old tapestry of culture, history, legends and much, much more besides, but also a developing country in a modern world.
For centuries, this forgotten jewel in the Central Asian crown has hidden the many wondrous sites and secrets it has to offer those who look for a new travel experience. Whether they explore the open vistas of the south, or opt for rafting on the Chaktal River, or prefer to immerse themselves in the history of cities such as Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara or Khiva ‒ Uzbekistan provides a natural opportunity to educate and deliver that once in a lifetime journey. Above all, everyone who has visited the country comes back with one overwhelming memory: the Uzbek PEOPLE. The hospitality and the traditions that visitors encounter are the product of centuries of interaction between a variety of cultures, including Zoroastrian, Sogdian and Bactrian traditions, also nomadic tribal customs, mediated by later Islamic traditions and rites.
Tourists are not new to Uzbekistan ‒ they have been visiting the country for centuries. Today, however, the government of President Mirziyoyev is embracing the demands of a new generation of tourists by taking important steps to improve the human and physical infrastructure. This is helping to open the treasure chest of delights that is Uzbekistan. A notable development is the appointment of a Minister for Tourism, operating under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This indicates that the government realises the potential benefits that tourism can bring to the country. Investment in the infrastructure is on-going and new investors are required to assist with the building blocks to establish Uzbekistan as a diverse destination, providing a variety of tours for all ‒ from history and culture to adventure and ‘special interest’ tours such as the study of the fauna that is unique to Uzbekistan. Thanks to these and its many other assets, the country is ideally positioned to embrace ‘sustainable tourism’ and to develop its own ‘tourism identity’.
There are many famous and wonderful places to visit in Uzbekistan. However, there are also other, less well known but equally interesting places. Currently, one of the priorities is to develop the tourism potential of the beautiful, but still largely unvisited Qashqadaryo (formerly ‘Kashkadarya’) province. It is located in the south-east of Uzbekistan, in the basin of the Qashqadaryo River where the Pamir-Alay Mountains merge into the plains. To the east lies Tajikistan, to the south Afghanistan, and to the west, Turkmenistan. It covers an area of 28,400 km², with a population of just over 2 million. It has large reserves of solid and liquid minerals, which constitute the basis for a major oil and gas industry. The region also has a flourishing agricultural sector. Moreover, it has a long and much admired tradition of crafts, particularly the production of hand-woven carpets and decorative embroideries (suzani).
In addition to all of this, the region is significant for its world-famous historical sites. The most important of these is the city of Shahrisabz, birthplace of Amir Temur ‒ better known in English as Tamerlane. One of the most ancient cities in the region, Shahrisabz (literally ‘green city’) was founded more than 2,700 years ago and originally formed part of the Iranian Achaemenid Empire (6th-4th centuries BC). Over the centuries, later rulers left their mark on the city and amongst its most impressive monuments are those of the Timurid dynasty (14th-15th centuries AD); in recognition of their uniqueness, the old part of the city was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 2000.
There are several other important places in the Qashqadaryo province. One of these is Qarshi. A rich, fertile oasis city, its history has been shaped by many civilizations, including the Sogdians and the Mongols. By the early 19th century it was the second city of the Emirate of Bukhara, seat of the ruler’s heir presumptive. Surrounded by massive walls, it was a key halt on the journey between Bukhara and Balkh. However, it was not only a secure resting place, but a major trading post for the region, endowed with ten great caravanserais. It was also a city of learning, with important madrassahs. One of the greatest of the Islamic ‘Golden Age’ polymaths came from a family with links to Qarshi, as indicated by his name, Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (1213-1288). Amongst his many achievements, he was the first physician to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood, pre-dating similar discoveries by Western scientists in the seventeenth century (notably William Harvey, 1628). Today, Qarshi still has a well-developed system of higher education and its young students are as eager and outward-looking as their forebears.
Another city in Qashqadaryo with an interesting history is Kitob. During the medieval period it was known as the ‘city of astronomers’ and this is not surprising, given its unique location and environmental conditions. In 1928, Soviet scientists installed the most advanced astronomical instruments of the day here ‒ a Bamberg Zenith Telescope and a Shortt Clock. The equipment continues to function today in the Kitob International Latitude Station. This is based in the new observatory named after the great scholar Mirzo Ulugbeg (1394-1449), grandson of Tamerlane and ruler of Samarkand. In 2010, Uzbek scientists from this observatory discovered a new planet and, at the suggestion of President Islam Karimov, named it ‘Samarkand’ in honour of Mirzo Ulugbek. And for those who are not interested in celestial bodies, there is the Kitob Geological Reserve, home to over 500 of types of flora and a rich array of fauna, including many rare and endangered species. But there is no escaping science in this region … the Reserve works closely with the International Commission on Stratigraphy.
The Qashqadaryo Tourism Development Programme aims to give greater visibility to this extraordinarily diverse region. Plans include some 80 infrastructural, marketing and organisational initiatives, funded by the state at national and regional levels, also by foreign investments, as well as loans and grants. The programme includes projects to diversify tourism products in the region, also to boost measures to attract tourists, such as developing hotel infrastructure, restaurants and catering. Hotel capacity will be doubled by the refurbishment of existing facilities, and the construction of 30 new hotels. There are also plans to purchase at least 20 tourism buses and to create a business hall for passengers at Qarshi Airport, as well as to reconstruct buildings of the main railway station in Kitob. The development of Shahrisabz is also prioritized, likewise nearby mountain areas such as Kitob, where it is planned to develop different types of tourism, such as ecological, recreational and agricultural activities. It is also planned to develop cultural-educational tourism in Qarshi city and region.
Over the next two years, these projects will undoubtedly transform the region’s tourist facilities. Recent initiatives taken by H.E. Alisher Shaykov, Uzbek ambassador to the UK, included video conferencing with leading independent tour operators from Uzbekistan to discuss issues of bridging the markets between Uzbekistan and the UK, so as to inform and educate the British travel industry of the tours available to them and to encourage them to work as partners. This event provided an opportunity to develop links with operators, some of whom offer outstanding value tours with reliable guides.
Education also plays a large part in the process and again, Ambassador Shaykhov has engaged with companies such as TVET (Technical and Vocational Education) to present a programme of training for the Travel and Tourism industry in Uzbekistan that will enable local students to acquire the skills that are needed to deliver local knowledge to travellers. Initiatives such as these are being developed at the Uzbek embassy in London. Members of the embassy staff are ready to assist companies who may be interested in becoming involved in this area. The British Uzbek Society, too, is always happy to facilitate contacts.
The presentation was accompanied by a colourful set of slides, some of which are included here: Download Presentation Slides (6Mb)