You can only reach the area by car. Several operators can hook you up with a tour. I chose Advantour. It’s expensive, but it’s a reliable company, our driver Fahrat’s English was excellent and the company answered any questions immediately. The itinerary was as follows, but I will write about the two silk road cities another time.
Bukhara - Silk factory- caravanserai - petroglyphs - Nurata - Hayat Village in Nurata Mountains - Samarkand
First, we had a stop at the largest silk factory in Uzbekistan with 300 workers just outside Bukhara. I bought an eye-mask which I still use.
Getting closer to the mountains you can find ancient petroglyphs – petro like in stone and glyphs like hieroglyphs. We fund markings of a camel of course and a donkey. It was really hard to find and if we had been driving alone, we would have missed it.
In the city of Nurata (ancient Nur) near the mountains you enter Tajik-speaking country (more on that later). Legends has is that a glowing meteorite fell to earth. It generated a spring and gave the water healing powers. The name “Nur” means “Light”.
What got me really excited was not the famous Chasma Complex with a holy spring, but…
…a fortress that Alexander the Great built. Yes, that Alexander! Pretty far from Macedonia.
In 4th century BC, Alexander the Great himself built the fortress and is one the most ancient monuments in Uzbekistan. Most remarkably, it had a water supply systems also built on the order of Alexander. The fortress was strategically located on the border between the agricultural land of Marakand (Samarkand) and the nomad territory raiding the settlement from the North. In case of invasion, the fortress had to have a free access to water.
The ancient city of Nur and the fortress of Alexander is very eroded and not much is left. But you can still feel history here. And it’s definitely not crowded.
Lunch was served at a really, really local place. It was just us and local families. Mutton is served by the kilo. Enjoy! We payed c. 3 Euro for 0,5 kilo mutton… Not bad – although mutton will never become my favourite thing. On the side is delicious pickled cucumbers, red peppers, beans and carrots. For drinks: tea.
Homestays are often highlighted as a sustainable type of travel and Uzbekistan is far ahead in Central Asia in this type of tourism.
A few villages offers homestays, but not much information is given about the difference between them. Sentyab is the largest one and closest to the road. So I didn’t want that. Advantour then suggested two others one of which was Hayot/Hayat.
This is really off-the-grid: none of the two cities are on Google Maps, but Hayat is near Ukhum, and I couldn’t find any Instagram images – I ended booking the one that seemed most remote. Absolutely no regrets!
But I’ll try to help you to prepare a little more than I could.
HOMESTAY IN HAYAT
I chose Hayat, since it looked the most remote. But it’s not really that remote. I’ve definitely been more off the grid before. So don’t expect completely isolation and being the first tourist here. But still it’s not everyone’s average daytrip.
After 2 hours of desert driving from Nurata City, you turn off the main road, drive inwards for around 9 km.
- A round stone oven made of mud or bricks
- The dough is covered with water and with a mitten she sticks it to the side of the oven. I’ve seen this technique in other places as well.
- In Uzbekistan, the bread is stamped
“Do you have children?”, she asked me through Fahrat. “I have a 14-year old son” I told her. “Then he can marry my young daughter. She is good at making bread,” she suggested. I promised to ask my son. We were then so lucky to get a freshly baked bread, and it was delicious. My friend! (I did ask my son by the way. He wasn’t interested. Her in 2022 I asked again. He still not interested.)
The new Ukhum Village called Hayat or Hayot is a bit further up the mountain. Around 200 people live here. This is where I recommend staying – although the houses are not charming old stone houses like in Ukhum.
We stayed in Hayat Guesthouse. It consisted of a husband, wife and 2 kids. The family was clearly not the most poor ones having a large new house.
The father worked as a park ranger. Other family relatives lived in the house opposite and they helped out. The small 9 year old son of the house worked as a guide for us – he knew Tajik, Uzbek, a little English and even some French. Impressive.
Tajik, also spelled Tadzhik is the original Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan and Turkistan.
The name Tajik refers to the traditionally sedentary people who speak Tajik in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They built villages of mud or stone houses and had fields of wheat, barley, and millet. Their gardens were famous for melons and a variety of fruits. Their towns along the caravan routes linking Persia, China, and India were centres of trade.
The house was really nice close to a small river and right in the mountains. The garden had goats (and they were also rummaging outside our window and on the roof(!) during the night). We visited out of season but was told it was even lovelier in spring time. I believe it.
We had dinner with the man of the family in what seemed like a cold basement with plastic on the table. Very different from what we do in Denmark. But that’s the point of travelling. The excellent dinner was prepared by the lady of the house. But she didn’t dine with us.
But the husband offered us vodka and local white wine. I happily had a glass. After a few days in Uzbekistan you’ll learn to drink vodka with your wine.
It was very cold during the night, since there’s no heat, but with a few blankets it’s fine. It was “Goodnight!” from the family at 7 pm and the lights were out around 8 pm. I didn’t want to be rude, so it was a loooong evening in a room without lights or internet.
We hiked for around 2 hours, so only a short while. Would have loved to spent more days in the mountains. (If I only had more time…)
On the way back we took a tour around the city of Hayat. Check out the guy on the donkey. That’s rural!
The mountains, my mom and me, the silence and the clean air. Donkeys, turkeys, horses, goats and guard dogs. I’m so happy we did this. Even though it meant we missed Khiva.
Before leaving, we had lunch with our fantastic driver. I told him about my travels. He had himself visited quite a few places. He asked if I was married (as people always do when I’m travelling since my husband is usually at home taking care of our autistic son) and I showed pictures. In return, he showed pictures of his family. As I’ve written before: it’s encounters with locals like this you remember.
On the tour through the village, we found a sign showing the place in spring. Understandably, the blooming season is high season and not November.
We were extremely lucky with the weather being out of season. I would recommend travel just a little bit earlier to avoid too crowds in spring, but be sure to have good weather for hiking.
NEED TO KNOW
Advantour and others also sell tours where you stay overnight in the Kuyulkum desert. This is what we originally wanted, but they stop at the end of the tourist season by start November. So we missed it. But after the tour, we were actually glad it ended up like this. In this way, you still see the lake (as we passed it on the way) and the desert, but also get to enjoy the mountains.
What more do you want?
I will soon write more on this incredible country and it’s unique and beautiful cultural heritage in the old silk road cities.
Uzbekistan is one of the countries in my Where To Go for the Cultural Traveller If you like going off the grid, how about Top Safari in Undiscovered Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.
Have you been to the Central Asian mountains?
What an amazing country and journey. It’s so odd to think of lights out at 8pm these days, we’ve become so used to our digital or media distractions. It’s probably quite relaxing? I’m not sure about the pairing of vodka and wine though!
Thanks for writing. Yes indeed. And the Silk Road cities no less. You’re right. But maybe it’s more relaxing when you are not travelling with your mom. No, just kidding. It was also common to pair vodka with cola, so that might be more your style? I’m a straight vodka woman myself. Have you been to the “stan” countries?
No, I’ve still to make it to that part of the world, but it does look amazing. I never got along with vodka, the occasional vodka tonic aside, if they made rum that would be a game changer!
Well, I will definitely go back. Ah yes, rum. Then Cuba is just the place.