Uzbekistan lies at the heart of the Silk Road, famed for the dazzling architecture of its UNESCO World Heritage cities Bukhara and Samarkand. But beyond the urban areas (and occasionally hidden within them) are some of the best ecotourism experiences to be found in Central Asia.
From steppe to mountain and from desert to river valley, Uzbekistan’s diverse and dramatic terrain has shaped the country’s development. Merchants, pilgrims and invading armies sought out the most accessible passes, building mighty cities around oases and along the banks of the Amu Darya. These landscapes still enthral, with Uzbekistan’s best ecotourism experiences providing unparalleled opportunities to get close to nature.
Get a taste of traditional nomadic life by staying a night or two in a desert yurt. The Safari Yurt Camp at Aydarkul offers simple but comfortable accommodation, decorated in Kazakh style with colourful textiles, including intricate suzani embroidery. Come nightfall, you will want to be outside for stargazing – a once-in-a-lifetime experience by virtue of the almost total absence of light pollution – accompanied by folk music around the campfire.
For ancient-history lovers, there’s no better place to go in Uzbekistan than Sarmishsay. In this gorge in the Karatau Mountains is an art gallery with items dating back to the Stone Age. The 4,000 surviving petroglyphs (rock carvings) offer a record of ancient wildlife, plus sacred symbols and humans hunting and dancing. The gorge has always been on the migration routes of people and animals, which is why the limestone and sandstone rocks were such an obvious canvas on which early artists could make their marks.
To beat the heat in the Kyzylkum Desert, cool off with some wild swimming on Lake Tudakul, located not far from the historic city of Bukhara. There’s a Soviet-era holiday resort on the lake’s southwestern shore, but you don’t have to be staying there to access the facilities. Alternatively, there are plenty of other, quieter spots where you can stop, strip down to your bathing suit and swim.
UK blogger Pip and the City recommends kayaking on the Anhor Canal to take a break from the bustle of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city. “For just $20 you can paddle by some gorgeous scenery. It’s so peaceful and serene, it’s hard to imagine you are right in the middle of a busy city!” she says. You can rent a kayak and get a guide from Jules Verne Hostel, but note that it’s best to do this in the spring or autumn – at the height of summer, the heat in Tashkent soars to well over 40C (104F), and it is unwise to spend extended periods in the direct sunlight.
The village of Sentob in the Navoi region has become the very first ecotourism hub in Uzbekistan. Headman Murod Mirzayev proudly explains, “We have a population of just 2,064 people, but already we have 10 homestays and guest houses. We are opening our homes to show our hospitality and give visitors the chance to learn about rural life.” At Rahima’s Homestay, for example, you can bake bread in the outdoor tandoor, and two local musicians will pop by to serenade you while you have lunch in the garden.
Created in 1970, the Charvak Reservoir is filled with water from the Tien Shan mountains. The surrounding hills provide a verdant setting for an invigorating hike. According to Aziz Makhmudov of Ulysse Tour, the best time to hike at Charvak is in spring. “Charvak substitutes [for] the sea for Uzbeks,” he explains. “People take a picnic or have a barbecue, hike and swim. The irises are in bloom on the mountain slopes, which run all the way to the horizon. The landscapes are terrific.” Charvak is only 104 kilometres (65 miles) from Tashkent, so it is easy to visit on a day trip.
Bird Life International classes Dengizkul Lake, located southwest of Bukhara near the border with Turkmenistan, as an Important Birding Area (IBA). More than 130 different species of birds have been recorded here, and if you come in the winter months it is possible to see plenty of migrant species that have flown south from Siberia. Keen birdwatchers will get particularly excited about spotting Dalmatian pelicans (the world’s largest freshwater bird), marbled and white-headed ducks and ferruginous pochards. There aren’t any specialist birding guides locally, but a copy of Birds of Central Asia will help you with identification.
The Bactrian camel is the icon of the Silk Road, and without it the mercantile caravans would never have made it across Central Asia’s deserts and steppes. In the Kyzylkum Desert near Aydarkul you can ride out in the early morning across the sand dunes, making the most of your elevated position to enjoy the views. Camels move at a sedate pace, striding at about the same speed as a human, so there’s plenty of time to watch the birds and also look out for signs of other desert wildlife, such as lizards and antelopes. Most yurt camps in the area will offer camel trekking, including Sputnik Navoi and Kyzyl Kum Safari Yurt Camp.
If you have already skied in the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites, your next winter destination has to be the Chatkal Range in the western Tien Shan. You may not think of Uzbekistan (or its neighbour Kazakhstan) for skiing, but the Chatkal Mountain Range stretches to the northeast of Tashkent, and in the winter months it’s thickly cloaked in snow. There are ski resorts at Amirsoy, Beldersay and Chimgan, and though lifts and pistes are limited, the opportunities for cross-country and backcountry skiing on cold, dry powder are endless. Ulysse Tour arranges ski hire and mountain guides, so all you have to focus on is the empty slopes and the views.