Uzbekistan is a Central Asian nation with a vibrant past. In more recent history, it was part of the former Soviet republic. But centuries ago, it was once a significant part of the infamous Silk Road, the ancient trade route that linked China to the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe.
Bordered by Kazakhstan to the north and Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan is landlocked and is famous for its historic mosques and mausoleums, including the Registan, considered a landmark of Islamic architecture built in the 15th century. It is located in the legendary city of Samarkand, one of Central Asia's oldest continuously inhabited cities. You can also find the tomb of Timur or Tamerlane, one of the most fierce rulers of the 14th century.
Camels used to be the primary mode of transportation in Uzbekistan. But in the 1860s, after the Russian empire annexed it, a massive railroad network was installed, which is still in use today. It's evident that The Silk Road Express is still the most popular and efficient method of traveling through the country, from its lush, green eastern region to its arid and sandy western deserts.
The train is often packed and can get very hot, but the Uzbekis are used to it and roll with the heat, enjoying a hot and freshly cooked meal and endless cups of hot tea. Stops include the capital city of Tashkent, where there is a delightful mishmash of modern and Soviet-era architecture and design, and Bukhara, where there once was an extensive Jewish community.
To add to Uzbekistan's intriguing landscape is the Gissar Mountain range, considered the western foothills of the Himalayas. It is home to rugged yet stunning views and some of the world's deepest caves, including the so-called Timur Cave, where Timur or Tamerlane supposedly hid an entire army before conquering all of Central Asia.
And finally, in the northern part of the country is the area known as the Aralkum Desert. It is a large area that consists of eroding sand, but what makes it more interesting is that it was once the site of the Aral Sea, the fourth-largest lake in the world. It has slowly dried up over the last 50 years due to the diversion of its source river, the Amu Darya, to irrigate cotton. Today, scientists have embarked on a massive effort to cultivate plants and other vegetation in the desert to prevent further erosion.
Thanks to good old train travel, it's possible to step back in time and experience the mystique of the Silk Road and celebrate its heritage, which the people of Uzbekistan still feel.
Directed by: Michael Höft