The Golden Eagle
Discovering Uzbekistan by private train.
Though early explorers travelled through this mostly desert region on horseback, modern explorers have an infinitely more comfortable way of following in their footsteps as they unlock the mysteries and wonders of ‘The Stans’.
1 February, 2024
The name may be familiar, but few could easily find Uzbekistan on a map without at least a little searching. The most central of five ‘Stans’ that form part of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is double landlocked, surrounded by four other landlocked countries – Kazakhstan to the north, Kyrgyzstan to the northeast, Tajikistan to the southeast and Turkmenistan to the southwest.
This entire region is steeped in a rich history and takes in the ancient Silk Road and all of the romance that carries with it. The likes of Alexander the Great and Marco Polo once came this way, though more recently Uzbekistan was a Soviet stronghold until its independence in 1991.
Now considered ‘The Jewel of the Stans’ those looking to explore this intriguing part of the world can travel as now explorer dreamed, aboard the Golden Eagle Luxury Train discovering the Treasures of Uzbekistan.
I am one of just 26 guests onboard the all-inclusive Golden Eagle, where the journey is as important as the destinations. Life onboard is sweet. Travel is mostly by night, as there is much distance to cover and masses to do during the day – not to mention the fact that 80 percent of the country’s 447,000 square kilometres (about the size of Spain) is desert.
This entire region is steeped in a rich history and takes in the ancient Silk Road and all of the romance that carries with it
We fly into the capital, Tashkent, and after a city tour, get a feel for this secular country of 35 million whose dominant religion is Islam. Most Uzbeks speak Russian as a second language, but are now becoming fluent in English as the country opens up to tourism from the West.
Having been hit by an earthquake in 1966 which destroyed half the city, Tashkent today boasts huge modern marble public buildings interspersed with Soviet-era concrete blocks and some of its original ‘Old City’. Wide tree-lined boulevards carry six to eight lanes of traffic, there is a real sense of order and the people are obliging and polite. As I enter a crowded carriage on the city’s Moscow-styled underground, half the carriage stands to offer me a seat!
In Tashkent’s ‘Old City’ dating back 2200 years, we ponder the 16th century turquoise domed complex at Khazrati-Imam, the country’s official religious centre. With shoes off and headscarves on, we enter Hazrati Imam Mosque, visit Muy Mubarek Madrassah and view the ancient Uthman Koran in the madrassah library.
We lunch on the national dish, plov - rice and vegetables topped with shredded lamb or beef and slices of horsemeat sausage and view beautiful traditional handicrafts – ikat, suzani, pottery, jewellery, metal carvings, elaborate embroideries, in Tashkent’s Museum of Applied Arts.
Tashkent today boasts huge modern marble public buildings interspersed with Soviet-era concrete blocks and some of its original ‘Old City’
Our handsome mid-blue train stretches half a kilometre along the platform
We’re welcomed with a traditional Karnay-Surnay long-horn fanfare at Tashkent railway station where our handsome mid-blue train stretches half a kilometre along the platform. Stewards for each carriage await our arrival – luggage is already in our respective compartments.
I’ve been upgraded from Silver Class to slightly larger and most comfortable Gold Class. It has a double lower and single upper bed, individual air-conditioning, television, private bathroom with separate shower and underfloor heating. Two couples have reserved luxurious 120-sq ft Imperial Suites. These come with private driver, a bottle of Dom Perignon on arrival, a comprehensive mini-bar and dining in-cabin option. This class apparently sells first, but there is no such thing as a bad seat on board this train.
All meals offer three courses with a choice of entrée and mains, followed by dessert, tea and coffee. Our welcome dinner menu is a choice of lobster with guacamole, baked paprika sauce and spicy kimchi sauce or broccoli tartlet; duck breast with rosemary sauce, poached pear and carrot mousse or white bean risotto with porcini mushrooms, truffles and grana padano cheese; followed by tiramisu with coffee and brandy.
Breakfasts comprise fresh juices and fruit, smoothies, charcuterie, house-made pastries, smoked salmon and caviar, eggs cooked as you like with a daily special – perhaps pancakes stuffed with sweet tvorog cheese.
Service on board is attentive, the all-Russian staff quite young and keen to please. One night, waiter Igor was a little quick to remove my plate. I said: “You’re a little eager.” He promptly replied with a solemn face: “No, Igor!”
One night we are treated to a Champagne and Caviar dinner. The Möet flows as generous bowls of black Caspian Sea sturgeon and red Pacific salmon caviar are served with blinis and traditional garnishes. Duck leg confit or ricotta and spinach ravioli follow.
The convivial lounge bar is the place to be before and after dinner. While guests might sip champagne cocktails and vodka martinis, a classically trained pianist plays a beautiful repertoire of popular, classical and original tunes – giving a great sense of place.
Some days, we enjoy lunch or dinner off-train as we are on full-day excursions – perhaps to learn about fine ceramics in Rishtan, silk or ikat weaving in Margilan, papermaking in Konigil – all important crafts traded along this vital ancient caravan route; and are entertained by occasional traditional dance troupes.
The Savitsky Museum of Fine Arts with its extraordinary collection of nearly 100,000 avant-garde paintings in the far northwest city of Nukus, comes as a total surprise. Known as the ‘Louvre in the Sands’, it was founded in 1966 by celebrated artist and ethnographer, Igor Savitsky, who rescued many works by Russian and Uzbek dissident artists banned by Stalin.
The Möet flows as generous bowls of black Caspian Sea sturgeon and red Pacific salmon caviar are served with blinis and traditional garnishes
These cities served as pivotal hubs, connecting East and West, flourishing as centres of commerce, culture and scholarship
But it’s the three gems of Khiva, Bukhara and legendary Samarkand that we’re keen to discover. These cities date back more than two millennia and have witnessed the ebb and flow of empires and the passage of legendary figures. Alexander the Great traversed these lands in the 4th century BCE, leaving an indelible mark; Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror, swept through in the 13th century, reshaping the cultural landscape; and Tamerlane, the Turko-Mongol conqueror, made Samarkand his capital in the 14th century, adorning it with architectural wonders such as exquisite Registan Square.
These cities served as pivotal hubs, connecting East and West, flourishing as centres of commerce, culture and scholarship. Today, their UNESCO-listed monuments stand as testament to the enduring legacy of civilisations that thrived amidst adversity.
Khiva is essentially a living museum, with well-preserved Islamic architecture within high city walls. Entering through beautiful carved doors to the Old City, its labyrinthine streets and historic structures are enchanting, with standouts like the 28m-high unfinished minaret and Juma Mosque. Stallholders sell fur hats, ceramics, wood carvings, silk carpets, ikat clothing and we find ourselves following a wedding group going to the mosque to receive the Imam’s blessing. We lunch on local Khorezmian cuisine – delicious salads, egg-filled dumplings, beef koftas wrapped in thin omelettes and warm flat breads.
Bukhara, founded in the 5th century BC, also offers a mesmerizing tapestry of history and culture. We explore what’s left of the impressive Ark or fortress, occupied since the 5th century until 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army. Once the residence of the emirs of Bukhara with some 3000 residents, today it is uninhabited – 80 percent of it in ruins. Built in 1127, towering 47m-high Kalon Minaret impresses with its magnificent tilework – Genghis Khan spared it when he ransacked the city in the 13th century.
Dominating the heart of Samarkand is Registan Square adorned with three majestic madrassahs showing Islamic architectural brilliance. Most date from Tamerlame’s 14th century reign, the tyrant conqueror who plundered nearby territories to enrich this capital. There are statues, monuments and reminders of him everywhere – including the Gur-e Amir mausoleum with its fluted turquoise dome, his final resting place, the Bibi-Khanum mosque – built for his wife, and beautiful Shah-i-Zinda necropolis with some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world.
One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and considered one of the most magnificent, even Alexander the Great, some 2,400 years ago remarked:“Everything that I heard about Samarkand is all true, absolutely everything! Except it turned out to be more beautiful than I could imagine.”
One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and considered one of the most magnificent
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