Uzbekistan - The Silk Road
The Telegraph described Uzbekistan as the “most fascinating country you’ve never been to” with only an estimated 1,000 Britons visiting each year. Ffestiniog Travel has been running an annual escorted tour to the country since 2017 and the destination is gaining interest among a growing number of tourists as red tape surrounding the former Soviet Union country eases. The country has so much to offer, some of the most beautiful cities in Central Asia and an interesting history along the famous Silk Road. This blog has been written by Ian Handley, a Ffestiniog Traveller, who joined one our Uzbekistan tours. He was drawn to the railway element we included in the tour itinerary and shares his experience of the train and transport systems of the country.
Having seen an advert by Ffestiniog Travel, my curiosity was raised about a country of the former Soviet Union, now an independent state. The tour covered the country’s history regarding the Silk Road and its culture. For this article I am concentrating on the railway and transport aspects of the tour.
We departed Heathrow on an evening flight by an Uzbekistan Airways Boeing 757. Our tour started the following morning in Tashkent, where we stayed overnight before travelling the following morning on the new high-speed Afrosiab train, travelling the 214 miles in 130 minutes across the desert to Samarkand. The service operates with Talgo 250 rolling stock on Russian gauge of just under 5ft.
We stayed in Samarkand for two nights touring various sights before continuing by train to Bukhara. The tour company, wanting to give us experience of train travel in Uzbekistan, booked the group on the Soviet-era Sharq train. All went well for us but the earlier groups had been booked on the Afrosiab as local officials did not comprehend the desire of railway buffs to experience different forms of train travel. We travelled the 135 Miles in 3 hours across the desert in elegant & comfortable coaches. The big difference was the temperature inside as the coaches of the Sharq train did not have air conditioning.
After 3 nights in Bukhara and some fascinating sightseeing we travelled by coach following the silk road through the desert to Khiva where we stayed in a former Madrasah, sleeping in the Hudjras which are built of thick stone walls and were cool despite the heat outside. It was here that we had some free time. During one afternoon we went on the worlds longest trolley bus service from Khiva to Urgench at 19.4 miles mostly through open countryside. We paid the conductor 1,000 Som’s, which was the equivalent of 20p each way. The line uses Skoda 14Tr, 14 TrM and 24Tr Irisbus’s. The trolleybus took longer than we had been led to believe. After 70 minutes we alighted, crossed the road to the bus station and boarded the next trolleybus back to Khiva. Not only did this keep us to time but also meant that we travelled on two different types of Skoda trolleybus. The locals were friendly, all school children in Uzbekistan learn English and the children on the bus took time to practise their English with us.
From Khiva we flew back to Tashkent on an Uzbekistan Airlines Airbus A319. The following day we travelled on the metro system, where we were warned by our guide that photography was strictly forbidden. Before lunch we visited the open-air railway museum. This is the largest railway museum of the former Soviet Union and was well kept. The exhibits were both steam and modern traction and included a mock-up station. One of the exhibits was a development of the British Kestrel, the TEP 70 built in the Soviet Union. The downside to the Museum was that all the information panels were in Uzbek. That afternoon we returned to Heathrow from Tashkent Airport on a Boeing 757.
This tour was fully escorted, and at present this is probably the best way to visit this area. We were told beforehand that photographing trains was restricted. Photographing was no problem with the Afrosiab & Sharq trains, but photographing local trains and freight was discouraged.
The locals were friendly and the country was very clean, tidy and with a fascinating history and amazing sights.