The hidden side of the Silk Road

The pools beneath the pristine madrassa in Bukhara's blue-tiled Lyab-i Hauz square were still. Men in long tunics hawked tea from silver pots in the cafes across the way. And narrow streets rolled into four-gated towers that surrounded the town centre, where sellers peddled embroidered jackets, dried spices and leather shoes. It was everything I had ever imagined the old Silk Road cities of the Central Asian steppe to be.

"Come on," Vladimir Kim rolled his eyes. "I'll show you the real Bukhara."

As I came to learn, there are two Uzbekistans. There's the one with the meticulously - some might say aggressively - restored cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand, where 19th-century merchant's houses have been transformed into boutique hotels and their old stucco and marble parlours converted into breakfast rooms. This is the Uzbekistan that visitors are ferried to on tours, and where urban centres are kept as pale monuments to when this vast and arid region was one of the financial and intellectual centres of the medieval Islamic world.

And then there's the one the Uzbeks know - the one beyond the Silk Road.

Once Kim, the only English-speaking guide in my Silk Road Tours group, realised that I was the only English-speaking traveller (everyone else was either French or Italian), he decided to break away from our planned itinerary.

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