“The kind of resort an alien who’s never been on vacation could build”

Uzbekistan holidays Silk Road Samarkand resort Registan UNESCO world heritage site Sher-Dor Madrasah central asia travel – ©Silk Road Samarkand

How do you turn a landlocked former Soviet backwater with very little tourism infrastructure and a dubious human rights record into an attractive destination that Europeans will pay to visit? It’s a dilemma that Uzbekistan’s president and former mayor of Samarkand, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was determined to solve and, with the help of billionaire Bakhtiyor Fazilov, has managed to make his dream of creating the ultimate mega-resort a reality.

Three years in the making and costing £486 million, the Silk Road Samarkand resort in the Zeravshan River valley in northeastern Uzbekistan is ready to welcome travelers and expectations are high. Located 20 minutes from one of Central Asia’s most beautiful and intriguing cities, it is a bold mission statement of an emerging economy determined to show the world that it means both business and pleasure. But is it a success? I went last week to find out.

Gatwick Airport meets Las Vegas

Arriving at what feels like a cross between Gatwick Airport and the Las Vegas Strip – with a sprinkling of Disney – I’m immediately struck by the sheer size of the 645-acre site, with its sweeping vistas and expansive lawns dotted with over 30,000 saplings , each lit up like a Christmas tree.

Silk Road Samarkand resort Uzbekistan - ©Silk Road Samarkand

Silk Road Samarkand resort Uzbekistan – ©Silk Road Samarkand

It’s a surreal scene reminiscent of a Tim Burton creation, or “the kind of resort an alien who’s never been on vacation might build” according to another visitor. There’s even what looks like a giant UFO airstrip dividing the complex in two, with wellness hotels running along one side and more business-oriented hotels along the other. The architects were obviously aiming for Dubai-style six-star bling, but my initial reaction was more of a corporate layover.

Fifty Shades of Gray

The 1,200-room resort, the largest in Central Asia, opened in September but the eight gigantic hotels that form the backbone of the complex are already looking a bit tired. Obviously a 50 shades of gray decor was chosen to appeal to the more conservative business traveler, although the grand plan has always been to attract adventurous European and American tourists.

hotel Silk Road Samarkand resort uzbekistan travel holidays - ©Silk Road Samarkand

hotel Silk Road Samarkand resort uzbekistan travel holidays – ©Silk Road Samarkand

The towering Samarkand Regency Amir Temur and Minyoun Starship Silk Road are the first five-star hotels to be built in the region and while they certainly exude an air of post-Soviet grandeur, the standard rooms are a little too bland for excite the luxury segment of the market. For starters, there are no balconies, and none of the Amir Temur’s rooms have coffee-making facilities—certainly a prerequisite for any high-end establishment. My room doesn’t even have a desk which is strange for a hotel attempting to straddle both the business and leisure markets.

The usual babble of European and American voices is absent, with the majority of the clientele frequenting the various bars and restaurants being Russian and Chinese, which makes sense geographically. For oligarchs with cash to burn each hotel comes with its own ostentatiously vast presidential suite with the usual smattering of gold fittings, Italian Baroque styling and sumptuous rooms. Putin is said to have been to one recently, although you’ll have to guess which one.

Hotel Savitsky Silk Road Samarkand resort Uzbekistan - ©Silk Road Samarkand

Hotel Savitsky Silk Road Samarkand resort Uzbekistan – ©Silk Road Samarkand

Deciding where to build such a monumental project involved its own set of problems. Unesco has urged the owners to build far enough away from the Samarkand World Heritage site so as not to intrude, although the impressive buildings still dominate the skyline for miles around. The flat, windswept patch of land they eventually settled on isn’t exactly welcoming, though once all those saplings have taken hold, the place should feel less exposed.

A lot hinges on the success of this hugely ambitious project: on top of all that Russian money, the Chinese are also heavily invested (they run two of the hotels) and it shows, with fleets of sleek electric limousines imported from the People’s Republic hovering between the various convention centres.

Silk Road Samarkand resort uzbekistan holidays - ©Silk Road Samarkand

Silk Road Samarkand resort uzbekistan holidays – ©Silk Road Samarkand

The Eternal City

So how can visitors pass the time? One of the resort’s more quirky attractions is a stunning modern interpretation of a medieval Uzbek city known as “The Eternal City.” Built by local craftsmen using traditional materials, you could easily mistake its shimmering turquoise domes for reality.

The artisans who live and work on site sell everything from cashmere scarves to exotic spices and, of course, fine silk fabrics, as it was through this region that the ancient Silk Road trade routes passed. Stretching over 4,000 miles, the ancient network played a central role in facilitating economic, cultural and political interactions between East and West. The current president obviously hopes that his resort will make similar inroads.

Uzbekistan Silk Road Samarkand Resort Eternal City - ©Silk Road Samarkand

Uzbekistan Silk Road Samarkand Resort Eternal City – ©Silk Road Samarkand

The Eternal City might be a pastiche but it certainly doesn’t feel tacky and I’m surprised to see many locals wandering the streets doing their shopping. Perhaps they prefer the more sanitized version of the bustling bazaars of Samarkand. There’s nothing to match Samarkand’s Bibi-Khanym Mosque or the monumental Registan complex, but the sand-colored buildings give off the same buttery glow in the late afternoon sun.

The Silk Road Samarkand is a strange place that can’t decide who it is trying to attract. Right now, it feels more like a place to do business than a fun place for family. At best it’s a convenient base from which to explore the wonders of the region rather than a destination in itself.

But if it can fix its teething problems — more on-site activities are needed, especially for the kids, and the staff seemed a bit overwhelmed — Uzbekistan’s most ambitious tourism venture to date might just attract some Westerners and help the country to enter the mainstream of tourism .

Silk Road Samarkand - ©Silk Road Samarkand

Silk Road Samarkand – ©Silk Road Samarkand

The essential

Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies from Heathrow to Samarkand via Istanbul. Prices from £390 return.

There is only one car rental company in Samarkand and another one in Tashkent (inrent.uz). Prices from £16 per day. Taxis are cheap and reliable – you can travel anywhere in the city for around 30p.

Rooms at the Samarkand Regency Amir Temur (silkroad-samarkand.com) start from £165 per night excluding breakfast. The M3 bus connects the resort directly to Samarkand. From January 2023 the resort will offer an airport shuttle service.

Eating out is also convenient. A three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant will set you back around £25. Be sure to try a bowl of lagman, a rich noodle broth made with fried lamb or beef. Domestic beer costs about 50 cents a litre.

Four things to do in Uzbekistan

1. Take a guided walking tour of old Samarkand

While touring the narrow streets of the mahallas (old quarters), stops are likely to include the thriving Jewish Quarter, which has seen a mass exodus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ornate Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the magnificent Registan in the ancient heart of the city. For silks and spices, go to the Siab bazaar.

Samarkand Uzbekistan Registan Ornate Islamic Architecture - Getty

Samarkand Uzbekistan Registan Ornate Islamic Architecture – Getty

2. Explore the picturesque Agalyk Mountains

Hire a driver to visit this range, 10 miles southwest of Samarkand, in the Agalyksay River valley. Stop at a hilltop market and grab a bag of “kurt”: delicious balls of tangy and salty cheese, or enjoy a hearty lunch at one of the many roadside shacks serving grilled chicken cooked in large clay pots accompanied from focaccia.

3. Follow the Silk Road to Bukhara

This 2,500-year-old city was the epicenter of Persian civilization. Stroll around Khoja Gaukushan, the largest architectural complex in Bukhara, with an impressive mosque, madrasa and minaret.

Bukhara city uzbekistan - Getty

Bukhara city uzbekistan – Getty

4. See the desert city of Khiva

Nestled in the Khorezm region, this is one of the best-preserved cities on the Silk Road and Central Asia’s first World Heritage Site. When viewed from a distance, Khiva looks like a giant sand castle, but within the mighty fortress walls, the old city holds more than 50 historical monuments and dozens of historic houses, mostly dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

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