Our trip to Uzbekistan: A Cultural Success and a Climbing Failure

We had long wanted to visit Uzbekistan, a country with a fascinating history and beautiful cities. We also really wanted to do some climbing in Uzbekistan, but for a number of reasons it never happened. The two main factors were the very hot weather (over 35°C) and the fact we got severe food poisoning only a few days into the trip. We felt totally wiped out and couldn’t really face the effort of trying to find any crags, let alone climb on them! At the moment there isn’t really any developed climbing in Uzbekistan at all. However, there are definitely plenty of mountains and canyons in certain parts of the country and it is surely possible for climbing to be developed.

Large tiled and detailed decoration on the front of a madrasa, a grand  arced entrance with two minarets either side. The tiles, which are different blues and creams created different floral and decorative designs on every part of the front.
The Ulugh Beg Madrasa, dating back to 1420

We almost didn’t write about our experiences here but we decided it would be worthwhile. Firstly, experiencing the culture in Uzbekistan and seeing some of the beautiful historical architecture practically warrants an article of its own anyway. Secondly, although we never touched any rock in the country, we did do a lot of googling and trawling over maps to find potential crags. Although we didn’t make it work, perhaps the little information we found will be of use to someone in the future.

We will talk about all of the sightseeing in Uzbekistan first and discuss the links and potential climbing locations further down.


Samarkand is a famous Silk Road trading city, and it has an immense amount of beautiful and culturally significant buildings. Almost everyone who visits Uzbekistan will visit Samarkand, it is a jewel of the country and Uzbek people take great pride in their national landmarks.

Three large madrasas facing inwards to create a grand courtyard. Every surface of the fronts are covered in vibrate blue tiles which creates detailed patterns. The sun has set and there are big spotlights shining onto the three building which highlights the arches and details of the minarets
The awe-inspiring Registan at night

Samarkand is the second largest city in Uzbekistan with a population of just over half a million. The capital, Tashkent, is the biggest city and has a population of over 2.3 million. Given this, it may surprise people that the population of Uzbekistan is over 34 million. This is because Uzbekistan has a large rural population, with over 49% of the population living in rural areas.

Inside one of the Madrasa which has four sides which forms a peaceful country yard. The walls consist of rooms, two stories high, all of which have arches in. The rooms on the ground floor have shops in which are displaying their items for sale like carpets and fabrics. There's two domes on top which are tiled in vibrant blue colours which form intricate patterns. On the front there are also different blue coloured tiles which form swirling patterns. The courtyard has fruit trees and benches in.
Inside the Sher-Dor Madrasa

The Registan is the beating heart of Samarkand and is one of the most impressive places we have visited. The Registan is a square surrounded by 3 Madrasas, which are Islamic schools with stunning architecture. The combination of the grand scale and immense detail of the Madrasas makes them amazing to begin with, but even more so when factoring in the age of the buildings. The first Madrasa is known as Ulugh Beg and was built between 1417-1420. The second is called Sher-Dor and was built 1619-1636 and the final Madrasa is the Tilya-Kori and was built 1646-1660.

Looking up into the arch way which shows the finer detail of the patterns that the small shades of blue tiles form. Every surface of the building is tiled decoratively.
Beautiful detail on the Tilya-Kori Madrasa

You can easily spend hours wandering around Registan and imagining what it would have been like hundreds of years ago. The fee to get in is very cheap, less than €4 a person and with no time limit. It is the sort of place that never seems to get old no matter how long you spend staring at it. The great news if you are bored of Registan is there are countless other things to see and do in Samarkand.

The Shah-I-Zinda Ensemble is a collection of buildings, most of them mausoleums, although there are also mosques and other buildings of religious significance. The ensemble was built gradually, with buildings added at different points in time. The first work took place in the 11th century and worked ceased in the 19th century. The majority of buildings in the ensemble date back to the 14th & 15th century. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Shah-I-Zinda is that despite its immense beauty, it never seems particularly busy as a lot of people only seem to visit the Registan.

Three mausoleum entrances facing each other close together. The buildings are tiled in ancient and vibrate shades of blue, yellow and white to form different patterns, some of which form some scripture along the side. 
In the shade of the buildings there is a group of women in headscarves who will have come to the mausoleums to pray and give offerings. The women show the scale of how tall and grand the buildings are over 6 time has tall as them.
The top of the Shah-I-Zinda ensemble

Shah-I-Zinda means ‘the living king’ and the name originates from the belief that Qutham Ibn Abbas is buried here. This is very significant in Islam as he was the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. The ensemble is split between 3 different levels and the groups on each level have different styles and date to different periods.

Grand front of another mausoleum which every surface is covered in shades of blue, beige and white tiles to form larger and intricate patterns. Walking past is a religious man in white clothing with a stick. The ancient bricks are exposed on the building steps
The middle of the Shah-I-zinda ensemble

As you walk between the different parts of the ensemble you will realise that many people are here on a pilgrimage and not for tourism. With that in mind, be very respectful and people will appreciate it. Dressing modestly, for women wearing a headscarf when inside a mosque and asking politely before taking pictures are the basic rules to follow. The Uzbek people are very kind and your reward for being culturally sensitive is that you will be welcomed with a smile.

Up close to the tiles you can see the 3D nature of them. There is a column which is covered in curved tiles which have a intricate 3D pattern formed into them. It is glazed in different shades of blue and torquoise. Up close reveals the age of the tiles.
Exquisitely ornate tiles at Shah-I-Zinda

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque was built between 1399-1405 on the orders of Timur, the founder of the vast Timurid empire and who conquered many countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The mosque is absolutely enormous and unsurprisingly it was a major architectural feat when it was constructed. Unfortunately the mosque suffered lots of damage throughout its history, but thankfully it has been restored to its former glory. Although some work is ongoing, most parts of the mosque complex are open to visit and the scale of the place is amazing. Better still is the fact that all restoration work has been very sympathetic and of a very high standard.

The side of one of the buildings inside the mosque complex. The side is not decorated with the tiles and the old brick is exposed. Siding onto is a dome which is tiled in different shades of blue which form larger decorative patterns and scripture. Behind this is a larger building with its front also covered in ornate tiles which form decorative, floral like designs. In the courtyard between the two are large fruit fruits with benches to rest on
A view from inside the Bibi-Khanym Mosque complex

The Bibi-Khanym mausoleum should not be confused with the mosque of the same name, although they are the other side of the street to each other. The mausoleum is much smaller and far less frequently visited. It is an interesting building and you can visit the tombs which are below ground level. The ground floor is like a mezzanine and you can see from the tombs all the way up and into the dome of the mausoleum.

A view of the city where you can see the grand mausoleum complex towering above the more modern, smaller buildings. Throughout the landscape are blue tiled domes of religious sites
The Bibi-Khanym mausoleum visible on the left, seen from the Hazrat Khizr Mosque

The Siab bazar is the largest market in Samarkand and is a fantastic place to pick up fresh produce and local delicacies. The bazar is the best place to buy some of the renowned Samarkand bread, which is of national significance in Uzbekistan. All of the cities in Uzbekistan have great bread, but the unique texture and appearance of Samarkand bread set it apart from the rest. It is also worth looking for Navat, which are beautiful chunks of crystallised sugar that glisten like gemstones. Navat is made with grape juice, sugar and spices and is often taken with tea or sucked on like a lollipop.

The Gur-e-Amir is the tomb of Timur and Gur-e-Amir translates to tomb of the king. Construction of the tomb began in 1403 and it was not initially intended for Timur. There are several people buried here and it is essentially a family mausoleum for members of the Timurid dynasty. The mausoleum is a very impressive building and has a beautifully decorated interior, it really is fit for a king. Gur-e-Amir is in a quieter part of Samarkand, but it still gets busy with visitors. It can be a good place to visit first thing before others have made their way there.

The domed 3D ceiling inside a mausoleum. Tiled with gold and blue tiles which form ornate and grand patterns. Around the circumference of the central dome is religious scripture formed from the golden tiles on the bright blue background. There is a grand crystal chandelier
The stunning interior of the Gur-e-Amir

The Ulugh Beg observatory was built in the 1420s by Ulugh Beg himself. The observatory was visited by many skilled astronomers and mathematicians. Unfortunately the observatory was destroyed and you can see very little of the original observatory today. However, a trench that was used for taking measurements still survives and along with the museum gives an insight into how Ulugh Beg managed to get such accurate results in his work.


Bukhara is the 5th largest city in Uzbekistan when measured by population. However, when it comes to fame Bukhara is probably the 3rd most known city in the country, just behind Tashkent and Samarkand. Bukhara is known as a stunning silk road city and is described by UNESCO as “the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia”. The history and beauty of Bukhara is staggering, there are so many things to see and the city has a very different feel to Samarkand.

Front one of the Madrasa. There are rooms either side of the tiled entrance. The walls consist of rooms, two stories high, all of which have arches in. There's two domes on top which are tiled in vibrant blue colours which form intricate patterns.
The beautiful Mir-I-Arab Madrasa

The Mir-I-Arab Madrasa, meaning ‘Prince of the Arabs’, is in the historical centre of Bukhara and it is surrounded by a host of other beautiful buildings. The madrasa was built between 1535-1536 and amazingly it is still functioning today. Future Imams receive their education here and because of this it is not possible to walk around the entire complex. Some days the front doors are open and you are allowed to step inside and glance at the courtyard but go no further. This is one of the things that makes the Mir-I-Arab so interesting.

The Po-I-Kalyan (Kalyan Mosque) and Kalyan Minaret are just across the square from the Mir-I-Arab Madrasa. These structures are equally fascinating and have a particularly unique appearance. When Genghis Khan laid siege to Bukhara in 1220, several structures were destroyed. However, he was reportedly so impressed by the Kalyan Minaret that he allowed it to remain unscathed. Sadly, the original Po-I-Kalyan Mosque was destroyed. Despite the siege, Bukhara recovered remarkably well and was a thriving trade centre less than 20 years later. The Kalyan minaret has become known as the ‘tower of death’, as throughout its history people have been executed by being thrown from the top. The minaret is over 45 meters high and is in amazing condition for its age, it was built in 1127.

Ancient brick minaret. The bricks have been laid to form bands of different patterns up the tower. To the right is grand entrance front which is tiled in vibrant shades of blue which form larger patterns and scripture
The Kaylan Minaret and the entrance to the Kalyan Mosque complex

The Po-I-Kalyan that you see today was built in 1515, slightly preceding the Mir-I-Arab Madrasa. The mosque complex is large and the structure is incredibly substantial, having an almost fortress like quality. Due to a combination of size, detail and location, we thought the Po-I-Kalyan was one of the most impressive things to see in Bukhara.

The Ark of Bukhara has a big presence in the city and it is hard to miss. The ark is a large fortress, enclosing an area of 9.8 acres with walls up to 20 meters high. The exact age of the Ark is a source of great ambiguity, although one certainty is that it has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over several centuries. Today the Ark is a museum, with lots of great information about the Ark’s history as well as that of the general area.

Sturdy brick fortress walls with turret-like structures placed along the wall
The walls of the Ark of Bukhara

When you are walking around the Ark, it is clear that the walls once contained both many people and amenities, functioning as a small town. In fact, when Genghis Khan conquered the city, the Ark was used as a place of refuge for many citizens. Unfortunately they did not get off as lightly as the Kalyan minaret, and the Ark was ransacked and many people killed. The atrocities that must have occurred all those years ago are hard to imagine when you are in the bustling Bukhara of today. More recently, the Ark was bombed by the Red Army in 1920, with the Uzbek SSR being established in 1924. It wasn’t until 1991 that Uzbekistan finally gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

The Samanid Mausoleum is a small and very detailed building with a remarkable age. The mausoleum was built in the 10th century and is still in amazing condition today, partly as it spent hundreds of years buried under mud and was only rediscovered in the beginning of the 20th century. The mausoleum was built for members of the Samanid Dynasty who ruled throughout the 10th century, Bukhara was the capital of their empire.

Ancient mausoleum building made from old bricks. The bricks are layered in a way to form dips in the wall which forms surprisingly intricate designs along all the side building. On top there are archways made from the bricks which loo like windows and there is a dome on the top
The intricate Samanid Mausoleum

The architecture of the building is beautiful and something very different to the other buildings we visited in Uzbekistan. The mausoleum is made solely from baked bricks, without any coloured tiles or stone added to the structure. The bricks are arranged in detailed and repetitive patterns that make it difficult to judge the size of the building. The design is almost like an optical illusion and the intricate patterns adorn almost every surface. One of the other great things is that the mausoleum is much less visited than Bukharas main attractions, it occupies a peaceful location in a park that is a good place to escape the lively city centre.

The Bolo Haouz Mosque is a large building, directly opposite the Ark of Bukhara, built in 1712. The mosque is the perfect place to visit on your way to or from the Ark and it has the stunning detail we have come to expect in Uzbekistan. The Bolo Haouz Mosque is still functioning for prayers and while it is possible to visit, make sure to follow basic etiquette and time your visit appropriately. The mosque has a beautiful lake in front as well as a small park with benches. Bolo Hauz is a UNESCO world heritage site, along with several other parts of Bukhara.

The entrance of a mosque which has massive wooden pillars which have star and floral like designs carved into them. The pillars are supporting a wooden roof which also has wooden carvings and intricate designs on them. The front of the building, behind the wooden pillar, is tiled in blues, greens, yellows and burgundy colours forming awesome patterns
The front of the Bolo Haouz Mosque

At first glance, the Chor Minor could be mistaken for a small and unusually shaped mosque. However, it is actually a gatehouse to a Madrasa that has since been destroyed. The Chor Minor was built in 1807 and is a quirky oddity to see while you are in Bukhara. There are no remains of the madrasa left and the Chor Minor just sits on its own in a quiet part of the city, surrounded by houses. There isn’t a great deal to do once you arrive, but it is nice to stroll around the backstreets of the city and although the Chor Minor isn’t as historical or as impressive as other buildings nearby, we still enjoyed visiting.

The Toqi Sarrofon Bazar is part of Bukharas network of trading domes. At first glance they look like something from the Star Wars planet Tatooine, but in reality they are 16th century trading centres that included everything from currency exchange to carpets and jewellery. Today the domes still function and you will probably happen upon them by chance, as they occupy key locations in the city. The domes have names like ‘Toki-Zargaron’ and ‘Telpak Furushon’, which makes them easier to find on maps. We found the domes themselves charming but sometimes the sales people are pushy, it isn’t necessarily the place to go if you want a fair price.

A front of a building which is tiled. At the top of the arch entrance is a tiled pattern of two mythical looking birds and a woman's face in the middle of. sun.
The beautifully decorated Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasa

In the centre of Bukhara the Lyab-i-Hauz is a square with a man made lake, similar to that of the Bolo Haouz Mosque. The Lyab-i-Hauz is surrounded by 3 beautiful buildings, the most striking of which is the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasa which was built in the 1630s. The other two are the Kukeldash Madrasa from the 1560s and Khanqah of Nadir Divan-begi from the 1620s. Two of those names sound very similar, but a Khanqah is quite different from a Madrasa in purpose. Khanqahs are designed for the use of the Sufi. A Sufi practices a type of Islamic mysticism and the Khanqah of Nadir Divan-begi was a very significant religious centre in historical Bukhara.


Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia with a population in excess of 2 million people, the second largest city in the region is Almaty in Kazakhstan, you can read about our time in Almaty here. Tashkent is a fantastic city, full of life and energy. Most people will begin and end their time in Uzbekistan here, either through the city’s train links or at the airport. There are plenty of things to see and do here, so it is well worth taking the time to look around when you are here.

The Chorsu Bazar is a gigantic market selling everything you could ever want (and some things you wouldn’t want). The market is centred around a huge dome, which inside has a ground floor full of meat and other animal products as well as a massive mezzanine floor with a great selection of dried fruit, nuts and spices. Outside of the dome there are fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, clothing, hardware and everything under the sun. The bazar is also home to many unlicensed currency exchanges that are thriving. At first it is hard to see why but when you try to find a licensed one it becomes more obvious.

Large and busy market with lots of stalls expanding outwards in circles. There's a large domed ceiling above making the whole market look very grand
The vast Chorsu Bazar

The Hazrati Imam complex is a large ensemble in Tashkent containing several Mosques, Madrasas and Mausoleums. The star attraction of the complex is a Qur’an, thought to be one of the oldest in the world. The Qur’an is believed to have been written sometime between 765 and 855 and it is clearly of a remarkable age. Out of respect it is asked that you don’t photograph the Qur’an. The buildings in the ensemble are a mix of some reasonably old structures as well as some heavily restored of new buildings. These are nowhere near as beautiful as the sites in Samarkand and Bukhara, but are worth visiting all the same.

Front of a religious building. It has a grand entrance front which is tiled with different shades of blue and white to form interesting patterns.

There's two domes either side of the entrance inside the complex. On top which are tiled in vibrant blue colours which form intricate patterns.
Part of the Hazrati imam complex

The State Museum of Applied Arts is a small and interesting place to learn about the history of crafts and culture in Uzbekistan. The museum covers several integral parts of the countries heritage such as woodwork, fabric weaving and embroidery. It was recommended that visiting the museum first thing when you arrive in Uzbekistan is a good way to learn more about the skill and history of the countries crafts before you see them in places like Samarkand. The museum is a nice place to visit, tucked away in a quiet corner of the city.

Inside a wooden building which has interesting carvings on the ceilings and wall as well as interesting carving wooden pillars which extend to the roof. The roof has different layers to it as well as 3D miniature arches. The entire room is painted with lots of different colours, bright blue, purple, vibrate greens and gold to form interesting and extremely intricate patterns and designs.
Inside the beautiful museum of applied arts

Interestingly, The Tashkent Metro as become an attraction in its own right. The metro is famed for its ornate and beautifully decorated interiors. Each station is unique and a show piece in its own right. The metro was built by the USSR and was opened in 1977. Amazingly the metro has a flat rate for passengers, regardless of how far you are going the rate is 1,200 Uzbek Sum which is around €0.12! This makes the metro an extremely cost effective way of travelling around Tashkent.

Metro station which has two tracks either side of a large platform which has marble like pillars which extends to ornate patterned ceiling. There are domes in the ceiling and in each dome there are extravagant chandeliers
The Tashkent metro, as posh as they come!


Khiva is another of Uzbekistans Silk Road cities, that we unfortunately didn’t visit. It is definitely worth a mention as it is considered to be another of the countries most beautiful places. We didn’t make it as we were planning to go climbing instead…by the time that was written off visiting Khiva would’ve meant massively double backing on ourselves so we decided to leave it. Otherwise we would definitely have gone and although we can’t personally recommend it, we hear it is a gorgeous city.

Local Food

Plov in Uzbekistan is a national convention, people need plov as much as they need oxygen and water! The main component of the dish is rice, which is usually cooked in a lamb broth. Juicy raisins, thinly sliced carrots and lamb are subsequently added to the dish. In Tashkent there is a national plov centre where you can witness the cooking process on a huge scale. The flavour is beautiful and it has a delicious combination of savoury and sweet, its popularity spreads throughout Central Asia but perhaps nobody is as proud of their dish as the Uzbek people.

A rice dish which fills the plate. In the rice there are chickpeas, carrot and raisins. On top is a generous portion of lamb and on the side is a small quail's egg.
A tasty and seriously filling portion of Plov

Tukhum Barak is a fantastic and authentic dish to try in Uzbekistan, the dish is essentially egg ravioli. A dumpling like dough is filled with a combination of eggs, milk and spices. Tukhum Barak is an extremely difficult dish to make and probably not one to try at home! We were fortunate enough to have them cooked for us by someone that used to make them professionally but now runs a guest house. They are more difficult to find than other traditional Uzbek foods, but they are well worth seeking out.

Somsa is a dish in many ways akin to Plov, in the sense that it is absolutely everywhere in the country. Somsa are parcels made out of a particularly delicious dough that tastes like it is halfway between bread and pastry. Somsa are most often filled with minced lamb, onions and spices. It may be possible to find somsa filled with vegetarian fillings like potato. They are baked, usually in a tandoori oven which gives them a completely different taste and feel to a samosa – which is fried and very popular in Southern Asian cuisine.

There are loads of great varieties of bread in Uzbekistan, but as we mentioned above, Samarkand bread is the most renowned of them all. All varieties of bread in Uzbekistan are cooked in a tandoori oven, which gives the bread a fantastic consistency. One of the nicest traditions in Uzbek bread making is that every baker stamps the middle of the bread flat with something called a chekich. A chekich has lots of small metal pins that are arranged in a floral pattern, they stop the bread from rising in the middle. After stamping the pattern is covered in seeds giving a beautiful contrast.

Climbing Potential

Here we will put the links to various sources of information and locations of potential climbing locations. although the information is basic, it can be time consuming or tricky to find, hopefully this will be a useful head start for someone planning a climbing trip in Uzbekistan.

An article on the Climberca website talks about climbing in a place called Yangiabad, which although they say is a known climbing area, there is extremely little information about it. We emailed Climberca for some help, although we didn’t need a guide we definitely needed some directions! Unfortunately they didn’t respond, but their website is still useful. They also mention Gulkam canyon, which on google maps appears to have a reasonable amount of rock, some of which looks climbable. Gulkam is near the well known Chimgan mountain area, which from googling looks like it would have nice hiking but not necessarily any climbing. The same applies to the Ugam Chatkal National Park, which is not too far away either.

This article about Boysuntov, written for National Geographic is actually about caving. However, there is another article on the AAC website about the first ascent of a 5.9 route on the same wall, by Mark Synnott. Going from the pictures and his writing it certainly seems possible to develop a number of routes in this area.

The Uzbekistan.travel website mentions on the page linked about 74 routes, all at very low grades of 6a or under. The website says more information can be found on the ‘The Federation of mountaineering and climbing of Uzbekistan’. However, we couldn’t find any such website or anything remotely similar.

Derbent Canyon, sometimes written as Darband Canyon looks like another potential climbing area, the Uzbek-Travel website has some great pictures, while the google maps pins above show the likely location. The pictures show rock of varying quality, with the bigger cliffs looking loose, some of the smaller crags look reasonable.

The Uzbek-Travel website is one of the best places we found for seeing pictures and map locations of canyons etc in Uzbekistan. Their website is set up for all things about visiting Uzbekistan, for climbers looking at the photos on their guided tours of rural parts of the country will likely show many places of potential interest. They mention Baysun, which we understand is another spelling of the area visited by National Geographic we linked above. This blog post style page has loads of pictures of the same areas.

Karatepa is known for its ‘stone idols’ which are large and funky looking boulders. The rock quality is, of course, unknown. Thankfully the area appears to be fairly close to Samarkand.


We really loved Uzbekistan, it is a great country and the people there were very kind, friendly and welcoming. The climbing side of the trip ended up as a total flop, which as you can imagine, is frustrating for climbers. The fact we had such a good time and forgot what we were missing speaks volumes about the country. The history and culture in Uzbekistan has probably topped the list of places we have been, and If you are ever close to Central Asia it is worth visiting for that alone.

The list of links we compiled is just rudimentary research, that was the basis of the planning stage of our trip, that we never managed to carry out. Because of this, we can’t give any guarantees as to what any of the climbing is actually like. What tempted us in the first place was to visit somewhere a bit different to the ‘standard’ climbing destinations and to enjoy a different style of trip – one less about how many routes or how hard a route you climb, but instead focusing on what hidden gems and beautiful places we might stumble upon. We hope you enjoyed reading this article and that if you ever visit Uzbekistan for climbing or tourism there is some useful information to be found here.












4 thoughts on “Our trip to Uzbekistan: A Cultural Success and a Climbing Failure

  1. Lizzy 28th Jul 2022 / 7:08 AM

    Wonderful article, super interesting, I love the photos, especially the Ark of Bukhara! Thanks – a great read!


  2. Olympus Mountaineering 1st Aug 2022 / 11:52 AM

    Wow wow wow!

    What a lovely post and amazing photos! Although this post is not about climbing, I got the wish to visit Uzbekistan soon!

    Well done guys. Looking forward to your next posts.


    • TheCragJournal 1st Aug 2022 / 6:10 PM

      Thank you, we can definitely recommend it, it’s a beautiful part of the world!


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