In May 2016, we left London Heathrow for a short Saga holiday to Uzbekistan. Although we went to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Shahrisabz, the itinerary left a lot of Uzbekistan unseen, Termiz, the Aral Sea and the Fergana Valley being the other places we most wanted to visit. This said, what we saw was remarkable and the highlights were not confined to Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Encounters with Naqshbandi Sufi Muslims and small Jewish communities in Bukhara and Samarkand presented opportunities for further study once back home, as did a fleeting encounter with the country’s sex industry. Visits to bazaars in four destinations, with the one in Tashkent being the best and probably one of the finest bazaars/markets anywhere on the planet, added to the trip’s delights, as did a drive through the hills and mountains to Shahrisabz. It was also interesting to see to what extent Uzbekistan has moved on from when it was part of the communist empire called the Soviet Union. Islam has emerged as a force more powerful than at any stage for almost a century, but aspects of the Soviet Union survive in the repressive political system and the deference paid to people who wear uniforms or hold public office.
We were struck with how welcoming and hospitable many people are in Uzbekistan, perhaps especially ethnic Uzbeks, even though most people in Uzbekistan, whether Uzbek, Russian or otherwise, have far less materially than we have. There is greater gender equality in Uzbekistan than in most Muslim-majority nation states, but we wonder for how much longer this situation will prevail, despite Islam in the country being dominated by the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, the school of Sunni jurisprudence which has been, ever since its emergence in the 9th century, the most liberal. Alcohol is more readily available in Uzbekistan than in most Muslim-majority nation states, but this cannot be blamed on the Russians alone. Alcohol has been popular since long before the Russians arrived.