How do you turn a landlocked former Soviet backwater with very little tourist infrastructure and a dubious human rights record into an inviting destination Europeans will pay to visit? It’s a dilemma the president of Uzbekistan and former mayor of Samarkand, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was determined to crack, and with the help of billionaire Bakhtiyor Fazilov, he has managed to turn his dream of creating the ultimate mega-resort into reality.
Three years in the making, and at a cost of £486 million, the Silk Road Samarkand resort in the Zeravshan River valley in northeastern Uzbekistan is ready to welcome travellers and expectations are running high. Located 20 minutes outside one of Central Asia’s most beautiful and intriguing cities, it’s a bold statement of intent from a newly emerging economy determined to show the world it means both business and pleasure. But is it a success? I went last week to find out.
Gatwick Airport meets Vegas
Arriving at what looks like a cross between Gatwick Airport and the Vegas Strip – with a sprinkling of Disney thrown in – I am immediately struck by the sheer scale of the 645-acre site, with its wide vistas and vast lawns dotted with over 30,000 saplings, each one lit up like a Christmas tree.
It’s a surreal scene reminiscent of a Tim Burton creation, or “the sort of resort an alien who has never been on holiday might build” according to a fellow visitor. There is even what looks like a giant UFO landing strip dividing the complex in two, with wellness hotels running along one side and more business-oriented hotels down the other. The architects were obviously aiming for six-star Dubai-style bling but my initial reaction is more corporate stopover.
Fifty shades of greige
The 1,200-room resort, the largest in Central Asia, opened in September but the eight giant hotels that form the backbone of the complex are already looking a little tired. A 50 shades of greige décor has obviously been chosen to appeal to the more conservative business traveller even though the grand plan has always been to attract adventurous European and American tourists.
The towering Samarkand Regency Amir Temur and the spacecraft-like Silk Road by Minyoun are the first five-star hotels to be built in the region and while they certainly give off an air of post-Soviet grandeur, the standard rooms are a little too bland to excite the luxury end of the market. There are no balconies for a start and none of the rooms at the Amir Temur has coffee-making facilities, surely a basic requirement for any top-tier establishment. My room doesn’t even have a desk, which is odd 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 hanging out in the various bars and restaurants being Russian and Chinese, which makes sense geographically. For oligarchs with money to burn each hotel comes with its own ostentatiously vast presidential suite featuring the usual smattering of gold accoutrements, Italian baroque stylings and palatial rooms. It’s rumoured that Putin stayed in one recently, although you’ll have to guess which.
Deciding where to construct such a monumental project came with its own set of problems. Unesco urged the owners to build far enough from the World Heritage Site of Samarkand so as not to intrude, although the towering edifices still dominate the skyline for miles around. The flat windswept slab of land they eventually settled on isn’t exactly welcoming although once all those saplings have taken hold the place should feel less exposed.
A lot is riding on the success of this wildly ambitious project: as well as all that Russian money, the Chinese are also heavily invested (they manage two of the hotels) and it shows, with fleets of swanky electric limos imported from the People’s Republic wafting between the various conference centres.
The Eternal City
So how can visitors pass the time? One of the resort’s quirkier attractions is a rather splendid modern interpretation of a medieval Uzbek town known as ‘The Eternal City.’ Constructed by local craftsmen using traditional materials, you could easily mistake its glittering turquoise domes for the real thing.
Artisans who live and work on site sell everything from cashmere scarves to exotic spices, and, of course, fine silk textiles – for it was through this region that the old Silk Road trade routes passed. Spanning 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 is obviously hoping his resort will make similar inroads.
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 sanitised version of Samarkand’s hectic bazaars. There’s nothing to match Samarkand’s Bibi-Khanym Mosque or the monumental ensemble of Registan, but the sand-coloured buildings give off the same buttery glow under the late afternoon sun.
The Silk Road Samarkand is a strange place that can’t quite decide who it is trying to attract. Right now, it feels more like a place to do business than somewhere fun for the family. At best it’s a comfortable base from which to explore the wonders of the region rather than a destination in itself.
But if it can sort out its teething problems – more on-site activities are needed, especially for children, and staff seemed a little overwhelmed – Uzbekistan’s most ambitious tourist venture to date might just lure a few Westerners and help the country hit the tourism mainstream.
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 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 at £165 per night, excluding breakfast. The M3 bus runs directly from the resort into Samarkand. From January 2023 the resort will offer an airport shuttle service.
Eating out is also affordable. A three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant will set you back about £25. Be sure to try a bowl of lagman, a rich noodle broth made with fried lamb or beef. Domestic beer costs around 50p a litre.
Four things to do in Uzbekistan
1. Take a guided walking tour of old Samarkand
On a tour of the narrow streets of the mahallas (ancient neighbourhoods), stops are likely to include the once-thriving Jewish quarter, which saw a mass exodus after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the richly decorated Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the magnificent Registan in the old heart of the city. For silks and spices, head to the Siab bazaar.
2. Explore the picturesque Agalyk mountains
Hire a driver to visit this range, 10 miles southwest of Samarkand in the Agalyksay river valley. Stop off at a hilltop market and grab a bag of ‘kurt’: delicious spheres of tangy, salty cheese, or enjoy a hearty lunch at one of the many roadside shacks that serve barbecue chicken cooked in large clay pots accompanied by flatbread.
3. Follow the Silk Road to Bukhara
This 2,500-year-old city was the epicentre of Persian civilisation. Wander through Khoja Gaukushan, the largest architectural complex in Bukhara, with an impressive mosque, madrasa and minaret.
4. See the desert city of Khiva
Nestled in the Khorezm Region, this is one of the best preserved of the Silk Road cities and Central Asia’s first World Heritage Site. When viewed from afar Khiva resembles a giant sandcastle but within the mighty fortress walls the old town retains more than 50 historic monuments and scores of historic houses, mostly dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.