Oliy Majlis (Parliament of Uzbekistan) © upyernoz
Central Asia's most populous country is, besides Liechtenstein, the only country in the world surrounded entirely by other landlocked states, and is bordered by the '-stans' - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It also borders the Aral Sea, which it shares with Kazakhstan.
Having declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has sought to increase awareness to its tourism potential, boasting historical, archaeological, architectural and natural treasures. Tourist activities range from outdoor pursuits in the beautiful mountainous regions to exploring its rich century-old history. Oasis towns like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were once main points of trade on the Silk Road linking Eastern and Western civilisations and are among the oldest towns in the world with ancient mosques, grandiose madrasas (Islamic clergy academies) and palaces, citadels, minarets, colourful bazaars, highly-adorned mausoleums, and age-old traditions. Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, is the main point of entry and exit into and out of the country, and although also formerly part of the Silk Road, it is usually overlooked as a site of interest in favour of the historically richer tourism centres such as Samarkand. The 5th century BC World Heritage city was the greatest in Central Asia in its time, and boasts one of the most impressive sights in the region, Registan Square.
In recent years, Uzbekistan has cooled its relations with the West, having closed the US airbase that was used for operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, and favouring closer relations with China, India and Russia following Western calls for investigation into the bloody massacre at Andijan in 2005.
Uzbek hospitality is nevertheless unequivocal, and visitors to the country will be overwhelmed with offers of tea or vodka, and treated to a feast of architectural splendour in this most historically intriguing of the Central Asian republics.