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Uzbekistan's Silk Road Poses Sometimes Rough Ride for Tourists - 2004-07-16

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, adventurous travelers have been heading out across the region to take in sights that were once closed to most Westerners. One country increasingly on the travel trail is Uzbekistan, home to some of the ancient Silk Road's oldest towns. But it is not for the faint of heart, as VOA's Lisa McAdams found during a recent trip.

Travel on the Silk Road conjures up images of Oriental bazaars, caravans and perfume-filled nights under the stars, but the reality is a little less glossy.

Byzantine travel hurdles, lax hygienic standards, and searing temperatures combine to assault even the most world-weary adventurer, like Sean Cronin, of Detroit, Michigan, who decided to come to Uzbekistan as part of a cultural exchange. A case of food poisoning made his trip even more difficult.

"I think our expectations [of it] are probably greater than the current reality,? Mr. Cronin said. ?Although my experience was really shaded by being sick, as I traveled along the Silk Road. I think I could have seen so much more, and been in a better disposition. Although it is worth going there, if you are at all interested in architecture and history. It's definitely worth a trip to see it in person."

Mr. Cronin says, with an arsenal of preventative medicines and the willingness to forgo basic services like water, television, phones and internet connections, a good experience can still be had in Uzbekistan, and at very little cost.

The German general manager of the government-owned Bukhara Palace Hotel, Frank Budde, says Silk Road establishments welcome roughly 40,000 international visitors each year. But he says the government could increase tourism numbers by as much as three times, if it were willing to invest more money in funding many much-needed improvements.

"Tashkent airport has to be faster, better organized. The streets have to be better,? said Mr. Budde. ?The old cities have to be more renovated. Advertisement worldwide has to be better, so somebody knows what's going on. Internet access has to be better from here. The hotels have to be better, and they have to rebuild a lot of hotels. But it depends on the government, which direction it goes. Tourism is not cheap to start."

But Mr. Budde says his guests still find good value in the historic sights on offer in Uzbekistan, and in the age-old exotic allure of the Silk Road to be found in its food, culture and crafts.

Uzbek officials hope that a burgeoning revival of ancient handicrafts in Samarkand and Bukhara, both of which have teeming open air markets, will help fuel the tourism trade.

Sayfullo Ikramov is a sixth generation master blacksmith, whose shop is found on a dusty backstreet of Bukhara's Old Town. He boasts that his great, great grandfather made swords and weapons for Timur, the ruthless warrior and patron of the arts who fashioned a glittering Islamic capital in Samarkand in 1370.

Mr. Ikramov says that in Soviet times, craftsmen were not allowed to make these swords or knives. But now, he says, those restrictions are over, and the trade is making a successful comeback.

Another traditional product experiencing a revival is weaving in the form of vivid silk and cotton carpets, emblazoned with 14th and 15th century designs.

The reemergence from carpetmaking from near extinction in Uzbekistan has been helped along by the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. This carpetweaver, Zarina Kenjaeva, says she learned her craft three years ago, thanks to a UNESCO-sponsored school in her local village.

"UNESCO wanted to help to revive this craft, not just one, two, three looms, but make it 10, 12 looms, and teach every year about 30 people how to make this carpet; because this craft was forgotten, and now we are trying to revive it," she explained.

Zarina says it takes about a year to learn what she calls, 'the secret of the carpet.' Crouched at the wooden loom, with rapid, repetitive hand movements, she sets about securing the shiny silk knots.

Zarina says German and French tourists are the best customers for carpets. She says American and British tourists are scarce these days, following recent bombings and suicide attacks that the government has blamed on Islamic extremists.

But American traveler Sean Cronin says he felt no fear traveling across the region. He says he came to Uzbekistan in spite of knowing about the recent attacks. He said he already hopes to make a return trip to Uzbekistan to take in the other famous Uzbek Silk Road city of Khiva.