Of all the so-called 'Stans' - the Islamic republics that represent the rump of Central Asia - Uzbekistan is the most alluring. The bewitching cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva may not be easy to place on a map, but to this day they evoke images of the Silk Road, and the adventurous derring-do of the 'Great Game', when the 19th century British and Russian Empires carried out a proxy war for control of the region.
The Russians' eventual goal was the conquest of British Imperial India, and while that never came to pass, the vast majority of the interlocking city states between Mother Russia and India that constitute the modern Stans were swallowed up by the Russian Imperial bear, only to re-emerge as independent entities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russian imperialist/communist era added another layer of cultural influence on to an already rich heritage in a country that grew wealthy thanks to a perfect location at the axis of the many trade routes now known collectively as the Silk Route. With trade came inevitable wealth, and this wealth was often flaunted - to the extreme good fortune of today's visitor - in the shape of some of the finest Islamic architecture to be found anywhere in the world.
Away from the cities, glorious as they are, Uzbekistan's dramatic landscapes range from wastelands such as the enormous western Kyzylkum desert to fertile plains such as the Ferghana Valley in the east, with the terrain becoming ever more mountainous towards the borders with Kyrgystan and Tajikistan respectively.
Any visit to Uzbekistan invariably starts in the capital Tashkent, a city far more strongly influenced by its Soviet occupation than the Silk Road cities, but no less interesting for it. Spend a day exploring the wide boulevards, the huge expanses of Independence and Amir Timur squares and the metro stations - chandeliers and all - that make this a very idiosyncratic place.
Next, take the Afrosiyob fast train to the city of Samarkand, Tamurlane's legendary capital and home to some of Central Asia's finest Islamic architecture. Persian influence and design are very much in evidence, and the magnificent Registan Square is probably the highlight. Other sites such as the Bibi Khanum mosque and the Siab Bazaar are fascinating and another particular favourite of ours is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, perched on a hillside and containing mausoleums that read like a 'Who's who' of Uzbek history. The stay in Samarkand will also include a day trip to Shakhrisabz.
After a tale of two cities, the trip then heads into the Kyzylkum desert for some camel riding and walking, supper by a camp fire and a night under the stars in basic but comfortable yurts. The exploration of Uzbekistan's beautiful landscape continues the next day with a visit to the tranquil Aydarkul Lake where you can try your hand at fishing.
Then it's onwards to Bukhara, city of mausoleums, madrassas and a more relaxed pace of life than Tashkent or Samarkand. Highlights here include the fortress-like Arc, which housed the city's elite until it was bombed by the Red Army in 1920 - the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, the Chor Minor and the chance for some serious haggling for hand-painted pottery and craftwork in the ancient bazaars.
Final stop Khiva, a city with a dark past as a centre for the slave trade, but whose winding alleyways and architecture make it a modern day must. We highly recommend climbing the Juma Minaret for fabulous panoramic views across the city, and the trip will include a visit to the Kuhna Ark to see the Khan's mint, stables, harem, mosque and jail.
A brief soujourn in Tashkent later, and it's back to the UK, bearing hard-haggled gifts and memories of a mysterious and magical destination.