To the north of the featureless Samarkand–Bukhara ‘Royal Road’, the Pamir-Alay Mountains produce one final blip on the map before fading unceremoniously into desertified insignificance. The Nuratau Mountains, which top out at 2169m, have in recent years become the centre of Uzbekistan’s growing ecotourism movement. Modest Nurata town makes a logical base for jumping off to the mountains or to one of several nearby yurt camps.
Nurata itself is most famous for its old, circle-patterned suzani, which can sell for thousands of dollars at international auctions, but it also has a few quirky tourist attractions, most notably an old fortress of Alexander the Great. Behind the fortress, a path leads 4km to the Zukarnay Petroglyphs, which date to the Bronze Age. Ask the curator at the museum how to find the trail. If it’s too hot to walk, there are sometimes guys with motorcycles hanging out near the museum who will whisk you out there for a couple of thousand som.
Beneath Alexander’s fortress you’ll encounter the anomaly of several hundred trout occupying a pool and well next to a 16th-century mosque and a 9th-century mausoleum. This is the Chashma Spring, formed, it is said, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground. The ‘holy’ fish live off the mineral-laden waters of the spring and canals that feed it.
Accommodation in Nurata itself is pretty grim. Your best bet is the dilapidated Hotel Nur, 500m from Chashma Spring on the road to the centre, which is the only hotel in town and has a ground-floor restaurant. Close to the centre, Mr Nemat runs a pleasant homestay with a hammoni (bath), and can prepare meals and organise excursions.