The Amu-Darya delta, stretching southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea, has been inhabited for millennia and was an important oasis long before Urgench or even Khiva were important. What the Nile is to Egypt, the Amu-Darya has been to Central Asia. The historical name of the delta area, which includes parts of modern-day northern Turkmenistan, was Khorezm.
Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with raiding Turkmen tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts. Nowadays it’s a friendly and welcoming Silk Road old town that's well set up for tourism.
On arrival in the Fergana Valley many visitors wonder where the valley is. From this broad (22,000 sq km), flat bowl, the surrounding mountain ranges (Tian Shan to the north and the Pamir Alay to the south) seem to stand back at enormous distances – when you can see them, that is.
The last stop in Uzbekistan on the way to Afghanistan, Termiz is a historic border town with an edgy, Wild West feel. While the present-day city bears few traces of its cosmopolitan history, the surrounding area is full of archaeological clues to the region's Buddhist and Bactrian past, and many of these come together in Termiz's excellent museum.
Tree-lined avenues and pastel-plastered tsarist buildings give Fergana (Farg'ona) the feel of a mini-Tashkent. Throw in the best services and accommodation in the region, plus a central location, and you have the most obvious base from which to explore the rest of the valley. Fergana is the valley’s least ancient and least Uzbek city.
Shakhrisabz (Shahrisabz) is a small, traditional Uzbek town south of Samarkand, across the hills in the Kashkadarya province, and is a lovely drive from Samarkand with some spectacular views. This is Timur’s hometown, and once upon a time it probably put Samarkand itself in the shade.
The enigmatic ruins of over a dozen walled towns, palaces and forts, some well over 2000 years old, stand half-forgotten in the semi-desert east and north of Urgench in southern Karakalpakstan. They are the remains of a chain of fortified settlements that once formed the boundary between the cultivated delta and the steppe nomads.