“That’s the bed Putin slept in.” I’m told as I recline in the opulent presidential suite of the five-star Samarkand Regency Amir Temur hotel.
“You can’t pay to stay here,” the hotel manager says as she spreads her arms across faux 17th century French interiors and marble-clad bathrooms dripping with gold fittings, “it’s reserved for visiting dignitaries”.
This property, along with the mammoth resort on which it sits, is so new that its fixtures and decorative embellishments throughout are still smeared with gobs of dried glue, and the folding kinks have yet to drop out of the dangling pendant-light cords.
It’s unsettling then to comprehend that I’ve just sat onto the same mattress on which an invading dictator slept only two months earlier – while attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit – in the midst of his war on Ukraine.
I meet several Russians during my visit to Silk Road Samarkand in Uzbekistan, from business people on incentivised wellness retreats and hotel management executives, to citizens fleeing mobilisation. Chinese investors are here too, as well as oligarchs, entrepreneurs and ambassadors from across Asia and the EU, here to use the conference facilities. I’ve seen few holidaymakers.
“Silk Road” and “Samarkand” conjure up images of the 4,000-mile routes that crossed Eurasia from the 2nd century BC along which silks, spices and jade were traded. It has long been a bucket-list trip for cultural tourists.
The city of Samarkand was one the most important hubs on the Silk Road, renowned for its craft production, attracting merchants from far and wide. As the oldest continuously inhabited city in Uzbekistan, dating back to the 8th century BC, Samarkand has been a confluence of world cultures for over two-and-a-half-millennia.
In this instance, however, Silk Road Samarkand is the name of Uzbekistan’s new tourism complex, the largest of its type in Central Asia.
Following the death of the country’s tyrannical president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, quickly made moves to open up the country to tourists and foreign investors. By February 2019, citizens of around 55 more countries were granted visa-free access to visit Uzbekistan, and – along with the launch of the glossy Samarkand Airport in April 2022 – the opening of Silk Road Samarkand in September 2022 is the latest leap forward in Uzbekistan’s progress to becoming a global tourism destination.
The resort cost $580m to build and was, claim hotel executives, the idea of president Mirziyoyev himself. Solely owned by Uzbek tycoon Bakhtiyor Fazilov, the 642-acre development encompasses eight luxury hotels (a total of 1,200 rooms), 20 miles of pavement and a congress hall with capacity for 3,500 guests.
Viewing the estate from the 20th floor of the Samarkand Regency hotel, Silk Road Samarkand looks like an extraterrestrial’s attempt at building a holiday resort. It’s all a matter of space. The grounds of Silk Road Samarkand stretch on for seemingly infinite distances, illuminated at night by constellations of fairy lights strung in spirals around thousands of freshly planted saplings. They do little to fill the void.
A diamond-patterned concrete strip runs down the middle of the otherwise featureless 114-acre Rowing Canal, which is devoid of rowing boats. In the inexplicable absence of any bridges spanning it, walking around it from my hotel to the resort’s centrepiece, the Eternal City, takes more than 30 minutes.
Dwarfed and cut adrift from its surroundings by an expanse of grey tarmac, the 42-acre Eternal City is a tourism hub designed to look like a medieval Silk Road town. Offering restaurants, plazas, and numerous stalls and shops to host Uzbek artisans and merchants, the site seems popular with locals. They make up the bulk of visitors.
“The Eternal City is mind boggling. It’s even better than Madinat Jumeirah,” says cluster general manager of the Samarkand Regency and Savitsky Plaza hotels, Roland Obermeier, comparing it to Dubai’s modern interpretation of a traditional Arab village.
“Everybody goes to Registan, to these architectural monuments, but we have our own ones, so people could come and just stay [within the resort] and not necessarily go to the Old City. People go to Paris just for Disneyland.”
What they have created here, however, is a combination of a bland theme park and a small airport. Wellness retreats in a gargantuan liminal space; business hotels with no desks in their rooms; a holiday resort disconnected from its destination.
The resort’s management aims to attract all types of visitors, focusing mainly on business travellers and medical tourists, with Mr Obermeier believing the latter will come for cardiology check-ups.
To lure holidaymakers, they are considering the addition of a children’s playground and the option to go paddleboarding around the canal. A keen bonsai enthusiast, Mr Obermeier suggests that, with so many (full-size) trees on the property, they might branch out into bonsai tourism, whereby guests would come to cultivate arboreal miniatures.
Two months in, the kinks in the lamp cords aren’t the only ones yet to be worked out. Although temperatures are frigid outside, the whole hotel is a balmy 28°C, day and night, due to an air-conditioning error. Wi-Fi is down for 24 hours of my four-night stay.
Despite aiming for Dubai levels of ostentation, chunks of skirting board are missing, hot taps are labelled cold, and anti-misting mirrors are hung upside down ensuring only the tallest guests can see their reflections after a steamy shower. Outside, empty brackets adorn building exteriors while scraps of builders’ tape flap in the breeze.
A third of the original crew of 15,000 construction workers remain living and labouring onsite, however, so the resort is still a work in progress. Only time will tell whether these faults will be fixed over the coming months or if they will further deteriorate.
By taxi though, it’s just 15 minutes to the airport. It’s around the same distance to the sights of the Old City, and an hour to the mountains, meaning it’s never been easier to slip away to the Silk Road.
See more information: silkroad-samarkand.com