Arid deserts and fertile valleys, majestic mountains and unending steppe, sky-scrapers and stone hovels, gold mines and cotton fields, gracious hospitality and xenophobic bureaucracy, ancient cultures and post-Soviet habits, mini-skirt and modest hijab, Mercedes and mules. Uzbekistan is a land of amazing contrasts and lies at the heart of Central Asia, double landlocked, about as far from the sea as it possible to get.

Over the centuries great empires have invaded, settled, colonised and eventually withdrawn from Central Asia. The countries, as they now stand, were drawn in the 1920s by Stalin, so within Uzbekistan there are many ethnic groups. After the break up of the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan’s independence over 20 years ago businesses from Korea, India, Iran, Turkey and the Middle East began to invest in Uzbekistan, but they were strangled by red tape or nationalised.

While the government searched for political and economic stability many foreigners emigrated, taking their valuable technical expertise, leaving decaying infrastructure. The indigenous peoples started their search for a new identity; turning to fundamentalist Islam, to nationalism, the older ones yearned for the certainties of communism, the youth for the freedoms of western democracy. 9/11 gave the Uzbek government an opportunity to join the “War on Terror” by suppressing its own troublesome Islamists. In May 2005 the government brutally suppressed an uprising and sacrificed its growing relationship with the West. Hundreds of foreigners were forced to leave the country; many commercial investments, development projects, humanitarian aid and educational co-operations were closed and their staff denied visas or deported.

The government is led by the same people who previously had led the Communist Party of the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic before independence. There have been elections, but so-called opposition parties have been created by the government in an attempt to give a semblance of democracy.