Uzbekistan – traveling along the Silk Road

Uzbekistan – who would have thought of this landlocked Central Asian country a few years back? Again, in hindsight, we cannot remember how we first formed the idea of traveling to this region. Maybe, because I was drawn to the mosaic-adorned mosques and mausoleums I had seen on pictures from friends visiting Iran, though knowing Iran was off limits for my husband, maybe because the Central Asian countries and their rise and fall along the silk road were a blank spot on my travel map (and admittedly, we would have struggled to correctly pinpoint those Central Asian countries on a map before our trip), maybe because Uzbekistan, upon further research, had an interesting mix of Soviet and Oriental architecture on offer, a street-food culture and a high-speed train system, connecting the most important cities and monuments. With a two-week window in late November for our trip, we dismissed any ideas of high-alpine trekkings in neighboring Kirgistan and focused on the old silk road stations of Bukhara and Samarkand. This time, we wanted to travel more slowly, stay a few days in each place, have some time to wander around and get lost in the streets, stroll around the markets or just spend an afternoon drinking tea. So this time, no alpine expeditions, no trekking, no hiking boots, no outdoor gear, but only our cabin baggage, a book about the history of the silk road and a winter coat.  We were about to embark on another adventure.

We arrived in Tashkent in the middle of the night. Surprisingly, all fights from Europe touch down at 3 am, while flights from the rest of Asia, due to emerging business connections, take up multiple times a day. As an iconic start to our trip, we had booked ourselves into Hotel Uzbekistan, pictured above, a hotel and landmark, an epitome of Soviet architecture. From 1921 to 1990, Uzbekistand was part of the Soviet Union, and Tashkent, which was essentially rebuilt by the Soviets after a devastating earth quake in 1966, boasts some typical Soviet architecture on its vast plazas and avenues. Tashkent is a young city, very modern and clean, with parks and amble avenues, shopping centers and fine-dining restaurants. Under the Soviet reign, Stalin had relocated Korean and Georgian populations to Uzbekistan which is why one can find excellent Georgian and Korean restaurants in the capital.

 

 

Chorsu Bazaar was our first Uzbek street food adventure. One spoiler alert, Uzbekistand is no country for vegetarians. There is literally meat in everything, most often, multiple types of meat. While we had a few vegetarian dumplings along the way, most dishes revolve around meat, mostly sheep or beef. At Chorsu Bazaar, a big section of the market is dedicated to meat only, while another section tends to cheeses or pickles, fruits and vegetables are found in another aisle. Close to Chorsu, there are some food stalls where one can sample the local specialities. Thanks to a video by Mark Wiens and Bekruz Hamzaev we knew exactly what we were looking for….

 

 

The National History Museaum is another example of fine Soviet architecture. The exhibition was hilarious – the top floor was dedicated to recent achievements of the country since its independence. All the sports stars with their  Olympic medals, the new high speed train system, posters about the health system and rising numbers of PTCA procedures in cardiology and also a Nature paper about genetically-modified cotton. While there are only a few English signs to put together the country’s early history and evolution through medieval times, the top floor exhibits the national pride in this young nation that we came across at multiple occasions on our trip. Highly recommended.

The Great Amir Temur  – the father of the nation. A tributary statue in the evening light in Tashkent. We left Tashkent by night train towards Chiva. A 16-hour train ride in a comfortable 2-bed compartment. This train only leaves Tashkent once per week on Tuesday nights so it might be reasonable to book your ticket in advance. We did so at the train station on our day of arrival. There was no means of communicating in English so we pointed out our chosen destination in the guidebook and the designated date on the calendar and hoped for the best. While one can also take a flight for only a little more cash, we thought the train ride created some Transsib feeling with a mug of tea from the samovar and ice flowers on the windows in the morning.

We arrived in Chiva by 10 am. Don’t be fooled by the blue skies, it was just as cold as in Tashkent (about – 10°C ) but the blue skies and the colorful mosaics instantly set a more oriental tone to our travels.

Chiva used to be the capital of the Chiva Khanate, an ancient kingdom with a succession of important emperors. Within the walls of its old city one comes across multiple mosques and palaces, all beautifully adorned with turquoise-blue mosaics. Off season in November, only a handful of tourists were visiting the old town, outnumbering the tourist vendors outside the monuments.

 

 

From Chiva, we took a day trip out into the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan where remnants of old fortresses document the settlements of the first Choresm kingdoms. We were the only people out there – no other tourists, not a person in sight. No one sat at the ticket office so we visited all the “kalas” for free.

 

From Chiva, we then took another train ride to Bukhara. Once a buzzing center along the silk road with multiple markets dedicated to silk, jewellry, metal works and ceramics, Islamic universities as a hub for science and religion and camel caravans coming through every day, today’s Bukhara is a modern urban city with its well preserved old town, now accustomed to the modern-day caravans, the tourists coming in by the busloads.  Don’t be put off, the old town is a beautiful depiction of the architectural skills of the time, with colorful mosaic murals, nice plazas around water fountains and pools and innumerous mosques and mausoleums to visit. When visiting off season one still has many monuments to oneself and as soon as one ventures off into the side alleys, one is off the beaten track. The locals are incredibly nice and welcoming, always up for a chat, even when you only share about 10 words of common language. While there a quite a few vendors in the streets offering ceramics, cutlery and scarfs, no one is ever pushing you to buy anything. We spent three days in town, wandering around in the streets, drinking tea and beers at Labi Chaus in the sun, having coffee at the only place with decent coffee beans and trying out the local food scene (lamb kebab). We also went on a guided tour for a day to pick up some more about the history and architecture of the place.

 

 

Our last stop was Samarkand, even bigger and even more impressive than Bukhara. Pictured below is the Registan, the central plaza with two mausoleums built in perfect symmetry. We were blown away by the exuberance of turquoise-blue mosaics, gold embroidery and the sheer size of the monuments. We learned about the mosaic technique and were awe-struck how laborious it was to adorn all these beautiful monuments. Impressive. We spent the better part of one afternoon just sitting on the stairs opposite this Registan square, watching the sun coloring the walls in all shades from pink to orange to blue, taking more than 300 pictures and talking to all the young Uzbek people who wanted to try their English on us. One young guy, in a preparatory English class for college wanted to improve his formal English, so he approached me with a rather difficult question: What’s your concept of happiness? So, what do you think?

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