In the heart of central asia Uzbekistan
Thomas Saunders, one of our Middle East/India experts, recently travelled to Uzbekistan, in the heart of central Asia. Here, he writes about his experiences.
It was only yesterday that I was packing a bag for the beginning of an adventure into Uzbekistan. How far from normal life can an overnight flight take you, I pondered, as I arrived at Tashkent. I was in central Asia, an area of the world I had no expectations of.
In the arrivals area of Tashkent airport I met my driver, Rashid, and my guide for the next 10 days, Marina. Marina spoke excellent English as well as Uzbek, Russian and German.
On leaving the airport I requested we find somewhere for me to change my sterling into local currency. With an exchange rate of 2400 soms to the pound I walked out of the bank with five thick bundles of cash, feeling like a bank robber.
The Fergana valley is a fertile plain surrounded by the Kyrgyzstan Mountains of Chatkal and the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan. To get to this unique part of Uzbekistan we drove high into the snow-capped mountains. The roads twisted and turned as we came close to the Kamchik Pass.
The first city we came to was Kokand, one time capital of Fergana. From 1709 – 1876, Kokand was the capital of Kokand Khanate, a territory that included a large part of present day Uzbekistan, part of southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and southern China. Kokand is considered to be the second religious centre in Central Asia, after Bukhara. There were 35 madrasahs (Arabic schools) and hundreds of mosques in Kokand city, which were mainly built during the reign of Khudoyar Khan. In Kokand we visited the famous Khudoyar Khan’s Palace, Juma Mosque and Dahmai Shahon (Grave of Kings).
After Kokand and the tiring overnight flight we had a two-hour drive onto Fergana, to the Asia Hotel.
Andijan is the most strictly Islamic city of Uzbekistan. Here we took lunch at a traditional café, where we sat on what appeared to a bed with a raised table in the middle, rather like a hospital bed, which we sat on, cross-legged. We ate the traditional dish plov. Whilst I thought it was nice and hearty, my guide insisted that Khiva plov was better, not because she is from Khiva but because they use less fat. After lunch we made a brief visit to the small Babur museum. Babur was born in Andijan and was famous for founding the great Moghul Empire in India. You can read a fascinating book retracing Babur’s walk across Afghanistan here.
We then visited a mosque that is now unused and seemed to have a factory placed in the middle of it – a good example of the Uzbek government’s attempts to undermine the Islamic extremism in this area. Opposite the mosque was the lively and fun bazaar. This was the highlight of the day for me; Uzbeks have no shops and do all their shopping for food and clothes in bazaars. As such there is very little commercialism on display in the Fergana Valley. It’s refreshing to be away from advertising hoardings and branded goods.
We drove back to Fergana and found a local restaurant to have dinner. Rashid my driver had brought some marble sized balls of very sour cheese that he insisted would taste nice when eaten with beer. I tried this, but still found them sour and only slightly more palatable.
Today we headed for a silk factory, a key indication I was on the great silk route. I was treated to a tour of the silk factory and now have a vague understanding of the silk production process. Particularly impressive were the men dipping and turning huge piles of silk into pink dye.
After this we headed back to Fergana to collect our bags before my flight to Tashkent. The plane was miniscule; we entered though the undercarriage, carrying our own luggage on, which we stored on a rack at the back. We all squashed ourselves in and the plane took off. I spent the night at the impressive and very modern Tashkent Palace.
Today we headed out to the Chimgan mountains that form the foothills of the Tian Shan range, which stretches into China. This is a scenic and popular area of Uzbekistan, where locals visit in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Tashkent, and in the winter for skiing.
This morning we began our four hour drive to the UNESCO site of Samarkand. After checking into a hotel bursting with old Uzbek character with intricate woodwork on the doors and ceilings, we headed into Samarkand for an afternoon visit to the Guir Amir Mausoleum, the burial place of the great warrior Timur, who is very much revered in Uzbekistan. This was a very impressive sight and my first chance to gaze upon a blue tiled dome, the like of which I had only seen in brochures and books.
Today I woke to find Samarkand soaked by rain, and dark rain clouds hung overhead as we started out on our sightseeing. First we visited the Afrosiab, a museum dedicated to old Marakanda, the old name for Samarkand before the mongols destroyed it. Alexander the Great had said “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined”. With these words in mind, it’s a pity nothing remains. Next we visited Uleg Beg’s observatory, or rather what is left of it, which isn’t much. However, the small museum made me appreciate the great scientific works the Muslims in the 15th century had accomplished. Uleg Beg was a great astronomer himself, and gathered the great minds of the Islamic world to Sa
markand during a very fruitful time for the city.
We then visited Shahr I Zindah, a series of mausoleums from Timur’s time. Despite my guide’s negative attitude to the restoration work I enjoyed this site immensely. Here you could see Persian and Uzbek architecture next to each other and understand the differences in style and technique. Both styles were hugely impressive and I wandered the narrow lane between the mausoleums gazing at the portals, the Uzbek ones in sky blue with geometric patterns and the Persian in dark blue with floral patterns.
After this, we headed to one of the most impressive sites in central Asia, Registan Square. The Square comprises three madrasahs, all facing inwards to create three walls of a room around a large square. Unfortunately at this point the heavens opened and we were forced to take shelter in one of the madrasahs.
I woke up to a clear sunny day and took another visit to Registan Square, which looked even more impressive bathed in sunlight. Afterwards we headed out of Samarkand and onwards to the town of Bukhara, another UNESCO World Heritage site.
In Bukhara we took a walking tour and visited nearly all the sites on foot. The first site was Bukhara’s oldest and for me had very interesting links to Zoroastrianism, the 3000-year-old religion that was once dominant in the region but now has fewer than 200,000 follower worldwide.
It was wonderful to walk around Bukhara’s old centre visiting the many mosques and madrasahs, all in varying degrees of restoration and beautifully-built from the old sand coloured mud brick and topped with blue domes. Many of the ruined madrasahs have been turned into souvenir shops, selling beautiful rugs in the classic Bukhara style.
That evening we took dinner in one of the local restaurants where we were served the usual salads, soup, and meat, with a plate of round bread. During dinner, Rashid produced a photograph of his family and explained how his daughter was getting married and that this had been arranged by his wife. Arranged marriages are still very much part of Uzbek culture.
Today we spent most of the day in the car driving out across the Kyazaklum Desert heading toward Khiva.
The highlight of the day apart from gazing across the vast desert was lunch, taken at a roadside café. Whilst very rustic, the café was near the only river that ran into the desert and as such they had a pool of water with fresh fish. Rashid selected one, which was scooped out and promptly fried for us. We ate this with the fruit and vegetables we had bought yesterday and it made a fantastic meal.
Upon arrival in Khiva the place felt slightly deserted; however, at the back of the hotel, the staff were gathered around a large pot with boiling water. Apparently they were cooking a dish that takes 24 hours to prepare. I was lucky to be there when a group of local dancers and musicians took up a tune and danced opposite the pot.
Today we drove out to the ruins of Topraq-Qala and Ayaz-Qala. The drive out was most exciting as we crossed a pontoon bridge, that looked like it was in the last stages of dereliction but proved to be strong and a popular way across the mighty Oxus river. The land was dramatically barren with large deposits of salt. Climbing the ruins offered impressive views and I enjoyed the seclusion of these forts. After lunch and a drive back to the hotel, Rashid left us bode me farewell. I was sad to see him go as he had been a great driver and companion on this trip.
Today we took a full day sightseeing tour of Khiva. Unfortunately for me it rained on and off for most of the day, but despite the rain Khiva still shone through, showing me a glimpse of its one-time magnificence. The huge minaret of Kalta Minor left me wondering how high it would have been had it been finished. Khiva, another UNESCO site, is a town of minarets and domes, spread amongst a collection of old sandstone buildings in the middle of the desert, and one of the best ways to view the town is from a high place. I sought out Islam-Huja Minaret and paid the Uzbek lady sitting at its entrance for the opportunity to climb its stairs to the top. Inside the minaret, the stairs spiralled upwards and in a very small and claustrophobic space I made my way to the top of this high minaret. From the top I was rewarded with great views of the town below.
This evening I took a flight back to Tashkent where I would spend my last day.
I spent my last day in sun-soaked Tashkent, visiting the city’s lively Bazaar, which was the biggest I had been to and the centre of much activity for bargain hunters. Next we visited a working madrasah before heading to the Islamic Art Museum, home to a range of artefacts from all over Uzbekistan, which offered a nice reminder of all the places I had visited.
After more traditional Uzbek food for lunch I booked tickets for a ballet at the opera house opposite my hotel. Being only 30% full I had a wide choice of seats when I entered. I settled into an enjoyable performance of Tomisi, a ballet set in Persia, and afterwards packed my bag ready for my flight back to the UK.
I left the hotel happy that I had seen so much of Uzbekistan, and with the feeling that one day I should return to explore more of this fascinating part of the world.
Explore Uzbekistan on Cox & Kings’ 8-night Uzbekistan: Heart of Central Aisa tour.