Ever since Uzbekistan opened its borders to international tourism, it’s much easier to get a tourist e-visa. The site is relatively easy to figure, even if it has a few problems with speed and functionality. Our middle names didn’t show up on our e-visa, but that didn’t create any problems. However, the Uzbekistan Airways ground staff (in Seoul) was concerned with our single entry e-visa and made us sign a waiver form — just in case we were denied entry.
Uzbek immigration doesn’t have biometrics. The immigration officer will try to match your face (can be unnerving) with the photo on your passport. Our photos don’t exactly match our faces (especially after an 8-hour flight from Seoul) causing the immigration officers to chuckle. If you’re not returning to your home country, you need to show your visa/alien card to an immigration officer (next to the counter) before check-in/baggage drop. It will save you the time of having to stand in the line twice. Hotel registration is an online process now and you don’t have to collect registration cards anymore.
The official custom’s site has a detailed list of permitted medications that need to be declared (with prescriptions) before entry. We carried basic medications and had less than 2000 USD per traveller. We passed through the green channel and the guards didn’t even check our bags.
Deciphering the Bro Code
Bromances run high in Uzbekistan. Young boys would greet Basil on the street, teenagers would strike random conversations with him, and if he accidentally bumped into a man — a frown would turn into a smile and friendly pat. Things were a little different for me. Most men barely made eye contact whilst speaking and others would give a piercing stare. Under normal circumstances: I wouldn’t have cared. But we had a weeklong guided trip and I was the only ‘sister’ in the group. I’m not new to such situations and I hoped that in time I’d be welcome in the pack.
Khast Imam Complex
We met A, our tour guide, on the next morning. It was a gloomy day and the air was chilly. I was a little jet lagged and hoped to keep my eyes (and ears) open for the walking tour of Tashkent City. A gave us a quick introduction of Tashkent’s 2000-year-old history. We started our walk outside the mausoleum of the saint, Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi.
The Khast Imam Complex gets its name, ‘saint imam’, from the 10th Century Islamic scholar and poet. The mausoleum was built in the 16th Century and became a pilgrimage site for many believers around the globe.
Light tricked through the windows of the brick walls and cast shadows on the floor. The inner chamber had three more tombs towering above the ground.
Islam doesn’t permit the use of animals or people on sacred sites. Architects have found an ingenious way of decorating religious buildings without breaking this rule. Geometrical patterns and arrangements are a recurring theme in most sacred buildings. It’s not too hard to understand why. The answer to creation of life and the universe lies in numbers. It’s possible, these architects figured the power of numbers and compared them to a higher spiritualism.
Barak Khan Madrassah
Barak Khan Madrassah isn’t functional these days and its corridors double as souvenir shops.
Stall owners greeted us warmly and urged us to take a look — at no additional cost. One of the owners wished us and his smile stretched to his ears when he learned where we were from. “Mera joota hai Japani“, he sang in Hindi. In 1955, Raj Kapoor‘s iconic song was a local chartbuster and had even crossed international borders to become quite popular in the Soviet Union. This meeting was a hint of the warm relations our countries shared — never mind our checkered and rather tumultuous past.
Muyi Mubarak Library
This nondescript library is home to a very precious religious relic: the Uthman Koran. Quite naturally, it has additional security and photography isn’t allowed inside. The Uthman Koran is believed to have once belonged to the third caliph. Many also believe it’s the oldest Koran in the world — drawing flocks of pilgrims from all quarters.
Its history is as intriguing as the Kufic script on the pale yellow pages. The sacred relic is believed to have been brought by Emir Timur (Tamerlane) from Baghdad. The relic traveled to Samarkand, Russia, and eventually made its way back to the present site in Tashkent.
Hazrat Imam Mosque
Hazrat Imam Mosque is the only building, in the complex, that was built in the present century (2007). Interestingly, the mosque’s architectural style mirrors its 16th century neighbours — making it blend effortlessly in its surroundings. Towering minarets (50m) dwarf the central building that’s decorated with wooden columns and bricks.
Chorus Bazaar (meaning crossroads) is quite popular with locals as well as foreign tourists. I gaped at the gigantic aquamarine domes that enclosed the ultimate paradise for a foodie.
I’ve never been too fond of local markets. The close confines, bustling activity, and putrid smell of meat is hard to take in. In comparison, Chorsu Bazaar didn’t feel too chaotic. It’s a treasure trove for someone who’s genuinely looking to stock a larder. Each section is dedicated to a different speciality. The meat section has an interesting selection of items including horse meat sausages. The next few sections are dedicated to unending rows of vegetables, fruits, and dry fruits. However, it was the earthy and warm whiffs of spices that took me back home.
Abul Kasim Madrassah
Built in the 19th Century, Abul Kasim Madrassah was a place of learning for the brightest minds of the time. The madrassa is named after Abul Kasim — an educator and eminent personality of Tashkent.
The madrassah was shut down during Soviet rule and eventually began to fall into ruin. In the late eighties, it was reconstructed and opened to visitors.
The inner courtyard had bare trees and gave a sense of the internal structure of the building. These days, the students’ classrooms are occupied by masters of traditional Uzbek arts and crafts. The Rishtan (Fergana Valley) masters had a fine collection of porcelain and we bought a couple of small bowls as souvenirs.
Without a doubt, Plov and samsa are the local favourites in Uzbekistan and sell out like hot cakes. Samsa has a soft outer crust with a minced meat filling in the centre. On few occasions, I could request for a potato or pumpkin filling instead of meat. I explained to A: I preferred vegetarianism by choice. It had little to do with our nationality. He nodded in agreement, like most guides do. Ironically, we are a family of hearty meat eaters and I’ve often had to face flak for being the odd one.
Plov is a long-grain rice dish cooked with chickpeas, capsicum, and topped with meat. The rich flavours of the rice reminded me of mum’s Sunday ‘pulav’. Travelling along the Silk Road stirred up warm, fuzzy memories of home that I often repress as an expat. It also explained a lot of our own history and how culture isn’t born within borders — but evolves and grows — as it travels from one region to another. The Silk Road was ahead of its time. It created a global corridor between countries and continents. We seem to have regressed these days and are more focussed on drawing borders — than promoting cross-cultural and intellectual exchanges.
Monument of Courage
In 1966, a massive earthquake, measuring 8.3 on the richter scale, rocked Tashkent City and destroyed most of the local housing. Uzbekistan was under Soviet rule at that time. The ruling government got engineers and builders to create housing for those displaced by the earthquake. The present day monument is built next to the epicentre of the earthquake.
The soviet-styled apartments may look spartan on the outside, but are equipped with heating and all the necessary amenities inside. A’s parents also received an apartment after the earthquake and they continue to live there with their two sons.
Emir Timur Square
Tashkent is a heady mix of the old and the new. Timur Square is surrounded by buildings that are very different from the buildings and architecture of the old city.
During Soviet rule, the central statue of the square changed as frequently as the ideology of the ruling power. Busts of Lenin, Stalin and Karl Marx were replaced in succession. After independence, Uzbekistan’s local hero, Emir Timur’s statue captured the main spotlight of the square.
Some may say, depending on where they’re from (like us), Timur could be ‘negative’. A took offence to that statement. I should have been more careful with my words. A argued that he and I could be negative depending upon one’s perception. Although I didn’t quite buy into his argument; I could understand his point of view. For example, Chinggis Khan is disliked in Uzbekistan, but revered in Mongolia. What makes a man a local hero? Is it the paucity of inspiration or the triumph of character? Or is it the subliminal need to forge one’s own identity?
Alisher Navoi Uzbek State Opera & Ballet Theatre
The Alisher Navoi Theatre in Tashkent is named after Alisher Navoi — a renowned 15th Century Chagtai-Turkik writer and poet. Architect Alexey Schusev, the man behind Lenin’s Mausoleum in Russia, designed the building. The construction of the building started in 1942 and was finally completed — with the help of the Japanese prisoners of war — in 1947.
Tashkent is dotted with interesting buildings and parks. It’s one of those cities that deserves a couple of days of exploration — to truly appreciate its contrasting visuals. Getting lost would be a rewarding experience.
Mustaqillik Maydon (Independance Square)
My pointed questions must have made A curious about me. He asked if I worked. The tables had been turned. It’s a question to which I haven’t found the correct answer. I gave him the standard answer of being an unemployed writer living on a dependant visa. Like most people, he asked if I write books, and then had his own interpretation of my ‘situation’. He thought it was ironical that I spent my days cooking, cleaning, waiting, and creating an ‘atmosphere’ for my husband. It had been a long day and my patience was wearing thin, but I managed to control my anger. It took me days to understand why he said that, but at that moment: I felt like crumbling.
During Soviet rule, a bust of Lenin was installed at the centre of this ginormous square, and the square was called: Lenin Square. After Uzbekistan got independence in the nineties, the bust of Lenin was removed, and a globe on a pedestal was installed in its place. The woman, in front, represents the motherland. The entrance arch has a globe with three birds circling it.
The memorial for the soldiers who lost their lives in World War 2 isn’t too far from the central arch. A long corridor with an array of wooden plaques, printed with the names of the martyrs, leads to the statue of a forlorn mother sitting in front of an eternal flame. This statue made me wonder if we place too much importance on women to become ideal mothers/nurturers — often at the cost of losing their own identity.
Independence Square is strangely calming with the presence of trees and quiet. The emerald green waters of Ankhor River can make your forget anything.
Applied Art Museum
The former residence of Alexander Polovtsev, a Russian diplomat, is now the Applied Art Museum of Tashkent. Although, we were tired and the biting cold was starting to get to us, the museum turned out to be a hidden gem. The exterior has a confluence of cultures (Persian, Jewish, & Islamic) and elements.
The museum has an impressive collection of suzanis (hand embroidery), silk carpets, and also woodwork.
The true beauty of the museum lies in the residential quarters of the statesman. Masters from different schools across Uzbekistan contributed to the intricate carvings on the walls and rooftops.
The dim lighting makes it hard to capture the true splendour and opulence of the rooms.
There’s a stunning collection of porcelain in the last exhibition chamber.
One of the courtyards has been converted into a handicraft shop with an interesting collection of local arts for sale.
Kosmonavtlar (Tashkent Metro)
We ended our tour before sunset and that left us with a couple of minutes to explore Tashkent Metro. A lead us to Kosmonavtlar Station — dedicated to the cosmonauts who explored space.
Tashkent Metro has only 3 lines and you can buy the ticket (a blue chip) at the counter. The security guards were very friendly and were even hesitant to check my bag.
The platforms were practically empty and we may have attracted some attention from the people who waited for their train. Most Uzbeks consider the metro to be a means of transport. Foreign tourists, like us, can’t seem to get over those otherworldly designs.
On the recommendation of our driver, we visited a family restaurant that served the perfect remedy for a cold, winter’s night. It was quite a walk from our hotel and it even snowed. The hot soup, non, and tea hit the spot.
Our hotel was situated in a trendy neighbourhood. Some of the local pubs attracted a flurry of expensive cars and women dressed in their best. We preferred to rest in the quiet and warmth of our hotel. Besides, we had an early flight to Urgench on the next day.