The journey begins – Tashkent
To sum things up, Tashkent is not Uzbekistan. Tashkent is an ugly Soviet city with a bit of megalomaniac government built in. It is rude and bureaucratic and is not a good introduction to the country. We knew this before going there and planned to spend as little time as possible in Tashkent.
Our flight arrived at four in the morning and we headed straight to our hotel to sleep. Unfortunately we found it difficult to do so as we had slept some on the plane and sunrise was at 4:30. Normally when we travel far I try to arrive at night so we can go straight to bed and then be on their time zone. However that was not an option this time.
The strange thing about Tashkent are the number of huge parks and buildings with literally no one in them. Imagine that there were some rich billionaire out there that decided to collect massive buildings instead of cars. Instead of a showroom for his buildings, he placed them a fair distance from each other in huge parks with nice landscaping and paths so he could take walks and admire his buildings. That is a bit what downtown Tashkent looks like.
The photo below is us in a park next to our hotel. Despite the fact that we visited this park during the middle of the day, notice the entire lack of people save for the cleaning woman. All of the parks had a number of cleaning people patiently waiting for some dirt to fall from the sky. I do have to say that the lack of people was very welcome compared to our trip last year to China where we felt like sardines at times.
Tashkent contains a mix of old Soviet architecture and newer what I call Central Asian style buildings. Currently they are rapidly tearing down the older Soviet buildings in favor of the newer style. Our hotel in Tashkent is a good example of the Soviet style.
I actually found it to be rather pretty from the outside. The hotel itself was OK but still a bit Soviet. For example at the restaurant on the bottom floor they have a water cooler. We helped ourselves to some water while we were eating at the restaurant and were scolded because the water is intended only for visiting athletes. Also, we stayed at a different room each time we came back to the hotel from other areas of Uzbekistan and each room had something that did not work. In various cases the refrigerator, television, or air conditioning did not work. Still, I had fun coming up with compositions for the exterior of the property.
The Central Asian style is a bit similar to the building at the very top of this post – though I am not exactly sure if that building is new – it could be a remodeled Soviet building. The Central Asian style is generally very clean with few details. They have few curves but look remarkably modern compared to the older Soviet buildings – particularly the apartment buildings. A lot of them also have a very peculiar blue glass that I presume makes them cooler as during the summer it is quite hot there.
Like any good Soviet city, Tashkent contains its share of monuments. With the exception of the Lenin statues, all of these still stand with their original propaganda. They are in your typical Soviet style. This monument is from an earthquake that occurred in 1966.
This is a well done monument and I was very impressed at the solemnity and seriousness of it. Interestingly, by the official Soviet propaganda at the time only ten people perished during the earthquake. In truth it was several thousand. The next monument is for those who perished in the second World War (by official Soviet propaganda – more than ten).
Historically, Tashkent is a minnow within Uzbekistan. Before the Russians occupied the country, Uzbekistan was split into three khanates or emirates.
- The Kokand khanate with its capital at Kokand. This included Tashkent. From what I heard little remains within Kokand itself.
- The Emirate of Bukhara – with its capital at (where else) Bukhara
- The Khorezm Khanate – with its capital at Khiva
Before this Samarkand was the capital of Timur’s empire that stretched from China to Delhi to the borders of Europe. Therefore, while Taskhkent does have several interesting structures history-wise it is wisest to see it first as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva all blow it away.
Tashkent does have though the world’s oldest Koran – supposedly stained from the blood of Osman – which is definitely worth seeing.
Most of the old structures of Tashkent are very close to each other and can be visited in a few hours. The above example is very typical of the architecture there. This architecture also extends to the rest of Uzbekistan, though the structures in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva are far grander, more ornately painted, and older. Despite having the largest population though, few people venture to see old Tashkent.
We did stop a party of people we ran across to take their photo. Generally it is OK to take photos of people in Uzbekistan – even women. Many women are modest though and prefer their photos to not be taken – particularly by a man. We had much more success when I handed my camera to my wife and she asked to take their picture.
The dresses are typical of Uzbekistan. For my wife’s relatives (originally from Tajikistan) they now where these clothes only for special occasions. However over there this is just the standard way they dress. Unlike some other countries the culture of Uzbekistan is “authentic” and not just for show.
For our kids the highlight of old Tashkent was a group of storks in one of the gardens. They are kept as pets there (as they are considered lucky) and cannot fly. If you have bread you are free to feed them. When my older son was younger he used to call them “dorks” and would often shout “look! a dork!” when he saw them – generating a few interested glances.
For me, the highlight photography-wise in Tashkent was the market. Markets are extremely important in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (and pretty much all of Central Asia) as they are the main place where pretty much anything is bought and sold. The vast majority of Uzbeks do not frequent supermarkets or retail shops for their needs but instead barter at the market.
Above are one of the reasons we travelled to this part of the world in the first place – lepyoshki. Lepyoshki is the Russian word for them and locally it is just called naan – which is the word for bread. Incidentally this is the same word used in India and the breads do have their similarities. My wife had been craving this bread ever since she left Tajikistan 16 years ago and even when we travelled to New York and bought the bread there she declared that it was just not the same thing.
Lepyoshki is considered the national bread there and in Samarkand they even go as far as creating artisan breads with writing and decorations that are intended for hanging on the wall. I honestly can say I have never considered hanging a loaf of bread on my wall but the opportunity is there for those so willing.
For many Russians, Uzbekistan is known as the source of many of their fruits and it therefore comes as no surprise that any Uzbek market is full of them.
Uzbekistan is famous for its grapes in particular and everywhere you go there you will see vines – particularly in the courtyards of houses. Grape vines serve many purposes there – not just providing a nice snack to eat. In the summer the vines provide useful shade against the hot sun. Interestingly while their grapes are considered amongst the best in the world, their wines have no such distinction so they are intended strictly for eating.
Also not to be missed in any Central Asian market are the spices.
I honestly had no idea what the majority of spices are, but there are a lot of them and I had a lot of fun photographing them. We went through the Tashkent market rather quickly, but I had much more of an opportunity later on in Khujand, Tajikistan. I suspect though that you can buy pretty much any spice known to man there and there are a great many stands there selling them.
Every market is divided into sections. In one part of the market you can buy fruits, in another part bread, another part meat, fish, spices, nuts, and so on. However, just outside the “food” area of the market are the “everything else” sections. Here just name it and they have it – electronics, dresses, furniture, kitchen utensils – anything. I found this rather interesting.
My wife had told me about these but this was my first opportunity to actually see one. This is a baby bassinet. It looks fairly standard with the exception of the hexagonal hole towards one side. You see, there diapers are pretty much non-existent and even though they are technically available, the vast majority of the population cannot afford them. This is the solution to the problem. Baby waste falls through the hole to something below it that collects the waste – which is then emptied. While this sounds a bit gross, keep in mind that children there are potty trained at a much earlier age than children here. It is practically unheard of over there for a one year old to not be potty trained.
Another fun fact is actually paying people in the market. The currency of Uzbekistan is called the Sum. Officially, there are 1,700 Sum to the dollar – at least when I was there. Unofficially the rate is 2,400 Sum. However this rate is only available through the black market and foreigners are strongly advised to not attempt to exchange money themselves because many of the sellers at the black market are there to catch you and force you to pay a very high fine. Instead, it is best to ask someone you trust to exchange the money for you.
The interesting part comes when you actually receive the money. You see, the largest note there is 1,000 Sums and in the market they will often give you only 500 Sum notes. The result is an awful lot of cash. I had to dedicate an entire pocket while I was there to holding cash. Below is a bit less than $200.
While most souvenir shops will accept dollars, restaurants and people in the market will only accept Sums. This was a bit of a pain while we were there.
We returned to Tashkent several times as it is used as the start of many tours and is the main location to fly in and out of. I certainly would not recommend spending a lot of time there, but there is enough to keep one’s interest for a day.
Our next day, though, when we headed for Samarkand, was far more interesting.
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