The first question is always definitional and unspoken. What/where is Uzbekistan? Friends, colleagues and relatives will raise their brow and shuffle their feet ever so slightly and say, “I’ve never heard of Uzbekistan,” or at least think, “I think it’s an ex-Soviet Republic but for the life of me, I’ve no clue on where it is, what it has, and its capital.” Tashkent. Another tough word and a good trivia question. Its capital is Tashkent. A little research will show that this city is indeed a new capital, a Soviet-inspired city, perhaps the largest hub in Central Asia.
Three other terms were far more useful to describe where I went. The first is Samarkand. This is a mystical place, a Shangri-La of sorts, an interesting crossroads and land of harems and bazaars, of mystery and monuments. Indeed, the Registan in Samarkand is as spectacular in scale and awe-inspiration as maybe all-of-Florence or Aga Sophia in Istanbul or Macchu Picchu.
The second term is to describe it is as the land of Timurlane. Although still remarkably obscure, Amir Timur, or Timurlane as he was known in Europe, was the most powerful human being in the two centuries before the European Renaissance and after Genghis Khan, whom he displaced.
The easiest way to describe where I went is the Silk Road/Silk Route. The central location and biggest trading port for the caravans passing from Istanbul to Xian, the traditional endpoints of the Silk Route, Samarkand and Bukhara were the two foci in the ellipse that spanned China, India, the Urals and Mongolia, the Turks, and the Persians. So, I travelled the Silk Route, on my own, for a few glorious days of self-reflection and wonderment.
· Tashkent: meaning stone settlement 2300 years old and yet capital of a country 23 years-old
· Tashkent: Still full of Russian and Mongol bloodlines and yet a mélange that has its own modern heritage
· Tashkent: A city shamed by its awful international airport and a city famed for the prettiest Metro I have ever seen
· Tashkent: A strict society with permissiveness allowed in certain regards with an invisible line delineating what is and what is not acceptable
· Tashkent: An odd capital, seemingly much further North and East than the rest of the country, closer to Russia
· Tashkent: An unavoidable stop through to be avoided and yet to miss it would be to remain blind to the heartbeat of modern Central Asia
Despite a bumpy nine-hour journey punctuated by little mishaps, I was bound to rally from my hotel room and to explore, simply because it was my first night in a new country. It was only eight-thirty local time and Friday was calling.
Somehow, the English-speaking guy who drove me from the airport with the actual driver, found me in the hotel lobby; I doubt I would have enjoyed the evening as much if he had not been there. His name is Bek. I had done some research and found a lounge called Monaco on a Tashkent foodie website. It promised European fare and a lounge area. Upon arrival, the place looked posh and promised just the right amount of ‘Euro-’. We were greeted by a hostess with those Uzbek-Asian looks: big Oriental eyes, long silky hair with that mixture of Turk and Persian features that added exoticism on top of exoticism.
She asked Bek if he wanted to try the downstairs lounge area since it had a dancefloor since “there will be girls doing a show.” This was Bek’s translation; I’m guesing it’s not really what the Uzbek beauty implied.
“We can always come back up,” Bek said.
Upoon getting seated, I saw a cool semicircular bar, a small but tasteful dance floor and a couple of patrons just getting seated. There were no girls, poles, or even a stage.
We settled into two margaritas and a chat about Bek’s job search and spirations. He wanted to get to Singapore or Malaysia.
“Excuse me,” a woman said to my left. “I heard you two talking about moving to Malaysia and I just spent five years there.”
Aesel was her name. She looked Turkish with white skin, a large European nose and brown hair. She left Uzbekistan, she recounted. When she was only fifteen. My arithmetic led me to estimate her age at about twenty-one. She kept talking about her time in Malaysia, how much she missed it, and how to make life more exciting in Tashkent. One way was to organize these Latin Nights, which had just started getting popular. “This is the first time we’re having one here at the Monaco.”
It was clear, by the way she salsaed, that she was a regular in this scene and a promoter. We got a phone call from my friend’s brother Timur who asked me to go to Dudek, a Czech pub.
So after quickly finishing my penne arrabiata and my second margarita, we asked for the cheque.
“Leaving already” Aesel enquired.
“Yes, he has a friend meetinghim at Dudek.”
“That place is boring; not as happening as here,” she remarked.
I knew we had to go; Bek had the last word, “We can always come back.”
As we walked up the stairs, Bek remarked with a grin, “She really wanted you to stay. Let me get her number!”
“No need,” I said, as though we were in Malaysia.
“She really liked you.”
In fact the Uzbek friends told me that foreigners were bound to attract a lot of attention.
At Dudek, Bek found Timur and said goodbye for now. Sitting down with Timur and his Russian-only speaking associate, I decided I would stay for only one drink. Timur was surprised at first I was only staying for one round but clearly we were all bushed and I used that as an excuse. While Dudek was kitschy fun with its cross between family night, decent cover band and Tajik cougars eyeing Timur, it was time to go back to Monaco.
The subterranean club feel at Monaco was even more lively than before with more couples dancing Latin numbers, more onlookers, and even more hot staff. I was getting a little toasted so I had a full glass of water before I drank the third margarita. The bartended was named Nastya and was just a bit cuter than the hostess. She didn’t seem to notice any of the men in the joint, unlike almost all the other women who were on the prowl, so few men were there at Latin Night. Three Ukrainian girls were next to us and one asked me why I wasn’t dancing.
Aesal’s friend Anna made eye contact and smiled. Bek was enjoying the night too, asking questions about the various music styles.
Tango in Tashkent. Meringue after-hours in a bar in Uzbekistan. It was pretty surreal. At some point,l the floor got very busy with the few good male dancers doubling up and dancing with two Kazakh girls at once. Just then, Aesel appeared from nowhere and sat down on the barstool next to me. She wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer and dragged me to the floor for the end of one salsa song and for one barracha. I asked her to lead. She taught me the steps and I was clearly a slow student and yet by the end of the second dance, she complimented me on how I moved my hips. I don’t blush, my skin’s too dark. Trust me, they were barely swinging as compared to clubs in Buenos Aires or Spanish Harlem, but my hips did seem to be getting in on the fun.
Aesel said thank you and sat down while I went back to Bek who cheered. Time was catching up with me as my body clock read three. Paying the bill with a thick, thick stack of 1000 soum notes, I stood up and waved goodbye to Aesal. Bek was even more insistent that he get her number but I declined. It was just the right amount of Tashkent folly for my first night in this curious country. Just enough happened.
At breakfast on day 2 in Tashkent, I saved the hotel from a fire.
Without a shred of exaggeration, allow me to relate the story. I prevented an overheating pan on a hot unattended stove from igniting a tablecloth. In the breakfast room with about a dozen diners and five staff, I asked for an omelette. The cook gave me my order and then disappeared to the kitchen, leaving his pan on the stove and forgetting to switch it off. I noticed smoke and looked around to tell someone. There was no staff at all. No waiters, no managers; inexplicably the room was devoid of anyone with any authority. Minutes passed – still no staff. The pan was getting smokier and smokier. I looked at a Russian couple seated next to me; the man just shrugged. Incredulous that the staff could still be absent, I walked over to the fire and had to make a split-second decision; I guessed at which burner knob to turn and in which direction. Given how hot it was, I only had one try. Luckily, I guessed right. The pan kept smoking but a fire was averted so I sat back down. At this point, a burly waiter walked in and was oblivious to the smoke. He proceeded to tidy up spoons. Another younger waiter walked right by and I pointed and said, “Stove!” in English to which he turned and looked at me and asked, “Coffee?”
Finally, a staff went to the pan after smelling something. One manager ran up and down with an aerosol spray to “remove the odor.” Another opened the double patio doors intelligently, shouted an instruction, and then closed the French doors again!
The room was emptying at this point. It felt like the hotel had no idea how close they were to having a raging fire emergency. The Uzbek response was something out of Fawlty’s handbook; or maybe it was due to years of surly, disinterested service habits. Either way, I’m sure the Korean management of the Lotte would have been supremely embarrassed.
The day tour began at a modern mosque in old Tashkent that was used for the major Friday prayers. Impressive and only three years old, Farrukh, my guide, boasted that it had been built in only four months. Two 53m minarets and a mosque built in 16 weeks? Hmm.
As impressive as it was, it didn’t compare to the 16th and 15th century mosques and madrassa sitting right behind it.
Nestled at the back of a nicely designed square, pointing at Mecca, sat this old mosque and its school. In the madrassa lay the most impressive Islamic religious artifact I have ever seen.
According to the BBC, it was one of six early Qurans possibly from 645 A.D., just 20+ years after the Prophet Muhammed’s death, right there in front of my eyes, complete with a blood stain from Othman the caliph, its transcriber, who was beheaded as he read that very page. I was moved by the power of the word and the scribe and the gesture all preserved somehow by Timur and brought back to Tashkent from Russia just a few decades ago. To be clear, this (and maybe the Sana’a fragment as well in Turkey) is (are) the only remaining of Othman’s Qurans.
The Othman Koran is the oldest in the world
This is the oldest Quran since. It is written in a blockish font that seems to have changed the characteristic curves of Arabic script into ninety-degree angles, call-it Simplified Arabic. It looked beautiful, written on calfskin (leather), with the permanence of the power of its word and the glorious beauty that comes with the patina of time. The Othman Quran moved me, possibly more so because I didn’t expect it; somehow in my research on Uzbekistan, I fortuitously missed it. It is a meaningful pilgrimage destination for Muslims worldwide, the Othman rasm.
The tomb of an old Sufi imam Kaffel-Shashi culminated this impressive site.
We then went to the Chong Su bazaar and then to a market where I bought dried apricots and walnuts for a pittance. I then travelled three stops on the famed Tashkent metro which few foreigners have ever seen. It blew away my expectations. Every one of the stations has a unique theme, unique architecture, lighting, wall murals, and descriptions. The cathedral ceilings in one station featured masterful ironworks. Another boasted chandelier lighting. Another an homage to the cosmonauts who explored space (from USSR, of course). In every station, passing through were minimalistically beautiful Soviet-era train cars, circa 1978. It all added to the movie-set feel. It was magical. I felt I was enjoying a little secret that only the Uzbeks and Russians knew. “We have the world’s prettiest subway.” They must say to themselves, “We let our people enjoy it everyday for just 27 cents per ride.”
Leaving the subway felt like walking out of your favourite theme park or an arcade or theater. You wanted to tell someone about it and go back again soon.
Farukh and I then grabbed two Lavazza coffees (at inappropriately high European prices) and went to an early-twentieth century Russian nobleman’s home which had been converted into a charming decorative arts gallery. While I always felt the locals were always trying to sell me something, I acknowledged it was par for the course. The tourist sees beautiful thousand year-old things; you then try to sell them impressive modern work at high prices. I didn’t fall for it – yet. The last stop for the day was my first Plov which was more tender and more sweet than I expected. The next stop was the domestic airport where I waited for my flight to Bukhara. I sat in a sparse and pleasant departure hall near a 5 year-old girl dressed as a princess, tiara-and-all, doing an outstanding job of reminding me of my beloved Zoe. She sits watching me as I write this.
When I landed that day in Bukhara, I was dropped off in a charming square called Lyabi Haus reminiscent of Place Saint Jacques in my hometown, bustling with life and activity (and travellers of course). It had gigantic beautiful mosques like the Shahi Zinda complex dwarfing the modern square. Everywhere you looked there were exposed ancient caravanserai. The city bubbles with inviting domes that are cool respites from the sun or cold. The town is about shopping. Trading is not just part of the culture; it is its raison d’etre. My ambling through the streets on Saturday was delightful and unexpected. I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have an agenda. The light changed dramatically and I felt myself reaching for my camera to photograph the same spot hour after hour. I ran left and right, worried a little I wouldn’t be able to follow my mental breadcrumbs back to my guesthouse. I walked into a few carpet shops, evidently. I also engaged in a few random conversations and grabbed a meal and a folk show at a theme restaurant called Adras which was not kitsch which I’d liken to a really good Hawaiian hula and luau.
On Sunday, I trekked through Bukhara from morning to night surpassing 20,000 steps according to my Fitbit activity tracker. That’s 10 miles. The morning started with one of my favourite buildings, Chor Minor. It is the most Indian-looking mosque and it was made by a wonderful man who was blessed with four daughters and no sons who worried in his patriarchical society that he would not be remembered. So, he took the suggestion of a neighbor and built a small but exquisite mosque which still stands today in Bukhara’s (2300 years!) old quarter. Stepping through its labyrinthian streets, elading apparently in circles, there appears Chor Minor with its elephantine minarets and chubby dome. It is a study in Botero, circa 1500; it is a site not to be missed anywhere. Each minaret, it is said, represents one of his daughters.
Later that day, I succumbed to an old man selling antique negatives of Chor Minor in the park.
Next up on Sunday was a Sufi mosque in honour of Chashma Ajjub, a man who found water in an underground spring, saving the town with his divination powers. The story involves a tooth and is so poignant because the well is still there to this day and I was encouraged to take a cup. It tasted great.
Eventually, after much comparing and bargaining, I bought a carpet. I picked out an eighty year-old Solar Turkmen rug which is more commonly one of the three variants called Bukhara until recently, which has influences with a few more Chinese influences than the comparable Tekka tribes, of which I own two. Photo shown here.
The next most fascinating place in Bukhara was the Samani Mausoleum. It was quite impressive as a structure with Zoroastrian, Christian, and of course Islamic features including brickwork that descended 10 metres into the ground. As an original structure, it was the oldest intact building from the 12th century since it was so firmly built and thus, required virtually no restoration.
Timur said famously, “If people doubt our empire’s power, then let them see our buildings.” Indeed.
This town is 2500 years old at least, some say 3000 years old. It is akin to Rome. It has a pre-Christ history (as Maracanda as seen by Alexander the Great), a new history (as a nation born in 1991), and an in-between amazing period called Transoxiana where it was quite possibly the center of civilization on Earth (with nods to Turkey and China appropriately). In the tenth century, its population was 500,000 and in the late-1300s, the assemblage of scientists and decorative artists under Amir Timur propelled Samarkand and the entire empire of Transoxiana (from Egypt in the West through Turkey all the way to Delhi in the East and Urumqi in the North) to its apex. The Moor Abu Abdullah ibn Battuta (1304-1377), who, in 1333, described it as "one of the largest and most perfectly beautiful cities in the world." 1 At its peak, it was "a thriving city which netted half the commerce of Asia" 14
But before I could see its centerpiece, Registan Square, I had to see its mausoleum to its founder, the great tomb of Timur. It is, as an Indian visitor put it, the prototype for the Taj Mahal. I prefer to call it v1.0 (or perhaps v0.9). The Gur-i-Amir mausoleum evokes the same themes of the Taj, only 200 years earlier. It has four minarets, a great dome, colours (cobalt blue instead of white and onyx) that dance with the light. There is an elegance and refinement to the Taj that only the Taj has, but Timur’s mausoleum still takes the breath away with its symmetry and precocious beauty.
In the centre of the Silk Road, in this ancient city, here sits an amazing complex called the Registan of Samarkand. It is where paper was perfected from the Chinese. It is where the inventor of the number zero grew up. It is Ulugh Beg, the great scientist’s, home. And it is spectacularly beautiful.
Whereas Samarkand is a beautiful girl with makeup, Bukhara, it is said, is a natural beauty in no need of it.
Samarkand is adorned with cobalt blues, resplendent frescoes, luxurious onyx, colours that haven’t faded in 600 years. The mystery is that the restored portions only 20 years old have already lost the blues’ brightness. Bukhara, whereas, derives its beauty entirely from its bricks which are used for construction and decoration, without paint. To me, Bukhara is like Jerusalem; Samarkand is Florence, Agra, and Istanbul all rolled up into one!
Back in the capital after a 4-hour drive, I ended an enjoyable day at a Georgian restaurant. Nothing like having a Chanahi stew with a Tbilisi red wine on a 2nd floor terrasse in Tashkent! Delicious.
This morning I enjoyed a blissful quiet walk through Khiva strolling through its lanes as though I was the Khan himself. Khiva is the living museum city set inside an ancient fortress in the dusty West of Uzbekistan.
It was a diversion to remember.
A quick trigger decision to grab a seat on a plane to this faraway town for 26 hours proved to be one of the calls I had to make on this trip. Sometimes, we can get too caught up in schedules and timing and sticking to “the plan”. Instead, just jump. The lesson in life is that if there is a window of opportunity to explore – take it.
I regret not jumping on that boat to Antarctica from Punta Arenas. I regret not going to Iguazu Falls and instead spending the day in Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
“In my life, I loved them all.” – John Lennon, the Beatles
And Khiva a little bit more. The walled city is said to be one of only two living walled fortresses with inhabitants. Galle in Sri Lanka seems to be a third, is it not?
The fort is 2.2km in circumference with an outer ring of 5km and an inner fortress of a few hundred metres which housed the Khan of Khiva himself until the late 1930s. He was a good leader by all accounts but under the Soviet purge, he and the whole royal family were killed. Stalin killed 20,000,000 people, an Uzbek told me. He ordered the death of more people than anyone in the history of humankind. The effect of his tyranny blunted the continuation of the Khiva Khanate and the Khorezm culture. The Khorezm empire in its time prior to Genghis Khan, was a huge empire in the 11th century almost as large as Timur’s. Khiva is the place where algebra was invented by Al-Khwārizmī. The Khorezm people associate themselves more with their Turkish heritage than the other Uzbeks I’ve met on this trip. They see the entire Turkish world as related and are self-labeling as Turkmen. Indeed, Khiva is the only old city in Uzbekistan on the left bank of the Somor’ya river which means that it should technically have been classified by the Soviets as part of Turkmenistan. Luckily for me, it did not and Khiva, although 3km from the Turkmenistan border does not require another Letter of Invitation, another visa, another on foot border crossing with low probability of success. They say Turkmenistan is essentially closed for tourists now, with only 8000 admitted annually, ranking it 194th in the world, or third from last ahead of Kiribati, Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu. So the closest I got to see was from the top of the gigantic 60m minaret of Khiva and the rolling dunes and desert landscape that is the homeland of the nomadic Turkmen tribes.
Whether it is the minarets, the fort, the juxtaposition of colours or the just-the-right-size nature of the city, Khiva was spectacularly pittoresque.
It had symmetry and some soul.
As a museum city, many of the madrassas were converted into museum of art, music, etc. One turned into a shelter for young women supported by the British Council who had seem some misfortune.
Khiva is an ultra-dry and even primitive place. Here falls only 4 centimetres of rain per year. That is as dry as Arizona or Peru, if my memory serves. Offsetting this low rainfall is a high underground water table which allows for wells, irrigation, and delectable tomatoes.
Khiva left me with a good taste in my mouth due to the evening dinner at the MIrza B&B with a fun collection of travellers from (clockwise from me) Israel, Israel, Spain, Australia/Papua New Guinea, Germany, Germany, Mexico, and myself. In particular, the Spanish adventurer (whom I called Pepe) was a riot with tales of exotic lands; and, as the evening wore on, of women of all sorts from these exotic lands.
The stories were swapped in a fitting session for the Silk Route with good cheer and amazement, the German TV producer and the Aussie girl and Mexican Leo di Caprio chiming in with their stories as Pepe and I entertained the crowd with our loud banter.
Nonetheless, Khiva did leave me with one painful lesson. Remember to bow. I hot my head on low doorways twice in the course of this same day. “Is there blood?” the locals asked. An abrasion, minor; I was no worse for wear. As I return home, I notice that the Khiva dust is coating all of my belongings.
Lunch in Tashkent on my last day started with a circuitous bargain $5 cab fare from one end of town to the other. The cab driver dropped me off to the base of the city’s tallest TV tower and I disembarked in an outdoor garden with a set of massive plov cookware heating over open flames. The place was packed; there were no tourists however. I ordered salad and bread (not the famous Zeera-imbued Non from Samarkand but Tashkent’s isn’t bad). I waited for my plov for a long time. When it finally came, I declared it to be the best or second best in all of Uzbekistan. I hitched a taxi to Chong Su bazaar. As I got out of the taxi, three men tried to get in politely after I had already stepped out. They were Chinese. The driver did not seem to like them and sped off. Another driver motioned to them but they were incapable of explaining where they wanted to go so I stepped in.
“Nimen shi Zhongguoren ma?” I asked.
They were so happy and startled so they began speaking very quickly to me explaining where they wanted to go. I asked them to slow down. I finally gave up and asked them if they knew Meiguoren. One spoke very broken English which was of course better than my Chinese. I figured out that they were trying to go to a specific company’s offices and were somewhat aware of how to get there. “Go straight for 1 km then turn left.”
That was enough for me so I went to the cab driver and said Salaam-alaikum. I then spoke slowly in English making the hand motion for straight and then left.
“5000 soum,” the driver said acceding to the request.
I was very happy since it could have been hard to convince any cab driver to take these guys.
The Chinese pack leader then said it cost them only 4000 sou to get here. Only one kilometer,” he said. He was negotiating over thirty-three cents or two remninbi.
I said, “5000 is a good price. I paid 6000 to get here.”
“Oh, “ the Chinese man said deferring. And off they went.
I bought a big Ferganna valley plate in my first few minutes in the market and then proceeded to sweat while carrying its weight around in the heat.
I finally succumbed and bought a teeshirt and changed out of my lomg-sleeve shirt right then and there in the back of the old lady’s shop. I thought the tee was too tight but her daughter was around and offered her eighteen year-old’s opinion in a word, “Hot.”
I knew I was being played and yet I smiled and paid $3 for my stretchy faux Brasil 2014 World Cup shirt and took her word as a nice compliment anyway.
Uzbekistan says goodbye with a mild contradiction in my memory. Majestic buildings and amazing decorative arts. A centre of human civilization for four hundred years before the European Renaissance. The provenance of the number “zero” and algorithm. The most gorgeous blue artwork to be seen. And yet, surly service and incomplete travel infrastructure and what seems like extreme seasonal weather changes. It is historic, no doubt for any Muslim or anyone with a penchant for filling in their gaps of knowledge about human development not-learned in European-centric pedagogies. And it is a fascinating new country as well, embracing its past well, replete with modernism, an amazing subway, an ancient text, movie-set quality landmarks, and a committed handful of fellow travellers who really know why Uzbekistan.