Thursday, June 30, 2011

Travelogue Uzbekistan: Tashkent

In 2009, Tashkent celebrated it’s 2200th anniversary. Just imagine 2200 candles on a birthday cake! Can you even comprehend the depth and wealth of the history of a city with such an extensive existence? Well, it turns out, a lot of prominent cities in Uzbekistan could make the same claim, boasting such an ancient lineage. The country was a part of the old Silk Road, the 6437-km trade route that connected China to Europe as early as 200 B.C, so scattered around Uzbekistan were towns and cities that became important trading points, and in time, evolved into significant scientific, cultural and knowledge centers as well. Conquerors came and go, molding the nation and leaving their marks. Of the many countries I've been to, Uzbekistan is on top of the list of countries with the most fascinating history, from its ancient beginning down to being part of the Soviet Union decades ago.

What struck me most about modern Tashkent is how clean the city is. Like, very, very clean, Singapore-ish clean. Streets are lined with trees, and parks are abundant, providing a shady respite for people lunching outdoor. It does remind me of the romantic, lush boulevard of Paris, against a backdrop of 1960's boxy, streamlined architecture. Most of the signage are still in Russian, one of the remain of its Soviet past.

You won’t see many tourists here though – the reason being that most tourists will be whisked away to other more touristy cities as soon as they arrived in Tashkent. Truth be told, compared to Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand, there’s not much interesting, culturally rich thing to do here. It is just another busy, bustling city. It’s like when foreigners ask me what’s great in KL – mmm, tall buildings, shopping malls, so-so museums and zoo, all the things you could easily find in your own hometown? “Why don’t you go to Malacca, Pulau Perhentian, Penang or Borneo instead?”, I would’ve suggest.

We also read so much about the police and photography restriction that we barely took out our camera. For three photography enthusiasts, that pretty much killed the mood. When we were in Samarkand a few days later, we met with a fellow traveler from Israel who claimed "When I arrived in Tashkent, I thought I make a big mistake of coming to Uzbekistan. There's nothing to do there".

But fret not. If you are stuck here for one or two days, there’s still plenty to do:

1. Chorsu Bazaar
It is a sprawling, multi-complex market that sells everything under the sun. Fresh produce of vegetables and fruits were abound, and same goes for all kind of nuts and dried fruits and spices. Great photo op and people watching. There will be some men who will walk past you and whispering an offer for money exchange. The ‘black market’ rate offered by these guys are much better than what you’ll get from the bank, but do so at your own peril. It is illegal.

The pretty lattice-like dome of the Chorsu Bazaar. The stalls were arranged in circles.

There were also sellers outside, selling fruits and vegetables in a small basin. The moment they saw the police, they scatterred away.

Nom-seller. Nom is THE bread in Uzbekistan - you eat it for breaksfast, lunch and dinner. Each region has it's own unique-looking nom.

2. Metro stations
Surprisingly, the best part of Tashkent is its metro stations. I was flabbergasted. Each of them is uniquely, beautifully designed – a work of art of its own. One even reminded me of a set from Harry Potter - with lines of decorative grey columns along the platform. Unfortunately, no photograph is allowed (and don’t even try to snap one secretly! Plenty of polices monitored the stations) so I could not show you how impressive they are. If you have the time, bought a ticket and hop on the metro from one end to the other and enjoy the beautiful design from the platform. Be prepared for the police to check your bags and passports upon entering.

3. Amir Timur museum
It is a small museum, very unassuming from the outside, but quite impressive in the inside. The moment you walked in, you'll find yourself under a huge, beautifully gilded high dome with a huge chandelier dangling down, surrounded by high murals on the walls depicting the life of Amir Timur (also known as Tamelane), the nation hero who founded the great Timurid dynasty (and his descendant later established the Mughal dynasty in India) and whose military conquest comparable to Alexander the Great and Gengis Khan. Get someone to explain the significance of the murals and the exhibitions inside to better appreciate what you are looking at – otherwise, it is quite a bore. I could still remember bits and pieces of what my professor taught me on the history of art and architecture of this region, so to me personally, it was just nice to put things in perspective. Our guide did a good job too telling stories and history, so we rather enjoyed the trip to this museum.

My friends were swarmed with schoolchildren, asking for autograph (???), posing for photo or were just trying to converse in English.

4. Khast-Imam Square
Perhaps the highlight of our short excursion in Tashkent, though if you came here after you've been to Khiva and Samarkand, the place paled in comparison. It is a complex of buildings consisted of a mosque, madrasah and mausoleum. In here was kept the Qur’an of Khalifah Uthman. Stained with his blood, the Quran was brought into the country centuries ago by Amir Timur. It was then seized by the Russians and taken as a war trophy to Saint Petersburg, but was later returned to Uzbekistan. The small cells of the madrasah had been turned into artisan workshop and souvenir shops. When we were there, school was just out and it was about time for the Friday prayer, so we got a lot of shots of schoolchildren and people convening for the prayer.

This sweet old man was being led to the mosque by the young fella. He came towards us, shook hand with my friends, and gave me some raisins. So random, but so sweet of him.

I was rather amused that the school kids carried rather grown-up looking handbag to school. I saw this trend everywhere I went.

Our travel agent. She was so nice to even act as our tour guide.

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