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.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Travelogue Uzbekistan: The Long Train Ride to Urgench

Amu Darya River. The origin is the high mountain of Pamir. By the time it arrived in Uzbekistan, it has transformed into a wide, lazy river.

I entered the compartment with a slight hesitation, masked with a huge smile. Four sets of eyes, belonging to complete strangers, stared at me. I’d never felt so odd and awkward.

After a quick salam, I dumped my bags on the top bunk where I was assigned, and sat down on the bed/seater below. I kept smiling till my jaw hurt.

I was boarding the train at Tashkent, heading to Urgench. Though I was travelling with two other friends, by sheer lack of luck, the two of them were assigned the same sleeper compartment, and I was bumped to next door, sharing with total strangers.

I love train ride more than anything. Except for the disgusting toilet (which seems to be a pre-requisite for any train, no matter how old or modern it is), there are some romantic notions attached to train rides. Lulled to sleep to the sound of the train slowly chugging forward, stopping in between stations, the contractors coming and going checking the tickets and announcing stops, food vendors selling simple dish, and travelling through an unfamiliar landscape - it was much different than car or plane travel.

My bunk bed.

However, my trepidation came due to how small the compartment was, and the fact that it was going to be a thirteen-hours ride. The compartment consisted of two sets of bunk sleepers (two on top, two at the bottom), with an aisle so narrow that two persons sitting across each other will be touching knees. There was no privacy at all. You either struck a conversation with your fellow compartment-mates, or become a total recluse by pretending as if you are invisible, which was very hard to do when everyone's aware of every single move you make - even the sound of opening a candy bar seemed to multiply ten-fold. It was too early to sleep too - we had at least three more hours before sunset.

Anvar Beyg

Bibi Sulfiya

I smiled at the little boy next to me, who peeked shyly at me from her mom’s lap. His name was Anvar Beyg, I later discovered, about 4-5 years old. His sister, Bibi Sulfiya, a year or two older than him, was seating next to their dad on the seater across us. Besides them was a lanky and tall middle-aged man. When he smiled, I spotted two golden teeth.

“Too-rist?”, the dad asked. “Ha”, I replied. Yes, in Uzbek.

I thought that was the end of our conversation. I didn’t speak Russian or Uzbek, and they did not appear to be conversant in English. Little that I know I was about to receive a lesson in Uzbekistan hospitality.

The moment the train moved, the mother brought out a heap of bread, fresh vegetables, cheese and meat. The father brought in hot water and prepared some chai, or tea. They offered me a chunk of bread, sliced tomatoes and cheese, and then offered me more and more and more - I felt so stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. (Later I found out that my friends were deeply worried that I went to bed without anything to eat, since the food that we bought earlier was all with them. Little that they know I was having a feast next door!)

Fast forward two hours later, I was declining for the fifth time an offer for a glass of vodka. Out of hospitality, every time the men poured a drink, they offered a glass to me (though I noticed never once did they offer to the wife, nor did she pour one herself. I did read that in some countries drinking in public is a very male thing). I politely declined every time, saying that I am a Muslim but this is a country where even the Muslims drink alcohol freely, so my effort went nowhere. They would cheekily offer it again, winking as if to say ‘No one will know’. I responded by signaling that someone above – God – will be angry with me.

Ah, signaling, and a lot of weird hand gesture. It always fascinated me how two people can converse without a common language. It was trying, having to make conversation without knowing any single word, but somehow we made it work. What started with the usual – name, place of origin, my next destination – steadily progressed into our worklife, the childrens’ name, our family, our hometown and one topic that never failed to crop up no matter how many thousands miles away from home I was travelling - my marriage status. Part of the conversation went like this:

He touched his two index fingers together, then pointed at me.
Translation: Are you married?
I showed him my ring finger. No ring.
Translation: Nope, still single.
He pointed to next door, my friends’ compartment, and again touched his two index fingers together.
Translation: They are not your husband?
I just laughed, which means “What nonsense” and shook my head, while putting my right palm on the left one, and wrapped the fingers around, much like a nasyid singer did.
That gesture translated to: Just friends.
He then said “Urgench” which was our destination and his hometown, pointed at me, put his index fingers together and said “Husband”. “You should find a husband in Urgench”. The he laughed really loud, perhaps from the alcohol, or from the sheer hilarity of his idea.

(I find it hilarious, because I was the one teaching the word ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to them barely a few minutes earlier, along with ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, by pointing to each of his family members. See how useful our little English lesson was?)

Good Morning!

I did not get to read the book I brought as planned, because every waking moment was spent eating, drinking tea and ‘conversing’ with my super-friendly compartment-mates. I felt tired eventually and longingly thought of laying on my bunk bed above with my iPod on, but was too polite to ditch the party. So I stayed on until everyone decided to go to bed, only to wake up the next day and started the festivity all over again. This was seriously my most jovial train ride ever. Even Anvar and Sulfiya overcame their shyness and posed for my camera, and allowed me to play with them at the corridor.