March 2013 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Our arrival into Tashkent was smooth and easy, a definite difference from the horror stories circulated online and in travel books. Based on everything we’d read, we were anticipating long lines and a frustrating and perhaps invasive questioning and luggage search at customs, however, our experience was quite the opposite. We waited in a somewhat disorderly line for about ten minutes to have our passports checked and then perhaps 20 minutes for our luggage to appear on the conveyor belt – and that was the most difficult part of the ordeal. Once we had our bags, we walked directly up to customs where there was no line at all. The customs officer checked our papers and then scanned our bags. The only minor issue was a slight miscommunication between the officer and Angie in which she had attempted to indicate that we were carrying medicinal drugs but the officer thought that she had claimed psychotropic drugs.  The somewhat startled look on his face in reaction to Angie’s claim soon disappeared when she said “no, medicines, medicines” and then produced the medications from her bag.  He looked them over and may have even cracked a smile at the miscommunication (though we’ll say he remained emotionless as we don’t want to get him fired…or worse).  It was about a 5 minute process through customs. It all went quite smoothly and the people were kind and friendly.

We were quite happy we chose to have a driver pick us up  from the airport. Kanat was a friendly, english-speaking man who gave us some basic information about the area, as well as helped us with money exchange, though we later found his exchanged rates to be ever so slightly less advantageous to us than the actual black market exchange rate.  He drove us straight to Gulnara B & B, which we would have definitely had trouble locating – there are no real street signs in Tashkent and this guesthouse is in the old town on one of many seemingly identical backstreets west of chorsu bazaar. It was really helpful to have the ease of pick up from the airport and a warm welcome and run through the orientation of the city upon arrival.

Gulnara B & B was a enjoyable place with a friendly family staff. We had a double room for $42 per night (dorm beds were going for about $26), unfortunately about the most inexpensive rate you will find in Tashkent (and almost anywhere in Uzbekistan). It was a comfortable room, with a decent breakfast included and the family running the joint was pleasant.

We visited a number of places in Tashkent during our 3 day stay, including a few visits to the nearby chorsu bazaar, the city’s largest marketplace.  Each place we visited is described below.

Chorsu Bazaar

Chorsu Bazaar atrium

The bazaar sells any and everything – from Uzbek culinary staples like non (bread), tart dried yogurt balls, fresh yogurt, heaping piles of aromatic whole and ground spices, and meats to toilet paper, cleaning supplies and other household goods. The focal point is the large blue tiled concrete atrium which houses vendors of spices, dried fruits, nuts, cheese, yoghurt and dried yoghurt balls, rices (labelled by region grown) and pickled vegetables.  The aroma of these foodstuffs makes your nose dance about the room the second you enter the doors.

Spices at Chorsu Bazaar

Yoghurt at Chorsu Bazaar

Outside the atrium were aisles upon aisles of fruits, vegetables, non, meats and woven baskets. Presentation is clearly a large part of marketing your produce at the bazaar as many vendors painstakingly stacked and arranged items, perhaps most impressively were what appeared to be pickled tomatoes stacked vertically. The go’sht (meat) building was a filled with nearly complete animal carcasses hanging behind vendor stands, select cuts stacked on the tables in front for viewing. There were dozens of hanging sheep though most had had their tail removed – the sheep tail fat is a prized ingredient in plov, the national dish, and it fetches a higher price than almost any other cut.

Hazroti Imom

Hazrati Imom

Our first encounter with the beautiful blue tile work in Uzbekistan was at the new Hazroti Imom. The Hazroti Imom is the religious heart of Tashkent, located about 2.5 km north of Chorsu Bazaar, an easy walk.  The main mosque, the newly built Hazroti Imom itself, has two tall minarets that are easy visible from quite a distance.  The two minarets stand either side of the main entrance to the Hazroti Imom, a huge hulking arched facade covered in predominantly blue patterned tiles.

Behind the Hazroti Imom to the west is a large cobbled square, bordered by the 16th century Barack Khan Madrassah far to the east, the Moyie Mubarack Museum and the Telyashayakh Mosque somewhat oddly and not quite centrally placed in between.  The Barack Khan Madrassah was recently restored and the tile work and patterned archways are a fine introduction to this style. What were formerly student rooms circling the interior courtyard of the madrassah are now souvenir shops, something we have since frequently encountered at other madrassahs.

Barack Khan Madrassah

The Moyie Mubarek Museum is perhaps the highlight of the visit to this complex.  It houses the oldest Quran known to exist, the 7th century Osman Quran which is written on deerskin with each page perhaps measuring a square meter. The small museum also holds various Qurans and other writings from the 8th to 15th century.

History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan (6000 som/person ~$2.50)
The museum contains information about and artifacts from the history of Uzbekistan dating back as far as 30,000 years ago (fragments of petroglyphed rock) up until the present time. Metalworks and pottery from the BCs, glazed ceramics dating back to the early ADs, and Hellenic coins used under the rule of the Greeks were some of the highlights here.  There was also a display of the different cultural styles and folk heritage from the various regions and peoples of Uzbekistan.

The top and final floor was very nationalistic and perhaps took some liberties with the truth but was still informative.  There seemed to be an abundance of large font-quotes from president (ie virtual dictator) Islam Karimov glorifying the nation and triumphing its progress (and since he’s been in power for 20+ years, that’s a bit and of a self pat-on-the-back too).  Perhaps at a later date we’ll write more on our perceptions of the power structure in Uzbekistan.

While most of the individual items were labelled in english,  many of the more more detailed and descriptive placards that narrate the overall story had no english translated. We weren’t able to fully understand the content, but we were able to get an idea.

There was plenty to view here. The slight lack of english language placards (from the english speaking tourists perspective, at least) and the bombardment of quotes from the beloved president notwithstanding, this museum in was well worth a visit to help us understand the history of the country before venturing out to regions that have more of that history than does Tashkent.

Tashkent Metro
The Russians built the Tashkent metro stations to double as fallout shelters and while they might not match the lavish decor of the Moscow stations, they are certainly worthy attractions in their own right. Each metro station is different in decor and style.  For instance, the pakhtakor station is of all marble with high arching ceilings rounding together with slightly peaked domes mimicking those in the madrassahs and mosques while the kosmonavtlar station contains glass covered columns and walls covered in gray and blue glass stripes with large, odd coin-like portraits of Russian and Uzbek heroes. Every one is different and most are worth at least a look as the train goes by.

The trains themselves are baby blue and light green and appeared to be of a 50s style, probably from the Russians as well. To ride the metro you purchase a plastic coin for 700 som, and then immediately deposit it at the station entrance.

The metro is incredibly safe in Uzbekistan, largely due to the absurd amount of militsia everywhere – usually at least four at each station and usually a number on each train.  From reading previous traveler reports, we thought when riding we would have frustrating encounters with the police. However, we did not find this to be the case. The police monitor each station’s street level entrance and at times we were stopped at the entrance to show our bags, but the militsia were generally friendly and fair. Other times we were stopped by the police that monitor the underground gate by the metro coin deposit. The police here seemed more likely to ask to see your passport, but the ones we ran into were again kind. On one occasion we were able to only show them copies of our passport and Uzbek visa, but other times we produced the actual passport. We never felt pressured to bribe a militsia and the old horror stories about Tashkent metro police perhaps are as thing of the past.

Overall, the metro was a easy, cheap, safe and relatively hassle-free way to get around the city. 

Fine Arts Museum
This museum has a fine display of Uzbek art, mostly confined to the first floor though there were also some fine paintings on the third floor. The second and third floor are mostly European and Asian art and while that’s probably of great interest to the Tashkent public, it wasn’t exactly the motivating draw for us.  At the risk of sounding uncultured, I can only look at so many portraits of fat, rosy-cheeked British nobles and I certainly wasn’t overly motivated to do so in Tashkent. 

The Uzbek art section contained galleries of ancient arts that could have been just as at home in the history museum, from fragments of fancy carvings and ceramic designs to large carved wood doors and frescas. A few galleries showcased more modern takes on older arts, new ceramics, 6- and 8-pointed tables and embroidery and printing.  Lastly there were galleries of paintings, mostly from the last century and a half.  An entire room and more was dedicated to the work of an artist named Volkov, and it was easy to see why.  He showed mastery of several styles and often returned to similar themes but using a number of different styles to depict the same theme.  All of his subjects were Uzbek, mostly Samarkand and Bukhara in the early half of the 1900s.

The museum visit was a good choice, particularly the first floor and for an introduction to Volkov.

Navoi Park
Navoi park is a large green area spattered with ponds and nationalistic monuments. We wandered around the fountains and pathways, though a large part of the park was closed off for some event. While this place is probably crawling with Tashkentians, particularly in the hot summers as it offers large swimming areas, it does not really offer much to a visitor.

Independence Square

Crying Mother WWII Monument

We inadvertantly wandered into this very well-kept government square which contains parklands, the senate building, a few large statue monuments and a massive silver-plated entrance arch completed with ‘good luck pelicans’ and an impressive circling bird statue in the center. A large crying mother statue here is a memorial to those who died in WWII (400,000 Uzbeks). The square is a nice, green area, but unfortunately not really a spot you can hang around in – for instance, there are no benches at all. It’s also heavily patrolled by militsia due to it being near government buildings, and that’s never too relaxing (some of the guys near the government building carry big guns that look used to spraying bullets indiscriminately into crowds). 

Tashkent Vokzal (train station)
We thought it would be an easy process to get train tickets to Samarkand but, unfortunately for us, it ended up being a bit of a frustrating run-around – literally.

The train station complex is quite large and, as seems commonplace here, there is a frustrating lack of signage (in Uzbek or any language). We emerged from the underground metro to find people showing tickets to a militsia and entering a fenced off area that was probably the train station.  However, it took a few minutes of walking around somewhat aimlessly, then a few more minutes of trying to follow the direction from which the slow trickle of ticket holders was coming, and then finally following the pointed fingers of some helpful Uzbeks for us to find the ticket office – located a couple buildings away and tucked on the rear of a building under an overpass walkway near the bus station, completely out of view of the main road. We had finally found the ticket office. This was only the first step.

We walked in and asked the lady at booth #1 for tickets to Samarkand. She informed us the only tickets for the fast train, a shinkansen-like deal that hits 230kph and was due to leave at 8:00am, were business class seats priced at 68000 som each (~$27). We decided that this was more than we wanted to spend – we’d been expecting to pay 50000 som (~$20) for regular class on the fast train and since those were now unavailable we’d instead prefer 30000 som (~$13) tickets on the later slow train. She seemed to understand and directed us to booth #4.

The problem was that booth #1 was the only one who seems to understand.  Booth #4 shook her head and passed us to booth #6.  We lined up behind some people at booth #6 and booth #6 didn’t even let us get to the counter before she started shaking her head at us and pointing to booth #7. So we moved to the end of the line at booth #7.

When we finally reached the counter of booth #7, we asked for tickets to Samarkand.  She pointed us back to booth #1.  We tried to express, in escalating scales of desperation, that we had already spoken to booth #1 and that we wanted slow train tickets not the fast train tickets booth #1 sold exclusively, but despite our most expressive efforts – and we were resorting to flamboyant Mediterranean-style hand gestures to get our point across by the end – booth #7 kept pointing to booth #1.

And that’s how we ended up in business class on a high-speed train to Samarkand.

I’ve always wanted to end a story with that line and I wish I could, but unfortunately that’s not the end of this tale.

As we were purchasing our business class tickets (cost rationalization: its Angie’s birthday and she deserves to ride in style), booth #1 suddenly seemed to realize that the train actually was leaving quite soon.  Recall that train station and train ticket office were not exactly near to each other.  Booth #1 pointed to her watch and motioned for us to run as she handed us our tickets.

And that’s how we ended up sprinting through a Tashkent station with our full packs on, getting cheered/waived through multiple security checkpoints manned with Uzbek militsia without so much as a glance – let alone a ‘how-you-doing’ pat down – and stumbling into the business class carriage of an Uzbek highspeed train bound for Samarkand and collapsing in sweat-drenched masses into our comfy recliner seats across a table from a woman in business attire and her quite young and thoroughly startled daughter. 

Uzbek food
Meat, meat, more meat, and a sprinkle of onion on the side. These people like their meats – sheep, horse, chicken, beef – and use them in most meals.

Uzbek foods we tried in Tashkent:

Naryn – this is basically just cold Uzbek noodles tossed with horsemeat served with some raw onion.  Its really quite tasty, the Uzbek noodles are a bit more hearty than most rice noodles and are really a nice surprise when thin like in this naryn.  The horsemeat is cut into small bits and adds a really nice sweetness to the dish.

Laghman – long noodles, tomato base with meats and cabbages.  Its quite reliable but not outstanding, a pretty standard cold weather climate soup.

Platter of meat – Brett inadvertently ordered this when being given a kitchen tour at a place with no English menu so that he could pick out the dishes.  He happened to see this one half plated and it came with a lot more meat.  There was an OK lamb kofta, cabbage rolled horse meat which was quite nice, beef in vine leaf – also quite nice and some beef and rice sausages that lacked in flavor.

Money Exchange
The official currency rate as set by the Uzbek government is about 2000 som/1USD. However, no matter what the Uzbek government thinks that’s not actually what the som is worth – on the black market, we were usually offered 2600/1.

Changing USD for Uzbek som is an interesting procedure when you go through the black market, as most do considering how much more costly things would be if you just accepted the arbitrarily set government exchange rate.  Soms come notes of1000, 500, 200, and 100 so with the largest note being worth less than $0.50, you will end up with big piles of som no matter how much USD you hope to change – bring a backpack. Our first exchange was with Kanat, the driver. He offered while he was driving, and then proceeded to pull packs of som from various pockets of his coat and car. We walked out of the cab with some 500 notes stuffed in our backpack.

As we walked around towns, we were constantly offered to exchange by anyone and everyone, but especially near the bazaars. We had one exchange at Chorsu bazaar on our last full day in Tashkent. It was a quick and discreet process, less than 2 minutes. Men huddled around in a circle to ‘hide’ the actual exchange because it is illegal. Brett and the guy quickly stated their amounts. Money moved hands, and all dispersed. Apparently, Uzbeks can exchange with Uzbeks without issues, but if they exchange with a foreigner, it’s illegal for both parties. However, police were everywhere and no one seemed to be getting in trouble, though we later heard that there had been a police crackdown about a month back.  The changers are very anxious to get ride of the piles of som during the transaction, presumably because its the guy holding the wads of cash who is more likely to draw militsia attention than the guy who slipped a few 50 dollar bills in his back pocket.

One note: there is no way to count 520,000 som in the timeframe of an exchange.  The som are always stacked into bundles of 100,000 som and you can perhaps flip through to make sure all the notes are 1000s, but you cannot count.  That said, having now traded for over 1,000,000 som we have not been shorted 1 note. Honesty lives in unexpected places.

General thoughts on Tashkent
Tashkent is a whole different beast than we’d expected to find – it is every bit the average modern city, albeit with both its old Uzbek aromas and plenty of that sterile soviet style that is so easily spotted not because of any defining characteristic but because of a lack of any at all.

Of course there are the ever present militsia, but they’re merely part of the decorations, they don’t really contribute a damn thing to the city’s character.  They’re like some of the old tired buildings – left behind from the soviet area with people all around trying to go about their lives and forget they exist.

You could take the people here, the ones in the city’s business side, and put them in New York or Melbourne and they’d fit right in.  At the same time you couldn’t take the woman who ran our guesthouse in old town anywhere else at all without her feeling out of place. 

That’s Tashkent.

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One thought on “March 2013 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

  1. Brett & Angie – what a great report! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I can only imagine how many more stories you have & will have on the rest of your trip. Thanks for sharing. We will share this with Grandpa this weekend when he’s here for easter. Take care & enjoy!

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