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Astonishing Uzbekistan

Hi all, welcome to my presentation on our trip to Uzbekistan.

I’ll be approaching this in a personal vein, heavier on experience and opinions than fact. Will be happy to fill in whatever gaps there are as responses to people’s queries after each day’s ‘episode’.

I will make the presentation across 5 or 6 episodes, one a day from here on in.

Today’s episode will be an introduction to Uzbekistan as a travel destination, because I have found that most people know little about the place.

In September 2018, my wife Anjali and I, along with two other friends, took a 10-day trip to Uzbekistan. A question we’ve heard a lot since then is “Why Uzbekistan?” I guess it’s because of the exotic and romantic picture that springs to mind when you hear the names of places like Samarkand and Bukhara.

It also played into our general attitude to travel — given that we have limited time and resources, we would rather use them to explore a culture we know little of, as deeply as we can.

Uzbekistan fits perfectly with that outlook. Located as it is in Central Asia, and a major hub of the old Silk Road, it is a meeting point of cultures. It is part of what used to be known as Turkestan, which is now a quintet of ‘stans’ — the others being Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrghyzstan, and Tajikistan.

It’s an historic country. The Crossroads of Asia, it has seen the influence of wildly diverse cultures — the Mongols, the Persians, the Arabs, the Imperial Russians, and the Soviets have all held sway over the region at different points of time. The influence of all of these reflect in the melting pot of modern Uzbekistan.

Comparatively closed off to ousiders throughout the 20th century, the country has taken huge leaps on the tourism front in the last couple of years. The infrastructure was already in place, and well-trained regiments of guides who speak English as well as other European languages make life a breeze for foreigners. It enjoys year-round tourism, with each of the four natural seasons offering something unique for visitors. Late September-early October, when we were there, was perfect in terms of weather that suited us.

For people like us from India, there is the additional lure of very favourable exchange rates. When we went, each rupee was worth about 110 som; a search today reveals that has gone up to close to 135. Cost of living, given the country’s communist history, is very reasonable. Our 10-day trip cost us — Goa to Goa — about Rs 1.25 lakh per head all-inclusive, leaving us with ample opportunity to haul back a treasure trove of wonderful mementoes for ourselves and for friends and family.

While there, we ate and drank sumptuously. The diet is very meat-centric, which was fine by us. But the fruits and vegetables of the region are of a taste and juiciness that you would rarely find back home. Unlike our cuisines, of course, the dishes there are sparsely spiced, leaving it to the natural flavours of the ingredients to make up for that. If you’re not too hung up on getting food a lot like what you would here, you’ll be fine.

I’m not much of a drinker, but the vodka there was just marvellous. The big Russian brands are, of course, available, but there are also many unknown names of both Russian and local pedigree that are just as good, and half the price (you can get a bottle for as little as 20,000 som, which is 200 bucks). Most restaurants keep the bottles chilled, and you rarely drink it anything but neat. The four of us would easily polish off a full bottle at every mealtime (that’s with Anjali and I drinking just a glass or two each), and be none the worse for wear the next day.

The biggest delight of being there was the welcoming hospitality of the warm and friendly people. Everywhere, you are greeted with a hand-on-the-heart “Salaam aleikum”, and it’s good form to respond similarly. But what is particularly charming — and a bit startling, given how we Indians are perceived in most places otherwise — is the huge place in their hearts for people from “Hindostan”. Everywhere we went, random passersby would stop us with requests for pictures. People would enjoin us into impromptu singalongs to songs of Raj Kapoor (the old people), Mithun (particularly “Jimmy Jimmy” from ‘Disco Dancer’), and Shahrukh Khan (the younger lot). We were literally mobbed in places, language barriers nothwithstanding.

This fondness comes not only from the closeness on historical Indo-Soviet ties, but also from at least two specific personal connections. A relatively recent one is Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose death in Tashkent in 1966 is commemorated there through a statue and a street named for him. The older one is, of course, Babur, who was born in the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan and survived the internecine battles of his youth in this region before heading out to found the Mughal Empire in the sub-continent.

Over the next few days, I will take you in greater detail through some of the spectacular sights of this fascinating country, but before I do, let me finish this introduction on a practical note. While I love to do all the research and planning for our travels, and did so in depth for this journey as well, we eventually left the organisation of the trip to Purushottam Bhagwan Associates, a travel agency in Panjim. It was a reluctant decision on my part, but as it turned out the best one we could have made. Their management of the tour through efficient, intelligent, and committed partners in Uzbekistan was invaluable in making the trip one we will hold in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

Coming up over the next few days: travelogues of Bukhara, Samarkand, the Fergana Valley, and Tashkent. Here’s a pictorial preview of tomorrow’s fare, to whet your appetites…

That’s all for today. I look forward to your responses and comments. If you have queries, I will gladly answer them later today, or tomorrow morning.

Yesterday, I provided an overview of Uzbekistan as a country and as a travel destination. Starting today, I’m going to be talking about the specifics of our trip. I’ll do this largely through photos (and there’s a lot of them!).

ARRIVAL IN TASHKENT
We flew from Delhi to Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways, a flight of about 2.5 hours. Uz is half-an-hour behind India, so the time difference has no real impact. We arrived at Tashkent airport at some time after 3 in the morning.

OSMAN
We were met at Tashkent airport by Shukhrat Ghaziev, aka Osman, who was the coordinator for our trip. He was a cheerful, bustling man, and we hit it off with him right away. He took us to the 24-hour coffee shop in a local hotel, where we hung out till it was time to head out.

TRAIN TO BUKHARA
Our experience of the country began with a real whizz-bang! The Afrosiyob (named after an ancient civilisation that existed in the region) is the only bullet train in Central Asia. It runs east from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara, that terrain being relatively flat and conducive to high-speed rail. We covered the 444km distance from Tashkent to Bukhara in a little over 4 hours.

NAZIRA-AZIZBEK BnB
We stayed at an atmospheric little family-run BnB, where we were greeted on arrival with platters of fruit, local sweets called parvarda, and toffees, along with the light, green tea that is drunk on every occasion. The blue-and-white crockery used is also distinctive.

The rooms were neat and compact, with charming little touches everywhere.

The complimentary breakfasts, served in the central courtyard, were delicious and filling.

LYAB-I HAUZ COMPLEX
The BnB is situated in a lane just off the Lyab-i Hauz Complex, which is the touristic hub of Bukhara. Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, it consists of a number of structures around a manmade pond (or ‘hauz’). Almost everything that a tourist might need can be found in the warren of streets around this complex.

Especially at night, the Hauz is a great setting for a meal of plov, the Uzbek staple and forerunner of our pulao, and somsa, which originated as sambusak in the Middle East and gave rise to Indian samosas, all of it washed down with beer.

GREAT GUIDES
The first of our city guides, the people who smoothed our path through every inch of the country, was Ravshan Saidjanov in Bukhara. As with the others who shared their time and knowledge with us, we have stayed in touch with him via social media.

HODJA NASRUDDIN
The legend of this colourful character, known in the sub-continent as Mullah Naseeruddin, is popular in the region. There is an evocative bronze statue of him on one side of the complex.

NADIR DIVAN BEGHI MADRASSAH
Behind that statue stands the Nadir Diva Beghi Madrassah, an imposing structure embellished with stunning mosaics. This combination of tall gateways and blue tilework is a hallmark of monuments in Uzbekistan.

As with many of the madrassahs in the country, the building is now used as a cultural marketplace. What were originally built as students’ cells and classrooms now function as studios for craftspersons, and the central courtyard is given over to eateries and perfomance spaces.

CRAFTS
Uzbekistan is home to a variety of crafts — not as diverse as India, of course, but still constituting a cornucopia of beautiful products that make for great souvenirs. Clay and wooden figurines — many featuring the visage of Hodja Nasruddin — colourful crockery, metalwork, textiles, embroidery, wooden knick-knacks, and a lot more are on display and sale inside this compound.

DOUBLE TAKE!
A camera crew suddenly decided that Srijit would make a good subject for some local show they were filming. In general, people were specifically taken with Srijit. Some mentioned that he looked more “Indian” than the rest of us!

THE PUPPETEER
The lanes around the Hauz are teeming with stores and workshops of all sorts. We happened upon a store whose owner makes and sells these beautiful puppets.

My companions decided that I looked like that puppet behind me.

SYNAGOGUE
Also in one of the lanes is the only remaining synagogue in Bukhara, which — as a result of successive emigrations over the centuries — now has only about 200 Jews.

That’s it for today. The rest of our Bukhara sojourn tomorrow.

Today, I’ll be continuing with the Bukhara segment of our journey. Each of the legs was so packed with experiences, it feels necessary to devote this much time and space to it. If people feel that this is taking too long and would prefer less content, please say so, and I’ll try and make the remaining legs more concise.

AROUND LYAB-I HAUZ
There are many attractions within easy walking distance of the Lyab-i Hauz complex. We bought ourselves pastries, walked through nearby arched doorways and small markets, had chai from a guy who had numerous varieties.

MAGOK-I-ATTARI MOSQUE
We photographed our shadows on the wall of the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, built most probably in the 12th century on the site of a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian temple. Across from the mosque, archaeological excavations are bringing up new features of an age-old city.

MUSICAL FRIENDSHIPS
Ever since our arrival, we had been accosted by curious tourists eager to have a word with people from “Hindostan”. This was taken to a new level by a bunch of college girls who insisted on singing Bollywood songs with Anjali and Srijit.

THE ANCIENT TRADING DOMES
Our walk culminated at the market domes under which trade has flourished since the earliest days of the Silk Road, for almost two millennia. The network of covered marketplaces were originally dedicated to specific trades. Taki-Sarrafon was the dome of money changers, Taki-Telpakfurushon that of hat makers, and Taki-Zargaron the domain of jewellers. That is no longer the case. The high domes with holes at the centre keep these spaces cool even in the punishing Central Asian summer.

TEXTILES
Much space in Uzbek markets is given to embroidered textiles. Known as suzani, this involves many different styles and techniques that are special to the region. Apart from that, of course, there are the ikat textiles that the region is famous for. You can even get a snap lesson in the weaving of those fabrics.

SHAIKH BAHOUDDIN MAUSOLEUM COMPLEX
A 20-minute drive from the Lyab-i Hauz is the mausoleum of Shaikh (or Hodja) Baha-ud-din Naqshband Bukhari, founder of one of the largest Sufi orders in the world. Naqshbandis are spread across the globe — there is a sizeable population here in India — so this is a place of pilgrimage for people from around the world.

The mausoleum is part of a sprawling complex with several other monuments. This includes at least two other functional mosques, one of which displays the day’s namaz timings through digital clocks above the door.

One part of the complex is a necropolis of graves that Naqshbandis from around the world are buried in. Fresh graves are extending the necropolis on an ongoing basis.

PLOV AT MAGISTRA
We had told Ravshan that we wanted to eat Uzbek food where locals ate, so he took us to the Magistra (meaning ‘Highway’) Hotel. You can choose the ingredients that go into your plov here — we had beef plov Bukhara style (each region of Uzbekistan has its own way of making plov, and each claims theirs to be the best), with horse meat roundels and quail’s eggs, accompanied with a herb-laced yogurt and juicy tomatoes.

THE ARK CITADEL
The jaw-dropping Ark is Bukhara’s old fortified citadel. Typical of medieval fortifications, it is a city in itself, and much wandering around is needed to go from one part to the other. Inside, one room is a museum devoted to some very old copies of the Quran, beautifully calligraphed. The walls of the room are also covered in stylised versions of verses from the book.

Much of the Ark had been flattened by earthquakes in earlier centuries, and has been restored over time. Some portions have been left desolate.

This is the royal square where the Amir of Bukhara once held audience. A re-creation of the Amir’s throne is set up at the relevant spot, but anyone can sit in this now.

PALACE OF SITORA-I-MOKHI-KHOSA
This was my favourite part of the Bukhara sojourn. This piece of marvellous architecture was created by the last Amir of Bukhara, who built it combining traditional Uzbek motifs with elements of the beautiful palaces of the Russians that he saw in St Petersburg and elsewhere. The Amir named the palace, in reference to his favourite wife, the Palace of the Star like the Moon.

The palace was built and named in honour of the Amir’s favourite wife, Sitora.

In a remote part of the grounds of the palace is a pavilion with a tank where the Amir spent his evenings with his harem watching them play about in the water. We had our evening’s refreshments next to it.

PO-I-KALYAN COMPLEX
We ended our Bukhara days at the foot of the Kalyan Minaret, at 55m once among the tallest in the world. As with most other architectural complexes in the country, the Po-i-Kalyan Complex consists of a square open one side, with a madrassah and a khanaka (a residence for monks) facing each other across it.

Tomorrow, it’s bye-bye Bukhara, hello Samarkand!

After a couple of days in Bukhara, we took the Afrosiyob high-speed train from Bukhara to Samarkand. Today’s episode will start in Samarkand.

OUR HOTEL IN SAMARKAND
In Samarkand, we were booked to stay at the Hotel Malika Classic which, though lacking the personal charm of our BnB in Bukhara, was a nice, airy place to stay. Among its most pleasant features were the diwan-like suffas (the English ‘sofa’ derives from this Arabic word) where we lounged around at night drinking coffee.

GREAT GUIDES II
Our guide in Samarkand was the wonderful Aziza Begieva. She came fully prepared, with notes to refer to, and an album full of photos. Places in Uzbekistan require a lot of walking, and Anjali was having trouble. Everywhere we went, Aziza would race off ahead, and come running back with a wheelchair that Anjali could use.

GUR-E-AMIR
The man whom much of the world reviles as the ruthless and bloodthirsty Timur the Lame or Tamerlane, is revered in his native land as Amir Temur, a great warrior and conqueror. His mausoleum in Samarkand is, apart from Registon Square, which we will come to later, one of the country’s most visited landmarks.

The exterior of the mausoleum building is covered with ornate designs of exquisite detailing.

Inside, the chamber in which his gravestone rests next to those of some of his immediate kin, is decorated in golden shades. Temur’s gravestone is made from an enormous slab of dark jade.

There is supposedly a maze of tunnels around the mausoleum, some of which are open and house souvenir shops like this one.

To one side rests a massive slab that was once Temur’s throne. Nearby stands a stone tub that would, according to the legend, be filled with pomegranate juice when Temur’s armies were to head off once again on his many conquests, with every soldier taking a swig from it as a means to build morale and reaffirm loyalty.

Rajiv and Srijit draw a bevy of curious fans.

ULUGHBEG OBSERVATORY
Temur’s fame came from his military exploits, but he was also a patron of the arts — many of the monuments that stand restored around Uzbekistan were originally built at his behest. His grandson Ulugh Beg, on the other hand, was an extraordinary man of science. The observatory that he built stands on a hill in Samarkand, and was the centre of some of the greatest discoveries and developments of the medieval era. Today, besides being a fixture on the tourist circuit, it also serves as a backdrop for wedding and fashion photo shoots!

The observatory premises are home to a small museum that extols Ulugh Beg’s scientific achievements.

Across from the museum is the instrument that was the piece de resistance of the observatory — a huge quadrant built into the hill itself, with a tiny aperture on the opposite side. Using measurements taken with the help of the quadrant, 14th-century astronomers came up with a star catalogue and astronomical tables that were more accurate than Copernicus’s, almost 100 years before his time!

ON THE STREETS OF SAMARKAND
Outside the Ulugh Beg Observatory, there’s a row of women selling homemade nons (Uzbek bread whose name is the root of the Hindustani word ‘naan’). Elsewhere, we came across this Soviet-era Lada car. Cars like these are still visible once in a while, but on the streets it’s mainly Hyundai vehicles.

SAMARKAND OSH PLOV
We had lunch at the grandiosely-named Grand Sultan Plov Centre. The osh plov of Samarkand, that we washed down with glasses of apricot compote, is less sweet than Bukhara plov. My vote remained with the Bukhara variety.

HAPPY BIRD HANDICRAFTS CENTRE
The Happy Bird Centre houses a wide range of shops and workshops where one can watch local craftspersons at work, and buy their wares. The skill levels are distinctly above average, and we managed to pick up some good crafts pieces here.

A PLEASANT WALK
The Happy Bird Centre is located near one end of a carless promenade lined with cultural venues, shopping centres, and the like. It’s a pleasant though long walk. On our way back, we took the electric carts that buzz back and forth on this stretch.

This is all for today. More of our Samarkand sojourn tomorrow.

BIBI KHANUM COMPLEX
At the other end of the promenade from the Happy Bird Centre (where we ended yesterday) is the Bibi Khanum Complex, built by Temur in honour of his favourite wife, who was descended from Genghis Khan (and therefore lent Temur a lot of cachet). It has those by-now-familiar looming gateways and turquoise domes.

Much of the complex was destroyed in an earthquake and has been rebuilt and restored over the years. Work still continues, and there are areas inside that are closed off and under repair.

On the grounds you find this enormous marble stand that once held the 1-metre-square Osman Quran, a 7th-century tome acquired by Temur on one of his campaigns.

DEKHON SIYOB BOZORI
Beside the walls of the Bibi Khanum Complex stands the Dekhon Siyob Bozori, a vast market spread across different levels.

While there is probably little that you will not get here, our focus was on the halva and dry fruits sections, both of which presented opportunities for pillage. We also marvelled at the sight of the vegetables and fruits, all of which are huge and naturally brightly coloured.

REGISTON
Later at night, we went to what is the most important tourist attraction of Samarkand (and Uzbekistan as a whole), Registon Square. The name means ‘sandy place’ and comes from the same root as the very similar-sounding Urdu word for ‘desert’. The square, lit up at night, is a spectacular sight all right, but we were hitting a sort of enormous-size fatigue. No one said it in so many words, but there was a distinct feeling of “you’ve seen five massive monuments, you’ve seen them all”.

KARIMBEK RESTAURANT
The brighter spot of our first night in Samarkand was dinner at the Russian-oriented Karimbek restaurant. A distributed establishment with several dining spaces, it had menus only in Russian. An augmented-reality Google app on Srijit’s phone that showed us automatic translations of the part of the printed menu you focussed on, came in great use in helping us order.

IMAM BUKHARI MAUSOLEUM
Our first stop the next day was at the mausoleum complex of Imam Bukhari, an Islamic scholar and holy man who lived in the 9th century CE. The complex is located at Hartang, a village some 25km outside Samarkand.

Pride of place at the complex, of course, is devoted to the Imam’s cenotaph. His actual remains are buried in a crypt under this structure.

The buildings in the complex display a wealth of superb detailing and fine craftsmanship.

While we drank in the splendours of the architecture, we were also as usual a centre of attraction for some local tourists.

TOMB OF HODJA DANIYAR
To the north-east of Samarkand are these dry dusty hills which were the site of the earlist settlements in the region. They are also where the Tomb of Hodja Daniyar — Daniel of the Old Testament — is located. Amir Temur is said to have brought his remains from Shush in Iran during one of his campaigns, but there is still a Tomb of Daniel there as well.

At the foot of the hill on which the tomb sits is a well laid-out garden. A stone pergola in the grounds houses a perennial spring of deliciously cold water, that visitors to the tomb are encouraged to drink from before heading up.

The tomb itself is in a cuboidal building across from a waiting pavilion. Daniel / Daniyar is revered in all three Abrahamic religions, so the place attracts pilgrims of all denominations. There’s the extraordinary legend that the saint’s bones continue to lengthen, and the sarcophagus needs to be extended from time to time — it’s currently about 18 feet long!

Some of the supplicants at the tomb offer sacrifices for the fulfillment of their prayers. On our way down, we came across this man expertly skinning a goat that had been offered by someone.

MEROS PAPER MILL
The next stop on our Samarkand itinerary was also outside the city — in the shabby-looking town of Konigil. The Meros Paper Mill here produces paper made from mulberry bark in a manner harking back centuries. In his memoir ‘Baburnama’, Babur mentions the river-fed meadows of Kan-i-gil, and praises the quality of paper produced by mills there. A hoary pedigree, indeed.

We were taken through the different stages of production. First, the mulberry bark is stripped and boiled in vats.

A stream running through the premises drives a water wheel, which in turn, powers a pestle that pulps the bark.

 

The pulp is sieved, layered and polished with agate, eventually resulting in coarse handmade paper.

The Meros factory shapes this paper into a variety of unusual products, including dresses and bags, which you can buy from a shop on the premises.

The mill is set in a peaceful, green setting, and it’s quite a pleasure to just sit around in the shade of the trees, sipping tea. Here we are with Aziza and our driver Johongir.

TRAM RIDE
Returning to Samarkand, we took a ride on the city’s recently opened tram line.

 

LEAVING SAMARKAND
After that, it was time to head to the city’s beautiful railway station, and board the Afrosiyob once more, for the two-hour trip back to Tashkent.

That’s it for the Samarkand leg. Tomorrow, we will head to the Ferghana Valley.

Welcome to Day 6 of my presentation on Uzbekistan.

Yesterday’s episode ended with us travelling from Samarkand to Tashkent. After spending the night in Tashkent, we headed out the next morning for a couple of days (2 nights and most of 3 days, to be accurate) in the Ferghana Valley.
This was an action-packed stint, with several distinct locations within the valley, so I will be taking 3 episodes to get this done.

FERGHANA VALLEY
The valley lies in the eastern part of the country, and is a bowl surrounded by high mountains. Whereas the western part of the country is largely arid and flat, this is more fertile land, drained by rivers running down from the mountains. It is the foodbasket of Uzbekistan.

THE OZBEKISTON TRAIN
We took a train called the Ozbekiston into the valley. The people on the train are more rural folk — this part of the country doesn’t feature on most tourists’ itineraries.

The landscape here is quite different from that on our earlier trips. The track winds through stream-lined passages between low hills. The journey took us a little over 4 hours.

ARRIVAL IN KOKAND
We disembarked at the first major station in the valley, Kokand. This used to be the seat of the Kokand Khanate, along with Bukhara one of the two major kingdoms of the 18th and 19th centuries, before the Russians invaded the region. A word here about spellings. The orthography of Central Asia place names in English is quite non-standard, and the same place can be spelt Kokand, Kokon, Qo’qon, etc, in different places. The Uzbeks, like Bongs, tend to round their vowels.

GREAT GUIDES
The earnest Aziz Odilov was our guide in the Ferghana Valley. He is an ambitious and driven young man who, in the days since we were there, has moved to a hotel job in the UAE.

One of the first things that caught our eye about him was this miniature Ferghana cap that he had strung from his backpack. We knew right away that others like it would be going back with us as mementoes. One now hangs from the rear-view mirror in our car.

The most mind-boggling aspect about our welcome to the valley was that the travel agency had assigned a bus for our first day’s transport.

PALACE OF KHUDAYAR KHAN
In Kokand, the main attraction is the 19th-century palace of Khudayar Khan. Built on a grandiose scale in 1873, with seven courtyards and more than 100 rooms, it only lasted a few years before the Russians took over the Khanate, banished the cruel and hated Khudayar Khan, and demolished large parts of the palace. Work has been on in recent times to restore some of the destroyed parts.

The Khan’s main throne room, where he would meet other potentates, has been largely restored or re-created, and also contains a 3D model of the palace as it originally stood.

As with the other monuments in the country, the palace is full of glorious little details that are a pleasure to behold.

KOKAND REGIONAL STUDIES MUSEUM
A large section of the palace has been given over to a museum of local history. Aziz gave us a detailed tour of the exhibits.

Among the displays is this picture of Central Asia’s first-ever native football team, Muskomanda. The team’s name, which translates to ‘Muslims’, was changed over time eventually settling at FK Kokand 1912 (comemmorating the year of its foundation) and plays in the Uzbekistan national league under that name.

While I happily and faithfully followed Aziz around through the museum, soaking in details, my companions goofed around or just took it easy. Philistines!

KOKAND JAMI MOSQUE
After the palace, we headed over to Kokand’s Jami Mosque, in which the main aivan or pavilion sports 98 carved pillars made of redwood brought from “Hindostan”. Even today, if any of the pillars need repairs or replacement, the wood is brought from India.

The masjid complex also houses a minaret that, at 22m of height, seems minuscule in comparison to some of the others we have seen on the trip. But what we fancied was a halva workshop in one of the rooms, from where we bought boxes of the dry fruits-studded sweet.

KORON CERAMICS FACTORY
From Kokand, we drove to the small town of Rishton, home of Uzbekistan’s ceramic crafts. At the Koron Ceramics Factory, we were given a tour culminating in rooms full of the most spectacular ceramics work.

As you can imagine, this place is ideal for photography, and all of us have loads of pictures. We also brought home a bunch of bric-a-brac from here.

They even got us to sign a visitor’s book in an environment that made us feel like delegates of some high-level mission visiting the place.

TAJ MAHAL HOTEL, FERGHANA
Finally, we landed up in the city of Ferghana, where we were booked to stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel. While the valley has ancient history, the city of Ferghana is a modern city built by the Soviets as an industrial centre. The Taj Mahal is a Russian-built establishment which reminds you of the 60s, and has no connection whatsoever with India, barring the name. It took us a while to understand how to get the room key to work!

BREAKFAST AT THE TAJ MAHAL
Breakfast at the Taj Mahal Hotel is served in the basement. We trudged down several flights of steps, and emerged into a mind-blowing space. A circular space done up fully in red, with mirrored pillars, it felt like a nightclub in some 1960s Bollywood movie.

Breakfast was a sumptuous affair of cheese, salami, eggs, and breads with cups of coffee. It happened to be Anjali’s birthday and the restaurant staff, having got wind of that when Rajiv and Srijit raucously wished her when they came down, served us a complimentary plate of plov (a little difficult to have first thing in the morning) and pastries (which were most welcome).

After breakfast, Rajiv and Srijit surprised Anjali with a birthday pastry from a bakery across the street.

After Aziz arrived — no bus today, sadly, but a comfortable van — we headed out for what we could make out was going to be a packed day.

 

FERGHANA REGIONAL MUSEUM
The first stop was at the Ferghana Regional Museum, a space that over a couple of floors covered everything from natural history with taxidermy specimens of animals and birds, through art pieces, to anthropological and ethnological tableaux.

By now, of course, we were used to having to pose with locals for photos. Once we returned to Goa, Srijit said that for days afterwards he would have twinges wondering why people on the street weren’t asking him for selfies with them.

ROADSIDE POMEGRANATES
On the way out from Ferghana, we stopped at a 300-hectare pomegranate orchard next to the highway run by Bahodur Rahimov. We sampled some delicious and juicy pomegranates and bought a couple of boxes to bring home, and some saplings to plant. Sadly, the fruits we got back were nowhere near as sweet as the ones we had there.

The name of the orchard translates to Ferghana Pomegranate (‘anor’ as in the Hindustani ‘anaar’) Agro-venture. Rahimov told us that there are about a thousand trees in every hectare!

A beautiful pomegranate-themed mural covered a wall at the orchard. Nearby stood this lovely mustard-coloured car, whose powerful engine made it a good vehicle to pull a trolley laden with agricultural produce or materials.

LUNCH AT IRAK YOLI
After a journey of a couple of hours, deep into the eastern side of the Ferghana Valley, we stopped for lunch at an open-air place called Irak Yo’li, a name that means Silk Road. We sat on a suffa, and before the meal commenced, Aziz taught us how tea is served traditionally — poured into a cup and back into the teapot thrice before the cups are filled and handed out to guests, starting with the eldest first.

The shashlyk display was diverse, and we ordered a bunch of kebabs to go with Ferghana plov, meat stews, and nons.

BABUR LITERARY MUSEUM
The highlight of the trip to the Ferghana Valley was the Babur Literary Museum in Andijan, where Babur was born. When we got there, we were very disappointed to find that the museum was closed and undergoing renovations.

We wandered around the park in which the museum stands. Up above the museum stands a memorial to the Mughal Emperor, containing soil brought from his grave in Kabul. While we were doing that, Aziz rushed up and told us to come fast. He had found the Director of the museum, told her we had come all the way from Hindostan and had been really looking forward to seeing the museum, and she had agreed to let us in for a quick tour.

The museum walls are covered with murals — a little reminiscent of the Mughal miniature style — depicting the life and times of Babur, from the days of his childhood in Andijan, through his attempts to rule in Samarkand, to his eventual conquest of Hindostan and the establishment of the Mughal Empire there.

A 360-degree view of the main hall of the museum, shot by Srijit.

The main hall also has a handful of cabinets with odds and ends related to Babur or his time. In a small room off the main gallery is a display of various editions of the Baburnama, considered to be the earliest autobiography ever written.

Down below the museum building is a statue of Babur, gazing out over the hills and fields of his native Andijan.

Aziz, as it turned out, is quite a photography buff himself, and took this photo of me with the statue and the museum behind me.

ANDIJON JOHON BOZORI
Every city and town in Uzbekistan is home to at least one sprawling market. In Andijan, it’s the Jahon Bozori (the Bozori in all these names is the same word as ‘bazaar’). Rows of non sellers line the front of the marketplace, which has the usual share of gargantuan fruits and vegetables.

Something we hadn’t seen before were these colourful versions of vermicelli.

STREETSIDE SHOPS
Though the Jahon Bozori is large, it’s nowhere on the scale of the market we had been to in Samarkand. But that was made up for by the fact that the Andijan bazaar spills into the streets and lanes around the main market. Walking down these revealed a diversity of products and services with small-town flair.

Andijan is a part of Uzbekistan’s conservative heartland, and people here are little exposed to people from outside their region. As a result, there was a lot of friendly curiosity about us.

These implements are used to roll out nons, and to prick patterns into their tops when they are being baked. When we posted these photos on social media, friends in Goa who bake immediately wanted some.

Soviet-built cars, perhaps because of their hardiness, seem to be favoured as workhorses, such as this cherry-red Moskvich 412 with an improvised carrier on top.

An arch framing a minaret marks the end of the commercial street.

FAKE COP CARS
On our way back, we saw what seemed to be police cars in the distance. When we were close, though, they turned out to be cutouts by the side of the road with flashing LED lights. They obviously serve their purpose — our driver, like others, had slowed down the moment these became visible in the distance. You never know which ones are real, after all.

TRAKTUR RESTAURANT
That night we celebrated Anjali’s birthday at Traktur Restaurant, close to the Taj Mahal Hotel. It seemed odd that it was named in such an agricultural vein, but investigations revealed that the name means ‘treasure’. We had a special bottle of vodka that night, and Anjali brought that bottle back with her. The cherry on top of the treasure chest was the bakery attached to the restaurant, which had the most amazing desserts, including these pastel-shaded macarons that we devoured.

On our walk back to the hotel, we were amused to find this reminder of home. Srijit happens to be employed in a project developing content for Medanta!

That ends our second day in the Ferghana Valley. Tomorrow, I will talk about our last day in the Valley, and our return to Tashkent.

In today’s episode, our stay in the Ferghana Valley comes to a close, and we return to Tashkent. This episode has fewer ‘stops’, but delves deeply into a couple of them.

YODGORLIK SILK FACTORY
Our last day in the Ferghana Valley took us to the town of Margilon, not too far north of Ferghana. Our first stop there was at the Yodgorlik Silk Factory, which has been functioning since 1972. The name, that has the same etymology as the Hindustani derivative ‘yaadgaar’, means ‘heritage’.

We were taken on a detailed tour of the factory. The first step in the production line is the extraction of silk from silkworm cocoons. Okhunova Inoyatkhan, who showed us how it’s done, has worked here since 1983 — she told us that, for the last 35 years, she has used the same stick to stir the vat in which the cocoons are boiled!

Her colleague Masturna was less communicative.

Next, the silk threads are processed and go into the dyeing chamber, where we found a forbidding-looking man working in a daunting setting.

A wide variety of natural ingredients are used to make dyes of different colours.

One unit is known as ‘abrband’, which literally means ‘cloud-tied’. This section produces a variety of ikat fabrics and handwoven carpets. In another room, suzani embroidery is added to some of the fabrics.

Elsewhere, a team of young women have the painstaking job of weaving handloom carpets.

Finishing the carpet using a tool known as the panja, meaning ‘hand’, a name derived from its form and function.

There’s a separate section for producing finer fabrics, using both handlooms and machine looms.

The finished products are shipped to buyers around the world. Some of them land up in the factory shop.

We went a little crazy buying stuff here. You can’t visit the heart of the Silk Route and not come away with silk goods, can you?

MARGILON KUMTEPA MARKET
As our trip was coming to an end, shopping was high on the agenda on this day, and the next stop offered ample opportunities. The Kumtepa Bazaar is like a small village in itself, and there seems to be nothing you can’t get here.

Everybody comes to Kumtepa.

The market is a kaleidoscope of visual delights.

The caps that the Ferghana men wear are a staid black-and-white. Women’s caps, on the other hand, are dazzling in their colourful designs and embellishments.

We all picked up sets of the blue ceramics that we had had so much tea out of throughout the trip.

A local variety of cheese called kurt (pronounced ‘kurrut’), which is sold in many sizes, shapes, and flavours, was another popular purchase. The sight of Indians buying kurt caused quite a crowd and a commotion.

TRAIN TO TASHKENT
After a relatively nondescript lunch at a small cafe, we caught the Ozbekiston train from Margilon station for the 4-hour journey back to Tashkent.

By the time we arrived in Tashkent, night had fallen.

HOTEL LE GRAND PLAZA
In Tashkent, we stayed at the Hotel Le Grand Plaza. Originally a Tata property, the hotel is popular with desi tourists as it has an Indian restaurant, and is very well located vis-a-vis night life. None of us had taken an exterior photo of the hotel, so I’ve borrowed one from the Internet. This is the only picture here that isn’t from our trip collection.

The Indian connection of the hotel is visible in the imagery on this screen in the lobby.

DINNER WITH OSMAN
The road across from the hotel is lined with restuarants, most of them rather pricey by Uzbeki standards, and none of them serving specifically Uzbek cuisine. We had dinner at one of the fancy ones with our friend, philosopher and guide, Osman.

Turning in for the night
Tomorrow, we will end this journey with a jaunt around Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.
Shabba kheir!

Our last day in Uzbekistan was spent taking in what Tashkent had to offer. We finish this long journey of the past 9 days with an account of those experiences.

GREAT GUIDES
Our guide in Tashkent was called Naeem. A promising career as a wrestler had been cut short due to family difficulties, and he had opted to become a guide instead. Naeem was a sweet kid not much exposed to the outside world.

SHASTRI STATUE
Naeem took us first to the Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial on Shastri Street. He was at pains to explain how the former Indian PM was held in high regard in Uzbekistan as a symbol of Indo-Uzbek relations, and how people there believed that there was a Chinese hand in his sudden death in 1966.

HOTEL UZBEKISTAN
Tashkent was a small outpost on the edges of the Bukhara and Kokand Khanates in medieval times, but by the mid-19th century had grown into an important city. It was the Imperial Russians, who invaded the region in the 1860s, who promoted it to capital status. The city was further developed by the Soviets, whose Brutalist architecture is everywhere. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the design of the looming Hotel Uzbekistan, with more than 250 rooms spread over 17 floors.

AMIR TEMUR SQUARE
The Hotel Uzbekistan and its nearby Forums Palace, built in 2009 as a venue for top-leve state events and international summits, overlook Amir Temur Square.

Pride of place in the park, of course, belongs to an impressive bronze statue of Amir Temur on horseback.

TASHKENT METRO
Tashkent has an underground Metro that was started in 1977, the only subway system in Central Asia till one opened in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2012.

As is the case with its predecessor in Moscow, the stations are beautifully constructed, with chandeliers and other marvellous display elements. Some stations have specific design themes, such as the Kosmonautlar, with its focus on the Soviet space programme. Sadly, it wasn’t one of the stations that we passed through.

The trains themselves are a little old-fashioned and quaint compared to more recent systems such as the one in Delhi. On the other hand, they are nowhere near as crowded.

INDEPENDENCE PARK
We took the subway from Amir Temur station to Mustaqillik Maydoni (yes, Maydoni as in ‘maidan’), a name that means Independence Square.

The station opens up at the base of the grand gateway into the square, which is actually a 12-hectare park.

The gateway is topped with a slightly confusing sculpture. We were told it depicts three storks, which in Uzbek culture signify peace and prosperity, circling a globe.

The tree-filled greens and clean pathways make the park a pleasant place to wander about in.

The park contains several monuments, such as the one you see in the background here, which is dedicated to the Independence of Uzbekistan.

WW2 MARTYRS’ MEMORIAL
A more significant, and moving, monument is the memorial to Uzbekistan’s war dead. The country lost somewhere between 1-2 million of its young men and women in what the Soviets referred to as the Great Patriotic War — the Eastern Front of the Second World War. The names of the dead and missing are listed on great golden pages in a long gallery segregated by region.

This roll call of lost children stands next to an evocative statue of a mother waiting for them to return. In front of her is an eternal flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Of all the incidents of posing with the locals that we went through in Uzbekistan, this one was the strangest. A mother who was there with her toddler kid suddenly handed it (I have no idea whether it was a boy or a girl) to me for a picture to be taken. We refer to this photo as my secret Uzbek family.

Around the outer periphery of the Independence Park is a sylvan walkway with immaculately-tended and landscaped flowerbeds.

Naeem pointed out this cultural centre where, he told us proudly, Mithun Chakraborty had once performed.

SHAHIDLAR XOTIRASI MEMORIAL COMPLEX
Our tour of Tashkent centred around monuments and memorials. The next stop was at the Shahidlar Xotirasi Memorial, a monument to the victims of repression that Uzbekistan faced during Stalin’s regime.

The park around the memorial features fountains and a waterway.

MONUMENT OF COURAGE
In 1966, Tashkent was hit by an earthquake epicentred in the city, which flattened most of the city’s buildings, including a lot of the historic landmarks. The Monument of Courage commemorates this disaster.

The centrepiece of the monument is a statue of a heroic couple shielding their child from the earth opening up in front of them.

A fractured granite cube depicts the date and time that the quake hit.

The backdrop of the square is a metalwork mural depicting the rebuilding of the city, which pays tribute to all the neighbouring countries whose artisans and tradespersons joined in in the reconstruction efforts.

TASHKENT PLOV AT OLD CITY PUB
Naeem took us for lunch to the Old City Pub, whose exterior is quite at odds with its interior.

As with most other restaurants where it is served, the plov is cooked in voluminous vessels in the open, and you can watch it being made. You can also specify what particular ingredients you would like more, less, or none of in your serving.

CHORSU BOZOR
Afterwards, we spent a little time at the Chorsu Bozor, Tashkent’s main multi-level market. The favourable exchange rate, low costs and high quality of products, particularly chic clothing (not in evidence in this photo), make shopping a profitable and rewarding activity in Uzbekistan.

FAREWELL TO UZBEKISTAN
The day in the company of Naeem was our last in Tashkent. Early the next day, Osman saw us off at the airport, and we flew home via Delhi.

As you must have understood from the tone of my presentation over these past few days, the Uzbekistan trip was a hugely enriching and memorable one for all four of us. Reliving it here — especially going through the photos and my notes as I prepared this presentation — has brought it all flooding back.

Thank you, Lynn, for asking me to do this, and thank you everyone for your indulgence and appreciation.

Aniruddha Sen Gupta

shared his Astonishing Uzbekistan travelogue on the Let’s Travel whatsapp group on 14th May 2020.
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