Saturday 16 February 2019

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Tashkent is the capital of beautiful Uzbekistan, an apparently modern metropolitan, yet one of the oldest cities located on the great Silk Road, holding its immense significance as the political, economic, cultural and scientific center of the rapidly developing nation. Unlike bustling capitals of most other Asian countries which are often too overwhelming for first-timers , Tashkent offers a much more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere to outsiders. Islam Karimov Tashkent International Airport, the port of entry for most foreign tourists, is itself compact enough to be explored on a pair of flip-flops. Remember, do not click photos of the airfield as it is prohibited. As you clear your immigration and step out of the airport, there won't be any herd of pushy taxi drivers to bewilder you.

When I and my friend failed to trace the tour guide who was supposed to wait outside the arrival area with a placard, we were kind of frustrated and clueless. Evening was fast filling the sky. Winter chill was making its presence felt. Communicating with locals seemed a bit difficult. To top it all, we had no local SIM. It was a cab driver who came to our rescue. In the beginning, we misjudged his friendliness as some swindling motive. But, we were very wrong! It was our first encounter with the unexpected Uzbek hospitality. Before you take a drive into the city of Tashkent, I recommend you to go through the ideal 7 days Uzbekistan itinerary I had blogged earlier, and also valid reasons for you to backpack Uzbekistan.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Typical winter landscape outside the city limits of Tashkent.
Encasing in herself a huge treasure of history and traditions, Tashkent endows its tourists with a proper trailer of the true spirit of Uzbekistan. In my itinerary blog I had expressed my regret for visiting Uzbekistan on a conducted tour. We had to indulge ourselves with the luxury of Hotel Le Grande Plaza for five days and pacify our gastronomy hunt with their huge continental buffet. Look, I am not complaining. Le Grande Plaza is a neatly maintained 4-star hotel in Tashkent. But, being a backpacker I prioritize local flavor over luxury, which can be best imbibed by staying in small hotels or home-stays. There is no dearth of such budget accommodations for solo backpackers in Tashkent, starting from 15 USD, or much lesser if one is flexible with dormitories.

Our promised itinerary had a full day dedicated to Tashkent city tour to give us glimpses of the Independence Square, Tashkent Broadway, Amir Timur Square, Monument of Courage, Romanov Prince Duke Residence, Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater, Memorial to the Victims of Repression, Tashkent TV Tower, Hazrati Imam Complex and Japanese Garden. But in reality, our tourist guide from Dook Travels took us to half of them. Although I can't vouch for it, whatever info I could retrieve from the Cox & Kings group, they had a more meaningful Tashkent city tour.  I suggest you, do not opt for any travel package for exploring Uzbekistan. It is really that simple and safe to travel. Still, if you are too apprehensive to travel on your own, at least be smart enough to avoid Delhi based Dook Travels, or Dook International.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Street artists on the Tashkent Broadway who can sketch your face in minutes. 
The first step of exploring Tashkent is grabbing a city tourist map and activating your mobile Internet with a UMS SIM card. The Tashkent metro, with its extensive 3 routes, exquisitely decorated 29 subway stations and uninterrupted reliable service, is a potent transport system of the city, connecting most of the tourist attractions. But trust me, it is not so easy to exploit the metro communication in a single day unless you're familiar with either Uzbek or Russian. You shouldn't miss out a brief metro ride though. Best approach for a backpacker is to sort out city attractions as per his liking, circle them on the map, note down distances between each two consecutive sites using Google-Maps and hire cab separately for every segment.

What I saw, it costs around 8,000-10,000 UZS (Uzbekistani So'm) per 3 km taxi ride. In my humble opinion, hop on and hop off is probably the easiest, most comfortable, personalized and pocket-friendly way to explore the capital. Here I'll suggest few city attractions worth visiting, so that you can sort out and design your own Tashkent city tour plan. Oh, did I tell you that Tashkent is quite sunny? Do not forget to carry your pair of goggles, cap and sunscreen lotion. Although Uzbekistan is a secular and democratic country, carry your good sense along with you while visiting their historical, cultural or religious sites.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
The bronze statue of Amir Timur sitting on the horse built in the center of the Tamerlan Square.
Mustakillik Square, also called Independence Square is the largest square of the Republic of Uzbekistan. In last several years, its face has changed, not only in style but in meaning. It remains the most important square in the country, a symbol of freedom and independence, and a place of worship, where the hopes and dreams of Uzbek people are expressed. The Monument of Independence, a large bronze globe with outlines of the borders of the state, marks the sovereignty of Uzbekistan. Interestingly, the engraved territory of the Republic doesn't depict the geographical location of the country, because it symbolizes the desire of the young independent state to join the world community and gain recognition among others.

Tamerlan Square, also known as Amir Timur Square is situated in the center of Tashkent city, with a giant statue of Amir Timur, a great general and statesman of Transoxiana of 14-15th century, recognized as a national hero of Uzbekistan, posing on a horse back. Previously, Amir Timur Square was established in front of Turkestan Military District Office. Presently, Tamerlan Square has been relaid, and you can find several administrative buildings and prominent structures surrounding it, like- Palace of International Forums, State Museum of Timurids History, Alisher Navoi Theater etc. I bet, Hotel Uzbekistan situated just behind the Timur's statue shall definitely grab your attention. By chance, if you manage to find a top floor room at 50 USD (in some online deal), I would say- go and taste the Uzbek classic.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Charvak Lake resembles so closely to those high altitude lakes over Tibetan Plateau!
Museum of the History of Timurids, established back in 2006 is one of the most important landmarks of the Tashkent city. The building of this museum is a fine example of oriental architecture with huge blue dome and richly decorated interior. This museum has aggregated more than 3,000 exhibits comprising- paintings, historical documents related to the life and activity of Amir Timur, unique manuscripts, weapons, apparels, utensils, coins etc, which depict a lot about the ancient history of the region. I am not much into museums, but if you love visiting them, make it a point to inquire their opening hours beforehand. The Museum of Applied Arts, exhibiting more than 4,000 pieces of traditional Uzbek ceramics, wood carvings, jewelries, metals, fabrics etc might also intrigue you. If you're a museum guy, do check out the State Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan as well.

The Opera and Ballet Grand Academic Theater named after Alisher Navoi, is one of the leading centers of performing arts in Central Asia, where countless famous singers, musicians, artists and conductors have performed till date. This is one of the three, out of 700 theaters that were given the prestigious status of 'Grand' in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The artists of this theater have graced the stages of La Scala, Milan, The Paris Opera, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan, the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky etc world famous theaters, to mention a few! Alisher Navoi Theater's building is an architectural monument of mid-twentieth century, depicting the wonderful world of the national folk art.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Intricate wood carvings on the pillars of Monument of Memory and Honor. 
The Television Tower of Tashkent is a 375 m tall tower, visible from most part of the city, at least from from my hotel balcony. Constructed out of steel, it is of a vertical cantilever structure. This colossal structure was the 3rd tallest tower in the world till 1991. Till now, it is probably the loftiest structure in Central Asia and belongs to the World Federation of Great Towers, ranking as the 8th tallest! This tower has an observation deck. To take visitors to the top (not literally though) of the TV tower, 3 high-speed elevators are functional, which rocket tourists to a height of about 100 m in just few seconds. Visitors are free to enjoy the panoramic bird's-eye view of the green Tashkent city from the observation deck, and proceed to the rotating Koinot Restaurant if they wish to make the experience more memorable. Nothing is 'free' about this whole thing. About 5 USD is charged for the observation deck. It is understandable that food in such restaurant shall be expensive.

If you want to experience the real excitement of shopping in Tashkent, make sure to head onto the oldest market, called Chorsu Bazaar, the soul of social life of Tashkent since many centuries. The blue domes of the construction resemble frozen clouds, striving for infinitely free sky. Located on the great Silk Road, few hundred years ago, Chorsu Bazaar was the busiest trading point in the center of Asia. This farmer's market specializes in everything from jewelry, pottery, clothes, handmade souvenirs, varieties of meat, traditional bread, sweets, dried fruits, kitchen herbs, juicy fruits, organic vegetables, and "what not?".

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Illuminated Tashkent TV Tower as visible from my hotel balcony post sunset. 
Old town of Tashkent is located 4-5 km away from the center, northwest of contemporary downtown. There you can visit the Hazrati Imam complex which has high religious as well as historical significance, as it contains a priceless treasure- 1,300 years old Caliph Uthman's only surviving manuscript of Quran, regarded as the oldest extant Quran, the authenticity of which has been confirmed by UNESCO. If you have time, explore different monuments inside the Hazrati Imam complex- the Madrasah of Barak Khan, Tilla Sheikh Mosque, Mausoleum of the Saint Abu Bakr Kaffal ash-Shashi and the Islamic Institute of Imam al-Bukhari, where future preachers are taught.

The Mausoleum of the Saint Abu Bakr Kaffal ash-Shashi is one of the revered sacred monuments of culture and architecture in the Islamic world. This is the central mausoleum in the complex Hazrati Imam. Abu Bakr Kaffal ash-Shashi was a renowned Quran expert, mystic poet and wise thinker, some of whose works have survived till date. His burial place is considered sacred. The Minor Mosque, one of the relatively new architectures of Tashkent, built in the new part of the city is one of the favorite spots of locals for evening strolls.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Abundant snowy slopes make Chimgan an ideal skiing resort in winter.
The Mausoleum of Yunus Khan of Moghulistan, a former ruler of Tashkent and descendant of two great generals who had conquered the world- Genghis Khan and Amir Timur, shows influence of Iranian architecture, is the abode of dervishes and wandering pilgrims. The Mausoleum of Kaldyrgach-biy has an equally interesting past. Its architectural forms do not correspond fully to the standards of the local architects of that time! If you go out on a mausoleum hunt in Tashkent, a single day is simply not sufficient. I know I have been injecting high dose of history and architecture into this article. But, if you are least interested on history, I'm afraid Uzbekistan might not be your suitable travel destination. Let me tell you about Zangi-ota, before coming up with the naturally scenic portion of Tashkent tourism.

Zangi-ota, a cult memorial complex located some 20 km away from the center of the city, is where the body of Sheikh Ay-Khoja is buried. Sheikh Ay-Khoja was an esteemed sage, exceptional theologian and one of the propagators of Islamic faith in Central; Asia. The complex consists of a large mosque, 'Namazgokh', the dome of which can be seen from different sides of the complex. This memorial complex of Zangi-ota is considered very sacred by every pious believer. Thousands of pilgrims from different cities of Uzbekistan, as well as from all over the world, visit this mystical place round the year with a common belief that their prayers shall be answered.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Beautifully maintained Tashkent railway station from where you board intercity trains.
Whatever little I have mentioned so far will take at least 3-4 days to cover. So, choose no more than 5-6 city attractions as per your preference to cover in a single day. Most popular day trip from Tashkent, especially among local tourists is a visit to Chimgan Mountains and Charvak Lake. Although, the distance from Tashkent is merely 100 km and there is excellent highway connecting them, the option of public transport is bare minimum. Good part is, numerous local travel companies conduct this trip from Tashkent and you can easily opt for the one quoting you the best rate. As we left the city limit of Tashkent, we were greeted by an extremely rejuvenating rural winter landscape, comprising myriad leafless trees, snow-coated farmlands, occasional settlements, colorful traditional cottages, surrounding an exceptionally broad and well-maintained highway. Every moment and each frame was worth photographing from our moving bus. It took a couple of hours to reach the snow-point of Chimgan.

It was quite crowded with domestic tourists. I do not remember if we arrived there on a weekend, but the queue before the ticket counter for chairlift was long enough for us to give it a pass. I suggest you reach as early as possible, and definitely on a weekday to enjoy the archaic, jerky, slightly intimidating, double-chaired ski-lift ride at Chimgan. Winter was on its full swing. The thick layer of snow was making its presence felt under my leather boots. At few places it was so slippery that a 'fall' was compulsory for most tourists. How could I have not fallen once? Abundant snowy slopes make Chimgan an ideal skiing resort in winter. Ski to your heart's content, provided you know how to glide along. Apart from the ski-lift to the mountain top, you can also enjoy sledding, snowboarding, snowmobiling, or happily appreciate the 360 degrees of mountain vista.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Tashkent
Afternoon meal time for inmates of Tashkent Zoo.
Another 15-20 minutes of drive from the Chimgan took us to the resort by the bank of Charvak. Charvak, with its alluring shades of blue and green, fortified by snow-armored cliffs from three sides, resembles so closely to those high altitude lakes over Tibetan Plateau! It is hard to fathom that Charvak is an artificial lake, receiving its water from three rivers- Pskem, Koksu and Chatkal. The area had received substantial snowfall, and it took me over half an hour to hike downhill up to the close proximity of the mountain lake. Local tourists prefer Charvak as their weekend destination except during winter months. A large number of boarding houses, recreation and sports complexes have been set up along the shore of this reservoir which wake up from slumber as the winter recedes.

As I said before, delicious food is one of the highlights of Uzbekistan. Try different types of Shashlik (Shish Kebab), Mastava soup, crispy fried Schizothorax, steamed Rainbow Trout, and definitely Pilaf when you are in Tashkent. Being a foodie I'll be glad to recommend you eateries serving authentic Uzbek cuisine in Tashkent. If you are traveling with kids and not too burdened by the popular ethical dilemma "to cage or not to cage" wild animals, Taskent Zoo can be worth visiting in the afternoon. In this blog I shared glimpses of Uzbekistan as gathered on the second and third day of my itinerary. In the coming post, I'll narrate my experience of visiting Samarkand, one of the four UNESCO World Heritage sites of the country. Do check back at your leisure.

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