Tag Archives: Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan Reflections

Uzbekistan does not make it easy for most nationalities to visit. My Letter of Invitation and Visa cost AUD$650 and took a month to obtain (my passport had to be sent to Washington in the USA).   I’m guessing this must be easier for French and Germans, as they seem to make up the largest number of tourists here.  In fact, most tourist stall holders will speak to you in French before they try English.   You also have to guard with your life the pieces of paper that each hotel gives you verifying your stay with them.

Uzbek bureaucracy - Uzbekisatan

Be prepared to help young people practice their English! They will either shout a bold “hello” (or occasionally “goodbye”), or shyly say it so softly as you pass so that you only just catch it – but it is worthwhile to take the time to stop and chat.  A great opportunity to learn about the hopes and dreams of the up-and-coming generation, and to ask questions about the country and culture as well! 

Making friends - Uzbekistan

The women are more rotund than those in Tajikistan, and there is much more of a mix in the clothes that they wear. Some opt for western clothing, some opt for the local patterned tunics with pants, some for the velvet (they must really be dying under all that velvet in this heat!)

Women clothing variety - Uzbekistan

Classic image: Madrassah at sunset with birds that look like swallows swooping and circling in front of the minarets.

Madrassah at sunset - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

It is the land of blue and turquoise

Land of blue and turquoise - Uzbekistan

The sights of Samarkand (especially The Registan) are more beautiful than you can imagine

Registan in Samarkand at night - Uzbekistan

Bukhara is beautiful but feels a little like Disneyland given its focus on the tourism dollar. Definitely the best place to buy souvenirs.

Tourism - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Khiva really does feel like a museum. It is an interesting place to walk around, but very enclosed with no grand vistas.  It somehow feels a little soulless and very much geared to the tourist dollar during the day, the zombie apocalypse during the early morning and evenings!

Khiva - Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has awesome icecreams!  The iPhone 6 Plus was my favourite.  Fake banana flavour … nom, nom, nom!

Uzbek icecreams - Uzbekistan

 

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Uzbek Currency – The Som

The Uzbek Som is a crazy currency. 

At the time of writing, the official exchange rate was USD$1 = 3790 Som, which is not necessarily problematic, until you realise that the most commonly used note is 1000 Som.   And although Uzbekistan is quite a cheap country to travel in, even something that costs $5 suddenly starts to need a lot of notes!

Uzbek Som - Uzbekistan

To this end, you end up walking around with huge bricks of cash (the below is equivalent to about $35)

Uzbek Som - Uzbekistan

and spend forever actually counting out the money for whatever you are paying for.  Here is me counting out the equivalent of $10 to pay for dinner for 4 people!

 

This craziness is also suffered by the locals, who are extremely adept at counting wads of money very quickly, and vendors who literally walk around with armloads of cash.

The other interesting this is that there are very, very few (if any?) ATMs in Uzbekistan that you can use.   Perhaps this is because they can’t fit enough notes in them to make it viable, so make sure you bring USD or Euros to exchange!   Then make sure you exchange on the black market, where the rate is double the official rate (USD$1 = 8000 Som at the minute).   Where do you find the black market?  It’s really not hard … just walk around a local bazaar for a bit and any number of guys will approach you.

Happy shopping 😊

 

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Khiva – Uzbekistan

The road from Bukhara to Khiva was an interesting one.   For the first hour out of Bukhara, we were travelling through more farmland, once again playing with potholes and making slow progress.    Then, as soon as the green fields and ubiquitous civilization suddenly gave way to the Kyzylkum desert, the road magically transformed into a 4-lane, absolutely smooth, super-highway!

On the road from Bukhara to Khiva - Uzbekistan

For the next few hours, we drove at maximum speed along this amazing road in the middle of absolutely nowhere through scenery that could have been lifted straight out of Australia, if it had been tinged with a little more red.

Kyzylkum Desert - On the road from Bukhara to Khiva - Uzbekistan

I actually really enjoy being in the truck moving from place to place and just watching the scenery go by.  It is incredibly relaxing, and it allows me to retreat into my own thoughts – though this is not always a good thing.  The cool thing I discovered along this stretch of road was if I stared out of the window at the passing desert for a while, then looked inside at the front of the truck, it looked like the whole thing was shearing apart!   I love optical illusions, and this was a doozy!   The first time I saw it, I was worried I’d done something to my eyes/brain – perhaps as over-exposure to sunlight having lost my sunnies out the window to the desert (the wind whipped them off my face ☹).  So I had fun playing with this for a while 😊

However, as with all good things, our incredible road didn’t last all the way to Khiva – in fact, it reverted back to a single-lane, potholed, bouncy crap-fest as soon as we emerged from the other side of the arid region into farmland again.   What is with that?   We also couldn’t find a petrol station with any diesel, despite asking in at least half a dozen places.   Turns out that most diesel is found at people’s homes in a thriving black market – you have to take your jerry cans to fill up.  Quite an operation to fill an overland truck!

Once again, our hotel in Khiva was right in the thick of things in a wonderful location in the walled Old City (location, location, location)!   I’d read in an ancient Lonely Planet that “the historic heart of Khiva has been so well preserved that it’s often criticized as lifeless”, and I have to admit I thought I may have been the only survivor of the zombie apocalypse as I walked around the completely deserted streets at 7pm the first evening.   Where is everybody?   In Bukhara – 7pm was the time that everyone emerged from the coolness of their hotels!

Khiva - Uzbekistan

Zombie apocalypse? Where is everybody?

It did allow me one of my favourite moments in Uzbekistan though.   I was walking along one of the main streets towards the Kalta Minor Minaret (short minaret) and there was what sounded like traditional local music playing.  For just a moment, I could so perfectly imagine what this place must have been like back in its heyday – with camels and market traders selling everything under the sun – my romantic vision of the Silk Road.  It was such a powerful feeling that I even took a video of it … even though the same feeling can’t be transmitted in such a format.

 

The first part of the next morning was spent doing a “truck clean” – the first since I joined the trip.  This involves taking everything out of the truck and cleaning it, and the truck itself.   Most of the group helped out with this activity, and we were done in a little over 2 hours – not a bad effort.  The funny thing was that the locals were asking the hotel manager whether we were selling things, given that we had everything scattered out on the street (drying in the sun).

Truck clean - Khiva - Uzbekistan

Spent the next couple of days wandering around the Old City of Khiva as well as exploring the local market located just outside its walls.   

Khiva market - Uzbekistan

My cook group had to do a food shop here. And yes, I tried almost all the pastries 🙂

It was a pretty chilled couple of days where I’d walk around for a while, then head back to the hotel for a while, then go out for another walk, etc.  Again, I decided not to actually enter any of the buildings/museums (none of them have information in English and there is limited information on them online) but just to wander and observe from the outside.

Views of Khiva - Uzbekistan

The most famous structure in Khiva is the unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, which is truly spectacular given it is covered in tiles.

Kalta Minor Minaret - Khiva - Uzbekistan

But tiles are not all that Uzbekistan has.  The highly intricate carved doors are also fascinating!

Highly decorated doors - Khiva - Uzbekistan

And the city wall itself was quite impressive!  I was very curious to find what looked like tombs built next to, and into the wall.

Tombs in the walls of Khiva - Uzbekistan

Khiva, not surprisingly, is also very touristy, but somehow not quite as “Disneyland” as Bukhara.  In efforts to get rid of my remaining Som, I ended up buying 2 more scarves (can never have too many) and a ceramic tile to finish off the souvenirs.  I need to leave Uzbekistan so I stop buying things!!

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Bukhara – Markets – Uzbekistan

Although the old city of Bukhara is full of Madrasahs, Minarets, Mosques and Mausoleums, it is also famous for its 3 surviving undercover bazaars, or trade domes – Taki-Sarrafon (dome of money changers), Taki-Telpakfurushon (dome of hat makers) and Taki-Zargaron (dome of jewelers).   Those who have been reading along for a while can imagine why I was so excited!  These bazaars sat at the intersections of major crossroads within the city and their domed roofs were designed to draw in cool air.

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Well, the money changers now wander the streets, the jewelers have moved to a different area, and I’m not sure what has happened to the hat makers (though there are still hats on sale) – so these amazing buildings are now given over to every imaginable souvenir for tourists.   Still a marketplace for sure, and the items for sale are definitely much higher quality than the tat in Samarkand, but somehow the offering of unnecessary souvenirs rather than essential items detracts from the experience of the place and turns it into Disneyland.   Call me a hopeless romantic for the Silk Road – it’s just how I feel.  

Modern Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Anything a tourist could want… And much better quality than in Samarkand

I did wander into one large trading place where I could imagine myself back in the day.  It was actually dedicated to carpets and suzanis (embroidered cloths) and there was a large French tourist group in there distracting the sellers – so I was free to wander and not engage with anyone.    For a start, the domed roof was incredible.

Market dome - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Watching the haggling happening in the central area gave me a glimpse of what things may have been like (though I imagine with many more people and very different items).

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And seeing all the carpets and suzanis hung around the outer rim of the building, I could imagine each of them being a small stall with people from all across the region buying and selling. 

Market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

They even had weaving looms and embroidery machines set up – though there was nobody working there during my visit.

Weaving - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The funny thing is that when the French group left, the sellers didn’t come see me at all.  I guess they only really go after the big group dollar…

In contrast, the jewelry market (when I found it in its new location) was an absolute hive of activity during the morning!  4 rows of sellers set up – some with very little, some with a lot, most with gold (Russian 14ct), a few with silver.  

Jewelry market - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I spent over an hour there checking everything out and, I have to say, I was surprised at how busy it was given the prices.  Gold is not cheap – even in Uzbekistan!   In the end, I bought a pair of gold earrings (haven’t seen anything like them in Australia and I really struggle to find earrings I like) and 2 silver rings (I’m guessing second hand and handmade given their imperfections) for about $100.

Silver and Russian Gold Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

At another place, I bought a pair of earrings that were made in a modern take on a traditional Uzbek design and got the maker to convert them into 2 necklace pendants for me.

Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Then, when I wasn’t supposed to be looking anymore, I found one last pendant that was so unusual I instantly fell in love with it.  How could I say “no” for $13?

Jewelry - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And, well ok, I also bought a raw silk scarf … because, like jewelry, you can never have too many scarves.

Raw silk scarf - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

So yes, although I have an issue with the extreme commercialisation of tourism and the need to buy souvenirs – I do partake in it myself to a degree…  I admit I went a bit berko in Bukara! :-/

The one other market/souvenir-related thing I’ll mention here was my visit to the local puppet maker.   Yes, I have a thing about puppets and I’m always enchanted by all types – from sock puppets to marionettes.

This place was about 2 doors down from our hotel and I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I entered.  Turns out, there were large posters up along the walls explaining the history of puppetry in Uzbekistan in Uzbek, Russian and English, and the puppet-maker (who was there making a puppet of course) quickly came and chatted to me.

puppet workshop - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Half miming and half talking in OK English, he explained to me the process for making the puppets.   Essentially, they are a papier mache head on a stick with moveable hands and traditional clothes.   The heads are designed, cast in a mold in a 2-step process with plenty of sanding in between, then painted.  The hands and sleeves are sewn and very stiff.

making puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Two fingers control the motion of the hands and your other hand controls the swivel of the head and shrug of the shoulders with the stick.  Here’s me being a truly awesome puppeteer – it’s harder than it looks!

 

The showroom is super-impressive with two large scenes on display.   The first is “Nasredin in Bukhara” – a local story.

Nasredin in Bukhara - puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The other depicts “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”.

Ali Baba and the 40 thieves - puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. He appears to be missing a few…

There are also loads of puppets available for sale at various price points.  

Puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I was sooooooo close to buying the Uzbek man out of this pair for $35… but managed to resist … just!

Puppets - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I absolutely loved this place and spent a huge amount of time in there smiling like a fool and being truly captivated.   If I were heading home within a month, I totally would have bought my Uzbek puppet!

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Bukhara – Uzbekistan – Madrassahs, Minarets, Mausoleums, Mosques

The drive from Samarkand to Bukhara is a seemingly never-ending display of agriculture and what would appear to be Russian commission houses (all identical).  

Russian commission houses - Uzbekistan

Along both sides of the road, an irrigated, green region fans out to a width of a few kilometres, but look a little further and you can see the arid hills lurking in the background.    At this time of year at least, the fields are all freshly prepared and there are small armies of women (mostly) working with their hands and hoes to ensure the next crop.

The old city of Bukhara– Central Asia’s holiest city – is quite compact and, given our hotel was right in the middle of it all (great location!) it was only a 20-minute walk to the furthest-flung sights.   Like Samarkand, the old city has been extensively restored (they are still working on it) and there are plenty of Madrassahs, Minarets and Mosques here to keep even the most hard-core tile-spotter very, very happy.

Tiles - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Though I did manage to find one or two places (like the Maghoki-Attar Mosque – the oldest mosque in Bukhara) that show what these glorious buildings must have looked like before the restoration efforts.

Maghoki-Attar Mosque - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Unlike in Samarkand, I decided to not actually enter any of the Madrassahs here, but rather just admire from the outside.   By far the best time to do so was between about 6 and 7am when there were very few people about, and before the tourist stall holders made their appearance (more on this in the next blog post).

In particular, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out around the Kalon Minaret/Kalon Mosque/Mir-i-Arab Madrassah complex, which is absolutely gorgeous before the crowds descend.

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

And incredibly stunning at sunset – particularly with the birds (swallows of some sort?) swooping and looping around the domes and minarets.

Madrassah at sunset - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The Kalon Minaret, in particular, was something quite different to what I saw in Samarkand.   With its 14 ornamental bands, it is believed to have been the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built in 1127, and the first to utilize the glazed blue tiles that became prevalent in the region under Tamerlane (Timur).  It is said that Genghis Khan was so impressed by the 47m tall structure that he spared it as he raged across the region. 

Kalon Minaret - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

A few of the other sites I visited in Bukhara:

Char Minor, which is hidden in the residential streets of old Bukhara.  With its 4 close minarets, it was apparently the gatehouse of a madrassah that has since been demolished.

Char Minar - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

The Ark – Bukhara’s oldest structure, a fortress and essentially a royal city within the city of Bukhara. 

The Ark - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Ismail Samani Mausoleum – with very intricate brickwork and 2m-thick walls, Bukhara’s oldest Muslim monument has essentially survived intact since it was completed in 905AD. 

Ismail Samani Mausoleum - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

Bolo-Hauz Mosque – one of my favourites, and the place of prayer for several Emirs!   I loved the extensively decorated wooden roof held high above the ayvan (traditional verandah) by 40 carved wooden pillars.   It was like looking at a mosque through a forest of trees, and I spent ages sitting there admiring it.   

Bolo-Hauz Mosque - Bukhara - Uzbekistan

I sat there for so long, in fact, that a 20-something year old Uzbek guy who had come for prayer came and joined me to practice his English.   I watched as he and many other late-comers ran towards the mosque just as prayer was beginning (it was quite humorous seeing them come sprinting and cycling in from everywhere, kicking off their shoes as they approached the door) and, once prayer was over – he and his friend (who also spoke English) invited me to go for dinner with them to a great place they knew.   

It is times like these that I really resent the <5% of the population who make the world a bad place.   There is nothing more I wanted to do than say “yes” to an invite from locals to eat with them, but I couldn’t.   It was like when I was sitting on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul a few weeks ago admiring the view, but had to move on when 3 men suddenly appeared.   In both scenarios – I probably would have been fine.  But you never know, and as a girl – you have to be extra careful.  I hate it that such caution and distrust is necessary in our world 🙁 

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Samarkand – Uzbekistan – Jewel of the Silk Road

After dire predictions about how strict the Uzbek border guards would be and long it would take us to get across the border, in the end only took 4.5 hours to cross from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan with the truck, the guards only interested in what medications we were carrying.  This meant we easily made it all the way back south to Samarkand in the one day.

My overwhelming first impressions of this city are: 

  1. Samarkand is HOT! 30 degrees by 9am, and it’s not even the hottest part of the year!
  2. Samarkand traffic is absolutely, bloody nuts and they really don’t like pedestrians!

I was super-excited about visiting Samarkand, as it is the home of the Registan – for me, the classic image of the Silk Road.    Needless to say, that was the first place I headed.

The Registan

The Registan was the heart of Samarkand and the center of the Tamerlane (Timur) empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.  It is even more impressive than you can possibly imagine from the pictures – the Russians and then the Uzbeks have done an amazing restoration job!

The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

It consists of three madrassahs, and I was surprised to discover that one – the Ulugbek Madrassah, completed in 1420 – is significantly older than the other two.  

Ulugbek Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The Sher Dor Madrassah (completed 1636) is directly opposite the Ulugbek Madrassah and is still undergoing restoration inside, but the roaring lions (that look like tigers) on the front façade are amazing.

Sher Dor Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The Tilla-Kari Madrassah (completed 1660) has a wonderful courtyard

Tilla-Kari Madrassah - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

and a very impressive mosque that is decorated with gold to symbolize the wealth of Samarkand at the time.  

Tilla-Kari Mosque - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

I love all the detail!

Tilla-Kari Mosque detail - The Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

I hung out at the Registan for about 4 hours on my first visit – exploring each of the madrassahs, and just sitting and taking it all in from different angles.   Given the fame of the Registan, I really expected to see tons of international tourists, but there were actually very few – I estimate 95% of visitors were locals.  Apparently, it is not high season at the minute, but still!

This meant that I myself was a major attraction of the site!  I felt like a celebrity as person after person, family after family asked whether they could have their photo taken with me.  I even had a baby thrust into my arms on one of these photo opportunities – the baby less than impressed with the whole thing.

Then there were the large number of young Uzbeks who were very keen to practice their English.   Many of them were quite direct in coming up and saying “hello” and asking if they can chat, and most of the time I was happy to do so.  It occurred to me after a while that this was kind of like sitting down on the Malecon in La Habana in Cuba last year … but for some reason I didn’t mind chatting here.  In Cuba, I didn’t feel like it.

Making friends at the Registan - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

While the Registan is incredible during the day, it is unbelievably beautiful when lit up at night.   Thank goodness the Uzbeks have gone for a natural lighting rather that lurid blues and greens that I’ve seen in other places.  You really could sit here and watch forever!   In fact, it was so beautiful, I returned the next night as well.

The Registan at night - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

The one disappointment of the Registan is that every room on the ground floor of each of the madrassahs has been converted into tourist shops that sell the worst kind of tourist tat you can possibly imagine.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?  There were a couple of places that sold nice things, but the majority was very much crap.   I guess the good thing is that they are hidden away for the most part and don’t detract from the vistas of the site.  And while I understand why they are there, it’s disappointing that tourism equates with buying tacky souvenirs.  How much more enriching it would be if the madrassahs were fulfilling their original purpose as teaching centres, and visitors could learn about the history of Samarkand or attend a workshop in a traditional activity of the area (e.g. embroidery of suzanis).

Ulugbek’s Observatory

Ulugbek was the grandson of Tamerlane (Timur) and very keen on education – he built the first madrassah that would eventually make up the Registan.  One of the forefathers of modern astronomy, Ulugbek made many important measurements of the heavens.  Some, such as the length of the year and the tilt of the Earth’s axis, are surprisingly close to modern measurements, and the Zij-i-Sultani, a catalogue of 1018 star positions that identified many errors in previous measurements, bridged the gap between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe.

Ulugbek Observatory - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of the Observatory he built (considered the finest in the Islamic world at the time it was completed in 1429), apart from part of the sextant track that he used to make his measurements.

Ulugbek Observatory track - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

It must have been incredible back in the day – its destruction a great travesty by religious zealots.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

The final place I chose to visit (you need a lot longer in Samarkand to see it all!) was the final resting place of my friend Ulugbek and his grandfather Tamerlane (Timur).    Yet another gorgeous building decorated with blue and turquoise tiles – how I love this architecture!

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

And inside is simply stunning!

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum interior - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

One of the things I’m loving about this architecture is the 3-dimensionality of it.  This is especially prevalent in the recesses of the arches, but also in the raised script and other design details as well.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum interior - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Tamerlane is buried in a crypt under a single block of dark green jade, and Ulugbek under a white stone.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum - Samarkand - Uzbekistan

Ulugbek’s tomb is the white one in the foreground. Timur’s tomb is the dark one behind it.

I was there quite late in the day so had a few moments (between French tour groups and large numbers of locals) where I had the place to myself.   Very peaceful.  Very beautiful.  Absolutely amazing.

All in all, and despite the heat, I really loved Samarkand.  Although each of the tourist sites was relatively expensive to enter (if you can call $4-$8 expensive), they were incredible and absolutely worth every cent and every moment spent.  

The jewel of the Silk Road certainly didn’t disappoint and the photos really don’t do it justice – I wish I’d had a lot more time there!

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