The surprise and delight that was Tashkent

My first view of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan was at 2 am on a September morning in 2015 when my flight from Delhi landed. Of course, I saw nothing except lights !

An hour later, after having cleared immigration and customs, I was out and had my ‘second’ look at Tashkent on the short drive from the international to the domestic airport where I was to take my connecting flight to Nukus. The street lights revealed clean and broad tree-lined roads and a deliciously cool and crisp night air β€” a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of Mumbai and Delhi. A few hours later I saw Tashkent again, this time in daylight and again from the air. A green and lush city spread out below me and I could see only a few buildings breaking through that cover. I looked forward to returning to Tashkent and exploring if before boarding my return flight home.

10 days later, I was boarding the Afrosiyob bullet train at Samarqand for a super smooth and fast ride to Tashkent. But once there, I wasn’t as excited as I was expecting it to be. Maybe it was the prospect of my Uzbekistan trip coming to an end or maybe it was because the hotel I was staying in Tashkent goofed up my booking, or maybe it was because I didn’t get a decent vegetarian dinner that night. Or maybe it was all of the above.

The strange, reluctant mood spilled over to the next morning as I set off to meet Natalya, my guide, rather half-heartedly. On the way, I came across a building with colourful artwork painted on one of its walls. I can’t tell you what a mood changer that sight was and quite suddenly I was ready to explore the TashkentπŸ™‚

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The silk paper factory at Konigil

When I first came across the term ‘Silk Paper” in one of the many museums at Khiva, I was intrigued as to what it was.

Was silk paper a special kind of silk that looked and felt like paper? Or was it the other way around where paper felt and looked like silk? Or was the term used to refer to the silk money of Khorezm? The answer, I found out later, lay somewhere between all this and a little beyond.

While in Samarqand, I took a break from visiting the many monuments there to go see a silk paper factory in a village called Konigil. Located about 10 km from Samarqand on the picturesque banks of the River Siab, the Meros Silk Paper Factory is a family run unit that has been in operation for about 12 years. During my visit there, not only did I get to know what silk paper was all about, I also saw the process that went into producing them, and got the opportunity to pick up some souvenirs !

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The River Siab or the black river

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The blue city of Samarqand

Samarqand is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, and is spread over three sites β€” the ancient settlement known as Afrosiab; the Timurid portion; and modern part of the city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Samarqand is a contemporary of Rome and celebrated its 2750th birthday in 2007.

Located along the Great Silk Road at the crossroads of routes leading to Persia, India and China, Samarqand has drawn people from fields and from all over. It also attracted the itinerant travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta and purposeful conquerors like Alexander the Great and Shaybanid Khan alike. The former came out of curiosity; the latter to plunder or rule over its vast wealth. Samarqand drew me in as well, a modern-day traveler. If you have been following my Uzbekistan journey on this blog, then you will recall that it was a picture of a blue dome in Samarqand that had sparked of a desire to visit it.

I was in Samarqand for two days and got a glimpse of a fascinating past filled with myths, legends and historical events. I also saw many blue domes and many more works of art (see photograph below) that were in different shades of blue. The amount of blue was enough to dub Samarqand as the blue city and use that title for this blog post as well !πŸ™‚ .

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The Registan Square of Samarqand

The Registan Square in Samarqand is the city’s, and perhaps Uzbekistan’s, most recognised monument. In a way, it is to Uzbekistan what the Taj Mahal is to India. So it was not surprising that the Registan Square was the one place I was looking forward to visiting the most even before I set out for the trip in September 2015.πŸ™‚

It was early evening when I arrived in Samarqand after a beautiful drive through the Zarafshan mountains from Shakhrisabz. As the car drove through the city towards the B&B I would be staying in, my first impressions were of an elegant and beautiful city filled with monuments. I kept an eye out for the Registan Square and even thought I glimpsed it, but could not be sure as the one way roads made me feel like we were going around in circles !

Once at the B&B, I was delighted to find from the very handy map given there that the Registan Square was just a 5 minute walk away. So after freshening up and some tea, I followed the directions on the map and within minutes was at the Registan Square. The sun had almost set and my first glimpse of the iconic monument complex was at twilight.

Time stopped still as I took in the magnificent sight before me and I think I had tears in my eyes as well. Over the next 2 days that I was at Samarqand, I would visit the Registan Square often, and each time it would be an overwhelming experience.

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Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur

I arrived in Shakhrisabz after a 4-hour, uneventful ride from Bukhara. It was the first day of a 3-day public holiday in Uzbekistan for Qurban Hayit (or Bakri Id as we know in India) and the town appeared to be quite deserted.

Though I knew that the monuments would be open and my guide waiting for me, it was still a little unnerving to see empty streets and closed shops as my car drove into the town shortly before noon. I was surprised to see so few tourists in Shakhrisabz, especially considering the fact that it, or rather its historic city centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (inscribed in 2000). The harsh sun only accentuated the emptiness, as did a lack of green cover, which was ironical as I found out later that “Shakhrisabz” means Green City in English !

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Remains of the old city wall of Shakhrisabz and a reconstructed potion

When I met Tursonay, my guide, one of the first questions I asked her was why there were so few people on Shakhrisabz here. Her answer was quite crisp and to the point: Shakhrisabz was not as grand or glamorous as Samarkand or Bukhara. But, she went on to add, the history of the region would have been very different if not for the most famous son of Shakhrisabz β€” Timur, Uzbekistan’s national hero. And for that reason alone, Shakhrisabz was important,

And over the next 2-3 hours that September afternoon in 2015, I got introduced to Amir Timur β€” as he is referred to in Uzbekistan β€” and got acquainted with his home town, Shakhrisabz.

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Travel Shot: The hat with legs !

There I was walking down one of the many streets in the historical centre of Bukhara, idly looking at stuff being sold at the many pavement stalls lining the street. As I passed the stalls, I made a mental note of the interesting stuff that I could come back and have a closer look at later and perhaps pick up something to take back home with me. There were carpets, paintings, booklets, terracotta figurines, ceramic tiles, silk scarves, embroidered material, ikat products, hats…

I suddenly stopped at a stall selling hats. There were many hats, but one of them had caught my attention. And I stopped and stared with disbelieving eyes. I actually rubbed my eyes and tentatively reached out to touch the hat with ‘legs’ dangling from it.

#MyDreamTripUzbekistan, Bukhara, Travel, Uzbekistan, Central Asia, Shopping, Souvenir, BizarreEvery place has its share of the funny, quirky and the bizarre and this hat with legs was definitely my pick for Bukhara and Uzbekistan. I saw similar ones in Samarkand too ! It was a real hat in the sense that the fur was real as were the legs and the feet and the nails… of what I think was once a fox.Β  Continue reading