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 — 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 Tashkent:)

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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 — 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 !:) .

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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.:)

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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The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara

On the very first day of my Uzbekistan trip last September, I stumbled across something that was to add a new perspective to my trip, and give me lots to think about. There I was wandering around the Saviksty Museum in Nukus and looking at the various works of art when I came across this painting of a “Bukharan Jew”, by Y.U. Razumovskaya (Charcoal on Paper, 1927).

Karakalpakstan Museum of Art, Savitsky Collection, Nukus Museum

It was the caption that caught my attention for I was not aware of the presence of Jews in Bukhara or in Central Asia. Since I was curious to know more about the painting and the community the man in the painting represented, I asked my guide at the museum for more information. While the guide could not give me more information on the painting or its painter, she did mention that Bukhara was once home to the largest number of Jews in Central Asia. She said that while there were still Jews living in Bukhara, the numbers had come down drastically.

That night, as I waited for my dinner to arrive in my hotel at Nukus, I read up on the Bukharan Jews. Continue reading

Monumental Bukhara: Masjids, madrassahs, mausoleums and more

The legend of the origin of Bukhara appears in the Shahnameh (or the Epic of the Persian Kings) by Firdausi.

When King Siyavush of the Pishdak dynasty wed Farangis, the daughter of King Afrosiab of Samarqand, he was gifted a vassal kingdom in the Bukhara region by his father-in-law. Siyavush, who had always liked this region for its many rivers and its location on the ancient trade route, built a new city there — Bukhara. The first structure that he built was the Ark or Arg (the Persian word for ‘citadel).

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Today, Siyavush’s Ark is long gone and another one stands in its place. Also known as the Ark, it is no coincidence that this 16th century Ark too continues to be at the heart of Bukhara, both historical and modern. And that’s why I begin this post with the Ark, for both the legend and the history of Bukhara is inextricably linked to it or the people who governed from there.

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There’s something about Bukhara !

I fell in love in Bukhara. I wasn’t expecting to, but then love is always unexpected, isn’t it?

In fact, I wasn’t expecting anything from Bukhara when I visited Uzbekistan in September 2015. I was too busy dreaming about the Savitsky Museum at Nukus, the blue domes of Samarkand, and the minarets of Khiva. Bukhara was part of my itinerary, but it was more like a pit stop in the 700+ km road distance between Khiva and Samarkand — a place to rest and relax before moving on to the city that had spun off my Uzbekistan trip in the first place — Samarkand. Therefore, my online research for Bukhara only comprised a cursory reading of its history and finalising a B&B to stay.

I arrived in Bukhara after a 7-hour drive through the gorgeous Kyzyl Kum Desert from Khiva. The journey wasn’t particularly tiring as for the roads were good for most of the distance, but after seven hours in the car, I just wanted to reach Bukhara. My first impressions of Bukhara were of a clean city with wide tree-lined avenues, multi-storied and traditional buildings existing side by side, and a very different vibe from the cities I had visited in Uzbekistan thus far.

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The main courtyard at Rustam & Zukhra

The B&B I was staying in, Rustam & Zukhra, was a charming little place and though I was tempted to rest after the long journey, I thought it best to walk and stretch my legs a bit. Within minutes, I was at the historic Lyabi Hauz Complex and was transfixed by the sight before me. Continue reading