Silk Road 5 – A journey through Uzbekistan

You’ve seen enough mosques, so today I’ll focus on a few curious situations I came across while travelling in Uzbekistan.

Change for 100 $

The first thing you do upon arrival in Uzbekistan, like anywhere else, is changing currency. You need to go to the black market, because official exchange rates are ridiculous. However…Beware! You can’t just go with a wallet, since the wad of banknotes you’ll receive will be really bulky. For a 100 US$ note you’ll get about 380,000-385,000 som. The Government doesn’t print notes of a higher denomination than 1,000 som, so you’ll pack at least 380 notes. Take a bag!! 🙂

Most travellers go to the capital, Tashkent, sooner or later. It is a city laid on a Russian style, with broad avenues and monumental buildings. It isn’t considered one of the “jewels” of the country (Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand). Nevertheless, many travellers stay there for some time while sorting out their next visas for Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, China or Iran. If you stay in one of the two guesthouses that cater to backpackers you’ll hear loads of terrible stories about this, because…getting the visas for Central Asia is a nightmare!!

The city is very policed, you find army officers everywhere. Sometimes they will ask for your passport or to open your bag. This is a result of the policies by current president Ismail Karimov, who’s been in power since USSR times. He is better known in the country as “Papa” (the father of the country, self-explanatory).

Tashkent

Most interesting in Tashkent are some of the markets, very colourful and traditional as elsewhere in the region:

Chorsu market

Train “Talgo”

The best way to travel around the country is by train. I had to take my first steps in Russian and Uzbek to buy the train tickets for the day in the week when I actually wanted to travel :), and also for not being saddled with the tourist train, much more expensive.

Those are sleeper trains, quite comfortable, I even managed to get some sleep. But for the first couple of hours I was really busy. As I was the only foreigner in the carriage, everybody wanted to strike a conversation with me. But since I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian and they don’t speak English, communication was rather difficult. They asked me: “don’t you speak Russian?? (surprised) Why don’t you speak Russian??!!” 🙂 That question would’ve been funny in my country, but here Russian acts as lingua franca for international communication in the region, much more than English.

I could also realize how famous my country is in the region. Of course, that is only because of football. As soon as I mentioned my nationality , they started crying: “Spain champion Europe!! Barcelona, Real Madrid!!” “Which city are you from, Barcelona or “Real Madrid”??” [sic] 🙂

Backpacker hangout. Full of cyclists!!

In Central Asia one of the most interesting things is meeting other travellers. They are totally different to those you find in more popular regions such as Southeast Asia or South America. They tend to be older (no 18-year old boys on a gap year), really interesting and with an amazing travel experience. Most of them travel for months across the region. Some Asians but most Europeans, many of them French as apparently the Silk Road is a popular concept there. What striked me most was the big percentage of cyclists. Some of them had come cycling from Belgium, Switzerland or Holland, what seems to me no mean feat.

Since there are not so many travellers and just a few hostels in the region, eventually you come across the same people criss-crossing the region. Someone you met in Samarkand could well be two weeks later in Kyrgyzstan, or someone you saw in Bukhara could be next to you in the queue for a visa in Tashkent. It is somewhat familiar, with everybody sharing their experiences.

Problems on the road

Travelling to the East of the country, towards Fergana Valley, there are no trains or buses, and shared taxis are the only option.

I couldn’t tell whether it’s my bad luck or the usual thing, but we would always have a flat tyre. We would also stop frequently for buying watermelons, cheese or anything else along the road, so you need to take it easy. As it was Ramadan at the time, at sunset we would stop for breaking the fast with a big dinner (even though many Muslims here are not strict with Ramadan).

I arrived to Kokand, the first important city in Fergana and former capital of the Khanate. This region is known for being more conservative and Muslim than the rest of the country.

Khan’s Palace, Kokand

The next cities in my route were Fergana and Andijon (infamous for the massacre of anti-Karimov Islamic protestors in 2005). After that, I crossed the frontier to Kyrgyzstan and I continued my journey through the Fergana Valley. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

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Silk Road 4 – The majestic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand

Bukhara and Samarkand are probably the two most visited and famous cities in Central Asia. And rightfully so, as their mosques and madrassas show a mesmerizing collection of azure mosaics, turquoise domes, rich tile work and tall minarets, Islamic architecture at its most elegant and refined. It is not just one or two major sites, both cities are loaded with vast madrassas, mosques and old markets. But if you visit Bukhara in the summer, remember, it is really hot!! Hard for those muslims who were fasting on Ramadan.

I first visited Bukhara, which already in the 9th and 10th centuries was at the heart of Islamic culture and religion. Scholars such as Avicenna studied in the city. The fortified Ark used to be the residence of the Emir, and also housed a mosque and a prison. Leading to the Ark is Registan, medieval Bukhara’s main square, where, infamously, frequent executions were performed (including two British emissaries in the 19th century).

The Ark

Probably the most well-know landmark in the city is the Kalon Minaret. Even Genghis Khan was impressed by its height and beauty, and he spared it from destruction when his forces razed the whole city to the ground in 1220. A little tilted, it still stands today next to a mosque that was added later (the original didn’t escape Genghis Khan).

Kalon Minaret and Mosque

Opposite the Kalon Minaret is the vast Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, also a good example of beautiful Islamic architecture and turquoise domes. It still works as a madrassa to this day.

Mir-i-Arab Madrassa

After a few days, I left hot Bukhara really impressed by its sheer beauty, and continued my journey to the other highlight in Central Asia: Samarkand. Perhaps no name is so evocative of the Silk Road to Europeans, just hearing it echoes exoticism, grandeur, beauty. Among those who helped spread the legend was Ruy González de Clavijo, a Spanish traveller and writer sent as an ambassador by King Henri III of Castille to the court of Tamerlane. A central street in Samarkand is dedicated to his memory.

The Registan is the most famous square, and the heart of the city. It is surrounded by three awesome mosques and madrassas. There are a few benches outside the square where people gather for watching sunset over this impressive setting:

Registan square

Shir Dor Madrassa in Registan square

Inside the Tillya Kari Mosque you can appreciate the beautiful tile work in gold and blue. There is also an exposition showing photos of how the city used to look pre-1940’s: the buildings crumbling and the Registan full of merchants. Now everything is restored, and some people complain  that too much, losing character.

Tillya Kari Mosque and Madrassah

Also in Samarkand is the mausoleum of several Timurid leaders, including Tamerlane, the great warrior and founder of this vast empire.

Gur Emir Mausoleum

Mausoleum at Shakh-i-Zinda

The necropolis of Shakh-i-Zinda contains a series of highly decorated mausoleums located in a narrow alley.

The original and holiest shrine is dedicated to Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. Tamerlane and his grandson Ulugbek buried family members in its proximity, expanding the ancient site.

Shakh-i-Zinda is an important place for pilgrimage, and you can see muslims praying in the shrine.

A little further from Shakh-i-Zinda is Ulugbek’s Observatory. This ruler of the Timurid empire was also famous as a scholar and as an astronomer. He managed to compile a star atlas with over a thousand stars.

Alongside Bukhara and Samarkand, the third highlight of the country is the city of Khiva, but I didn’t reach it because I felt I had had a good sample of Islamic architecture with these two, and time is always scarce. I’ll tell you more anecdotes about travelling in Uzbekistan in the next post.

Hey, after seeing this pictures, any reader added Uzbekistan to his/her travel wish list?