… this time, to the very heart of it!
Inspired by the half-read book ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’, we decided to go about exploring the Silk Route for ourselves. The Silk Route (or Routes) is a series of routes along with trade and cultural transmissions have occurred almost since the era before Christ, till pretty much about a few centuries ago. The land routes connected China and Mongolia in the East, to Indian subcontinent in the South, and specifically the Middle East and European continent in the West. With the advent of marine technology, the land routes that passed through tough terrains started getting utilized lesser and lesser, and parallel marine trading routes got established in the Indian Ocean. The original Silk Route is barely used in its entirety these days for trade, though local trade and commercial activities are rampant all along the route.
However, what it has left behind, is a great deal of history. Civilizations, kingdoms, rulers, conquests, cultures, languages, traditions, food, and art to name a few! Since it is almost impossible to travel the entire length of the Silk Route without having a fair knowledge of Mandarin, Persian and Russian, we decided to do it in pieces, which will get stitched together piece by piece! Last year, we visited Istanbul, the westernmost end of the Silk Route. This year, we visited Uzbekistan – at the very Heart of the Silk Route!
Most of the people stared at us with mouths wide open when we would tell them that we plan to travel to Uzbekistan, or shoot back an equally surprising “Where??”. It isn’t the first choice of destinations for anyone. In fact, it isn’t even an option for most! So what’s so special about it?
Read through Along the Silk Route: A brief history of Uzbekistan, a short blog post I’ve put up separately to capture the history of Uzbekistan. Of course, I hadn’t done this research before I chose to travel there, but I had the hints and the curiosity to explore.
Didn’t want to include it in a single long post. But I recommend you read it to relate to the rest of the post. If you are here only for the photos and travel tips, well, that’s your choice :) I’m sorry this is still a very long boring post, but then you wanted to know all about it! ;)
So the typical touristy places in Uzbekistan are about 5, namely Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and Nukus. We covered Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara over an 8 nights, 9 day long tour, our longest ever trip! It was exactly twice as long as our Honeymoon trip to Thailand in 2010! We spent 2 nights in Tashkent to settle down, 2 nights in Samarkand, and 3 beautiful nights in Bukhara, finishing off with 1 night in Tashkent before flying back.
The best thing about traveling to Tashkent, is that the flight from Delhi is a short 2.5 hr long flight. And, it flies over some of the most beautiful landscapes – the Himalayas and the Hindukush.
Tashkent is a beautiful city. Really! Russified in the 20th century, it has wide roads, green landscapes, Soviet era buildings and a very Soviet underground metro system built way back in 1980s. There isn’t much to do in Tashkent though, than roam around and enjoy the oasis city, check out the new shopping malls, enjoy walking around the green parks and take a ride in the beautifully decorated metro.
Staying at the horrible yet overpriced Hotel Uzbekistan gave us a great advantage of location. The Amir Temur Square and Tashkent Broadway are right in front of it, and a metro station right beneath! We took the metro often, multiple times a day and got off at random stations to explore different parts of the city. Tashkent definitely left me very impressed with its cleanliness, broad roads and wonderful weather!
Chorsu Bazaar, and Hast Imam complex were the two popular attractions we visited.
Our next stop, was Samarkand, a city that is most noted as the central position on the Silk Route between China and the West. It was also the capital of Timur’s kingdom. Tashkent to Samarkand is a 4 hour train journey, cut short to 2.5 hours by this new Spanish High Speed Train, named Afrosiyob! It is pretty impressive to say the least, though it couldn’t run at top speed for the entire duration since the tracks are shared with other trains. Oh, and by the way, Tashkent railway station is really pretty :)
In Samarkand, we chose to stay at a popular B&B, Jahongir, which is just a stone’s throw away from the marvelous Registan Square. What impressed us at Jahongir was the pretty grape vineyard spread over the terrace, the wonderful homemade breakfast and the most hospitable hosts :)
The Registan Ensemble, is almost the symbol of Uzbekistan today and the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand. It consists of 3 madrassas, and huge open spaces in front to relax. Today it has become popular with young couples for their pre-wedding photoshoots, and on a warm sunny day, you should be sure to catch a glimpse of at least one such shoots going on.
After his Indian campaign, Timur undertook the construction of the Bibi Khanym mosque (named after his wife), seen above. It had precious stones he had got from India. However due to ruins over the last 600 years and an earthquake in the 19th century, what you see today is essentially an almost completely new structure.
Some other sights in Samarkand include the Gur-e-Amir (the mausoleum of Timur) and Shah-I-Zinda (a necropolis) where according to a legend, a cousin of Prophet Mohammad was buried.
Our next and the final destination, was Bukhara! We took the Sharq express train to Bukhara from Samarkand. Unfortunately for us, it was “good” weather for the locals and hence air conditioner was switched off in the train for the entire journey. It got horrible, because, the outside temperature that day touched a boiling 45 C! Anyway, it was a short journey in this Soviet-era train!
Bukhara, just like Samarkand and Tashkent, is pretty much an oasis. Though they call it the Steppes, we couldn’t see any grasslands, perhaps because it was Autumn? So all the way, we only got glimpses of barren land for stretches together. The train station itself is quite outside Bukhara in a small town named Kagan. As we drove into Bukhara, suddenly the views and the temperatures started changing drastically!
We straight went to the hotel we had booked – The Amelia Boutique Hotel (you have to check out their link)! Roshnai was greeted with a very warm “Senorita, Happy Birthday” and a lovely piece of cake by the amazing host Bakhodir! Honestly, leave all the history stuff aside, the REAL reason why we traveled to Uzbekistan was just to stay at Amelia ;) ! This is an 18th century house of a Jewish merchant, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. Each of the 12 odd rooms have been carefully and tastefully given individual themes and all of the interior work has been done by hands!
Now Bukhara is a lovely city with so many sights that you need a good 3 relaxed days to go around. That is what we did! Stayed at Bukhara for 3 nights!
The Chor-Minor, inspired by our very own Char Minar, and the very popular Nasreedin Hodja!
However, the part of Bukhara that we really loved the most and spent maximum time at, was the place around the Lyabi Hauz. It is one of the few surviving Hauz or ponds in Bukhara. They were the city source of drinking water and there were many of them until the Soviet era but were filled up because of the dangers of spreading diseases.
The Lyabi Hauz survived because of the beautiful architecture around it.
Including the madrassa which is now converted into an open air restaurant where we enjoyed an evening of traditional Uzbek dance, music and fashion show ;)
The rest of the time was spent going around the bazaars, looking at these beautiful and expensive hand made carpets, and finally buying only magnets and some porcelain souvenirs
Also, made some friends :) People in Uzbekistan love India – especially Indian movies – even more especially, Raj Kapoor – even more even more especially, Awaara Hoon! Also, most of the merchandise sold in the tourist shops and the madarassas-converted-into-souvenir-shops are imported from India or China! It is easy for them to fly to Delhi, buy all the handloom and textile stuff available and then sell it to foreigners in Uzbekistan for 4-5 times the price. Some of the smarter merchants, send their original designs to Kashmir, get the things made in Kashmir for much cheaper but with their Uzbeki designs and then import them to sell in Uzbekistan. It is normal business for them, but for us Indians it just wouldn’t make sense to buy anything from there.
These two sisters even took my email ID and phone number to give it to their elder sister – who, is more proficient in English and would be making a trip to India for a surgery. They want me to take her to the local markets so that she could procure some Indian stuff at wholesale prices for their shop in Bukhara :) Neat?
Unfortunately, like shopping, food was also not a great experience for us. I do eat meat, but I am far from being a hard core meat-eater. Unfortunately, chicken is rare in Uzbekistan, and spices are even rarer. Which means, their meat is either beef or sheep and mostly bland. A few things that did stand out however, were their Naans, that you see on the left in the photo below. We mostly filled ourselves well during the awesome breakfasts we got at all our hotels, and lots of ice-cream that is generally available everywhere in Uzbekistan.
We moved out of Bukhara and back to Tashkent once again by train. This time we chose the 1st class compartment. Unfortunately again, the AC was turned off. Fortunately the temperature outside was much better! But the best part of the journey and a highlight of our tour were the 7 hours we go to spend with this guy. Rustum, our companion in the compartment, was a local guide to a group of Swedish geriatrics. He told us about the history of Uzbekistan in more details than we could have read. He also gave us short summaries about the cities and monuments we visited in the past 7 days, all without a guide and mocked us for saving a few dollars and not opting for a guide! On his recommendation, we spend our last day at Tashkent visiting the Museum of Uzbek History and that wrapped up our trip pretty much like an Epilogue!
What stood out the most for me in this trip was the mélange of the Uzbek people, their culture and their food! I could see some people looking like Russians, some looking like Koreans, some looking very much like Iranians, and some like our Indians from Ladakh! Their language, had words similar to Hindi, of course Persian, some from Mandarin and some from Russian! The food, though not much to my liking, had similar preparations to food from India, Arabia, Russia and China! We tasted Plav (pilaf), Samsa (samosa), Non (naan) and Shashlik (kabab)! The influences from all places around were clear and distinct yet the identity was one – Uzbek!
That brought an end to the part II of our travels along the Silk Route. And a wonderful one! Thank you Yuriy from Advantour and Bakhodir at Amelia for making our trip and stay memorable!
I will post another blog on some tips if you wish to travel to Uzbekistan.
What remains now for us on this route is the magnificent and huge China. For that, we would need to make 2 trips it seems. One to Kashgar and Urumqi in Western China, and one to Xian and Beijing in the Eastern part of the country. Flights between the two parts of China are more expensive that flying to China from India! So that will need to wait for a while till we go about some of the other parts of the world :) Hang on!
Photographs of all places we visited haven’t been included in this blog post for you to go and explore :)
Fun Fact: Uzbekistan is a double landlocked country, which means, all its immediate neighbours are also landlocked or have no border to a sea/ocean (disregarding the Caspian Sea). There are only two such countries in the world, the other being the tiny Liechtenstein.