Unexpected Uzbekistan

By | Category: Travel destinations
spices being sold - where else but on one of the most famous and historic trading routes

spices being sold – where else but on one of the most famous and historic trading routes

…and the lights go out a second time, but few are surprised.  Lynn welcomes you to Uzbekistan.

I have been in this country for 10 days and had heard there are electricity shortages in the countryside.  Our escorted group is celebrating its last night at the quite lush Pilgrim restaurant in the capital city of Tashkent.

OK, it is a bit disconcerting but at least it’s not an earthquake (these apparently happen quite frequently, too).  Electricity shortages are par for the course in a land where resources are stretched yet also tightly controlled.

Unexpectedly, the singer descends from the stage and walks, only illuminated by candle light, to the middle of the restaurant. He begins singing a lament – a’cappella – without accompaniment and without a microphone. Even the female performers/dancers have stopped and are listening, transfixed.

women in the citadel in Bukhara

women in the citadel in Bukhara

It is as if the room is being transported on the musical notes to the windswept steppes and plains of Persia — surrounded by camel caravans, yurts and goat herds.

In its murky past, Bukhara in particular, was famous for Caravan serai, places where caravans could stop and traders would be accommodated.  This is the reason there are still quite large open spaces in the middle of town.  These areas would have been filled with camels, tents, goods and people all with one mission: to sell their wares.

The lights come back on and I am back drawn back to the present.  And the present is looking quite good for this former Moscow controlled country.

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in the early 90s, change is all around.  Many of the famous mosques and mausoleums have been refurbished to a high standard.  Tourism is doing well and new hotels are going up at the rate of noughts.  The government still owns all the land and tells the farmers what to grow (this harks back to the days of the former regime).  There is heavy handed security, hand bags are searched before going on the metro, which means there is no terrorism here to speak of.  And since 2014, English is now the second language taught in schools instead of Russian.

the mosque in Khiva

the mosque in Khiva

At the end of May there will be the XVth Silk and Spices Festival celebrating the Silk Road in Bukhara.  The festival signals the arrival of spring and the time for trade to be in full swing again. This important route began hundreds of years before Christ, meaning the people who live in Uzbekistan have traded in silk, spice, jade, horses and most importantly, ideas, for most of their civilization’s existence.

Pistachio and almond trees are in bloom everywhere and the incredible spices, nuts and dried fruits available in the local markets will be on display all over Bukhara.  Also on display will be the unspeakably bright silk fabrics, elegant silk rugs, carved wooden objects and distinctive garments this area is famous for.

I am here in April ahead of the festival on this Uzbekistan tour with Saga Holidays and temperatures are already climbing up to 30°C.  By June it will be 50°C in the shade.  For those coming to the festival, either a huge sun hat or umbrella will help protect from the scalding hot sun.  The climate here is known as Continental Sharp and last winter saw temperatures plummet to -25°C.

But for the time being, the temperature is not holding back our progress.  Yesterday I saw farmers selling huge bushels of rhubarb from road side stands near Samarkand. Their trusty donkeys were grazing nearby along with the ubiquitous goats and cattle.  The remains of the Afrasiab Fortress in the town covers dozens of hectares and there are amazing murals and other finds in the museum here.

a rhubarb seller just sits and sells by the side of the road

a rhubarb seller just sits and sells by the side of the road

We travelled to the ancient city of Khiva (first stop on the itinerary) to see its ancient mud fortifications, beautiful towers and blue domes.  The palace of the city’s former rulers has multiple reception rooms which were used to receive guests and conduct the business of the day.  Whole palaces seem to be dedicated to those rulers’ wives and concubines.  After two nights in this atmospheric destination, we embark on the nine-hour crossing of the Kyzylkum (Red) Desert by coach to Bukhara.  It is a long day and brings home the challenge of water usage in a land-locked country that is 42% desert.

Uzbekistan has certainly been influenced by its large and dominating neighbour.  The Red Army inflicted a great deal of damage but, arguably, it did bring down the ruling class which had kept this country firmly entrenched in the past.  The last ruler of Samarkand, Amir Alim Khan, along with his harem, fled the citadel as soon as the Russians started bombing the city in 1920.  First seeing the citadel (or the shell that remains) is still an awe-inspiring experience. It is truly its own town with-in the confines of the city. The citadel’s treasures, which would have been accumulated over many generations, were largely destroyed by the Amir himself.

the mosaics at Shakhi-Zindah

the mosaics at Shakhi-Zindah

Luckily many of the historic buildings and mosques survived the hostilities.  On entering the grounds of the vast Shahi-Zindah Necropolis in Samarkand, one’s breath is taken away by the sheer beauty of the cobalt and turquoise blue tile work involved in the creation of each mausoleum.  Walk up the 42 marble steps with a prayerful heart (as instructed by Islam) and enjoy the view.

And, of course, the monument that everyone associates with this city is the stunning three sided Rajasthan. With equally beautiful blue domes and tile work, the buildings open to the public have beautiful courtyards. Most of the rooms on the ground floor have been given over to workshops, some of which are quite interesting. I particularly liked the master music maker who creates all the traditional instruments and also plays every single one of them.  I considered buying the 69 string Chang instrument but then realised I would struggle to get it back home.

the palace of the rulers in Khiva

the palace of the rulers in Khiva

Possibly my favourite event of the tour is having a pilavosh meal.  Traditionally served on a Thursday night, it is slow cooked in a huge outdoor vat.  The ingredients: rice, meat (lamb), sultanas, spices, garlic are made into a stew and then served with the wonderful round loaves of bread that are ubiquitous here.  In the setting of a former manor home (Donston’s House) in Bukhara and with a bit of Uzbecki wine thrown in for good message plus being served by the ever friendly waiters, it is an evening to remember.

Welcome to Uzbekistan, indeed.

For more information on Uzbekistan and the Heart of the Silk Route – escorted tour

www.travel.saga.co.uk/destinations/asia/uzbekistan

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