A Travellerspoint blog

October 2019

The Re-birth of Samarkhand

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Until 1921 Uzbekistan was ruled by the Emir even though it was under Russian influence, but when the Soviets took control the Emir fled across the border to Afghanistan with his four wives and many concubines. He left behind his summer palace in Bhukara. This was the concubine's harem..

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The next stop on the Silk Road is Samarkhand. The name conjures images of an oasis in the heart of the central Asian desert: endless caravans of heavily laden camels accompanied by flambouyantly attired Persians, Arabs and Mongols, seeking refreshment and relief from the scorching sands as they make the lengthy journey to Constantinople carrying the riches of China and Southeast Asia. It's a very exotic notion - but we came by high speed train...

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We 'flew' across the desert from Bukhara at 200 kilometres an hour and landed in the ultra-modern city of Samarkhand in less than two hours. But if our time machine could transport us back 2,300 years, here we would witness Alexander the Great conquer this city that was already 500 years old. Wars, wars and more wars have left deep scars in this part of the world. The Iranians, the Turks and Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes ravaged this land to control the trade routes of Central Asia and pillage its gold and treasures and then came the Russians in 1876 and the Soviet era beginning in 1921. And with the Soviets came destruction...

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Under communism, the madrassas and mosques were bombed and defiled and religious practice outlawed. By the time of the fall of the USSR and independence in 1991 the religious monuments of Uzbekistan were in a sorry state. But today...

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This is the Registan in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Temurid dynasty. The name Rēgistan means "Sandy place" or "desert" in Persian. It was a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis, and a place of public executions. It is surrounded by three great madrassas dating back 600 years to the time of Tamerlane, (a.k.a. Temur the Great). However, what we see today has mainly been reconstructed from ruins in the past 30 years. This is a ceiling of a madrassa..

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And this is the mausoleum of the great hero, Temur. He is credited with unifying and pacifying Central Asia at the end of the 14th century (though little is made of the fact that he killed millions of people in the process).

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And this is just one of the beautifully restored tiled domes...

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However the Great Bukhara Bazaar isn't a match for the Mammoth Samarkhand Marketplace. Every historic building is a shopping experience; every nook and cranny a display space; every exit an opportunity for one final shot at selling some 'handmade' bauble.

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However, unlike the trinket pushers in some countries, the Uzbek salespeople are generally not pushy. In fact they are very polite. Men and women sit quietly making handicrafts while we are encouraged to believe that they are snowed under with their handiwork. C'est la vie...

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Posted by Hawkson 21:31 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (3)

The Great Bukhara Bazaar

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The ancient Central Asian cities that lie along the route of the Silk Road were trading posts and rest stops for the great camel and mule trains from the Far East. Traders with silk, spices, carpets and other goods would stop at caravansarais: lodging and trading complexes where they could rest their pack animals and themselves before continuing across the desert. The caravansarais were where goods could be bought, sold or bartered. The city of Bukhara in southern Uzbekistan was a major trading place on the Silk Road and every historic monument in the city is still a venue for merchants to sell their wares to passing travellers...

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Today's travellers arrive on planes, high speed trains and luxury coaches, but they are still anxious to buy silk, spices and carpets. And so the local Uzbek traders have continued their historic businesses in some cases in the very trading houses where their ancestors worked hundreds of years ago. Bukhara has four such trading domes – one on each side of the ancient city – each of which housed craftsmen and markets of a certain kind. There was one for gold, silver and jewellery, another was a money exchange, one specialised in elaborate hats, and one was for carpets...

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We watched the nimble fingered young women making the carpets by hand and learned that for a hundred thousand US dollars we could buy this very fine double-sided silk one that took two women two years to make. Simpler camel hair carpets start at about $700.
Every merchant here claims that everything is handmade – but when we see several hundred absolutely identical items on many different stalls we wonder!!

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However, there is no faking food and Bukhara has a huge central market where we were enthralled by the sheer quantity and quality of produce on offer. There were, of course, spices of every kind...

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and heaps of bread from 15 cents a loaf...

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about the market was that there was nothing unfamiliar to us. In China, Japan and India we often have no idea what certain foods are, or even if they are edible at all. Not so in Uzbekistan, both in the markets and restaurants, everything has been familiar. Tonight's dinner: aubergine salad and coleslaw, a whole grilled chicken, vegetable shish kebab, fries, bread and sparkling water for 3. Price per person $4 U.S.

Bukhara is now a very modern city with wide roads and stylish buildings that would not be out of place anywhere in Europe or North America. Fancy hotels along with soaring shopping centres and office towers rise above the historic buildings and surround the two thousand year old citadel known as the Ark...

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This fortress was badly damaged during the Soviet period but has been partially rebuilt. It has a British connection. Colonel Charles Stoddart arrived alone on December 17, 1838, to arrange an alliance between the Emir Khan and the British against the Russians who were threatening Britain's hold on India. Stoddart offended the Emir and was thrown into a bug infested dungeon under the Ark. He avoided execution by converting to Islam. Two years later cavalry captain Arthur Conolly arrived with plans to rescue Stoddart; unite Central Asia under British rule; Christianize the region; and abolish the slave trade. His lofty goals foundered on June 17, 1842 when Afghan militants massacred the British garrison in Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War and the Emir ordered the execution of both men. They were made to dig their own graves and were then beheaded in front of the Ark.

Bukhara is bursting with historic sights many of which have been completely restored since the neglect and devastation caused by nearly a century of Soviet rule. However, this 9th century brick mausoleum of Ismail Samani survived as it was buried for centuries and only recently excavated...

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Blue tiled mosques and madrassas are common here but when Sheila joined a group of local ladies for a photo in front of the bronze statue of Nasiruddin Khoja, a semi-mythical ‘wise fool’ who appears in Central Asian folklore, it made this one very special.

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There are far too many madrassas, mosques, mausoleums and minarets to visit in Bukhara but we have done our best. Now we are taking the high speed train to Samarkand – the last stop on our journey along this part of the Silk Road.

Posted by Hawkson 19:16 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (5)

Khiva

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It appears that Tulkinjon, our guide, hijacked our last blog entry to promote Uzbekistan – so now we are back to tell you the truth: It's a great country to visit. We are staying in the historic city of Khiva which, it is said, was founded 2,500 years ago by Shem the son of Noah. However, the present walls are a mere two thousand years old....

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Khiva is the most intact Silk Road city in Uzbekistan and it is bursting with historical monuments cloaked in beautiful ceramic tiles...

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This absolutely enormous minaret base stands sentinel at the entrance to our hotel. It was never finished because the Khan died in the middle of the 19th century (1850s).
Climbing the minarets is not for the fainthearted. The near vertical spiral staircases have no handholds and it's a long way down...

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Our hotel which is just inside the city gates was a madrassa in the 1800s, but we are sure that the boys who slept in the cell-like rooms surrounding the central courtyard 200 years ago didn't have air conditioning, heated tile floors, comfortable beds and wifi...

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Although most of the buildings in Khiva date from the 17th and 18th centuries many of them were reconstructed from much older buildings. This mosque was built in the 10th century and some of the wooden pillars are original...

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While the ancient city of Khiva has been very well preserved, there are twenty three fortresses in the desert dating from the same period that were abandoned in the 6th century AD when the river courses changed and they were no longer inhabitable. These ruins are now surrounded by the vast Kyzil-kum red sand desert and survive because of the extremely dry climate...

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When we climbed to the top of the 2nd century Ayaz Kala fortress we could see for miles across the desert and our car was almost invisible far beneath us...

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All of this land was underwater in the past and despite the almost total destruction of the Aral Sea a lot of cotton is still grown here . As we drove for two hours across the arid steppes to visit the 2,000 year old castle ruins we were surprised to see so many crops. While the Aral Sea may have almost vanished there are still rivers, reservoirs and canals irrigating the fields. Rice, wheat, and particularly apricots are major crops but the fields of cotton make the prettiest picture...

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Pumpkins, squash and melons are also big in Uzbekistan. In fact the melons were not only the biggest we have ever seen, they were absolutely heavenly. We know that will never be able to eat melon again without being disappointed – unless we come back to Uzbekistan. For less than one Canadian dollar this delightful lady served all five of us with slices of pure nectar until we could eat no more...

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The prices here in Uzbekistan are simply unbelievable. Lunch for four cost just $1.50 each, (our driver missed lunch while fixing a puncture), three course dinners with salad, samosas, beef and vegetables, and dessert, set us back $6.00 each (including a 20% service charge). However, the exchange rate is roughly 10,000 Uzbek som to a dollar, so it can be a little disconcerting to get a bill for 180,000 for three until you realize that is just $18.

We will soon be taking the six hour train ride across the desert to Bukhara, but here is one last look at the beautiful ancient city of Khiva and a troupe of wandering minstrels and puppeteers...
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Posted by Hawkson 20:53 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (4)

From our Special Correspondent in Uzbekistan

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My name is Tulkinjon Okbutaev and I have been an official guide in Uzbekistan for 14 years. I am 36 years old. My mother is a cardiologist and my father was also a doctor but has now died. I am married with two children and we are expecting a third child in the next two weeks. I am fluent in Russian, Uzbek, English and Japanese and I studied in London for 1 year.

I think tourists should visit Uzbekistan today because it is a very safe country where the Uzbek people are very kind and welcoming to foreigners. It was not popular in Soviet times until 1991 because no one really knew about our country, but now we welcome tourists from all the world. Now we are building many new hotels and restaurants and we have excellent food including Canadian wieners...

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We have very many historical sites like the ancient city of Khiva. This is one of the minarets you can climb if you are strong and like to have good views..

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There is so much history here it is impossible to be bored. Uzbekistan was at the centre of the Silk Road and the cities were very rich. But then the Europeans found it faster and safer to transport goods from China by ships in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Silk Road fell into disuse. We still have camels in the desert but now they are for the tourists or bred for meat and wool...

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Uzbeki people are very hardworking and are proud of their craftsmanship. These two women will spend one year to make a silk carpet by hand...

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There are many handmade silk carpets and wall hangings for sale here in the streets of Khiva...

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It is our culture to be hospitable to visitors but that was not possible during the times of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. Uzbekistan was difficult to reach because it is double landlocked. Like Lichtenstein it is surrounded by countries that are landlocked but today we have excellent airports and stations. We have very fast bullet trains and the latest aircraft from Airbus and Boeing and we have many good roads. The driving is not always perfect but we take good care of our children on the roads...

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This is the railway station waiting room in Khiva...

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I would say that Uzbekistan is enchanting and mysterious which evokes adventures from times of One Thousand and One Nights and the Great Game. Names of cities like Samarkand and Bukhara will always be associated with the Silk Road when all the riches of China were transported to Europe. Because of the Silk Road Uzbekistan is a melting cauldron of cultures with many different ethnic origins. You can see faces that resemble Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Indians, and even English...

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Uzbekistonga hush kelibsiz!

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On behalf of Kalpak Travel I would like to welcome you to my country. I am sure that you will have a wonderful time.

Posted by Hawkson 06:22 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (6)

Thoroughly Modern Tashkent

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It is such a surprise to be here in the very heart of Asia and find an extremely clean, modern, city with wide tree-lined streets, the latest cars, (nearly all white to reflect the scorching summer sun), a small but efficient metro system and an army of friendly locals who all want to practice their English or to take their photos with us on their cellphones. Here are Sheila and Christine with a smiling family in Independence Square...

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They are smiling because minutes earlier the young differently-abled girl and her wheelchair had crashed down the Metro's escalator just in front of us. The attendant slammed on the brakes and fortunately the girl was uninjured, but as we got outside the family wanted a photo as a reminder. The Metro trains may be a little antiquated but the Soviet styled stations are magnificent ...

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Also magnificent is the central market...

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It is a vast domed building simply bursting with local produce...

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Uzbek meals are generally built around meat, either lamb, beef or chicken, and vegetarians might get funny looks here, but there is something for (almost) anyone. Dairy products, pickles and hand cut pastas are very popular and an entire upper floor of the market is given over to stalls selling stacks of dried fruits and nuts at ridiculously low prices...

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All manner of fresh fruits and vegetables can be bought in the surrounding market halls and these radishes looked particularly inviting...

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As did the displays of local fruits...

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Uzbekistan has a perfect climate for temperate fruits and vegetables with more than 200 days of sunshine a year and abundance of groundwater. However, under Soviet rule from the early 1920s to 1991 Uzbekistan became one of the world's leading producers of cotton and it is symbolised in many forms on buildings and murals - this one is on the Metro...

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Vast irrigation schemes were put into effect to grow this thirsty crop and the Aral Sea, in the northwest of Uzbekistan, which was at one time the fourth largest inland sea in the world, is now a shadow of its former self thanks to the many years when its rivers were diverted for cotton production. Fleets of stranded ships now rust in harbours more than 50 miles from the nearest water and the demise of the Aral is recognised as one of the world's worst human caused environmental disasters – take note cotton lovers! ..

Now what about the history of Uzbekistan? This country is bang in the middle of Asia and has been fought over for millennia. The Silk Road from China to Europe made this part of the world very rich in the 7th century and everyone wanted a piece – the Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols et al invaded at times and in the 14th century  Timūr Gurkānī, known as Tamerlane finally got the place under control. He is seen as an Uzbek hero and he proudly sits on his horse outside the Hotel Uzbekistan....

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But this country is awash in historical sights and we are now in one of the greatest cities of the Silk Road – Khiva. How about this for an entrance to our Khiva hotel!...

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Posted by Hawkson 09:37 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (4)

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