A Travellerspoint blog

From the Future to the Past in Florence

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It's a long way from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to Milan, but we had a few hours stopover in Istanbul to admire the amazing new airport...

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The airport is vast and when fully operational will be the biggest and busiest airport in the world. It serves 300 destinations from 6 runways and will have a capacity of 200 million passengers a year. It is so big it took us nearly 20 minutes to taxi to the gate from landing.
Milan airport is more manageable and in no time we were in the city centre for a one night stopover. We have blogged about historic Milan before but the modern city is also fascinating. These two apartment towers in the once decrepit Isola district are called Bosco Verticale, (vertical forests)...

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The twin towers are completely covered with living trees and vegetation that provide shade in summer and shelter in winter. The reflections of the verdant towers in the nearby glass skyscrapers make an interesting environmental statement – will Bosco Verticale be the future of urban design?

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Speaking of the future: at 300 kilometres an hour on a bullet train it's a short hop from Milan to Florence and we slipped back 700 years to visit one of the most recognisable historic buildings in the world: the beautiful Duomo (cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore ) in the centre of the city...

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In Uzbekistan we became a little overwhelmed by the number of ecclesiastical buildings all similarly clad in blue tiles. But this is Italy – home of marble – so it's natural that this beautiful stone should be used for sacred constructions. However, the splendid white, green and red marble façade of Florence's Duomo is just that – a façade. The cathedral was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style to replace an earlier construction and it took 140 years to build. The famous brick dome was finally completed by 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi. However, the incredible marble façade by Emilio De Fabris was added in the 19th century...

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Alongside the Duomo is the Campanile (the Bell Tower) designed by Giotto and, just like the minarets of Uzbekistan, energetic visitors willing to wait in line can climb the 414 of steps to the top...

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Next to the Duomo is the Baptistery. The most famous, and photographed, features of this building are the fabulous gilded doors. But there is a problem...

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Yes – we are not alone. Although it is now November, and well past tourist season in the northern hemisphere, Florence is still heaving with visitors from all over the world. The line-up for the Duomo stretched halfway around the enormous building and similarly long queues formed outside the Campanile and Baptistery. There is much to see and do in Florence, but so many tourists seeing and doing it, that we thankfully have tickets to visit the most visited attraction,the Uffizi Gallery, tomorrow. In the meantime - how about some delicious panforte at one of the many pasticherias in the city..

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Posted by Hawkson 09:57 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

Uzbekistan - A Hidden Gem

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Our time in Uzbekistan has come to an end and looking back we have to be honest and say that after our twentieth madrassa; fifteenth minaret; tenth mosque; seventh mausoleum and fourth royal palace, all covered in blue tiles, we began to lose track. Most of the historic religious buildings are enormous and outwardly similar, but in Bukhara we visited this tiny one – the Chor Minor...

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Something that distinguished each of the historic buildings was the quantity and quality of carpets, cloth, clothing and trinkets on offer, (all handmade naturally). Another distinguishing feature was the Tourist Police offices. Uzbekistan is a very safe country that doesn't have any of the problems of some of its neighbours, but to reassure visitors the government has a specially trained force of multi-lingual officers whose job is to protect and assist tourists. There are offices conspicuously placed at the entrances to all the important sites but the one at this madrassa was just a bit too imposing...

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Travelling across the desert and through the countryside was fascinating. While the cities and city folk were all very modern we had occasional glimpses of the third world when we saw men riding donkeys and women tending the fields in the mountains....

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We never fully came to grips with the money in Uzbekistan. This is about $20....

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It is all well and good to know that 10,000 Uzbek som is roughly 1 euro or $1 U.S., but it's still a little disconcerting when you see prices for main courses as much as 25,000. ($2.50). On average we spent less than $10 a day each for food. Apart from the fact that the meals were heavy on meat, (although always accompanied by delicious salads), there was nothing particularly unusual on the menus. Plov is considered the national dish and is made from rice, carrots, apricots and meat, swimming in cottonseed oil. Plov is often made in large charcoal fired cauldrons outside restaurants...

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Cottonseed is the preferred oil for most cooking in Uzbekistan probably because they have a lot of it. It sells for about 10,000 som a litre, (Just $1), in the markets...

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Despite the fact that the Soviet system collapsed nearly 30 years ago there are still many reminders of that time. There are still bureaucratic requirements reminiscent of Russia. For instance: every hotel was required to give us a small form stating when we had stayed there and we were warned that we had too produce them on leaving the country, (though no one could explain what would happen if we didn't – maybe we would have to stay forever!). As in Russia: no one was in the least interested in the forms when we left Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks still speak Russian as a first language and all manner of Russian artifacts could be bought in the markets. This shop, (in a mosque precinct of course), had tons of old Russian items for sale...

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So much of Uzbekistan has been rebuilt and refurbished that it is difficult to distinguish old from new, but the elaborately carved wooden doors are always fascinating. This one is old – we think!...

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But the White Palace of Amir Temur still stands in its original, but ruined, state after 600 years...

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Did we enjoy our time in Uzbekistan? We loved the gentle, welcoming people; loved the excellent hotels; loved the fabulous food at ridiculous prices; loved the incredible cleanliness; and we loved the amazing historical sights...we could go on and on. Suffice to say “we loved it all”. Now we are in Italy we can say, “Bravo Uzbekistan. Grazie molto.” (We'd love to say that in Uzbek but would have no idea where to start).

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Posted by Hawkson 00:17 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (4)

Wedding Day in Shakhrisabz

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There is little old-fashioned about the ancient city of Samarkhand, it even has a fabulous Italian gelateria and pasticheria. The cakes, at about a dollar a piece, are as mouthwatering as we have had anywhere in the world...

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However, today we saw another side of Uzbekistan as we climbed high into the mountains and took the Takhtakaracha Pass just a few hundred kilometes from the Afghanistan border. There we stopped at a traditional farmer's market at the summit. The sky was blue and the air crisp and clean once we had risen above the morning mists and we were amazed by the incredible assortment of white cheeses made from the milk of the alpine herds...

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We bought almond flower honey and saffron at the roadside market, but our destination was beyond the mountains at the birthplace of Temur, (Tamerlane), in the city of Shakhrisabz in 1336. Amir Temur and the dynasty of Temerids reigned over Mavorunnakhr, Khauronon, Iraq,Northern India and Afghanistan from 1370 until 1858 and there are statues and monuments honouring him in every Uzbek city . But the most impressive must be this one of him standing in front of the remains of his great white palace, Oq Saroy, in Shakhrisabz...

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As regular readers know, we always try to get photos without people. However, it seems that every Uzbeck bride has to have her photo taken in front of every historical monument in the country along with most of the guests.

Uzbek weddings are restricted to 200 guests by law and it seems that half of the country was getting married this weekend. It was worse than the Biking Vikings who insisted in getting into every one of our photos in Denmark. This is just one side of the remains of the 600 year old entrance to Temur's white palace...

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There was absolutely no one in front of this massive gateway until we took the shot and the wedding group rushed in to fill the void. So we moved to take a picture of the other side – and bingo: another bride and groom et al...

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There were at least six wedding parties vying for the most photogenic spots around the great edifice so we thought we could get a better shot from further away. No such luck. The wedding groups not only followed but they wanted to get us into their albums as well...

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And so we carried on to Temur's great mosque, Kok Gumbaz, which has the largest blue tiled dome of any mosque in Uzbekistan. It was built by Ulugbek in 1435 and look what happened...

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Well – if you can't beat them.etc. ... And so we gave in and joined the wedding party...

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We loved being part of the happy couples' day and wonder how they will explain the 'strange' foreigners in their wedding albums to their kids.

Posted by Hawkson 09:51 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (7)

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)

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