A Travellerspoint blog

Thoroughly Modern Tashkent

sunny 20 °C

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)

Tashkent at First Glance

sunny 23 °C

If first impressions count then you can count us in as far as Uzbekistan is concerned. Almost everywhere looks good under a blazing sun but the country's capital of Tashkent was radiant as we took our first stroll along its wide tree-lined boulevards...

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And through the many parks in the city centre...

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We will talk more of the history of this Central Asian country when we've had a chance to do some serious sightseeing, but there is no doubt that in some ways Tashkent benefited considerably from a massive earthquake that wrecked the old city in 1966. A new city blossomed and this is the bronze monument erected during the Soviet era to honour the courage and strength of the Uzbek citizens who re-built their capital...

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Many buildings escaped destruction and one elaborate building that was created for the Russians in the 1930s is now the Museum of Applied Arts. The carvings and tilework are simply stunning...

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The Russians have long gone but there are many reminders of the Soviet times. For instance: under communism all religions were driven underground. Now that Uzbekistan is a secular democracy new religious buildings, (especially mosques), are springing up. This is a new mosque in the city centre...

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While the adjacent madrassa has survived from the 15th century and now houses the world's oldest quo'ran.

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We can't show you this priceless deerskin manuscript but we can show you our lunch...

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We are travelling throughout Uzbekistan with our good friend Christine and we have both a driver and a guide who joined us for lunch. So, what would we have to pay for a delicious lunch of chicken, pumpkin and potato pasties made with crisp phyllo pastry for five? How about twenty three thousand som? Yes – an eye-watering 23,000 Uzbek som. To save you reaching for a currency converter we can tell you that the total cost was exactly two dollars and forty three cents US. ($2.43), less than two English pounds. However, in a very western coffee house in the swankiest part of the city we paid a staggering five US dollars for 3 large cappuccinos made with our favourite Viennese coffee from Julius Meinl. But Meinl coffee is everywhere here...

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We may be in the very heart of Central Asia but there is a great familiarity with many products on sale here. For example: most of the cars are the latest Chevrolets because they are built here. However, there were a few unfamiliar items on the dinner menu...

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P.S. They were delicious, as was the whole meal at just $8 U.S. per person. (and we thought Turkey was cheap).

We have already started on the museums, the galleries and the stores filled with local crafts. So much to see and so little time but the internet may not be reliable. So, if you don't hear from us for a few days or weeks – don't worry. We are in good hands. (And we certainly won't starve).

Posted by Hawkson 19:03 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (4)

Fabulously Fascinating Istanbul

sunny 23 °C

Istanbul is heaving with tourists despite the war with the Kurds on its southern border and the lateness of the season. One reason could be the weather. While most of Europe and North America is already sliding quickly into winter here it is a balmy autumnal day and the sightseeing boats on the Bosphorus are doing a roaring trade. Here's the view from our window...

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Istanbul probably has too many tourists for its own good at times, however, in a seemingly unco-ordinated move, all three of Istanbul's top attractions are currently undergoing major renovations. Parts of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace are all shrouded in giant tarpaulins.and the treasury that houses the famous jewel encrusted Topkapi dagger is closed. Thankfully we have visited all these sights before and most of the Ottoman Sultan's Palace was open for business. The tilework is really beautiful - this is one of the many tiled ceilings...

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A little history: The Ottoman Empire was founded in the 13th century in Anatolia, (Eastern Turkey today), and in 1354 the Ottomans crossed into Europe and conquered the Balkans. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the crossroads between Europe and Asia for six centuries. During its height in the 16th and 17th centuries more than 1,500 people worked in the Topkapi Palace kitchens feeding up to 15,000 people at times. Here's a list of menu items from that period...

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We too have been eating well in Istanbul where the restaurant choice is staggering, (and very inexpensive), but, unlike the Sultan and his guests, we did not eat off gold and jewel encrusted Chinese porcelain. Constantinople, (Istanbul) was one of the many great cities on the Silk Road from China to Europe and along with the silk came tea, spices, porcelain and many other products of the Orient. Our next stop on the Silk Road is Tashkent in Uzbekistan, but a great place to check out the products of the Far East is here at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul...

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Istanbul's massive Grand Bazaar was built in 1461 but the original indoor market halls are now the preserve of goldsmiths, jewellers and carpet salesmen catering to tourists – this is not the place for bargains and few locals venture inside...

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However, the surrounding maze of narrow alleyways and covered bazaars are absolutely teeming with merchants and shoppers from all over the world.

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Bargains are for everyone here. Haute couture dresses and three piece men's tailored suits for just $40 Cdn. and luxury brand handbags by the thousand...

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For us - a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice for a dollar. A hundred dollars goes a very long way here...

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Now we are headed east along the Silk Road to a point exactly halfway around the world from our home. What wonders await us (and you) in Uzbekistan? Time will tell.

Posted by Hawkson 20:21 Archived in Turkey Comments (4)

A Taste of Istanbul

sunny 24 °C

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The view from our hotel window turned pink as the sun slowly rose over the Topkapi Palace on the banks of the Bosphorous in the heart of old Istanbul and we knew we were in for a glorious day. After a delicious breakfast we headed to the Blue Mosque. The same guy whom we had seen on our last visit 8 years ago was still vacuuming the carpet after morning prayers...

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However, the Mosque is currently being renovated and the beautiful blue domes cannot be seen from inside. The interior of the nearby Hagia Sophia is also under renovation but this 916 year old church cum mosque cum museum looked pretty good against a clear blue sky...

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With two of our 'must-see' sights done by lunchtime we became besotted with Turkish food and couldn't resist the baklava...

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Baklava is everywhere here, but so is turkish delight...

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Istanbul's ancient Spice Market is a good place to look at the displays of baklava and turkish delight.

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The vendors in the Spice Market have all manner of products on display. There are, of course, still plenty of spices...

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And numerous herbal teas...

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With our eating and drinking done it was time for an afternoon cruise on the Bosphorus. We only have two days to re-acquaint ourselves with this historic city and with the crush of tourists we were feeling a little rushed. But once we left port in Europe it was calm sailing under a perfect sky and we had great views of the Büyük Çamlıca Camii mosque on the Asian side of the city - just one of the 2944 active mosques in Istanbul.

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Now a short rest before braving the restaurant touts and the threat of more wonderful food.

Posted by Hawkson 08:00 Archived in Turkey Comments (6)

France Farewell

semi-overcast 19 °C

The Château de la Bourdaisière has had 65 owners, some royal, some rich and some just hoping to make a franc or two, since it was originally built in the middle of the 14th century to protect the nearby city of Tours from the English. In the 16th century the enormous chateau was the home of two royal mistresses, though not at the same time. Marie Gaudin, said to be the most beautiful woman in the land, was the mistress of King Francois I while Gabrielle D'Esrees was the mistress of King Henry IV. What shenanigans went on in these lofty halls? Oh the passions that must have played out in front of this roaring fire on wintry evenings...

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But wait a minute. That was in the 16th century. In the 18th century the Duke of Luynes had the whole place demolished and the stone carted off to build another castle. The only bits left are parts of the moat and the enormous caves that were hewn out of the hillside in order to provide the stonework...

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Today's chateau was actually built in 1802 by the local mayor and it has been a retirement home; a Nazi headquarters; a military school and a hotel owned by a 'prince' of the defunct French monarchy. Taxidermy foxes, boars and peacocks are scattered throughout the chateau but we found it a little odd to have a taxidermy deer standing at the door of the dining room with venison on the menu...

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Hold on – what venison; what menu? We knew in advance that the dining room would be closed on our first night but we were really looking forward to the finest haute cuisine that the chateau proudly boasts. Imagine our dismay when we checked in and were informed that the chef was having an 'off' week and our best option was the cafeteria at the hypermarket 12 kilometres away. The other option was to raid the tomato garden...

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The Château de la Bourdaisière is home to the French National Tomato Conservancy and more than 650 varieties are grown in the gardens. The chateau also boasts a dahlia garden with more than 400 varieties. Despite the chateau's shortcomings we enjoyed our stay but now our time is France is coming to an end and we are spending our last few days in Orléans where there is no shortage of excellent restaurants. There is also a constant reminder that this is where Joan of Arc beat the English in 1430 when she was just an 18 year old farm girl who claimed to have received guidance from God...

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Statues of France's heroine are everywhere and inside the magnificent cathedral there is an entire chapel devoted to her. Joan was burned at the stake by the English in 1831, (and the French have never forgiven them). However, the medieval streets of old Orléans welcome many Brit visitors today and most of the locals like to practice their schoolday English. The half-timbered houses from the 16th century are particularly attractive...

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And the thousand year old soaring twin spires of the cathedral are simply stunning...

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The nearby 16th century Groslot Mansion was once a royal chateau but it was turned into a municipal building following the French Revolution of 1789 and became the city hall from 1790 to 1981....

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The city's mayors must have felt very honoured to have ruled over the city from this room where King Francis II died in 1560 in the presence of his wife, Mary Queen of Scots...

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The Dordogne and the Loire have been so fascinating with so much to see that we've not had time to talk about the amazing meals, the incredibly friendly people and the automatic baguette and pizza machines that dish out freshly cooked goodies 24 hours a day. France seems to be following Scandinavia: everything is being automated and everyone now takes credit/debit cards. Cash is quickly disappearing and you can no longer get money from banks – only from ATMs.
Next stop - Istanbul. By the middle of next week we will be in Uzbekistan and we already know that life will be very different there!

Posted by Hawkson 11:35 Archived in France Comments (4)

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