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From our Special Correspondent in Uzbekistan

sunny 22 °C

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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

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)

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