A trip to Uzbekistan is almost certain to start in Tashkent, the country’s vibrant capital. It probably gets overlooked by many visitors in favour of its more famous Silk Road siblings, but it’s well worth spending a couple of days seeing the city.
Tashkent has an interesting mix of Islamic and Soviet architecture with the latter very much in evidence at Hotel Uzbekistan, the rendevous point for the teams competing in TV show Race Across the World. Needless to say we had to head there soon after arrival to pay homage to the travellers who inspired our trip!
The hotel is in Amir Timur Square, a lovely green space filled with flowers and fountains. The square is the heart of modern Tashkent though at its centre is a statue of Amir Timur, Uzbekistan’s national hero who was born in 1336. The nearby State Museum of the Timurids is where you can learn all about Timur’s bloody conquests across Central Asia.
Our hotel, the Wyndham Tashkent, was only a short walk from the square so in a good location to do a bit of exploring before joining our tour group the following day. While you can travel around Uzbekistan independently, it didn’t look easy, so my friend and I booked onto a small group tour with the excellent Kalpak Travel. But on day one we decided to brave the local metro system and headed to the nearest station Abdulla Kodiriy to visit Tashkent TV Tower. We’d seen some of the metro stations on Race Across the World and both this one and others we visited with our guide were really something.
It was actually fairly easy to buy a ticket as there was a ticket booth with a person to talk to and the TV Tower was worth the trip. It was inexpensive to go up and though there wasn’t much to do at the top, the views of Tashkent were excellent.
Back at the hotel we celebrated our success with a cocktail by the hotel pool and then ventured out again later to have dinner at Sette, a rooftop restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It wasn’t very adventurous as it was just across the road and it was Italian food, but we figured we’d be eating the local Uzbek cuisine for the next week. The setting was fab with excellent views of Tashkent by night, the food (especially dessert) was great and it was a very reasonable £35 a head, even though we were later told it was the best hotel in Uzbekistan!
The next morning we met our guide Umid and the rest of our seven-strong tour group. To our relief, they all seemed very nice people and we headed off to visit the Khast Imam complex. It provides a glimpse of what the city was like before a 1960s earthquake destroyed many buildings which were replaced with the Soviet architecture I mentioned earlier. Our first stop was the lovely Tomb of Kaffal Shashi, a local poet-philosopher. It was built in the mid-16th century and showcases the gorgeous majolica tiles we saw on buildings all over Uzbekistan.
We then headed to the main plaza to see the first of many madrasas we’d encounter on our tour. Madrasas were higher education colleges funded by benefactors where students and teachers lived and worked together. The focus was on Islamic education but secular subjects were often also included. As is often the case with these former colleges the Barak-Khan Madrasa had a courtyard with shops and stalls selling local goods.
On the other side of the plaza is the Muyi Muborak Library which holds the world’s oldest Qu’ran, said to have been produced only 19 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad. It was written on deerskin and brought to Uzbekistan by Amir Timur so unsurprisingly the only photos permitted are of the outside of the library.
Our final visit at the complex was to the Khast Imam Mosque, built in 2007 on the orders of former President Karimov. It was the largest mosque in the city at the time and is an impressive building both inside and out. Despite being quite recently built the turquoise domes and minarets are typical of Uzbek’s historical architecture.
Not far from Khast Imam is Tashkent’s huge market Chorsu Bazaar which has been a hub of commercial activity in the city for hundreds of years. It was originally just open air but the Soviets built domes to house different types of products, so now its a mix. It’s a fantastic place to wander around and get a feel for Tashkent life. We saw everything from colourful wooden baby cradles to huge slabs of meat and spices.
After lunch, it was very hot so we visited a couple of metro stations and then headed back for a rest before heading out in the cooler early evening to visit Independence Square, Tashkent’s largest square. It’s lovely to walk around and has a range of monuments including the Mourning Mother statue which is dedicated to the Uzbek soldiers who died in World War II.
There is also a golden globe on a pedestal, some lovely fountains and a structure made of sixteen marble columns joined by a bridge and supporting the sculptures of storks who symbolize peace and quietness.
We walked from here to Amir Temur square along Sailgokh Street which is known locally as Broadway and is a lively thoroughfare. There’s a variety of stalls and street artists and it was another great place to see a real slice of Tashkent life.
Then it was the final stop of our time in Tashkent and our first dinner of the tour. Being non-meat eating pescatarians we didn’t have high hopes for the local cuisine in a double land-locked country. So we were pleasantly surprised to be presented with a nice plateful of roasted veg and potatoes at Sim Sim. Though it was the first of many similar dishes to come!
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and keep an eye on the Asia section of my blog for more Uzbekistan posts coming soon.