“Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva,” recites the apron-clad Uzbek cook in the restaurant car of our train from Moscow to Tashkent. We don’t need to try and explain why we are visiting Uzbekistan, as she knowingly ticks off the legendary Silk Road cities we are about to see during this leg of our trip, pronouncing their names as lovingly and familiarly as if she were referring to her own sisters.
Arriving in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent marks not just the end of three days aboard a loud, rickety, showerless train, but the beginning of our foray into the “Stans”. Steeped in history and idolised in story and imagery, the four grand ladies of this country’s part of the ancient Silk Road pan-Asia trading route are becoming a firm part of the traveller itinerary, if the number of recurring familiar faces we saw in each is anything to go by.
Welcome to Tashkent
Tashkent now though, is every part the modern capital and less forthcoming with its Silk Road relics as its counterparts further down the line, but it’s the perfect place to acquaint yourself with Uzbek life, culture and quirks before setting off for the remote cities.
We’re mobbed by taxi drivers at the train station, which is an unwelcome assault as we (well me, Phil seems to be functioning just fine) are feeling insanely light headed and nauseous after five hours of border checks in a 50 degree un-air conditioned train. So we take the first driver we find – even though his offer is double what the hotel has advised we pay. This is the first of the said Uzbek quirks that takes getting used to – taxis are unmetered and you need to agree a price before you get in, and to not get ripped off requires you knowing the area to understand the going price.
Having said that, we paid $4 instead of $2, so when you get into the haggling mindset you sometimes need to stop yourself and think who it is making a difference to – you or them – and just get over it and on with it. Another thing to note is that any guy with a car and nothing else to do can be a taxi, so you can basically hail anyone off the street if they are up for it. We saw lots of people doing this and with Phil I felt safe following suit, although I wouldn’t do it on my own!
Our destination, Sunrise Caravan Stay, is our first taste of what Uzbekistan’s up and coming boutique B&B scene has to offer. With its ample common room and smartly decked out bedrooms, it’s the perfect mix of traveller-casual and upmarket comfort. It’s also our first experience of the unique set breakfast that B&Bs in Uzbekistan seem to like to offer. Here, it’s a pretty interesting affair of rice, sausage in pastry and egg mixed with cheese on toast with a random garnish of mushroom and broccoli. It becomes a fun game to guess what we’re going to get when we arrive at each place and whether it’s going to be better than at the place before, and luckily, the breakfasts seem to go up on the luxury scale the further we travel!
Sunrise Caravan Stay, opened in July 2015, is down a residential side street off the busy Mirobod Ko’chasi, and its smoky, bustling row of shazhlyk eateries (the first of many), which is very handy after our long journey.
(PS don’t get confused by the “caravan” reference, which I did in my moment of lightheadedness. The Silk Road traders used to travel in caravans of numerous camels carrying their various silks, spices, jewellery and other goods, so it’s a word commonly seen along the way. It does not mean you can drive up in your Winnebago.)
Give me some som
First on the agenda is to change money, so we head to Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent’s largest and liveliest, where we are told that black market money changers will be plentiful and eager to do business with us (“You guys look like tourists, so they should just come up to you”, one of our new traveller friends at Sunrise tells us. At first I resent this but then accept it because no-one else is wearing Havaianas or has a ginger beard.)
It seems weird to purposely be searching for something on the black market, but we are reassured by many sources that it’s the done thing in Uzbekistan, given the low value of its currency, the som, and the difference between the official and unofficial rate. Another of those Uzbek quirks I mentioned. As promised, circling the Bazaar are lots of men carrying large plastic bags thick with cash and we manage to negotiate a decent rate (5,800 som to the US dollar, it’s currently fluctuating between there and 6,000 compared with the 3,000 or so official rate).
So begins the daily cycle of keeping and counting our wads of som given the low value and limited denominations. We had heard that 1,000 som was the highest note and that travellers would see a single $100 note transform into a Scrooge McDuck style pile of green cash, but we can see the 5,000 som notes at the bottom of our guy’s bag so we convince him to give us many of those as possible. Still, they make quite a wad.
Wandering Chorsu Bazaar
We aren’t sick of shazhlyk yet and that tell-tale sizzle sound and unbeatable savoury smell of barbecued meat sees us sitting down at the nearest stand before we’ve even finished counting our money.
The rest of the market is equally vivid and alive. It bustles with colour, smells and sounds despite the searing heat – the fruit and veg still seem impossible perky, the clothing fresh and the ice cream cold, and the market traders find shade where they can, mostly under broad brimmed hats secured by scarves.
There are endless lanes selling everything from toothpaste to underwear to mobile phones. Traditional Uzbek clothing is kept in its own den, a kaleidoscopic display of gold embossed robes, jewelled gowns, ikat print tops, feathered hats, you name it – it’s an Uzbek fashion feast.
Venture into the meat section and you’ll find not just the usual suspects, but all sorts of horse too, marked with pictures so you don’t get confused between your four legged creatures. Some interesting appendages caught our eye…you can guess what they are! Needless to say we bought peaches and apricots and left it at that.
The heart of Uzbek Islam at Kukeldash Medressa
Around the corner from the market you’ll find the imposing columns of Kukeldash Medressa, which unlike the medressas you will see in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, is an active Islamic school where boys go to study to become imams. The garden is lush and cool, and you can wander around to look at the calligraphy and wood workshops within as well. The headmaster – for an extra donation on top of the entry fee – will give you a short talk on the history of the institution and its important role in reviving Islam after Uzbekistan became independent from Soviet rule. He’ll also give you his take on modern Tashkent. (“Every time I go away and come back, something new is being built. The city is changing so fast.”)
Time to relax at Golubie Kupola
It’s 40 degrees, so it’s definitely time to get out of the heat. The perfect place to do this is at the Golubie Kupola bar and restaurant, hidden in a leafy park near Kosmonavtlar Metro station. Rather than a restaurant it’s an elaborate, decadent complex of fountains, dining rooms, terraces, and private tents so you’re spoilt for choice as to where exactly you should chill. (Yes, miraculously that’s the England game you can see in the photo.)
Tashkent done, it’s time to continue our Silk Road journey. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva await!