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Published: October 20th 2016
For the uninitiated, present-day Uzbekistan was previously the junction and the centre of the ancient caravan road which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean and which was called the Great Silk Road. Towns and countries came and went over history, but for centuries the road functioned as a trade and cultural bridge between the East and the West. There is no doubt that a revisit to Uzbekistan was a big draw point for this particular tour for me, given I had an all-too-brief visit here some 10 years ago and really enjoyed it. My only concern was whether I had since that visit over-glamorised it in my mind and thus lifted the bar too high. I hadn't.
The visit did not start well. After an obscenely early start of 3am to get the 6am flight from Bishkek to Tashkent, we found on arrival that all passengers in the plane except us two Aussies already had Uzbek visas in their passports, while we had previously been advised by the tour group that we could easily obtain visas on arrival by presenting a letter of invitation. This was correct, but the only problem was that after being almost first out
of the plane to immigration, we in fact were forced to wait until they had processed the whole plane before they opened the 'visa on arrival' office, thus delaying our trip over an hour and resulting in a frustrating wait. But it got worse. The visa people just eye-balled the letter of invitation, which had stated clearly a requirement for 2 re-entries to the country, and instead issued us with a visa with 2 'entries' (ie only a single re-entry), which was to cause us grief later in the tour. In our hurry to exit the airport and catch up with our tour, we didn't pick up this error until later in the day, obviously too late to change it. Before we left, we were also required to fill out a duplicate form declaring all currency we were carrying as well as any items of value such as cameras, phones, iPads etc. Uzbekistan has very strict rules that you cannot take more money out of the country than you brought in, so extracting cash from an ATM is a no-no unless you well and truly plan to spend it all.
After a brief breakfast in Tashkent, we drove directly
to Samarkand, an approximately 4 hour drive, arriving there for a late lunch. The land we travelled through was generally flat and more productive that some earlier drives in the tour, with cotton growing and fruit and vegetable production the main crops, often assisted by considerable irrigation. The highlight of the sightseeing in Samarkand was no doubt the iconic Registan Square, which for the uninitiated actually comprises three separate Madrasahs (schools) - Ulugh Beg, Tilya-Kori and Sher-Dor respectively around three sides of a square. Other visits included the Gur Emir Mausoleum (burial chamber), Ulugbek's Observatory and the Shaki Zinda Necropolis (cemetery), each of which had its own individual appeal but they need to be visited as I can't do justice to any of them by trying to describe each one in detail. Suffice to say my attached pics show a range of the many attractions visited.
From Samarkand, we had a day trip to and from Shakhrissabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane, a key figure in this region's history, being a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. The route took us through the mountain range Aman Kutan, through a range of orchards,
fertile fields and vineyards. The two key attractions here were the crumbling Al Saray Palace and the extensive Kok Gumbaz Mosque (place of worship).
From there, it was on to Bukhara, one of the most historically rich cities of the great Silk Road, which attracts thousands of visitors each year. Again there were too many attractions to name them all, some of the better known being the Kalyan Minaret and Mosque; the Lyabi Khauz Complex, which like Registan comprises three separate Madrasahs; the Ark Fortress, which dates back to the 3rd century BC; the Poi Kalon complex, comprising minaret, mosque and madrasah; and Chor Minor, the former summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara. Of course, all of these attractions have been extensively renovated over time, leading some to suggest that Bukhara is now a somewhat artificial city, or some use the term "museum city", so I guess it all depends on individual taste.
Our final stop was at Khiva, a somewhat more compressed version of Bukhara, contained within its old city walls (Ichan Kara), which I had not visited on my previous visit. Again, there were many different attractions there, including three very prominent minarets, which
considerably assisted in navigating the old city, these being Kalta Minor, Islam Khodja and Djuma, the latter two being attached to a madrasah and mosque respectively. I guess it is just a fact with modern tourism, but every single attraction in all these cities had a number of massive stalls attached to them selling every souvenir known to mankind, and often manned by pretty aggressive vendors. Of course the secret is not to make eye contact, and certainly not to start bargaining unless it is an item you really want to purchase.
Interspersed between visiting these various attractions, we had plenty of opportunities to taste the local cuisine, with plov (aka pilaf, meat fried with carrots, onions and garlic, then cooked with rice), manti (dumplings filled with ground meat and onion that are steamed), lagman (lamb and noodle soup) and golubtsy (cooked cabbage leaves around a meat filling) being amongst those delicacies tasted. Bread is also key to the Central Asian diet, with flat bread (naan) and thick, sturdy Russian breads freely available. The flat bread is generally cooked in tandoori ovens and is round and flat. They also served up a superb yoghurt soup, cooked with a variety
of herbs and rice, as well as the more traditional pumpkin soup. Salads are also widely offered, although absent the key western component of lettuce, with the most frequent ingredients being sliced tomatoes, onion, cucumber, beetroot etc. Sweets were heavily geared towards melons - watermelon and something very sweet (similar to honeydew melons) appeared their favourites.
At each location, we had the opportunity to visit the local bazaar. As well as once again giving us the opportunity to interact with locals, to the degree you can with limited common language, it also gives a good insight into dress codes in each country. Amongst the older generation, long colourful dresses, along with head scarf tied leaving long ends hanging down the back, were most frequent for the ladies and long tunic shirts, wide pants, a jacket and a skullcap (kolpok) were frequent with the men, while the younger generation were much more inclined towards western clothing. We also took in a couple of cultural dancing shows, which again brought long, colourful dresses, with a somewhat tighter fit, for the younger ladies to the fore.
One item of amusement, which hasn't changed since my last visit, is the crazy situation
with the local Uzbek currency, the sum. The largest denomination note here is 5,000 sum, which seems sensible until you realise that there are officially over 3,300 UZS to the US dollar, although the black market ranges from 4,500 to as high as 6,200. Now in an environment where credit cards are rarely used, people are paying for goods and services with literally a 'brick' of banknotes, which have to be counted out first by the buyer and then recounted by the seller. This is shown in the attached pic, which represents a mere USD50, hardly enough to pay for a night out for two!
One of the benefits of a guided tour is that you pick up on a lot of local history. One item of which I was broadly aware was the progressive disappearance of the Aral Sea, but I had no perspective of the scope until I saw it so starkly illustrated in one of the museums here. The Aral Sea, technically a lake, bordered by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and once, at 26,000 square miles, the fourth largest on the planet, has been slowly dying, with geologists estimating that it is now one-tenth its former size.
The immediate physical causes of this ongoing ecological tragedy are clear. Starting in the 1960s, the Soviet Union engineered the large-scale diversion of the two major rivers that fed the sea. Since then these rivers, each of which carried water across the Central Asian steppes from as far away as the mountain ranges of Tien-Shan and the Pamirs, have flowed not into the Aral but instead into a canal system used to irrigate vast fields of cotton that the then Soviet government relied on to generate huge quantities of cash. With its water sources dramatically reduced, the Aral Sea began to shrink. The environmental and economic devastation that followed has been well documented. The lakebed is now a vast salt flat permeated with pesticides from the runoff of surrounding agricultural fields. Local people are suffering significantly greater incidence of chronic disease, and the toxicity of the environment was such that the breast milk of mothers was contaminated, resulting in one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Fish species have died off, and a once prosperous fishing industry, which employed thousands on large ships and in processing plants and canneries and at railyards that stocked Moscow-bound trains, has
collapsed. Many of the old ships still litter the dry harbours. I'm pleased we didn't get to visit this devastation, but it is a sad reflection on our society which is not generally that well understood in the western world.
Enough of my soapbox. From here, the caravan moves on to Turkmenistan, the other prime motivation for my trip, given I had heard many interesting stories about its political processes, its oil revenues and the marked contrast in infrastructure between the very old and the very new.
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