The Hospitable Steppe – Uzbekistan

Tashkent:

Our second stop on the circuit was Tashkent. All I knew about the city, was that India’s Late PM L B Shastri passed away there while on an official visit under mysterious circumstances. Bukhara and Samarkand were vaguely familiar as ancient towns on the Silk Route. We landed in Tashkent in the afternoon and were driven to the local guide agency called “Advantour”. We had managed to get in touch with the agency from Almaty itself and they were super-efficient with all the execution. Owing to the limited flight options from Tashkent, we had decided to make Tashkent our base and cover Bukhara and Samarkand one day each. Such crazy planning and seamless execution is our forte! In our mundane life back home, even a crane wouldn’t be able to move me if I decide to hibernate. But once am on the road, I am kick-ass 😉

Day 2 in Tashkent was all about Tashkent. The city is like Phoenix, reborn after the earthquake of 1966. The town planning, wide roads, tall trees, ample gardens and parks make it a remarkably pleasant city. The Uzbeks are also equally warm and hospitable. There is tremendous curiosity about “Hinduston” and us “Hindustonis”. Every single person we met – be it a driver, a hotel receptionist or a server in restaurant – stopped by and enquired about India. The conversations were short but it doesn’t take a genius to catch the warmth. Most of our exchanges went like:

<<Uzbek>> (making eye contact and really wishing we understand what he is saying) Hinduston?

<<Us>> (vigorously nodding) yes !!!! (or If we are feeling particularly oversmart, then) да / da (in Russian)

<<Uzbek>> Delhi ?

<<Us>> No, Bombay

<<Uzbek>> (frowning at us) Mumbai?

<<Us>> Yes Mumbai (me in my head – Shivsena has reached Uzbekistan. They don’t accept Bombay)

<<Uzbek>> Mumbai big ? Tashkent big?

<<Us>> Mumbai big. Tashkent beautiful

<<Uzbek>> (On cloud nine) (wide smile)

Throughout such conversations, the Uzbek would be smiling from ear to ear to convey his pleasure in having met us! It’s an overwhelming feeling when your nationality fetches you this warmth without you doing an ounce of good for the other person!

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Tashkent has beautifully restored Madrassa, carefully curated old town which still has mud houses, Independence Square, Amir Timur square and buzzing Chorsu Bazaar. The sights and smells of a Bazaar are worth experiencing. The Uzbeks eat dried cheese balls as an all-time snack and that’s delicious. The meat bazaar is not for weak-hearted and you need to have a tough heart and tougher gut to not feel squeamish by the display of skinned animals. The weather is Tashkent was terrible and we were soon dehydrated and almost had sun-stroke. The Farsi influence on Uzbeki was heart-warming too; especially when I caught the words which were same in Uzbekistan as they are in India! I have always been intrigued by the ancient cultural connections and always look for the links connecting people across geographies. That’s the high that I look for in all my travels 🙂

Bukhara:

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Having been baked in the Tashkent sun, next city on radar was Bukhara. We took a flight from Tashkent to Bukhara by Uzbekistan Airlines. Once in Bukhara, our guide which we had coordinated from Tashkent was already waiting for us at the Airport and we started our excursion around 10am. The old town of Bukhara is a world heritage site and it is straight out of the fantasy world of Arabian Nights. The buildings, domes, lanes, trees, waterholes – all of these are carefully maintained and all of those things help in teleporting you to another world.

To our utter surprise, one elderly uncle sitting under a dome stopped us and asked us if we are Indians.  Once we confirmed our nationality, he was over-joyed and burst into “Aawara hoon.. ya gardish men hun, asamaan ka taara hun”!!! I was shocked to hear him sing correct lyrics in correct tune ! The whole  market was looking at us as if we have come from some dream-land 🙂 Uncle then asked (with gestures and expressions) if RK (Raj Kapoor) is alive or dead, I said dead. Then he asked if RK’s wife is alive or dead. He further extended (unsolicited but important) advice to TH saying “No life without wife” and made sure the whole square understands that I and TH are married (to each other :p). This warmth of people is very typical of Asia and I haven’t yet experienced it in other parts of the World.

The guide- Mansoor was born and brought up in the Old Town-Bukhara and he knew almost every single human on our way. That also meant that he had to take us to all the shops owned by his friends to help them make some business. We; being stingy Indians, only bought a fridge magnet and moved on. There is a lot of variety for those who like to buy souvenirs. And the shop-keepers are gentle and patient. We did not see any shopkeeper lose his cool just because a tourist did not buy anything from his shop. Mansoor made sure that we ticked off all the beautiful monuments. We walked more than 10kms that day in scorching heat. But we were so engrossed in the beauty of Bukhara that we did not even realize that we were royally dehydrated and baked like a cake! Bukhara is a world heritage site and boasts of magnificent architecture. Lyabi-Khauz Ensemble, Magoki-Attori Mosque, Chor-Minor Madrasah, trade domes, Kalyan Minaret, Kalyan Mosque and Miri-Arab Madrasah, Ulugbek and Abdulazizkhan madrasahs, Ark Fortress, Bolo-Khauz Mosque, Ismail Samani and Chashma-Ayub mausoleums are all charmingly preserved or restored.

Once we had finished our circuit, Mansoor and us; we made an impromptu plan of extending our tour to the outskirts of Bukhara. We had our lunch in a Hotel called Chinar and then were enroute the dusty roads lined with farms of melons and lemons. Bukhara was comparatively crowded but the monuments strewn around Bukhara were completely deserted and made us wonder of the wasted potential. Uzbekistan has so much to offer and be on the tourist circuit! During our drive in and around Bukhara, the driver wanted to chat with us but his lack of English proficiency meant that Mansoor acted as an interpreter too. After the customary questions of where in India etc. the driver (through Mansoor) asked what our religion is. That question took us by surprise and TH and I exchanged quick scared looks. That fraction of a second was loaded with unknown discomfort. Finally we answered we were Hindu and the driver simply nodded and continued the conversation. That moment of silence still makes me ashamed that we had to think twice before answering a simple question. What a strange world we live in!

After having spent the whole day in and around Bukhara, we came back to Lyab-I Khauz and settled under a tree to enjoy “dolce far niente”! It gives us immense satisfaction as planners and executors to be able to tick off the tourist grid and still find time to have a beer or ice-cream and watch the world pass by 🙂 while we enjoyed our time at LyabiKhauz pond, we saw elaborate wedding troops with photographers thronging the place. I am an unabashed onlooker to the chagrin of TH. I was so totally engrossed in one particular photo shoot that all the Babushkas (Russian grannys) started looking back me. Their unabashed curiosity matched mine and they almost pulled me in their family photo for no other reason but me being from India. Thankfully our ride to airport arrived at that precise moment and I could escape. The feeling of being adored in foreign land just because of some ancient connection is indescribable.

Samarkand:

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Next in our itinerary was the famed city of Samarkand. It is located on the ancient trade route (Silk Route) between China and Mediterranean. My fascination with this part of the World stems from the attraction I have for all things ancient. And Samarkand did not disappoint. The mosques, mausoleums, bazaar are dripping with history. Samarkand was marginally bearable in terms of heat but here again we had to walk close to 12km within 4-5 hours. Before this trip we both had concluded that our past agility of trekking and hiking is lost forever. But considering the ease with which we managed to get past the physically gruelling circuits, we still have it in us 🙂

Samarkand is beautifully preserved and no prizes for guessing what we liked best! The star attraction of the city – Registan square deserves all the praise it gets. Of all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Uzbekistan, Samarkand is the most majestic. The sightseeing circuit mainly covers the Ulugbek Observatory, Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, remains of Bibi-Khanum Mosque, spectacular Registan Square Siab bazaar, Gur-Emir Mausoleum. The highlight for me was the bridge connecting old city to the new. The bridge is built on a col or a pass that was earlier the actual Silk Route through which traders and caravans used to pass. It was surreal to stand on that bridge and watch the vast expanse of city on either side with multiple minarets rising in the sky. That moment will remain frozen in mind.

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The Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is on the other side of that bridge. The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemblehas multiple mausoleums and buildings are the most amazing blue! It was fabled to be the paradise on earth as once you climb up the hill and enter the necropolis; it soothes your eyes and soul 🙂 the inner domes in these mausoleums are exquisite.A tip on how to capture these in your camera – use front camera in horizontal position so that you don’t have to crane your neck 🙂

Samarkand hosts Ulugh Beg Observatory which is considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world. The observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics, but it still has a large arch that had been used to determine midday. A trench of about 2 meters wide was dug in a hill along the line of the Meridian and in it was placed the arc of the instrument. We were lucky to have reached the spot just few minutes past midday. Neither TH nor I understood much about the functioning of that instrument but the information placard did mention that Ulugh Beg determined the length of the tropical year as 365d 5h 49m 15s, which has an error of +25s, making it more accurate than Nicolaus Copernicus’ estimate which had an error of +30s. We figured that we are standing on the hallowed ground which once witnessed enlightened scholars.

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Personally I loved Bukhara over Samarkand. May be the guide makes a difference 😉 Mansoor was extraordinary! We being a little off the rocker; we decided to travel back to Samarkand by road. That journey of close to 5 hours was a perfect opportunity to get a glimpse of the interiors of Uzbekistan. The roads are decent and the journey was comfortable. The land cannot be called beautiful in the conventional sense. It’s mostly barren and dusty. But, we found it completely safe to travel on our own in Uzbekistan without a shadow of anxiety. Samarkand sealed the deal for us being converted to complete fans of this wondrous land.

We have missed visiting Khiva and Fergana valley – may be some other day 🙂

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