Category Archives: Uzbekistan

Samarkand

Gur-Emir Mausoleum. Said to be the mausoleum of Amir Timur (aka Tamerlane) and family members.

Gur-Emir Mausoleum. Said to be the mausoleum of Amir Timur (aka Tamerlane) and family members.

As I was posting my travel journals on this blog, I was fully aware that nothing so far has been posted about Samarkand – for which I blame on my slow start to diarising this trip. Could any trip to Uzbekistan not include Samarkand, a city with an almost mythological and romantic status in literature? Here’s an example:

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand

– Golden Journey to Samarkand, by James Elroy Flecker

As I said before, travelling isn’t so much about seeing the places that you read about come to life, nor experiencing the words of others. Not that reading the words of others isn’t enjoyable in and of itself. Rather, travelling is a wholly separate activity. It is an interaction of the corporeal experience and one’s own accumulated sensibilities. Does present day Samarkand evoke the romance of the words ascribed to it by so many writers, some of whom have never even been? That is for you the traveller to say. Do Flecker’s words resonate with the sense of wanderlust that a reader might share? That is for you the reader to experience.

The Registan (meaning 'sandy place' which explains why the buildings are leaning), heart of ancient Samarkand during the Timurid era.   From left to right: Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah.

The Registan (meaning ‘sandy place’ which explains why the buildings are leaning), heart of ancient Samarkand during the Timurid era.
From left to right: Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah.

Entrance of Sher-doh Madrassah, the Registan.

Entrance of Sher-doh Madrassah, the Registan.

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Restorers at one of the madrassahs at the Registan.

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Even if I attempt to share my experience of Samarkand (or any destination for that matter) through photos, there are limitations. My friend JJ once said something to this effect: a photograph reveals as much of the photographed object as the photographer him/herself – I agree and would extend that to the edit and curation process. Photography is yet another activity in and of itself.

Some people have criticised Samarkand for being over-restored. But surely the restored parts of Samarkand is as much a legacy of its original builders and that of its contemporary restorers?

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Samarkand non bread - l had several conversations later on in the trip on which region's non bread tastes the best.  Siob Bazaar.

Samarkand non bread – l had several conversations later on in the trip on which region’s non bread tastes the best.
Siob Bazaar.

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Grape vines line the verandahs of most homes, providing cool shade and added charm. In the outskirts of Samarkand.

Look at the way these two little girls are holding their hands like best buddies - so sweet. At Ishratkhana Mausoleum, Samarkand.

Look at the way these two little girls are holding their hands like best buddies – so sweet. At Ishratkhana Mausoleum, Samarkand.

Pears in season. In the old town of Samarkand.

Pears in season. In the old town of Samarkand.

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A Lada amidst Daewoos.

Modern day cementery near the ancient mausoleums of Shah-i-Zinda.

Modern day cementery near the ancient mausoleums of Shah-i-Zinda.

Restoration works at Shah-i-Zinda.

Restoration works at Shah-i-Zinda.

Sunset over Samarkand: the silhouettes of the Mausoleum of Bibi Khanym (Amir Timur's wife) on the left, and Bibi Khanym Mosque on the right.

Sunset over Samarkand: the silhouettes of the Mausoleum of Bibi Khanym (Amir Timur’s wife) on the left, and Bibi Khanym Mosque on the right.
Photo taken from Shah-i-Zinda.

Not many words in this post. But I hope you have enjoyed reading.

Tashkent

26 & 27 October 2013

The only blot on this trip is a stomach ache towards the last 2 days in Khiva. Left Khiva for Urgench airport, a small airport with large empty spaces. I like domestic flights in most countries: fuss free, fewer people. A headache was seeping in and I knocked it back with some panadols and a nap on the short flight over vast dry lands.

Landed in Tashkent. It was raining. The nap did make me feel better, and while waiting for my bag on the carousel, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air in the cold rainy evening. No taxis in sight, so I asked a lady standing next to me where is the taxi. She said something and gestured something that at that time seemed like “let’s share a taxi together” which I didn’t mind. Little did I realised I had misunderstood what she meant. I gestured to the carousel, meaning I was going to collect my bag. She too, and came plodding along with a very heavy bag (which I knew because I helped her carry one end of it).  Later on I found out it was a bag full of non bread (the Khiva and Urgench variants).

Out in the dark and in the rain, two youthful figures came running to greet her. It turns out her children were here to pick her up from the airport and she was going to give me a lift to my hotel! Her children, both in their mid twenties, could speak a little English and we started chatting in the car. Turns out that the lady was born in Urgench and moved to Tashkent in the 80s. She had just returned from her sister’s daughter’s wedding in Urgench (weddings are big affairs in Uzbekistan, kind of like us Chinese here). Then the lady invited me to their home for dinner! Her son tells me there is a younger sister who is cooking mushrooms at home right then. Since my headache and stomach ache had eased up, I broke out a resounding “OK!”.

Earlier on, I had wondered what I was going to do that evening in Tashkent, and then this serendipitous encounter! As I later told the children after dinner, I was very lucky to have met their mother at the airport.

What a great night. After dinner, I was packed off with two non breads to bring home. “For your mother,” she said.

The next morning, the rain continued incessantly. My stomach ache was back again (nothing to do with my warm hosts from the night before, but a problem I had since Khiva). Took a very slow walk to look for the metro.

Korean food street. Near my hotel on Mirabad street, Tashkent.

Korean food street. Near my hotel on Mirabad street, Tashkent.

In the end, I gave up walking in the rain (later I realised I could have just hitchhiked), Decided to take a bus instead. It helped that the place I was going to is a very well-known one: Chorsu Bazaar. I had heard from my hosts the night before that this is one of the first national bazaars in the nation.

Korean ladies selling pickled salads and kimchi. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Korean ladies selling pickled salads and kimchi. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Chorsu Bazaar. A massive market. This is just the eggs and vegetables section.

Chorsu Bazaar. A massive market. This is just the eggs and vegetables section.

Laghman (noodles). In Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Laghman (noodles). In Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Pumpkins galore. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

Pumpkins galore. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent.

If I stayed in Tashkent, I suspect I will be coming to Chorsu Bazaar every weekend. Every single fresh produce in season imaginable is here in this one place. Alas, my stomach ache was not letting up. I could only salivate at the fruits and stocked up on some pears.

Meat section of Chorsu Bazaar., Tashkent.

Meat section of Chorsu Bazaar., Tashkent.

Later in the afternoon, the skies cleared up. Took the underground to the centre of Tashkent, and emerged above to this geometrical galore that is the facade of Hotel Uzbekistan.

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Statue of Amir Timur, right in the heart of Tashkent.

Statue of Amir Timur, right in the heart of Tashkent.

In the city centre of Tashkent are huge boulevards. So different from other parts of Uzbekistan I had been to.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Mustaqilik Maydoni, Tashkent.

Broad tree-lined boulevards that are typical of the streets of Tashkent's city centre.

Broad tree-lined boulevards that are typical of the streets of Tashkent’s city centre.

Took some metro rides. Some how Tashkent’s metro reminds me a bit of Pyongyang’s metro. No murals of dear leaders as such. Rather what they have in common is a sense of cold war grandeur. I read some where that the metro in Tashkent was built as a nuclear shelter. In one station, there is an interesting facade of the first cosmonauts.

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Soon thereafter, it was time for me to go back to the hotel to collect my bag and head for the airport. The Tashkent airport departure hall is even messier than its arrival hall: people in all forms of queue to check in, a clutter of languages engulfed me as I was mistaken for the Uzbek Korean diaspora, clearing customs (yup, you have to clear customs even when you exit the country, declaring the money that you have left on you), a large entourage of 120 people from an Indian pharmaceutical company touring Uzbekistan for a grand total of 4 days (I asked one member, are there no female staff in your company?), watching a lot of guys being asked to go into a side room for a search (I am glad I am not the ‘searchable’ gender), travellers carrying melons (those delicious beings!). Later I found out that the melons are gifts for their Korean investment partners who love Uzbek melons (so do I!).

On the plane, my seat mate lined his palms with the finger tips touching and said a silent prayer as the plane took off.

I sat back and thought of what an enjoyable holiday this has been.

Autumn in Khorezm

24 October 2013

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I can look at this for a long time, drunk on the colours of red, brown and gold.

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I want to ride my bicycle here, next to bearded men in suits with fedoras. I miss cycling!

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Autumn is also the season for cotton picking in Uzbekistan. It is labour intensive hard work, and tough in the hotter regions, for only $2 or $3 per kilo. It involves students as well. I have been told that if they don’t go, they would have to pay money instead. Cotton is mostly exported to China, made into clothes and then sold back to Uzbekistan!

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Lorry bursting at its seams with cotton.

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Steppes of Khorezm

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24 October 2013

I never thought that I’d be moved by vast desolate lands. But here in the windswept steppes of Khorezm, the seemingly barren lands comes to life: the stubborn little shrubs, the crunch of sand and pottery bits underneath my feet, the whirring howls of winds spinning through the ruins’ narrow crevices. The horizon of the plains touches the skies, the earth and the celestial as one. How can a place be so empty, so plain, so alone, and yet – judging by the number of ruins of old fortresses – so worth protecting, so precious, so full of life all at the same time?

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Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country. Yet, contrary to what another traveller felt, I don’t feel constricted. Here, the great flat plains is my sea.

Ayaz Qala

Ayaz Qala

 

Interesting plant that 'sang' a tune through the whirring howls of winds. Any idea what it is called? At Ayaz Qala

Interesting plant that ‘sang’ a tune through the whirring howls of winds. Any idea what it is called? At Ayaz Qala

Toprak Qala

Toprak Qala

Kyzyl Qala

Kyzyl Qala

Khiva, a gem in the oasis

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23 & 25 October 2013

With the sceneries of the vast plains and its autumnal fringes still vivid in mind, I was transported into yet another sight to behold.

Here inside the Ichon Qala, it feels like a world from hundreds of years ago. This inner fortress is said to be the last resting place before the caravans crossed the desert into Iran. The old town is well preserved, as much a legacy of its ancient builders as that of its contemporary master restorers (the proprietor of the guesthouse I stayed in is a retired restorer. The guesthouse itself has a very grand high ceiling dining room said to have been designed by the proprietor himself).

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Inside the Ichon Qala is a living breathing city till this day. Even if the rooftops are now dotted with satellite dishes, the city has a certain quality of timelessness: little motor vehicles within the city, people going about their daily life, walking at an even pace with no hurry. Yes there are tourists like me, but not so many. Bathed in the glorious hues of the setting sun, the old town is simply resplendent.

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Sunset over Ichon Qala. Photo taken from the western part of the city wall.

Every morning, I go up to the guesthouse’s rooftop for a quiet sitting, waiting for the sun to rise, absorbing the stillness of the city as it wakes up, taking in the smell of burning wood fire as households start their day even if day after day I could feel less and less of my fingers with the dipping temperatures. One day, it rained and even snowed a little.

Inside the Ichon Qala are a litter of architectural gems…

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Inside Juma Mosque, simple and serene as the lights stream through the intricately carved wooden pillars. Khiva.

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Islom Hoja Minaret

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Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum

Inside Kuhna Ark.

Inside Kuhna Ark.

… and lovely people.

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There is some pretty delicious food outside the Ichon Qala, at the bazaar.

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Somsa – buns with delicious meat and onion filling, piping hot from the oven.

Weddings are a big affair here. Back at the guesthouse, we watched a home video of the proprietor’s niece’s wedding. Actually home video is an understatement, since it is very well edited. On one morning alone, I encountered 3 entourages of newly weds taking a turn around the old town, going from holy site to holy site for prayers, thereafter kicking the party up a notch with an impromptu dance (by the groomsmen mostly) in the middle of the town.

It's a local custom for newly weds to take a turn around the Ichon Qala. This is the third entourage I bumped into that morning.  Inside the mausoleum of Pahlavon Mahmud, a poet, philosopher and legendary wrestler who became Khiva's patron saint. Considered to be a holy place and people come here for prayers.

It’s a local custom for newly weds to take a turn around the Ichon Qala. This is the third entourage I bumped into that morning.
Inside the mausoleum of Pahlavon Mahmud, a poet, philosopher and legendary wrestler who became Khiva’s patron saint. Considered to be a holy place and people come here for prayers.

Khiva is really a unique place. The city morphs with the various weathers and changing times of day. One particular feeling which I couldn’t capture on camera was walking through the old town at night: it is absolutely quiet, the silence perhaps reinforced by the sturdy enclosures of the city wall. As the old town is sparsely lit, moonlight leads the way through cobbled then unpaved roads in the silhouettes of leaning minarets.

One traveller commented that Khiva feels like a scene out of the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. To me, Khiva certainly feels magical.

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Through the Kyzylkum desert (Bukhara to Khiva)

23 October 2013

Despite reading up on Uzbek history and current affairs prior to the trip, it had completely slipped my mind as to what the terrain here might look like. That was, until a friend visited me and flipped through my atlas, and wondered aloud what the whole bunch of “dots” on the map over  a part of Uzbekistan represent. We finally concluded it means SAND.

The shared taxi ride (a common form of transport in between cities) from Bukhara to Khiva is 6 hour long drive on smooth straight roads that cut through the flat sandy horizon of the Kyzylkum desert.

Taking a rest. In the Kyzylkum desert.

Taking a rest. In the Kyzylkum desert.

The river Amu Darya, separating Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan.

The river Amu Darya, separating Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan.

On the way from Bukhara to Khiva. Maybe an hour away from Turtkul. Near an oil/gas refinery. My car mate counted that the train passing in the background has 26 carriages transporting oil and gas.

This is the queue for propane, estimated to take a 2-hour wait.
Somewhere near Tortkol.

There is something rather soothing about the flat plains and vast stretches of sand. Very different from my experience in say, the Atacama desert of Chile.

As the car approaches Tortkol, greeting by the roads were apricot orchards swaying in a sea of autumn red. Then golden trees. Then grazing sheep, donkeys and camels. The most glorious sight of all was a sea of orange flamed trees flanking the river banks of the Amu Darya. Couldn’t take a photo of it as the car could not stop on the bridge. But it is a sight that I will not forget.

My first experience of autumn near the desert and it was magnificent. More of it in later posts.

From Tortkol onwards to Khiva, the colours of autumn greet us on the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert.

From Tortkol onwards to Khiva, the colours of autumn greet us on the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum desert.

Bukhara

21-22 October 2013

Heard so much rave reviews of Bukhara and the old town does not disappoint. The old town doesn’t just house ancient buildings that symbolise Bukhara’s glorious past as Central Asia’s religious, cultural and trade hub; rather it’s a living breathing town, a place of its modern day dwellers tucked in twisted alleys of unpaved road. The old town can be easily explored on foot, whereas the modern part of the city is easy to navigate on mashrutkas and buses where those grubby 500 som and 200 som notes come in handy (it’s 600 som per ride). People are generally courteous in giving up their seats for seniors and women carrying their groceries. I would have very much wanted to stay for a fourth day but alas, couldn’t arrange for a later flight from Urgench (more of that in a later post) so I had to make my way to Khiva soon.

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