Tashkent - our first taste of Central Asia

Trip Start Jun 15, 2009
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Trip End Sep 09, 2009


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Where I stayed
San Buh Hotel

Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Friday, July 24, 2009

(Sim)

It wasn't until about halfway through the flight to Tashkent from Tehran that I gingerly removed my hijab (headscarf). I felt strangely provocative once I removed it, almost naked, a strange sensation considering I was dressed from head to toe and was no longer subject to Iran's Islamic law.

The minute I stepped off the plane I had a heightened sense of awareness of women and their appearance. Looking out onto the tarmac I spotted a group of women in singlet tops. In one sense it was a relief to see such liberal clothing but in another they seemed so exposed. Had I somehow become indoctrinated by the Iranian ethic? As we walked through the duty free shops I was struck once more by the pictures of women in advertising, scantily clad women holding perfume bottles or alcohol. These were advertisements I had seen many times before but now they appeared so graphic and erotic. I was suddenly aware that in the three weeks I had spent in Iran I hadn't seen any women in advertising apart from those covered from head toe. There certainly wouldn't have been any advertising advocating perfume or alcohol in Iran.

Walking through customs the culture shock was only reinforced – again the women dressed very liberally, particularly the Russian looking women. As well as the clothing hair had never been so fascinating to me, after not seeing women's hair in Iran. As we drove in the taxi to Tashkent, modern music blared on the radio, something else that had become a very foreign concept. Not once in our time in Iran did we drive with rock music playing. I was surprised by my altered senses and tried to imagine how strange it must be for an Iranian, living years under their restrictive laws, to be confronted by Western culture.

We were surprised to find there were no ATMs at the airport in Tashkent. Little did we know getting  money out in this country was going to be a laborious task – we spent the first hour on the ground going from large hotel to large hotel trying to withdraw money. ATMs in Uzbekistan only give out a maximum of $12 USD at a time (when they have money at all) and at this rate that was only just going to cover our taxi fare. The alternative was to get a cash advance on our Visa cards (with a 4% charge) and then change the US dollars into Uzbek som. After trying another couple of ATMs we were forced to do the latter and changed money at the bank rate. Later we found out that you should never change money the official way – black market money changers were everywhere and were without a doubt the best place to change money (which we did the following day).

Tashkent was an attractive city, very green with large boulevards and parks. It had a Soviet feel to it but was a little softer than it's Russian counterparts. The first hotel we found (the Poytaht) was full and the room rate had doubled since the guidebook had been published. Fortunately we found a wonderful woman at the hotel who was a self-employed travel agent. She proceeded to book our hotel and also secured our flight tickets to Urgench for the next day. Once that was done she took us to a little local spot for lunch (I think it was a traders/bankers cafeteria). We sampled our first Uzbek lunch, a cross between Russian and Asian food. It wasn't bad at all, especially after Iran. I was slightly surprised to be served the salad that was topped with French fries and tomato sauce, an interesting combination.

The next place we tried, the Orzu Hotel, was very disappointing – a faceless Soviet building with bland service and cell-like rooms. We sat on the bed for a minute deciding what to do. It had already been quite a long day to get here but we both knew it was too depressing to stay there so we put our bags on our backs and carried on down the leafy back street to the Sam Buh Hotel. Although nothing fancy this place had a much better feel to it. The rooms were pleasant and had TV, and even better, they were showing BBC news, something we had been completely starved of when in Iran. Aside from some snippets at Nikki and Heath's we had experienced a bit of a media blackout over the past few weeks.

We spent the late afternoon walking around Tashkent. We were intrigued by the cosmopolitan population, particularly by how many Russian-looking people there were. I had naively expected everyone in Central Asia to have been more Asian looking but here there were long-legged bottle blonde women in very skimpy clothing and stocky Russian looking men who didn't look Asian at all. There were also a large number of ethnic Uzbek people who had interesting faces – quite different from those in eastern Asia. The young faces had flawless olive skin, and almond eyes, whereas the older faces were carved with storytelling lines and an abundance of gleaming gold teeth!

We walked though many parks and past huge ostentatious official buildings built in the Soviet era. We passed one square where it looked like all of the local women went to get their wedding photos taken (outside the Opera House). While we were there at least 3 couples, the women dressed in spangly meringue dresses, lined up to get their photos taken. I have never seen such hilariously staged photos – it looked like something out of a bad taste bridal magazine.

We ended up walking until dinner time that evening. We were looking for a Syrian restaurant mentioned in the guide book but after a bit of mix up on my behalf we ended up at a very high end restaurant called Caravan, a trendy Japanese restaurant that looked very funky. The whole area was quite hip: it had an organic shop called Chelsea Organics and a pub called The Chelsea. The area we had stumbled upon was indeed the Chelsea of Tashkent. It was late and we'd been walking for hours, so in the end we settled for dinner at the hotel, eating Chelsea Organic fruit, yogurt and beer (for James) in front of the BBC. Ahh the simple pleasures!

We spent much our second day in Tashkent visiting the famous Chorsu Bazaar. Chorsu Bazaar is an enormous farmers market and is a wonderful introduction to Central Asian food markets. The market was predominately populated with Uzbek women, dressed in a plethora of colour with bright scarves tying back their hair. It was such a contrast to the black chadors worn by so many Iranian women.

The market was a vibrant affair with hundreds of vendors selling fresh food. I noticed the great care each of them took in presenting their wares. Fruit was arranged in perfect pyramids, tomatoes were hand polished and gleaming like they had a been air-brushed and little glass jars of fragrant spices were lined up in rows to entice buyers. There was entire section dedicated to kurut, small round white balls of dried yogurt, that smelled a bit like old milk.

Most intriguing were the loaves of bread. Hundreds of round loaves were housed in old fashioned baby carriages (we saw this time and time again) and were varnished with a shiny glaze. The women walked around with their prams of bread like they were parading small babies to passersby – the smell of fresh bread was so alluring! 

We visited a mosque near the market and then headed to the Khast Imom complex. There were an impressive array of Mosques and Medressas that made up this religious center but the star attraction was a 7th century Quran that was housed in the library muesum. This copy was said to be the oldest in the world. The Quran sat at the centre of a small mosque and was housed in a climate controlled glass cabinet. The book was enormous; each page was made out of smooth leather and etched with beautiful calligraphy drawn in thick black paint. The other rooms in the mosque had many other examples of antique Qurans and their evolution over the centuries.

We enjoyed a long lunch at Al Delfeen, the Syrian Restaurant we had tried to find the previous evening. The restaurant was set in a rundown Soviet-era building but we sat in the front courtyard on carpeted daybeds with tables perched on top. It was an extremely pleasant spot. Excited by the extensive Lebanese and Syrian menu, we ordered food by the plateful. We had been so starved of fresh food in the restaurants in Iran that we decided to make up for lost time. We left with full bellies and after one last walk around Tashkent we flagged a taxi driver to take us to the airport via our hotel.

Unfortunately our taxi driver had the navigational skills of a blind bat. He drove us around and around in circles, stopping more and more often to ask for directions. Thankfully James directed him from the guidebook and after a fair amount of charades we finally made it to the airport, in the nick of time. When I first started travelling with James I never understood his obsession with pulling out the map every time we got into a taxi and entered a new city or town. I was always of the theory that once we were in the taxi we could relax and enjoy being chauffeured to the door of wherever we were going. However, from the experience of the last  couple of months I couldn't have be more grateful for travelling with a map nerd. I can't count the times that James has navigated our taxi drivers to various destinations on this trip, from tiny villages to bustling cities. We never would have made it without James' international charades. Although often comical, they had been invaluable.    
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