Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Central Asia - Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan may have wowed us with its absurdities, but it didn't have very much in the way of authenticity. Any genuine history seemed to lie in crumbling desert ruins, and any remnants of ancient culture was far out of focus. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, couldn't have been more different and gave us our first real taste of what Central Asia is all about. There's no escaping the footprints of history here, with Alexander the Great, Marco Polo and Genghis Khan all contributing to the rise and fall of this Silk Road cornerstone. We had 10 days in the country, passing down through the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, before finishing up with a day in the capital, Tashkent. If you want more gold statues and idol worship, you've come to the wrong place. However, if you're into blue tiled domes, strap yourself in for the time of your life!

First up on our list was the hidden gem of Khiva. Now, most tourists into the country would enter through the Eastern cities of Tashkent or Samarkand, and so a half-day, cross-country train ride would put many off adding Khiva to their itinerary. Luckily for us, as we were crossing in from the other side, this was the obvious first stop on Uzbek soil. And even better, as it's just off the tourist trail, we could enjoy it all in relative peace.

Our first task, upon arrival in town, was to get some local currency, and this time we didn't have to do it through illegal means! And it seems the Gods smiled down on us for our lawful nature as, within minutes, we were millionaires!

Uzbek millionaires... 

We had three days in Khiva overall, and although it's somewhere you could easily get covered in half a day, it's sometimes nice just to go at a slower pace, especially in such laid back surroundings. As we were staying in the heart of the old walled city, which is a UNESCO heritage site, it was lovely just to walk the streets, snap some pics and do very little.

In terms of history, Khiva's past is very much a mixed bag. It seems unbelievable now as you walk down its quiet, cobbled streets, but this sleepy town was once the capital of Central Asia's slave trade. On a brighter note, it was also the birthplace of Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the creator of Algebra. (Which is the greater crime, says you!) There's even a statue of him by the West Gate of the walled city, but I only found out about it after we had left Khiva, and so I missed the ultimate photo op! I'm actually gutted about it!

Some man though, al-Khwarizmi. Solving equations and causing sensations since 780 AD.

The main sight and symbol of Khiva is the Kalta Minor Minaret. It was designed to be a full sized tower, and ordered to be tall enough to see as far as Bukhara, 400km away, but it was never finished. It still looks deadly though, and besides, there are loads of minarets in the world. There isn't anything that looks like this.

They really like the colour blue here!

Our main hangout spot while we were in town was Terrassa Cafe, which is the perfect place to watch the world go by. We also got chatting to the owner who told us about his life, about Uzbekistan, and his family. His two young nieces even asked to take a photo with us!

One memorable point he mentioned was the swing in temperatures over the course of the year in Uzbekistan, ranging from 50 degrees in the summer, to as low as -20 degrees in the winter! And we think Irish weather is changeable!

After our three days in town, we finally had to bid farewell to Khiva, a place that's in the perfect sweet spot of being incredibly tourist-worthy, but not overrun with many tourists. A really lovely little nook to spend a few days.

Emotionally, leaving Khiva was tough. Physically, it was a whole lot tougher as we had to endure a sweaty, sweaty 8 hour train ride down to Bukhara. And the worst part? We were dying of dehydration, so at one of the stations, I jumped off the train, bought 4 litres of water and sprinted back on just before the train pulled away... only to realise that it was sparkling water! There is really nothing worse in life. Think of anything. It is a distant second to sparkling water.

Next up was Bukhara, which was... fine, but that's about the best I can say for it. I think if we had visited this place in isolation, we would have been very impressed, but it kind of felt like Uzbekistan's middle child. It wasn't small and quaint like Khiva. It wasn't big and impressive like Samarkand. It just kind of got lost somewhere in between. (Sorry to all the middle children out there!)

I feel bad for Bukhara now, so here are some nice pics and we'll move swiftly along. At least the train to Samarkand was only an hour and a half. And they had TVs that played life hack videos! Handy!

Side note: lots of people in Uzbekistan have gold teeth. It's a real thing here. And I don't mean single gold teeth. I mean a mouth full of them!

And so to Samarkand which is very much the jewel in the crown of Uzbek history and tourism. It's a lot more spread out than Khiva or Bukhara, and so you would need a few days here, but they'll be a few days well spent.

Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, with Alexander the Great once remarking, "Everything I have read about Samarkand is the truth, except that it is much more beautiful than I could imagine". Now, I wouldn't go that far, (take it easy, Alexander) but it was very pretty.

The main attraction in Samarkand is Registan. This is the central square of the old city, flanked on three sides by centuries old, ornate buildings and minarets. It also seems to just be a general hangout spot for the locals and we even saw a fair few couples getting wedding photos taken on the grounds. At 9pm, there is a light show which we had read online to be pretty lame, but I liked it! It's not in English, but it's nice just to follow the pictures.

It also acts as a kind of gateway to many of the other main attractions in the city, such as the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Siab Bazaar and the Shah-i-Zinda.

Where does the tiling end and the sky begin?

We made a little video diary in a quiet spot around the back of the Shah-i-Zinda:

As mentioned previously, our buddy Genghis Khan also paid a visit to Samarkand, which at the time was the capital of the Khwarazmian Empire. (Since our visit to Mongolia a few years ago, we're big Genghis fans, so we're totally on his side here). So, here's the story. It's the 13th century. The Mongols have conquered pretty much everything in their path and so Genghis decides to hang up his furry boots, and instead, create a trade network with neighbouring empires, so that the Mongols can prosper without any of the work. Anyway, he sends a 500 man caravan to the Khwarazmian Empire to establish trade ties. They were all killed. Bad move lads. Now, the Khan is not a man to be trifled with, but he says 'fair enough, maybe it was a mistake', and he sends three ambassadors to the Shah himself to make peace. One is killed while the other two are shaved and sent back to Mongolia as a message. Oh no you didn't! So, what does a now-retired Genghis do? Well, he gets back in the saddle, raises the largest army Asia had ever seen, and literally burns the entire Khwarazmian Empire to the ground, killing an estimated 1.7 million people in the process, before continuing on into Persia and Eastern Europe.

He was retired lads! You should have let him be!

Only one more stop left now, as we hopped on a train for the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. There isn't a whole lot to see here, but as we had to catch a flight, we said we'd spend a day in town. The train journey was a nice one as well, three and a half hours long, and the cabin we were in was empty! The AC was working too! Double bonus!

In case you didn't know, Uzbekistan (in fact, all of the countries we're visiting) was formerly part of the USSR. You wouldn't know it from the architecture and way of life in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, but Tashkent, on the other hand, was very Soviet. I don't even mean that in a bad way. I kinda liked Tashkent, but it's clearly of a very different era.

Russian is quite widely spoken in these countries too, which was a help as Aisling has a small bit herself. Most people had at least a little English, but when they didn't, Russian offered a much better plan B than Uzbek!

We spent the day going around the ultra-Soviet metro system (which was only 12 cent for any journey), and made a couple of stop-offs, but as I said, one day is more than enough.

It seems Tesco have opened up a branch here too!

And that was Uzbekistan! We had a really nice 10 days here, and don't have any real negatives to report - we saw some amazing places, the people are nice, we never felt unsafe, it's quite easy and cheap to travel around, and not very touristy at all. I can easily see Central Asia becoming the next big tourist hotspot over the coming years, and when it does, Uzbekistan will certainly be at the centre of things. At least we got to enjoy the place while it was still relatively quiet.

Before we set off on this journey, I could have probably told you a couple of things about Turkmenistan and Uzbeksitan, but now we're about to really step into the unknown - next stop, Tajikistan!


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