Friday, November 1, 2013

Silk Road – Uzbekistan – July/August 2013
Our intrepid group flew from Bishtek, Kyrgzstan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan to continue the rest of the silk road journey.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in central asia.  It gained its independence from Russia in 1991 and is noted for its tree lined streets and numerous fountains.  We stayed at the elegant Hotel Uzbekistan which was centrally located and close to the metro station.  The metro stations are very modern with beautiful Islamic themes.  We took a walk to the square nearby looking for a restaurant but it was late so there wasn’t much available.

In the morning I took a walk across the street to the enormous Amir Timur statute (he was a famous or perhaps infamous conqueror) before enjoying a delicious breakfast of spicy chickpeas, little rolls with cream cheese, eggs, cucumbers, etc. etc.  Our guide met us afterwards for a walking tour of Tashkent before it got too hot.  Most days it was about 110F!!!  We walked to the Independence Square to see the crying mother statue, constructed in 1999 to honor the 400,000 uzbek soldiers who died in WWII.  We also changed money which resulted in large packets of Uzebek som (2600 to $1).  Most of the notes were 100 som so it took wads of money to buy anything.  On to the Chorsu Bazaar filled with fruits, vegetables, warm breads, clothes, etc. and then into the old city with its mud brick houses.  We finally arrived at the Khast Imam square which contains a complex of mosques, the mausoleum of St. Kaffal Shaski, etc.  The buildings have been artfully restored with their turquoise domes and beautiful tile facades. 

Later in the afternoon my roommate and I walked to the Uzbek state museum of fine arts which had many beautiful examples of suzani embroidery.  Lunch at a little Mediterranean restaurant and then a metro ride to see the 1230 foot high TV tower (the eighth highest in the world).  Dinner was a little chicken potato pie and tea…

Early breakfast and then a 4 hour train ride to Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  Our hotel was in the old section near the bazaar.  Jolie took us on an orientation walk past the Registan, an enormous plaza with turquoise domed buildings all around – it used to be a meeting place along the silk road where goods were exchanged and travelers stayed.  Samarkand sat in a central position on the silk road between China and the West and in 1221 it was destroyed by Genghis Khan.  Timur (Tamerlane) made it his capital in 1370 and his grandson Ulugbek ruled until 1449.  Many of the buildings were also destroyed in the 18th century from earthquakes but most have been restored by UNESCO.  Lunch on one of the little streets – tomato/cucumber/onion salad and rice pilaf with carrots.  A few of us continued on to Tashkent Street, the main street in town to shop and then stopped for coffee and soft serve ice cream at a little outdoor café.  Inside was a very eclectic shop with unique art.  I bought a “belt” embroidered with little white buttons that I liked and then we wandered around the bazaar where they sold all sorts of nut candy and nougat, fruits, vegetables, etc. 

Once it cooled down a bit in the evening a guide took us to the Gur-E-Amir (Persian for “Tomb of the King”) Mausoleum where Timur, two sons and two grandsons lie beneath this beautifully restored building.  It is famous for its simplicity of construction crowned by a bright blue fluted dome.  Afterwards we stopped for dinner nearby.

In the morning I took a walk to the Registan and leisurely wandered around.  Our guide met us after breakfast and we walked through the farmer’s market to Bibi-Khanym Mosque, once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques.  It has slowly crumbled over the years and partially collapsed in the 1897 earthquake.  The interior courtyard contains an enormous marble Quran stand.  Legend says that Bibi, Timur’s Chinese wife ordered the mosque built while he was away.  Her own compact 14th century mausoleum across the street is rather drab in comparison.  On to Shah-I-Zinda, a stunning avenue of mausoleums which contain some of the richest tilework in the muslim world.  The name which means tomb of the living king, refers to its original holiest shrine – the grave of Kusam-Ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed.  Next we visited the Registan, an ensemble of three majestic, tiled madrasahs (Islamic schools).  It was medieval Samarkand’s commercial center and the plaza was probably a wall to wall bazaar.  The three great edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrasahs; anything older having been destroyed by Genghis Khan.  Afterwards I returned to the restaurant where we had dinner last night and shared rice pilaf with our intrepid guide.  We picked up a watermelon and shared it with some of the other travelers later for “dinner”.

In the morning after breakfast of some freshly baked flatbread and homemade jam we drove to Shakhrisaby, the birth place of Tamerlane.  We arrived at our home stay and divided up into the available rooms.  Even though it was verry hot we walked to the bazaar, stopping for some soft serve ice cream along the way.  Later in the afternoon we visited the Ak-saray palace built by Tamerlane and took 20 years to finish and a large statue of him as well.  Today only the entrance portals still stand in fine mosaic but even so it is very impressive in ruins.  There was a very old ferris wheel nearby which we rode on verrryyy slowllly…

About 6 p.m. our hostess began preparing “plov” (rice pilaf with carrots) in the courtyard using a cauldron placed over a wood fired stove.  We all took turns stirring the vegetables, adding the rice, etc. and finally covering the pot to let it simmer for 30 minutes.  It was delicious!!  She had added several whole heads of garlic which she squeezed into the rice for extra flavor.

In the morning we walked to Timor’s tomb and the tomb of his favorite son before heading to Bukhara, which was a part of the Persian Empire for a long time, about 5 hours away.  Walked across the street for a delicious lunch of lamb kebabs and cabbage/carrot/cucumber salad and then wandered around the city.  Walking tour later in the afternoon started in Lyab-I Hauz, a plaza built around a pond in 1620 where there is great bronze statue of Hoja Nasuddin “wise fool”.  On the east side is the Nadir Divanbegi Madrasha, built as a caravanserai and on the west side is Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka, a lodging house both with beautiful tile facades.  Walked through gates and passed by many other mosques and beautiful buildings, some of which now sell rugs and handicrafts inside.  The tour ended at the jewelry bazaar and after picking up an ice cream for dinner I turned in for the night.

In the morning we walked to the Kalon Minaret, almost 150 feet high with 14 ornamental bands – all different.  It was known as the Tower of Death, as for centuries criminals were executed by being hurled off the top.  On to the Kalon Mosque which is said to hold 10,000 people.  Its roof looks flat but actually consists of 288 domes. 

We also visited the Ark, a royal town within a town.  It was initially built and occupied around the 5th century AD and many times constructed and many times destroyed.  In 1920 it was greatly damaged by the Bolsheviks which left a large part of the structure in ruins.  It is now a museum with a vast reception and coronation court, open air royal stables, robes worn by the emir, etc.

Later in the afternoon I stopped by the carpet museum located in the very old Magok-I Attari mosque.  Inside were some fine examples of Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazkh, etc. rugs and pocket bags which drape over horses’ backs.  The Fine Arts Museum was also very interesting with many fine paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Finally, I decided to seek out the Jewish Cemetery and did actually find it!!  After walking through the domed building topped with a star of David, I found the cemetery filled with very old tombs – so old that they looked just like stones.  Farther away were the more recent ones all rather jumbled together…In the evening we saw a cultural show in one of the Madrashas but it was rather lame and the dinner included was so bad that after the show I walked back to the restaurant where we had had the delicious lamb kebabs and had dinner there!!  Walked around the pond one last time as we would be leaving for Tashkent in the morning….

The train to Tashkent took all day and we arrived in time to shower and say good-bye to some of our fellow travelers.  The remainder of us had dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant to prepare us for the next part of our adventure.  As it was Rick’s birthday our guide had brought a delicious cake for us to share.  That evening and for the remainder of the trip I had a room to myself!!!  Heaven!!!

The next day was a free day and I took the metro to the applied Arts Museum set in an old residential house.  There were some beautiful jewelry, old wall hangings, fabric paintings, etc.  I stopped by the bazaar again so I could really take my time wandering through the spice and vegetable sections and then back through the old city and the area where our guide had taken us before.  This time I could spend as long as I wanted savoring the beauty of the Madrashas covered in mosaics topped by elegant domes, etc. 

In the evening we met our new guide Dima who is from St. Petersburg and he would be leading us through Kazahkstan to Moscow.  There are only four of us (including Dima) continuing on and we had dinner together at Sim Sim where there was live music and great food.  We shared Greek salad, beet and cabbage salad, bread, pork, lamb and beef kebabs, eggplant/mushroom kebabs which was really fun.  And so the adventure continues….

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