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On the ancient Silk Road

Uzbekistan introduction


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Inspired by recent blogs from my TP friend Bob, I have decided that it is time that I reproduced my Virtual Tourist write-up of my own visit to Uzbekistan back in 2007.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah, Khiva

In the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, ancient and modern meet and intertwine. In the old trading domes of Bukhara, the sun-baked madrassahs of Khiva, the riot of colours that surround the wide expanse of the Registan Square in Samarkand you can step back into the past and feel the weight of history around you.

But (with the possible exception of Khiva’s old town) this isn’t simply a museum or movie set, with its splendours paraded before you behind a screen. Its people live and work among these riches, and those people too are one of the joys of travelling here – eager to welcome you and to share their country and its treasures.

Following the Silk Road

There is something magical in those words – The Silk Road. The sense of a place not quite real, a place of legend or fairy tale. One of those places you might dream of when you first begin to travel, but not understand that you might actually one day find yourself there.

It is said that the secret of silk was smuggled out of China by a princess unable to face married life in the barbarian lands to the west without this one luxury. Through trade it reached Rome and became the textile of choice for the very best togas. What the richest citizens of the Roman Empire demanded, they usually found a way to procure, and the Silk Road was born.

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Domes of the Shah-i-Zindah, Samarkand

For hundreds of years traders faced the dangers of mountains, deserts, hostile climates and even more hostile bandits in their efforts to bring the riches of the east to an eager west – not just silk but spices, paper, even gunpowder. And in the opposite direction went the exotic fruits of central Asia, peaches and pomegranates; wonderfully worked textiles; saffron and even ostriches. To help them cope with the dangers the merchants would travel in large bands, up to 1,000 camels in a train. Caravanserai sprang up in the desert at intervals of about 25 kilometres (a day’s journey by camel) to offer accommodation for men and beasts, and around some of these grew great cities, built on trade and on servicing the caravans. At night stories were swapped, bargains struck, intrigues plotted.

In fact though, this was not one road but several. A network of different routes eventually crossed the continents, but the main ones converged in certain places where trade was best developed or the physical terrain dictated it. And it was not just goods that were traded, but the perhaps even more valuable commodities of information and knowledge. The Silk Road enabled an unprecedented exchange of cultures and ideas, philosophies and religious beliefs, artistic styles and inventions.

The Silk Road flourished for centuries, but in the 13th century the Emperor Ming built the Great Wall and China was cut off from the west. Meanwhile silk production had started in Byzantium, and a maritime route for the spice trade had developed. The Silk Road fell into disuse, and the great cities of Central Asia were left marooned and isolated from the world. Today it is that very sense of isolation that resonates and gives them their magical atmosphere.

Our short tour took us to a number of places, each with its own character and attractions:
~ Tashkent, a largely modern city, thanks to the devastation caused by the impact of the 1966 earthquake, but with some hidden gems.
~ Khiva, the most compact and intact of the Silk Road cities., It can feel more like museum than living city, though people do live there. But this was the place where I found it most easy to imagine myself back in the days when the caravans of traders and camels would arrive after their long and weary journey through the desert, to revive themselves in some green oasis or welcoming caravanserai.
~ Bukhara, my favourite of the cities we visited, retaining a strong sense of the past but as a backdrop for daily life. It is a place where it is easy to realise that our yesterdays are part of today and will still be with us tomorrow.
~ Nurata, smaller and less visited than the other destinations we went to, but worth a stop for its hill-top fortress (said to date from the time of Alexander the Great), a couple of interesting mosques and the sacred pools of fish.
~ A yurt camp in the Kyzyl Kum Desert.
~ Samarkand, larger and less intimate, but home to the most impressive and dramatic of monuments at the Registan and the stunning Shah-i-Zinda.

On a group tour

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With new friends Sue, Georgina and Els

Generally we are not ‘tour group’ people, but we do make an exception occasionally, and this was one of those trips. We chose an Explore tour because we’d travelled with them before and knew that their approach was rather different from the ‘herded like cattle’ sensation that comes with some tours! They have a strong belief in supporting the local economy (so you stay in locally-run accommodation rather than global chains, for instance) and treat customers like adults who have ideas of their own and may want to do their own thing from time to time. They also attract like-minded people, so we found ourselves in a friendly group who on the whole were interested in the same things as us.

So why did we choose a tour? It was partly a case of not having a lot of time available for this trip – doing things yourself in a non-westernised country in particular, where you speak very little if any of the language, always takes longer than travelling with an organised group. Plus, we knew from past experience that an Explore tour would be an acceptable compromise because of their particular approach. The pluses for us were:
- having someone to take care of the practical matters like flights and other transport
- travelling with a local guide who really knew his job and imparted lots of information while not being offended if we wanted to drift off from the group for a while
- getting to know some great travelling companions and swap stories of other trips with them (twelve years on I am still in touch with two of them, Sue and Georgina, and we meet up from time to time in London)

On the other hand, the minuses were:
- having to fit into a pre-arranged schedule (in particular not having long enough in Bukhara)
- probably paying more for the trip than if we’d arranged it all ourselves
- for a ‘small group’ tour, as Explore promote their trips, the group was a bit big, and we did inevitably feel that we were too ‘visible’ at times
- one guy in our group who was very insensitive to the needs of others, and also to the local culture
- occasionally too we felt over-protected by our guide who looked after us almost too well!

Impressions of Uzbekistan

One of the old Virtual Tourist tip categories was ‘Local customs’ and I found Uzbekistan particularly interesting in that respect so wrote quite a bit about the things that had struck me while travelling there.

A warm welcome

Wherever we went in Uzbekistan we were welcomed warmly by the local people. They seemed to really value our interest in their country. For instance, in the Karimbek restaurant in Samarkand a group of women on the table next to ours took great interest in us and one of them came over to say hello and practice her very limited English. They were all full of smiles and greetings. Also in Samarkand, when we visited the Ulug Beg Observatory a local man standing near the entrance broke off his conversation with a friend to welcome us to the city and to his country.

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Sue and me with a group of local tourists at the Kukhna Ark, Khiva

In Khiva a waiter from a B & B where we had dinner came running after us. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home! It was also in Khiva that a group of women were eager to pose with us for their souvenir photo, presenting Chris with a great photo opportunity too!

Photographing people

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Shop-keeper in Khiva

Talking of photo opps, I found that people in Uzbekistan love to have their photo taken – and they don’t expect payment or reward for it. One evening in Bukhara Chris and I were trailed by a small crowd of young children clamouring to be photographed. As soon as we gave in and agreed they arranged themselves in a tiered group in front of a nearby wall and posed laughing and waving. The only reward they sought was to see the photos afterwards (oh the joys of digital photography that allow this) and to follow us giggling to the end of the street.

Adults too were almost uniformly happy to be photographed – the only down-side of this was that they sometimes posed very stiffly, and the resulting images seemed a little artificial. But this was balanced by the fact that the photography ‘session’ gave me a great opportunity to connect and share a moment of pleasure with a local person despite the language difficulties that would normally divide us.

Community spirit

One of the things I admired as I learnt more about Uzbek society was the strong emphasis put on the importance of community, or malhalla. The community is there almost as an extended family, and can be called on to support people when needed, e.g. in times of illness or bereavement. This could be financial, practical and emotional support. The older people in society are accorded particular respect, especially the old men, known as aksakal or ‘white beards’. The knowledge and experience they have acquired over the years are valued, and they have earned the right now to spend their days sitting in the shade, sipping tea and talking quietly among themselves.

Traditional architecture

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Chor Minor, Bukhara

It probably goes without saying that one of the main attractions of a visit to Uzbekistan is the wealth of traditional Islamic architecture on display. I found that learning a little bit about the types of buildings and styles of decoration helped me to appreciate it even more, although faced with the splendour of the Shah-i-Zindah or Registan Square in Samarkand, the intense colours of the Kalta Minor in Khiva, the sheer number of ancient buildings in Bukhara I often simply stood and marvelled at the sights – before of course whipping out my camera!

There were four main types of buildings which we saw wherever we went – mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs, caravanserai. Although Uzbekistan is slowly rediscovering Islam after years of secularism under the Soviet rule, many of the buildings originally built for religious use are now decommissioned which in some ways seemed to me a shame but did make them easier to visit for a non-Muslim woman. Many of the mosques are simply monuments to be admired but not used, though others are used, and there are only a few functioning madrassahs (including the one at the Poi Kalon complex in Bukhara); others are now tourist bazaars, venues for folklore shows or, in one case in Khiva, a hotel.

The wonderful riot of colour that adorns many of these buildings was at times overwhelming and I got little sense at first of the variety of decorative styles and crafts that have been used. Gradually though I came to distinguish between mosaic and majolica – the patterns of the former are made from small pieces of different coloured tiles while the latter has its colours painted directly on to the ceramic surface. There are also relief patterns carved into the tiles, and ganch, almost lace-like carvings in alabaster. Another distinction that became apparent is that between the different colours of each city – jade green is common in Khiva, while in Bukhara a more turquoise green is seen and in Samarkand a riot of blues stuns the eye at the Shah-i-Zinda.

Within the buildings too there were architectural features to note and learn names for: the iwan, a portico with decorative pillars; the mihrab or decorative niche within a mosque, and so on.

One debate we had several times on our trip was, to restore or not to restore? There are those who feel the Soviets went too far in restoring all these buildings as they have layered modern tiles on old stones, rebuilt walls with traditional techniques but new materials. I for one though am grateful to them – my imagination could never have conjured up some of the wonders I saw.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:33 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings people architecture history city tour uzbekistan customs silk_road Comments (13)

‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (13)

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