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August 2, 2013

Uzbekistan: Tamerlane’s Samarkand, Day 2

October 18, 2012

Tamerlane was a man of many talents. When he wasn’t conquering foreign lands and stacking the skulls of his enemies into massive pyramids, he was building his beloved Samarkand into an epicenter of architecture and culture. He did this by sparing the lives of artisans, engineers, musicians, poets, and scholars who lived in the cities conquered by his armies and bringing them to Samarkand. And so these men from Iran, Iraq, India, the Caucasus, and Central Asia built Samarkand according to his wishes.

Our first visit of the day was to Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Completed in 1404, several years after his conquest of Delhi, the mosque was built with Indian stone transported overland by captured Indian elephants. The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries and what we see now is mostly a modern reconstruction. Despite this, it is still impressive.





Stand for the Koran




I wonder how this kid broke his arm?


Well that explains everything.




Schoolchildren, a dude with cattle, the usual.

Then we went to the Registan, which is basically the most famous part of Samarkand. The Registan is to Samarkand as Red Square is to Moscow as the National Mall is to Washington, D.C. You get the idea. The Registan is a public square framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) where, centuries ago, the residents of Samarkand would gather to listen to royal proclamations or watch public executions.


(this was actually taken the evening before)



The Sher-Dor (Having Tigers) Madrasah, built 1619–1636



Love this


“As-salamu alaykum.” (Peace be upon you)



So beautiful




Ulugh Beg Madrasah built 1417–1420 during the reign of Tamerlane and named after Tamerlane’s grandson. Ulugh Beg was a well-known astronomer and mathematician.




We had an opportunity to visit with a master musician who also builds Uzbek musical instruments. This was the entrance to his shop.



We then went to Ulugh Beg’s Observatory.


Newlyweds everywhere



Completed in 1429 and later destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449, the observatory was rediscovered in 1908 by an archaeologist. The above is giant sextant.


In the afternoon we visited the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, which was by far my favorite place in Samarkand. While the Registan was imposing, Shah-i-Zinda felt intimate. “Shah-i-Zinda” translates to “The Living King” in Persian, so called because Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of prophet Muhammad is supposedly buried here. The earliest structures here are from the 11-12th centuries, with the rest of the complex dating from the 14-15th centuries.





When I die I’d like to be entombed in something simple like this, OK?



And for our last visit of the day, we stopped by a nearby silk carpet workshop where we learned all about the process of making these beautiful carpets by hand. The dyes used here are all natural, coming from plants and insects. The young women who work here undergo a four month training program after which they can stay on as weavers. Weaving a silk carpet can take several months and it appears to be incredibly tedious work, but many of the weavers had iPods to keep them company.



The tools have not changed much over the years.


Dyed silk





So did I come home with one of these beautiful carpets? Unfortunately, no, as they were a bit outside of my price range. Hmm, to pay off the student loans or purchase a silk carpet? The student loans win…for now.

July 29, 2013

Uzbekistan: 289 kilometers on the Golden Road to Samarkand

October 17, 2012

(Yes, I partly stole that from a poem).


So, anyone up for a trip to Kabul or Tehran?

Another early morning departure, as we had a five hour drive to Samarkand ahead of us. Thankfully we made a few stops along the way to stretch our legs. First, the fish market in Chinoz, where the vendors proudly displayed their catch of the day.









The Syr Darya River





The melon guys didn’t seem to mind the camera at all!

We arrived in Samarkand shortly after 1pm and set out for some light touring after lunch. Our first stop was Gur-e Amir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane, aka Timur the Lame (1336-1405). In the west, Tamerlane isn’t as well known as his hero and role model, Genghis Khan, but his exploits were just as ruthless. From his court in Samarkand, Tamerlane ruled an empire that stretched from Iraq to Western China. In the course of acquiring this empire, Timur’s armies managed to kill some 17 million people (allegedly). He ordered the conquered civilians beheaded and thousands of their skulls stacked in giant pyramids; a classic calling card. And now, throughout post-Soviet Uzbekistan, you’ll find statues dedicated to this “national hero”. Goodbye Lenin, hello Timur. Every nation needs a father (even though Timur was himself a Mongol, not an Uzbek).




Tombs marking the location of Timur and his family members (the actual tombs are in a crypt under the mausoleum)



We made a quick stop at the Registan, which we would return to the following day during further exploration of Tamerlane’s Samarkand.


View from our hotel, the Registan Plaza

July 27, 2013

Goodbye Tajikistan. Hello again, Uzbekistan.

October 16, 2012

Goodbye, Tajikistan. It was far too short of a visit, but I’m sure we’ll meet again someday. The rugged Pamirs are calling my name…

We were headed to Tashkent, where I had overnighted only a few days prior when I first arrived in Central Asia. The road from Khujand to the Uzbek border was new, having recently been built by the Chinese. After the usual jockeying for position at the chaotic passport control “lines”, we had finally managed to make it back into Uzbekistan. The drive through the Uzbek countryside to Tashkent took less than two hours.



Cotton fields



With a population of 2.2 million, Tashkent is the largest city among the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. Though it still retains the hallmarks of Soviet planning (large blocks of prefab apartment buildings, wide boulevards, and well maintained parks) the city is undergoing a construction boom, with miles of new apartment and office buildings being erected along the main boulevards.

We were leaving for Samarkand the following morning, so only had an afternoon to explore (however we would be returning to Tashkent yet again later in the trip).


Martyrs’ Memorial Complex, erected to honor the victims of Russian and Soviet rule



Tashkent TV tower


Courage Memorial that commemorates the powerful earthquake that struck Tashkent on April 26, 1966, leaving over 300,000 residents homeless. Afterward, construction workers from all areas of the Soviet Union converged on Tashkent to help rebuild the city.

And then we wandered the streets of my favorite part of Tashkent, Old Town. The Old Town felt like we had entered another world; gone were the highrises and traffic clogged streets, now replaced by low mud brick houses and narrow, shaded streets.







From the Old Town we continued to Hast Imam Square, where we saw Caliph Uthman’s Koran, the oldest in the world. Completed in the year 651, its words written on pages of deer skin, it is considered the primary source of Islam. Legend has it that Uthman, a former companion of Muhammad, was reading from this Koran when he was murdered by a group of rioters, staining the pages with his blood.



Barakh-khan Madrasah


The Tellya-Sheikh Mosque



And then on to Independence Square…



Memorial to the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers killed in World War II (The Great Patriotic War)



Names of the soldiers engraved on these large plaques



We saw newlyweds nearly everyday we were in Uzbekistan. It is quite common to have wedding photos taken in front of historical monuments and buildings, so we were constantly encountering them.


A statue of Lenin once stood here. It was replaced with this globe, a monument to Uzbek independence.

July 23, 2013

On to Khujand, Tajikistan

October 15, 2012

Another early morning wake up and we were off to Tajikistan. When we arrived at the border, it was completely deserted with the exception of a few locals just hanging around. The strange thing about this particular border crossing is that Uzbek and Tajik citizens can’t use it – it is only open to foreigners. As you can imagine, this particular area of the world doesn’t have many tourists passing through, so we were the only travelers that morning. Now, with the lack of people passing through you would think that the process would go rather quickly, but you would wrong. Our passports and customs forms (and for God’s sake don’t lost it; you don’t want to find out the consequences!) were checked by three different officers, and our bags were inspected by an extremely bored looking guard. Also unusual about this border crossing, aside from the complete lack of travelers, was that I received not one, but two marriage proposals – one from the Uzbek customs officer who went through my luggage and another from the Kalashnikov toting soldier who escorted us out of Uzbekistan. Nice enough guys, but I declined. I can’t cook plov worth a damn so wouldn’t make a very good Uzbek wife. Also, I like living in Seattle.

The process on the Tajik side of the border was much quicker, and we were finally off to Khujand. Immediately crossing the border, you could tell that the Tajik villages were much poorer than their Uzbek counterparts across the border. There were no brand new, appliance filled tract homes being built by the government, as was happening in Uzbekistan.


The fall of the Soviet Union has not been kind to Tajikistan. After the disintegration of the Soviet empire, Tajikistan descended into a civil war that lasted five years and left the country politically, economically, and socially devastated. Relationships with its neighboring countries have also soured. Despite being lumped into the USSR together for over sixty years, the ‘Stans don’t play well with each other, and relations have become so fraught that over the years borders have been sown with landmines and skirmishes have erupted between border guards who only decades earlier, as schoolchildren, had sung the same Soviet anthem.

map_of_tajikistan
(From Lonely Planet)

One of the main reasons these countries spend so much time fighting each other is the same reason why countries around the world do so: natural resources. Not oil in this case, but water, which is even more valuable in this landlocked part of the world, and something that Tajikistan has in abundance. Tajikistan, energy poor and plagued by electricity shortages, wants to build more dams in order to harness hydroelectric power and become independent from its neighbors, who cut off the electricity and oil and gas supplies to Tajikistan at will. The government in Dushanbe sees hydroelectric power as the key to economic development; not only would domestic industry be assured a constant supply of cheap energy, but any extra could be sold to neighboring countries. Uzbekistan objects to the dam construction, however, because this would allow Tajikistan control over the water supply that feeds the irrigation canals lining Uzbekistan’s water hungry and wasteful cotton fields.

So Uzbekistan will block rail transit, cut off energy supplies, and close borders, which makes Tajikistan even more determined to dam these rivers and make for reasons of economic self sufficiency and security. And so it just becomes this downward spiral of economic warfare between these countries.

But enough of politics.

On the way to Khujand, we made a quick stop and unintentionally found ourselves outside the gates of an army base. A curious young soldier boarded our bus and politely asked if he could take a picture of us. Again, not many tourists in this part of the world.

TajikSoldier
The picture I took of a Tajik soldier taking a picture of us.

Two hours after departing the border, we finally arrived in Khujand, formerly known as Leninabad. With a population of 165,000, it is the second largest city in the country. Khujand has ancient roots going as far back as the 6th/5th century BC and during its history has been conquered by the forces of Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan and served as a major staging point on the northern Silk Road.




Our first stop in Khujand was the Panjshanbe market located in the city center. Not many tourists come through there, so all the locals kept asking us where we were from (“Otkuda vy?” or the simpler “Otkuda?”). When I told them the USA, they would reply “I love America!” or “George Washington!” One guy showed us the almonds he was selling and proudly told us they came from California. Of our short time in Tajikistan, this is the experience that stands out in my memory the most. I loved interacting with the locals at this market. Throughout all my travels, they were some of the friendliest and most genuine people I have ever met.


California represent!


Showing his appreciation for California almonds 🙂


Giant mounds of cream cheese!

We later visited the Sughd Historical Museum, which was an excellent museum and well worth a visit if you find yourself in this part of the country.

We ended the day with an excellent Shashlik dinner (because meat on giant skewers = awesome) and headed back to our rooms to prepare for the early morning departure back to Uzbekistan.

July 11, 2013

Photos from Central Asia (yes, finally!)

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the nearly 2,900 photos I took on my three week trip to Central Asia. You can check them out here. Next up, my photos from Southeast Asia. And perhaps within the next 20 years or so I will find the time to actually write about these trips. Until then, here is a sample of the photos I took in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.


Earthquake monument, Tashkent, Uzbekistan


Kid’s in Tashkent’s Old Town


Meat for sale at the bazaar in Khujand, Tajikistan


Seller at the market in Khujand



Fish market in Chinoz, Uzbekistan


Melon vendors near Chinoz


Bukhara, Uzbekistan


Mirbozor, Uzbekistan






Samarkand, Uzbekistan



Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan







On the road from Shakhrisabz to Tashkent, Uzbekistan



Qashqadaryo Province, Uzbekistan




Muynak, Uzbekistan







Khiva, Uzbekistan







Termez, Uzbekistan







Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

February 8, 2013

Uzbekistan: From Tashkent to the Fergana Valley

October 13-14, 2012

After 16+ hours of being stuffed like a sardine in a can (but with free German beer!), I landed in Tashkent around 10pm. It took two hours to clear passport control and customs, so I didn’t arrive to my hotel until around midnight. Instead of going directly to bed, like any sane person would, I spent some time Tweeting/Facebooking/whatever and finally crashed at 2:30am.

And before I knew it, I was awake again at 6am and headed to the Fergana Valley, a five hour drive away. Uzbekistan has interesting radio stations, by the way. One minute they’ll be playing the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” (ironic, no?) and the next minute MC Hammer’s “Too Legit to Quit”. Yes, MC Hammer.

Tashkent itself appeared to be like every other post-Soviet city I had previously traveled to, with plenty of communist block apartments, wide boulevards, and grandiose monuments. Although I didn’t see sheep grazing in the medians of Kiev and Moscow, so that was something new. But those were just cursory observations; I would return to Tashkent a few days later to explore further.

Outside the city limits of Tashkent, the scenery changed to cotton fields and herders driving their cattle along the roadside. In the small towns along the highway, old men gathered at dilapidated chaikhanas to sip tea and trade stories. Dozens of cars waited patiently at the entrances of palatial gas stations that have no gas to dispense; it reminded me of scenes from the Energy Crisis in the 1970s.

We began to climb the winding roads leading higher into the mountainous terrain. The views from up there were spectacular, interrupted only by the occasional police checkpoint and massive tunnels bored through the mountains, guarded at each end by Kevlar clad, Kalashnikov toting soldiers.

Finally through the mountains, we arrived in the Fergana Valley, the cotton and bread basket of Uzbekistan. Pull up the region on Google Maps and you’ll see an oasis of green surrounded by the dry, desert Tien-Shan and Gissar-Alai mountain ranges. On our way to Rishtan, where I was rendezvousing with my company’s tour group (oh yeah, did I mention this was a work trip?) we passed miles of cotton fields being picked by (mostly) women workers. There is no mechanical harvesting in Uzbekistan, so these women endure hours of back-breaking work to provide for their families. Driving further, we passed barren fields where dozens of large seismic trucks idled. Yes, the Chinese oil companies are here, eagerly searching for that black gold. My eyes began to sting – we traded our fresh mountain air for the dust and smoke of the valley. It smelled of burning trash and agricultural waste.

I’m embarrassed to admit that prior to this trip I had little knowledge of this region of Central Asia. Up until now, the only things I associated it with were ethnic conflict and Islamic fundamentalism. One of my grad school professors was slightly obsessed with these topics, so we spent a lot of class time covering them. Thankfully this visit would give me a chance to learn a bit more about the region.

The Fergana Valley encompasses portions of three countries – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – but in reality the entire region is a jumble of ethnicities, rather than clearly delineated by borders. You’ve got some Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, some Kyrgyz living in Uzbekistan, Tajiks in Kyrgyzstan, and well, you get the idea. The ethnic conflicts that erupted as the Soviet Union collapsed, and which continue to this day, have their origins in the 1920s, when Josef Stalin arbitrarily divided Central Asia into Soviet Republics without any regard for ethnicity.

fergana_valley_ethnic_groups
Source: The Economist

I met up with our tour group and we headed to Kokand, a city of 192,000 that has existed since the 10th century, and, like most things in Central Asia, was razed to the ground by the Mongols in the 13th century. This would be a recurring theme of our travels throughout the region.

Here we visited the Palace of Khudáyár Khán, home of the last ruler of the Khanate of Kokand. The Khanate of Kokand was a Central Asian state that was established in 1709. But in the 1870s the Russians arrived and abolished the Khanate, declaring it part of Russian Turkestan.

Yes, finally, pictures:


Entrance to the palace


These guys asked me to take their picture, so I did.

After visiting the palace we had a few hours to rest at the hotel before dining at the home of a local family. They served the Fergana version of plov, which is the national dish of Uzbekistan and incredibly tasty. Seriously, it is one of my favorite comfort foods and I would eat it every day if I could. Lamb, rice, carrots, onions, and spices – how can you go wrong?

It was early to bed that evening, as we were departing early that morning for the portion of the Fergana Valley located in Tajikistan. Yes, I had been in Uzbekistan for barely 36 hours and was already leaving. But this trip to Tajikistan was just a quick jaunt, I’d be back in Uzbekistan the following day.

More photos here.

October 12, 2012

Off to the ‘Stans

Just a super quick note before I head off to the airport. For the next three weeks I will be traveling around Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. So after a few years of being stuck stateside, I will finally have some new content and photos for this blog.


(Courtesy WikiTravel)