There are several airlines that fly into the major international airport in the Central Asia region in the capital city, Tashkent, Uzbekistan; one that would appeal to me would be to connect with Turkish Airlines in Toronto to Istanbul, because who wouldn’t want a few days’ layover in Istanbul?
On arrival in Uzbekistan, our tour would leave Tashkent almost immediately and head for Tajikistan. But since we’ re here in Tashkent, and we aren’t actually here but virtually here, why not stop for a day or two in what was once the fourth largest city in the USSR, just because we can?
The city’s TV tower [pictured above] can be climbed to the top, and it would be a lovely way to get an overview of the city as the sun goes down, but that would have to wait.
I will always grab the first tickets available to an opera in a beautiful opera house, so tonite we are going to Alisher Navol Opera and Ballet Theatre for a performance of Evgeny Onegin based on the poem-novel of Alexander Pushkin. While the opera house hasn’t the history of its Russian counterparts, it been fully restored to its 1940’s-era original beauty.
To understand the architecture of the city, it is important to understand its history. A site of frequent earthquakes, the worst on record came on April 26th, 1966. Tashkent was at its epicentre and, at a magnitude of 5.1, it destroyed most of the city’s buildings, especially its historic centre, killed up to 200 people and left 300,000 homeless. With Soviet resolution, the entire city has been rebuilt as a model Soviet city in the style typical of that era; only a few buildings were restored to their original splendour. First, counterintuitively, we’re going to look down.
The astounding underground Metro stations, each with its own theme, were built for two purposes: one, transportation and two, a nuclear bomb shelter. It was for the latter reason that for 41 years, photography was banned in the underground. It wasn’t until June, 2018 that these spectacular structures were revealed to the world.
Some mosques and madrasahs, so emblematic of the Silk Road, have been restored to their original beauty. This beautiful Barak Khan Madrasah [Islamic school] is one of the finest examples in the centre of the clay-built Old City. The Barak Khan Madrasah has been considered a center of scientists, philosophers and scholars of Islam for more than five centuries. It once housed the 7th century Koran text considered the earliest version in existence, the Koran of Osman in its magnificent manuscripts library.
Legend has it that Caliph Osman was killed when he was reading this book, and from that time its pages made of deerskin keep his blood stains, and has been considered a holy relic. It has moved around a lot, but upon Uzbekistan independence, Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan handed the relic to the Mufti on Khast Imam Square. The Koran of Osram can be visited in the Hast-Imam library next door to the madrasah.
On August 31, 1991, Uzbekistan declared independence. For several years, though, official policy emphasized the renewal of ancient national traditions over the exploration of the recent past. It wasn’t until 1999 that open dialogue began about Soviet repression on Uzbekistan people, and only recently a museum and memorial were raised in memory of those killed as political prisoners during the Soviet era. I find visits to these memorials difficult, but so important to the understanding of a people. The grounds surrounding the memorial are wonderful for quiet contemplation.
Given that so many of Uzbekistan’s cultural treasures are decorative, it is well worth starting your tour at the Museum of Applied Arts as it helps to put everything you see later into context. The museum showcases the very finest arts and craftsmanship of Central Asia and each room is devoted to a different craft. You’ll see how carpets, tiles, plasterwork, wood carvings and embroideries are made. The building is an exquisitely decorated house dating from the early 1900s and built originally as the official residence of the Imperial Russian diplomat Alexander Polovtsev.
A visit to the splendid Corshu Bazaar is a must, to sample the foods, shop for crafts and for general people-watching.
You may want to sample Plov, the most famous Central Asian dish. This traditional Uzbek dish consists of rice fried with raisins, carrots, and spices with meat on top of it. It’s usually cooked in lamb fat and served with pieces of lamb meat. Its all hands on deck when made in huge pans intended to serve hundreds. Yum!
Its amazing how much you can see of a city in one day when in an armchair, but I might recommend a couple of days for even a quick overview in person. And Tashkent is home to many more museums, fantastic restaurants and sprawling parks. It would be a shame to treat it as a mere transportation hub and just pass through. Note to self…