Driving from the airport to our guesthouse in Tashkent this morning, through broad streets lined with blossom trees, felt bizarrely like the spring we left behind in Durham.
Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) in blossom, Tashkent
Though it’s hard to believe I was cutting the lawn and picking forced rhubarb in the allotment yesterday morning, it took us just 17 hours door to door by taxi, train and plane to reach the comfortable Gulnara guest house in the old city.
First impressions of Tashkent, driving in from the airport, are much like any other big city but, as we approach the old city, we see blue domed mosques and the permanent ‘tents’ of Chorsu Bazaar and the State circus – something of a hangover from the Soviet era. The faces and attire of the people we pass reflect the melting pot that is this part of Central Asia. Blonde Slavic looking women in short, western-style skirts mingle with conservatively dressed Uzbek women, with Mongolian features. The cars on the road are an odd mixture – lots of new Chevrolets and Daewoos but with a smattering of elderly Ladas.
We are drinking coffee in the guesthouse’s shady courtyard by 10am Uzbek time (6 am UK time) and decide to head into town after a brief freshen up. We change $200 dollars and are rewarded with a four inch high stack of notes which are not easy to carry around surreptitiously! Cashpoints are more or less non-existent and plastic of little use so cash is the only way to go. It takes time to get used to paying thousands of Uzbek som for small purchases and we have to remind ourselves that we’re exchanging one US dollar for around 7500 som!
We set off on foot in search of the Hazrat Imam mosque complex, which contains some of the oldest buildings not damaged by the earthquake which destroyed much of Tashkent in 1966. After a false start, or two, we find a way through the back streets. On the corner of Zarkaynar road we get our first close look at some of the region’s famous painted tiles and frescoes on the entrance to a tiny mosque.
Mosque on the corner of Zarkaynar road
As we walk along Zarkaynar road we get occasional glimpses into shady courtyards. Many of the houses here are made of wattle and daub and survived the 1966 earthquake. When we reach Hazrat Imam mosque we are surprised, initially, by how modern it looks. That is, until we read that it was built in just four months in 2007 on President Karimov’s instruction.
Hazrat Imam mosque, Tashkent
The mosque is set on one side of a square amidst landscaped gardens which house several other beautiful older buildings – Muyi Muborak Library houses the oldest Qu’ran in the world, produced just 19 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s death and brought to Samarkand, much later, by Amir Timur. No photos are allowed inside the library but what surprises us most is the size, and presumably weight, of the book, which is written on deerskin and has pages around A2 size.
Decoration of the Muyi Muborak Library
On the opposite side of the square to the Hazrat Imam mosque is the spectacular Barak-Khan Madrassa, now home to a series of craft workshops and shops selling Uzbek pottery, wood and metal work and fabric. We resist temptation as its only day 1!
The tomb of Kaffal Shashi lies a little to one side of the complex and his sarcophagus, lying within, is still a site of pilgrimage for supplicants.
The tomb of Kaffal Shashi with some of its tiling
We were in need of a snack by this time so purchased iced tea and chocolate buns from a kiosk near the complex before wandering the back the way we’d come and on to Chorsu Bazaar for some proper lunch. It’s quite a challenge when you don’t speak either Uzbek or Russian and there are no written menus but we managed to acquire bowls of tasty plov (lamb pilau), flatbread and tea in a sort of food hall in the market. Everything was being cooked on site on a huge scale, the plov in cauldrons over braziers the size of dustbins.
Plov being cooked and eaten
We decided on one more spot of culture before a siesta and headed south to try and find the Kulkedash Madrassa. Easier said than done but it was worth the hunting when we found it.
Juxtaposed against an abandoned skyscraper, the pillars and facade of the madrassa are beautifully tiled.
In the past, scholars lived in rooms overlooking the central courtyard – it’s easy to see what the early Oxbridge colleges were modelled on.
However the smartly-clad students seemed to be furniture removing rather than studying this afternoon!
By this time we were pretty tired after just a few hours sleep on the plane but also had ourselves better orientated and found a much shorter way back to the guest house for a welcome cup of tea and a rest.
By the time we ventured out again for dinner it was raining – I suppose there has to be a reason everything is so lovely and green at the moment! We’d identified somewhere we liked the sound of not far from Kulkedash madrassa in our guide book but couldn’t find it at all despite walking exactly where it was shown on the map. After half an hour or so wandering in the rain we ended up in a restaurant with menus only in Cyrillic but the staff could not have been more helpful in trying to make sure we got something we liked to eat – sign language and pointing goes a long way, though some of the contents of the pans we were shown did look a bit offputting for an almost vegetarian! Martyn opted for a kebab (we now know to ask for ‘shaslik’), whilst I went for noodles with finely chopped lamb and learned that this is eaten by putting it a spoonful at a time into the accompanying soup. With tea, salads, bread and cake to share this came to a princely total equivalent to about eight US dollars between us.
The walk back in the rain was at least more direct and we were cheered, if somewhat frustrated, to realise that the problem was the map in the guide book rather than our navigational skills when we checked the location of the restaurant we’d been hunting for online.