It rained hard in the night but was merely overcast by the time we surfaced this morning – much cooler than yesterday, though. We breakfasted in the guesthouse and met Aliya, who has arranged our train tickets and next week’s trip to Ugam-Chatkal national park, before heading off for the more modern centre of Tashkent.
We decided to save our feet this morning and use Tashkent’s metro system, not least because it’s famous for the ornate decoration of some of the stations. Finding Chorsu Bazaar metro station was not quite as easy as it should have been…. No cameras are allowed, unfortunately, but the Alisher Navoi station where we changed lines has beautiful, cathedral-like vaulted ceilings and Independence Square station has chandeliers on a grand scale. We travelled on to Amir Timur station and emerged into the square, dominated by a statue of Amir Timur (aka Tamerlane) – he’s only been there since 1996 – luminaries such as Stalin and Marx were previous occupants. It seems ironic that he is posed in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan – a true icon of Soviet architecture in the city.
The grounds around the statue are full of familiar looking shrubs – Spirea, Berberis and Flowering Quince – and a squad of gardeners are digging individual dandelions out of the grass. It doesn’t look like providing early pollen and nectar for bees is a high priority here!
Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles japonica
From Amir Timur Square we walk down the broad avenue connecting it with Independence Square (Mustakillik Maydan). There are lovely manicured gardens on our right as we walk but no-one seems to be out enjoying them – everywhere is deserted and the gardens seem a little sterile. The turreted building on our right just before we cross into Independence square catches my eye, not least because of the life-size golden stag by the door. It was built in the late 19th Century for an exiled Romanov prince, cousin of the last Russian Tsar.
I’ve never come across parks being ‘spring cleaned’ before but that seemed to be happening throughout the large, landscaped park which fills Independence Square. Most of the pathways were cordoned off and an army of women were sweeping and weeding the paths. Martyn pointed out I’d have no difficulty fulfilling my long held desire to work as a gardener in this part of the world! We were able to walk under the ‘Arch of Kind and Noble Aspirations’, though, and through one corner of the park towards the Anhor canal and the Earthquake memorial.
The ‘Arch of Kind and Noble Aspirations’, Independence square
The Earthquake memorial is an impressive tribute to both those who died in 1966 and those who helped rebuild the city afterwards.
A family is shown trying to protect themselves as the ground breaks apart under their feet. The whole thing seems to emanate from a glistening, labradorite cube split down the middle, displaying the date and time of the quake.
We were ready for a break and a drink by this time and discovered the canal-side café was just opening. As we were only after a cuppa we were rather taken aback to be ushered to a room obviously normally used for lavish wedding receptions. We were sorry not to be there for lunch given the delicious smells coming from the kitchen – having plenty of labour to prepare foods seems to mean that most food is made fresh from scratch, every day.
Now it was Martyn’s turn to try and get us lost using our dodgy map. We headed off in the direction of the Sheikhantaur Mausoleum Complex, walking all around the large block between Navoi and Abdulla Kodiriy streets. Our Bradt guidebook implied we’d be able to visit the tombs but we couldn’t find access and it was only afterwards we realised they are in the grounds of the Islamic University and clearly not open to visitors. We did get to enjoy the beautiful entrance to the university, though, and found an excellent café for lunch, in the process.
The café where we ate lunch was in the middle of a group of banks and office blocks and seemed to be functioning as an informal works canteen. Distinctly unprepossessing from the outside, we enjoyed a friendly welcome and some tasty salads alongside the normal lamb dishes. This place had a much more Russian feel than others we’ve eaten in – the mutton patties came on a sort of sauerkraut base – though I’m not sure about the origins of doughnuts with a filling of lamb mince (surprisingly tasty).
We decided to head back via Chorsu Bazaar to the ‘Centre of National Arts’ described in our guidebook. The market is fun, once you get away from the shady looking characters trying to get you to exchange dollars with them. Maybe I’m slightly more watchful after reading about the Tashkent Mafiosi described in Colin Thubron’s book, ‘The Lost Heart of Asia’. Much has undoubtedly changed in the 25 or so years since it was written, just after Uzbekistan gained its independence, but black market money changing is everywhere.
Eggs, spinach-stuffed bread and radishes for sale in Chorsu Bazaar
I was intrigued to see that, even here, you can buy pre-prepared vegetables, though they look rather fresher than the ones you can buy in bags at home.
In contrast, the ‘Centre of National Arts’ was a real disappointment – a few upmarket clothes shops in a half empty building, rather than, ‘one of the most vibrant collections of art in Tashkent’, as described by our guidebook. I was doubly cross afterwards to read that the two Tashkent Clock Towers was saw on Amir Timur Square house an ethnographic collection of Uzbek textiles, woodcarving and ceramics though, again, this is from the guidebook, so who knows whether it’s accurate.
We rested for a while and wrote up diaries before heading out for dinner at a restaurant close to, and recommended by, the guest house owner. Choosing food was difficult as the menu was in Cyrillic again but we chose lagman, as recommended, and it was very tasty – home-made noodles and vegetables in a mutton broth. It would be quite nice, though, to find something that isn’t lamb or mutton flavoured…