Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is far older than it may first appear.
For centuries, it was a classically Central Asian city, one of winding narrow lanes, low-slung mud brick housing and traditional chaikhanas (teahouses) and madrasahs. Traders and merchants traveled through here, to and from China and Europe on various strands of the Silk Road, then, in the 19th century, with the Russian conquest, it grew in importance as the center of the tsarist regime in Central Asia. Today, in some corners it still has tsarist traces and in other quarters, away from the center, it retains the air of a provincial Uzbek town.
All across the former Soviet Union, statues of heroes and parks were built, and many survive here today, reminders of that legacy. But this is a city changing fast, with new developments and malls being built all over the city, replacing old mahallas (neighborhoods with traditional courtyard housing), factories, and schools. The old walls that once surrounded the city, fortifying it, were in existence until the 19th century. Now, they have gone completely and much was lost, too, during the 1966 earthquake which flattened the city and left hundreds of thousands without homes. Through history, Tashkent has been called Chach and Shash, but its current Turkic name came from its Karakhanid rulers in the 10th century. Tashkent means “stone city.”
A week is a good amount of time to get under the skin of this underappreciated city.
On days one and two, I’d start in old Tashkent, at the Khast-Imam complex, a large square filled with historic buildings. Here, you’ll find the Moyie Mubarak Library, containing what some believe to be the oldest Qur'an in the world, made of deerskin and brought initially to Samarkand by Tamerlane, Conqueror of the World. Then, there is the handsome, if highly restored, Barak Khan Madrasah and Hazrat Imam Mosque with its elegant minarets. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan also resides here, in a new building within the complex area. After a visit here, I like to wander through the nearby lanes
of Old Tashkent, stopping at Chigatay Bazaar, the atmospheric Chigatay Cemetery, and following the Kolkouz canal, lined by old bakeries and the occasional chaikhana.
A short walk away is Chorsu Bazaar, providing a wonderful introduction to Uzbek food, trade, and produce. Long a stronghold of capitalism, Chorsu Bazaar sprawls under a central turquoise dome, spilling into nearby streets and beyond. Historically, Tashkent was Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city and accordingly, had its most international bazaar. There are still imported Russian yogurts, Turkish chocolates, and shelled walnuts from Kyrgyzstan at Chorsu but many of the foreign traders -Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Azerbaijani- have left. However, it is still a refuge, a provider of casual employment, and a meeting point. You will notice bread sellers pushing their way through the crowds. Wrapped inside the baby strollers they steer along are rounds of circular non bread, dotted with sesame and nigella seeds, swaddled tightly in blankets to keep them fresh. Tashkent non bread is dense and has a thick crusty bottom, with a soft chewy golden top. It is distinct from its major rivals. The non bread baked in Khiva, 600 miles from Tashkent, is crispy and light. Samarkand non bread has a darker crust and a bagel-like consistency. They are all delicious and filling.
One group still firmly entrenched in the market are the Koryo Saram, literally “Korean people,” whose pickled and spicy salads I like to choose for lunch, selecting them from huge plastic buckets. These are the descendants of the 200,000 or so Koreans who were deported by Stalin from the Russian Far East in the 1940s on suspicion of sympathizing with Japan during the Second World War. They arrived in Tashkent, known as the “city of bread” because of its ability to shelter people, took refuge, integrated, and stayed on.
Devote days three and four to the arts. In the morning of day three, I would start at the Museum of Applied Arts, traveling there by metro. Cheap, easy, and modelled on the Moscow Metro, Tashkent’s handsome metro network is all marble, tile work and chandeliers (photography restrictions were recently lifted so feel free to take pictures). Alight at Kosmonavtlar station, dedicated to Soviet space travel (look out for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space) and visit the Museum of Applied Arts for an introduction to the country’s tremendous craftsmanship. Marvel at the silk weaving, Uzbek hats (known as tyubeteyka or doppi), and local ceramics.
A little later, I would indulge in a proper plov lunch at Tashkent’s Central Asian Plov Center, a very popular spot at lunchtime. Not only is plov the undisputed king of Uzbek cuisine, it is one of the world’s greatest national dishes. Hundreds of variations exist throughout the former Soviet Union, but the Uzbeks, and Tajiks across the border in Tajikistan, are the masters of plov.
At its most basic, plov is a rice dish served in layers cooked with onions and carrots with either lamb or beef on the top -it is rich, fortifying, and moreish and while the word “plov” might sound stodgy, if we call it by its cousin’s name “pilaf” it immediately sounds lighter. Lightly spiced perhaps with a little cumin or paprika, it relies on the quality of its ingredients. Outside the plov center, enormous kazans (cauldrons) steam and are stirred by pairs of male cooks. Indoors, televisions blare out soap operas while under strip lighting, couples, friends, and families take their seats at hundreds of tables. Here, your choice is refreshingly small: big or small, double portion of meat or not, and with or without a slice of kazy, horse meat sausage.
Your plov -whether to serve one, two, or the whole table- will come on one large lagan (plate), with everyone eating from their section of the same dish. It is a sociable meal, perfectly showing off Uzbek hospitality. Plov has the ability to cement friendships.
In the evening, I would try to get tickets for either Alisher Navoi Opera & Ballet Theater to watch a performance, perhaps Puccini, or else go to the subversive Ilkhom Theatre where you might get to see a cutting-edge new-wave play or an interpretation of a classic. The plays are usually in Russian but sometimes there are English subtitles. Founded by Mark Weil, Ilkhom Theatre has always been independent, a center of artistic freedom, and proud of it. Despite the loss of its founder, the theater continues to flourish and show interesting plays.
For days four and five, get a slice of park life. Independence Square, in the heart of the city, is a good place to wander. Following independence in 1991, what was Lenin Square was renamed Independence Square (Mustakillik Maydoni) in 1992. Lenin’s statue's place a globe was erected with Uzbekistan’s territories outlined on it. Opposite the grand administration buildings, are a series of pillars forming the Glory and Memory Alley in honor of the soldiers who died in World War Two. By the columns are galleries of Memory Books, containing the names of those who lost their lives.
For the remaining two days, I would make sure to coincide my visit with the weekend for the Yangiobad Flea Market and the Alisher Navoi State Museum of Literature.
The market, a taxi ride from the center of town, is an excellent hunting ground for artifacts, antiques, and souvenirs. Join in with locals and go fighting through the crowds to get to the different sections. Market vendors sell everything from Lenin portraits to oily car parts, books, swords, old coins, vinyl LPs, carpets, medical instruments, old children’s toys, underwear, and potted plants. The market is roughly laid out in sections but it can be disorientating. On my last visit there, I wandered for an hour at the very edges of the market, marveling at giant garlic heads tied in bundles for sale by the railway tracks next to piles of old telephones. I then tried to find my way to the antiques section. When I failed, I asked a merchant selling imported Chinese clothes and was pointed in the right direction. In the covered antiques section, I bought Russian soup bowls and a silver cake slicer.
Find time, lastly, for the Alisher Navoi State Museum of Literature. The information panels at this literary museum are a little limited, but the paintings, maps, and books of famous Uzbek and Russian writers -from Navoi himself to more modern writers such as Cholpon- are very much worth exploring. Opposite, on the other side of the busy Navoi Avenue, is a French-style café called Bon! popular with expats. It serves excellent coffee, pastries, and omelets -a good place to end your week-long Tashkent adventure.