Uzbekistan: First Impressions from Tashkent

Looking out of the aircraft window as we approached Tashkent, I didn’t see fields of green or desert dunes but buildings and houses as far as the eye could see. Clearly, from up here, Tashkent was a sprawling big city. The airport was however, comparatively small and unimpressive.

Outside, the weather was perfect: bright sunshine and a crisp 9 degrees centigrade. Ali, Nisha’s driver on her previous trip, was there to welcome us. He said he had organized the good weather, especially for us. Our drive to the Grand Orzu Hotel was minutes long. Tashkent’s main roads are 6 lanes wide, with pavements as broad as MG Road. Despite the generous motorways, there wasn’t much traffic. It was strangely quiet. Coming from India, any place is quiet, I suppose. But one forgets that Uzbekistan is a country of just 26 million people who don’t honk on the road. For an Indian, that’s eerie silence. I recognized the leafless poplar trees lining the boulevards everywhere you look. Saw them for the first time in Srinagar last summer. I vaguely recall those trees being imported into Kashmir by one of its rulers – could it have travelled along the silk roads from regions such as this – I wonder?

Grand Orzu is a simple hotel, warm and cozy. They really crank up the heat inside. But we’re not complaining. Here’s were we met our guide for the next 16 days, Zahid or as his name is spelt in Russian, Zokhid. A gentle, knowledgeable man, ever ready to help. We had copious quantities of green and black tea with him, while discussing the plans for the next week. Then, early evening, we headed out to Human House, one of Tashkent’s upmarket boutiques. The walk to Human House was interesting for me. Couldn’t help marvel at the extraordinarily wide cobbled sidewalks, lined with 60s Stalin buildings – boxy constructions with rather interesting Central Asian embellishments, surrounded by gorgeous gratings.

Human House was a small store overflowing with craft, designer clothes, cowhide rugs, bags and embroidered leather boots. Interesting suzanis from Nurata, Shakhrisabz and Samarkand, each distinct in their needlework, design and use of colour. The turquoise blue Rishtan ceramics were stunning and so was the lovely attendant who spoke no English, only German. Wunderbar! A German speaker myself, I began to translate for Nisha. There we were, two Indians discussing the confluence of Central Asian craft in German, with a lady who was part Armenian, part Iranian, part Tatar, part Uzbek and part Russian. Talk about connections!!

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Zahid took us to dinner where he would go. A small unassuming Uzbek equivalent of an Indian dhaba. No atmosphere but great food. We had a dill infused beef broth (sorba), followed by minced beef kebabs with fresh leek, dill, cilantro and spring onions accompanied by a hearty bread. Conversation on the table ranged from pork-eating uzbek muslims, the rich natural resources of Uzbekistan but the poor state of its people, the shocking absence of a legit banking system (Zahid has no bank account!), the 120 different ethnic groups that mingle to create the exotic Uzbek people, and a plan to meet Zahid’s wife and children for dinner tomorrow…

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