Wednesday, 5 July 2017

TRAVELS OF PUTIN'S APACHE -Tashkent and Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan Airways isn't exactly renowned for being world class when it comes to food, service or entertainment, but we were so excited to be finally arriving in Uzbekistan to begin our Central Asian adventure, it hardly mattered. We were surprised to see much fertile farmland below us upon descending into the capital, Tashkent, having thought most of country was desert. Contrary to what we had read, Tashkent airport was a breeze, and we sailed through with no trouble. Half an hour after landing, we were in a taxi to our hostel, with the driver trying to convince us to change money at a terrible rate.

Slightly over excited on the plane

Our first challenge was getting our heads around the local currency- the Uzbeki som. The official rate for changing the US dollar was 3,900, but the black market rate was 8,300, which made a huge difference to our budget. The black market was very open, with money changers on every corner, and most hotels changing dollars. US dollars ruled, and all accommodation had to be paid for with it by law- everything else is paid for with Uzbek som.

One of these 5,000 som notes is worth about 80 cents!

Once done, we were free to explore and enjoy Tashkent- a huge place with great wide streets, lovely mulberry and apricot trees for shade, fragrant basil planted everywhere, plenty of scruffy parks and squares, Soviet style apartments and monuments, and a surprising lack of rubbish. It has to be on par with Singapore for cleanliness!!

Backstreets of Tashkent

Tashkent has a turbulent history, with the Arabs taking over in the 8th century, Genghis Khan razing the place in the 13th century, then growing successful under the Mongols, Timur and the Shaybanids. It's long been a place for travelers on the Silk Road. A huge earthquake destroyed many of the structures in 1966, hence the modern look of much of it.

The highlight of the city for us was Chorsu market. This place had an incredible amount of fresh fruit, and we wandered wide eyed around the stalls which sold raspberries, strawberries, cherries, juicy apricots, plums, peaches, mulberries, melons, apples, and much much more, before buying as much as we could carry! Give us seasonal summer fruits over tropical any day!! Pomegranates and persimmons, which Uzbekistan is famous for were unfortunately not in season. Other sections of the market included beautiful looking vegetables, spices, pulses, nuts and dried fruits, breads, dairy, sweets and meats- including horse, which is very popular here. One friendly stall owner gave us two different pieces of horse to try- the first a very fatty sausage, and the second tasted something like corned beef. The bazaar atmosphere was exotic with women wearing headscarves and long flowery dresses, and men's heads topped with little embroidered caps. The sellers were curious and cautiously generous, with many little freebie tidbits coming our way. We came across the section with cooked food, and despite wanting to try some of the local "delicacies", neither of us could stomach the fatty, oily food that was on offer, and instead stocked up on picnic items- fresh flat bread, huge red tomatoes, herbs, salads, cheese, thick yogurt, and of course, all that fruit! This was to be our staple meals all through Uzbekistan. We did notice the interesting fact that when produce comes fresh from the farm, as well as looking, smelling and tasting amazing, it doesn't last long, unlike in the West where things keep for days, or weeks in the fridge.

Lamb bums for sale, Chorsu Bazaar
Horse meat for sale, Chorsu Bazaar
Meat section, Chorsu Bazaar
Apricot seller, Chorsu Bazaar
Mulberry seller, Chorsu Bazaar
Baskets for sale, Chorsu Bazaar
Beautiful array of fresh fruit, Chorsu Bazaar
Egg lady, Chorsu Bazaar
Yummy Tashkent bread, Chorsu Bazaar
Horse sausage, anyone?
Seller at Chorsu Bazaar
Colourful buying and selling, Chorsu Bazaar
Typical ceramics, Chorsu Bazaar
Smelly balls of dried yogurt/cheese, Chorsu Bazaar
Mmmm, love those cherries, Chorsu Bazaar

We were curious about the ethnic diversity of people- there didn't seem to be a particular Uzbek "look" as such. Some people had quite dark complexions, others had more of an Asian look and others were fair with light eyes. Their long and complex history, and their location at the crossroads of the Silk Road, was evident in people's faces. Uzbeks are historically a settled population, although ties to the Silk Road means they are good traders and hospitable to travelers. Gold teeth are all the rage here, and it's very common to see men and women with entire mouths full of them!

We mainly used the easy and clean Soviet-era metro system to get around Tashkent. We loved the grand stations deep underground and the swaying old carriages, and particularly liked the station Kosmonavtlar, with it's space theme and murals depicting various cosmonauts- including Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space (no photos allowed, unfortunately).

Metro sign, Tashkent

Attractions around the city included the pale blue, onion domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral; a railway museum packed with old Soviet engines and passenger coaches; the "old" part of Tashkent (where there seemed to be a lot of concrete and not much character); various old mosques and mausoleums; and a flea market full of all sorts of old junk.

Russian fantasy books, flea market, Tashkent
Wonder where the number 49 went in it's day, Tashkent Railway Museum
Tashkent Railway Museum
Cool sign on train, Tashkent Railway Museum
Literally piles of junk, flea market Tashkent
Old Russian fridge, flea market Tashkent

The Khast Imom area- the religious center of Uzbekistan, was a good introduction for us to the beauty of Islamic buildings here, with the typical turquoise domes and tile work we would see all over Uzbekistan. We felt lucky to see the enormous deerskin 7th century Uthman Koran- supposedly the oldest in the world, as well as many other rare and old Korans from all over the world in a small museum.

Carved posts, mosque, Khast Imon, Tashkent
Outside mosque, Khast Imon, Tashkent
The beginning of the beauty! Khast Imon, Tashkent

Evenings were spent in the hostel where we had chosen to stay. It was new and spanking clean, but very much an old style place for travelers to meet, swap tales and advice and unwind. We obtained some useful tips for our onward travels from chatty fellow travelers and laid back staff. Most other guests seemed to be doing huge Europe to Asia (or vice versa) type trips, many on bikes and motorbikes.

Our room, Tashkent hostel

Our second challenge was language. Although all Central Asian countries have their own languages (some have many), they all speak Russian, so we decided that it would be most useful to learn the majority of phrases in Russian, plus a few local words in each country we visited. Having said that, Russian is a very difficult language and Sal had her work cut out for her (Richard was useless as usual!)


A not too complicated visit to the Tashkent train station saw us with two train tickets to Bukhara. Part of our purpose of visiting Central Asia was to travel as much as possible by train. It somehow seems so romantic to travel The Silk Road by train! The one we chose for this route was six hours, and unfortunately the AC wasn't up to scratch, and with all the windows closed, it was slightly stuffy. Having said that, the scenery was enough to take our minds off the heat, and we enjoyed watching the scrubby, mostly small farms and orchards growing walnuts, corn, wheat, and stone fruits, the villages with some mud brick houses and the odd donkey or cow wandering along the dusty roads.

The Silk Road wasn't just one route from China to the West, rather a variety of courses developed over hundreds of years depending on political and environmental factors. It all began with China's need for horses, and everyone else's obsession with silk. Central Asia, and in particular Bukhara and Samarkhand lay smack bang in the middle of the Silk Road.

We were happy to arrive in the ancient Silk Road town of Bukhara, even though the heat here was even more severe than in Tashkent. We had chosen to come to Uzbekistan in June, as the tourist numbers drop greatly at this time due to the beginning of the summer heat, and accommodation prices decrease. Although temperatures during our time in Bukhara averaged in the high 30s, we didn't find the dry heat as oppressive and draining as the humid tropical heat we are used to in South East Asia.

Old lady in Bukhara streets

We were lucky to immediately find a very plush room in a beautifully decorated renovated 14th century medressa (religious college), and were able to bargain the price down to nearly half due to the season. The wood carvings and brick work were lovely, and the central courtyard was a pleasure to relax in and chat with other travelers.

Our medressa hotel, Bukhara

We loved the town as soon as we arrived, and spent most of our time there in a happy haze. Of course Bukhara is touristy, but maybe because of the time of year, it seemed quiet and charming to us. People spoke more English around these parts, and there was slight overcharging in the shops, but nothing too drastic. We sought out the less touristy spots- starting with the amazing Kolkhoz bazaar. As much as we loved Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, this place was even better! The people were extremely friendly here, as in all of Bukhara. They were helpful on the bus getting there, yelling out greetings, talking to us in a mix of Uzbek, Russian and English and letting us taste everything on the stalls.

Day dreaming, Kolkhoz bazaar, Bukhara
Man and sign, Kolkhoz bazaar, Bukhara
Keeping cool in the shade, Kolkhoz bazaar, Bukhara
Muslim hats for sale, Kolkhoz bazaar, Bukhara

After stocking up on ridiculously cheap and delicious fruit and snacks, we stumbled across a nearby fun fair, and used the old ferris wheel as a view point for the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, followed by the pleasant surprise of a fabulous canal side flea market, where the smiles and greetings continued (as did our camera snapping!).

Interesting implements stall, flea market, Bukhara
Buying a carpet, flea market, Bukhara

We developed a different routine in order not to overheat, with our early mornings and evenings set aside for walking and sight seeing, and pretty much sitting in the courtyard, or hiding in the AC during the hottest part of the day. On one day that seemed particularly hot, we were told it had made it to 45 degrees!

Cycling, a common transport in Bukhara

A bit of history- In the 9th and 10th centuries Bukhara was the capital of the Samanids, and was the center of culture for the entire region, with philosophers, scientists and poets flocking here. The 13th century saw the ferocious Genghis Khan obliterate the place (killing 160,000 inhabitants in a week), and in the 14th century the town was included into Timur's kingdom, whose stunningly unique style of architecture and design is the trademark for the whole area. The Uzbek Shaybanids made Bukhara their capital in the 16th century, and at that time the Silk Road was flourishing, and the town had bazaars and caravanserai to cater for the travelers, as well as hundreds of mosques, medressas and thousands of students. Several cruel and bloody khans came to power next during the 18th and 19th centuries, whose strict rule saw a decline in the importance of education and religion, but an increase in successful trade. Eventually Russia arrived and conquered the khans in the mid 1800s. A few changes on their map and Uzbekistan found itself turned into a country- they became independent in 1991. So, a fair bit of action over the years!

The focus point in old Bukhara town was Lyabi Hauz, a kind of ancient hang out area. It used to be one of many stone pools connected by canals around town where people could meet, drink and wash. But because the water was stagnant, many people became sick and Bukhara became famous as a place to catch The Plague!! Anyway, these days people still hang out here, but the water is cleaner and people don't drink it anymore. We loved the music, fountain and people watching with a beer in hand in the cool(er) evenings.

Lyabi-Hauz, Bukhara

Much of the charm of Bukhara for us was wandering through the back streets, and coming across falling down or forgotten buildings, ancient market places, old women watching the world go by from a chair, children playing simple games, the occasional old Russian car lumbering by, sometimes a donkey and cart, or men playing board games in a shady square. We found that as well as Uzbek, the older people all spoke Russian, and the young were likely to speak a bit of English, girls generally better than the boys, and usually pleasantly confident.

Gypsies with donkey, Bukhara backstreets
Kids playing, Bukhara backstreets
TV repair shop, Bukhara backstreets
Bread shop and bike, Bukhara backstreets
Boxing practice, Bukhara backstreets
The cool of early evening, Bukhara backstreets
Walking home, Bukhara backstreets
Old door, Bukhara backstreets
Bukhara backstreets
Resting, Bukhara backstreets
Lovely mud brick building, Bukhara backstreets

A wonderful find on a back street expedition was a traditional chaikhana (teahouse), where the elderly man made us green tea in an old teapot and only asked for a donation when we left.

Waiting for tea, chaikhana, Bukhara
Old mud and wood construction, Bukhara
Old handles, Bukhara
Hanging out, Bukhara

But of course the big sites with their sparkling tile work and beautiful shapes and colours were the biggest draw. They were every bit as beautiful as we had imagined, and we really spent hours just sitting and gazing and watching people come and go. With 140 protected sites in town, we picked several and took our time looking around them and reading the fascinating history in order to remember what we had seen. Bukhara was the first city to use the iconic turquoise tiles seen everywhere in Uzbekistan

Mir-i-Arab medressa, Bukhara
Nadir Divanbegi medressa, Bukhara
Abdul Aziz Khan Mosque, Bukhara
Old city walls, Bukhara
Kalon minaret, Bukhara

Bukhara has Central Asia's oldest surviving mosque ( Maghoki-Attar), Central Asia's oldest medressa (Ulugbek), and a minaret so majestic (Kalon), even Genghis Khan couldn't bear to see it destroyed, so he left it unscathed during his destructive rampage.

Lovely exterior, Maghoki-Attar, Bukhara
THE minaret Genghis couldn't bring himself to destroy, Bukhara
Lock on door, Bukhara
Outside old city walls, Bukhara

Char Minar was the first site we visited and at sunset was so small and lovely, and a climb to the roof saw us alone with the big azure blue towers.

A favourite in Bukhara, Char Minar
Pots outside Char Minar, Bukhara
Beautiful towers, Char Minar, Bukhara

The huge complex around the Kalon Mosque was majestic and almost too much to take in. Photography was a challenge due to the size and vastness of the buildings. The aforementioned minaret, once used for executions, dominated the square with exquisite brickwork on the exterior. We wandered around in the early evening, and eventually had to just sit and watch as the sun set and the light changed on the brown bricks and blue and green glittering tiles. Locals came out for a stroll-  a lovely old man put up with us sitting with him and asking questions, a mother with her blue eyed baby pottered around us, little boys tried to sell us postcards and a young man on a bike stopped to tell us his views on world politics.

Kalon Mosque at sunset, Bukhara
Mir-i-Arab medressa, Bukhara
Tiles on Kalon Mosque, Bukhara
Interior Mir-i-Arab medressa, Bukhara
Rich and friendly old man, Kalon, Bukhara
Mir-i-Arab medressa, Bukhara
Nice man at medressa- he gave us a samsa each after this photo!
Kalon Mosque, Bukhara
Trying to sell postcards to Rich, Bukhara

The two massive medressas opposite each other- the Ulugbek and the Abdul Aziz Khan were spectacular, and we seemed lucky to catch both without an entrance fee.

Colourful interior ceiling, Ulugbek medressa, Bukhara
Abdul Aziz Khan medressa, Bukhara
Beautiful ceiling, Abdul Aziz Khan medressa, Bukhara
Amazing top of column, Abdul Aziz Khan medressa, Bukhara

Because of the time of year, the entrance fees were either cheaper than normal, negotiable, or simply free, as the entrances weren't manned. We didn't pay for many, and those we did were next to nothing. Then there were the ones with a secret alternative entrance........

The medieval Ark, Bukhara's oldest structure, was from the outside huge and imposing, but really just ruins, museums and old photos on the inside. It was the only place we saw tour groups, and then only a couple.

The Ark's outside walls, Bukhara

There were so many other smaller mosques, mausoleums and medressas, and we were in heaven being surrounded by such fascinating beauty. Some of the smaller mosques had intricately carved wooden columns holding up colourful roofs with painting and plaster work that resembled falling stars.

Unusual tile work on exterior of medressa, Bukhara
Old wooden door carved with stars, Bukhara
Little boy at old mosque, Bukhara

Many old ruins were taken over by souvenir shops, some selling Bukhara's beautiful carpets and suzani (embroidered hangings) which seemed appropriate and gave some life to the old buildings. Traveling light, we cannot buy many souvenirs, but we splashed out US$2 for three little vintage Soviet badges.

WAY too hot for these!
Sellers in a medressa, Bukhara
Brass for sale, Bukhara
Relaxed seller, Bukhara

The Muslim factor in Uzbekistan was a bit of a mystery to us. Officially 90 percent of Uzbeks are Muslim (mostly Sunni, but some Sufi), but we had been told that Central Asia has a "veneer"of Islam- after so long under Soviet rule, people don't really practice their religion. Upon arrival, you wouldn't know you are in a Muslim country. Although there are plenty of mosques, most of them are not working mosques, and we only once heard a call to prayer in the far distance. There seems to be a casual approach to the whole thing, and even though we visited during Ramadan, no one seemed to be fasting, and we never saw groups of people entering or exiting mosques to pray. However, we noticed nobody appears eats pork, there are few dogs about, and both sexes often wear head coverings, although these things may be more cultural than religious.Strict governmental control and imprisonment of Islamic extremists has been in place for years, with tensions high in the eastern city of Andijon.

Old ladies chatting on street, Bukhara
Friendly guys in house, Bukhara
Man in pajamas, Bukhara

The biggest surprise was the appearance (or non appearance) of alcohol. We were expecting a drinking culture such as other post Soviet countries we had visited- we saw Armenian men drink beer on the street at eight or nine in the morning! This was certainly not the case in Uzbekistan, presumably because of the religious factor. Beer was available in shops, but often hidden under the ice creams, or behind the Cokes in the fridge, and unless we asked we wouldn't have seen it. But at US$1 for 1.5 liters, it was worth inquiring!

Some other interesting tidbits:

  • In most places in the world we've been (perhaps with the exception of Bali), people always seem to be amazed and love the fact that we are from Australia, but here it rose to a new level. Sharp intakes of breath, wide eyes, immediate selfies, and in one case a squeal and a little dance, were typical reactions from Uzbeks upon hearing where we're from. Quite amusing!! For some reason, the Uzbeks all seem to have seen and love the atrocious Hollywood movie "Kangaroo Jack" and think it's Australian!

  • It's very apparent how chivalrous Uzbek men (and young women) are on the buses, as any woman or older person who gets on is immediately given a seat. The men in general were very polite in Uzbekistan, contrary to what we had read, with only a couple of instances of Sal being grabbed by the arm in a market to look at something.

  • A man said to Richard upon seeing his hat (which has a red star from Bulgaria and a feather from Cambridge)- "You are a Putin Apache"!!

Resting on the shade, Bukhara
Putin's Apache

*We have included a list of costs detailed here for those who are interested (US$1= 8,100 som):

Tashkent, Topchan Hostel US$25
Bukhara, Mekhtartour Hotel US$22

Tashkent airport to hostel, US$2, 20 mins
Tashkent metro, all trips, 1,200 som
Tashkent bus, all trips, 1,200 som
Tashkent taxi hostel to Yangiabad flea market, 8,000 som, 15 mins
Tashkent to Bukhara, train, 66,000 som, 6 hours
Bukhara station to town, bus, 30 mins, 500 som
Bukhara hotel to Kolkhoz bazar, bus, 700 som, 20 mins

Ismail Samani mauseleum 4,000 som
Khast Imom Koran 8,000 som
Railway musem 10,000 som
Chasma Ayub 1,500 som
Char Minar 4,000 som

apricots 3,000-4,000 som per kilo
cherries 7,000-10,000 som per kilo
apples 5,000 som per kilo
mulberries 6,000-8,000 som for small bucket
whole melon 3,000 som
raspberries 18,000 som per kilo
peaches 6,000 som per kilo
plums 2,500 som per kilo
tomatoes 2-4 big ones 2,000 som
spring onion big bunch 1,500 som
flat bread big 1,500-2,000 som
yogurt 3,000-6,000 som
big water 2,000 som
small water 1,000 som
beer 1.25-1.5 litres 8,000 som
beer at cafe 8,000 som
cappuccino in posh cafe 10,000 som
kebab in bread 10,000 som
samsa 1,000 som


  1. James Em and Archie6 July 2017 at 03:43

    Amazing blog guys!

  2. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing your latest fascinating adventures!

  3. A contrast of old and new captured nicely with evidence of mobile devices in use along side relics. Adventures like the above are akin to doing the ethnographic sojourns of early last century, but with a travelers' contemporary touch.