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When I requested a fellow passenger to take my picture on the aerobridge, another passenger popped thru the phone screen exclaiming "At least ensure you can read Kazakhstan Airways" only to get a fitting reply by the photographer in question "It's Uzbekistan not Kazakhstan!" Such is the knowledge of Indians traveling to the mystical land of the Uzbeks, and I was thrilled to be on the flight after contemplating for many years!

The aircraft was much beyond my expectation, new, modern and up to date although the airline staff does require a real world training of 'service with a smile.' The short flight from Delhi got me into Tashkent in the afternoon and after a quick lunch I was ready to explore the city.

My first impressions were the quietness, cleanliness and the orderliness. With a small population of 2 million the city lends a feeling of usual tardiness. I went to Broadway square to spend the evening where local artists and musicians were luring us tourists. Many have caricatures drawn and buy local art, while some stroll around shopping.

I stumbled upon a high end boutique - Komo Design - and got chatting with the owner Severa, an Uzbeki woman in her late twenties. Her modern designs gave a twist to the traditional Ikat fabric. She explained that Uzbek weavers did most of the ikat weaving on cotton wefts called adras, while Tajik weavers wove most of the silk ikats. She liked the challenge of being a young working woman in the city and would like the new age Uzbek woman to break the myth that being a mother is the most important for women! To complement the happiness of my new silk Ikat dress tucked under my arm, I tasted some macaroons (sold in a plastic bag!) and headed for dinner to the fairly well known Zarafshon. Over kebabs, Uzbek Vodka and belly dancing (which was bollywoodized for Indians!) I got a warm welcome to this land otherwise known for their barbarian warriors.

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Curio Stall in Broadway Square

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Macaroons in a plastic bag!

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Belly dancers gyrating to Bollywood


The next morning we left for the classic city tour sprinkled with mosques, war memorials and mausoleums. During lunch at a traditional Plov house I met Akmal, a father of two in his late thirties. Over lunch he told me about his childhood in the early nineties and how school year switching from Soviet to Independent Uzbekistan meant freedom for them. He fondly remembers the new uniform (individual to his school) whereas during Soviet rule all schools in USSR had the same uniform with the red tie! During plates of Samsa and Manti he spoke of the hooliganism that broke out on the streets, how although his grandparents reminisced about the soviet rule, they were pleased with no more Lenin pictures splattered everywhere. He is the hopeful breed of Uzbekis having faith in sunrise industries such as private education, tourism and the rising real estate and concluded by saying "We are not fast, but we are developing." We washed down our lunch with cups of tea which is served at every traditional restaurant as a gesture of hospitality and bid our adieus.

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Tashkent Sights

 

Later that evening I visited the ornate and beautiful Navoi Opera House to meet Svetalana who is head of the international department. I had requested her for a back stage visit but she hopelessly told me about the red tape which led to many Ministry of Culture permissions. During our short conversation she gave me a glimpse into the demographic background of this homogenous yet diverse nation. 90 percent of the Muslims were Sunni (orthodox Islam) leaving only 8-9 percent as Christians (Russian orthodoxy) and a handful of Jews. Mostly everyone spoke Uzbek & Russian with Tajik as the only far off third language. I was surprised to hear that the hijab and Burkha were banned in this dominantly Islamic county and you could be jailed if found wearing one. “Although we are a modern Islamic nation but I see more and more young people fasting this year during Ramadan." Handed with recommendations for dinner places I left the Opera House wondering if I had ever been to an Islamic country with such a cultural twist. At dinner, Sharshara restaurant was set by a waterfall and the dramatic backdrop proved to be the star to the otherwise lackluster dishes.

 

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Village Girl at Chimgan Mountains

 

Early the next day I left for the Chimgan mountains located 80 km from the capital. The day was bright and sunny for the vistas offered beyond the rickety chair lift. This was a dream spot for getting that perfect picture and after clicking many I carried on to Lake Charvak. I was inspired to paint a quick watercolor with the cerulean lake in view. Here you can swim, paraglide, ride a water scooter, go on a hike in the surrounding hills and mountains, or just come to enjoy fresh air, pure mountain water and unforgettable sunrises and sunsets. I met some beefy young Uzbek college boys enjoying their summer sunbathing at the lake beach in this landlocked country. They offered me Uzbek vodka shots to be followed by a bite of the peach fruit amidst their broken English and happily posed for pictures only to befriend me on Instagram within seconds! Well versed with our movie stars they bashfully complimented me on my likeness to a particular actress. With these quirky memories in my head, both I and the dusk started our journey into night.

 

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On Board the AfroSiyab

My train on the Afrosiyab to Samarkand was the high point of my trip. At the Registan square I marveled at how the gigantic madrasahs were built in the 14th century with low technology but within as low as 3 years! Talking to my guide Akbar, a young and educated man, I learnt that typically he and his friends would spend weekend evenings at each other's houses over football matches and beer. “We are family oriented and even after I get married I will continue to live with my parents." This close society harbors warmth in relations and it is no wonder that Uzbekistan has all friendly neighbors and no real threats from any other countries.

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On my last day after a shopping spree at Chorsu, I met Feruza, founder of one of the largest tour companies in the land, over 'kofe' in the university area. She is in her forties and started the business almost 15 years ago when her supportive parents helped her manage her children to grow the business. "Being a woman entrepreneur I was always supported and even admired by my family and friends." She reflects on businesses and jobs saying those who can’t continue their studies start working, but in her opinion it is not easy for them as there are not many opportunities - even though the state is doing a lot to create work opportunities for youth and giving grants to entrepreneurs, much still needs to be done!

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Spice Bazaar at Chorsu

 

It was these Tête-à-tête with the locals that gave me insight into this former Soviet bloc country - with its majestic mountains, meandering rivers, Persian architecture dating back to the 9th century, cuisine laced with smoked meats and earthy spices, and with many gold toothed smiles. Uzbekistan, although difficult to pronounce, proved much easier to wade through!


©Prachi Kagzi

 

 

Published in individual

I left for Zarafshan from Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, at about noon. Not the best idea to leave then -- I ended up traveling through the hottest part of the day and arrived after dark in Penjikent, a northern city along the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border. Despite the heat, the drive was spectacular. I felt consumed by the beauty of the deep, crystalline blue of the rivers that sliced through the dusty mountains and snow-capped peaks. The sparse trees were showing hints of autumn, with the aspen leaves tinged yellow. Almost every rooftop of the mud-brick village along the road was dotted with rust-colored apricots drying for the coming cold season.

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