A unique blend of its Soviet past and Central Asian exotica, Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent is the hottest new destination for the intrepid Indian traveller, says Raul Dias who flew to the city on Uzbekistan Airways’ brand new direct flight from Mumbai.
“Uzbeki-where!?” was something I kept getting spat back at me by almost everybody — bewildered expressions pat in place — after I had told them of my impending trip to the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan. Even the immigration officer at Mumbai’s International Airport looked back at me as though I was speaking Greek to him when I told him that my destination was Tashkent.
In hindsight, it really wasn’t anyone’s fault for not knowing anything about the doubly landlocked country that was once an important milestone along the ancient Silk Road.
Central Asia has never really fit into the mould of the average Indian’s ‘foreign holiday’ destination! And as for that ill-informed immigration offer, who should have known of Uzbekistan, I’ll let that pass, as the Uzbekistan Airways’ direct flight linking Mumbai and Tashkent I was to board that morning had just commenced operations a few days before.
A comfortable four hours spent enjoying the gracious hospitality aboard my Uzbekistan Airways flight and I was deposited into the beautiful, startlingly modern city of Tashkent. One of the first things that caught my attention on the ride to my hotel from the airport was the sheer number of green spaces and parks that dot the spotlessly clean city. Later that day I would visit a few of them, but more on that a little later.
A relic of the Soviet era with its typical brutalist style architecture, my home for the next two nights in Tashkent was the grand Hotel Uzbekistan located in the heart of the city on Musakhanov Street. Once the epitome of Soviet-style luxury with its cavernous ballroom and international cuisine restaurants, today, the hotel remains a looming reminder of the city’s USSR past, brusque service et al.
And speaking of past, the 29 Tashkent Metro stations — one of which, called Emir Temur Metro Station was just in front of my hotel — are each a lesson in grandeur and glamour with their marble and polished granite clad walls and crystal-glass chandeliered ceilings, all built in the 1970s. It’s a real pity that the police are rather strict about enforcing the ‘no photography’ diktat in these stunning underground stations.
Parks and recreation
One of the first places my guide had me visit was the grand statue of Uzbekistan’s greatest hero the Turco-Mongol conqueror Amir Temur known multifariously as Timur, Tamerlane and yes, Taimur! Located slap bang in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan, the memorial garden that houses his horse-riding statue is a fecund paradise where blushing Uzbek newly-weds come to have their wedding pictures taken. Just a few yards from the garden, the Amir Timur Museum is a good place to get an insight into the life and times of the warrior who is perceived very differently in places outside of Central Asia.
Equally picturesque are the well laid out parks that flank the city’s ‘Broadway’. Officially, Saligokh Street, this boulevard that starts at the south end of the Amir Temur Garden is home to scores of street artists and painters. The northern end of the boulevard is where the city’s fashion elite come to drop wads of cash at the designer boutiques and trendy restaurants.
Next on my carefully prepared itinerary was a stop at the Polish Catholic Church on Sadiq Asimov street, a good half an hour walk from the hotel. More formally known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, the church was almost fully destroyed during the 1966 earthquake but was reconstructed to its former glory with the help of the Polish Embassy of Tashkent. Though the main cathedral was shut for the day, I sat mesmerised by the choir practicing their hymns in the crypt below the church.
A few meters away, I paid homage at the memorial dedicated to India’s very own former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who passed away in Tashkent on 11 January 1966 when he visited the city to sign the Tashkent Declaration with Pakistan. Even the street that the memorial is housed on is named Shastri street and attracts quite a few nostalgic, selfie-seeking Indian travellers.
Taste of the exotic
All that walking about simply had to be rewarded in the best way that I know. Eating. Hopping onto a super-fast metro train, I found myself deposited into the bowels of a beast! Confused? Well, so was I when I saw the sight that is Chorsu Bazaar above the ground as I climbed my way back to surface level. There is a saying in Tashkent that you can get everything from a pin to an elephant in the humungous market and I guess they aren’t kidding!
The main domed market is an enclosed space that is divided into various sections selling meat (including the very popular horsemeat sausage called kazi), pickles, fruits and vegetables, dairy along with the salty and decidedly exotic hard fermented sheep’s milk cheese called kurt that’s very much an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire…
What I did relish with gusto, however, was a plate of fragrant plov or osh which is very similar to a spice-bereft biryani, where cumin-dusted pieces of lamb are stewed with sweetened carrots and rice and served with boiled chickpeas and slices of kazi. Simply called non, the circular disks of freshly baked bread were the perfect accompaniment to the meal that was washed down with a salty lassi-like yogurt drink called ayran. I simply couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end my first of many days in exotic Uzbekistan!
Raul Dias a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer. Follow Raul on Instagram @rauldias123