Along the Silk Road: A slice of Uzbek life in the capital city of Tashkent


Conjure up images of the ‘Stans, the five countries along the former Silk Route connecting Europe to China, and turquoise-tiled domes atop mosques and minarets are what most of us visualize. Best known in Uzbekistan for their Islamic architecture are Bukhara and Samarkand, but before moving on to those cities, we decided to spend a few days in the capital city of Tashkent, a 2,000-year-old city known more for its massive Soviet-era buildings and post-1966 earthquake reconstruction. Still, it’s hard even here to look around and not see a blue dome -either on an ancient mosque like the one above, or atop new mosques, museums, shopping bazaars, even the circus arena.



The Sirk

We like starting out a trip in the capital city to get a feel for real life (and prices!) outside the tourist areas. Most tour groups give Tashkent a day at the most, but we spent four nights and three days here in the delightful, family-run Jahongir bed and breakfast in an older residential neighborhood, ten minutes or so by subway from newer parts of the city. The family converted their huge home into a nine-room inn, adding a bathroom in each room. We paid $40 a night, including a breakfast of of sweet and savory pastries, fruit, eggs, cheeses, and a big round of bread, an Uzbek staple.


Morning bread market


One of the best parts about staying in the neighborhood was visiting the morning bread bazaar. Dozens of women show up each day with fresh rounds tucked snuggly inside baby carriages covered with blankets. The women “sign” their bread, using a pronged stamp to make perforated designs in the dough. This woman was selling raisin and nut loaves for around 80 cents. 



The bread is cooked in wood-fired clay ovens like this. It’s a unique way of baking that involves sticking the dough to the sides of the oven to cook. 
We’ve had fun learning our away around on the Soviet-built subway system. Artwork and decorative tiles decorate the stations, but taking pictures is forbidden. Uniformed guards with metal-detecting wands patrol each entrance. Attendants in ticket booths sell blue, plastic tokens. On the platforms are more attendants (mostly women) dressed in spiffy blue and gold uniforms, ties, red hats and heels. Their job is to raise and lower a paddle, indicating it’s OK to enter the train. Jobs like these provide near full-employment, although the pay is low, prompting many to leave for Russia, the U.S. and other countries where they can make three or four times the amount for similar jobs, especially in construction.


Baggage claim

The Uzbek economy is still transitioning from a Soviet-influenced system even through the country became an independent democracy in 1991. People give the former hard-line president credit for taking Uzbekistan to where it is today, but it’s been only in the past two years, under a new leader, that many rules changed, and entrepreneurship began to flourish. Until recently, the government required every able-bodied Uzbek was to take time out from school or a job to pick cotton for a month. 
Stores aren’t well-stocked, mainly because it takes hard currency (U.S. dollars, euros, Russian rubles etc.) to buy goods made elsewhere, and the Uzbek currency (the Som) is non-convertible, meaning it can’t be spent or exchanged for another currency outside the country. Tourists are a source of valuable hard currency, the reason  hotels demand payment in U.S. dollars or euros, and bank machines spit out U.S. dollars which travelers then have to take to a bank and exchange for soms (The government raised the official rate recently, eliminating the black market). Arriving on a flight from Seoul, South Korea, we encountered a free-for-all at the airport baggage claim. Uzbeks with hard currency make frequent trips, bringing back huge boxes and bags stuffed cheap goods for resale.


10,000 som notes, worth a little more than $1 each

At an exchange rate of 8,000 soms to one U.S. dollar, it takes a big wallet or plastic bag to carry around money. Above are 90, 10,000 som bills, the equivalent of $100. Bills in 50,000 som denominations are available, but few people want them because they are hard to cash. The upside is that the som buys a lot. A subway ride is 15 cents; an ice cream cone, 30 cents; a long cab ride, $1.50; dinner for two $6-$20, depending on the restaurant. 



Most Uzbeks speak Russian as well as Uzbek, so it helps to know a few words, but English-speaking Uzbeks like to practice on foreigners. People often stop us for an informal chat and a photo. We met these military men as they were marching through one of the main squares. They shouted out “Hello” and “Hi” as they marched by, then turned around and crowded around us for a selfie.

Uzbek women are walking works of art. They dress in all sorts of ways, from Western-style jeans, skirts etc. to creative takes on traditional Muslim dress, usually a colorful turban paired with a bright, printed long skirt, often decorated with sequins or sparkles. The best people-watching is at the Chorsu Bazaar, a covered shopping and market complex housed in several domed buildings.


Radishes for sale at Chorsu Bazaar



Dome of the Chorsu Bazaar




Baskets for sale



Bazaar bakers offer samples

Various sections are devoted to different products, such as nuts and spices, fresh vegetables, fruits, spices, meats, bread, baskets, cheeses etc. Vendors hand out samples, to curious visitors who can’t always identify what the products are. Strangest find: counters filled with little white balls the size of jaw breakers. We thought they were candy. Turns out they were cheese. All the bread for sale at the bazaar is baked on site in the clay ovens. The bakers are friendly and invite tourists back to look inside the ovens, and sample the fresh bread. 

Next stop: Bukhara on one of Uzbekistan’s new high-speed trains.

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating trip you are taking. Wish I was back in the NW to meet you and our travel buddy for lunch and recap this trip of yours!

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