Tashkent is the largest city in all of Central Asia and the president has made sure to have a capitol that will be give a favorable impression to heads of state visiting Uzebkistan (O'zbekiston). Hotel Uzbekistan where we stayed is part of the central hub and the place where many tours stay. And there are a lot of tours. My friend Belleruth has made arrangements to meeting with a leader in the Jewish community on behalf of a relief agency with which her late husband was associated. When we met Sergei in the lobby, we thought we'd go to have a drink in the bar and proceeded to find that it hade been reserved to serve a dining room for visiting youth soccer teams from Palestine and Yemen... awkward. We ended up at a local restaurant serving only chicken, salad, and bread along with a small glass of fresh tomato juice mixed with fresh herbs for dipping that was delicious. I will try to write later in more detail about Sergei's story but will just comment that he has experienced very little in the way of prejudice and painted a very positive picture of the Uzbeks and the Soviets.
Our days in Tashkent involved museums, mosques and mausoleums featuring fabulous cobalt and turquoise tiles and majolica interspersed with artisan workshops, markets and shopping. This is the basic structure we have followed for the course of the tour with some days stretching into the evening with a special dinner or show. Breakfast is always at the hotel (nice middle eastern style buffet), gathering at 8:30 or so and the day concluding at 6:00 pm or later. The days are full. Almost everyone has experienced what Ulan (Kyrgyz guide) called "stomach revolution" and found quick relief with antibiotics and a half day rest.
We took the new high speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand on Wednesday morning -- about 2 hours. Leaving the city, the scenery revealed the less prosperous neighborhoods that gradually gave way to rural communities of developing countries. The dusty streets and creative re-use of everything reminded me of rural Mexico except there is no color and absolutely no trash. Samarkand is the flashy big sister of quieter but equally beautiful Bukhara: there are not pictures or video that will ever do justice to Samarkand's Registan complex, Bibi Hanim mosque or the necropolis. The color and scale are breathtaking and must have been miraculous sites to Silk Road travelers. There is a large, newer Russian section of town as well as a tourist friendly shopping promenade featuring upscale Uzbek boutiques and shops. Our tour included dinner and a fashion show at one of Uzbekistan's better known designers who merges antique textiles into contemporary styles. Her things are fabulous and the show even included entertainment. There was even a singer -- accompanied by a synthesizer -- that channeled, one person thought, Engelbert Humperdinck. We found that vodka enhanced our listening enjoyment... or at least mitigated it. Other highlights: a drive through the mountains to visit more monuments in taxis helmed by late adolescent young men who took great pride in demonstrating their acumen balancing speed, pot hole avoidance, and daredevil passing of slow vehicles. Translation: terrifying! (The roads here are in terrible condition so the pot hole avoidance is no small thing.)
Our last day in Samarkand, we drove out to the big open air market that features sellers of old textiles on Sundays. The place is huge (I'm guessing 3 football fields) and sells EVERYTHING to EVERYONE. Stall after stall after stall -- many, many inexpensive items from China -- and people crowding, surging, haggling, chatting. Mass humanity, commerce, merchandise. The textile part is, of course, at the furthest end so we get a good tour. There are, at most, 10 textile vendors with items in tents, on truck hoods, on the ground... there is some good stuff and the minute you stop, you are bombarded. Once you purchase something, you are surrounded by other traders shoving other items at you: Madame! Eees beeyootiful! Señora, very good price! Best quality! Seelk, very old! A few items later and I am out of there. We've been given two and a half hours and I, the identified shopper of the group, have warned to be back to the bus on time. I am proud to report that I was the first back on the bus after only one hour -- and the textile vendors were already beginning to crows outside the bus having deduced the the Australian crafts tour was in town.
Monday we drove to Bukhara (about 4.5 hours) in the comfort and safety of our minibus, arriving in the early afternoon. Bukhara embodies the romantic imagery of the Silk Road, the oasis, the caravanserai, the trading domes, the mosques, the citadel... there's even the well groomed camel for photo ops. I will write more about this wonderful place in a few days. Tomorrow we have a long drive to Khiva and I want to go take one more walk around to soak it all in.