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Uzbekistan- Waiting to be explored, with open arms (Travelogue)

By Priti Prakash | PUBLISHED: 30, Nov 2018, 14:55 pm IST | UPDATED: 10, Dec 2018, 18:27 pm IST

Uzbekistan- Waiting to be explored, with open arms (Travelogue) Hop on to Uzbekistan Airlines from New Delhi to Tashkant and you’ll find yourself at I Karimov airport under the azure skies of the thriving Uzbek capital city. It takes barely 2 hours of flight time to land in the erstwhile Soviet Union breakaway nation, lesser than flying to Chennai or Bangalore.

Traveling to this beautiful oriental country was never so easy. E Visa is easily available which can be obtained without applying to the embassy within a matter of 2 days. To boost tourism, a 5 day visa free regime for transit passengers traveling through Uzbekistan has been introduced. To make traveling comfortable the embassy has introduced ‘’Green Corridor’’ at the airport, abolishing the registration paperwork and established a special police unit to provide all necessary assistance to the tourists, informed the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to India Farhod Arziev. Uzbeks speak Russian or Uzbek language so a tourist will require a guide preferably. Currency is freely convertible.

Uzbekistan, the land of carpets, dry fruits and nuts, spices, cotton and mesmerizing landscapes is also a land with grand ornate mosques and mausoleums, ancient Islamic heritage, replete with history starting from the 4th century with the advent of Islam from Persia to Timur we read in our school history books to Changez Khan the warrior who crossed into India to chalk out the largest empire in Asia.

Summers are hot and winter temperatures dip to -3 degree. The best time would be September- October, although on my visit in November mercury had touched -2 at night. Roads are clean, good and safe, literacy is 99%, no traces of poverty, hospitable and warm people welcome travellers with open arms.

Interestingly Uzbeks have a typical fascination for Indians and Raj Kapoor needs to be thanked for it. They are more than welcome in this country where the 70s superstar still draws the same admiration with his superhit number ‘’Mera Joota hai Japani…….’’as probably when he had gone to Tashkant to promote his film ‘’Awara’’. Bollywood is like their own. Nisa, an executive in a travel company loves Shahrukh Khan, says she’s waiting for him to come to Uzbekistan so she will meet him. Every shopkeeper at the Siyob marketplace in Samarkand relates Indians to Raj Kapoor and doesn’t shy humming his songs at every handshake. ‘Where from? India! Oh Raj Kapoor!!’’. Though there has not been much of Indian cinema collaboration with Uzbekistan and the number can be counted on fingertips I recollect a 1979 film ‘’Ali Baba Chaalis Chor’’ with a super star cast shot in Samarkand and Tashkant. Indian girls are admired immensely.

Where to stay

Uzbekistan offers good hotels with affordable costs and standard. The Le Grand Plaza at Tashkant, Grand Bukhara in Bukhara and Regal Palace in Samarkand were a comfortable stay with restaurants offering a good spread. Interestingly Raj Kapoor Restaurant at Le Grand Tashkant have Indians pouring  in from all corners of India. Grand Bukhara though does not come up to the mark as the services need to improve a lot along with the food but there are other options too. As the weather outside is more on the severer side hotels are cosy comebacks after a whole day of sightseeing. Services are good too. Wifi availability is mostly confined till the main lobby in some hotels so one has to be equipped with a data card if possible. Alternatively buy a local SIM for not too much of a cost and a adapter. Indian Hoteliers Tata and Ramada have built hotels in Tashkant and are likely to invest in more properties as Uzbekistan is laying lot of stress on promoting itself as an ultimate tourist destination.

Where to shop

As Som, Uzbek currency, values 0.0085 to Indian Rupee and 0.00012 USD, there’s lots that can be picked up from Uzbekistan. Chorsu, Samarkand bazar and Parkent bazars in Tashkant are shopping hubs with traditional items, dry fruits, clothes, souvenirs, fur coats and hats, caps known as Tubeteika etc offering hundreds of varieties in each item at reasonable prices that can be haggled as well. Bukhara and Samarkand too have their local markets.

Siyob in Samarkand is a bustling local bazar offering special nuts, fruits, ceramic ware, small fashion accessories, souvenirs, cloth, woolens, embroidery, silk and carpets, tea and much more. One can also find small market complexes at the monument sites that offer things right from variety of teas to Ikat coats and dresses to spices and ceramic figurines which can be picked up for some bargaining.

Where to eat local food

Surprisingly there are many similarities between some Indian dishes and Uzbek ones. Local cafes and eating places are amazing.

Pilov or Pilaf as it is called, is Uzbeks national dish and Indian version of Pulao, basically a rice preparation with meat/chicken blended with veges like carrots, cabbage, beetroot, chillies, onions, herbs and spices is unmissable. Samsa, as they call is akin to our Samosas, are equally delectable with a variety of fillings from potatos to pumpkins to chicken. Shashlyk Kababs made of barbequed mutton with onions is a signature dish of Uzbekistan. Its worth trying Uzbek, Japanese, European and Korean food at Ássorti, Caravan and Mannam restaurants in Tashkant. Art Café Dastarkhan, Old Bukhara, Ipak Yuli and Veneciya provides Asian, Morracan and European cuisines in Bukhara. In Samarkand Budreddin Restaurant, Arba restaurants are a must try out. At Chimgam mountains, some 80 km from Tashkant, one can enjoy the electic food at Farovon.

Uzbek food typically consists of fresh and organics vegetables cooked in meat/chicken stew and served hot with noodles or bread called Non or Obinon or Patir by locals and Lepashka in Russian and boosts of more than 1000 different designs and shapes of Uzbek breads. They are also given as gifts. The main course is accompanied with fresh salad and fruits and with green tea. Rice and lentils also form part of their local cuisine in the form of what we can call liquid khichdi. Variety of dessert can be ice cream or a special local dish called Bahklawa which is made of rich filling of dry fruits with chocolate and caramal with cream.

Apart from Pilov, Hilva is the Indian halwa having similarity with Indian dessert.
As for alcohol, Uzbeks love their beer, vodka and wine which is easily available in every restaurant.

People take pride in presenting the best food and ambience so whatever restaurants you go the interiors are bound to spellbind you. They are stylish, warm, food presentation is immaculate and have great service.

What to see

‘Afrosiyob’, the high Speed Train is the best mode of travel from Tashkant to Bukhara and Samarkand in a matter of some 4 hours most comfortably for a reasonable ticket.

Tashkant

The belt of Tashkant-Bukhara-Samarkand was not only famous as Silk Route during 3-4th century but are known for their Ziyarat or Pilgrimage Tourism presently. Tashkant, the capital city is the largest in Uzbekistan with a population of 3 million. The city is lined with grid of straight and wide streets and avenues, decorated with emerald green parks, gardens, fountains imbued with crystal strands. In Tashkant its worth visiting historical monuments of Amir Timur tomb of Timur, Shastri Memorial (a must see) built in the memory of our late Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri after his death in Tashkant, Art Gallery, Chorsu bazar, Charvak lake, Chimgan mountains, Museum of Applied Arts, Museum of History of Uzbekistan, Hazarat Imam Square which houses Baraq-Khan madrassa, the Tilla-Shaykh mosque, mausoleum of Sant Abu BakrKaffal and Imam al-Bukhari Islamic Institute. Khast Imam complex situated near the grave of Abu Bakr Mohammad, the first Imam of Tashkant is the most significant shrine. The oldest Quran of the world is located here.

Charvak lake is an emerald water body in the lap of mountains. The still waters have a balming effect of a celestial kind. A treat to the eyes. Chimgan mountains offer much more in term of skiing slopes as you are taken on the mountain top by a ropeway that’s an experience in itself. The snow covered mountains are a beautiful sight.
Tashkant is called the Star of the East. It combines modernity and antiquity. It is a city 2200 yrs old and is today the biggest business and cultural centres of Central Asia.

Bukhara

It is a city museum with 140 architectural monuments. It is called the Blessed City and is a UNESCO site. The Ark Fortress is a magnificent and sprawling castle with its vastness and history enumerating how the rulers of 13th century ruled Bukhara. Labi- Hauz another architectural ensemble of 17th century. Naqshbandiy memorial complex is a must see as it tells the history of another sect of islam and their saints. Then there is a shrine of seven Sufis. There is Mir Arab Madrassah, Chashmai Ayub mausoleum, Kalyan Minaret, Tim Abdullakhan bazar, Taqi Zargaron market etc are a few others that will leave you stunned with the lavish and ornate architectural style of the old times.

Samarkand

Samarkand is the second largest city and houses the best of architectural wonders. Early philosophers called it by many names-Mirror of the World, The Garden of Souls, Pearl of the Orient, Face of the Earth. The magnificent Registan is a site one of its kind in the world. Other than its daytime view, as night falls its grandeur is indescribable. Its an architectural marvel of 17th century. Other places to see are Gur Emir mausoleum, Memorial of Imam Bukhari, Shahi Zinda, Ulugbek Observatory, Hazrat Hyzr mosque, mausoleum of Khoja Daniyar, Bibi Khanum, Siyab Bazar etc. Visiting Imam Bukhari mausoleum is called a Small Hajj as it takes one around three shrines of Al Bukhari, Shahi Zinda and Ruukhabad in a day’s time.

A tour of 6-7 days is good enough to make the best of your visit to Uzbekistan covering the 3 most important cities of this Celtic country. A traveler is bound to come back with nostalgia of the past, lingering aroma of Uzbek food, warmth of its people and loads of memories.
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