From Shymkent, Kazakhstan, I crossed over to Uzbekistan using the border crossing at Chernaevka. This is a pedestrian-only border crossing so I had to leave the car and driver behind and cross on foot wheeling my luggage. In the parking lot prior to the border crossing, there are many money changers with their wads of cash and calculators coming up to you and asking if you want to change your Kazakhstani Tenge into Uzbekistani Som. The driver said there is a set exchange rate each day so there is not much difference changing with one guy versus another. Good thing now they have larger Uzbekistani Som notes! The largest note now (in circulation since Feb 2019) is 100,000 som which is equivalent to around US$10. The 10,000 som note (around US$1) was only introduced in 2017! Just imagine the stacks of cash people had to carry in the past. The border crossing itself was quite straightforward and much simpler than I had anticipated. After bidding the driver farewell, I entered the secured walkway leading to the Kazakhstani passport control building. I didn’t see any other tourists while I was there. It was mostly locals with their bags of shopping. I was a bit alarmed after the officer stamped my passport and said “Good Luck!”. Uh-oh I thought, is Uzbekistan going to be horrible? After exiting the Kazakhstani border, you have to walk a bit along a long covered walkway and enter the immigration building on the Uzbekistan side. I was expecting the worst after the “Good Luck” comment but to my surprise the officers here were super friendly. The passport control officer greeted me with a big smile and a loud “Welcome to Uzbekistan” as I handed my passport and visa over. After getting my passport stamped, there is a simple customs control where you get your bags x-rayed and they randomly check some bags. I noticed they were not really looking in my bag all that carefully, they just wanted to chit chat and ask if I was Uzbek or Kazakh, where I was from, and if I was actually a local who moved abroad etc. Then it is another walkway to the exit and the carpark area. There are officers along the way randomly checking your documents and one of them asked if I was single and added that he was available. Hahaha! They seemed awfully relaxed as officers and another one yelled after me that I can find him here everyday in case I changed my mind. I was met by my prearranged driver and guide at the exit and then it is only a half hour drive to Tashkent. I have to say it was the most relaxed border crossing I have ever done and nothing like what I had expected from a formerly closed off country. I cannot recall ever laughing at a border crossing or having multiple officers joke and try to flirt with you. I told my guide what happened and she said that it was what these officers do all the time. She had arrived early to wait for me and she noticed the officers always stopping the prettier girls and asking to check their documents and then also asking where they were staying etc. Some even asked if they wanted to grab a drink together later. Unbelievable! The border crossing has become a pick-up joint! 😅
Uzbekistan is no doubt the most popular country to visit in Central Asia. It has always been a key stop on the Silk Road and was Central Asia’s cradle of culture from the time it was ruled by the Persian Empire. Its biggest attraction are its ancient towns of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva filled with beautifully decorated mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, and fortresses. Uzbekistan has traditionally been a very heavily governed country and with the recent relaxation of visa application procedures and international flight connections, more and more tourists are visiting this formerly mysterious country. I got my e-visa online and was relatively easy to do though the uploading of my photo took me a little while (the site Caravanistan has good instructions on the photo requirements and other information). After all the information is uploaded, they will send you a code which you then have to enter on the website in order to pay. I got my e-visa approved and sent to me within 2 days by email.
Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries in the world, the other being Liechtenstein. Doubly landlocked means you need to cross at least two national borders in order to reach the coastline. Uzbekistan is surrounded by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In the ancient times, what is Uzbekistan today was part of the Iranian-speaking region of Transoxiana and Turan. The first settlers here were Eastern Iranians who founded kingdoms in Khwarezm, Bactria, Margiana etc. The area was part of the Iranian Achaemenid Empire, Parthian Empire, and Sasanian Empire until Iran was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. After that it was ruled by the Mongols until the Mongol Empire began to separate in the early 14th century. With that the tribes competed for regional influence and amongst them Timur, a warlord of Turco-Mongol lineage, was victorious and established the Timurid Empire. Timur was known for his ambition and brutality. He regarded himself as the heir of Genghis Khan, though not a descendent, and the restorer of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire. With the demise of the Timurid Empire after Timur’s death, Uzbek tribes seized much of central Asia and khanates which were regional kingdoms controlled by a khan appeared. The three khanates were that of Khanate of Bukhara, ruled by the Shaybanid dynasty, the Khanate of Khiva, and the Khanate of Kokand. The Khans were the patrilineal descendants of Shayan, the 5th son of Jochi and the grandson of Genghis Khan. During the 19th century, it became part of the Russian Empire with the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic formed in 1924. It was not until the breakup of the Soviet Union that Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991.
I begin my adventures in Uzbekistan in Tashkent, the capital and largest city of the country. Like the other cities in Uzbekisan, Tashkent suffered destruction by Genghis Khan in 1219 when the city was rebuilt into one of the important centers along the Silk Road. In 1865, it became the capital of Russian Turkestan and was under Soviet rule until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of Tashkent was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966 and what we see today was mostly rebuilt by the Soviets afterwards. Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Tashkent does not have preserved ancient monuments. The city is a mixture of traditional monuments, Soviet blocks, modern high rises resembling those in the Arab Emirates, and undeveloped areas with mud-walled houses and crowded bazaars. Tashkent is usually the jumping off point for visitors to get to the more historical cities of Bukhara and Samarkand and people don’t stay here for long. I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Tashkent for my short stop here. Hyatt Regency, opened in 2016, is the city’s first genuine 5 star hotel within walking distance of the major sights in Tashkent.
In the old town of Tashkent is the Khast Imam Complex which provides an idea of what the city looked like before it was levelled by the earthquake of 1966. On the square is the Hazrat Imam mosque built in 2007 and is the largest mosque in the city. Also on the square is the Muyi Muborak Library. Muyi Muborak means “sacred hair” and the library is so called because a hair, said to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed, is kept here. The library also has the world’s oldest 7th century Osman Quaran stained with the blood of Caliph Uthman who was reading it when he was assassinated in 656. This deerskin tome was written 19 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and is one of Tashkent’s historical treasures. Beside the Muyi Muborak Library is the 16th century Barak Khan Madrasa now mainly occupied by souvenir and handicrafts shops. Opposite it is the Mirza Akhmed Kushbegi mosque built in 1856.
Another monument on the square is the 16th century Abubakr Kaffal-Shashi Mausoleum. Kaffal-Shashi was an Islamic poet and scholar who died in the 10th century and was given the name Holy Imam and believed to be the patron saint of Tashkent. His works are still printed today hundreds of years later.
Chorsu Bazaar or Eski Juva Bazaar is the most famous market in Tashkent and is the biggest and oldest bazaar in Central Asia. It has been operating in the same place for over 2,000 years. The bazaar is housed under 7 large domes covered in blue-green glazed tiles. All kinds of spices, herbs, dried and fresh fruits, breads, meats, and grains are sold under the largest dome with a diameter of over 300 meters. The smaller domes house workshops where craftsmen sell jewelry, Uzbek chests, tapestries, lace, clothing, knives, national musical instruments, ceramics, carpets, and other local crafts.
Independence Square in the center of Tashkent is the main square of Uzebkistan where both Senate, the Parliament, and government offices are located. It looks more like a park than a square with many fountains and trees. In 1865, the then Turkestan Governor General built his military fortress here. The square was named Lenin Square during the Soviet times with a Lenin statue erected in the center. Within a year of the declaration of independence in 1991, Lenin Square was renamed Independence Square (Mustakillik Maydoni) and the Lenin statue there was replaced with the Independence Monument which is a bronze globe with Uzbekistan’s borders outlined on it. The entrance to the square is framed by the Arch of Independence with marble columns supporting sculptures of storks. Not only do people come here to Independence Square for festive celebrations and events, they also like to come here for a walk, have a picnic, catch up with friends, and it has become a tradition for newly weds to come here on their wedding day.
Another main square in the center of Tashkent is the Amir Timur Square surrounded by the Uzbekistan Hotel, University of Law, the Amir Timur Museum, the Tashkent Chimes, and the Forums Palace. In the center of the square is the bronze statue of Amir Timur on a reared horse engraved with his famous saying in four languages: “Power is in Justice”. Amir Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerers and the founder and first ruler of the Timurid Empire. His vast empire once spanned from the Mediterranean all the way to India.
The Museum of Applied Arts is worth a stop especially if Tashkent is your first stop in Uzbekistan. The museum dates back to 1927 and displays works based on ancient traditions such as ghanch which is painted and carved plaster, wood carving, handmade embroidery, jewelry, carpets, etc. It is a great place to learn a little about the decorative styles used in the great monuments in the more ancient Silk Road cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva.
Another interesting place to visit in Tashkent is the Metro which is the first underground transportation system in Central Asia built. The system was modelled after the one in Moscow and each station is decorated differently. I spent a couple hours riding the metro and photographing some of the more beautiful stations which I will share in my next post. Stay tuned!
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