Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor – Part III Tashkent & Fergana

There’s more to Tashkent than meets the eye, I am sure, but there were only two things on our list during our short stop in the capital: Tashkent Metro and the Museum of Applied Arts.

First was the cheapest private tour we ever undertook. We bought a ticket for like 15 cents and just rode the metro, stepping out at different beautifully decorated stations.

Metro train leaving the station

Someone had done the work for us and posted an extensive blog about all the most interesting stations including a handy map. Thank you, Google and Cynthia!

Credit: https://www.journalofnomads.com/best-metro-tashkent-photo-guide/

A nice passanger seeing us study the map told us that the metro had been extended and suggested we ride all the way to the end. So we did.

Mirek catching the metro back from the last station

We like to ride public transportation on our travels (well, one of us really does…)

The Gafur Gulom metro station named after G’afur G’ulom, a famous Uzbek poet, writer and translator.

That one of us takes special joy and pride in figuring out how to buy a ticket and read the map. The other one likes to observe the people and make up stories about who they are and where they are going.

Grandma, Mom, and daughter leaving Alisher Navoi station going to buy tickets for a performance at Alisher Navoi theater?

The majority of people were dressed in Western styles, certainly all men. Women showed more diversity, but we saw no covered faces.

Texting her friends? First time meeting her pre-arranged husband? Going for a magazine fashion shoot?
Going to mosque for Friday prayers?

Or just looking for lunch options?

KFC or Canadian Chicken Wieners?

We definitely couldn’t miss the Kosmonavtlar metro station built in 1984 in honor of the cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. Luckily one can now take photographs of the station which was prohibited until recently as the station was designated as a nuclear bomb shelter.

The blue ceramic medallions on the walls feature some of the historical figures of space dreams and legends and greatest pioneers of the Soviet space program, such as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space.

Twin Russian girls in front of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Still kicking at 85 and in Russian politics no less.

Some stations were very contemporary.

Beruniy station with crystal chandeliers

And some really harkened back to the communist era with their red stars decor.

We preferred the more folksy decorations with colorful ceramic panels of country life.

Chilonzor metro station

One could spend the whole day riding the metro, but we did want to make it to the State Museum of Applied Arts before closing time. The building itself is interesting as it was originally a palace of a rich late 19th century Russian diplomat Polovstev, adorned in colorful oriental decorative style by his male Russian-Uzbek lover. Ah, if those walls could talk!

Unfortunately, for once no one could be found to talk and guide us through the museum. For a while, we pretended we were part of a British tour bus group, but then decided we will strike it out on our own.

I have already waxed poetically about spectacular suzani embroideries, so let me just mention a few of the other 4000 exhibits on hand.

There are exquisite lacquer boxes

Daniel in Lion’s Den

Detailed miniatures

Intricate wood carvings

Every inch of the door carved

What is fantastic looking at these masterpieces is knowing there are people here and now that still have skills and know how to do this with their own two hands and simple tools.

A good place to find them is Fergana Valley and that is where we headed next. We jumped into the train and immediately made new friends. A lovely group of ladies traveling for days to get to a wedding in Kyrgyzstan.

When we told them we will cross over the border too, they immediately invited us to the festivities. Alas, we were not going to get there on time as we were planning to make a few stops on the way.

We jumped out in Kokand. It is a tiny place and certainly not able to compete with the Big 3 on the Silk Road, but we had it all to ourselves, not counting the guest soccer/football team that stayed in our small hotel, preparing for the weekend tournament.

Kokand was situated on major ancient crossroads of two trade routes and at the end of the 19th century Khudayar Khan built a huge royal residence with 113 rooms set around seven courtyards. The ruler wanted his mother to live in one of the palace’s grand buildings, but she refused and set up her yurt in a courtyard.

Tiled front of the palace

These days only a few rooms remain and only one is in perfect condition.

The Kokand Friday mosque is luckily very nicely restored and inviting with a large green courtyard that has a 300ft (100m) long iwan supported on 98 gorgeous slender columns.

Some of the original carved redwood columns, brought from India are still there.

We knew Fergana valley was famous for silk weaving but we were not prepared for what we found in one of the small one-man workshops in the mosque.

Iridescent shimmering hand woven and tailored silk coat

It took our breath away. Nothing ever anywhere after or before has been so close to perfection. As the proud weaver turned the coat it caught the light and the surface undulated into different patterns. Mesmerizing… Like swimming underwater in a tropical sea. Wow, just wow!

The chain-smoking wood carver on the other hand couldn’t be bothered to even look up from his work.

All in a day’s work

There was a small museum, too, with two other visitors, students from a local University that delighted in being able to practice their English and of course take a picture.

They gladly explained the strange wooden implements found exhibited.

Pipe, flute…?

Weeell, they are part of this ensemble.

It is a cradle-potty chair combo for little babies.

No need for changing diapers in the middle of the night. Scroll back and try to guess which is for boys and which for girls! The thing is, while this is an interesting ethnographic exhibit, many mothers, including our female guides are still using it nightly. (now that is also why I prefer female guides).

We were doing these stops on the alternative, longer way from Kokand to Margillan with the craziest, fastest, and friendliest taxi driver. We called him Oscar(chik) and he called Mirek (E)mirek. He had nowhere else to be, so he was happy to stop on our way and a few hours drive turned into a whole day of fun and exploration. With a break for lunch at the best shashlik place (our treat of course).

He spoke great Russian and about 10 words of English, despite his sister being an English teacher. But he was sharp as a tack and kept doubling his vocabulary every 20 minutes while laughing and gunning his car down country roads. “Oscarchik smart,” he would say tapping his finger on his forehead. “How do you say…”

We had a communication snafu as I kept insisting that he has to take us to Rishtan’s famous ceramic workshop of Master Rustam Usmanov while he kept advocating for a ceramic workshop of a different guy. Turns out he was talking about Usmanov’s son.

Rustam and his son at the gates to their workshop

Both were most welcoming and took time to show us the whole process. I was a bit apprehensive before coming as I was worried about it being too touristy. We were the only people there and every piece they had in their huge production was a masterpiece. When we bemoaned the fact that we traveled with a small carry-on only and couldn’t buy a whole set of dishes they GIFTED us a little pomegranate vase.

Before and after the kiln

It is Margillan that is the center of silk weaving. We asked our Oscarchik to first take us to the local market but only a few stalls with silk could be found.

Friendly silk merchant

Most of the market was cheap Chinese mass-produced clothes.

Interesting take on denim

The visit to the Yodgorlik Silk factory was a disappointment. It is supposed to produce enormous amounts of hand woven silk but most of the looms were abandoned. As elsewhere we found girls jumping to do work only when a tourist poked their head in.

Still, we soon had fun taking portraits of the girls.

Remember the eyebrows? Definitely unmarried girl!
Leftover henna from recent Ramadan

We finally said goodbye to Oscarchik in front of Margillan’s Ikat House Guesthouse.

It was a carpet-studded homey place and immediately we felt like in the good old days of young travel with interesting travelers from all parts of the world hanging out and sharing experiences and tips. Especially cherished was the discussion with a group of young Russian motorcyclists. They left Russia for a long trip anxiously awaiting Putin’s May Victory speech afraid he might conscript young men. Tentatively at first and then more freely, they expressed their opposition to Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Our last stop in Fergana Valley and Uzbekistan was in the city of Andijan.

The city has a famous historical figure to be proud of as it is the birthplace of Babur (=Tiger in Persian). He was the great-great grandson of Timur and ascended to a much diminished throne of Fergana at the age of twelve. Following a series of setbacks, he finally succeeded in laying the basis for the Mughal dynasty and became the first Mughal emperor.

Babur is considered Uzbeki National hero

We had another important reason to visit Andijan. Through the power of the internet and Instagram, I got connected to Gulkhumor, the owner of Inter progress School, teaching children foreign languages.

Of course, I promised we will visit them. I thought we would pop in and say hello to the students.

The littlest students

Who was I kidding! We were treated as VIP dignitaries, starting with a big bouquet of fresh flowers.

With Ghulkhumor (L) and her head teacher

Speeches were delivered and the children in their Sunday best prepared songs, dance, and recitations in English.

Parents were invited to this event of the year.

Countless selfies were taken

And invitations for tea, dinner and overnight stays extended. Alas, we were bound for Kyrgyzstan border the next day. But what a farewell to incredible Uzbeki people!

Saying a final goodbye to Uzbekistan with this fun oldie, but goldie couple. Is it time to change our name to CrazyGrandparentsTravel? Nope, but it is time to cross the border to Kyrgyzstan! See you on the other side.

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Splendor- Part II Bukhara & Samarkand

The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.

There are all levels of trains and they cover the whole country well. The fancy business class is cool and all, but it is also fun to take a regular train and share a welcome cup of tea with friendly Uzbek travelers.

In vain we searched for the downtown bus and then negotiated a ride with the driver of a beat up taxi to our little hotel close to Registan. Thank goodness for any and all remnants of Mirek’s school Russian! Yes, you can operate with simple English, but fluent Russian is spoken by everyone. After we dropped off our bags and took a look at the lovely green courtyard and colorful furnishings

Traditional Uzbeki hotels have their unique charm

I made Mirek go out again. We walked a few minutes to Registan, the heart of Samarkand, as I couldn’t wait to see it all beautifully lit in a flood of golden light, just like in the many pictures I saw.

I nearly started crying when I beheld the gaudy light show with loud music. To each it’s own, I guess, but I don’t appreciate this kind of “artistic licence” with world heritage.

Cheapening the elegant crowning achievement of Islamic architecture
Even worse close up

The next morning we met with Anora, our guide for the day and I was still traumatised and refused to go back. We took a taxi instead to Bibi Khanum mosque. It is still impressive today, but in the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. We started our guided tour by walking through the Siyob Bazar where my soul was soothed by the lovely colors of first spring fruits; orange apricots, red cherries, unripe green plums

and mounds of luscious strawberries

The blue-green tiles of the domes beckoned

and a goofy boy in a blue shirt with green eyes smiled at me and all was good with the world again.

In the back Mirek and Anora discussing life. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with their first child to become a bus driver in Moscow and never came back, taking all her gold wedding jewellery along.

Walking around the enormous mosque we heard plenty of stories. Guides love legends and tales. We were told the well known story of Bibi and the impudent architect who demanded that she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek in order to finish the mosque in time for her husband Timur’s return from war. The kiss left a permanent stain and the architect lost his head when Timur found out. It is in truth Timur that built the mosque in honor of his wife Sara Mulk aka Bibi Khanum (really just a honorific title of “Lady, Khan’s daughter).

A miniature painting found nearby. It might not be Bibi and the architect, for the wings and all… Call it poetic license.

Perhaps this is a good time to say a few words about Amir Timur, because Samarkand’s biggest treasures are inextricably connected to this larger than life figure. He was the first ruler of the long and ilustrious Timurid dynasty. He is going down in annals of history as one of the most ruthless conquerors (killing an estimated 17 million people) and at the same time a huge patron of the arts (even if many of his artists and architects were captives brought from afar).

Did you know he had a red beard?

Timur (Iron) or Timurlenk (Timur the Lame) anglicized as Tamerlane was born on the steppes close to modern day Samarkand as a Turkified Mongol. He was quite tall but indeed lame in his leg with a withered arm due to injuries. (Sustained either stealing sheep or in battle – take your pick.) That drawback did not prevent him from conquering the world atop a horse

Amir Temur’s statue in Tashkent

and taking many wives. Many were widows of rulers of conquered lands, killed by Timur. It was customary to take on the harem of the enemy you defeated. Nobody asked the ladies, but I guess they thought it was a pretty good alternative to being raped and slaughtered.

Beautiful Bibi was one such case and she became Timur’s most favored wife. It did help that she was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan which solidified Timur’s leadership legitimacy. So you see there was much more to picking from the harem of defeated enemy than just a conqueror choosing beautiful spoils of war for himself. In general women, married to or taken as concubines by high powered leaders were always of high birth themselves and offered alliances and diplomatic powers to the men. They had wealth of their own and built and endowed mosques, schools, and hospitals.

Ode to Women, Park of Tigers, Samarkand

For anyone interested in this subject I recommend a fascinating book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens.

For the arial view of Bibi’s mosque,

View of Bibi’s mosque from Hazrat Khizr mosque bellow the mausoleum

we climbed to the mausoleum of the former president Islam Karimov. Here is another of the controversial leaders, ruthless communist authoritarian and the father of Uzbeksitan independent nation. The many devoted visitors there and especially school children on field trips most likely subscribe to the latter notion.

Nearby lays the important Shah-I-Zinda necropolis where many of Timur’s female relatives have been entombed. Normally quite keen on graveyards of all sorts, this one somehow failed to impress. Rather than trying to remember the nieces, wives, and even Timur’s wet nurse, we enjoyed people-watching.

As was a daily occurence we were again besieged by members of a school trip for a group photo.

I quickly took advantage of the situation and asked for some portraits. Every girl was keen to have hers taken and they enjoyed seeing them on my iPhone screen.

Uzbekistan is a riot of colors and patterns. Somehow, magically they work well together.
And can be quite stunning in black and white.

Timur himself is NOT buried there. He wanted to be buried in a simple structure in his nearby home town of Sahrisabz but since he died in winter during his military expedition to China and passes were snowed in they put him to rest in Samarkand. He is interred in a mausoleum that was originally intended to be the tomb of his beloved grandson and heir apparent Muhhamad Shah who died young just two years before Timur. It then became a Timurid dynastic mausoleum.

And what a splendid place it is. The outside is just another one of the pleasing brick-tile combos, but it would eventually inspire the glorious Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants who established the Mughal (the very word a corruption of “Mongol”) dynasty in India.

But, oh, the inside… a breathtaking shimmering blue and gold jewel box

cocooning a collection of different sarcophagi from the male Timurid line. Remember, the ladies had their own individual pretty mausolea at Shah-I-Zinda?

It is one of those places that defies description, one simply has to experience it. Preferably without the crowds and loud guides. If I was in charge I would prohibit all guided tours. Explain anything you want outside and then let people just savor the harmony of the space and the deep sense of history. People come here to pay respects.

and say a prayer.

If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to see in Samarkand it was Ulugh Beg Observatory. He was the grandson of Timur the Great but loved astronomy and mathematics a bit more than conquering and pillaging.

Sixty astronomers and mathematicians were invited to work at the observatory and the celestial measurements they obtained were extremely accurate. Don’t ask me how, there is of course a perfectly logical explanation, but despite going through the excellent museum on site I can not explain any of it. Still, wow, to do that kind of astronomy in 15th century without powerful telescopes and computers and space probes!

The model of the observatory.
The magic of big brainiacs. And I mean it, because they did dabble much in astrology, too.

The observatory was destroyed by Ulug Beg’s own son soon after he had his father killed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Very pious, these guys, really!

The rediscovered and restored remnants of the underground part with the stone sextant

Married for the first time at 10, Ulugh Beg became a governor of Samarkand at 16, after his own father’s death. He had 13 wives and lots of enemies. When did the dude find time to build observatories and universities?

The University I am talking about is his madrasah in the Registan complex that was known as one of the best universities of Muslim world. It transformed what was medieval Samarkand’s large and vibrant commercial centre where camels unloaded their precious Silk Road cargo into educational center as well. Ulug Beg himself taught astronomy there.

Ulug Beg’s Madrasah on the left , Sher-Dor on the right and Tillya Kari in the middle

So we have come full circle. After initial evening disappointment I did return to Registan and not only once but thrice: once with the guide, once with Mirek and once by myself. At different times of day with the sun illuminating different parts of the three buildings it revealed many faces and hidden corners.

Upper floor of inner courtyard of Ulug Beg’s madrasah

Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa an early 17th century governor Yalangtush built its near mirror image – the Sher Dor madrasah. The facade is striking (and memorable) for the two lions/tigers/fantastical cats and human-faced suns chasing two deer that guard the portal, an unexpected return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism.

Daring indeed as Islam prohibits depictions of animals or human faces. To get away with it we were told the lions were seen as symbols of students with a hunger for knowledge, the deer as knowledge and the sun as enlightenment. There are also reverse swastikas, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times.

A live grapevine growing inside, another contradiction as Islam prohibition drinking of alcohol

To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.

The intricate interior of the huge qubba (=cupola), a symbolic representation of the vault of heaven where stars, leaves, and flowers spiral into eternity.

Because of its lavish interior, swathed in golden leaf, very much reminiscent of Timur’s mausoleum, it is called Tillya Kari (“the gilded one”). It was to become the city’s main mosque.

We were glad to have structured our trip starting in charming little Khiva and culminating with the lavish Samarkand instead of the other way around.

With the foreign tourists scarce, the interactions with local families were precious.

Leaders with Confidence, one and all!
In their Sunday best.

Before saying goodbye to Samarkand we should not forget to mention the friendly encounter with some special Servas people. For some of you who have been following us from the beginning of our empty nest adventures you might remember our stays with Servas members in New Zealand and Australia. Servas International is an organization that brings together people from around the world to promote peace and understanding.

After many emails exchanged and 2 year delay in our arrival to Uzbekistan we finally met up with Anatoly and Irina who in turn introduced us to their Servas friend Rafik. It felt like we were a living poster child for the international (and local) peace and understanding as Anatoly was of mixed Armenian and Russian ancestry, his wife was Tatar and Rafik Tajiki.

With Rafik, our generous host

We spent a lovely afternoon at his fruit farm being plied with food at a traditional Uzbekistani or should we rather call it Central Asian feast. The table was overflowing with sumptuous homemade dishes that magically appeared from the kitchen, hidden to our eyes and occupied by the elfin hands of Rafik’s wife and daughter-in-law.

A wonderful send off to the last part of our Uzbekistan travels to Tashkent and Fergana valley.