Everything is Big in Uzbekistan

An edited version of this travelogue piece appeared in the June 2020 issue of Platform magazine (follow this link to access the magazine site)

The man most of the world knows as Tamerlane or Timur-e-Lang or Timur the Lame, and generally reviles as a ruthless invader, is revered in his native Uzbekistan as Amir Timur. Statues of him in heroic or regal mien dominate many public spaces. Many of those are modern creations; his real legacy is in the huge gates, mosques, and other edifices that are the cynosures of the country. When Timur was not off conquering new lands or fighting off ambitious rivals – which was a lot of his adult life – he was also adding to the cultural and spiritual life of his empire through architecture and the arts.

Not all of what he built still stands, but significant monuments have been rebuilt or restored, and form the spectacular centerpiece of Uzbekistan’s rich touristic banquet. On one of Timur’s constructions is inscribed a saying that translates to “If you want to know about us, look at our buildings.” And throughout our trip (there were four of us – my wife Anjali and I, and two friends), we did, with awe and admiration.

The most famous of the structures is Samarkand’s Registon Square (the name comes from the same Persian roots that gave us the Hindustani word for ‘desert’ – in this case, it simply means ‘sandy place’). George Curzon, the same Lord Curzon who was Viceroy of India, once called it “the noblest public square in the world”. We caught it at night, when it was brilliantly lit up, spread out like a luminous carpet below the vantage point from which we viewed it.

Registon Square in Samarkand. Photo by Srijit Kumar

Awesome as it was, there were so many other structures that fascinated and captivated us. In Bukhara, which was the first stop on our itinerary, we stayed in a wonderful bed-and-breakfast just off the Lyabi-i Hauz, the touristic hub of the city. The Hauz is a rectangular pond dug out in the 17th century, bordered by the Kukeldash Madrasah, and two religious edifices built by and named for an official called Nadir Divan-Beghi: a khanaka (a lodging house for itinerant Sufis) and a madrassah. The students’ cells that surround the central courtyard of the Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrassah are now occupied by craftspersons who use them as studio-shops.

Many ancient madrassahs around Uzbekistan now serve such other purposes. The country was one of the republics of the Soviet Union from around 1920 till 1991. During the initial part of that period, people were banned from practising Islam (religion, the opium of the masses, was anathema to the Communists), and the madrassahs were used for everything from chemicals dumps to ammunition warehouses. After the country became independent, its new ruler, Islam Karimov, a relatively benevolent despot from all accounts, allowed Islamic teaching to resume in some of the institutions, but ensured – in some cases through brutal repression – that it was a brand of secular Islam true to its roots in the Sufi tradition of the region.

Karimov passed away in 2016 having been in power for 25 years, and his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been prompt to open up the country to tourism. Much effort has been put in to ensure that visitors have an enriching experience, and in these early days of openness, travelling to Uzbkistan is immensely rewarding. We were met by efficient English-speaking guides everywhere, and had every comfort and convenience taken care of. The guides were well-prepared, and clearly proud of showing off their beautiful country and its cultural heritage. Wherever we went, we met friendly people curious about us – the historical connection with Russia and the Soviets, and the older links of the Mughal Empire (Babur came from the Fergana Valley here), means that they have a special soft spot for people from India. It was a welcome feeling, given that in most parts of the world, Indian tourists are generally regarded with suspicion and distrust. My feeling is that, as more and more Indians travel there – groups of Indian men already frequent the place for what our local tour operator, Shaukat Ghaziyev, referred to as “boom-boom tourism” – Uzbeks will come to have the same feeling about the ugly Indian, so it’s a good idea to plan to travel there before the rot sets in.

We got a welcome dose of the fascination with people from India from the very first day we were there. We were walking around in the trading domes in Bukhara – ancient structures that were a fabled stop on the Silk Route a thousand years ago – and were greeted everywhere by both vendors and customers with the tradition hand-over-the-heart “Salaam”, and queries of “Hindostan? Hindostan?” A trio of young college girls came up to us and got Anjali to sing along to “Bole chudiyan, bole kangana” with them. The favoured Bollywood references clearly vary with age – where the girls went gaga over Shahrukh Khan (pronounced with the rounded vowel sounds and guttural aitches typical to Central and West Asia, “Shokhrukh Khon”), people from a generation previous would rave about Mithun Chakraborty, while for those even older, the adulation was reserved for Raj Kapoor and “Mera joota hai japani”.

Ravshan Saidjanov, our genial Bukhara guide, looks on indulgently, no doubt used to such interactions, as the college girls discuss Bollywood and other matters of international export-import with Rajiv, Srijit, and Anjali.

The singing college girls caught up with us again on our second night, at the magnificent Po-i-Kalyan (pronounced somewhere close to ‘Kalon’) complex. This time, they were bolder, and made no bones about focusing on their real target, flirting with our younger friends, Srijit and Rajiv. By the light of the ethereally-lit Kalyan Minaret – till the 20th century, one of the tallest minarets in the world, at 45m – they performed Bollywood moves and tried to get the boys to dance with them, pouting and faux sulking when they wouldn’t.

In between these two encounters, we had seen so much of the ancient city of Bukhara and parts around. The massive Ark, the old citadel with its imposing mudwork walls and views of the entire city; the Bohoutdin Complex, that houses the mausoleum of Sheikh Baha-ud-din, founder of the Naqshbandi order, which attracts pilgrims from all over the world, and the associated massive necropolis; the Char Minar, a small but exquisite mosque-and-madrassah edifice with its minarets topped in turquoise.

Rajiv casts an architect’s eye on the Ark Citadel in Bukhara. Photo by Srijit Kumar

But the place I enjoyed visiting most was the Sitora-i-Mokhi Khosa Saroy, the ‘palace of the star like a moon’. The palace complex, spread over expansive grounds, was first constructed by the cruel and capricious Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan, in the early 19th century, and named for his beloved  wife Sitorabony, who had died in childbirth. After a couple of cycles of ruin and renovation, the current avatar of the place was built in the early 20th century by Alim Khan, the last Amir of Bukhara. By then, Russian influence had spread across Uzbekistan, and it’s visible in the architecture of the palace as it exists today. Fusing European features with local influences, it’s a fascinating mélange, sometimes bordering on the kitsch. But you can’t help but be captivated by such idiosyncracies as passing from a stark-white hallway done up in traditional Bukharan stucco to a salon modeled on ones in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, all coloured glass and ornate furnishings.

From Bukhara, we took the Afrosiyob train to another storied place, Samarkand. We had taken the same train in the other direction three days earlier, upon landing early in the morning in Tashkent on a direct Uzbekistan Airways flight from Delhi. The only high-speed train anywhere in Central Asia, the Talgo 250 unit makes the Tashkent-Bukhara run – a distance of close to 600km – in less than four hours, its kingfisher-beak engine slicing through the air at speeds up to 240 kmph.

The Afrosiyob high-speed train, the only one of its kind in Central Asia. Photo by Srijit Kumar

Bukhara has a slightly rustic feel to it, its arid clime making it feel like something of an oasis in a desert. Samarkand, on the other hand, is a smart, cosmopolitan city, with stylishly-dressed people and a modern air to it. This feel, however, is not spoilt by the monocultural uniformity that has overtaken cities everywhere. Its unique history of insulation from capitalist culture, first under the Soviet Union and later under Islam Karimov, has ensured that its streets are not overrun by the same brands that one sees on main streets everywhere. It makes it a great pleasure to walk or drive around and see what’s effectively a new world for most of us.

The attitudes of the people too, reflect this different history. There are no ostentatious displays of wealth, and there is no sign of poverty either. Our stay was too short, and our interactions too superficial, to draw any deep conclusions, but the impression we came away with was that social differences are nowhere near as extreme as in many ‘richer’ countries.

Our guide in Samarkand, Aziza Begieva, said as much: “Everyone lives quite well in Uzbekistan, and no one likes to show off their wealth. My neighbour may be very rich, but he will live exactly like everyone else does, so you will not know it.”

Like all the other guides who showed us around their respective cities, Aziza was well-prepared and well-informed, and gave us deep insights into the places she took us. Samarkand is the heart of Uzbekistan, having been continuously inhabited since the Mesolithic Era, some 14,000 years ago. It was the capital of the Samanid Empire in the 9th century CE, and later of Amir Timur. The descendants of Timur, including Babur who was born in the Fergana Valley to the east, fought long-drawn-out internecine battles over it. Located at practically the crossroads of Eurasia, it has been ruled in the course of its history by the Sogdians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Turks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Uzbeks, the Russians, and the Soviets.

The sense of scale that I spoke of is most palpable here. The highlight for tourists is the Gur-e-Amir, Timur’s mausoleum complex. A stately gateway decorated with arabesques in shades of blue and orange leads into the courtyard within which the mausoleum building stands, flanked by two minarets. Inside, a massive vault-domed ceiling with intricate golden detailing overhangs a chamber in which rest five cenotaphs, those of Timur, two of his sons, and two of his grandsons. The graves themselves lie in a crypt below this chamber that is closed to visitors.

The cenotaphs in the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum. Amir Timur’s gravestone is the dark jade one in the centre.

As with most of the other splendid monuments around the country, this complex too had fallen into disrepair during periods of history. Here, though, some parts have been left in that dilapidated state, the contrast highlighting the marvellous renovation work that has brought the structure to vibrant life.

One of the graves in the mausoleum is that of Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg, who ascended the throne at Samarkand at the age of 18, just six years after Timur’s death in 1405. He was a man of the arts and sciences, and during his reign there was something of a resurgence in Islamic chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. Ulugh Beg built a grand observatory on a hill overlooking Samarkand, and astronomers here devised the Zij-i-Sultani, an astronomical table and star catalogue published in 1437 that was used by scientists in Asia and Europe for the next 400 years. Among other notable achievements, Ulugh Beg determined the length of the tropical year with an error of +25s, more accurate than Copernicus’ estimate more than 100 years later, and determined the Earth’s axial tilt at almost precisely the value in use even today.

Not far from Ulugh Beg’s Observatory, halfway up a drab yellow hillside, lies the Tomb of Hodja Daniyar, the Daniel of the Bible. There are at least six sites worldwide that claim to contain his remains. This one is rather extraordinary, the chador-covered sarcophagus about 18 feet long. As per legend, his bones have continued to grow over time, and the container for them has had to be lengthened along with them. Be that as it may, this site is holy to all three Abrahamic religions, and there were many pilgrims there when we were, praying in silence around the small mausoleum.

If one’s talking about size, though, the Bibi Khanum complex in the heart of Samarkand tops them all. Built by and named for Timur’s favourite wife, the complex is fronted by a massive portal 35 metres high that dwarfs all who enter. Inside, the courtyard is dotted with trees between which paved paths criss-cross. One can see in this space the precursor of the char bagh scheme that Mughal gardens adopted in locations around the sub-continent. A monumental dome some 40m tall rises above the mosque on the far side of the courtyard, while two smaller iwans (pavilions) are marked with their own domes on the remaining two sides of the rectangular grounds.

The towering gateway into the Bibi Khanum complex in Samarkand.

Restoration work was still ongoing on the site when we visited. As I watched an artisan work on the marble lattice of one of the iwans, he looked at me and called out the customary, “Hindostan?” My nod of assent was met with a happy yell of “Shahrukh Khan?” As a joke, I pointed to myself and said, “Shahrukh Khan!” He laughed, thumped his own chest and responded, “Abhishek Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan!” When you have no common language, laughter – and Bollywood – is enough to create a connect.

In the shadow of the Bibi Khanum mosque’s towering structures lies the sprawling Siyob Dehkon Bozori (the Siyob farmers’ market). Samarkand’s biggest market, it’s an ordered maze of stalls selling everything from halva – the generic name for all sorts of sweets made out of tahini, egg white, sugar, and assorted nuts, sold in the form of hard blocks – through nons (the local flatbreads, related in name if not form to our naans) to fruits and vegetables. The stalls near the gate are clearly more targeted towards tourists, with their assortment of Samarkand souvenir bags, keychains, fridge magnets, hand-embroidered suzani, and other bric-a-brac.

Women operating a halva stall at the Siyob Dehkon Bozori.

At one stage, my legs already aching from having traipsed through first the Bibi Khanum complex and then the bazaar, and having lost sight of the others of our group in the maze of stalls, I arrived at what seemed like a central point of the market, where two of the main corridors met, to realize that the steps to one side overlooked a huge, less ordered, and evidently older sector of the market at a lower level. From up above, it was clear that this perhaps larger section was for household goods of the non-food variety. It was too daunting to step down into.

Bazaars such as this are a feature of most large cities in Uzbekistan, but their constituent elements vary from location to location. At the multi-level Chorsu Bazar in Tashkent, there is an extensive clothing section, where Anjali picked up a stylish and warm long coat for her sister to brave the Delhi winters in, for barely 200,000 som (INR 2,000). Johon Bazar in Andijan is not as big as the others, but it’s striking for the rows of vendors of various types of breads who line the front of the market. This bazaar, in fact, is not just restricted to the regulated market space, but seeps into adjoining streets which are a treat to walk down, browsing the unusual wares on sale there.

But the mother of them all – at its grandest on Sundays – is Kumtepa Bazar in Margilon, where there’s nothing you don’t get. Having read about it in advance, and since it was among the last stops on our itinerary, we reserved most of our shopping for our stint there. We picked up several varieties of the local cheese, called kurt (pronounced more like ‘kurrut’); gift boxes of the dry fruits and nuts that Central Asia is famous for; even a set of the archetypal blue-pottery tea sets that are ubiquitous around the country.

At a stall run by a mother-daughter pair of stately Uzbek women, we came across the cardboard-lined caps that are commonly worn around the Fergana Valley – the men’s caps in black with white motifs that signify which part of the valley the wearer comes from, the women’s dazzling in gold, red, and white with sequins and tassels. We bought several of these, as well as a bunch of the miniature versions that are perfect for hanging from car rear-view mirrors or from rucksacks (our guide, the earnest Aziz Odilov had one hanging from his).

Women’s caps on sale at the Kumtepa Bazar in Margilon.

Our shopping wasn’t restricted to the bazaars, though. Uzbekistan has a thriving population of craftspersons and artisans producing superb metalwork, wooden objets d’art, and ceramics. Rishton, a small town in the Fergana Valley, is home to a large number of factories devoted to the lattermost – local lore has it that the soil there is so suited to the process, it needs only water, no other additives, to produce the most wonderful clay for moulding into shape. At one of these, the Koron factory, set up by Usta (a Persian title that is the root of the Urdu ‘ustad’) Ravshan Tojidinov, we were taken through this process of creation, ending in rooms full of the most colourful and enticing pieces of pottery.

At the Koron ceramics factory in Rishton, a display of the blue pottery archetypal of the region.

Apart from these, you can’t go to the heart of the ancient Silk Route and not come away with some silk. Our tour of the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilon reaped rich harvests in the form of scarfs, stoles, jackets, and wall hangings, most of them in the trademark ikat style of Central Asia. Silk also played a supporting role at the Meros Paper Factory in Konigil near Samarkand, where they still make silk paper out of mulberry trees the way they had when Babur wrote his Baburnama, in which he even mentions the paper.

Okhunova Inoyatkhon shows Anjali the fine gossamer silk threads she has been extracting from the cocoons of silkworms at the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilon. Photo by Srijit Kumar

Babur’s antecedents played a major role in our decision to include the Fergana Valley, where he was born, in our itinerary. It’s not on most tourists’ radar, but it was an enormously rewarding addition to our journey. At the Babur Literary Museum in Andijan, we gazed upon murals – done in a style reminiscent of Mughal miniatures – depicting his life, both as a child and a young man in Uzbekistan, and later as the founder of a new empire in the far-away Indian sub-continent. The Museum also houses an array of editions of Baburnama in various languages and vintages. Outside, a bronze statue of the man himself sits gazing out over the landscape where he grew up.

Babur sits gazing out over the countryside that he grew up in, in the Babur Literary Park in Andijon.

The train back to Tashkent from the valley is dramatically different from the Afrosiyob. The route winds through the river-wrought Kamchiq Pass and the 19km-long Kamchiq Tunnel, a very different landscape from the flat, dry terrain of western Uzbekistan. Even the passengers are different, more earthy and rural. Their curiosity about us – this part of the country doesn’t see too many outsiders – and their natural sense of hospitality evinced itself in interactions that were full of warmth, lack of a shared tongue notwithstanding.

Back in Tashkent, the railway theme continued in the form of the metro, in operation since 1972. The trains themselves are quaint and old-fashioned, but the stations are what leave you open-mouthed. Ornately decorated – some have chandeliers! – they are quite a sight to see of their own accord. The most memorable is the Kosmonavtlar station, with its space-programme theme. The walls are studded with blue ceramic medallions containing images of Ulugh Beg, Icarus, Valentina Tereshkova, Yuri Gagarin, and other cosmonauts, while the ceiling has been painted to resemble the Milky Way, with glass stars twinkling in it. Photography is forbidden in the stations, a diktat left over from the days of authoritarian rule, but this is not a rule strictly enforced.

Subway train arriving at the Amir Timur Square platform of the Tashkent Metro.

Tashkent, as such, is not an atmospheric place like the other cities and towns that we visited. Though it has had as rich a history as the others, it has been almost completely destroyed at various points of time, most recently by a devastating earthquake in 1966. After that, it was rebuilt by the Soviets in their brutalist manner, and is as a result a rather starkly concrete city. Of course, it too has an Indian connection – Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died here in 1966. There is a wide boulevard named for him, on which stands the Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial, a bronze bust with an immaculate garden around it.

Our Tashkent guide, Naeem, was at pains to make it clear that the Uzbeks had nothing to do with Shastri’s death – evidently, the theory that he died of causes not entirely natural is bandied about here too. But fingers here point to China, which at that point was jostling for regional dominance, and was concerned about the peace deal agreed by Shastri with Ayub Khan, then President of Pakistan.

For our last meal in Uzbekistan, Naeem took us to a small joint in the older part of Tashkent, succinctly named Old City, for plov. Plov – the root of the Hindustani word ‘pulau’ – is a rice, meat, and veggies dish that’s cooked in large vats outside restaurants such as this one all over Uzbekistan. It is the staple fare of the Uzbek meal, accompanied by shashliks and the rarer gravy dish. In most places, you get to choose the meats and cuts you would like added to your plov. Every region has its own distinctive style of plov, and no traveler to Uzbekistan can get away without being asked at every place which his favourite variety is (the right answer is always the one that you are currently eating). Now that I am out of the country, I can say that my personal preference was for the plov in Bukhara. In specific, there were the massive helpings we had at the Magistra (meaning ‘Highway’) Restaurant, topped with horsemeat roundels and quail’s eggs, and served with a tzatziki-like yoghurt and luscious tomato slices.

Shashliks and plov at the Irak Yoli restaurant in Andijon.

In general, eating was a non-stop activity throughout the trip, and a very worthwhile one. As with everything else, the sizes of helpings in Uzbek establishments are enormous. A helpful tip in Lonely Planet had told us that the locals eat something like two to three times the amount any reasonable person would, but even knowing that, we would end up with way more food than we could finish. The others would wash it all down with unlimited servings of the light tea that accompanies every meal, while I preferred the sweet fruit compotes that are a liquid alternative. With dinner, of course, there were bottles of the best Russian and local vodka, which most restaurants keep chilled, and which are so smooth, anyone can drink them neat. We would often finish a whole bottle at a single sitting, and come out happy but unscathed. One question we’ve been getting a lot from people since the trip is “Why did you choose Uzbekistan?” To me, the romance of the names like Samarkand and Bukhara were the triggers. Time and money both being limited resources, I would rather spend them on cultures that are like hidden treasures. The Western world has aggressively marketed itself into all our consciousnesses, but there’s so much beyond that worth exploring. Even at a more practical level, Uzbekistan has much going for it. It’s within easy reach – barely a three-hour flight from Delhi. The exchange rate and the purchasing power of currency gives the rupee a bit of an edge, which is a rare thing. And now, having been there and back, I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I would do it again in a shot… if only there weren’t so many other places in this world to discover for oneself.

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