Hearty welcome

You can become a millionaire overnight in Uzbekistan, and be reduced to a pauper in no time too. I landed in Tashkent, the capital of this enchanting Central Asian country, on a snowy morning and headed straight to the money exchange to convert 500 dollars into Uzbekistani soms. In return, I was given a large bag of currency notes, which to my utter disbelief added up to over 15 lakh soms. I had suddenly become a millionaire in a strange land and my excited mind took flight on how to splurge this amount during my week-long holiday.

But my joy was short-lived. We went out for lunch hoping to savour some local delicacies, and I slumped in my chair when I saw the menu card. A prawn fry was priced at 18,000 soms, while a mutton grill was a princely 99,000 soms. A meal for two had set us back by about a lakh soms. The currency is so devalued that it’s not even worth the paper it is printed on. Thus, it is easy to become a millionaire in Uzbekistan, but there is not much you can buy with your millions.

A clean break
Once a prosperous link in the Great Silk Road connecting China to Europe, Uzbekistan became an independent country after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in August 1991. Though the country’s economy is not exactly in the pink of health, there is no visible sign of poverty. In fact, the opulence of Tashkent can put any modern city to shame. The capital is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its immaculate tree-lined streets, wide walkways, large parks, historical monuments, imposing buildings, 8-D theatres, ballet shows, snow-capped mountains, excellent public transport system, pristine rivers and pollution-free environment. The man responsible for Tashkent’s transformation is Islam Karimov, the country’s president for 25 years, who died in late 2016.

Our tour began with a visit to the memorial of the then prime minister of India Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died in harness while in Tashkent. After paying our respects to the departed leader, we proceeded to the Memorial of Courage, which salutes the resilience of the people of Tashkent after it was flattened by an earthquake in 1966. The memorial, which comprises a gigantic statue of a couple with a child clinging on to the mother, was erected on the 10th anniversary of the earthquake.

Though Tashkent is known for its numerous mausoleums and madrasas, the Hazrati Imom Jome Masjidi, one of the most important Islamic centres in Uzbekistan for more than a 1,000 years, stands apart for its architectural splendour. The complex is built near the grave of one of the earliest imams of Tashkent, Abu Bakr Muhammad Kaffal, a poet, craftsman and expert in Islamic studies. All monuments and minarets have exquisite mosaic work, which is why Uzbekistan is called the country where mosaic rises to the sky.
Not far from here is the Shahidlar Xotirasi, an awe-inspiring memorial for the fallen soldiers, with its high dome supported by pillars, well-manicured garden, and a placid, crystal-clear stream meandering through pine trees.

The crowning glory of Tashkent, however, is the Mustaqillik Maydoni or the Independence Square, a vast expanse of impeccably maintained lush green space overlooking the magnificent Parliament Building and several important monuments. Once you cross the silver entrance arch with figures of three intertwined storks perched atop, you face the main monument of the Independence Square, a golden globe on top of a pedestal. The monument represents the revival of Uzbekistan as a free independent state and its liberation from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Independence Square is the social melting pot of the city.

No mention of Uzbekistan is complete without a reference to Amir Temur, the most respected leader of the country,  whose influence extended from the Mediterranean to India during the 14th century. Temur’s multi-ethnic army was responsible for the death of over 17 million people during its exploits. The Amir Temur Square in the heart of Tashkent has a larger-than-life statue of this warrior astride a horse. Engraved below is his famous motto, ‘Power is in justice’.

For nature lovers
If you are a lover of nature, you might want to visit the botanical gardens, home to nearly 5,000 species of trees from across the world. You could also enjoy the scenic beauty at Charvi Reservoir, or try your hand at skiing at Chimgan Resort, called the Switzerland of Uzbekistan.

In case retail therapy tops your mind, there are many upmarket malls that can be reached through the underground Metro. But if you intend to savour a slice of Uzbekistan, a visit to the bustling centuries-old Chorsu Bazaar — located under a giant-sized turquoise dome — is a must.

If you are in a mood to shake a leg, Tashkent is known for its discos and night clubs where alcohol is freely available and liberally consumed. However, you are advised to make sufficient enquiries locally to ensure that you do not land at a place of ill-repute.

Old city calls
Once you have explored Tashkent, it’s time to discover Samarkand, perhaps the oldest inhabited city in Central Asia. One of the most-visited tourist spots in Samarkand is the mausoleum of Gur-I-Amir, which was restored by Amir Temur after it was destroyed by the Mongols. The world-famous Shakhi-Zinda, which includes over 20 buildings built between the 11th and 19th centuries, is a memorial to Kusam-ibn-Abbas, said to be a cousin of Prophet Mohammed. Local people believe that he continues to live in the ensemble to this day. The Ulugbek Madrasa, with its prominent bright-blue Greek-style domes, also merits a visit.

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque has an Indian connection. The mosque was built with the wealth looted from India during Amir Temur’s conquest in 1399. Nearly a 100 elephants and many artisans from India were employed in its construction.

Samarkand is also famous for its frontier food, kebabs — particularly shashlik — and local breads.

Uzbeks are fun-loving people, and you often encounter a boisterous crowd in restaurants that breaks into an impromptu dance after a meal.

While on the topic of food, the national dish of Uzbekistan is plov, which is very similar to the Indian pulau. Another popular fare on the menu is samsa, a not-so-distant cousin of samosa. Though chicken, mutton and beef are commonly served, it might help to be warned that some restaurants also offer horse meat.

Many restaurants also showcase the exotic belly dance, an epitome of grace and poise. In Uzbekistan,  it’s considered a respected art form  in which children are trained from an early age.

Uzbekistan has a bit of something for everybody — be it a historian, an art aficionado, a student of architecture, a nature lover, a foodie, a frolicker, a solo traveller, or a tourist. Whatever your interest, you are guaranteed to come back with a bag full of rich
experiences.

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