A medley of cultures

A medley of cultures

The Central Asian country of Uzbekistan has many wonders for a traveller

Registan, Samarkand

We’ve just arrived at Lyab-i Hauz, the historical city centre of old Bukhara, when a well-heeled Uzbek wearing a flowing ink-blue velvet robe and a black embroidered cap, softly asks, “Hindustan?” I nod a yes and he breaks into a toothless smile. Immediately, he hails a group of ladies ahead of him and all I can gather from his excited tone is “Hindustan.” They hurriedly turn around and before we know it, we are being enthusiastically embraced. I’m part of an Indian tour group, which has some ladies traditionally attired, and that has caught the attention of the gentleman. Co-travellers draped in saris become the cynosure of all eyes and most sought-after for photographs.

Love for Hindustan

As the photo-op gets over, an elderly Uzbek lady, dressed typically as the others in an ikat-print outfit and headscarf, decides she has to speak on behalf of her group in welcoming us. We can decipher nothing but the two words she repeats often: “Dilli” and “Babor.” Our young guide patiently waits for her to finish and then translates: “You’ve come from Delhi, Hindustan, which crowned Babur emperor. We are honoured to have you visiting us,” he says, adding, “They’re from Andijan, Fergana Valley, the birthplace of Babur, and invite you all to their homes.” The group looks at us eagerly. The warmth is overwhelming.

Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is about three hours’s flying distance from Delhi. This Central Asian region was once the heart of inter-continental trade on the Silk Route. Some of these overland routes lead to Hindustan also, and a visit to Uzbekistan shows that the connect is still alive. The common Uzbek citizen has a lot of regard for India, which stems as much from a shared cultural and historical past as it does for the modern bond with Bollywood.

Chor Minor, Bukhara
Chor Minor, Bukhara

Medieval-era cities speckled with turquoise domes, bazaars with old-world trading and abundant with nuts, spices and naan, men and women flashing gold-toothed smiles, Uzbekistan epitomises the romance of the Silk Route like no other place. We opted for the popular tourism triangle of Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara, the places being key halts on erstwhile trade routes along with being stunning examples of Islamic architecture. As we journeyed through this Central Asian country, we felt each city had its own unique story to tell.

At Samarkand, we were swept away by the treasure trove of monuments with intricate artwork, and felt the city deserved more than a few days to a see all that it had to offer: the iconic Registan Square whose image is splashed across tourism brochures, Bibi Khanym Mosque, Gur-e-Amir, the mausoleum of Timur, Shah-i-Zinda Complex and Ulughbek Observatory. Their domes, archways and geometric-precision mosaic tiles, dressed in shades of blue with a sprinkling of green, white and yellow, are remarkable in every way, and left us awestruck.

In the land of the greats

Samarkand had witnessed vicious conquests by Alexander, Genghis Khan and Timur. As a result, it is a cultural mix of Persian, Indian, Mongolian, Chinese and European influences, a fact that comes forward in its food, customs and language. An example is the popular dish of plov, prepared with meat, rice and carrots. If its cooking method is Persian, some of the spices used, like haldi, jeera, dhaniya, are definitely Indian! The old and the new walk hand in hand in Uzbekistan, and Samarkand is no different. Today, it’s a modern city with a relaxed air, proudly maintaining its links with the past.

Though Uzbekistan has immense diversity to offer, from desert landscapes to textiles to food, it’s often said that the biggest attraction is its 3Ms: mosques, minarets and madrasas. A city that gets top billing in this category is Bukhara. It once had over 350 mosques and 100 madrasas, and was a centre of Sufiyana Islam. Over time, it grew into an important trading centre, becoming a star of the Silk Route. Now, its well-preserved historic city attracts visitors to Bukhara as it offers a peek into its medieval past, which is a combination of monuments and ancient markets still being used to sell the same ware such as carpets, saddles, handwoven cloth and pottery.

We found each of Bukhara’s monuments, be it Kalyan Minor, Ark of Bukhara, Chor Minar, Po-i-Kalyan Mosque or Samanid Mausoleum, had an identity of its own. Such was the unbelievable scale and assortment on offer that often while walking through Bukhara, we felt like we were in a living museum. Its old-style markets had a mix of original and factory-produced copies. “They cheap. They sell,” smiled a salesman who was honest enough to tell his buyers the difference. Bargaining is in order in these markets, quite like India, and being from ‘Hindustan’ gets you additional discounts. Currency conversion gives a bagful of local ‘Som’, but it quickly disappears on making a purchase.

Shopping in Bukhara
Shopping in Bukhara

Many, many attractions

While the world arrives in Uzbekistan to see its azure attractions, what they also witness is how the country strides the past and present with equal elegance. A shining example of that is Tashkent, which has tried shaking off its Soviet rigidity and rebuilt itself on a grand scale. The city boasts of broad, leafy boulevards, lots of parks, star-category hotels and expansive public buildings. Another feather in the country’s cap is the Uzbek Railways’ high-speed train, Afrosiyob. A picture of efficiency, I found it punctual, with flawless service and sparklingly clean.

It was also heartening to see that the name Lal Bhadur Shastri draws respect here. I was standing at his monument — a bronze bust created by Uzbek sculptor Yakov Shapiro in 1976, and erected at a central street of Tashkent — and hearing my guide passionately narrate the achievements of the former Indian prime minister when a group of Uzbek ladies passing by stopped, bowed and walked on. “I have to drag Indian tourists here,” said the guide, adding, “We can never forget him. There is another life-size monument at a school named after him where Hindi is taught.”

Uzbekistan’s tourism tagline is ‘Naturally Irresistible’! And it definitely is. Be its hospitable people or its culturally rich land, both welcome travellers; and their footprints are on the rise.