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Trip Report "Ishaani" and "Ranvir" return from 2 weeks in Uzbekistan

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Hello everyone,

My husband and I just returned this week from 2 weeks in Uzbekistan. We are a couple (from India) in our late 30s/early 40s living in NYC. Our names are NOT Ishaani and Ranvir, but that's what most everyone in Uzbekistan called us during our time there. Why? Because, as we soon discovered, there are the lead characters in a very popular Indian soap/TV serial that airs every evening at 7pm and watched by every Uzbek. Everywhere we went, we heard murmurs of Ishaani all around us. We were treated like celebrities and posed for more pictures with locals that we can count - both old and young, men and women and giggling teenage girls, with some women going so far as to hold on tightly to my husband. It was all very entertaining and fun.

I'll be back with a trip report soon, but wanted to go ahead and post a video of a Mongolian quartet playing soulful chanting music at the Sharq International Music Festival that we were lucky to catch at the Registan in Samarkand - beautiful music in a stunning setting. Hope you enjoy.

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    "Why Uzbekistan?" is a question we heard repeatedly and incredulously from friends and colleagues. More so than with any of our prior trips, and we've been to Asia (including the Middle East) and Africa. My colleagues were even worried for our safety, once they realized that Uzbekistan shared a border with Afghanistan, albeit small.

    For me, it was the draw of the Silk Road - names like Samarkand and Bukhara conjuring up images of shimmering turquoise blue domes rising above the parched earth; of merchant caravans and camels carrying silk, incense, spices, precious stones and other goods across mountains and vast deserts; of the exchange of ideas, language, art, music, and religious thought; and the many layers of history that exist because of invasions from the East and West including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

    My obsession with the textiles and handicrafts that Uzbekistan is so well known for, including ikats, suzanis and handmade pottery, was also a big reason for this trip.

    I soon found another draw - Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India and great great grandfather of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, was born in Uzbekistan in present day Andijan in the Fergana Valley. The last Timurid emperor and descendant of Tamerlane, he was forced south into Afghanistan and India, after he lost Samarkand to the Uzbeks yet another time. This shared history was fascinating to read up on and also helped us start up a few conversations during our travels.

    I had 2 weeks to work with - because of work schedules and the summer heat, we decided to go at the end of August, hoping it would have cooled off a little by then. Samarkand and Bukhara were definite stops and given my aforementioned obsession with ikats and pottery, I also wanted to spend a few days in the Fergana valley. Since we would be flying in and out of Tashkent, that left us little time for another city, and we didn't want to rush. So, very sadly, I had to drop Khiva off our plan, the very long 8 hour drive from Bukhara on not so great roads making the decision a little easier.

    This is the final itinerary that we ended up with.
    Day 1: Arrive Tashkent
    Days 2-5: Fergana
    Days 6-9: Samarkand
    Days 10-13: Bukhara
    Day 14-15: Tashkent

    Taking the train seemed the most efficient way to travel between Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara-Tashkent, the last leg being an overnight trip. There is enough information available online via Advantour's website and to figure out schedules, travel classes and prices. Bookings have to be done on the ground, however.

    For hotels, I was able to email them directly and make reservations. No deposits were required.
    We prefer smaller or boutique hotels and B&Bs over larger, run of the mill or chain hotels and our budget is typically mid-range. In Tashkent, I booked us at Jahongir B&B, in a residential part of the city, close to the old town and Chorsu bazaar, for $50/night. In Samarkand, we stayed at Antica B&B near the Gur Emir behind the old city gates for $70/night. Most older and historic homes in the area were demolished by the Soviets, so there are limited choices here. Bukhara, on the other hand, has several charming boutique hotels located in beautifully restored Jewish merchant homes or madrassas, making it very hard to pick one. Ultimately, I settled on the Amulet hotel for $80/night.

    The Fergana portion of the trip was harder to plan since no public transportation is available and I had specific artisans I wanted to visit in Margilan (for ikats) and Rishtan (for ceramics). I have to thank - their website and blog articles were wonderful resources that helped me plan this leg of our trip.

    As Indian citizens, we also needed an LOI (letter of invitation) to get a visa for Uzbekistan. This is typically provided by tour operators, so to kill two (or rather three) birds with one stone, I emailed a few recommended companies about organizing the Fergana portion of the trip, LOI and train tickets. Most all, including Advantour, came back to say that I had to organize the entire trip with them - all hotels and transfers. Being independent travelers, this wasn't appealing to us at all. MIR and Salom Travel were the two that put together a plan for me. And, while I usually prefer to use a local operator, in this case Salom, in the end I decided to go with MIR, only because I felt more confident that they could arrange a visit with all the artisans I had picked. Now that I am back, I am sure Salom could have done the same, but at the time (and this may be due to language issues via email), it wasn't entirely clear they understood what I was asking.

    MIR (based out of Seattle) required payment in full prior to the trip. They organized a car, driver and guide for the 4 days and booked the hotel in Fergana. They also included entry fees to the sights in Kokand, our first stop on the trip. Our other stops were Margilan, Rishtan and the Kumtepa bazaar on Thursday on the way back to Tashkent. They charged $40 each for the LOI, which they provided once we had sent over our passport details, employment letters, itinerary and visa application forms. I sent them the train #s that we wanted tickets on as well as the class and they booked them for us. Hotels will also book train tickets, if needed. We booked the high speed Afrosiob train #762 from Tashkent to Samakand in Business class. From Samarkand to Bukahara, we booked seats on train #10, also in Business class. For the overnight back to Tashkent, we booked a 2 berth sleeper on train #661.

    We applied for the visa at the consulate in NYC and surprisingly, got it the very same day. They asked us to wait 20 minutes after we submitted the paper work and returned our passports to us with the visa. Very easy. The Uzbeks waiting at the consulate were as surprised as everyone else that we were traveling to their country; it was fun talking to them about where we were going and how excited we were to visit and we left with lots of well wishes.

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    Money was another big consideration prior to our trip. Uzbekistan is a cash based economy for the most part and I had read that ATMs were either unavailable or didn't work and were therefore unreliable. So, it seemed that we would have to carry all our travel money in crisp USD bills and exchange them there. Since I planned to do a bit of shopping, we ended up carrying a chunk of money with us - divided between the two of us and broken down into $100s, $50s, $20s, $10s, $5s and $1s.

    There was also the additional complexity of the black market. The official exchange rate is artificially inflated and was about 2500 som to the dollar when we were there, but when exchanging on the black market, you can expect to get anywhere from 4000-4600 som! So, that's what everyone does. This is all very interesting and a little unnerving and not something we've ever done before, so I closely follow the Tripadvisor threads on the topic before we leave to see what everyone's experiences have been.

    The B&Bs we stayed at exchanged money for us at 4400 som to a dollar. In Bukhara, the hotel wouldn't change money, but we were able to get 4550-4600 som to a dollar at the market.

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    Thank you so much for all the great detail. I have wanted to visit Central Asia ever since traveling the eastern end of the Silk Road (Beijing to Islamabad) in 2001, but I never seem to get there. Have been wondering about next year...

    I am interested to hear that you used MIR, I have always thought them too expensive, but I definitely want support for part of the trip - the mountains further east as well as Ferghana - and perhaps I would find them less expensive used for just part of a trip. I have considerd at least a partial tour with Sundowners, although like you I am an independent traveler.

    Particularly interested to hear that the visa process went smoothly, as getting visas for five (six if I include Iran) countries that require LOIs and lots of paoework is daunting.

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    thursday - MIR was definitely more expensive and I picked them only because visiting the specific artisans was an important part of our trip. In retrospect, I could have used Salom Travels. I visited their office while in Bukhara and they seem like a well run company. So, definitely consider them as well as you plan your trip. Which, btw, sounds very exciting! Iran is on my list of places to visit within the next few years so will be interested to hear who you decide to travel with there (since from everything I've read, you have to travel with a tour company).

    As Indians, we require visas to just about every country in the world, so we've become experts in putting together visa applications and paperwork over the years. :-)
    Except for the LOI which seemed unnecessary, I found the process pretty straightforward.

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    Thanks for reading along. Trying to get to my report as and when I have time, but work has been keeping me busy.

    We booked our flights on Turkish Airlines from JFK to Tashkent via Istanbul. On the return leg, we have only an hour and half to change planes, which isn't enough given every Turkish flight we've ever taken has departed late. But, Turkish Air assures us this is doable (snort) and there isn't any other option at a decent price point (that isn't Aeroflot). A month before our trip, Turkish reschedules the flight from Tashkent to Istanbul such that we now have only a 35 minute layover. So, I call and request that they move us to a later flight out of Istanbul. After some back and forth with a couple of different agents, they agree and put us on the next flight which leaves 6 hours later. Phew! However, they require us to go to JFK to complete the last step in the re-booking process. They assure us this can be done up to 3 days before the flight, meaning we can do it at the airport on our way out. But, not wanting to take any chances, Ajit (my husband) goes to the airport a few days later to get this resolved. The schedule change worked out well for us in the end, even though we now had a long layover.

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    Arrival in Tashkent, zipping around on the Metro and the lovely Applied Arts Museum

    We fly out on Friday, August 21st close to midnight and arrive in Tashkent an hour late on the 23rd at 2am. There are 4 counters open for passport control, 2 of them for foreigners, and the lines move excruciatingly slowly. It's past 3 by the time we get to baggage claim. While Ajit waits for our bags, I fill out the customs forms - 2 copies for each of us. When noting the amount of currency you're bringing into the country, be sure to declare every dollar you have on you. I am a little nervous about all the cash we're carrying, but the customs guy barely gives the forms a glance before stamping them. Remember to hold on to your copy of the stamped form - you'll have to turn it in on the way out. We finally get out of the airport at 4am. I've arranged for an airport pickup with Jahongir (for $10). Our driver is Jamaluddin who's from Termez (on the Afghan border) and very chatty and he gets us to the B&B in 20 minutes. We check in, leave our passports with the owner for registration with the police and happily sink into bed after what feels like a very long day. Well, sink wouldn't be the right word since the mattresses are very hard; nevertheless we are asleep very soon.

    We wake up at 8 feeling a little refreshed and head down for breakfast. There's green tea, traditional bread or non as it's called in Uzbekistan, homemade jams, salami, fried egg, blini with apricot preserve, and fruits. We meet Feruza who manages the B&B and pick up our passports that now include a hotel registration slip attached to the front page. We'll collect one of these from every hotel during our trip - they check the dates at passport control when you depart so you'll want to be sure there are no gaps. We also change $100 at 4400 som to a dollar and end up with several wads of cash. Lesson learned - ask for 5000 som bills so you don't get 440 1000 som bills! Counting the notes took us several minutes and a couple of do-overs. By the end of the trip, we would become much more adept at this, maybe even get a job as a bank teller in a Central Asian bank. :-) Our impression of Jahongir and our room is that it is large and clean but very basic, with Soviet style decor from the 90s. To be fair, given other options in the city, I do think we got good value for our money.

    Jahongir is a 5 minute walk from the Tinchlik metro stop on the red line, which is another reason I picked this B&B. A metro token costs 1000 som and can get you to any stop on the 3 lines. There are police stationed at the entrance as well as inside just before you go through the turnstiles. Everyone's bags are checked, and if you are a tourist, passports are checked as well. Our passports elicit smiles and a few comments about Indian movie stars. Sometimes the policemen just liked to scan through all the visa stamps and comment to each other in Uzbek. The Tashkent metro is Central Asia's only metro and therefore its pride and glory. Built in the late 60s and 70s after the devastating '66 earthquake leveled Tashkent, it is meant to showcase Soviet architecture. Each station has its own unique features: marble columns, glass chandeliers, ceramic art, carved alabaster, arched ceilings etc. The stations are treated as military installations however so no photographs are allowed, and not on the trains either. The trains themselves are clean, but look dated. In lieu of air conditioning, the windows are cracked open.

    Our first stop this morning is the Applied Arts museum. We get out at the Kosmonavtlar stop and don't know which way to turn. Our not very detailed guidebook map doesn't list all the streets and Tashkent's wide boulevards and intersections mean that we end up walking up and down a few times trying to look for street names that we can find on the map. The policeman outside the metro doesn't understand what we're looking for either. It's Sunday and there are few people out and about. After a few minutes, we spot a man walking our away and while he understands where we want to go, he struggles to give us directions. We feel a little inept on our very first morning. Soon, an old woman with a smiling face and mouth full of gold capped teeth walks by and asks what the problem is and offers to walk us to the museum. How wonderful! Our first taste of Uzbek hospitality and kindness that we see throughout our trip. This woman, who must have been in her 70s, walked with us for about 5 minutes until we got to the right street, and talked the entire way in Uzbek and we had no idea what she was saying.

    Entry to the museum is 26k som for the two of us with cameras. The primary reason I'm excited about the museum is to see the antique suzanis (suzani means needlework and refers to the gorgeous hand embroidered wall hangings and bed covers that Uzbek women created for their or their daughter's dowries). And, I am not disappointed. I'm in suzani heaven and wish I could take all these pieces home with me. In addition to the suzanis, there are antique ikats, blockprint fabrics, skull caps, jewelry, musical instruments, ceramics, carpets and wood carvings - all examples of the exquisite craftsmanship that Uzbekistan is known for. There is also a gift shop but we are not ready to buy anything yet.

    From here, we walk to Shota Rustaveli street to look for the Human House store that stocks accessories and crafts by local Uzbek and Kyrgyz designers. The shop is closed on Sundays but I want to scope it out for when we return to Tashkent at the end of our trip. Once we do, we are ready for lunch and decide to try Mangit (also called Manas Art Cafe). We walk up and down the street and can't seem to locate it. We're batting 0 for 2 today. Finally, we walk to the Grand Mir hotel at the end of the street and they point us in the right direction. The restaurants entrance is off the main street but there is a decently big sign that we missed. We sit outside - there are tables as well as wooden beds with cushions and a low table called topchan. They only have a Russian menu with some pictures so we order by pointing to things and asking what meat it is. I end up ordering a lavash stuffed with beef while Ajit gets a lamb shashlik, and we get bottled water and iced tea (tea mixed with kompot, a sweetened fruit juice). Ajit's shashlik is good, but my lavash is huge and has too much dill in it. Uzbeks love dill and while I enjoy a few fronds sprinkled on salads or fish, they add a fistful of it to everything! Not a great first meal for 67k som but we learn quickly and have lots of delicious meals from here on out. This would be our most expensive meal at a restaurant at about $15. On another note, there were a few taxi drivers outside the Grand Mir that offered to exchange money, but we were all set for the day.

    After lunch, we take the metro from the Oybek stop to Amir Timur sqaure. We were hoping to sit in the shade somewhere and relax, but while the square is leafy with a large bronze statue of Timur, there is no where to sit that isn't in the sun. It's not hot (temps in the 80s), but the Central Asian sun is very strong. So, we pop over into the five star Hotel Uzbekistan across the street and sit in their lobby for a while nursing a Pepsi. Closer to 4, we make our way towards Independence Square with its elaborate fountain surrounded by typical Soviet style massive government buildings. This is where the Independence day festivities happen every year on September 1st. There's also an Independence Arch topped with a silver stork and a Globe surrounded by a park. Our favorite part of the park is the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, with its solemn statue of a mother mourning her child, in honor of souls lost in WWII. Alongside is a gallery with lovely carved wooden columns and metal books inscribed with the names of the dead soldiers. There are lots of beautiful flowers as well. Now that it's after 5 and the sun is more gentle, we see more locals than we've seen all day - people out for a stroll, friends sitting around and talking and parents taking pictures of their kids.

    The tree lined avenues and numerous parks and fountains make this a prettier city than we had expected. Given the 320 days of sunshine and little rain, the parks are lined with hundreds of sprinklers that come on in the evenings, to keep them looking as lush as they are. Later, we walk along the Ankhor canal that separates old and new Tashkent. The guidebook indicates that there are a few chaikhanas along the canal, but unfortunately they appear to have closed. We look for the Earthquake monument and can't find it. Either our map sucks or we are very tired. By this time, our jet lag is catching up with us and we decide it's time to head back to the hotel. For dinner, we stay close and go to one of the several roadside shashlik places. We get lamb shashlik, non, tea and fresh salad (also called tourist salad) with tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. The shashlik has gristle and fat, but with the chilli paste that's on every table, it's not too bad. We also make conversation with a group of men at the next table who are drinking and playing cards. Next, we get beers and more shashlik (cubed and minced) at the Old Tashkent pub across the street. These meals are just $3-$4. There are only men at the pub, who are all smoking, so we don't stick around for too long. Since the B&B is in a residential neighborhood, there are kids playing on the streets at night and they all practice their English with us - it's "Hello", "How are you" and "How old are you" in that order. Tomorrow, we're off to the Fergana Valley and have an early start at 8am, so we hit the bed early to get some much needed sleep.

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    Very interesting! You're making Tashkent sound more attractive than I expected. But then I love Applied Arts museums, and textiles.

    Fat and gristle are why I regard shashlik with suspicion! The ones in western China were quite varied.

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    To be honest, while Tashkent was nicer than we expected, 2 days would be sufficient there. We spent 3 just because of how the schedule worked out and I didn't want to arrive from Bukhara the same day we flew out.

    The were maybe 5 or 6 large suzanis in the museum, and they were exquisite. The quality of embroidery like I've never seen before. The Applied Arts museum in Bukhara is even better. You'll love it!

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    Thanks tripplanner. Sorry about the delays between segments. Hope to get my act together soon.

    On to the Fergana Valley and our introduction to Uzbekistan's wonderful architecture

    I change another $100 before we leave for Fergana, so we don't run out of money while we're there. We have fewer stacks of cash this time with the 5000 som notes. Yay! Our driver for the next 4 days, cheerful but quiet Yevgeny, arrives with a MIR representative from the Tashkent office a little before 8am. The rep, Alexander, hands us our train tickets and shows us how to read them since they're in Russian. And, then we're off. It's a 4 hour drive to Kokand, our first stop today, and once we leave the city limits and cotton fields behind, we climb up the winding mountainous roads of the Tien Shan mountains. I realize this morning that I had forgotten to bring Dramamine along with me and worry I will be sick on the journey, but it's a very pleasant drive. Ajit and I nap on and off and don't get to enjoy the scenery as much, but we do on our drive back. There is military presence along the route since this region is very close to both the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan borders and there are continued ethnic and economic tensions between the countries. At the passport control stop, there are soldiers with kalashnikovs standing by as we walk to a booth by the roadside and have our passports checked. There used to be a train from Tashkent to Fergana that you needed a multiple entry visa for since it entered the valley through Khodjent in Tajikistan, but given the recent conflicts, is not fully operational at this time.

    The Fergana valley is the cotton, mulberry, vegetable and fruit bowl of Uzbekistan, one third of the country's population living in this fertile flood plain of the Syr Darya river. And, while the majority of the valley lies in Uzbekistan, it actually comprises areas in all three countries. We reach Kokand, home to the powerful 19th century khanate, at noon and pick up our guide, Dinora. We're not yet hungry, so decide to check out the Khaidarov home and family workshop, renowned for the Kokand school of woodcarving. The great grandfather of the current master (his father died recently) revived this dying tradition and built ornate doors and furniture for Soviet leaders including Lenin. He also restored several rooms in Khudayar's palace that we would visit after lunch. We look through albums that show his work, watch the master carve a design for a table, and take a look at the tables, chairs and koran stands that are available for sale, the most beautiful being a collapsable 3 tiered koran stand made from a single piece of wood.

    Lunch is at a fast food kind of place across from the palace. I get a warm cucumber soup with sorghum and meat and Ajit gets chicken braised with potatoes. We also share a Greek salad and a marinated cucumber and mushroom salad with beef. Washed down with tea. It's a surprisingly good meal. Feeling nourished, we're now ready to tackle Khudayar Khan's Palace, home of the last ruler of the Khanate of Kokand, a Central Asian state that was established in 1710 and once stretched from the valley to Tashkent. In the 1870s the Russians arrived and abolished the Khanate, declaring it part of Russian Turkestan. The palace has a grand entrance every inch covered in bright blue, yellow and green tiles. Inside, there are 19 rooms that survive and have been restored so you get a glimpse of the extravagant woodwork, painted walls and ceilings and objects d'art that once graced the palace. The museum is also interesting. As we walk back to the car, we get invited to pose with a couple of newly weds who are getting their wedding pictures taken. The groom looks happy while the bride (dressed interestingly enough in a Western style white gown like every other bride we see in Uzbekistan) looks quite morose, presumably (according to Dinora) because she is not looking forward to her wedding night with a strange man. :-) Most weddings in Uzbekistan are still arranged especially in the smaller cities and villages, not unlike India. We notice the unhappy bride trend in other wedding picture sessions as well.

    Next is the lovely Juma mosque built between 1809 and 1812 and the Khanate's main mosque, the highlight being the 30 foot long iwan (or portico) with 98 delicate wooden columns from India beautifully carved and and painted in lovely bright colors. It's really one of the prettiest mosques we've seen. Before we leave, we pick up some halva (milk not sesame based) from a well known halva maker who has a tiny shop behind the mosque. Our last stop is the working Narbutabey Madrassah, an imposing but rather plain building (especially compared to the palace and mosque). Non-muslims are not allowed inside but we are able to pay the watchman 2000 som each to peep inside and check out the courtyard and student cells. From here, it's an hours drive to Fergana that we use to catch up on our sleep.

    Our home for the next 4 days is the Asia Fergana, one of those large, run of the mill chain hotels that we don't like to stay in, but on this occasion we make do given the limited options. Once we check in and freshen up, we take a walk outside to find some dinner. Money is exchanged here only at the official rate, so it's a good thing that we got our som in Tashkent. Fergana is the valley's third largest city and has wide avenues and parks like Tashkent. We buy some bottled water from a store and then walk into a random restaurant with a Tabaka (fried chicken) sign. The friendly waiter patiently helps us navigate the menu. We order laghman (a noodle dish with lamb) and manty (steamed dumplings with meat) along with salad and tea. No fried chicken. The laghman is delish - thick al dente noodles in a tomato based sauce with lamb spiced with cumin. The manty is just ok - the dough is a little too thick. We like the laghman so much we order a second helping. All this for less than $5. Back at the hotel, we sit by the pool and enjoy a couple of cold Uzbek Sarbast beers, to wrap up our second day in Uzbekistan. Funnily, we almost pay NYC prices for our beer thinking the server meant 60k som instead of 16k som.

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    While Uzbekistan is high on my list of places to visit, the Fergana Valley never crossed my mind. Your report is changing that. It's the scenery combined with the tradition that you're describing that have me interested.

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    Here's more about our time in the valley, tripplanner. Let me know if I can answer any questions.

    Ikats and more Ikats (and did I mention Ikats?) in Margilan

    Today is an exciting day - we're spending it in Margilan, the silk capital of Central Asia and a major stop on the silk road known for its glorious hand woven ikat fabrics, although mass machinery brought in by the Soviets is somewhat changing this industry. Ikat is a form of resist dye weaving where the threads are dyed to match the pattern before being woven into wonderfully complex and colorful geometric designs.

    Breakfast at the hotel is buffet style but expansive with bread, jams, egg, sausage, salami, cold cuts, fruits, porridge or cereal, yogurt, cakes, tea and coffee. By the way, the coffee in Uzbekistan is instant coffee, usually Nescafe. Apart from us and a group of Spanish tourists, the remaining guests are Koreans and Russians traveling on work.

    Margilan is a 45 minute drive away and our first stop is the Yodgorlik silk factory. This is a private enterprise setup to move away from the mass production trend and preserve traditional methods of silk production and weaving. Demand for their handmade fabric and finished goods is so high that their workforce has increased considerably in recent years. Here, we are able to follow the entire fascinating process from beginning to end in a very intimate setting. The silk comes from the many small mulberry farms owned by individual families in the area that feed silk worms the mulberry leaves until they spin their cocoons. Bags of (very) smelly steamed cocoons are then dropped off at the factory, where they are immersed in vats of boiling water to loosen and draw out the thread. Multiple fine strands are then spun together to create one strong silk thread. We follow the many more labor intensive steps in the process, from wrapping/unwrapping the thread to marking and dyeing the patterns onto the threads using natural colors (the factory has been working on recreating several antique patterns) - both done by men exclusively, and the tying and preparation of threads for the looms to the actual hand weaving - done by women. The weaving is done in a large hall filled with the clatter of the wooden looms, each producing unique and exquisite designs. We also meet a group of young girls (they have to be over 17 to join the factory) who are learning the art of suzani embroidery. Everyone is friendly and the girls especially engage in conversation with us. They're a fun bunch. There is a gift shop with fabric, scarves, jackets and bags, but I don't buy anything. Next door is a tailor, Osio, who Dinora knows well and she suggests I check out their pattern books in case I want to get something stitched later on. This is not something I even considered prior to the trip, but it plants a seed in my mind. Hmmm. I can sense Ajit is nervous. ;-)

    For lunch, we go to a small restaurant serving local food (Milliy Taomlar is the term). We have plov, Uyghur style laghman soup (not tomato based like the one we had last night), salad and tea. We also order sour milk (a thinner version of Greek yogurt, but more sour) that livens up the soup when drizzled into it.

    Next, is a stop at the Sayyid Ahmad Huja Ishan Madrassa, a picturesque madrassa with a lovely unrestored painted iwan and a canal running through it, now used as a training center for several traditional handicrafts like woodblock printing, hammered metal engraving, weaving etc. Unfortunately, the block print master died recently, so we check out what used to be his tiny workshop. Our main interest is the boutique of master weaver Rasulijon Mirzaahmedov. He is traveling abroad, so his son shows us around. Rasulijon is very famous in the Ikat world ever since he collaborated with Oscar de la Renta on his Ikat inspired collection several years ago. He is also well regarded for helping revive the complex art of silk velvet Ikat known as alo bakhmal. I easily spend an hour here picking out fabric - a meter each of silk, velvet and adras (50:50 cotton and silk) Ikat for cushions and since I can't resist the bakhmal, I also buy 5m of a gorgeous traditional pattern that will make a great tailored coat. Rasulijon's prices are a little higher, but still much cheaper than the Ikats I bought in Istanbul last year. They also have clothes (one size) and bags for sale, as well as some silk carpets. I negotiate a small discount so that makes me happy.

    We then head to the home and workshop of another master weaver, Fazliddin Dadajonov. He is a funny, unassuming person and I'm blown away by the selection of fabric here. At times like this, I'm always glad that we live in a tiny apartment in NYC, as there is only so much I can buy. I get some more silk and adras fabric for cushions as well as 5m of adras for a dress. Ikat fabric is narrow (12-16") so you need a lot more of it to pattern match along the length of the outfit. When Fazliddin hears we live in NYC, he jokes that we can just send our extra fabric to his friend, John Robshaw. John is a textile designer that I love who works with traditional artisans in India to woodblock print fabric and bedding using a more modern aesthetic. Apparently, the two are good friends and John has visited his home a few times. I do love that western designers are empowering and popularizing traditional craftsmen like Rasulijon and Faziiddin. Just like with blockprinting in India. Good stuff.

    Our last stop for the day guessed it, the tailor. For the dress, I pick a design from the book that I can wear to work or when going out. Dinora helps translate and provides expert guidance as to how the pattern should fall. For the coat, I keep it simple to let the pattern stand out. Tailoring charges are $20 for the dress and $30 for the coat. Not bad! And, I'll get to pick it up the next afternoon. I can't stop smiling.

    All of our purchases today have been in dollars, $15/m for adras, $18/m for silk, $25/m for the velvet.

    For dinner, we head to Cafe Bravo, just around the corner from the hotel. They have topchans in their outside courtyard that we sit back and relax in. We get shashlik, a dish called angry hot chicken (how could we not get it), bread, salad and tea. The food is good and the chicken is Chinese inspired cooked in soy sauce (a little spicy - yes, angry - no). The owner, Shar, stops by to introduce himself and chats with us about India (his nephew is named Akbar after the Mughal emperor). He studied in London so speaks pretty decent English. He also owns an organic apple farm, and brings us 2 of his freshly-picked-this-morning apples for dessert. Very kind! It's nice outside so we linger for another hour with a couple of beers, listening to remixed versions of popular American tunes from the 80s and 90s.

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    If its Wednesday it must be Rishtan

    The Fergana Valley is also famous for its ceramics, and the city of Rishtan, where potters make up nearly a tenth of the population, is one of Uzbekistan's oldest and most celebrated ceramics centers. Known for their unique vibrant blue hues that range from cobalt to turquoise, Rishtan ceramics have been in high demand since the days of the Silk Road. This art is more than 800 years old passed down from father to son.

    Rishtan is halfway between Kokand and Fergana and we plan to stop at the homes of two masters this morning - Alisher Nazirov and the very famous Rustam Usmanov. Rustam's name is mentioned in every guidebook, while I read about Alisher on the Uzbek Journeys website. Dinora lets us know as we head out that while she will take us to Alisher's workshop, she doesn't regard him very highly and his work doesn't hold a candle to Rustam's. All right then, expectations are set. We breeze through Alisher's workshop, watch a potter "throw" a bowl at the pedal operated wheel, see the pottery being dried and finally painted. As we leave, we take a look at the pieces for sale and are not terribly impressed. Dinora was right - although I think it helps to see the average pieces and check out prices before seeing the high quality work, so we have a good frame of reference.

    Rustam’s ceramics studio is located just behind his house, next to a pretty courtyard with fruit trees, grape vines and lots of flowers. It is here, with the help of his son and team of apprentices that he produces some of the most beautiful ceramics in the Fergana Valley. We watch a young man shape a bowl and vase on the wheel using local red clay, there is so much care and precision involved even in this demo. The pieces are then dried for 4 days at room temperature before being dipped in a white clay mixture called angup and fired in a traditional kiln. A couple of painters nearby are painting intricate patterns on tiles (the patterns are transferred over by dabbing a powder filled pouch over the stencils), using natural pigments made from minerals and mountain plants and grasses. It takes about 25 hours to paint a large platter. Finally, the platter is glazed with a special kind of blue-green glaze called ishkor that has been used since the 10th century and the results are the lustrous, green and blue hued plates and bowls that we then drool over. His work is on display at several museums in Russia and Japan.

    We also check out his small but lovely collection of vintage pottery. Since it's going to take us a while to pick out the pieces we want to buy, we decide to have lunch first. The Usmanovs offer lunch at their home and this can be included if you're visiting the studio. Rustam's wife and a few other women have been busy in the kitchen all morning and have already set the table in the courtyard while we've been wandering around the studio. The first course is several mezze - beets, kidney beans with cumin and onions, rolled and stuffed eggplant, sour milk and bread. This is followed by soup or shorva with beef and vegetables (I add a dollop of sour milk and fresh coriander to it). And, finally two types of layered manty stuffed with pumpkin and meat. The lunch is outstanding and what's wonderful is that it is a home cooked meal. The manty especially is so delicate and flavorful. For dessert, there is cookies and apples.

    We agonize for several minutes over which pieces to buy and end up getting one large platter, two plates, two bowls and a mug for $125 - I consider that a bargain for the quality of workmanship. The platter was painted by Rustam himself. There is no bubble wrap in Uzbekistan, so the pottery is wrapped in thick paper. We carry it back in our hand baggage and are able to get it home safely. If you plan to buy a lot of pottery, carrying bubble wrap with you may be a good idea.

    We then head to the tailor to pick up my dress and jacket. The dress only requires a minor alteration and the jacket is perfect. For anyone else reading this that may be interested in doing the same, the quality of the stitching and seams (nothing that's visible on the outside) is not the same as in the US, but for $20 it's totally worth it. While I try on each outfit and check them out in the mirror, a somewhat large crowd gathers outside the shop. I get big smiles, several thumbs up and nods of approval from them all. This has been a fun process.

    Of course, now that I get a sense for what is possible, I have to go back to Fasliddin's home to buy more fabric. I pick out 2 more patterns for pencil skirts (that I will take to India to get stitched) and as I am leaving, he convinces me (not that he has to try very hard!) to buy a stunning pattern in the softest silk, for a dress. I have to run out of there before I do more damage to our wallets. I am not a big clothes shopper, but it's hard to find really good natural fabrics in the US anymore (so much of it is polyester), that I'm sure I'll treasure and wear these pieces for many years.

    Before we go back to the hotel, I tell Dinora that I want to check out the Khonakhah mosque in Margilan. I had seen pictures of it in the guidebook with its two storied and pillared iwan with painted ceilings in the Fergana style. Unfortunately, the older structure is being torn down, and prayers are held in the newer building across from it. We are able to peep inside and check out the massive carved wooden ceiling. The Toron mosque close by would be a good alternative, but we didn't go there.

    The Fergana valley was once home to over 300 mosques and several madrassas, but most all were either destroyed or closed by the Soviets or used as factories, prisons and store houses, as they attempted to suppress Islam and thwart the strong uprising in the valley. Which is why there isn't much left to see, sad really. After independence in '91, there was a period of re-Islamicisation of the country as a way to recover their old identity. But, that has changed, with Islam Karimov (who has been president and autocrat since independence) imposing restrictions not just on Islamist groups but on the practice of religion itself in the hopes that Uzbekistan doesn't become another hotbed of religious fundamentalism and militancy like the Middle East. The valley is more conservative and deeply religious compared to other parts of Uzbekistan, so the issue of fundamentalism is of particular concern here. Which explains why we haven't heard the haunting call to prayer that is ubiquitous in every other Muslim country. The other surprise is that we don't have to cover our heads and shoulders (like we did in Turkey and Morocco) when we enter a mosque, even though I do it out of respect.

    Dinner tonight is at Cafe Bravo again. This time, we meet Aibek, the brother of the owner. He is a lawyer who lived in Southall when he was studying in London, and we have a long conversation with him about similarities between Hindi and Uzbek words and foods. He recommends a dish not on the menu, so we get that along with the usual angry chicken and salad. The dish translated into English simply means home style meat with potatoes, and the meat is very tender and flavorful and the thinly sliced potatoes cooked just right. We are so appreciative of it that he brings the chef over so we can thank her in person. This is our last night in Fergana so we linger again over some beers. Aibek brings over some kurut for us to try (they're dried salty yogurt balls and a popular Uzbek snack with beer), but it is too strong and stinky that we have to apologize and put it aside.

    Tomorrow, we stop at the Kumtepa market near Margilan in the morning, before making our way back to Tashkent.

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    Hi thursday - Yes, we did eat quite well, as you will see in this most recent installment as well. :-) And we enjoyed most of it. We were definitely happy with MIR and the guide Dinora. Though she was very chatty and talked a lot about her family (sometimes, you just want quiet time to take in the surroundings) which is the only constructive feedback I'll be passing along to MIR.

    I hear you about downsizing. The one bedroom apartment is what keeps me in check. I limit our purchases to hand crafted items that the country is famous for, usually small pieces that will fit in our home and bring back fond memories of our trips and encounters with people. And hopefully, in some small way support these artisans and keep them in business. Turkey and Uzbekistan have been the only places where I've gone a little overboard perhaps. lol.

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    Just lovely. I'm into ceramics as well, and would have put a dent into my wallet at the studio. Glad you made it back with the pieces unharmed. Do they not offer shipping services?

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    The fantastic Kumtepa bazaar on the way back to Tashkent

    Ajit and I both love markets, whether food, animal or household goods, textiles and crafts. They are always vibrant, chaotic, a sensory overload and you feel immediately transported into the culture. On this trip, I organized our itinerary so that we would be able to catch the Thursday market at Kumpeta in Margilan (though Sundays are bigger) and the Sunday market at Urgut near Samarkand. We start early at 8 this morning so we can spend at least 2-3 hours at the market before driving back to Tashkent.

    The bazaar is large and spread out. We start at the furniture section which is where Uzbek families purchase the many items of furniture that have to be presented as part of their daughter's dowry. Traditionally, they also buy 2-3 large chests and fill it with more gifts for the newly weds. Across from here are a row of chaikhanas getting ready for the lunch crowds. Next, we walk through the main market where there is stall after stall selling colorful bolts of Ikat fabric in every possible shade, though it's hard to tell from a distance which are handwoven and which machine made. They also sell regular clothes, embroidered jackets, traditional chapans for men and paranjas for women, sequined wedding dresses, veils, flamboyant hats and pretty head scarves. I try on a few hats to the delight of the women and girls around me. They clap when I add on a veil. I'm left with glitter all over my face and arms that takes me the entire day to get off. Since I spend so much time trying on the hats, I feel it's only fair that I buy one, so I get a canary yellow feathered hat for $4. I'm thinking I'll wear it to a friend's birthday party back in NYC.

    Everyone wants to know where we're from, preferring to refer to India as Hindustan. The acknowledgment is almost always followed by the mentions of movie stars, more so the ones from the 60s-80s. It's the usual suspects but we are surprised to hear Mithun Chakravarthy mentioned! Though, he was quite the rock star in the 80s. Indians reading this will understand what I mean. On the other side of the wedding dress section is (of course) the babies section, where traditional handcrafted wooden cradles are sold, along with the accessories to collect baby pee. Very interesting. Then, there's back to school stuff - bags and uniforms.

    There are still more stalls selling bolts of cotton, bedding and home goods. Dinora checks out a dinner set with a deer pattern looking for a piece to complete her set at home. The alleyways are very narrow, so we're dodging people and making sure we don't lose each other. In the more enclosed sections of the market, we can barely hear ourselves over the din - of women chatting with each other and laughing. Market day is about so much more than shopping, it's a chance to gather and meet old friends, share stories and gossip.

    From here we walk a short distance to the fruit and vegetable market. Melons, melons everywhere - green, yellow and white. There is quite a bit of fresh vegetables as well as bread being sold out on the dusty grounds. We see a strange looking orange fruit and buy it, but don't know how to eat it. Nor does Dinora. Oh well. Women with weathered old faces and grinning gold teeth want their pictures taken. And shriek when they see themselves in the viewfinder. So do fathers and sons. And, mothers and daughters. Some are shy to start off with, but join in when they get curious. The covered market sells rice, nuts, spices, bread and other cooking ingredients. Then, there is the meat section with several butcher shops selling really fresh meat, including the very popular horse meat.

    As we're walking through the market, an old man looking very troubled approaches me and talks to be in Uzbek. I acknowledge him but not understanding a word of what he is saying, I keep walking. He follows me, repeating a question over and over and looking so earnest that I call out to Dinora who is walking ahead and ask her to translate. Apparently, the man had read in a newspaper a while back that a popular Indian actor (Rajesh Khanna) had died and he just wanted to confirm if in fact that was true. I felt so bad telling him that he really was dead. The poor man. Kumtepa is also where we first hear locals call us Ishaani and Ranvir, though we have no idea who these people are at the time. Often times, we are also asked if we "speak Ruski?" with obvious disappointment when we say No, since it means they can't engage in much conversation with us.

    We could have easily spent another hour here, but it's almost 11:30, so we have to pull ourselves away and make our way to Kokand for a quick lunch at a chaikhana. Ajit has mampar, a soup with meat topped with a fried egg while I have a dumpling soup, along with the usual salad, bread and tea. We also order a few Turkish style samsa with meat and save it for our ride. We say goodbye to Dinora here (she will be guiding a group of Italians later today) and begin our drive back to Tashkent. Dinora is nothing like what we expected an Uzbek woman outside of Tashkent to be (mostly due to our ignorance) - she's modern (while still traditional in some ways), wears short dresses and doesn't cover her hair, is outspoken (a fire cracker really), very opinionated, independent and confident. She's 28, met her husband in language school and married him soon after and has 2 young kids. Though she was sometimes a little too chatty for us, our experience with her is very refreshing.

    It's been cloudy all morning, but on the drive back, it starts drizzling. The passport control checkpoint that was relatively quick on the way in, is excruciatingly slow on the way out. We wait in line for more than an hour, breathing in the toxic fumes from the trucks and cars around us. It's a relief when we make our way across, though traffic moves slowly for another hour along narrow one lane highways. Around this time, it starts raining heavily - the scenery with dark heavy clouds against the rain soaked craggy and golden mountains with the mist rolling down it revealing snow capped peaks is stunning. We relish every moment of it.

    We get dropped off at Jahongir at around 5. It's been a long day and we have a train to catch tomorrow, so we take a shower, repack our suitcases so we can leave one behind at the B&B, and head out to the roadside restaurant to have dinner. Ajit starts feeling nauseous around this time (he thinks the fumes from the afternoon are the culprit). We order a laghman and chicken kebab, but Ajit only has a few slurps before he can't eat any more. We order a Pepsi for him to settle his stomach and get back to the room so he can go to sleep. His stomach is indeed upset and he wakes up a couple of times during the night. We always carry Imodium with us, so he takes it and drinks lots of water and hopes to feel better by the morning.

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    Thanks for reading along, crosscheck and Marija. I've been busy for a few days and had guests visiting over the weekend, so finally had a chance to continue writing this evening.

    crosschek - Yes, Ajit did recover quickly. Thanks for asking.

    tripplanner - Sounds like we are kindred spirits. You will love the markets and shopping.

    Next segment follows.

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    Onward to Samarkand...and our "Did you say the Registan is closed???" moment

    Our high speed train to Samarkand departs at 8am, and we have been advised to get to the station 45 minutes early, which means it's another early morning for us. Ajit is feeling better (phew!) especially after eating some bread and jam. He has another Imodium for the road and is back to normal by mid morning. Taking the metro to the station would have been the best option but given how Ajit is feeling, we ask Feruza to call us a taxi for $7. It's Jamaluddin who shows up at the gate so we catch him up on our travels so far as we drive the 15 minutes to the station. We are there very early and even with the multiple passport checks and bags being x-rayed, we end up waiting a half hour for the train to pull in.

    The Afrosiyob train service between Tashkent and Samarkand started in 2011 and now runs daily taking 2 hours. The trains are Spanish Talgo, very comfortable and they offer a snack of croissant, juice and tea. You can also pay for a hot meal (eggs etc.). When we arrive in Samarkand, we head outside to find a taxi. We find one who agrees to 15k som, but once we sit inside, goes off to find another passenger. We get a little annoyed when he doesn't return in a few minutes so I go find him and tell him we need to leave. As we drive to Antica, he changes the radio station so we end up listening to Lionel Richie's Hello. We much preferred the Uzbek pop he had going on earlier. The newer parts of Samarkand look like any other mid sized city in Asia, but that all changes when we get dropped off in front of the old city gates next to the gorgeous Gur Emir mausoleum. We then drag our suitcases a short distance through a narrow uneven street to the massive carved wooden door hiding the eden that is Antica.

    Aziza and Khubira are sisters who run the B&B out of their ancestral home that sits around a wonderfully lush courtyard with apple, pear and mulberry trees and many different flowers. Kubira greets us at the door and offers us tea, bread, a variety of jams including mulberry (that I haven't had since my childhood) and yummy zucchini fritters. As we sit under the gazebo covered in grape and pumpkin vines and decorated with vintage suzani, tassels and skull caps, I let out a deep sigh. This is just our kind of place and feels like home. Our room is in their 19th century home next door, on the second floor with a balcony. It's supposed to have a view of Gur Emir but we can barely see the dome through the trees and surrounding rooftops. The room is large and simple, the bed has a very thin mattress, and some of the bathroom tiles are cracked, but (for us) the decor with the vintage textiles and the serene courtyard more than makes up for it.

    Samarkand, the fabled oasis at the edge of the Kyzyl Kum desert and called the Garden of the Soul and the Pearl of the Orient by its many admirers through the centuries, cemented its status as one of the greatest Silk Road cities and pinnacle of art, culture and architecture during Amir Timur's reign. Tamerlane chose Samarkand as his capital and over the next 35 years brought in renowned architects, masons and craftsmen, and the most prized materials from regions he conquered as far away as India, Iran, Iraq and Syria, to create his paradise. These countries also lent their poets, scholars and theologians to help create this oasis of culture.

    Our first stop is the Registan, once declared the noblest public square in the world, and a ten minute walk away. As we approach the square, we notice that it is completely cordoned off and setup for some kind of event - there's a large dais, speakers and lights, stand for seating and lots of international flags flying. We understand from the police that a music festival (we later learn it's the Sharq International Music Festival) is going on and the Registan is closed for the day. We ask when it will open again and in typical developing country fashion, get a variety of answers from the cops - from it'll open tomorrow to it'll open on 2nd September (the day after we leave) to it'll open after 10 days. With each answer, my voice and questions get more desperate, but it's clear they don't know. This is our WTF?? moment of the trip, though Ajit appears to be much more zen about it. I'm so frustrated and can't believe we've come this far only to miss this most amazing sight - seeing it from the street is just not the same and who knows if or when we'll be back. Since there is no point standing around, we walk around to the back, find an entrance that's open and manage to get a little closer to the madrassas before we encounter the barricades again. We sit around and admire the fluted turquoise dome covered with mosaic tiles looking so elegant and before we wallow some more in our self pity, decide to make our way to the Bibi Khanum mosque.

    We walk along pedestrian Tashkent street that's littered with boutiques and galleries and leads to the Bibi Khanum mosque. Along the way, we stop at a couple of shops and check out the suzanis on display. Buying some vintage suzanis is on my list of Samarkand to-dos, and looking at beautiful textiles never fails to make me happy. Next door I see a shop selling bags and clothes made with beautiful fabrics and I somehow think this is place that I had read about where the owner also tailors clothes. I don't know the name of the store, just that the owner's name is Nargis, so I ask for her and out comes a woman who I assume must be her. I take out Fasliddin's beautiful ikat and ask if she can make a dress for me. We go over the design in very basic English and she asks that I come for a fitting the next afternoon. Ok, I think I'm feeling better now.

    Next door is the Tourist Information center so we stop to ask them about entry to the Registan. They're not entirely sure either but have heard that it'll open on the 1st. Since we leave for Bukhara at noon that day, this gives us a sliver of hope of maybe possibly seeing the Registan, and we'll take that for now. We ask if we can buy tickets to the festival and are told that they are usually reserved for VIPs (diplomats, government servants).

    A few paces away is the Bibi Khanum - completed in 1404 after Timur's conquest and plunder of Delhi and named after his favorite wife, the mosque was built by thousands of slave artisans using Indian marble transported over land and mountains by 95 elephants. The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries due to overly ambitious construction techniques, earthquakes as well as Bukharan emirs and Soviet officers who stripped it down for building materials and metal, and what we see now is mostly a modern reconstruction. Despite this, it is still impressive and a reminder that it must have been a mosque without parallel in grandeur as Timur envisioned it to be. In the center of the courtyard is a massive marble Koran stand that once held the 7th century Osman Koran, one of the oldest in the world. We get a chance a see it in Tashkent later on in our trip.

    For lunch, we eat at a restaurant right next to the mosque. As we sit on a topchan with a view of the mosque and stretch our legs, I notice a store that's part of the cafe with the name Anargis Art Studio. My first thought is - Dang, this is the shop that I was looking for! Followed quickly by - Uh oh, I wonder who the tailor is that I dropped off my lovely fabric with. And I hope she doesn't mess it up! Anyway, it's too late and after the morning we've had, I'm ready to just chill out and enjoy a good meal. We order tea, bread, beetroot salad with sour yogurt, noodle soup and dumpling soup. The food is flavorful and light, but the restaurant definitely caters more to a western palate. After lunch, we step into the store and meet Nargis (owner and designer), who's delightful, speaks good English and patiently shows us lots of suzanis from her collection. She has suzani scraps as well as pieces in a variety of colors and styles - Samarkand, Nurata, Sakhrisabz, Bukhara and Fergana. The pomogranate is Bukahara style, teapot is Urgut and so on. She also tailors dresses, kaftans and jackets from silk ikat (bought from Fasliddin in Margilan) as well as vintage block print fabrics. Her designs are fabulous and tailoring quality very high - with prices to match. Reversible hand quilted jackets made with silk ikat are $200-$550, depending on the length. She travels to the US every year for the Santa Fe folk art festival as well as NY gift shows. Side note - In fact, Rasuljon, Fasliddin and Rustam have all participated in the Santa Fe festival. We take pictures of the suzanis and note down prices, so we are well prepared before we head to the Urgut Sunday bazaar.

    On the other side of the mosque is the Samarkand's main bazaar. This is a covered market and we walk around the stalls selling nuts, lots of colorful local sweets and halva, fruits, vegetables and barrows of non bread in varying patterns. Before leaving, we pick up some sesame halva. It's a good thing we did. Our last stop for the day is the Gur Emir next to our B&B. As we walk back hoping to catch the mausoleum during the golden hour, we realize that entire streets have now been blocked off and what would have been a 10 minute stroll ends up being an almost half hour long walk winding through old Samarkand's residential neighborhoods (that remind us so much of India). We are miffed and our feet are a little tired!

    We are thankful to eventually get to the Gur Emir while there's still light. The delicate tile work and stalactite carvings in the portal and the imposing heavily ribbed blue dome rising 32m above the mausoleum are breathtaking. Just as spectacular is the mausoleum interior painted royal blue and gold with carved niches and onyx tiles, housing 7 tombstones including those of Timur, Timur's sons and his grandson Ulug Beg. Gur Emir would be the precursor for the Mughal era tombs in India including Humayun's tomb and Taj Mahal. Around 7, the security guards ask us to leave indicating that the complex is being shut down for the President's visit. Ah, it all makes sense now - the road closures and the extra security in the evening. Karimov is here for the festival.

    Back at Antica, we talk to Khubira about the Registan being closed. Our venting only elicits a "What can you do?" shrug from her. In the earlier years of the festival, locals and tourists could get tickets and enjoy the festival, but these days it's only limited to VIP guests, which is sad. We also learn that fearing his own assassination, Karimov always keeps everyone guessing about his visit to the festival, so even the locals didn't know until this evening that he would be in Samarkand today. Such is the life of an autocrat!

    It's pleasant, so we sit in the courtyard and chat with another guest Naima, from France. She tells us that it may be possible to show our passports and get in to the festival tomorrow. She heard this from one of the cops at the Registan. Ok, we shall give that a try. If it works, score 1 for tourists, 0 for locals. :-( As we talk about having dinner and realize that it's going to be hard to get anywhere tonight given so many roads are closed, Naima offers us half a non that she had saved from dinner and we accept with many thanks. Back in our rooms, we sit in the balcony, eat our bread and halva (it's a great combination btw) and listen to the faint sounds of music from the festival. By the time the fireworks go off, we are already in bed and almost asleep, wondering what tomorrow shall bring.

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    Your account of Samarkand, between the bazaar and the Islamic architecture, is really capturing my attention. Hope you eventually had the opportunity to see the Registan up close. It's one of the view images I have in my mind when I think of Uzbekistan.

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    Tripplanner - I'll keep you guessing for a few more days. ;-) Have been at a conference so hope to get back to writing tomorrow.

    Kathie - The Uzbek ikat patterns are different from the SE Asian Ikats and from the Ikats in India. I'll post pictures of all the fabrics as soon as I can get to them.

    In the meantime, for those of you interested in Ikats and are curious about the dress I got stitched in Margilan, I wore it to the conference today.

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    I would have been devastated to arrive in Samarkand and think I couldn't see the Registan! Did MIR know your dates for Samarkand? Sounds like this festival is an annual event they should have known about.

    Seems the trains have greatly improved since I looked at taking them in 2004!

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    thursday - MIR kinda knew the dates since I had to provide the itinerary to get the LOI, but they may not have realized it since they weren't planning the entire trip.

    Advantour's website mentions the Sharq festival but makes no mention of the Registan being closed.

    The festival happens every two years so if you are travelling in the August/September timeframe, I would highly recommend checking the Sharq website to make sure you don't visit Samarkand from about 10 days before the festival to a couple of days after, giving them time to clean up.

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    A full day of sights in Samarkand ending with a magical evening

    I do miss the breakfasts at Antica, they had some of the best food and variety of offerings. This morning, we have kompot (sweetened fruit juice), tea, bread, jams, rice cooked in milk, cutlet with cottage cheese and potato, zucchini pancakes and blackberry cake. Just delicious.

    We exchange $100 getting the same rate we did at Jahongir and ask Khubira to book a car and driver for us to go to the Sunday bazaar in Urgut tomorrow. Khubira suggests we also visit a park called Platan as well as a popular pilgrimage area for the locals nearby. We plan to leave at 8am and get back by 3. This will cost us $45. You can also take a share taxi from the main Registan street (you will see several drivers standing by the roadside yelling Urgut as you walk by) which would be a much cheaper alternative. Antica offers home cooked dinners for $10pp, and given how amazing their breakfast is, we sign up for dinner tonight. It's crazy that we've barely finished our breakfast and are already dreaming of dinner.

    We want to photograph the Bibi Khanum in the morning light, so that's where we head first. But, not before we try our luck at the Registan - unfortunately, it's still closed and when we enquire about festival tickets, are told that there are none available. Deep breath. Walking on.
    After the Bibi Khanum, we spend the rest of the morning walking through the old town including the Jewish neighborhoods and ending up at the Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpet factory. We have no interest in buying a silk carpet but are keen to check out the carpet making process and their collection of suzanis. Samarkand's old town is curiously hidden behind recently constructed walls and gates just off of Tashkent street - while we love the architecture in Samarkand, this separation of the old town from the main boulevards that connect the historical sights makes it feel less organic to us. The sights somehow feel disconnected from the city itself and its people. The old town is a series of narrow alleyways flanked by simple mud brick homes. We walk past a pretty mosque, Samarkand's main synagogue built in the 1890s by a millionaire trader, a hammam and a school. Of the 20 to 30,000 Jewish people that lived here, only about 40 families remain that worship at this synagogue.

    I'm wearing an Indian outfit today (I don't get a chance to wear them as much in the US so this is a treat for me, I have a few more pieces packed for this trip), and realize that this gets a lot more attention from the locals, especially women and girls. It's a great way to make conversation and chat with people who might otherwise not approach us. It's hot and very bright so it's a relief to finally reach the carpet factory and head into the cool indoors. Zainab, the owner, is an exile from Afghanistan, it was her father who setup the factory in 1992. They are known for very good working conditions and pay for their (mostly women) employees and have had dignitaries like Kofi Annan and Hilary Clinton visit. Using natural colors and vegetable dyes only, they produce gorgeous carpets of a very high level of quality. Usually, two girls work each loom - the patience and focus required to knot the silk is astounding. Zainab is lovely and willing to share her passion and knowledge of carpet weaving with us so we really enjoy our time with her. And, there is absolutely no pressure to buy. She tells us about the time a couple from Seattle placed an order for 400 carpets! Wowza. We also check out the suzanis they have for sale, but most of them are new and don't appeal to us. You can read more about Zainab's family and the factory here -

    We walk back the same way and end up at Anargis again for lunch. There are limited eating options near the main sights, so that's something to consider as you plan your day. We try a couple of other soups on their menu - noodle and vegetable with meat. After lunch, I check out suzanis in the shop across the street. The have a nice selection so I take pictures for now. Next, we walk north and across the busy road to the Khazret Khyzr Mosque - its richly painted wooden iwan is just so elegant and a must see in our opinion. If you're offered entry to the minaret, it's best to decline. Not worth the 5000 som pp that we paid. Our plan is to go to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis when the afternoon light is softer and we have a couple of hours to kill. So, we walk to the Ulug Beg observatory which is about 30 minutes away. A funny thing happens as we walk along this main road, we're the only ones walking as cars whiz by us in both directions. All of a sudden, we hear a car screech to a halt behind us, reverse up to us and come to a stop. There are 3 men and a woman who jump out and ask to take pictures with us. So, here we are, with the car stopped along a busy road, posing for multiple pictures with this group - all of us together, just the boys, just the girls, just the girl and Ajit (she pushes me out of the way and hugs Ajit). They have a blast and after the initial awkwardness, we relax and have fun with the experience. We laugh all the way to the observatory and Ajit can't stop smiling - his ego having been stroked and all.

    The walk is fairly uninteresting, we pass by the Afrosiob museum (that recounts Samarkand's ancient history), a quiet park next to a canal, and a wedding party celebration along the way. Ulug Beg was Timur's grandson and he built this observatory in the 15th century, preferring the arts, sciences and astronomy to battle and mayhem. With his team of experts, he plotted the coordinates of stars, measured the year to within a minute of modern calculations and demonstrated his observatory was without equal in the world. Unfortunately for him, his own son had him killed and his observatory was razed to the ground. All that remains is the underground section of a sextant (a meridian arc, the largest in the world) with a small museum alongside that details Ulug Beg's life and crowning achievements, including several references to the fact that one of the craters on the moon was named after him. Quick note - you have to pay for cameras here, so we opted to pay for only one and didn't end up taking any pictures inside.

    From here, we take a taxi to the Shah-i-Zinda complex for 4k som. This vast complex of mausoleums dating back to 676 (when a cousin of Mohammed arrived to convert the Zoroastrian people to Islam), puts forth an incredible display of artistry and creative wealth in the form of ceramic art, mosaics, murals, carvings and tile work that takes our breath away. No two mausoleums are the same. It is simply magical. Even better, the modest size of the buildings here when compared to the other grandiose monuments in town, make this a more intimate experience. We easily spend a couple of hours here - the details are amazing and we discover something new every time we look.

    My fitting at the tailor is at 5:30, so that's our next stop. We discuss some alterations and she promises to have the dress ready tomorrow afternoon. We check in at the Tourist Information office and they confirm that we should be able to get in to the festival today after 6 by showing our passports. Yay! It's almost 6 so we walk as quickly as we can to the Registan. When I show the police our passports, he initially shakes his head "No". I have to tell him that we were just at the tourist information office and they told us we could go in. After repeating this a couple more times, he relents and waves us inside. Phew. It's actually not fair at all as we see many locals being turned away or standing by the road listening to the music. This evening's show has just started and we take a seat (incidentally, there are several empty seats). The madrassas are lit with bright lights changing color from pinks and blues to purples and the setting sun casts a wonderful glow, making this a dramatic backdrop for the music. We watch the Italian (disappointing), Lithuanian (very fun folk music), New Zealand Maori (interesting, but a Maori rendition of Lorde's Royals feels weird) and Mongolian (just wonderful) quartets, each performing for about 15 minutes. The soulful chanting of the Mongolian group is just perfect in this magical setting. The sting from the Registan being closed hasn't gone away, but we feel better having been able to experience this.

    Since we have to be back at the Antica for dinner, we reluctantly leave at 7 and make our way back. We had hoped to hear the Indian musicians, but that was not to be. As we leave, we hear them introduce the group from Pakistan. Drat! Our dinner in the courtyard is fantastic - we start with beers and a selection of salads consisting of roasted zucchini with raw garlic, beetroot, fried eggplant with a tomato sauce and a dip of roasted eggplant and red peppers (the latter, according to Khubira, is what every woman made during the Soviet rule since they lacked produce so often). The next course is a vegetable soup with chickpeas and meatballs. And, finally, when we're almost full, Khubira brings over a large platter of plov with lamb and yellow carrots. OMG! It's so flavorful but we can barely finish half the plate. We almost ask for a doggy bag. As my grandmother used to joke "We are fully fed up!". And so, stuffed, happy and tired, we stumble back to our room.

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    I've not been good about finishing up this trip report. Work, travel and other projects have kept me busy. We have some more travel coming up in December and January but promise to finish this up early in the new year.

    Anyway, one of the projects was to upholster a vintage chair with some of the vintage suzani that I picked up in Urgut while in Samarkand. Here is a link to the finished product (Chairloom is the upholstery shop that worked on this project).

    Ajit is working on his pictures so hope to have that soon as well.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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    Thanks for sharing. The colors on the materials are so vivid. I especially like the archiitectural ornamentation in your photographs; it's even more intricate than what I saw in Turkey.

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    Hi seemaskt. I just caught your trip report and enjoyed it very much. It was great to get a perspective on how things work. Uzbekistan is high on our list as we have a family connection to the region. And as with you, Samarkand and Bukhara seem so evocative. Thanks for writing and posting it, it's not area we get to read much about here!

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    Thanks Clifton! Glad you enjoyed the bits I've written so far. Hope to complete the report in the new year. Given you family connection, you should definitely visit. It'll be very rewarding.

    Here are the pics from our first 2 days in the Fergana valley - Kokand and Margilan

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    Thanks Clifton and tripplanner! Hope to get one more album done before we leave on our holiday.

    tripplanner - Yes! Especially in Samarkand since Timur used architects from Persia. I'm working on those pics now so you'll see them soon. Iran is high on my list too, hope to get there some day soon while we still can.

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    Hi Sue, thanks so much for reading. While I have been on top of my trip reports in the past, I am so terribly behind on this one. Sigh, apologies. I hope to get back to it someday soon and finish the second half of the trip.

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    Hi Seemaskt, i'm in love with Ikat fabrics as well. Do you have any contact information of ikat fabric shops in Uzbekistan?
    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your post in details. Thanks!

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    I've been completely enthralled by this trip report, thank you. Please do write more when you can, I'd love to read about Bukhara as well. Until then, happy travels and a happy 2017!

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    Thank you bel79, Dianedancer and Semiha! I've been terrible about completing this trip report. And, a year and a half has gone by. Ugh. I'm going to do my best to wrap this up over the next month or two. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Semiha - Not sure if this is too late and you've already been to Uzbekistan, but apart from the shops in Margilan (which I've written about), we also bought fabric and got cushion covers stitched at Feruza's shop in Bukahara.

    Happy New Year to all!

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