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Uzbekistan: A Lesson in Silk Road Hospitality

Uzbekistan: A Lesson in Silk Road Hospitality

Oct 31st, 2012, 11:05 AM
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Uzbekistan: A Lesson in Silk Road Hospitality

I'm just back from a fantastic two week trip to Uzbekistan. I found the history intriguing, people welcoming and helpful and can't wait to explore the other Stans. I booked air to Uzbekistan myself but used Advantour for hotels and transportation in Uzbekistan. I can't say enough about the great work, including running interference when needed, by Feruza at Advantour. The drivers were English speaking, professional and my husband and I always felt safe. The hotels better than expected (mostly) and everything went off like clockwork. We hired two guides through Advantour and they were top notch, well informed and not motivated to herd us into shopping "opportunities."

I'll begin at the beginning. We were in Istanbul for five days before going to UZ, so after a lot of thought and wary about booking air from Istanbul on a "third world airline," I finally clicked on their website and bought tickets because Uzbekistan Airlines had a much better schedule and cheaper prices. It turned out I had nothing to fear. The planes were new, spotless, had clean bathrooms, good food, smooth landings and (get this, all American carriers) pleasant, courteous, multi-lingual flight attendants. What a concept!

Upon arrival, Tashkent airport was a crowded, chaotic mess. It's too small and understaffed to handle the traffic that was crammed in at that time. It would have taken hours to get through but Advantour contacted some Tourist Authority guys at the airport who ushered us (I did feel guilty) to the front of the line and facilitated our paperwork! BTW, we had no hassle from customs or immigration and were greeted with courtesy and smiles, welcomed and not searched or questioned. We experienced none of the feared entrance horror stories I'd read about. Not once during the whole trip, did we experience any of the threatening police behavior I expected to find.

We spent a total of four nights in Tashkent, at three different times, at the Tashkent Palace. It's was my least favorite hotel, primarily due to the staff. It was actually difficult to get someone to help us with our bags. The bellhops were more interested in chatting to each other than actually working. Advantour did get us two upgrades, which they didn't charge for, when we had problems with the lack of soundproofing in the standard rooms. If you stay there, get superior rooms facing the Opera. The breakfast, although varied was low quality, was the worst one on our trip. Many tour groups book at the Tashkent Palace so if you find yourself staying there, get coffee when the line is slow because you can wait for a long time if you don't jump on it. The location is great for sight seeing however, close to the metro, a lot of parks, monuments, some restaurants - there is a Pizza Bakery across from the Opera that is pretty good, and a convenience store on the corner. Free wifi in the lobby and the staff speak English.

One afternoon we ate lunch at at Aash Ahxop, near Independence Square and it was a real treat. The menu was in Russian so through signs and signals and my husband's limited Azerbaijani Turkish, I asked to see the kitchen to choose our food. That was cheerfully accommodated and we ended up with Plov and Laghman. Since my husband is a vegetarian, he settled for pushing the meat aside and eating what was left! UZ is not a place to exist solely on a vegetarian diet. It was delicious but a bit heavy on the grease. Laghman would turn out to be my favorite Uzbek food. We also ate at a Russian restaurant, Yolki Palki, that had delicious food, an English menu and great service.

Although most people see Tashkent as only a transit point, we really enjoyed the city - but I love cities, so keep that in mind. I particularly enjoyed walking through the narrow streets of older mahalas (neighborhoods) in Tashkent, the Chorsu Bazaar, Karst-I-Imom and all the parks! So many beautiful parks and boulevards lined with massive fusion of Soviet/Mongolian style architecture. It was fun watching wedding parties in the parks, where they come to take wedding photos. Subsequently, we would see them throughout the country. We also ran into a lot of street fairs with people selling everything from artwork to antiques. Tashkent is an easy city to navigate and we learned right away that young people are more likely to speak and understand English, but everyone tried to be helpful.

The Afriosiob train to Samarkand was clean and comfortable but a bit bumpy. We had VIP seats in a car shared mostly with Arab businessmen and a few other tourists, like ourselves. They served a small nice breakfast with tea - very nice, indeed. If you'd rather share your car with Uzbeks then first or second class will be more suitable.

In Samarkand we stayed at the Hotel Grand Samarkand, which turned out to be my favorite hotel. It's brand new, white glove clean, well run, puts out a nice breakfast, built around a charming courtyard, and has a polite, cheerful, English speaking, staff. There isn't an elevator, so if that bothers you, request a low floor. The beds are very hard so insist in a mattress top or padding if you aren't comfortable with what they describe as a "medical mattress." The staff will do all they can to help. The location, in the Russian part of town was perfect. Close to restaurants, Navoi Park, convince stores, it's possible to walk to the Registan, and close to some interesting neighborhoods and churches. Free wifi in the courtyard, lobby and your room if it reaches that far.

to be continued...
jahlie is offline  
Oct 31st, 2012, 11:46 AM
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Thanks for posting, Jahlie. There is very little information on the Central Asian countries, and it's interesting to read a first-hand perspective on it. Look forward to reading more from you.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Oct 31st, 2012, 12:09 PM
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Thanks for starting your report! I love reading reports on places we don't get much info on.
Kathie is online now  
Oct 31st, 2012, 01:50 PM
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Looking forward to more.
partyon is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 04:05 AM
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An interesting article on a very interesting country. But, before you become too effusive please remember that Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive and corrupt countries in the world. Torture and false imprisonment is rife. Note the Andijan massacre of 2005. To secure the easy passage you received at the airport (to the detriment of other passengers)your travel agency will have paid a part of your ticket price to the 'accommodating' authorities.
I think it would be fair if you were to mention that not everything seen by tourists reflects the true situation of the people or the country. The people will tell you little of their real situation as they are very aware that the SNB have ears and eyes everywhere and that talking openly to foreigners is a sure way to end up being uncomfortably 'interrogated'
Justin666 is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 08:28 AM
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Thank you all for your comments and encouragement. Kathie, I've read your trip report on Darjeeling and Sikkim, taking notes because along with friends, we're making plans to travel there in 2013. We are going to Nepal for sure and will either add Tibet or Darjeeling and Sikkim. I can't wait! Nepal is one of my favorite countries - I love the warm charming people. India is more of a challenge, but I can't resist the sensory stimulation. The only problem with Tibet is that the border can be closed to foreigners at a moment's notice - I'm not sure we want to chance that. I think it's better to visit Tibet sometime when I'm in China, hear the border is open, and go - right then and there.

And Justin666, The more I travel the more I come to understand that people aren't stupid and know exactly what's going on. I won't presume to patronize any culture. I'm describing my experiences only and I think most people reading this forum understand that. Not being the best writer, perhaps I didn't express myself properly and if so, apologize for that. In describing my experiences with the Uzbek authorities, all I wanted to convey was that it seems to me Uzbekistan is trying to encourage tourism, which IMHO, can only be a good thing for all concerned. "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness..." works in both directions.

Sorry about this but I have to correct one thing...the hotel in Samarkand was the Hotel Grand Samarkand Superior (the Hotel Grand Samarkand is across the street). And here we go...

While Tashkent is in many ways very western/Russian – modern dress for men and women, up to date technology and a lot of hustle bustle, many people with direct connections to Europe and the US, Samarkand is more traditional. We saw more head scarves, few women driving and a more relaxed atmosphere. I think Samarkand was my favorite city, perhaps because by this time I had my “sea legs.” It was in Samarkand that Russian, Soviet and Uzbek historical periods overlapped in a way that I could understand and begin to appreciate the complexities of Uzbekistan’s history. Another thing is that more Tajik is spoken in Samarkand so my husband’s Farsi helped us communicate – a great advantage. The Silk Road tourist sights In Samarkand (and elsewhere) are awesome, truly lovely, but they are infused with tourist shops. Yes, it’s usually soft sell, but nevertheless, the fact that shops are under every arch or in every room, detracts tremendously from the ambience and enjoyment of the sights. If you like shopping, then that might be a good thing.

Bibi Khanym was my favorite sight because it is just so graceful, followed by the Registan, an awesome sight, the Afrosiab Museum and Ulam Beg’s Observatory because of the scientific and historic significance. The Bazaar in Samarkand was a blast. We spend hours there, on two separate days, talking to merchants, bargaining for silk scarves (bought some for 20,000 som) and hats, buying nuts and bread and tasting yogurt. Most merchants ask you to taste whatever they are selling and although I try to avoid street food, I did break down and taste quite a bit of the food. My policy was that if I tasted it, I bought some. It’s only fair and made for a nice little cultural exchange. We also enjoyed spending time in the cemetery behind the Hadhrat Khibir Mosque (although not the Mosque itself – boring) looking at the tombstones, a very personal way to make a connection with the past.

I love wandering through neighborhoods as much as visiting tourist sights. On our walks through “our” neighborhood (near our hotel) we stopped into three churches. One was Roman Catholic, where we talked to a Polish priest who had lived in Samarkand for twelve years. Then we checked out an Armenian church, whose caretaker kept an adorable little dog (that’s saying a lot in a country where most people wouldn’t consider keeping a dog as a pet) and an Orthodox church. The population of Christians has dropped significantly since the break up of the Soviet Union and these churches depend on contributions to keep their doors open to the few remaining parishioners.

Another neighborhood we walked through was the old Jewish Quarter, just outside the Bazaar, across the street from the Art Café and behind a high wall. As in all the mahalas in Uzbekistan that we visited, we found the streets free of trash, with small lanes winding through a quiet residential neighborhood. We found an active Synogogue, a bakery, a bathhouse and one resident who welcomed me with kisses and a powerful bear hug! Talk about a warm welcome!

As for restaurants, we ate dinner one night at Platan, had terrible service, and just OK food. They have a huge menu of salads (in English and Russian) and it was located just a couple of blocks from our hotel but we didn’t return because we couldn’t face dealing with the confused wait staff. We ate dinner the next night at Samarkand Restaurant. Due to the fact that there was a wedding dinner taking place inside, we had to sit on the patio – in cold weather and no heaters - BBUURR! The food was mediocre, service indifferent, and certainly not worth a recommendation. Our next attempt at a good dinner was at Venezia Restaurant, which was farther from our hotel but certainly within walking distance. Bingo - good pizzas and salads, wonderful service, and decent ambience – what’s not to like? However, my favorite restaurant in Samarkand, was the Art Café, just outside the Bazaar on the street leading to the Registan. Sitting on the patio overlooking the street, we ate lunch there twice, enjoying bread, yogurt, delicious laghman (it’s listed as Noodle Soup) and plov - clean restaurant, clean bathrooms, delicious food and pleasant service. Something you might look forward to after a morning in the Bazaar and much better than the nearby Registan Restaurant.

While in Samarkand, we took a day trip to Shakhrisabz and the lovely drive through a beautiful mountain pass, lined with busy farms, roadside tandoor ovens and fruit stands, was well worth our time. The town itself was very busy because it was Thursday, Bazaar day. Our driver dropped us off at the Ak Saray– Timur’s Summer Palace – and we walked through to town, meeting him at the far end of Tamerlane’s Crypt. The Palace, although pretty much in ruins, is pretty impressive and set in a lovely park. Again the park was in full wedding party photo mode, which I always found charming.The Bazaar was abuzz, crowded with vendors and had the most traditional feel so far. I didn't do any taste testing here because it's much more rural - read, not quite as sanitary. In fact we stopped into the Kullolik Chaikhana, mentioned in one of my guidebooks, and the conditions were so filthy I couldn't drink my tea - the only time that happened during my entire trip. Continuing up the street, The Hazrat-I-Imam Complex and Tamarlane’s Crypt was pleasantly quiet and deserves a quick peek.

After four nights in Samarkand, we left with our car and driver to Bukhara. The drive was uneventful but I enjoy road trips so just watching the countryside go by with all its agriculture and many, many cotton fields was a treat for me.

to be continued...
jahlie is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 09:46 AM
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We spent three nights in Bukhara at the Omar Khayam Hotel which was centrally located for walking in the old town and had the most delightful staff I encountered on our trip. Our bed was comfortable, the rooms and hotel clean (the carpeting in our room could have used a shampoo however), free wifi in the lobby, and a nice breakfast and a cheap laundry service – very much needed by this time. The only drawbacks were that they didn’t have a restaurant and the lobby wasn’t very pleasantly decorated.

Bukhara is a small town and most of the sights are within an easy walk. By this time we were getting Madrassed-Mosqued-Monumented out, so spent a bit more time doing serious shopping than elsewhere. Again, I bargained down some silk scarves to 20,000 som!

The entire town is a museum so wandering around can be a lot of fun. The Kolon Minaret and Mosque at night, lit up, without hordes of tourists will take you back in time. I think that was my favorite experience. The Ark was closed for renovation but we managed to witness a funeral across the street at the Bolo Hauz Mosque. I guess that makes up for it in a macabre sort of way? The Magok-I-Mosque I found particularly interesting because it is the site of Zorastrian, Buddhist as well as Arab remains and has a different “look” than other Mosques. Our trip outside town to the Emir’s Summer Palace was well worth the effort. I changed my mind about what changes the Russians brought to Central Asia, not all as bad as I had formerly believed. It’s a strange place but different from anything else you’ll see in Bukhara.

As for food, by this time I was certain I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for a culinary adventure. Our first dinner was at Dolon, around the corner from our hotel and chosen because it was cold and raining. Don’t go there. The food and service are dreadful. I ordered beef kabob with rice and a salad. My husband ordered chicken kabob (vegetarian just wasn’t working and somehow I guess poultry isn’t as much of a meat?) with rice and a salad. I got gristle kabob, rare in some places, burnt in others. My husband got a chicken bone kabob. The service was the worst we experienced and so confused we finally gave up, paid and left. The next night we ate dinner at the Lyab-i-Haus restaurant. It had better food than Dolon but still not good, a much better atmosphere and pretty good service. The third night had reservations at Minzifa Café and enjoyed a delicious meal, under the stars with a rooftop view of Bukhara and top-notch service. We ordered Plov that wasn’t greasy, salads that were fresh and pasta with vegetables. The best culinary experience we had in Uzbekistan. All the restaurants in Bukhara we went to had English menus.

The most exciting cultural experience in Bukhara happened while my husband was shopping for a musical instrument in a little shop behind Lyab-i-Haus. We met a musician who plays with one of Uzbekistan’s most popular bands and he played for us, we watched videos and he talked to us about music and told us of his travels to Los Angeles where he performed – what a treat. And yes, my husband bought an instrument - a kamancheh.

Back to Tashkent for a night and on to the Ferghana Valley:

Leaving at 8:00 AM, we took the train, an old Soviet clunker with sagging curtains on the windows and a battered interior, back to Tashkent. We were in a first class compartment and at first glance I thought it separated us from the other people in our car. Oh no it didn’t! Fellows in the compartment next door heard us speaking English, and apologizing for bothering us, asked to join us so they could practice a language they don’t often get the chance to speak. We had fun talking, swapping information, showing photos of children and trying to understand each other. The trip took about 6 ½ hours, but the time went by quickly and the conductor kept asking if we were comfortable and if there was anything we needed.

to be continued...
jahlie is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 10:08 AM
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Following along and enjoying your account.
Kathie is online now  
Nov 1st, 2012, 10:46 AM
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Is the architecture in Bukhara and Samarkand Persian in style, or is it Turkish? By the way, I'm enjoying your posts as well.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 10:54 AM
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Jahlie, a very concise, enjoyable report from the Uzbek. Having been to Uzbek SSR in the 80's, I've included some scanned pix for you, perhaps to jog your recent memory of the fascinating region. I may have sent you these at another time, not sure. I'm in L.A. as you are. Most of my travels to the USSR encompassed some of the outlying Republics. One of my main thrusts in world travel is to contact and interview the remnant Jewish communities, especially many of those that are especially remote and beleaguered. This quest is primarily for my writing and publishing assignments. (also included in the pix are some from the Suzdal area in the Golden Ring northeast of Moscow)

Thank you again, Jahlie, for you thoughtful report.

Stu Tower
tower is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 12:16 PM
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Wow Stu, thanks for the photos. Except for the hairstyles, some could have been taken today. You've had some pretty exciting experiences and thanks for sharing. I've only been home for a week so it will take me a while to post a link to my photos. We did enter a Synagogue in Bukhara as well. It is also active but we didn't have the opportunity to find out how many Jews remain there. I suspect, as with Christians, many have left. A couple of people told me that some of the "Russians" who left Uzbekistan for Russia, have returned because they didn't find it all that welcoming. That probably wouldn't be the case with Jews who left for Israel or western countries, but question to explore further. Honestly, this trip to Uzbekistan ignited my curiosity about Central Asia and I can't wait to find some time to dig deeper into the history of the region. I was surprised at how many ethnic groups exist there - I guess I'd never given it much thought. Of course, they seemed to get along just fine on the surface, but...

Tripplanner001, I'm glad you enjoy the report and thanks for saying so. If by Persian architecture you mean the Islamic architecture of Iran then it's very similar to the architecture in Bukhara and Samarkand and the religious structures in Tashkent. I've been to Isfahan and Shiraz and believe the tile work there is much more refined than what I saw in Uzbekistan, but still has the same stylistic elements. The massive public buildings along the broad boulevards in Tashkent and a few in the other cities, look like they have a more Mongolian/Soviet style. In either case, not Turkish like you'd see in Istanbul, if that's what you mean. Keep in mind I'm not an architect or art historian but am just observing stylistic elements and doing some research. I saw the movie Argo the other day and noted that although it was supposed to be set in Teheran, the architecture looked so Turkish that I suspect (don't know) it was filmed in Istanbul or some other city in Turkey. Turkish minarets are have a very distinctive conical style, while Central Asian are more rounded or flat at the top. Does that help? Confuse?
jahlie is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 02:08 PM
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Thanks Jahlie. It does help and confirms what I suspected. I'm not an architect myself either, but just curious given the historical links.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2012, 06:47 PM
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Jahlie...saw Argo also...most of it was shot in Turkey, mainly Istanbul, but leaving out the more familiar sights. Rave notices on the flick and is expected to be an Oscar nominee, with Affleck nominated as best actor. He played it so understated, which was the exact personality of the heroic Hollywooder he portrayed.
tower is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2012, 07:44 PM
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Very glad to see this. All the 'stans are high on my wish list.
thursdaysd is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2012, 09:06 PM
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Thank you so much Jahlie for this wonderful report and on your head be it.
Having tossed around the thought of going to Uzbekistan for some years, I am now convinced that it would be a fabulous experience.
Like you, I enjoy spending a few days in a place just wandering around and taking my time to absorb the atmosphere as well as see the sights.
Using a Tour Company to do the hard graft of organising hotels and transport is a great idea, then just spend your own time checking the place out. You've made it sound very straight forward.
Again my thanks for confirming an idea into a reality sometime in the future.
OzJane is offline  
Nov 3rd, 2012, 11:36 AM
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tower - love your pictures.

Jahlie, would you mind me asking what a trip like this would cost. I have always wanted to see this part of the world.
partyon is offline  
Nov 3rd, 2012, 12:25 PM
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Your report is so interesting. Thanks. We were on Silk Road in Kashgar, China and are interested in seeing more of it in the "stans."
HappyTrvlr is online now  
Nov 4th, 2012, 07:24 AM
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what an interesting trip - i'm really enjoying your report of a road definitely less travelled.

keep it coming.
annhig is offline  
May 8th, 2013, 12:20 PM
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Where's the rest of this excellent report? What's happened? Hope nothing serious
josele is offline  
May 8th, 2013, 01:42 PM
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Just saw this and what an interesting read! Hope you can finish it...
moremiles is offline  

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