|Undeniably unique - Uzbekistan|
We pulled into the station back at the capital Tashkent, and emerged from the overnight soviet train somewhat sleep deprived and having been baked at 28 degrees for eight hours. We had an idea that we wanted to go into up into the Uzbek mountains which were supposed to be beautiful, as a contrast to our Silk Road
city explorations, but had been unable to book any accommodation in advance. It was a local holiday destination, and not a tourist one and there was little provision for the likes of us. Of the few hotels that there were, some didn't have the licence to take foreigners!
So we had nowhere to stay at all, and the Uzbekistan government do insist on knowing where you are at all times. You have to have a special slip documenting when you book into somewhere and when you book out. You even have to keep your train ticket to prove where you were that night! Each slip is duplicated for their records by the place you stay, and you must keep them all in your passport in case the authorities decide to check them - and they do like to check things. If you don't have this proof you can risk a large fine upon leaving the country.
This extreme bureaucracy is another throw back to the days of the old Soviet Union, and it does seem rather over the top for today. This, and the hefty visa charge, are things which create barriers for visitors, and if Uzbekistan wants to be more open to tourism then they probably need to be removed or at least revised. After the unexpected death of President Islam Karimov last year, this is one of the challenges the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will hopefully be taking on.
I had read that Tashkent was an ugly city but it is very far from that. Wide European style boulevards edged with plane trees are dotted with some rather spectacular buildings. Museums, parks and concert halls, top international hotels and government buildings are all quite grand. This is not a crowded city so there is much space and light and everything is super clean.
Tashkent was largely destroyed by being at the epicentre of an earthquake in 1966, and so many of the original buildings were destroyed and the newer ones reflect the occupation of the USSR. Russian architecture has its own concrete character and is very uniform, utilitarian and monochrome. Some of what were grand soviet hotels, are now rather sad and shabby inside but would have been state of the art thirty years ago. The Hotel Uzbekistan looks retro cool from the outside but its interior is 'in need of some updating ' as the lingo goes.
We ended up staying at such a hotel - the Shodlik Palace - but there were hardly any residents there so we almost had the huge hotel to ourselves and the staff, particularly Helen on reception, were extremely helpful and made it feel much more homely and less impersonal that the somewhat dour exterior suggested. We did some more riding around on the super cool Metro, with its beautiful ornate stations - although the one we had seen on line and were specifically looking for, turned out to be actually in Moscow - oops!
| Metro Guards Saturday social|
Finally, after our mountain idyll efforts continued to be frustrated, we decided to go up there for the day instead, in one of the super cheap taxis that are everywhere. Uzbekistan taxis are about the cheapest in the world, although India is also in competition for that accolade.
About an hour and a half from Tashkent, after having travelling through a landscape that looked rather like Southern Europe, with lush fields of melons and cotton and vines, we wound our way up the road to the Chimgan mountains. Our driver couldn't speak English so when we rounded the corner and saw the amazing turquoise Charvak reservoir close to the border of Kyrgyzstan, it was a quite a surprise.
The large dam has created a huge body of water which the Uzbeks have turned into a kind of summer resort with a sort of a beach and rows of Topchans for families to lounge in in the slightly cooler climate up here in the mountains. We took a beautiful speedboat complete with white leather seats across the water out into the dazzling blue day. I loved it, whizzing along at speed with the wind in my hair, I felt elated. Uzbekistan is a destination of constant surprises.
|Top of the lake|
Our fabulous trip to this land locked country was coming to a close. We enjoyed the hospitality of the charming Uzbek people and the beauty of the majestic ancient monuments, still standing testament to the story of ancient and exotic periods of world history. The shopping is great and your money goes a long way here. The food is pretty good if somewhat carb heavy, and Uzbek wine is perfectly drinkable (always quite an important fact) although the choice - red or white - somewhat limited.
|View from our beach Topchan|
For a ceramic aficionado such as myself it is like being Charlie in the Chocolate factory, and as I dragged my rucksack laden with teapots and plates through the fourth security check at the airport, I reflected happily on our first entirely fantastic stantastic trip.
Special mention goes to top snapper Julie Sloan for additional photos in all the Uzbek blogs - great shots - thank you!
|More hat shopping|