Tashkent, the stone city, sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. From its rise as a waypoint along the Silk Road to China, Tashkent grew to be the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. Today it is the capital of the Republic of Uzbekistan.
Most visitors to Uzbekistan will enter the country in Tashkent, as its airport is the largest hub in Central Asia. Although the city serves as a jumping off point to the ancient cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, as well as the dying Aral Sea in the far west, it is worth spending a few days in the capital before setting off for points further afield.
Most flights arriving internationally to Tashkent do so in the middle of the night, so the first thing most visitors will want to do is check into their hotel and get some sleep.
In the morning, a good way to get a feel for Tashkent, is to head to the Chorsu Bazaar located in the southern part of the old town. Here you will find everything from sneakers to fresh handmade pasta on offer. There are distinct sections of the bazaar for each type of goods. While it is not as large as the bazaars in Istanbul or Tehran, the open setting makes it a pleasant place to stroll around.
A few minutes drive from the Chorsu Bazaar is Independence Square. Flanked by government buildings, the former Lenin Square has an impressive gate and several fountains at the main entrance. Once inside the "square" which is more of an urban park, there are pathways through the greenery and trees. Visitors will also find the Independence Monument and War Memorial with eternal flame on the grounds. Near the War Memorial, there are tablets with the engraved names of all the Uzbek soldiers who were killed fighting for the USSR in World War II.
The Oath to the Motherland monument, which replaced the Soviet era Defender of the Motherland statue, can be found in Tashkent's Park of Military Glory, which is also the site of Uzbekistan's military museum.
Last on the tour of major monuments is the Monument to Courage. This monument was built in 1976 on the tenth anniversary of the horrible 1966 earthquake that destroyed nearly all of Tashkent. The earthquake, a 9.0 on the Richter scale, left more than 250,000 homeless and forever changed the face of Tashkent.
The sights of Tashkent aren't limited to those of the Soviet Era and recent history. On your second day in the city, reach further back into Uzbekistan's past.
Amir Temur, or Tamerlane as he is known in most of the world, was a feared 14th century Turko-Mongol ruler who founded the Timurid Empire. In most of the world, he is known as the ruthless warlord who created pyramids of human skulls outside of conquered cities. In Uzbekistan, where he was born, he is revered as a national hero. As such, one of the most famous squares in Tashkent bears his name. Centrally located, Amir Temur Square is ringed by the dilapidated yet charmingly Soviet kitsch Hotel Uzbekistan, official buildings and of course an Amir Temur museum. At the center of the manicured and green park is Amir Temur on horseback in all of his glory.
Despite spending decades as part of the Soviet Union, which was hostile towards the practice of religion, 90% of the citizens of Uzbekistan today are Muslim. One of the highlights of any trip to Tashkent will be seeing the impressive blue domed Tellya Sheikh mosque. Located just across Khast Imam Square from the mosque is the Khazret Imam ensemble, which contains a library housing the world's oldest Quran. The partial manuscript has been dated to the 8th century and is believed to have once belonged to the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan.
To ease the transition between the ancient world and the modern, visitors should head from the Khazret Imam ensemble to Central Asian Plov Center. Known locally simply as "Central Plov" this restaurant serves up enormous portions of the Uzbek national dish. The menu is limited to plov and salads, but for roughly $3, you will get a huge plate of this central Asian staple. There are countless regional variations on plov. The rendition on offer at Central Plov contains rice, lamb, horse meat sausage and some other odds and ends. Don't be scared off by the ingredients, it is delicious, and you can't truly visit Uzbekistan until you have plov.
If you are able to stand after stuffing yourself with plov, a short walk away is the Tashkent TV Tower. While there is nothing inherently exciting about a modern TV tower, it is the tallest building in central Asia, and it offers great views over Tashkent. Be sure to bring your passport as you will not be allowed to the top of the tower without it. Photography from the top is officially prohibited.
With all of the major tourist sights in your rearview mirror, a good way to get back home is to take the metro. Photography is prohibited on the metro and in the stations, but it is an efficient and extremely cheap way to get around. The stations are not as ornate as those in Moscow or Tbilisi, but they all have their own character and add to the mosaic of the city.
Once out of the metro stroll around Saligokh Street, known locally as "Broadway" and some of the small parks in the city center on the way back to your hotel.
Enjoy your last night in the capital with more traditional Uzbek food at Caravan and then check out the surprisingly lively Uzbek nightlife at bars like Chelsea, Smi, Fashion Café and of course the legendary Catacombs. Samarkand has been there for centuries, it will still be there when you wake up tomorrow for your train.
- There aren't really any traditional taxis in Tashkent. The preferred method is to go out on the street, put your hand up and wait for a car to stop. This will never take more than two or three minutes. Once they stop, either tell them where you want to go, or hand them a piece of paper with the address written in Russian or Uzbek. The driver will make you an offer. You can choose to accept it or make a counteroffer. Once the price is agreed upon, hop in and pay when you get to your destination. No trip within Tashkent should cost more than $5-7 USD. City center to the airport no more than $10-12 USD.
- You will need to carry large blocks of the Uzbek currency, the som. Outside of a handful of international hotels and high-end restaurants, no one in Uzbekistan will accept foreign credit cards, and your debit card will not work in Uzbek ATM's. $1 USD is currently worth almost 2,400 Uzbek Som, and generally 1,000 som is the largest note you can find. There are more and more 5,000 som notes coming into circulation, but often the exchange desk will have nothing but 1,000 som notes and you will end up with something like this:
If you are planning to go to Samarkand, Khiva, etc...by train, especially on the fast Afrosiyob train to Samarkand, contact a travel agency and have them book your tickets in advance. You cannot purchase tickets in advance on your own. You have to physically go to the train station in Tashkent with your passport and a huge block of som. Additionally, many of the popular trains sell out days in advance, and if you wait until your arrival in Uzbekistan you may find yourself "enjoying" a lot of long shared taxi rides due to lack of seats on the train.
Uzbekistan is an amazing place with very friendly people. Enjoy Tashkent, explore the city by foot and make an effort to meet some of the locals. English is not widely spoken. Russian will be the most helpful, but hand signals, broken attempts at language and good intentions should get you by.
Have you been to Tashkent? Let me know in the comments.