Uzbekistan: a jewel in Central Asia

UZBEKISTAN is a country rich in history and culture. It is also a country filled with so much beauty, splendor and really good food. From having cities that date back to three thousand years ago, to beautiful blue mosques with intricate mosaic designs and some of the best kebabs I’ve ever tasted – there is no shortage of things to do and see in this wonderful country.

It is located in central Asia and is bordered by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan (a lot of “tan” countries!) and Tajikistan. We first arrived at the city’s capital, Tashkent at night. Straight from the airport we had dinner composed of beef and lamb kebabs. Can I just say it was absolutely delicious? Aside from the yummy and pretty mild flavors, the meat is just really good. Beef and lamb are really abundant in the country, and everything was top quality.

Our tour tackled three cities: Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand.

Tashkent was a big, modern city with wide roads, clean and pretty sidewalks and a lot of trees. One of the sightseeing highlights in their capital was touring their metro stations – they have some of the most beautifully decorated ones. Uzbekistan was formerly under Russia until 1994, thus these were built during the Soviet Era (if any of you have been to the Moscow metro stations, the ones here have similar resplendent décor). It was all so decadent for a metro station and was like stepping back in time.

Another place we went to was the Hazrat Imam Complex. This complex has buildings that are called madrasahs. There were minarets, or towers, and beautiful extensive grounds with storks walking around freely! The stork is actually the national bird of Uzbekistan. A madrasah is like a school or university where students learn Islam. We saw a lot of these in the next few days of our tour. The main highlight of the complex was a small building, where inside, contained one of the very first copies of the Quran. It was written on deer skin and even had blood – a result of a fight to acquire it between two men.

Bukhara was another must see on our tour. It is an old city, again filled with mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs, just like Tashkent and Samarkand. I have to say this city was my favorite, because although the former two had ancient and historical complexes, they are both very modern cities already. Bukhara, I feel, still retained that old world charm. I could have sworn I stepped into Aladdin’s city of Agrabah. Buildings and homes looked traditional with beautiful ornate front doors, the markets were filled with carpet sellers (I wonder if they fly?) and genie lamps were even sold there! If you buy one, it comes with a free genie! Or so they say…

Highlights of Bukhara include the beautiful Samanid Mausoleum, set in a gorgeous park, and the Bolo Hauz mosque which was built in medieval Bukhara times. It’s most striking feature was its 20 columns and small minaret. We also visited the citadel ark with fortified walls and the Chor Minor – an unusual madrasah that had four minarets and a blue dome on top of each.

The Miri-Arab Madrasah is a huge building that has beautiful mosaic patterns and two huge blue domes – staples of most of the buildings and mosques in Uzbekistan. This building was what really made me think that it was just like Agrabah as it looked like the Sultan’s palace. In front of the Madrasah is the Minaret Kalon, tall, huge and towering over the whole square and the Kalyan mosque. I just felt like my surroundings were so grand and majestic.

From Bukhara to Samarkand we drove this time. On the way, we passed by some cotton fields. We stopped and our guide picked up a bunch of plants – this was such a novelty to us because we had never seen cotton in its natural setting. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest producers of cotton.

Samarkand’s biggest highlight was definitely the Registan Square. A huge complex comprised of more mosques and madrasahs. Each building in the square had some sort of courtyard – filled with tourist shops, but still so beautiful and unique. We could see up close the colorful and intricate mosaic patterns that most buildings had there. Everywhere you looked, there was a new angle to photograph.

Conqueror

Two more important sites we saw was the Gur Emir Mausoleum, which had Amir Temur’s tomb. Also known as Tamerlane, he was a legendary conqueror in the 14th century, whose empire spread as far as India to the Mediterranean. Samarkand became his new symbol of the empire, and there he started grand constructions of buildings and complexes. The other mausoleum we went to was Shah-i-zinda. A necropolis, where legend says, a cousin of the prophet Muhammed, Kusam Ibn Abbas, who came to Samarkand to preach in the 7th century, was buried. We also visited its bazaar which had a lot of dried fruits, nuts, nougat and local souvenirs. Uzbekistan is really abundant in nuts and fruits that we do not have here like walnuts, hazelnuts, peaches, pomegranate and strawberries.

Speaking of fruit, the food, as I mentioned, is excellent. It is sort of like a mixture of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. They do not really have any spicy dishes, their flavors are mild, but absolutely delicious. Every meat dish was scrumptious because their meats are of excellent quality – the beef and lamb were always so tender. Their national dish is called plov – a huge dish made up of rice, vegetables, beef and raisins. It was really good and filling. Dishes were always paired with fresh salads that had herbs like cilantro and dill. We ate a lot of melons and watermelons as they were in season, and they were among the sweetest I had ever tasted in my life. Though Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, they can actually drink alcohol. They had their own local beer and also produce their own wines.

I hope that by reading this article you will put Uzbekistan on your bucket list. If you think it’s such an out of the way country and hard to get to – it’s not! It is very rich in history and culture, the people are so nice and friendly and are also even a bit curious about you. The food is amazing and the backdrop everywhere is stunning. One defining factor of Uzbekistan: almost all the days of the year are clear and sunny! Its trademark is clear, blue, cloudless sunny skies. I think it rained only once while we were there and even then, it was just a slight drizzle. So for sure, all photos will look amazing. Imagine a majestic looking mosque with gorgeous blue domes against a clear desert sky. It is all just too good for words, and something you have to experience for yourself. I can’t wait to be back! (Celyn Sala)
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