Tashkent and Karimov

Saturday 11 to Tuesday 14 October

We left the fertile Fergana Valley and drove over the Chatkel Mountains to reach Tashkent. It was a 5 hour drive in chaotic traffic on rough roads.

A little rain last week had brought the first snow for the season and it is early October, leaving a light dusting on the mountain tops, and reminding us that Central Asia experiences an amazing range of temperatures from 40C+ in summer to -10C or less in winter.

Our hotel was well situated, close to the statute of Timur the Lame who is a national hero in Uzbekistan. His campaigns in the 14C were brutal, resulting in the deaths of more than one million people, but he also brought an ancient copy of the Holy Qu’ran to Tashkent and built Samarkand into a rich and cultured city.

Most of Tashkent was destroyed by a massive earthquake in April 1966. The Soviet Union poured all sorts of experts into the city to quickly rebuild it into a typically Soviet city with wide boulevards and 9-storey apartment buildings (lifts not required for 9 storeys). Outlandish office buildings, richly decorated in marble and set in beautifully manicured gardens, were added.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the first and still current president Ismal Karimov of Uzbekistan has added his touch to the massive soviet style monuments around the city. Whilst his image isn’t available, all the monuments bear a similar inscription, praising the president for his vision of the monument.

Uzbekistan is predominately Muslim, however most are Hanafi Sunni and realistically don’t practice it. Friday prayers is apparently a busy time, but mosques are generally quiet places. In fact beer and even wine is readily available.

Following bomb attacks in 1999, mosques are banned from broadcasting “azan”, the call to prayer.

Having said that, one of the highlights in Tashkent is the Khast Imom or the official religious centre of the republic. Here there is the mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, a revered Islamic scholar and poet of 16C. Medressas (or Islamic schools) are banned in Uzbekistan and most have been turned into universities, however the Barak Khan Medressa is now a massive souvenir shop. It was interesting to wander into the tiny study rooms that are now craft stalls within the Medressa.

The Moyle Mubarek library museum holds a 7C Quran, brought from Syria by Timur in the 14C. It is written on deerskin and is enormous. The Russians “borrowed” it in 1868, however as a good will gesture, Lenin returned it in 1924.

The other amazing building in the Khast Imom is the “Friday Mosque”. It is new, built in 2007. It has two beautiful 54m minarets in front of it.

We always love a market and the massive Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent was fantastic – beautiful fresh looking produce, clean, light and spacious. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed noodles stuffed with vegetables and kebabs. Our tour guide, Maria, just didn’t give us enough time to explore it all.

We took the underground from the bazaar to Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square). The underground (no pictures allowed) is similar to the underground in Moscow, with each station themed, decorated with columns and chandeliers on a grandiose style and little rattly train carriages that trundle between the stations.

We had found Independence Square on our orientation walk around the hotel. There are many monuments recently constructed and attributed to Karimov. The biggest is the Independence monument with its storks that watch over the White House (parliament building). Also monuments remember those who died the WWII and commemorating the nation. Many of the government buildings around the square are off limits for photographers, although I had unwittingly broken that rule the day before when we weren’t escorted.

We made our way up to Amir Timur’s statue where our guided tour ended. Our driver however thought that wasn’t enough and took us for a quick tour around the city’s religious landmarks including the Lutheran Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and Tashkent’s newest mosque. These were literally drive pasts.

The next day we had a tour out of Tashkent arranged to visit the Chimkan ski resort village and Cholpon Reservoir.

The ski resort is popular with the Russians and the higher reaches are famous for the fine powder snow and heli-skiing. We went up on the local ski lift and marvelled at how it hung together. A little snow has already fallen and the mountains had a fine dusting.

The level of the reservoir, like others we had seen, was low. We were assured that it will be full in spring with the winter rains and the snow melt. The reservoir provides hydro power and the dammed wall was heavily fortified. Our guide told us that if it was breached the water would flood Tashkent.

On the way back to Tashkent we saw more houses under construction. Everywhere we go here in Uzbekistan we seem to pass rows and rows of houses under construction.