Beautiful Bukhara

After an easy and comfortable 1.5 hour train journey, we arrived in Bukhara and meet our new guide Tulkin, before transferring to the hotel for some sleep.

Oh how accustomed I am now to having the internet almost everywhere, so it was a bit of a shock to the system to find out that this hotel only had wifi available in the reception area!  So, instead of being able to catch up on news in bed when I woke up, I had to get up and shower early to get online – I actually enjoyed a quiet 20 minutes or so before the ‘crowds’ arrived with the company of the hotel kitten who quickly became my best friend 😂 and made it worth my while having to sit in the reception lol.

I also had time to take a quick walk around the local area before the crowds and first impressions where that the area looked like a newly built movie set🤔.  Far more Arabic – like something out of Arabian Nights, Aladdin and any other stereotypical Arabian movie you can think of 🤔.  I was interested to see how that impression changed throughout the day. 

As Tulkin introduced us to his city, he explained that Bukhara is a city surrounded by steppes and deserts which leads to it having 270 windy days in a year!  He also explained that it had been a super hot summer this year with temperatures reaching over 50C – I was so glad I had chosen to come in autumn rather than summer!

As with Samarkand, Bukhara has a long history.  In medieval times, it was the capital of the Samanid Empire and as an important Silk Road city was a centre for trade, culture and religion. The historical centre of the city is a UNESCO listed World Heritage site.

It was also the last capital of the Emirate of Bukhara before being overtaken by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

Back with the group and we started on a walking tour which took us back through the market I had walked through earlier – before any of the shops had opened.  It was now bustling with activity and it was clear that a number of people in my group were very keen shoppers and it was a struggle for the guide to keep them moving (despite the promise of free time for shopping later in the day)!

As well as the shop lined streets, we were introduced to “Taks” or trading domes where shops were grouped together according to their guilds (something that is also seen in Europe).  In Bukhara, 3 trading domes remain from the 16th century (although heavily reconstructed) – the money changing dome, the hatmaker dome and the jewellers dome.  The stone work and design go a long way to keeping the interiors cool on the hottest of summer days.

Tulken knew most of the shop keepers so we took a little time to stop and chat as he told us about their wares before dragging the shoppers onwards to the next site.

Now, I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but again, this city was sooooooo clean! 

The first Madrasah we come to for the day was Ulugbek Madrasah, built not surprisingly, by Ulugbek (the great astronomer we met in Samarkand).  It was built in 1417 by the best architects of the time and although it does not have the most decorative of facades it is still pretty impressive.

At the top of the entrance “gate” there is an inscription from the Koran “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Muslim man and woman” – this is often considered Ulugbek’s motto.  His love for astronomy is also clear by the astral designs used.

Opposite Ulugbek’s madrasah is the Abdul Aziz Madrasah, built in 1652 almost 250 years later than it’s neighbour.  It’s exterior gate is far more ornate but much of it’s interior has not been restored.

The next site being the Po-i-Kalyan complex which is the highlight of the city.

The complex is dominated by the Kalyan minaret which is believed to date back to 1127 and is apparently 90% original!  It is also known as the Tower of Death as legend say it was the site where criminals were executed by being through off the top!

Fun fact – the word minaret comes from the Arabic word ‘minara’ which means lighthouse.  It is believed that this may also be an adaption of the fire towers of the Zoroastrian era.  (I can’t remember if I have mentioned before but better twice than not at all right?)

On one side of the square there is the Kalan Mosque which dates back to 1514.  It is vast and can accommodate up to 12,000 people!!  This mosque is unique in that it has 288 monumental pylons supporting the multi domed roofs.

The final monument and youngest in the complex is the Mir-I Arab Madrasah, date which was built around 1535 and is one of the few that is not only still operating as a school today, but was one of the only ones that stayed open during the soviet period.

Just passed this complex and we find ourselves outside the “walls” at the Ark of Bukhara or Citadel, which is a massive fortress around part of the city that was original built around the 5th century AD (though what we see today dates back to the 17th century). That said, the Ark in Bukhara is referred to in texts from 960 and at it’s prime up to 3,000 people lived inside it’s walls.

The walls enclosed almost 4 hectares and range from 16-20 metres in height with the citadel once housing many rooms including store rooms, prison cells and once a great library which was sadly destroyed in one of the conquests for the city.

During the Russian civil war, the Ark was badly damaged by Soviet bombing – apparently only 20% survived.  Rumour also has it that the last Emir, as he escaped to Afghanistan with the royal treasure, ordered the Ark be blown up so it could not be desecrated by the Bolsheviks.

Just outside the fortress walls is the Boloi Haouz Mosque, another unique mosque in the city.  Built in 1712, it served as a Friday mosque right up until the Russian rule in the 1920’s.  The mosque has beautifully painted wooden columns lining the front and is again today a functioning mosque.

It is in Bukhara we met up with Ismail Somoni again, the man who is immortalised in all the giant statues around Tajikistan.  Sadly, we meet him in his mouseleum – which is a perfect example of early Islamic architecture (dating back to the 10th century) and one of the oldest mausoleums in Central Asia. It is completely different to all the other mausoleums we have seen which have been very grand – this one is small, completely symmetrical and made of plain fired bricks (as it was built prior to the invention of glazed tiles).  Despite it’s apparent plain appearance, it is actually a complex combination of numerous (16) intricate decorative traditions e.g. Sogidan, Persian and even classical and was innovative use of the dome support. 

Tulkin told us that at that time, people were not allowed to have mausoleums, however Somoni had this built for him to show that he was not under the rule of the Persian/Arab kings.

Also in this small ancient cemetery we visited Chashma-Ayub mausoleum, built during Temur’s reign.  The name translates as “Job’s Spring”, based on the legend that tells of Job (from the bible) visiting the place and making a well by striking the ground with his staff.  Water from the well is still considered healing.  The mausoleum is unique in having a Khwarazm style conical dome.

After a long morning of working we finally made it to lunch a little out of the centre of town at a “noodle centre” – very similar to the Plov centre we ate at in Tashkent.  Here they sell laghman noodles which originated from China, served with Samsa which were delicious meat pies.  It was incredibly busy, filled with locals and I could see why – it was delicious.  As we left, we passed the small area which they made the samsa in massive quantities – cooked stuck to the sides of a stone oven.  

Our final site for the very hectic day was the Bukhara Synagogue – a synagogue I hear you ask?  Yes, indeed – I too was surprised to see a synagogue here Uzbekistan.  Bukharan Jews have a long history in the city and apparently used to pray with Muslims in a mosque before the synagogue we visited was built in the 16th century.

Even up until the 1920’s, 10% of the population of the city were Jewish and there were 13 synagogues but today, there are less than 300 Jews left in the city with two synagogues.  Many left the city over the years whilst some converted to Islam as they did not have equal rights to trade.  (A similar story of conversion that I had heard in Bosnia where non-Muslims had to pay more tax!)

We had already lost some of the group by this time, either to the shops or their rooms but we finally had some free time (👍🏻👍🏻) to wander around before dinner and then a couple of us went for a a drink in a bar overlooking the Po-i-Kalyan complex which was beautifully lit up (as all good Central Asian monuments are lol).

Just a quick side note – I have mentioned before that Uzbekistan has so many more tourists that the other countries we have visited so far on this trip, but what was odd, is that 80% of tourists and tour groups are over 60 🤔🤔🤔!  I know many of those in my group (all of which were in that same age group) said they had come because they saw a programme where Joanna Lumley (a UK actress in that same age group) travelled along the Silk Road.  Is it possible that all of these tourists had seen the same show??

Swooning over Samarkand

Our Tashkent hotel was lovely but unfortunately, we had no time to enjoy it after arriving at 9pm and leaving the next morning at 6.30am when we set off to the train station.

Everything was so clean and efficient – I saw at least 10 ladies cleaning the streets between the hotel and the station which was only a 15 minute drive! 

The cleanliness and efficiency continued when we got to the train station to catch the wonderful high speed Afrosiyob train.  The train has a high speed of 344 kilometres per hour, but on this leg of the journey it only made it up to about 250km. The seats were huge, with lots of leg room and incredibly comfortable, made even more so on the 2 hour journey by the availability of food and barista coffee!  Really very luxurious.

Samarkand is another clean, beautiful train station and it was easy enough to get everything and everyone off the train and onwards to meet our new guide – Hanifa.  Unlike the other countries where we had one guide throughout the country, in Uzbekistan we have a different guide in each city. Apparently, they need to get qualified as a guide in each city so most just specialise in one.   It was a bit of a shame really as we don’t get the chance to get to know them that well as we did in the other countries, though it does mean they know their stuff (not that the others didn’t lol).

So, to start with a brief history of Samarkand (though I am not sure it is possible to write a brief history of a city so old!!) …  along with Bukhara (which is our next stop), Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia and it was the capital of the Timurid Empire during the 14-15th centuries.  Tamerlane ruled his vast empire with an iron fist, but at the same time he was a patron of the arts and literature and he oversaw the rebuild of much of the city to make it a grand and beautiful city. Luckily, much of his architectural heritage (dating back to the 14/15th centuries) has been persevered (thankfully the Russian’s left it alone) for us to see today – and it is spectacular!

As with many cities and towns along the Silk Road, the city has been the scene of much history and has played an important role in many dynastys with the earliest excavations finding evidence of human activity dating back to 40,000 years! Alexander the Great conquered the city in 329 BC, sparking the beginning of the Hellenistic period which came to an end when it was conquered by the Persian Sassanians around 260 CE.

The early Islamic era started after the Arab conquest of Iran which lead to Turks taking over the city but when their empire collapsed due to wars with the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the city became a diverse religious community for a period of time. Even today there is evidence of Zorastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity religions among others. This period of religious calm came to an end when an Arab garrison and administration centre was established.  Much of the population converted to Islam and the city started it’s development as a centre for Islamic learning.

The Mongols conquered Samarkand in 1220 and pillaged the population of the city, taking with them 30,000 young men and 30,000 craftsmen. Clearly they did not do much damage as Marco Polo described the city in this records from the late 13th century as “a very large and splendid city …”.

The Timurid Empire came to an end in 1500 when Uzbek soliders took control of the city. The capital was moved to Bukhara, leaving Samarkand to fall in to decline but when the Imperial Russian empire turned up in 1868, they started to build their own section of the city which again became a capital city, this time of the Smarakand Oblast of Russian Turkestan (bit of a mouthful!). It became even more important when the Trans-Caspian railway reached it in 1888.

All of that leaves us with the city of three parts we see today – the new town (founded in the 19th century by the Russian empire), the old town (founded around the end of the 13th century after the Mongol attack) and the ancient town (founded 2750 years ago).  With so much to see, we started our sightseeing straight away with our first stop being the Gur-Emir mausoleum, just around the corner from the hotel.  

The mausoleum was completed in 1404 and is the resting place of Mongol conqueror Tamerlane.  It was originally intended to be the tomb of his grandson, Muhammad Shah so it is not as grand as one may expect, but he (after the died unexpectedly), his grandson and a number of other family members were interned there and to be fair it is still pretty grand with the interior walls covered in beautiful tiles with gold inscriptions.  As with most of the sites in Uzbekistan, the mausoleum has been heavily restored, the adjacent madrasa and other buildings have not been rebuilt or restored.

A grand portrait of Tamerlane hangs in the mausoleum.  Nobody really knows what he looked like it, and legend has it, his skull was exhumed so they could try and recreate his appearance – now that is dedication to your art!

We have been lucky enough to have two weeks of very few tourists and almost no crowds – but this all changed in Samarkand!!  We probably saw more tourists in one day than we had in the rest of the trip – still, the crowds were nothing compared to Dubrovnik or other European cities I had visited. 🥴 

The next stop was Registan Square, one of Samarkand’s and in fact Uzbekistan’s most famous landmarks.   The area was a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and it was the hub of the Timurid Renaissance.  (Of course, people are still gathering there today). The square is framed by 3 beautiful madrassas (built between 1417 and 1636) which were Muslim schools up until the revolution in 1917 but these days they are mostly souvenir shops and it has been beautifully restored inside and out.  Photos really do not do it justice.

After a short break for some food, we headed to the Bibi-Khanum Mosque – legend says this building was a gift to Tamerlane by his Chinese wife (he apparently had 9 wives, plus concubines!).  This mosque is one of the most important monuments in Samarkand, built in the 15th century it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world.  Sadly, much of the mosque was destroyed in a large earthquake in 1897 but we are lucky today to be able to see much of it reconstructed (as are most of the famous monuments in Uzbekistan). 

Some parts of this mosque were not completed restored, but you can still see some of the original decoration.  I was interested to learn that they only restore areas where they have part of the original decoration to work from i.e., they won’t just make things up. If they do not know what the original decoration was, they will often leave it blank. 

After another long day I had an early night – after two weeks in of intense travel, I was craving a little more solo time so was missing a few dinners to get it!  And finally, the following morning we were not meeting until 10am.  As I always awake early, I took the opportunity to go for a short walk around before joining the group.

I did not miss the opportunity to see the Gur-Emir mausoleum at night, and then again in the morning, as the sun came up from the roof of our hotel – my early morning rising was definitely rewarded.

The second morning in Samarkand started at Shahi Zinda, or the Alley or Avenue of Mausoleums.  It is an ancient cemetery and is one of the longest-running examples of continually constructed buildings in the world, with tombs and buildings ranging from 9th century through to the 19th century.  Legend has it, that one of the prophets cousins, Kusam ibn Abbas, is buried in the complex after he came to the area in the 7th century to preach Islam.

 The alley of stunningly beautiful buildings, most covered in vibrant turquoise tiles and intricate wood carvings was just stunning, particularly in the morning light.   The visit was made even more special when inside one of the small rooms, a man started praying, with the beautiful musical prayers echoing around the small room. 

Next stop was Ulgubek’s Observatory.  Ulgubek (sometimes know as Ulugh Beg) was the grandson of Tamerlane and was a great astronomer and mathematician.  He became ruler of the Timurid Empire in the 15th century and between 1424 and 1429 he built this incredible observatory which was considered to have been the biggest in Central Asia, and one of the finest in the Islamic world.

The original observatory was lost in 1449 (it was a round structure, 3 story’s high outside and 3 stories deep) and its remains were rediscovered in 1908. The original part that we can see today is the underground trench, with the lower section of the meridian arc. When originally built, the walls of the trench was lined with polished marble.

Ulgubek was way ahead of Europeans in understanding the stars, and it is said that  Europeans used his catalogue of stars until the telescope was invented in 17th century.   The observatory was even written about by Babur in his memoirs (a descent of both Temurlane and Genghis Khan), one of the first royals to write with ‘#nofilter’ (so he certainly annoyed some people 😂).

After exploring the museum at the observatory, we headed out of the city a little to visit a mulberry paper factory.   Even today, this paper manufacturer follows the ancient process brought from China in the 7th century (apprently from Chinese prisoners) and Samarkand became famous for paper marking, having the first paper mill in the Islamic world.  Even the infamous Babur memoirs, he also wrote about the very strong paper that came from the city.

The ancient manufacturing process was lost during the Soviet times and but was revived in 1995 by this small manufacturing business.   It was a very interesting, but completely manual process that took days to produce only the smallest amount of paper so not sure how lucrative it would be without the tourists.

In summary you cut the wood, wet it, remove the bark, dry it, boil it (for 5 hours), crush it using the water wheel (the process requires a lot of water), then wet it again, collect the bits from the water and press (with stones) between two sheets of cotton and final rub with a stone to make it smooth.  Just a few steps lol.

The drive back to the city was crazy, the traffic was reminiscent of India or Vietnam, not the easy going Central Asia we had grown used to!

After a late lunch we had out final stop in Samarkand was to see the remains of the ancient part of the city – Afrasiyab.   Afrasiyab was occupied from 500 BC (the Sogidan culture) to 1220 AD but today is just a hilly grass mound on an elevated area.  The site was discovered in the 1920’s but was actively excavated in the 1960’s, and this uncovered some amazing frescoes which are now housed in the Afrasiyab Museum of Samarkand and I can only describe them as wow!  Incredible to see some these arts works from so long ago. 

The best part about them for me, was the insight they give in to the lives of those who lived there and the people who visited, mostly during the 7th century and the Unash dynasty.  One depicts a procession of a king and princess (perhaps the arrival of a royal bride) with camels and birds, and links to the Zoroastrian religion – possibly the main Sogdiana religion (before the Arab invasion).

In another fresco, there is a reception of ambassadors.  Unfortunately, it was not well preserved, but you can still pick out the Koreas (apparently it was restored by Korean restorers who took special care with the restoration of the Korean ambassadors in the image??).  Others than can be identified are described as “Iranian Europoids” and “Turkic Mongoloids” and it describes a confusing time (certainly for me) as the Varkhuman dynasty was Turkic and the local Iranian elite was gradually replaced by the Turkic!

There are images of what looks like Chinese women, floating in boats and another fresco depicts hunters on a great hunt.  There are also images of running dogs (possibly dachshunds), a sacred animal of Zoroastrianism.

I had a brief opportunity to wander around the souvenir shops and market, before an early dinner (though it truly felt like we had just had lunch) and a quick stop to see Registan square at night before we headed back to the train station to get back on the Afrosiyob train to our next destination.

Whirlwind touring of Tashkent

Day 13 of my tour and we set off towards Stan #4 – Uzbekistan. 

The final stretch of Tajikistan was through the Ferma Valley, once home to a Soviet uranium mine. When it was closed, they left behind large amounts of radioactive waste which has cause many radiation issues for the local nomadic population.

Upon reaching the Oybek border we said goodbye to Farhodbek and had two passport checks before we even reached the actual Tajik border, then just one check to get into Uzbekistan.

  • Currency:  Uzbek s’om (UZS) US$1 = UZS10,180
  • Language: Uzbek
  • Size: 448,978km2
  • Population:  33,000,000

We met Surat our guide at the border and his first introduction to the country was to proudly declare that everyone in Uzbekistan is a million!  Easily done when US$100 is the equivalent to over a million s’om.

Uzbekistan is the most populated country in Central Asia, with almost twice the population of the entire area and the capital, Tashkent has a population of 2.5 million.  There was clearly a bit of a baby boom after the end of the Soviet era, as there is a very young population with 65% of the population under 35 lol.

Until recently, the country has had turbulent relationships with its neighbours – a bit of an issue considering it borders on most of the other Stans!  Thankfully, the situation has improved greatly since the death of the first president in 2016.  One of the first things the new president did was to abolish visa requirements for 100 countries and improve relationships with their neighbours.  Apparently, he even hosted a meeting between Taliban and Afghani leaders.

Fun fact:  Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries (Liechtenstein is the other).

Cotton is Uzbekistan’s main crop (and one of its main exports) with 60% of the land used to grow it.  They are also now diversifying into other crops such as apples, peaches and pears.  In what seems like a throw back to Soviet times, farmers can only rent land for 55 years from the government.  They can’t own the land nor is renewal guaranteed!  The government do help with the provision of fertilisers, but in return, the farmers must sell all their cotton to them – not sure if they get a fair deal or not??

Did you know Uzbekistan is the world’s seventh biggest exporter of gold?  They also have a healthy export of cooper, uranium and gas and significant untapped reserves of oil making it a relatively wealthy country on paper.

Uzbekistan was an early adopter of a change in alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, starting the process in 1993 with the expectation that all the population would have learnt it by 2000. However this didn’t happen and the alphabet has undergone numerous changes since the one introduced in 1993.  Now days you can see the Latin and Cyrillic languages side by side, or sometimes one or the other – often it depends on the intended audience.  Thankfully, for me, having signs in the Latin alphabet makes them possible to understand and definitely less foreign to me.

Our first stop in Uzbekistan was in the capital, Tashkent, only 100km from the Tajik border. It is one of Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road cities which sat on a major caravan crossroads – it dates back to the first century BC and it celebrated its 2200 anniversary in 2009.  Tashkent means stony settlement, and it was surrounded by stone walls until at least the 12th century.

In contrast to the other Stans I had visited, the Uzbek’s are historically settled people, rather than nomads, living in oasis towns and cities through the country.  Tashkent is one of those cities and despite only have 400mm of rain per year, it is incredibly green.

First impressions were overrun with the masses of traffic as we entered the city, so much more than we had seen in other countries but I guess that comes with the massive increase in population.  Chevrolet cars are manufactured in Uzbekistan and for these reasons, most of the cars on the road are that brand – that, and Ladas – again way more than I had seen elsewhere. (I must admit I was beginning to get a little obsessed with the good old Lada’s that certainly seem to have stood the test of time lol.)

Before lunch we had a quick stop in in a small park with a large memorial to the last large earthquake that struck the city – on April 26, 1966.  It was only a magnitude of 5.1 but it was very shallow, so the impact was immense.  According to the ruling Soviet Union, only 14 people died but the true number is believed to be closer to 200, with over 300,000 left homeless.

As with my hometown of Christchurch that was devasted by earthquakes in 2010/2011, it took over 10 years for the city to rebuilt, but it was an opportunity to redesign it.  Based loosely on St Petersburg, it was rebuilt with wide streets and lots of parks.

The memorial, known as the Monument to Courage, is dedicated to the men and women who rebuilt the city and has a clock showing the time of the first tremor (5.22am) and a man, shielding a woman and child from the earth opening up.

We were definitely ready for lunch by the time we made our way to the famous Tashkent Plov Centre at the bottom of the very tall TV tower (which has a rotating restaurant at the top and is lit up like the Eiffel Tower at night). Plov (very similar to Pilaf or Biryani you find in other countries) is the national dish of Uzbekistan and is a rice dish cooked in broth with vegetables and most commonly served with meat.  Apparently, plov dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC who spread the dish around his territories.

Unsurprisingly, the Tashkent Plov Centre only sells plov, cooked in massive Kazans (cast iron pot) in front of the two-story dining room which was packed so it was clearly good plov.

Due to its strategic location the old city of Tashkent has had a turbulent history. It was taken by the Arabs in the 8th century and then by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, before Tamerlane (who we met in Tajikistan) moved in in the 14th century.  In the 1860’s, the Russian Empire army invaded and started building a new town, though today the old and new parts have blended in to one.  Incredibly the old buildings (many of them dating back to the 16th century) have survived over 66 major earthquakes!

Our guide Surat, explained to us that we have to remember 5 M words when travelling around Uzbekistan: Madrasa (college for Islamic instruction), Mausoleum (a stately or impressive building housing a tomb or group of tombs), Minaret (a slender tower, typically part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer), market and money (I assume the last two need no explanation).

We started our afternoon of exploration in the Old City at the central of Muslim Tashkent – the Khast Imom Complex.  The complex houses various buildings include the Madrasa of Barak-Kahn, the Tilla Sheikh Mosque and the mausoleum of Saint Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi (3 of those 5 ‘M’s).  Moreover, the complex as a library of original manuscripts which includes the world famous Quran of Caliph Usman Ottoman.

It was written in the middle of the 7th Century (not long after the death of the prophet Mohammed) and is written on over 350 pages. It was kept in the treasury of the Caliphs until it was moved from Baghdad to Uzbekistan during the time of Tamerlane.

Our next stop was the Chor-Su Bazaar or “4 streets” bazaar– one of the biggest and oldest markets in Central Asia and it is thought that the site has been home to a market for 2000 years.  More than just a market, it has been the location of public announcements and public executions over the years.  Thankfully these days there are no executions, just plenty of spices, nuts, fruit etc.

Given the masses of traffic, the clean and efficient metro is the easiest way to get around the city.  Built in the 1970’s by the Soviets, Tashkent is known to have some of the most beautiful and ornately decorated metro stations in the world. 

We exited the metro at Amir Temur Square Station and headed to the Museum of Applied Arts.  The museum houses over 7,000 pieces of art including carpets, textiles, ceramics, an exquisite building that was once the home of the Russian ambassador.  As seems to be a theme of the trip, we came across a young couple having their pre-wedding photos taken in front of the building – they were so beautiful.

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Tashkent was Memory Park and Independence Square in the centre of the modern city.  Within Memory Park, we visited the Glory and Memory Alley in honour of 400,000 soldiers died in World War II. Along both sides of the alley are nocks decorated with wooden carved columns and Memory Books where the names of Uzbek people who died for the “Motherland” in the Second World War are written.  At the end of the alley is the statue of a mourning mother with an eternal flame.  

Independence Square has had numerous lives, in the 1800’s, it used to be the gardens of the General-Governors house and then during Soviet times, it was named Lenin Square with the mandatory large Lenin statue.  Finally, after independence in 1991, it became Independence Square and Lenin was replaced with the Independence Monument – a globe with Uzbekistan’s borders outlined on it.

That said, the Independence monument is somewhat over shadowed by the Arch of Goodwill, a huge archway, supported by 16 marble columns. Topped with sculptures of storks, symbolising peace.

Of course, we must not forget the large statue of Amir Temur (there will be more about him later) and also the lovely wide pedestrian streets filled with stalls and lights (sadly we were too early to see them in their glory).

Finally, our 13 hour day of travel and sight seeing was over and it was time for dinner at a western café.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the food so far had been amazing and always way too much, but it was nice to be able to make our own selection – I had a really good steak!

Day 1 of Uzbekistan over and we have only just scratched the surface.

Kicking it around Khujand …

Khujand (or Khojand as it is also known and once called Leninabad) is situated in the Fergana Valley, in the north of Tajikistan and is the country’s second largest city. Before the 13th century, it was a grand city built by Komil Khojandi filled with palaces, mosques and citadels until those pesky Mongols destroyed almost all trace of the city. In more recent times, it remains the wealthiest part of the country and escaped the worst of the post-soviet civil war (more about that later).

There is still plenty of interest to see in the city, and we started our day at the Arbob Cultural Palace, showcasing the amazing Tajik artisans work.  Built in the 1950s as the headquarters of the Soviet collective farms it was modelled on the winter gardens of St Petersburg.  The Chairman of the collective at that time was a man called Urukhojaev (sometimes referred to as the Tajik gaint due to his size – 170kg!!) who was a personal friend of Stalin and therefore had no issues with money for funding the build!

The interior was stunning and the paint colours are all natural, dating back to the building’s construction!  Apparently, it has a 100 year guarantee 👍

Probably the most important claim to fame for the building is that it was the site where, in 1992, Tajikistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and where the current Tajik flag was chosen.  It was also the location for the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1997.  For these reasons, it was the perfect place for a history lesson – a more recent history (before we dove back into the ancient history).  I do hope you are sitting comfortably! 😊

Towards the end of Soviet Union, there was a lot of corruption, many people got lazy and unmotivated as everyone got the same salary regards of their work ethics!   “People pretended to work and the Government pretended to pay them!” By this point Russia had also started stock piling goods from all the states to ensure for her own solo future, leaving the people of Tajikistan unprepared to be independent! 

Farhod also explained that  University students were forced to do 70 days work on farms each year, compromising their studies – this was actually still the case until 2009!

Fundamental Islamics saw Tajikistan as an easy place to take control and started giving weapons and funding to create an Islamic state. This lead to a devestating civil war.  The war paralysed the economy, there was no heath care or education and many Tajik’s were starving with little or no food.  This went on for 5 years, during which time, over 60,000 lives were lost and neighbours like Uzbekistan, stopped providing resources such as natural gas.

The northern part of the country (where Khujand is located), avoided the worst of the war as fighters did not want to cross the Fann mountains – given our journey the day before, I understand why as I can’t imagine what a journey it would have been without the modern roads and tunnels.  In the south, in the Pamir ranges, there was severe famine and the Aga Khan foundation provided much aid.

The current President, Emomali Rahmon, who has held that position since 1994 is considered by many outside of the country as a dictator. However within the country he is considered by many as a peace maker as he was instrumental in ending the civil war after negotiating peace with the opposition.  He was even given the title of “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation” – though I am not sure how much he had to do with the gifting of this title 😂.  He was also ‘given’ lifelong immunity from prosecution, veto powers over all state decisions and the ability to be the President for as long as many terms he wants!

It is worth noting that his son, Rustam is the Mayor of Dushanbe and it is rumoured that this is the reason why so much money is being spent in the city. He is still in his 30s but it is expected that he will be succeed his father as president at some point.

We also learnt about the ‘lucky’ number 16 in the Tajik culture.  16th November is Presidents Day celebrating that on the 16th of November, 1991 in the Arbob Palace (where we were sitting), at the 16th session of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan, the constitutional order was put in place.  Apparently, that session lasted 16 days, and the President sat in seat 16, row 16 of the grand auditorium where we sat. 

The President comes from a peasant family and still tries to be a ‘man of the people’ but has not always made ‘friends’ amongst other leaders.  In particular there was a long time distrust and rivalry with the neighbouring Uzbek President (who was also in power since independence).  The animosity escalated to the point that borders were closed and the flow of gas, water and food suppliers were stopped – some called it an ‘undeclared cold war”.

That Uzbek President died in 2018 and the new President allegedly resolved the conflicts diplomatically in 2 days which opened up the border we would shortly be crossing in to Uzbekistan.

On the way out of the building we stopped to admire a large and intricately embroidered carpet, depicting some of the ‘hero’s of socialistic labour from the Soviet famers collective (see above). 

Our next stop was a silk factory which was established in the city in 1932.  After independence it became family owned and the same family continue to run it today.  We were given a tour of the factory and told about the incredible process off turning silk in to the fabrics – a process that can take up to 2 months with 80% of the work being done by hand!  We were all surprised about how much access we had to the factory and we could wander between the machines and the workers to take photos.

Not surprisingly, they had a small shop where they sold some of their wears and those ‘shoppers’ amongst us (and there were a few) went a little crazy 😂 with all the beautiful silks (though I found some of the patterns a little hard on the eye!).

On the way back in to town we stopped at Somoni Park – well known for it’s large Somoni statue (where Lenin once stood) and large fountains (which were not going as they are normally only turned on at night). It is also a favourite spot for visits due to the beautiful mosaics flanking the steps which tell the history of the region.

Back in town, one of the most popular places to visit is the Panchshanbe (Thursday) Bazaar and the nearby Shiekh Massal ad-Din Mosque complex.  The complex is fairly liberal and even some local women were not wearing head covers but we wore our scarfs out of respect as we wandered around the site.  The oldest mausoleum dates back to 1394 but there are also much more modern buildings in the site including one with a beautiful metallic emerald green dome and another much older one with a blue lapis dome. Part of the mosque was still under construction with women doing painstaking hand painting and applying gold leaf.  Our guide knew the ladies so we had to stop for a chat and a photo.

We continued to be ‘popular’ as we walked around with locals coming up to chat and wanting to take photos with us – others just wanting us to take photos of them 😂😂

The best view of the mosque complex is actually from the first floor of the market – apparently is it the largest market in Central Asia.  Built in 1964 it is overly elegant for a market and is very well stocked with dried fruit and nuts (as we have come to expect)!

Our final official stop for the day was the Historial Museum of Sughd Province which is built in to the reconstructed city walls.  It is the national museum of the northern province and has a whole room dedicated to Alexander the Great (356BC – 323BC).  Some fun facts about Alexander: by the age of 30 he had created one of the largest empires in the ancient world; there are apparently 20 cities in the world named after him (Alexandria), and as a young man, he was tutored by Aristotle So he really must have been pretty ‘great’, right? 🤔

In his funeral procession, his hands hung open and empty at his sides – symbolising that although he had conquered half of the world, he still went to the grave with nothing i.e. don’t be greedy!

We were also introduced to a number of other historic Central Asian/Silk Road movers and shakers – some of whom we would hear more of in the coming days:

Spitamenes (370BC-328BC)– a Sogdian warlord who lead the local uprising against Alexander the Great.  Sadly it did not end well as after losing to Alexander’s army (329BC), he was killed by his own wife and his head sent to Alexander as a peace offering.  His daughter then went on to marry one of Alexander’s key generals!

Timur Malik – A Tajik national hero who is known for his defense (though ultimately unsuccessful) of Khujand during attack from the Mongol invasions (1219-1220).  Apparently, the museum is on the site of his fort.

Timur (1336-1405) (also know as Amir Timur, Tamerlane or literally Timur the Lame due to an injury in his 20s) is generally known as a gruesome Turco-Mongol ruler and one of the most powerful rulers of  the 14th century Islamic world!  Despite being responsible for the deaths of 10s of 1000s of people, he is also responsible for building of the beautiful silk road city of Samarkand where he was buried.  It is also worth noting that his great great grandson founded the Mughal dynasty in India, the family responsible for Timurid inspired buildings like the Taj Mahal and Delhi’s Red Fort.

After an morning of information overload, most of the group wanted to go back to the hotel for a relaxing afternoon but I decided to stay in town and join Farhod and Rosemary (another member of the group) visting an orphanage.  Rosemary had brought a large bag of hand knitted baby hats with her and had been giving them out to guides and people we met with small children and she had asked if there was somewhere in the city to drop of some of the little hats.  They were happy to welcome us to the home and the manager took us around and introduced us to some of the staff and children.  The children were excited to receive the hats and chocolates that Farhod had bought and it was lovely to see their smiling faces. 

We also took the opportunity to take the funicular which runs almost a kilometre across the river (back to Somoni Park) where the fountains were now working before wandering through one of the other beautiful parks (which contained some of the original, not restored city walls) filled with a carcophony of myna birds coming in to roost for the evening.

Our final and perhaps most intriguing spot of our ‘exclusive’ tour was to see a large Lenin statue (24 metres high and believed to be the biggest in Central Asia) in a small, nondescript park on the outskirts of town. It had once stood in Somoni Park, where of course Somoni now stands and in fact was only moved in to this new location in 2011!  It was moved overnight and no one knew it was happening and either due to respect to mother Russia or due to a number of still loyal communists (who had protested about its removal) it was decided to move it rather than destroy it (a similar story to other Central Asian cities we had visited so far)! 

By this time the sun was setting and the lighting was lovely in his new setting, a small but beautiful park with stalls playing western music – Rita Ora I think was paying at the time 😂😂.  As we headed back to our lakeside hotel for our last night we were greeted by a large number of beautiful lights again – Tajikistan you’ve done it again 😂😂😂