We arrived into Tashkent, Uzbekistan and headed for the train station hotel which surprisingly enough we'd heard good things about. The train station is super clean and like everywhere in central Tashkent - full of police - whom we tried hard to steer clear of as corruption is rife. We felt quite dodgy, trying to avoid the cops, as we changed money on the illegal black market. Especially as in Uzbekistan the largest note is only worth 50 cents, so you end up counting bank robber-style wads of cash and carrying it all off in shopping bags. Heaven knows how they pay for something like a car!
We didn't do a whole lot in Tashkent.....it's a Soviet city complete with wide roads, lots of nice shady trees and plenty of cafes serving us tasty shashlick and beers. We visited the national history museum and went off to the massive main market where all manner of fresh and dry produce is for sale. The guidebook had told us of whole rooms full of flour etc which we hadn't really believed until we found the onion warehouse!
One night we came across the Gasthaus, hidden behind the train station, which was really quite bizarre. As the night went on we got quite confused where we were.....were we really in Uzbekistan?? The waiters and waitresses were in typical Bavarian costume, we were eating fantastic german sausages and drinking great cloudy microbrewery beer. Had we been transported to Bavaria for the night?
Being at the train station, we of course had to depart by train and we had a very pleasant 4 hour ride to Samarkand, the first of our silk road cities. The sights here really knocked our socks off.....the Registan, the centre of Timur's 14th century capital, was absolutely magnificent.....it's a massive square surrounded on three sides by medrassas (Islamic religious schools), all decorated with stunning turquoise mosaic tiles.
90% of the sights in Uzbekistan are massively restored....and although there were some dodgy Soviet restoration attempts, on the whole the result is impressive. Walking round the Registan in the evening was quite spellbinding....
As we ticked off some of the smaller sights in Samarkand we realised that after 10 months of travelling....we were the subjects of yet another scam! Arriving at a very minor sight, and hearing the quite high entrance price we walked off....and were surprised to hear the lady calling after us "Student discount? Only 2000 then? 1500?" From this point on, we wised up and played hard-ball with the smiling middle aged ladies writing any price they fancied on the tickets.
We moved onto Bukhara which was a nice change to Samarkand. Although, Bukhara is a typical tourist town it at least has some sense of 'ye olde worlde' to it. In between the sights in Samarkand are immaculate squares, manicured gardens and gleaming shops.....in Bukhara you get more of a feeling that camel caravans really did come through here once upon a time....
We went to the Ark - which was a fortress occupied right from the 5th century until the Soviets invaded in 1920. We visited the prison where, in the 1840's, two British envoys, Stoddart and Conolly, were kept for 3 years in the 'bug pit' before they were marched to their deaths....all because Queen Victoria hadn't personally replied to a letter from the Emir.
We cheated death on the Soviet era fairground wheel....which seemed to sway alarmingly in the breeze....
And of course more mosques, minarets and medrassas! We had fun going in a medrassa that was actually closed to the public as it hadn't been restored yet. We paid for our 'tickets' to some local pensioner who keenly showed us round and yabbered away in Russian to us We had fun scrambling up the stairs into crumbling rooms, taking care to avoid the sheer drop offs and up onto the roof.
By this stage in our central Asian experience we were having food issues..... Bryn was laid up in bed and Fi was sent out to find acceptable food items. For 4 weeks now, we'd pretty much survived on a diet of salty shashlyck, bread, and tomato salads. They really don't seem to eat much else in restaurants despite having the finest array of fruits and vegetables that we'd seen on our trip so far!
Soon we were in Khiva, another silk road city, which is a pretty compact version of Bukhara. Literally every building, is a medrassa, a mosque or a minaret. Bryn being laid up in bed again, Fi went up the ancient minaret solo, dodging teenage Uzbeks making out in the narrow, dark, winding staircase! The view was pretty good though...
As the sun went down it was pretty special as the tour parties cleared out and the sunset cast everything in a soft orange glow. Sadly Fi had to enjoy the romantic vistas on her own!
We moved on from Khiva up to Nukus, right next to the Turkmenistan border. The main reason for visiting Nukus is to visit the art gallery which contains a massive collection of artwork, banned in the Soviet period. We had a great time wandering round and it made a nice change to silk road sights. They had a great shop with artwork for sale and soon we were off to the market to change our dollars and count our giant wodge of notes to procure a couple of nice pieces.