If it weren’t for the travel disruptions due to Covid-19, I would have been in Tashkent yesterday (on my birthday) and Samarkand today. I’m feeling sad that I can’t be there, but someday we’ll travel again!
Tashkent is now the modern, sprawling capital of Uzbekistan, but it was once a major caravan crossroads on the Silk Road. Here, traveling with five friends (all intrepid women!), I would have celebrated my birthday with a feast of plov—Uzbekistan’s version of rice pilaf, cooked in a broth with meat, spices, and vegetables. Thus fortified, we would have trotted through museum exhibits spanning Tashkent’s 5000-year history, as well as the famous Chorsu bazaar, an outdoor market with brightly colored mountains of spices, traditional wooden cradles, and handmade music instruments (my weakness!) I would have been tempted to buy a sato, an ancient oriental bowed instrument with a long neck and a pear-shaped body. (I bought a horsehead fiddle in Mongolia.)
Samarkand was to be a highlight of our trip, with its sublime, majestic monuments around a plaza called Registan: an ensemble of larger-than-life madrassahs with azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces. This city was already famous for its wealth and beauty as long ago as 329 BC, when it was occupied by Alexander the Great. It sat on the crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia. Obliterated by Genghis Khan, it was rebuilt, more glorious than ever, in 1370 by Timur, the nomadic conqueror of great empires in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and India. Timur, known in English as Tamerlane, made Samarkand his capital and the cultural heart of Central Asia. When he returned from his conquest of India, he built the gigantic Bibi-Khanym Mosque, named for his Chinese wife (who knew? She was one of many. Was she an intrepid woman?)
What appeals to me, personally, is the sense of the deep history and lost culture of places I know little about. When I was growing up, Uzbekistan was deep in the heart of the Soviet Union, forgotten by time, passed over in the history of Western civilization. To me, it was not the center of thriving civilizations but the middle of nowhere.
For detail by someone who has actually been there, see https://www.lostwithpurpose.com/two-week-uzbekistan-itinerary/ – or Lonely Planet’s guide to Central Asia.