Tashkent, Uzbekistan

It’s seemingly endless desert… and then, out of nowhere, a major city pops up.I was quietly dreading my overnight flight to Tashkent. There’s the excitement of going on a trip, of course, but I was imagining my struggle to sleep on the six-hour flight, arriving to blistering heat in the early hours of the morning, exploring a new place, unshowered, hours before I was able to check-in to my accommodation. That turned out to be only partly correct.

My last overnight flight from the UK was a work trip a few years ago when I spent some time in India. Being a work trip, it was a comfy, British Airways business class seat, I was plied with champagne and I snoozed my way through the remainder of the flight. On Uzbekistan Airways, however, just getting into my seat was a challenge, with it being the tightest aircraft I have ever been on. Bag under the seat, shoes off, I was fixed in my seated position for the next six hours and had to deal with it.

As it happens I slept my through the flight pretty well, only being woken up twice: once to be asked if I wanted dinner, and the other to hand me the landing card.

I woke up around 6am Uzbekistan time, around 3am in my head, to a wonderful sunrise, with a proper blood red sun slowly lighting up the desert below. It was fascinating scenery from there on in.

Flying over nothing but sand for what seemed like a hundred miles, a tiny, dusty little village appears down below. It has a few houses. It has one road leading… somewhere. A road I can just follow until it disappears into nothing. It just ends. Places as desolate and isolated as that fascinate me. It’s one of the reasons I loved Mongolia and Greenland. It makes me wonder what it must be like to exist somewhere like that, to live somewhere like that, and the resilience of the people who do is equally as fascinating.

Many more miles of sand is broken up by a river, with a lush, green oasis on either side. And then the desert yet again takes over. As we descend towards the sand, out of nowhere there’s a city. And then we land. It’s a beautiful approach.

My first experience in Uzbekistan, after the snail-paced border control and customs, was an enthusiastic taxi driver, flashing the huge wads of Uzbek Som asking if I needed to change cash. His eyes were not on the road as we raced through the wide-open, quiet streets of Tashkent. We had a minor disagreement when I reached the hotel over whether the agreed price had been $5 or $7, so we settle on $6. And still unable to check in for a few hours yet, I grab a coffee and head for a wander.

Tashkent was only intended to be a stop off on my way to elsewhere in Uzbekistan. I would return to the capital later on, but for now it was the easiest flight into the country and provided plenty of options for trains the following day. Tashkent tends to be hard done by in travel blogs, pretty much because it’s not Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, Nukus. It’s a modern, reconstructed city, far more Soviet than Silk Road but it isn’t without some charm.

The city centre, or the new part of the city, is pristine, wide-open boulevards lined with trees and dotted with parks. It’s very comfortable, and I’ll emphasise the pristine. There were armies of people maintaining the plants and flowers, the fountains, keeping the streets clean. The buildings – hotels, conference venues, administrative buildings, are, again, pristine, shining bright white in the sun.

At this point I had no Som, only US dollars, so couldn’t use the metro and instead decided to take a lengthy walk to Chorsu Market. It’s a good hour of walking, nicely shaded by buildings at that time of day, keeping the scorching sun from burning me on day one. As I kept walking further from the centre of the city, it started to change in certain ways. Cracked pavements, fewer trees, more people. The area from the bus station towards Chorsu Market finally provided a bit of an atmosphere; people, noise, the slight chaos of the traffic on the roads.

Chorsu Market is a huge place. It seems to sell everything you might imagine and is a mixture of tiny, winding paths through stalls to a large indoor meat market. It’s also where you can still change your cash on the black market.

Uzbek banks seem to offer a fair rate these dates. A while back, the official exchange rate offered may have been half of what the currency is actually worth, and the black market was the best way to get a good deal. Walking around Chorsu Market, you can still hear people almost whispering “US dollar, Euros” as an obvious tourist walks by. Catch their attention, negotiate, and you can still come away with a slightly better deal than the banks. Given the value of the Som and the relative rarity of higher value note, you may also walk away with wads of cash. I only changed $60 and ended up with a stack of notes.

Near to the market is Ko’kaldosh Madrasasi, an imposing mosque that gives a taster of what to expect in the older cities in Uzbekistan, and a contrast with the more modern architecture from the new city centre.

The other priority on my short stop in Tashkent after exchanging some cash was food. The market had some basic little cafes, plenty of non (bread) for sale, and that’s all fine for a snack. At night I was keen to try something more substantial and ended up at Afsona, one of the few Uzbek restaurants I could find nearby from a search online. The menu had just what I hoped for: plov, non, manti.

If you visit Tashkent after seeing the old cities of the Silk Road then it will likely disappoint for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t have the same kind of old town as Khiva and Bukhara, and it requires far more effort to get around and see what you might want to see. But a bit of effort in Tashkent will go a long way. As a short introduction to the country it was nice.

This was only intended to be a stopover and I was planning to return in a few days to see more. Next stop: Samarkand.

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