I always wanted to visit Uzbekistan
Those who know me well may know that I’ve been addicted to traveling through former USSR countries, especially in the last 5 years or so. Before my trip to Uzbekistan, I visited 11 former USSR republics out of 15 so Uzbekistan was the 12th former USSR country I visited. The only 3 ex USSR countries I didn’t travel to yet are Armenia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan (Turkmenistan is the light version of North Korea by the way and it’s very difficult to visit). In 2018, I had a trip to Central Asia and I visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and I truly wanted to visit Uzbekistan but I couldn’t because back then, a visa was required (which is not the case now, at least for Canadian citizens). Thus, I’ve been dreaming about visiting this beautiful country since then so it took me about 4 years to make the dream come true. I knew that Uzbekistan would be a very special country to visit and I was right.
Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan, the largest city in Central Asia, and an ancient city in the great silk road from China to Middle East and Europe. The ancient city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966 and it was entirely rebuilt by the Soviets and that explains why the architecture of the city looks clearly Soviet.
If you visit Uzbekistan, you will most likely start (and end) your journey in Tashkent unless you’re flying directly to Samarkand, Bukhara, or Khiva (which is unlikely). To describe Tashkent in one sentence, I would like to borrow the words of my Airbnb host who said “Tashkent is just a capital”. It’s a nice city to visit and it’s a large city that is full of nice restaurants, cafes, museums, nightlife, and interesting people to meet but it’s nowhere near the majesty and charm of the other ancient cities I visited in Uzbekistan such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Yet, I still think that Tashkent is an interesting city and it’s worth writing a blog about so in this blog, I will be sharing with you my impressions about Tashkent.
The flight and my first impression after landing
I flew to Tashkent with Air Astana from Nur-Sultan (Astana), the capital of Kazakhstan. I flew from Nur-Sultan airport which is a beautiful modern airport and the whole experience was superb. I was able to access a lounge in the airport called Sapar lounge using my Lounge Key through my visa signature card. The lounge was small but modern and everything I needed was there; coffee, tea, comfortable seats, and even snacks and desserts. I was the only one sitting in the lounge so it felt a bit exclusive to be honest. The flight took around 1.5 hours and it was nice and comfortable (I love Air Astana). I was reading a bit about Uzbekistan during the flight from one of my favourite books about Central Asia region (It’s called Sovietistan). During the flight, they served drinks, food (Turkey and cheese sandwich with pickles) and McVitie’s digestive chocolate biscuit. Everything tasted great; I loved the taste of the pickles in the sandwich. Overall, it was such a pleasant flight.
When I landed in Tashkent, I immediately realized that Tashkent airport is tiny and old. I finished passport control and picked up my suitcase. I wanted to get a local SIM card in the airport but that wasn’t possible as the only place selling local SIM card in the airport had a system failure issue. Furthermore, WiFi in the airport wasn’t working so it wasn’t possible to order a Yandex taxi to drive me to my Airbnb apartment (by the way, Tashkent airport is very close to the center, probably less than 10 minutes drive). I withdrew some money, and I headed out of the terminal with no internet. The moment I got out of the terminal, I was approached by dozens of taxi drivers (and their brokers) asking me if I want a taxi. I’m an experienced traveler and I usually manage to blend in and I avoid looking like a tourist so I often never attract any attention so hustlers don’t target me so often but that wasn’t the case outside Tashkent airport. I was aggressively approached by hustlers to get into one of these taxis and with my limited Russian language I was trying to ask them to calm down a bit. Anyhow, in the end, I managed to walk away from them and found one nice old man waiting in his taxi, I gave him the address, negotiated a price with him and he just drove me to my Airbnb place which was a nice apartment (a bit old but very clean and spacious) in a nice area in Tashkent close to Kosmonavtlar, one of the most beautiful metro stations in the whole world.
Luckily, the WiFi was working fine in the apartment so I connected to the internet, showered, and got ready to go out to get a SIM card. I had to wait for about 45 minutes to meet an agent who got me a local SIM card with data so the mission was accomplished within an hour or so. While waiting, I noticed that there were many Russians who probably decided to move to Uzbekistan temporarily to be away from sanctions in Russia.
First meal, what a warm welcome!
Later in the evening, it was time to have the first meal in Tashkent. Food in Uzbekistan is delicious especially if you’re a meat lover (if you’re a vegetarian then sorry but good luck). Locals recommended that I try a local Uzbek cuisine restaurant called “Khiva Restaurant” that is located inside Hyatt Regency hotel. The restaurant has a beautiful atmosphere and the service was extremely professional (it almost felt like a fine dining service). The appetizer I had was very tasty and it’s called Suzma. It’s kind of similar to the Persian dish “Mast-o-Khiar” though. The bread was freshly baked and tasted so good. However, the main dish was minced lamb with spices (It’s called Lyulya kebab) and it wasn’t as superb as I expected. It was still an excellent experience overall but I would say, I had tastier dishes in other cities in Uzbekistan than in Tashkent and I will talk about that in details in my future blogs.
Tashkent metro, one of the most beautiful in the world
Tashkent metro opened in 1977, it was the 7th metro system to be built in the former USSR. The design of Tashkent metro stations is so beautiful that many of these metro stations became tourist attractions. In my second day in Tashkent, I started my metro tour in Kosmonavtlar station which was built in 1985 to honour the cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. I bought a ticket for only 1400 Uzbek Som (0.13 USD only – It’s very cheap). I visited many metro systems in former Soviet Union; in Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, St. Petersburg, Kharkiv, and many other cities. I thought that Moscow metro is the most beautiful I’ve seen and I still think that it is the most beautiful but if I want to choose one metro station and call it my absolute favourite in the world, it would Kosmonavtlar station in Tashkent. When I was there, admiring the beauty of the station and staring at Gagarin’s images, I felt the greatness and the magnificence of an empire that had some glorious achievements such as being the first nation to send a man to space. While admiring the magnificence of the place, I remembered someone’s quote who once said “Whoever wants the Soviet Union back probably has no brain but whoever doesn’t miss the Soviet Union definitely has no heart”.
I continued my metro tour and visited other stations such as Pushkin (named after the famous Russian poet), Alisher Novoiy Station which has a beautiful Islamic art design, metro Ozbekistan, and some others. It was like going back in time and if I visit Tashkent again, I think the first thing I will do is visiting Kosmonavtlar station again. Words can’t say how beautiful that station is.
The hustle and bustle of Chorsu Bazaar
I’m neutral about bazaars as I’m not a big lover of shopping anyway but the truth is, this Bazaar in Tashkent is a very special one. It is huge, active, and full of locals buying their daily needs. Under the blue dome, they sell all kinds of food you can think of; meat, fruits, vegetables, pickles, dairy products, nuts, spices, and so many other things. It is extremely hustling and bustling and you hear people negotiating and bargaining all the time. It is massive and it’s not only the area under the dome but also some adjacent areas. Tashkent is an ancient city built on the silk road so it’s been a trade center for many centuries so people at its bazaar are descendants of merchants of the silk road, they’re experienced traders.
I bought some nuts and dried fruits and I ended up eating them on trains during my trips to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. However, in my last day in Tashkent and hours before getting food poisoned (I’ll write about this later in the blog), I returned back, bought fresh bread, some spices, and souvenirs. Two kids in a souvenir shop spoke good English and they sold me some stuff (I had to negotiate the price with them as it’s never a fixed price in the bazaar, negotiation is a must) and I ended up making a deal with them (at least, that’s what I thought). I hope that it was a good deal and I hope they didn’t rip me off but nevertheless, they were really cool and smart kids 🙂
Tashkent is the world capital of Plov
Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan; it’s a rice pilaf with meat, carrots, spices, and even eggs, horse-meat sausage, raisins, and probably a few other ingredients. It is a tasty dish but that one I tried in Tashkent was not the best (I had a much better one 3 days later in Bukhara). To eat this famous Uzbek dish, I had to visit a Plov Center called “Besh Qozon”. The place is huge and so crowded. They just cook only one thing there; Plov! They serve it at noon so you have to arrive around that time to get fresh Plov. It’s unlikely that there will be any Plov left later in the evening. About the taste, the meat tasted good but the dish itself -especially the rice- was too oily and fatty that I couldn’t even finish it. It’s being cooked to thousands of people so I guess that’s why the quality of food drops as it’s cooked to a large crowd. It’s still a good experience and I’m glad I had a much tastier Plov a few days later and will be writing about that in my Bukhara blog. I still recommend this Plov center and I still believe its a must see for anyone who visits Tashkent (except if you’re vegetarian, obviously) 🙂
Tashkent Television Tower
Tashkent Tower is another landmark of the city, built by the Soviets in 1978 and opened in 1984. It’s located right next to the Plov Center (Besh Qozon). It was the 4th tallest tower in the world when it was built until 1991. The tower looks interesting from outside but a bit outdated from inside but that’s understood as it was built more than 3 decades ago. it’s well maintained though and has this retro design which I like. I bought a ticket to enter the tower and went up to the restaurant and had a fresh Soviet lemonade there (whenever I get the chance to try any Soviet food or drinks, I immediately take it). The view of the city was nice from there. Nothing spectacular but it’s worth sharing, maybe.
Hotel Uzbekistan is another Soviet structure in Tashkent and it’s one of the city’s landmarks opened in 1974, 8 years after the devastating 1966 earthquake. In its glory days, the hotel was the fanciest in the whole former Uzbekistan Soviet Republic and it was the place to stay for VIPs visiting Tashkent from all over the Soviet empire and maybe from abroad too. However, at the moment, the hotel is struggling with many problems such as hot water issues, bad WiFi, and terrible service. It has a poor rating of 6.7 on booking.com so that didn’t attract me to stay there even though I love Soviet hotels but maybe not this time. P.S. one guest from the Netherlands gave the hotel 10 out 10 review because there’re ashtrays in the room 🙂
As I said, I didn’t spend the night there but it was enough for me to admire the beauty of the building from outside. Later, I needed to withdraw some cash so I went to the hotel’s lobby. The lobby reminded me of my childhood in Kuwait in 1980s so not too bad 🙂
Amir Timur Square
Right next to the hotel, there’s a statue of Amir Timur (it replaced Karl Marx’s statue after the fall of communism). Timur who is known in the West as Timur Lang and in the Arab World as تيمورلنك was a Turco-Mongol conqueror who conquered lands from Central Asia to India and from Persia to Anatolia and Middle East. Timur shared common ancestors with Ghenghis Khan. His military campaigns killed about 17 million people (5% of world population at the time). When he conquered Baghdad, Aleppo, Isfahan, Damascus, and many other cities, he built towers constructed of 1,500 heads each. He’s a hero in Uzbekistan but in Arabic literature, he’s a conqueror who brought a lot of terror and fear to Arab lands.
I have to be fair and say that he’s considered a great patrol of art and architecture as his reign introduced the Timurid Renaissance. By bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital in Samarkand, Timur initiated one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. He also turned Samarkand into one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Timur’s mausoleum is located in the city of Samarkand.
The hunt for Soviet Mosaic
One of my newest many hobbies is to hunt for Soviet mosaic every time I travel to a former USSR country. I read a lot about beautiful pieces of Mosaic in Tashkent but unfortunately, I wasn’t very successful with finding many of them during this trip, despite asking locals and taxi drivers. I still managed to find some inside metro stations and at Tashkent tower found but I had higher expectations. Here is a link of some of Tashkent’s Soviet mosaics which many of them I couldn’t find.
As I mentioned in previous blogs, no trip is complete without trying the local burger. The quality of meat in Central Asia is very high so I was excited to try my 2nd burger in this trip (first one was in Kazakhstan, you can read about it here). I would say, the burger experience I had in Tashkent was excellent; it was a build your own burger style in a place called Cafe Loft. It was served with vegetables on the side. It was outstanding but I wasn’t super hungry so I ordered the small one. Honestly, wish I ordered the large one!
Tashkent is a vibrant city, the largest city in Central Asia today and the 4th largest city in the USSR during the Soviet time after Moscow, Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) and Kiev. It’s an interesting city to visit especially if you’re passionate about Central Asia and the former Soviet Union history and culture. However, if there’s something I would like to change in this trip, that would be reducing the time I spent in Tashkent and to spend more time in ancient cities across the silk road such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Tashkent is interesting with its bazaars, metro stations, and food maybe but as my Airbnb landlord said, “it’s just a capital”.
I spent 3 nights in Tashkent before heading to Samarkand on the train and then I returned back to Tashkent by plane from Khiva and spent 2 more nights there before departing back to Toronto on June 8th, 2022. However, after eating something in Tashkent just 36 hours before my flight back to Toronto, I developed some terrible food poisoning symptoms (it was probably the worst in my life). After returning to Tashkent from Khiva, I planned to stay in an Airbnb apartment but for the 1st time in 9 years of my history with Airbnb, I had a terrible experience and I had to leave the apartment right away (I don’t want to mention details here). I searched for a hotel and a I found a nice hotel in an ok location (not very central but it’s ok). I was so lucky I stayed in that hotel simply because the staff in the hotel saved me as I got food poisoning. Actually, to be honest, the first time I called the reception, I asked if they have any medicine to help me fight the food poisoning, they simply said no (it was probably a language barrier) but then when I ordered tea with lemon to be served to my room, the restaurant attendant realized that I’m in a terrible situation so she was actually the one who saved me because she went to the hotel manager and told him exactly about what is going on so he ordered a doctor for me. A doctor arrived at my room, he checked me up, and gave me 2 injections (no idea what was there in the injections) but I felt better an hour later. I was able to fly back on time so luckily I didn’t miss my flight and although it was a very long flight with 2 stops, it went fine.
The name of the hotel is The Royal Mezbon Hotel & SPA. I expected them to charge me for calling a doctor for me but luckily, that didn’t cost anything. Imagine if something similar happened to me in the USA? I’m so grateful for the hotel staff who were so kind and humane. I appreciate everything they did to me.
I noticed something about Tashkent; it’s full of small white cars, they’re everywhere and sometimes you don’t see any colour of cars except white and most of them are Chevrolet. I expected to see more Lada cars but sadly, that wasn’t the case. Here’s an article about how Chevrolet ruled Uzbekistan
Cash is king in Tashkent and it’s the preferred method of payment almost everywhere. Some restaurants accept credit cards but many of them don’t and out-of-service credit cards issue is very common. Make sure to carry enough cash with you in Tashkent.
It was relatively hot when I was there in Tashkent, especially in the last 2 days when temperature during the day reached 35 degrees Celsius. It’s dry heat though so the weather at night was always pleasant. I believe it would get even hotter during summer months so maybe summer is not the best time to visit Tashkent. I would say, the best time would be between March and May and between September and October.
This wasn’t by any mean a guide to Tashkent or anything. Instead, it’s just my personal blog to share my experience and impressions of this city. This is all I can say about Tashkent for now. In the next blog, I will be sharing with you my impression of the majestic city of Samarkand so stay tuned.