The Silk Road countries of Central Asia have always fascinated me. An ancient thoroughfare along which market traders crossed the endless plains; enduring mountain hardships and weather extremities. However, also a route where varied cultures found common ground to barter and trade. Having landed on Uzbekistan soil and delved into the tumultuous soviet history, sampled the local cuisine and visited many astounding attractions, I discovered a country finding itself again following the end of Soviet rule.
Uzbekistan – Central Asia
Typically my blogs type themselves however, with Uzbekistan I struggled to truly convey what an enjoyable and memorable time I had there. I went back to the drawing board to consider what the trip meant to me personally – how it was different from my other trips. It occurred to me that the difference was how each of my senses were awaken by different elements of this wonderful Central Asian country, resulting in my two week trip not being long enough. When we travel, it’s overwhelming the number of times our senses discover new smells, sights, tastes, sounds and feel of new materials, often without us even realising. Here are the top 5 differences I experienced in Uzbekistan:
Visiting the Bozori-kord Hammam in Bukhara is one of those experiences which reaffirms being in a foreign country. It is not every day that we allow our personal space to be invaded quite so much as when having a rub down at a bath house. When I say rub down, it actually feels more like a forceful beating. I wasn’t quite sure if I was luxuriating or being appreciative of the rejuvenating qualities as my limbs were twisted, prodded and sweat poured out of my body, or if my gritted teeth were the result of my body being morphed into unnatural shapes.
Old Bukhara bath “Bozori Kord Hammam” has retained its unique traditions and healing properties. From the outside this unassuming building looks more like someone’s house. Upon entering, I paid for a full body massage and descended the stairwell, dressed only in a towel which is never quite big enough to maintain modesty and was immediately transported back to another time. I completely forgot about life at street level. These subterranean buildings barely rise above the street, with crafted block domes circling above, a trait of their classic former architectural style. An intricate series of small rooms creates a labyrinth as you gradually transition from a cool room to increasingly hotter rooms bordered by alcoves with taps dotted around to wash.
In the centre of the building is a solid granite structure where my full body, oriental style massage was carried out. I lay down on my towel and was literally beaten from head to toe – my limbs were massaged, stretched and then rubbed all over with ginger, before hitting the hot rooms again for an hour. I left feeling absolutely rejuvenated if not also a little like a snake that had shed his skin.
Generally every country can be recognised by its architecture, natural beauty, attractions or some distinguishing feature. For me, my underlying memories of Uzbekistan were the astoundingly beautiful temples, adorned by ornate blue tiles, turquoise majolica facades and domes of the ShahiZinda complex in Samarkand.
I believe people travel because we want to visit places so beautiful, they cannot be put into words. As I approached Registan Square in Samarkand (meaning ‘desert’ in Persian), I knew I had found one of those indescribable places which as cliché as it sounds, is impossible to describe.
The Registan and its three madrasahs – Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah are positioned in a public square where people historically gathered to hear royal proclamations as well as to witness public executions. The rich blue hue of the tile work almost sings with vibrancy, and stands out even more clearly against the surrounding monotone of ex-Soviet buildings. The sight of these wonderfully magnificent blue temples, pieced together so intricately is something I will never forget.
One thing that always makes me think of my trip to Uzbekistan is the smell of walking through the indoor markets, lined with traders and locals still practising their chosen and perfected crafts. As they toiled over hand-woven rugs, hammered upon metal plates and wooden bowls etched by intricate designs, the smell of new leather fused with spiced aromas filled the air. That was the first smell to hit me as I breached the market doors, like when you first bring home a new leather jacket, remove it from the bag and breathe in the new material at close range. Uzbekistan produces about 11 million pieces of leather annually and this industry continues to grow so it is no wonder the markets are laced with the richness of hand-dyed and sewn leather.
At first I was going to mention the combination of Russian and Uzbek languages which fill the streets, a wonderful yet harshly melodic fusion as the most formidable sound of Uzbekistan, however after closing my eyes and thinking about it, the Doira is probably more apt. The easiest way to describe the Doira is a musical instrument more closely related to a drum. Many of my meals were serenaded to the rhythmic and hypnotic pounding and tapping of this stretched leather instrument.
As I understand it, the Doira is the most popular instrument. It is made by stretching a light leather membrane over one side of the wooden rim, and sixty metal rings are fixed on the other side. It is the unique blend of drumming and chiming of the rings which creates such a wonderful sound, setting the female dancers into a trance as well as making a nice change from the usual variety show style performances.
The cuisine in Uzbekistan is heavy and generally meals feel like an event. Dining is a drawn-out process where dishes keep appearing and are all fairly stodgy. Then there is the vodka – I admit that I am partial to vodka now and then, but neat and at lunch, I’m not convinced.
Pastry and sour-milk dishes take an important place in Uzbek cuisine and the national dishes are rich with a huge selection of meats including mutton, beef and horse. I found the food sat heavily in my stomach and took a while to digest; it is certainly filling if nothing else.
Uzbeks generally sit on the floor to eat, or on a low table and typically by hand. Firstly the table is covered with a selection of sweets and fruits, and later vegetables and salads. This promptly turns to a soup and builds up to the grand finale – the main dish! I tried a host of different main dishes whilst in Uzbekistan but the most common dish I ate and symbol of Uzbek food was Plov. Traditionally plov is cooked by men and comprises chunks of meat, boiled rice with lots of fragrant spices and vegetables such as onions, carrots and garlic. There are thousands of recipes apparently and I even saw cook books dedicated to this dish alone. My advice is not to fill up on the starters because the food will keep appearing and appearing … and appearing. Of course, as with most cultures, it’s rude not to eat it.
If you fancy reading some of my other Asia articles, click the links below:
Getting naked in Japan – you guide to naked bathing
Hiking the Great Wall of China
Wearing India like a badge of honour
Karni Mata – temple of rats
Up early with the birds for Tsukili Fish market in Tokyo
The Travellers Pursuit of Happiness