|The Topchan teapot|
The Silk Road, exotic and colourful in the imagination, was an ancient network of trade routes that ran from Asia to Europe connecting the East to the West, transporting goods like textiles, spices, grain and precious stones. A main part of this route ran through Uzbekistan, the country we were here to explore. One of the more unusual destinations I’ve visited, we set off with half a plan and an open mind as to what we might find there.
|It’s dome from dome|
We started our journey in the capital, Tashkent, at the Topchan hostel, which is a top place to stay. Rafa and his team could not have been more helpful to us, giving us great information with which to formulate our upcoming Uzbeck adventure.
|It’s good to see a friendly face.|
Most hotels in Tashkent are quite traditional and expensive, but Rafa and his business partners, after years of couch surfing and travelling, knew that Tashkent needed something different. The Topchan is a converted Korean restaurant and it is bright, clean and comfortable. I was particularly taken with the vibrant colour scheme and the artwork on every wall, all created by professional artist friends. There’s hot showers, aircon and Wifi – essentials for the weary traveller – and a money change service. The Uzbek Sum is a closed currency so you can’t buy it until you get there, and with 7,000 Sum to the dollar, you will get a huge wad of cash and feel like a millionaire!
|Better than Banksy|
Fun, funky and friendly, the Topchan guys let us stay in the communal area when we arrived very early and most amazingly of all, let us leave all our market purchases there for the whole trip for us to pick up on the way home!
There’s a shared kitchen where there’s always a pot of green or black tea on the go, and breakfast is eggs, bread, cake and the fabulously sweet giant water melons and honeydew melons which are everywhere in Uzbekistan.
One of the things I particularly wanted to see was the art in the Metro stations. The Tashkent Metro was the first underground transport in central Asia, built in the late seventies in honour of the USSR. Each station has its own unique architectural features, created with the best materials. Marble, granite, glass and decorative tiling.The lighting in each station is a work of art in itself, nineteen thirties style chandeliers at one stop, recessed space age honeycombs at another, and vaulted beautifully decorated domes and columns at another. These wonderful features give a romantic and somewhat surreal air to this unique public transport system.
The Metro is super cheap – less than a dollar a ticket or about 40p GBP, and has cool retro soviet looking carriages and extra efficient air conditioning. You are not supposed to take photos of the Metro stations, because they are a site of strategic significance apparently. This is frustrating as they so fascinating,.but we managed to sneak a few covert snaps without being caught by the guards.
|Ornate station ceiling|
There are guards everywhere here. Uzbekistan is a Police state and about 40% of the population work for the authorities, so everything is very official and bureaucratic. You have to show your passport to buy a train ticket, stay at any hotel and even to get on the Metro!
We took the Metro to Tashkent’s Chorsu market, not nearly as big as many I have frequented but not too busy and with rock bottom prices, it was just the place for buying beautiful ceramics and materials. Uzbek designs are so vibrant and colourful, and have something rather African about them. Material is cotton – Uzbekistan is the second biggest exporter of cotton in the world – and of course silk. Despite this being a Muslim country it is a moderate one, and ladies wear shift dresses in a kaleidoscope of hues. No women here have to wear a Burqa, ie a black blanket over their head, of which I very much approve.
We bought lots of bowls and plates and tea pots and scarves all quite delicious colours and patterns. I know I do not need any more bowls, I have a house full of gorgeous ceramics from around the world, but buying something you can use every day is like taking a little bit of that exotic place home with you.
We hauled our purchases back to the Topchan. I loved our brief stay there, and were very happy that we would be checking back in on our way home. We tried to buy a train ticket to Samarkand but failed as we didn’t know about the needing the passport thing, and so we had to get a taxi all the way there. Uzbekistan has the cheapest taxis in the world and for our four and a half hour journey it cost 40 dollars between two people or about £16 each. Our taxi driver Hobil, could easily have had a career in Formula One racing.There are no lanes, no speed limits and no restrictions on undertaking, overtaking or honking other vehicles out of the way in Uzbekistan. He drove expertly at a furious pace the whole way, although more than once I gasped at the number of near misses we had.
The next stop on our Silk Road adventure – Samarkand here we come!
|It’s all Russian to me!|