SRAS students’ trip to Uzbekistan was a long time coming. Originally scheduled as a two-week Central Asia tour, after the London School and the tour company they booked our trip through had both forgotten that we needed visas to get into Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan and we were left visa-less between borders, completely unaware of the mistake arguing with Uzbek border guards, we were looking forward to seeing the trip to completion the last week of November.
We departed Bishkek at 11:30 am for a direct flight to Tashkent, landing at 11:50 am local time. Our guide, Donat (Don, for short) met us at the airport and we began our city tour. It was miserably cold. We had all checked the weather before we left, but our packing wasn’t necessarily reflective of exercising any forethought. Our shoes got soaked in puddles created by the melting snow and we grew concerned about hypothermia. However, we pressed on to Khast Imam Square to see the Barak Khan Madrassah, Kafal Shashi mausoleum, and the Tillya Sheykh Mosque.
Uzbekistan’s history is rich and steeped with stories of ruler Tamerlane and the Silk Road, and Don shared a wealth of information with us. Up next was the State Museum of Applied Arts. There, we learned about an important artform in Uzbek culture (and Uzbekistan’s number one most popular gift shop item!) called suzani. Part of a bride’s dowry, they are hand-embroidered textiles. The bride includes images on her suzani that symbolize wishes for her life and marriage, such as pomegranates for fertility or fish for a long life.
Our tour ended for the day and Don dropped the group off at a restaurant for a pre-arranged meal featuring local cuisine. Memorably, between the four courses of the meal, it consisted almost 60% of tomatoes. We were then transferred to the city’s train station for our four-hour ride to Bukhara. We arrived to Bukhara at 10:40 pm and met our driver and were delivered to our hotel.
The first day’s tour in Bukhara consisted of seeing the Lyabi Khauz complex which included the Kukeldash Madrasah, as well as the Poi-Kalyan Ensemble and the Kalyan Minaret, which is the symbol of the city. Our guide Lily recommended a cafe at which we could try samsa, a popular Uzbek pastry stuffed with meat, potatoes, spinach, or pumpkin. This is when we were introduced to the plights of Uzbek cash. First, the inflation is insane. 1 USD : 0.00010 Uzbek Som. To make things worse, the ATMs only spit out large som bills, like 100,000 and higher. No one wanted to break these large bills. Not paying in exact change would elicit an eye-roll or extended verbal complaint from servers and cashiers. Apparently, even though everyone in this country pays for everything in cash (cards are largely not accepted), it wasn’t unusual that the proper change couldn’t be provided. Imagine the headaches this problem induced when we went out to eat together and had to figure out who owed what on our table’s bill.
Lily met us the following day for a tour of Samanids Mausoleum, the Bolo Khauz Mosque, and the Fortress Ark. It was arranged that for 8 USD each, the group could participate in plov making for lunch. Unfortunately, this was an outdoor activity in an outdoor kitchen, but our hosts very kindly continued to pour us hot tea to keep us warm. While we waited for the plov to cook, our hosts showed us upstairs to the embroidery workshop. The embroiderer master demonstrated his craft and let us take some needle and thread for a spin! It turns out that I’m a lot better at eating plov than I am at handcrafts.
Following lunch, we had free time until 2:30 pm the next day when it was arranged that the driver would take us to the train station. That afternoon, Chris, Ross, Mikaela and I decided we would try to make our way back to the bazaar. We took the long way, and ended up at two madrassas that weren’t mentioned on our tour. We strolled right in and found that a door leading to a staircase was open. No one was around, so we began our ascent and made it to the roof. I didn’t have my camera with me, but one of my favorite memories from this trip is running along the rooftop, trying to stay low so no one on the street saw us. After enjoying the view, we made our way back down and left undetected.
The next day, we slept in and spent the fourth day of our trip wandering the cold and snowy streets of Bukhara and ended up at an Italian restaurant. After an hour and a half staring at the stark countryside from a train window, we arrived in Samarkand at 5:30 pm. Guide-less until the next morning, some of the students arranged a taxi at the front desk and went out to Blues Cafe, a bar and grill recommended after a Google search that our taxi driver was a little hesitant to drop us off at.
It turned out to be a very smoky bar, and Marshall described the occupants as perhaps belonging to the Uzbek Mafia. The drinks weren’t anything special, but the menu had a lot of American dishes on it and the food turned out to be delicious and worth the smoky stench that stuck to our coats for the rest of the trip.
The next day began our time in Samarkand. Our tour guide Sabir took us to the Registan Square with its surrounding madrassas and we sampled many dried fruits and sweets at the Siab bazaar. Following lunch at a cafe, we spent our free time walking to another bazaar to shop for souvenirs before we were driven to an arranged dinner at a local homestay where we were served a lot of delicious plov.
During this block of free time, I convinced Zak and Ross to join me on a walk to an Orthodox church and Christian cemetery, the only attraction located within walking-distance of our hotel. We geared up in our snow gear and followed Google maps through a very… local neighborhood, definitely off the tourist path. We turned down an alley and passed a big group of children lighting up and exploding plastic bottles but made it to our destination just as the sun was setting.
Day six began with Sabir showing us the mausoleum of Prophet Daniel and drinking three times from a fountain of spring water, granting our wishes. Next was the Ulug Beg Observatory, which also included a museum on-site that held artifacts from Ulug Beg’s astronomical studies and his immense contributions to the understanding of the cosmos. Following the observatory, we visited silk carpet factory “Hojom” where we were given a tour and saw carpet-weaving in action. No wonder hand-made carpets are so expensive; it is intricate and difficult work. After touring the factory (and its gift shop), we dined once more on plov. Following lunch, our guide showed us the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, where Tamerlane is buried which wrapped up our time spent in Samarkand.
We then boarded a train at 5:30 pm and arrived back in Tashkent at 8:00 pm. A driver delivered us to our hotel and we woke up the next morning to meet our guide Don once again. He took us to Independence Square and one of the capital city’s main streets, Broadway. We then visited Usto-Shogird ceramic studio and learned about the different design styles of Uzbekistan pottery from the long-winded pottery master.
After lunch, the group was returned to the hotel with plans to meet Don later for dinner and drinks. He recommended Steam Bar, a must-see place if you’re in Tashkent. There was live music and tasty burgers in a space decked-out in a steam punk aesthetic. We enjoyed learning more about our guide’s experience living in Uzbekistan and chatting with more locals on our last night.
The following morning, we were dropped off at the airport early for our 7:50 am flight. We arrived to Bishkek at 10:00 am local time and were met by the London School coordinator with taxis to take us back to the London School.
Although the weather on our trip was less than ideal, the SRAS students really enjoyed our time exploring another country of Central Asia!