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13.09.2014 / 20:57:23
A Real Peek at Uzbekistan's Silk Road: A Scavenger Hunt
We unintentionally followed the Silk Road in reverse order – from somewhere near its western end in Tbilisi, Georgia to its eastern terminus in Xi’an, China. Although our first taste of UNESCO Silk Road sites occurred in Turkmenistan (Merv), Uzbekistan is where the Silk Road unexpectedly reaches a sophisticated tourist marketing level.
Silk Road city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Don’t worry, we won’t bore you with a bullet list of must-see Silk Road sites. There are plenty of those in guide books and all over the internet. You can (and should) check out our short photo set of Silk Road sites in Uzbekistan.
This scavenger hunt is intended to help you get under the surface of Uzbekistan’s polished Silk Road tourist veneer which you’ll find in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. We’ve also thrown in Nukus and Tashkent as a bonus. The list below includes some serious suggestions, as well as a few head-scratchers.
A Silk Road Scavenger Hunt in Uzbekistan
1. Nukus: The large Russian woman at the bar of the Hotel Nukus who protects female tourists from the unwanted kisses of drunken Uzbek senators.
Of course, watch out first for the (supposed) Uzbek senator who flashes his ID card and gives his room number to and makes passes at female tourists. Our Russian protectress had to virtually beat this guy away with a broom.
2. Nukus: Bathroom reading
Take note that rooms at the Hotel Nukus come outfitted with toilet paper whose texture and finish matches that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Mildly elastic and crimped like crepe paper, this dual-purpose recycled toilet paper allows you to catch up on yesterday’s news while in the loo. If you are a bathroom reader, this stuff is for you.
3. Nukus: The Savitsky Museum, where early 20th century Soviet Avant-Garde art meets Uzbek and Karakalpak ethnography
Donations and care have turned this place into a remarkable – and because of its somewhat remote location, under-appreciated – museum. Although names like Etcheistov, Lyssenko, Oufimtsev, Volkov, and Mazel may not jump off the page, their “Lost Period” Soviet art is worthy of consideration and makes this museum a worthwhile visit. As a bonus, the museum’s ethnography section offers a useful visual primer intoKarakalpakstan and life on the Silk Road.
4. Mizdakhan: A necropolis megalopolis
The cemetery city of Mizdakhan near Nukus, Uzbekistan.
This mesmerizing, sprawling cemetery appears out of the middle of nowhere just after the Turkmen-Uzbek border about 15 km away from Nukus. Although it looks like a city, no one lives here. Catch the cemetery in the late afternoon sun. Be sure to hail the taxi driver who is able to read his Koran while driving at full speed.
5. Khiva: A bank with money.
Unfortunately, Uzbekistan persistently sits on the cutting edge of financial innovation by way of its vast network of banks that feature absolutely no money. Maybe you are asking yourself, “where can I find one of these fine institutions?” The answer: just about everywhere, particularly outside of Tashkent. You’ll know you are in one of them if you look around and notice that all the lights are out and a dozen or more underemployed people skulk around bleakly under an invisible blanket of control.
6. Khiva: Authenticity.
A Khiva street scene in ceramics.
Release yourself from the confines of Khiva’s old city walls and venture outside for a refreshing moment. We did in search of a bank (see #5) and found a hope-affirming experience instead. In a grand “random act of kindness” moment, a sweet 8-months pregnant Uzbek woman running an ice cream stand and her lunch partner abandoned their table and insisted that we and our friend Dave take their place and finish their plov. They even sought out some salad and bread to round out our meal. Then, they insisted that we not pay for any of it, explaining that we were their guests.
7. Bukhara: A train ticket that looks like a paper doll cut-out.
In bouts of creativity, ticket officials throw in additional “insurance fees” and other random fees ensuring that no two people will pay the same price for the exact same ticket. From our informal survey, Germans paid the least, Russians paid the most and the Americans were somewhere in the middle. Try forming your international relations dissertation around this one.
To be fair, Uzbek trains are pleasant (at least the express ones are) and represent good value for the money. As a bonus, on-board video screen entertainment includes Bollywood films, Russian pop tune videos and – bizarrely – 12-year old Russian-Uzbek belly dancers.
8. Samarkand: Mongol Rally drivers
Mongol Rally drivers wanted
Sometimes it’s not about the place, but instead about the people you meet when you are there. If you find yourself in Samarkand in the heat of August, take a look for cars lined up for the Mongol Rally (hint: they will be near Bahodir’s B&B). Enjoy their stories of border crossings, police stops, bribe techniques and how to weld a car back together in the middle of the desert. Good company.
9. Shakhrisabz: A wedding
Crashing a wedding photo in Shakhrisabz near Samarkand.
Based on our experience and the stories of others, Shakhrisabz seems to be the place to go to catch an Uzbek wedding. You might find yourself in the midst of the wedding party, having your photo taken with the bride and groom.
Though the sites in Shakhrisabz are not breathtaking by any means, if you have an extra day, the trip from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz offers some fine mountain scenery (distinctly different than hard pan desert).
10. Tashkent: Russian-speaking Koreans
We were surprised to hear ethnic Koreans speaking Russian to one another. Thanks to Tashkent’s local Korean population, markets have at least one aisle devoted to pickled vegetables and salads. But the real joys are the reasonably-priced Korean restaurants, where you can down bibimbap to your heart’s delight.
Delicious Korean food in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The Korean back-story: Stalin deported approximately 200,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East to Central Asia in 1937 on the grounds that they might be spies or traitors. There are an estimated 450,000 Koreans throughout Central Asia today.
11. Tashkent: A woman whose mini-skirt is longer than her high heels.
From a male perspective, Tashkent is surprisingly and refreshingly “cosmopolitan.” If you visit in the summertime, note that its female Russian population dresses on the scanty side.
12. Tashkent: A tourist who is sick and therefore consulting the Bristol Stool Scale.
For some reason, it seemed that absolutely everyone we’d met on the tourist trail in Tashkent had come down with some sort of stomach ailment.
For the uninitiated, the Bristol scale can be politely described as a formal feces classification tool. One group of guys running the Mongol Rally could be overheard performing squat analyses like, “Yeah, yesterday I was a six, maybe seven. Today, I think I’m hovering around four.”
13. Tashkent: A place where you can get a decent bowl ofborscht (cabbage and beet soup) and take in some Russian pole dancing.
Believe it or not, there’s a restaurant for those interested. After enjoying her borscht, Audrey dragged Dan out before the show began – to save on the additional “service fees,” of course. You’ll find it a few doors away from the Korean restaurant on Glinka Street.
14. Tashkent: Exceptional Soviet architecture.
Some of the finest of Tashkent’s Soviet architecture.
We’re not joking. Because Tashkent was virtually razed to the ground during a 1966 earthquake, it was almost entirely rebuilt in the Soviet aesthetic. Although this eventually becomes tough on the eyes, look up, down and around for Soviet style government buildings, apartments, monuments, parks, and traffic dividers. The highlight: Tashkent’s subway stations. They are beautiful and feature designs ranging from Soviet Realist mosaic to Islamic tile. Don’t miss the famed Cosmonaut station.