June 11, 2008

Silk Road III Day 3: Tashket to Samarkand

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First stop of the day was the Crying Mother Monument, with an eternal flame to commemorate the Uzbek soldiers lost to WWII. The pretty niches on both sides of the flame are separated by individual Uzbek regions, with the names of soldiers from each region inscribed on giant metallic books. The layout of the place, especially the carved wood structures on both sides, was very nicely done.

The Independence Square lies adjacent and is connected. It’s a vast, green area with fountains and yet another monument – a mother holding a child. The pedestal is where the statue of Lenin used to stand, since the square used to be Lenin Square during the Soviet era. Flanking the square are the new Senate building as well as the Ministry of Finance. We leave the square via its front gate, and enter into the Tashkent Metro system.

The Tashkent Metro system has some very beautiful stations. I would dare say that they don’t necessarily lose out to the some of the best stations of the Paris Metro. Out of the four stations which we saw, three had very striking interiors, even though the passenger turnstiles (probably dating from 1977 to 1982, when these two lines were built) were a bit Spartan and dated. These were the Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square), Alisher Navoi (named after the great literary figure) and the Kosmonavtlar (decorated with murals of famous Soviet Kosmonauts).  After we exit the Metro, we paid a short visit to the Museum of Applied Arts, with fine samples of local arts and crafts displayed in a beautiful house.

Lunch break is at the restaurant Bek, where we have our first of many sticks of shashlik. There were some salads of tomato and cucumber, which is apparently what tourists usually get when they ask for salads. We also had nice bowls of shee - a tomato-based soup with lamb meatballs - which reminded me of Hungarian goulash since it was served with a bit of yogurt or sour cream on top. The various lamb shashlik were pretty good, but somehow not great.

After the hearty meal, we head to the Barakhon Medressa. This has been turned into a series of little shops. After making a quick round and deciding not to buy anything, we took a quick look at Timur’s Quran. According to legend, this was one of the 6 original copies of the Quran which were made after Mohammed’s death, and the only surviving copy – making it the oldest Quran in the world. It was large and the pages were made from animal skin, and one of the pages has the blood stains from Ulugbek as he was beheaded while reading the Quran.

We needed to get to Samarkand for the next leg of the tour, so we hopped in the van and went on the highway for the next 4 ½ hours. The landscape was pretty boring for most of the trip – flat and rural with only a little hint of basic industries. We discussed the resemblance of the area to the landscape portrayed in the Mad Max series of movies. But at least Mad Max got to speed around on good, paved roads. I cannot say the same for some section of the road we were on.

As the people become more prosperous, the traditional houses with mud bricks and flat mud roofs gradually get replaced by housing with corrugated asbestos roofing. Did anyone ever tell these guys about the long-term health effects of asbestos?  Guess not... As we got close to Samarkand and entered the mountain ranges, the landscape changed and became a bit more interesting. 

We checked into the Hotel President, a modern-looking place that is one of the best in town. Again, rooms were clean and the bathroom here was even better than the one at Dedeman Silk Road.

We went out for dinner, and ended up in a restaurant with an open courtyard. We tried out other staples of the Central Asia diet, such as laghman (noodles with tomato-based soup with meat) and mantay (dumplings with onions and minced lamb). Both are dishes which I’ve had in Xinjiang, and I especially enjoyed the mantay. Of course there were more sticks of shashlik.

The highlight tonight was a visit from people at the next table. They insisted on saying hello and came to sit with us, trying to communicate through our guide Batir. They were very, very friendly and stayed for quite a while. We would have similar experiences over the next few days.

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