It’s certainly off the beaten track, but those who venture to this sparsely populated central Asian nation won’t regret it — just watch out for that vodka.
I came to Uzbekistan mostly to see Samarkand and Bukhara, the jewels of the ancient silk road that ran between China and Europe, plus a walled city on the Turkmenistan border called Khiva, and a few deserty caravanserai towns in between.
Getting there is tricky — Auckland to Tashkent mustn’t be high up on most bucket lists. I went via Dubai on Uzbekistan Airlines, which isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s the sort of airline where everyone cheers when you land.
Tashkent (no, I didn’t really know where it was either) is the capital of Uzbekistan. With 2.5 million people, it’s the biggest city in Central Asia. The Stans (as we say, but they definitely don’t) don’t have any of the overcrowded cities of the Middle East or Asia. They’re vast countries, but with spread-out, rural populations, and the landscape tends to be very deserty and/or mountainy.
I was amazed at the architecture – incredible mosques and madrasas from as early as the 10th century, painstakingly restored and revered. And I fell in love with the voluptuous textiles, fabrics and carpets — velvets and embroideries in luscious colours, and handwoven silk in beautiful patterns. The Uzbeks still wear very traditional clothes, and a crowd of Uzbek ladies is a delightful vision of blues, green and reds, with spangles and sequins.
The food reflects strong Russian, Turkic and Persian influences. The roadside kebabs – served under mulberry trees in tea gardens — are the best I’ve had in Asia or the Middle East, but plov is the national dish. Similar to the pilaf of nearby countries, it’s rice cooked with lamb and carrots and decorated with chickpeas, raisins, barberries or quail eggs, and it sounds better than it is.
Lagmon – thick noodles, fried or served in a variety of soups – is also popular, and because the steppes are good grain-growing country, you can find delicious pillowy bread everywhere, decorated with pricked hole patterns and cooked in a tandur.
Jiz, if you’re brave enough to order that, is an acquired taste (it’s strips of fried beef with vegetables). There are a few horse dishes as well as a lot of fatty lamb tail offerings like shurpa – a rich, flavoursome vegetable-based soup filled with the stuff. The delicious stuffed dumplings, manti, are found in lots of countries, but the Uzbek ones are huge and served with sour cream, Russian style. Luckily, I have a very high fat tolerance.
Somsa are another variety of dumplings; crisp and light and the perfect hangover cure if you’ve drunk too much of the local UzCarlsberg or the terrifying vodka. And there’s a lot of questionable vodka. I had a spectacular hangover/migraine/partial blindness result from drinking something that looked like it might be honey flavoured, but tasted like petrol, and was free. So I kind of deserved it.
On the upside, they do the same sort of PERFECT breakfasts you find in Turkey — fresh cheese, bread, olives — served with ayran, a refreshing, slightly salty yoghurt drink that’s found all through the Middle East and into Russia, and litres of green tea. Uzbeks drink a huge amount of green tea and weirdly, there’s only one dinner set everywhere: a dark blue and white pattern, with huge tea bowls.
Everything is served with tomato and cucumber, which is called archuchuk. It’s so temptingly almost artichoke, but is always disappointingly still tomato and cucumber. You get very sick of seeing cucumber.
It’s an easy, safe country to travel through, though it’s very big so prepare for long bus journeys. This is the legendary Russian steppe – the endless (boring) flat grassland where Soviet-era people were sent as punishment. But there are high-speed trains and great internal flights that save on time and boredom.
I was always treated with absolute politeness and respect, usually, with the golden smile of a James Bond villain – gold teeth are a common orthodontic feature of men and women here.
No, it’s not really a stopover on the way to anywhere from New Zealand, but Uzbekistan is a magical, delightful place. So refreshingly unjaded.