Think about it- in America we lump all the 'stans together - and our experience of the 'stans is shaped by the reporting on the news and in the papers by especially Afghanistan where we have lost so many of our soldiers in a war we ordinary people really don't understand at this point. World War II was over in roughly a third of the time we have been fighting in Afghanistan. Furthermore it isn't like we didn't know it would be that way - the Soviets fought there for years and went home with their tails between their legs. For years we have said that the stupidest thing Carter ever did as President was oppose the Soviet action in Afghanistan. They tried to create a bulwark between themselves and radical Islam... we all know the course of the following decades... Afghanistan has been a complete and utter disaster - but you didn't come here to listen to my rant on Afghanistan.
I mention it in this context to begin speaking about how eye opening the trip to Uzbekistan was. It seemed everyone I talked (except Poul Hansen who had worked here for a while) asked me if it was safe (the images of TV Afghanistan ruling their impressions) I had to explain that even though the countries share a small border, Uzbekistan was known to us as a "police state" and it was extremely safe. Now after spending the better part of two weeks there I would not really typify it as a police state.
The first president of the modern republic of Uzbekistan had priorities and his very first was secure the borders. This concept is one that Americans have been hearing a lot about in our own country of late (wall with Mexico anyone?) As we traveled through the country, we learned the story of Islam Karimov, the only President of Uzbekistan for the 25 years following the establishment of the office. He won three consecutive elections (possibly not 100% clean wins) and died last year. The thing is - this was a transition that could have gone very badly and sucked this country into the void of radical Islam and he had a very clear intention that it would not happen that way. Karimov's strategy of relative neutrality, seeking stability in Central Asia via balanced cooperation with its neighbors and competing superpowers, including Russia, China and the United States seems to be a success story in Central Asia.
So I know you didn't come here to get bogged down in a heavy duty history of the ramifications of the fall of the Soviet Union and will move on - just a executive overview - the security of the state and the controlled growth of the economy has been a positive thing for Uzbekistan as far as I could tell. They avoided that leap into crass western consumerism that typified some of the other former Soviet states and they have protected their culture, developing old forms of handicrafts and artisans to help hand down their Uzbeki heritage at the same time affording their peaceful Sunni Muslims protection from the Wahhabi Islam that has caused much of the conflict in their neighbors to the south. Enough said- let's go do some touring.
We started the day with a lecture by Caroline Eden (our tour host) about the state of the region and background information on Uzbekistan. Then we left for some city touring.
Tashkent- literally "Stone City" is the capital and largest city of Uzbekistan. Due to its position in Central Asia, Tashkent came under Sogdian and Turkic influence early in its history, before Islam in the 8th century AD. After its destruction by Genghis Khan in 1219, the city was rebuilt and profited from the Silk Road. In 1865 it was conquered by the Russian Empire, and in Soviet times witnessed major growth and demographic changes due to forced deportations from throughout the Soviet Union. Today, as the capital of an independent Uzbekistan, Tashkent retains a multi-ethnic population with ethnic Uzbeks as the majority. (wikipedia)
Tashkent is the capital of and the most cosmopolitan city in Uzbekistan. It was noted for its tree-lined streets, numerous fountains, and pleasant parks. Since 1991, the city has changed economically, culturally, and architecturally. New development has superseded or replaced icons of the Soviet era. The largest statue ever erected for Lenin was replaced with a globe, featuring a geographic map of Uzbekistan. Buildings from the Soviet era have been replaced with new modern buildings. The "Downtown Tashkent" district includes the 22-story NBU Bank building, an Intercontinental Hotel, the International Business Center, and the Plaza Building. Tashkent Business district is a special district, established for the development of small, medium and large businesses in Uzbekistan. The city has numerous historic mosques and significant Islamic sites, including the Islamic University. Tashkent holds the Samarkand Kufic Quran, one of the earliest written copies of the Quran, which has been located in the city since 1924. (wikipedia)
We began our touring with a stop at a monument to the earthquake victims - in 1966 at roughly 5:30 AM the city was hit by an earthquake that had a magnitude of 5.1 with an epicenter in central Tashkent. The earthquake caused massive destruction to Tashkent, destroying most of the buildings in the city, leaving 300,000 homeless. Following the disaster, most of the historic parts of Tashkent had been destroyed and the city was rebuilt, modelled on Soviet architectural styles. Despite the massive destruction apparently less than 200 people were killed. In total, over 80% of the city was destroyed,including over half of the old city. 95,000 homes were destroyed, most traditional adobe housing in more densely populated central areas. The new Tashkent contained architectural styles found in other Soviet cities, wide boulevards and large apartment blocks. 100,000 new homes were built in the five years following the quake. A memorial stone to victims of the earthquake located above the epicentre was unveiled in 1976. This was our first stop...
along the way we saw the city's new look - parks - boulevards - trees
and their own variations on soviet architecture-
(detail of above buildings showing mosaic tiles on blank end)
(notice details on style of balconies)
As we left the bus it began to drizzle and turned into a light rain... so the blue skies of yesterday turned overcast and grey...
And now it was time for lunch - our first meal together as a group-
and there was always bread- bread is a symbol of life to the Uzbekis- and we will come to see this NON bread as it is called - everywhere- on street corners, in market stalls, outside houses where the baker sells at a stand... frequently sold from old baby carriages- it might be the single most recognizable food stuff of Uzbekistan.
being a cross roads for millennia - the Uzbekistan cuisine has the feeling of familiarity - Russian influences, middle eastern influences and Asian influences all come together here...Alas I must have still been jet lagged as I did not get every course and honestly don't remember what we had as a main... but the food was uniformly good to excellent throughout the trip...
from lunch we went to see the old Koran and visit a former Madrasah (school) that now holds artisan stalls... as many do in other cities we see along the way... but first on the trip to the museum we see a lot of variety in the soviet block housing - so I will give you a few of those to see before we get to the museum with the Koran...
I promise this is it on the soviet buildings- LOL- on to the museum (no photos inside) where in the giant courtyard there were kids flying kites - and the light was constantly changing as a storm blew in and out as we explored the complex of the museum and madrasah...
Then it was on to the Chorsu Bazaar but there are so many photos of the bazaar that I will put those in another post... so come on along to the market for everything from kimchi style carrot salad to wedding clothes! See you back in the next post!