Sergio Bersanetti

My Uzbekistan

5 - 15 Apri 2019

Map Uzbekistan

Presenting Uzbekistan

The Republic of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation comparable in size to Sweden, boasts a population of approximately 35 million. It’s capital is Tashkent, a city with a population of roughly 2,150,000.

Interestingly, Uzbekistan shares a rare characteristic with Lichtenstein, both countries are double landlocked, meaning they are only bordered by other landlocked nations.

Uzbekistan used to have an enormous water resource within its territory, shared with Kazakhstan: the Aral Sea. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union’s exploitation of the lake’s two primary tributaries since the 1950s to support cotton production led to its near-total depletion, causing an ecological disaster and decimating the local economy.

Although the map presented may appear outdated, it accurately reflects the Aral Sea’s former size.

Until a few years ago, I must confess that Uzbekistan was just one of many countries ending with “stan” that seemed lost among the vastness of Asia, and I struggled to place it accurately on a map.

However, everything changed in 2013, when I conducted an interview with figure skating champion Misha Ge. Despite being more closely related to Russia, Korea and China by birth and upbringing, he represented Uzbekistan in international competitions due to his maternal grandmother’s roots, achieving remarkable results.

The interview, which was initially published on a prominent Italian winter sports portal and translated into various languages, (unfortunately the english version is no longer available) caught the attention of Nurali Yuldashev, a sports commentator for state TV and a member of the Uzbek Olympic Committee. He reached out to me to express his admiration, and a solid friendship developed from there.

Through Nurali’s Instagram posts, I developed a fascination for Uzbekistan and its culture, to the extent that I longed to visit the country at the earliest opportunity.

As I had noted in a previous post on Thailand, the ways in which I encounter people who later become my friends and guides during my travels are diverse and unexpected.

Post presentation Uzbekistan

Spoiler alert: in this video I briefly explain what you are going to see and read in this post

Arrival in Tashkent

Sergio Bersanetti in Moscow airport

At Moscow airport, on the evening of April 4th, 2019, I find myself waiting to board a flight to Tashkent. The security personnel at the airport seem to lack even a hint of a smile, as if it were part of their job description. With most shops closed at this time, there isn’t much to do, but fortunately, my flight will be boarding in about 90 minutes, so the unwelcoming atmosphere doesn’t affect my mood too much.

Initially hesitant to purchase tickets with Aeroflot due to its reputation as an unsafe airline, I reviewed the dates of the crash reports and found that 90% of them were from the 1970s and 1980s. This convinced me that the Milan-Moscow-Tashkent route was the best option, both in terms of time and cost. The direct flight offered by Uzbekistan Airways was outside my budget, and other solutions with stopovers were either too expensive or too time-consuming. In retrospect, I was satisfied with my experience with Aeroflot, as the essential services provided were justified by the price I paid.

As my flight is scheduled to land in Tashkent at 3:30 am, I arranged for the hotel to send a driver to facilitate my transfer, as I anticipated that finding a taxi could be a challenge at that time. However, upon landing, I couldn’t locate the person holding the sign with my name on it. As I exit the airport, I am approached by a group of seven men ranging in age from 25 to 60 years old.

Despite feeling somewhat unnerved by the situation, Nurali had assured me of the high security standards in the country, so I remain calm. While none of these men speak English, it quickly becomes apparent that they are eager to assist me. Why they are there and why there are so many of them at 4 am remains a mystery to me, but my priority at the moment is to get to the hotel and rest.

Unable to call the hotel with my Italian SIM card and unable to buy a local SIM card at the airport at that hour, I give the hotel phone number to one of the men. Five minutes later, a car that had been parked about a hundred meters away arrives, with the driver who had arrived well in advance and had dozed off!

In the end, everything has worked out well, and the Orient Palace hotel exceeds my expectations.

Few hours later, still very sleepy but happy, I am thrilled to finally meet Nurali in person and I give him a book on the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics.

Nurali has not arrived by car, but I am pleasantly surprised by the Tashkent metro. It was the first metro system in Central Asia, opening in 1977, and all 43 of its stations have unique and captivating themes.

I’ll let the pictures do the talking when it comes to the stations’ beauty. Instead, I’d like to express my admiration for the Uzbek people’s warmth and politeness. They never hesitate to offer their seats to me whenever I board public transportation.

Tashkent is very clean, vibrant, and walkable, making it an absolute pleasure to traverse on foot. So much so, in fact, that throughout my stay there, I find myself utilizing public transportation solely to reach the city center, from which I embark on leisurely walks to explore the various points of interest, and ultimately make my way back to the hotel, on foot.

This daily routine leads me through different neighborhoods and districts, allowing me to take in the diverse and captivating facets of the city’s character, while covering an impressive 20 kilometers each day.

Among the many sights and structures that catch my eye during these wanderings, the Humo Arena stands out in particular, with its immense size and reputation as the epicenter of the city’s sports and entertainment scene.

The mosque and surrounding buildings, too, make for an interesting backdrop to my meanderings, further contributing to the city’s overall charm and allure.

Another stunning sight is the Peoples’ Friendship Square, where in the distance stands the grandiose Peoples’ Friendship Palace – the biggest cinema hall in Uzbekistan, boasting a capacity of 6,000 seats.

Peoples' Friendship Square

A huge square with a very nice atmosphere

Among the photos that follow are shots of an indoor market and a mall. As you may recall from my previous posts on Sichuan and Thailand, I simply can’t resist the allure of these places.

Amir Temur Square

The heart of the city is undeniably the Amir Temur Square, also known as Amir Timur xiyoboni in Uzbek, which serves as the main square of the city.

Constructed in 1882, this square holds immense symbolic significance. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was renamed Revolution Square, and in the late 1940s, a statue of Stalin was erected at the center. However, it was removed in 1961, and replaced by a statue of Karl Marx in 1968.

Following Uzbekistan’s conquest of independence, a new statue of the legendary leader, Tarmerlane, was unveiled in 1994, and the square was named after him.

Tarmerlane, the medieval conqueror who founded the Timurid empire stretching from the eastern Mediterranean coast to India, is considered one of the greatest leaders and strategists in history. He is still venerated throughout Uzbekistan, and in 1996, a museum dedicated to his legacy was opened near the square.

The accompanying photographs showcase the square and its surroundings, highlighting the exceptional cleanliness of the city and the abundance of green spaces. Uzbeks have a deep affection for flowers, and the city of Tashkent is home to an impressive array of flowers of varying types and colors, provided one visits during the appropriate season.

Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan

The local arts museum is a marvel deserving of its own dedicated chapter. Founded in 1918, it has undergone several relocations before finding its current home in 1974. The museum boasts a vast collection of exquisite paintings, sculptures, porcelain and other forms of art, primarily sourced from private collections

 Its galleries are organized according to geography, featuring distinct sections for Uzbekistan, Russia/West, and Far East art.

As a pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon a breathtaking painting by my all-time favourite artist, Canaletto.

The museum’s beauty is beyond words, and the photos I captured hardly do justice to its vast collection

Tashkent by night

If Nurali is occupied with his job during the day, I can always count on my friend to accompany me to parts of the city where the ambiance is enhanced by the artificial lighting after nightfall.

One such spot is the Memorial to the Victims of Repression, which features a park and an adjacent Television Tower. The complex spans along the banks of the Bozsu Canal and is situated in an area where more than 13,000 Uzbek partisans were executed during Stalinist repression from 1920 to 1940.

The memorial covers 17 hectares of land and is particularly striking when illuminated at night.

The Tashkent Tower, standing at a towering height of 375 meters, was inaugurated in 1985. While its primary function is to serve as a communication tower, transmitting radio and television signals that even reach southern Kazakhstan, it also houses a hydro-meteorological station and boasts an observatory located 97 meters above ground.

As we continued our tour, Nurali, who let’s not forget is a sports commentator, guides me towards the entrance of the National Stadium. The stadium, which opened its doors in 2012, has a seating capacity of approximately 35,000 and is the home venue for the national football team’s matches.

Speaking of football, Nurali suggests watching a match of the Asian Cup, which is equivalent to the Champions League in Europe. The local Pakhtakor team will be facing off against the Qatari Al Sadd, led by the legendary Xavi Hernández, a former star of Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Despite his age of 39, Xavi still dazzles on the field like few others. Another prominent player on the Al Sadd team is Gabi, a 36-year-old midfielder who was a mainstay of Atletico Madrid for many years.

The idea appeals to me so much that I decide to postpone my departure for Bukhara by a day to seize the opportunity. Although he has a reserved seat in the grandstand, Nurali kindly agrees to mingle with me and some of his friends among the regular spectators. This provides me with the chance to learn about how cheering manifests itself in Uzbekistan’s stadiums.

To be honest, I was expecting chaos, with endless firecrackers and wild shouts of encouragement all the time, but the reality is quite the opposite. There is no sign of firecrackers or fireworks (which I appreciate), and the only lights are from lighters that occasionally light up the scene. The cheers are not spontaneous but rather are directed by two young men who move around the stadium’s various sections during the match. One of them has a drum, while the other encourages the crowd in that particular section. After a few minutes, they move on to lead the chants in the adjacent section.

This brings to mind a baseball match I attended 25 years earlier in Connecticut, where an overhead projector instructed the audience on how to behave during the game, when to clap, when to stand up, and so on. I found the lack of spontaneity so disheartening that I never went to see another baseball game in my life, despite spending many years in the United States. Although the experience in the Uzbekistan stadium isn’t at that level, it does leave me a bit puzzled.

Asian Champions League

A thrilling match between Pakhtakor and Al Sadd

For the record, the game concludes in a 2-2 tie, featuring two goals by Xavi, including a spectacular free-kick. As he departs the pitch with only nine minutes remaining, the audience erupts in a deafening ovation.

The journey back to the hotel is quite enjoyable. I’m accompanied by Nurali’s friends as he stayed behind at the stadium for post-match duties. During the taxi ride, we converse in German about the admirable qualities of Alessandro Del Piero, whom they idolize as a footballer.

Eating in Uzbekistan

Before we move on, I’d like to take a moment to discuss Uzbek cuisine. While it may not boast the same range and artistic presentation as some of its Asian counterparts, like China, Japan, Korea, and India, Uzbek food is nonetheless a delight.

The signature dish is plov, which combines rice and lamb or beef with an array of ingredients, including onions, garlic, peppers, raisins, apricots, and carrots, depending on the regional variation.

You’ll also find plenty of spicy meat skewers, and overall, I noticed many similarities with Turkish cuisine.

In the first picture, you can see a savory bread called patir, which comes in numerous variations. This particular one is stuffed with cheese.

The second photo captures a lavish restaurant where Nurali took me for dinner one evening. For a meal comprising three substantial skewers of meat, onions, the delectable patir mentioned earlier, and a refreshing lemon tea, I paid a mere 3.5 euros. The taxi ride back to my hotel was equally inexpensive, costing only 1.5 euros and lasting approximately 20 minutes.

The last picture showcases a captivating local tradition. It’s fascinating to note that most eateries in the area don’t offer fruit on their menu. However, if you have a craving for some fresh fruit, you can bring it along from home, and the waiter will wash and cut it for you, serving it at the end of your meal. A charming and thoughtful gesture indeed!

Farewell, Tashkent

Sergio Bersanetti and friend

Prior to delving into my experiences in Bukhara, I feel compelled to express my admiration for the staff at Orient Palace.

The staff at that hotel proved to be incredibly accommodating, going above and beyond to assist me in various situations. Bakhodir, in particular, stood out and became a familiar presence during my stay, almost like family. His insatiable curiosity spans a wide range of topics, from biathlon to reincarnation, marketing techniques to Marilyn Manson. His eagerness to learn and engage in conversation was refreshing and inspiring.

My time at Orient Palace was a unique and unforgettable experience. In fact, some guests mistook me for a member of the hotel staff due to the amount of time I spent with Bakhodir and the team at the reception desk.

Trip to Bukhara

Although purchasing a train ticket to Bukhara has been quite intricate (which I will elaborate on later in this article), the journey itself is very  enjoyable. The experience is further enhanced by the frequent servings of delightful lemon tea throughout the four-hour train ride.

Train to Bukhara

The Khurjin Hotel exceeds my expectations with its appearance. I booked it because I was captivated by the notion of staying in a beautifully restored 19th century madrasa, and the tranquil surroundings, the exceptionally welcoming staff, and the exquisite embellishments all contribute to creating an enchanting ambiance.

 

In the afternoon, guests are treated to a delightful tea service in the charming courtyard, and as for the breakfast, it speaks for itself.

But here’s the exciting part: all of this, including the breakfast, is priced at just 20 euros per night!

 

It is now the late afternoon, but I still have ample time to catch a glimpse of the city. I am happy to discover that the city center is only a few hundred meters away from my hotel, and to my delight, it is entirely reserved for pedestrians.

As I make my way towards the center, my attention is immediately drawn to the Lyab-i Hauz, an area consisting of a pool of water surrounded by a remarkable architectural complex.

Lyab-i Hauz Bukhara

The defining trait of these ponds, called howz, is that they served as the primary water source prior to the Soviet occupation. However, they also acted as a breeding ground for various illnesses. As a result, nearly all of the howz were filled in, with the exception of this particular one.

The Kukeldash Madrasa, the largest of its kind in Central Asia, the Nadir Divanbegi Madrasa, and the Nasreddin Khoja monument are among the standout features of the architectural complex.

Nasreddin Khoja, a fanciful character from Turkish culture who appears in Sufi literature and is frequently featured in amusing stories and fairy tales, is regarded as something of a jester.

Let’s take a look at more photos showcasing the picturesque Lyab-i Hauz and its environs.

As I gaze into the distance, a majestic minaret catches my eye, beckoning me to explore.

As I approach the religious complex, eight young men surround me. Reminding my experience at the airport in Tashkent, I know that almost certainly something good is about to happen, and so it is: One of the boys, a frizzy-haired lad, steps forward and in his broken yet understandable English, inquires about my identity and purpose for being there.

He expresses his group’s desire to practice their English by listening to the stories of travelers who come from far and wide to learn about their culture.

I am taken aback by their genuine interest in me and their thirst for knowledge. It is almost surreal to be surrounded by a group of boys who seek to learn from me rather than rob me.

For the next 40 minutes, we engage in lively conversation, sharing our experiences and learning from each other.

In the photo that follows, you’ll see two Japanese tourists who stumbled upon the scene by chance, unaware of the enriching exchange taking place as they spoke no English.

Sergio Bersanetti with friends in Bukhara

In the meantime, as darkness descends, I am surprised to see that all streetlights have been switched off, presumably to conserve energy.

Against the inky backdrop, the Kalyan minaret stands out even more resplendently. This towering structure was erected in 1127 and is an integral part of the Poi Kalon religious complex. A spiral brick staircase winds its way up its interior, showcasing its exquisite design.

Its beauty is so remarkable that even Genghis Khan spared it from destruction when his troops ravaged the city and razed other structures to the ground.

Regrettably, the minaret has a macabre reputation and is commonly known as the Tower of Death, as it was used to execute criminals by throwing them from its summit until the early 20th century.

The ambiance is enchanting, and the company delightful, yet I can’t help feeling a tinge of anxiety about finding my way back to the hotel in complete darkness. Fortunately, luck is on my side, for the enterprising young man Mukhammadjon happens to be a close friend of the hotel’s owner. He kindly offers to accompany me back.

Guided by the beam of my mobile phone, I manage to navigate the unlit streets without stumbling. As we near the hotel, I reflect on how safe it is to wander the streets of Uzbekistan, despite the lack of night lighting. Moreover, the opportunity to marvel at the starry night sky is a rare and unforgettable experience in the city. Truly marvelous!

As we approach the hotel, I notice a charming restaurant still open, even though it’s well past 9.30 p.m. After bidding farewell and expressing my gratitude to my new friend, I decide to stop there for a quick dinner.

The interior of the restaurant is exquisite, and my attention is captivated by a group of ladies whose attire seamlessly blends with the decor. I also recognize a dish of plov, which I mentioned earlier, on the table adjacent to the soup.

I am extremely satisfied with this first half-day in Bukhara, summed up in the following video.

A note for the Italian readers: you are not experiencing an auditory hallucination: the song in the background blasting from the loudspeaker of a restaurant on Lyab-i Hauz is indeed ’Su di noi’, by Pupo!

Tour of Bukhara

One of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever visited

The next day, in the late morning, Mukhammadjon arrives to take me on a tour of other parts of the city.

Our first stop is some local handicraft shops, followed by a glimpse of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa. Since it is still active, unfortunately it is not open to visitors.

We venture to an area situated a short distance from the city center, yet conveniently reachable on foot, to witness the awe-inspiring Ark of Bukhara – a massive citadel constructed nearly 1,600 years ago. Originally designed as a military stronghold, the fortress later served as the abode of numerous dynasties that governed the Bukhara oasis until 1920.

Today, it is a prominent tourist destination, housing several museums such as an ethnographic, archaeological, and fine arts museum. Furthermore, it showcases an extraordinary assortment of Persian and Arabic books from the 18th century.

The presence of a throne in the courtyard inspires me to appoint myself as the new emperor of Bukhara!

Funny enough, I will live an even more interesting experience as an emperor three years later in Seoul.

Sergio Bersanetti at Ark citadel Bukhara

Time seems to fly by, and before I know it, it’s already dinner time. Mukhammadjon suggests getting together with some of the guys from the previous night and heading to a restaurant outside the city. He assures me that I’ll have a unique post-dining experience.

I readily agree and upon entering the restaurant, I’m transported back in time about 20 years, reminding me of my trips to Turkey!

The aroma of tobacco fills the air, but it’s not overwhelming, allowing me to enjoy my meal of meat and potatoes without any respiratory discomfort.

 

Afterward, the real entertainment commences: the venue’s manager delivers some hookahs or kaljans, as they are locally known. I endeavor to recollect the teachings I received in Istanbul, hoping to astound my companions. Although they maintain courteous laughter, witnessing Mukhammadjon’s proficiency reminds me that I am a novice in comparison.

To see what I mean, I invite you to view the ensuing video.

 

Smoking lesson in Bukhara

Because you never stop learning…

If you have concerns regarding the potential health effects of smoking on a young individual, rest assured that Mukhammadjon informed me about a year later that he had quit smoking in order to safeguard his future health. It was a wise decision, although I must admit that I enjoyed Mukhammadjon’s smoke-related antics at the restaurant.

Although our hotel is several kilometers away, we opt to walk back to town despite the darkness and our slightly dizzy state from the smoke. We simply want to spend a bit more time together. Tomorrow morning, I must depart for Samarkand and I am not particularly excited about it. Although I have seen everything the city has to offer, I know I will miss the hotel, the city’s atmosphere, and the locals dearly.

It has become evident that 10 days in Uzbekistan is not enough time to fully experience this incredible country, particularly when it comes to the warmth and kindness of its people.

Trip to Samarkand

After being pleasantly surprised by Tashkent and stunned by Bukhara, I was filled with anticipation about my next destination.

Having heard about this world-renowned city since childhood, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like.

Samarkand station

However, I overlooked two crucial aspects as I boarded the train for the 80-minute journey from Bukhara to Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, home to over 510,000 residents.

Firstly, I failed to consider that having high expectations often results in disappointment, even if the reality is not necessarily unpleasant. 

Secondly, I overlooked the fact that heavily touristic destinations can often lack authenticity.

Let me be clear; my visit to Samarkand was not a negative experience. If it had been my first destination, I am sure I would have been delighted, and this piece would not exist.

Yet, after the charm of Tashkent and Bukhara, seeing myself surrounded by American and European tourists, shops on every corner selling souvenirs, and shopkeepers with an overly familiar and condescending attitude left me feeling a little disheartened, though not entirely surprised.

If anyone approached me, it was not to engage in conversation or practice their English, but to try and sell me something. In fact, souvenir shops outnumbered grocery stores, leaving me longing for a more genuine experience.