“Tashkent,” I whispered. An exotic, soulful name that conjured images of magical kingdoms filled with Genies, flying carpets and architecture that blends with the sand. I expected a great caravanserai city in the midst of the scorching desert sun with sprawling bazaars, slender minarets and serpentine desert caravans. I was pleasantly surprised however, to find Tashkent a modern, cosmopolitan city with an impressive infrastructure and various luxury hotels and shops. Uzbek’s capital city has certainly defied expectations.
Tashkent sits on the Central Asian steppe, right on the banks of the Chirchik River just southwest of the Chatkal Mountains. For centuries, this ancient city was a crossroad for traders passing between East and West on the Great Silk Road, the most illustrious trade route ever. One of the few respite of the desert, the gates of Tashkent was a welcome sight for traders, a refuge where one could rest and recover between the mountains and the sand.
Little remains of the ancient city after the 1966 earthquake that leveled most of the buildings.
Since then, the government embarked on a major renovation program in the center of the city that has seen roads, buildings and parks being completely reconstructed. The result is an impressive upscale city with large parading avenues, heroic statues and towering office blocks. However, most locals have yet to see any improvement in their respective residences. Drive further out from the city center and Tashkent slowly transforms back into the desert town of old.
The essence of ancient Tashkent remains in the various bazaars held throughout the city. More than anywhere else, the sprawling Chorsu Bazaar (Old City) conjures up memories of the Great Silk Road. It was picturesque, noisy and full of local colour, a large open-air market which has pretty much everything the urban uzbek might require – carpets, cotton goods, knives, ceramics and food. Trays of spices, vegetables, fruits and assorted animal parts lined up in the agricultural section. Although foreigners are probably paying a premium price, it is still a friendly and welcoming place, perfect for simply wandering around and immersing yourself in the local culture.
The Uzbek culture is blessed with a proud history that sees them become one of the ancient centers of Eastern Civilization.
The armies of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, the caravans of the Great Silk Road, and the relocation of populations during World War II. All these major events and characters in the history of the world passed through Uzbekistan one way or the other. Not surprisingly, Tashkent as its capital boasts numerous museums and monuments of history such as the State Museum of History and the Amir Timur Museum.
The former, like its name implies, charts the flow and ebb of the state’s long history. Exhibits here showcases the rich cultural heritage of the Uzbek people, and more. With Uzbekistan long being a center for shipment between the East and the West, there are also collections of coins from the Hellenic state from the 3th century BC, Bactrian drachmas and Chinese coins from the Tang Dynasty. The latter, the Amir Timur Museum, chronicles the life of Timur, known to the wider world as Tamerlane, an all-conquering tyrant now resurrected as Uzbekistan’s national hero.
At the heart of the city, Saligokh Street – known locally as Broadway – is lined with various bars and restaurants that are popular with the locals. Various street artists selling their wares add to the unique atmosphere of the street. There are also plenty of entertainment at night, numerous modern pubs and nightclubs with unique themes catering to their perspective clientele.
Tashkent has been patiently waiting for a boom.
The infrastructure, hotels and shiny new shops are there, as well as the fascinating history and colorful local culture. The expected influx of people and businesses however, has been slow to materialize. It is high time for for Tashkent to emerge from this obscurity and reclaim its status as a cultural and commercial capital.