After a good night’s sleep I was up and out early this morning.
First order of business was to get a SIM card. With a SIM card I can grab a taxi through the invaluable Yandex taxi app. Taxis are a dirt cheap way to get around to this vast and sprawling city. You can cross the city for less than a euro. Tashkent is really not a walkable city. Even less so then Almaty I would say. It’s like the city planners looked at 50 acres of land and decided to put in a monumental building in the middle of it, then landscaped it all with flowers and bushes. It’s pretty but a whole string of this kind of urban planning means that it’s impossible to walk anywhere. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined and attractive but the side streets are unpaved.
There’s no center of town in Tashkent at least not any that I could figure out. The taxi drove and drove and drove before finally getting to the Ucell mobile phone company. Maybe you can get SIM cards elsewhere but who knows where.
The process went fairly smoothly especially considering how not smoothly everything else works in this country. I was in and out and only about an hour. Then the next order of business was money.
One of the things that makes traveling in Uzbekistan so difficult is the money confusion. ATM machines are not everywhere and where they do exist you’re not quite sure which card they take. So last night I got some money on my Mastercard but I really wanted to get money on Visa. Following instructions from Lonely Planet and online I brought a lot of cash which had to be exchanged into local money. Only banks can exchange money.
Fortunately, I noticed that there was a big five star hotel not too far from where I got the SIM card so I headed there, found a bank outlet with a currency exchange and changed some money. With money and a SIM card that enabled me to call taxi I was good to go.
Except the first place I had to go was back to the hotel to exchange my sandals for shoes as my sandals rubbed a hole in the side of my foot. So back to the hotel to change shoes, then another taxi to buy an onward bound train ticket to go to Samarkand. In Uzbekistan you can’t buy train tickets online, you have to go to the train station. So off I went to the train station and got my ticket which was fairly straightforward. Or so I thought. More on that later.
The train station was right near the entrance to the metro and the metro in Tashkent is one of the major sites to see. Using the metro you can see how much the former Soviet Union had invested in their Soviet States. The Tashkent metro was modeled after the one on Moscow and it really is a beauty. Each station is elaborately designed with soaring ceilings and magnificent lighting.
Taking pictures in the metro however is forbidden as there was a bomb attack several decades ago. Security is tight at the entrance to the metro but the officer on duty, knowing a tourist when he saw one I suppose, just waved me in.
The idea was to get off at a stop near a restaurant recommended by lonely planet but the metro opened onto another confusing criss-crossing of boulevards. I realized I had absolutely no idea where this restaurant was so I called a taxi again, this time to the Chorsu bazaar, Tashkent’s major market. Before tackling the bazaar, I grabbed lunch at a nearby cafeteria. Soup was OK but the noodle dish was dreadful. Between the restaurant and the bazaar was “bookshop row”. One bookshop after another were displaying their wares. It was hard to tell what was on sale but they certainly did not look like Western best sellers or bodice-rippers. They seemed very serious, had no pictures on the cover and seemed possibly quite religious.
Also in the neighborhood was the Kulkedash Medressa and Juma Mosque. Bustling with people, this was clearly a popular meeting spot. Many of the interior cells of the Medressa were devoted to crafts such as calligraphy and wood-carving. Small boxes carved from oak were a popular item.
Speaking of religion, I would say that Uzbekistan was substantially more conservative than Kazakhstan. I saw more women in long gowns and head scarves although by no means everyone. The younger women adopted a more western style but always dressed modestly.
The Chorsu bazaar was quite a trip. It was a vast circular space filled with every single type of food you could ever name. There were sections devoted to meat, dairy, spices, nuts, seeds and dried fruit. There were gigantic radishes as big as tomatoes, plump red turnips plus greens and plenty of dill.
I was hoping to find a place that sold jewelry or handicrafts or fabrics but no such luck.
By now the gray weather had settled into a drizzle so I decided to return to the hotel and make plans for the end of my trip. I arranged my flight from Tashkent to Almaty with no trouble using Bravofly. It was a flight that for some reason did not appear on the Uzbekistan Airways website. The original plan was Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara-Khiva but working out a flight from Khiva back to Tashkent became a nightmare. By the time I got a credit card to work on the Uzbekistan Airways website, there were no places left on the flight I wanted. It was dispiriting. The travel arrangements were getting so stressful I realized that I needed to dial it down a notch. Forget about Khiva and spend extra time in Samarkand and Bukhara which were the real highlights anyway. Also the weather forecast looked extremely spotty for the next week. I wanted to stay long enough to get some sunshine in these legendary places!
On the one hand it’s great to have all of your travel arrangements locked in place but on the other hand not having flexibility can make you overly subject to bad weather. Six of one half a dozen of the other.
I ducked into a neighborhood restaurant that was about to close but they sent me on my way with some takeout pilaf and bread and a piece of chicken. It turned out to be just awful. Maybe the worst meal I’ve ever had.