Gaya Travel team was given the great opportunity to experience Uzbekistan, a country that not many Malaysians are familiar with, but with enormous tourism potential. Join the team as it explored Tashkent and Khiva in this issue.
Since this was our first time to Uzbekistan on a familiarisation trip courtesy of the Uzbekistan government, we were not quite sure what to expect. The trip’s itinerary gave us the opportunity to personally experience the main tourist destinations in the country: Tashkent (the capital city), Khiva, Bukhara, a quick detour to Shakhrizabs (the place where the Uzbek legendary hero from the 14th century, Amir Timur, was born) and Samarqand.
What we only knew prior to our trip was that places like Samarqand and Bukhara were once beacons of Islamic culture and learning during the Middle Ages, therefore filled with splendid vestiges, landmarks and attractions that testify to that glorious age, significant so much so that UNESCO conferred them as part of the World Heritage list.
Prior to leaving for Uzbekistan, during the session with the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to Malaysia, His Excellency Sabitov Shukur Abdurahmanovich confessed with humility and dignity that Uzbekistan’s tourism still has some distance to go to catch up with countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia considering it only gained independence 21 years ago, after breaking away from the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan was first occupied by the Russian Empire from 1860 to 1920, followed by the Soviet regime from 1920 until 1991).
This familiarisation trip was one of Uzbek government’s efforts to further increase tourist arrivals into this country with population of 29 million. Malaysia is considered a high potential market due to the relatively short flight duration from Kuala Lumpur to Tashkent, which is only between six hours on a new aircraft and seven hours on an older one, served by Uzbekistan Airways and code sharing with Malaysia Airlines.
For the Gaya Travel editor, vacationing is not mainly about indulging in hedonistic pleasures in a destination different from home.
An excellent travel destination must have substance in the form of welcoming, sincere and honest citizens; rich history and outstanding vestiges of past civilisations; culture and art that go back hundreds or even thousands of years; built environments based on human scale that create intimate, cosy, communal and pedestrian-friendly settings; responsible and sustainable tourism practices being implemented on site; and stunning landscapes that remind travellers of God’s greatness.
Based on such criteria, it is no wonder that the destinations that stay on top of the editor’s limited travel list are Yogyakarta, Ubud, Siem Reap and Kyoto. The editor wondered: could any destination in Uzbekistan make it to that list?
We departed from Kuala Lumpur at 10:35 p.m. and arrived in Tashkent, the biggest city in Central Asia with the population of 3 million, at around 3:10 a.m. local time.
Upon arrival, after being cleared from immigration and collected our luggage, we were directly transferred to our hotel. Considering our programme won’t start until noon, we decided to explore the surrounding areas on foot once the sun was high and after sufficiently rested.
Tashkent has been the capital of Uzbekistan since 1930, six years after the formation of the Uzbek Socialist Republic in 1924, replacing Samarqand. Though the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims who subscribe to the Hanafi madzhab (Islamic school of legal thought), the country is largely secular.
Interestingly, we learned that if you are born as an Uzbek, you are automatically born into Islam – the same goes with Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Kyrgyz (a status not that much different than Malaysian-born Malays).
The sun shone brightly in the morning in Tashkent yet at the same time it was comfortably breezy. The hotel where we stayed was located in the centre of Tashkent, close to attractions like the Amir Timur Square (considered the centre of Tashkent), Amir Timur Museum and Oloy Bazaar.
As we walked to wait for the shops to open at 10:00 a.m., we noticed that Tashkent is a well-planned city with tree-studded streets and parks, wide pedestrian pathways, convenient underground passes and boulevards, including an efficient mass transit system that comes with beautifully decorated stations.
We were informed that Tashkent also used to have ancient structures and landmarks similar to the ones in Samarqand and Bukhara, but due to the 7.5-Richter scale earthquake that levelled the city and displaced over 300,000 people back in 1966, Tashkent underwent massive reconstruction, turning it into a modern urban space.
Since Uzbekistan was still part of Soviet Union that time, Soviet architectural styles were employed and their marks can still be seen to this day. However, such styles are now being increasingly replaced by those that are more contemporary or vernacularly Uzbek.
A tip for budding travellers: to learn about local lifestyle and culture, go explore and shop at the local markets in the destination you are visiting. During summer, the local markets or bazaars in Uzbekistan are open from 5:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.
The market that was close to our hotel, Oloy Bazaar, is neatly organised, selling arrays of local produce where locals shop for their daily provisions and tourists shop for limited array of souvenirs and handicrafts.But what interested us the most was the variety of delicious fresh and dried fruits such as cherries, peaches, raisins, apricots, and plums, including various assortment of nuts and seeds that would surely excite fruit lovers.
According to our guide, Utkir Kushbakov, Uzbek fruits and nuts are generally cultivated organically, without the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, because the majority of Uzbek farmers can’t afford the chemicals. Ironically, the fruits that are grown with chemical fertilisers tend to be more expensive in Uzbekistan than those grown organically, while in Malaysia it is exactly the opposite.
Lovers of organic food may want to head to Uzbekistan just for that reason alone.For those who love to explore larger markets that carry more choices of goods and wares, they can head to Chorsu Market, the largest market in Tashkent located behind a distinctly looking madrassah (religious school) and jami’ masjid (mosque used for Friday prayers).
It is here that locals often source for spices, vegetables, dried fruits, traditional and modern apparel, including carpets.To start learning about Uzbek vernacular architecture that normally comprises minarets, archways and domes, travellers can begin with Masjid Hazrat Imami, a jami’ mosque that was formerly a madrassah,which was completed only a year after construction began in 2008.
We admire the craftsmanship that was put into the building of the mosque, done by Uzbekistan’s own master craftsmen using local materials, except for the sandalwood pillars, which were imported from India.
This is also the place that keeps one of the four original manuscripts of the Holy Quran that dates back to 627 A.D., developed during the time of Caliph Uthman ibni Affan (the third Caliph who inherited the Islamic rule founded by Prophet Muhammad), with the pages made out of deerskin and the writing done in Kufic style.
The manuscript was initially brought to Samarqand for safekeeping during the time of Amir Timur and now protected by the state, thus kept in the capital city. Unfortunately, travellers are not allowed to photograph the manuscript due to security reasons.
To understand the influence of Soviet rule in Uzbekistan, a walk in the Independence Square would be able to give some insight on what the Communist regime left behind. The well maintained park is a positive example of Soviet communist rule – the park, including the facilities around it, were built for the benefit of the public, goes to show that not everything about Soviets were bad.
There are some sculptures that can be seen in the park such as the Monument of Independence, unveiled in 1991 to mark the independence of Uzbekistan with its large globe and statue of a mother with a newborn child at the base, signifying the birth of a nation.
On the opposite sits a statue depicting a mourning mother sadly looking down onto an eternal flame in memory of her children who fell when defending the country, to commemorate the fallen unidentified soldiers in the past World Wars. There are also sculptures of graceful storks (birds that are thought to bring good fortune) gracing the arches that mark the park’s entranceway.
Speaking of birds, it is interesting to note that an image of a bird is also placed onto the national emblem of Uzbekistan. Called Khumo, which is not too different from phoenix, the bird was considered holy in Zoroastrianism (fire-worshipping), the religion of the land before the arrival of Islam. These days, the use of the bird’s image is merely symbolic, representing magnanimity, nobility and service.
Once visitors are tired of the park, they can head to a pedestrianised area nearby known simply as Broadway to sit down for drinks and watch good-looking Uzbeks pass by.Two hours out of Tashkent lies Chimgan, a highland destination popular among Tashkent residents as summer and winter resort, situated on the Tian Shan range that borders Kazakhstan.
Along the way, as visitors begin ascending towards Chimgan, they will encounter native Kazakhs, noted for their gold teeth, selling local produce such as cheese curd balls, horse milk and nuts that are either honey-laden or salted.
For the wonderful view of Chimgan, visitors should take the chairlift to reach the 800-metre point above-sea-level hill. The ride could prove a bit adventurous for some since getting on and off the chair requires physical manoeuvring with the help of local chairlift personnel, besides having just one horizontal bar running across the lap while on the chair to keep passengers in place.
Though some may find the ride unnerving, they will be justifiably rewarded by the time they reach the top with refreshing air and picturesque view of the snow-capped mountain range all the way down to the valley below.
Once visitors are finished with admiring the view from the hilltop, they can then make way towards the resplendently turquoise body of water called Charvak Lake, a man-made water reservoir located along Chirchik River that also has a hydropower plant, one of the largest in Central Asia. Guests can enjoy water-based sports such as swimming, catamaran-riding and quadra-cycling here.
One of the highlights of Gaya Travel team’s visit in Uzbekistan was the chance to experience staying within the ancient walled city of Khiva called Itchan Kalla, which have been in existence for 3,500 years. The walled city is on the World Heritage List since 1991.
Khiva is located 25 kilometres from Urgench, the industrial capital city of the Khorazam province, considered as the hottest region in Uzbekistan. During July, the temperature could go as high as 50° Celsius, while the desert located at the outskirts can get up to between 55° and 58° Celsius.
To get to Urgench, which is 716 km away from Tashkent, travellers need to take the domestic flight that takes around an hour and a half to get there. The journey from the airport to Khiva affords travellers the chance to observe the many cotton fields that flank both sides of the road. Cotton is apparently the main crop of Uzbekistan.
According to legend, the city was founded since the days of Noah after the Great Flood the postcard perfect blue sky. At night, the air turned tranquil and romantic as lights were set against age old structures, made more dramatic by the presence of the moon.
To truly enjoy the place, travellers should allow themselves to absorb and take in Khiva’s charms, which could grow in them by the minute. They are also encouraged to simply enjoy getting lost in between the narrow lanes of this ancient city and discover delightful gems such as the beautiful carvings on an old door, old graves covered in burnt clay bricks, resplendent tileworks cladding the walls and domes, including Persian-inspired entrance archways.
If travellers happen to visit Khiva during by the clan belonging to the prophet’s son, Shem. His clan was looking for water around the area and after arriving at the place and tasted its water that was considered sweet, the relieved members of the clan excitedly claimed “hey vah”. The clan then dug up wells known as ‘Khivak’ wells, thus giving name to the area.
Khiva is magically immersive, literally transports travellers back to the charming times of old, when the merchants and traders of old still ply the Silk Route. Gaya Travel team were truly taken in by the whole atmosphere of this ancient walled city. During the day, the sandy-coloured clay brick structures and bluish tile-cladded domes on tall minarets stand stoically under summer, the best time to explore this car-free city is in the morning and late afternoon till evening.
Mind you, this ancient walled city is not a tourist trap – it is actually a living and breathing car-free urban space that is home to over 3,000 households. Visitors therefore have the opportunity to interact with locals who actually live in Itchan Kalla and observe their unique lifestyle.
There are certain attractions within the walled city that might interest visitors.
Chiefly among them is Masjid Juma, the oldest mosque in Uzbekistan dating over a thousand years old with its 113 impressively strong pillars. It is now a museum and has been continuously restored by the government ever since Uzbekistan obtained its independence.
Another attraction that will surely delight travellers is the ornately decorated Tash Hovli – which was essentially a harem and the residential quarters for the Khan (Ruler) of Khiva’s wives and concubines during the seventeenth century – with its exquisite tileworks adorning the length of its walls.
Visitors can also head to the Islam Khoja complex that comprises a mosque, madrassah and minaret to learn about Uzbek traditional architecture. Besides those attractions, various merchandises such as handicrafts and souvenir items are also widely available for travellers to take back a piece of Khiva with them.
Gaya Travel recommends that travellers stay at Orient Star Khiva, a former madrassah, located close to one of the walled city’s main gates known as Ata Dervata (The Father Gate). Built by the ruler of Khiva Muhammad Amin Khan and completed in 1855, it used to house over 260 students, making it the largest two-storey madrassah ever built in Khiva.
An interesting characteristic that makes this former-madrassah-turned-hotel truly unique is the incomplete minaret just next to the main entrance. We were told that Muhammad Amin Khan did not get to finish the minaret’s construction since he was killed in battle in 1855. The height of the minaret remained unchanged to this day.
Initially, Gaya Travel team was not sure what to expect from the trip to Uzbekistan, but now that we have learned what the country has to offer, Uzbekistan definitely possesses all the right qualities of becoming a successful tourism destination.
Gaya Travel team looks forward to our next trip to Uzbekistan so that we could soak in more of their exotic ambience and splendour that hark back to the times when the Silk Route was at its height, besides wanting to learn more about the eastern side of the country such as the Ferghana Valley. And yes, Khiva definitely makes it into Gaya Travel editor’s personal list of favourite destinations…