"Tashkent had been levelled during an earthquake in the 1960s and rebuilt by the Soviets in swathes of concrete. There was still a sizeable Russian community in the city, making it a contrasting place of mosques and mini-skirts, Russian rap and Uzbek folk music. Tea-houses full of bearded men wearing skull-caps and shrouded in smoke from skewers of sizzling shashlik evoked a timeless image of the Silk Road. Next door, a new Korean pizza restaurant attracted upwardly mobile young Russians and Uzbeks with the Backstreet Boys blaring from the entrance over the clink of vodka glasses."
Christopher Aslan Alexander "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" 2010
The capital of Uzbekistan, and Central Asia's premier metropolis, Tashkent betrays little of a 2,000-year history at the crossroads of ancient trade routes. Yet this modern city of nearly 3 million people, the fourth largest in the CIS after Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev, holds much to arrest the curious traveller, from imposing squares, monumentalist architecture and fine museums, to the mud-brick maze of the old Uzbek town, autumn colours on dappled poplar lanes and the sweet spray of fountains on burning summer days. Tashkent is by far and away the largest city in central Asia: only Kabul comes anywhere close.
Sprawling Tashkent, Central Asia's hub, is an eccentric kind of place. In one part of the city Russian-speaking cabbies scream down broad Soviet-built avenues. Across Old town, old men wearing long, open-fronted chapan (quilted coats) cart nuts through a maze of mud-walled houses towards a crackling bazaar. In a third part of town hundreds gather amid steaming cauldrons for their daily repast of plov. A stroll through any bazaar reveals the ethnic diversity of the people, with not only Uzbeks, Tajiks and Russians but also Crimean Tartars, Koreans, Bukharan Jews and other unexpected minorities each contributing to Tashkent's cultural smorgasbord.
Though first impressions may be of chaos, concrete and cars, a stroll through the hackstreets of the Old City or a rummage in Chorsu Bazaar reveals an older, slower way of life that continues to underpin modern life.
Too frequently passed over in favour of the Silk Roads UNESCO stars, Tashkent is a vibrant crucible of historic architecture and Islam, Soviet town planning and propaganda, and 21st-century nation building. The varying, often seemingly incompatible strands of modern Uzbek identity are all entwined in Tashkent, and to understand both where Uzbekistan has come from and where it is going, you need to come here.
Like most places that travellers use mainly to get somewhere else, Tashkent is no instant charmer. But peel under its skin and suddenly you are thinking, hey, maybe it's not all that bad. Many expats truly love living in Tashkent, and many visa-foraging travellers find themselves wishing they could stay a few more days. And it's not just Tashkent's Jekyll-and-Hyde, Muslim-and-Soviet oddness that gets people's attention. There is a cosmopolitan populace enjoying real, live culture, a rapidly improving restaurant scene and the best nightlife in the Muslim world east of Beirut (or at least Baku). There is also plenty of green space, a clutch of interesting museums and, within a 1-hour drive, great hiking, rafting and skiing in Ugam-Chatkal National Park.
A stones throw from the capital in Tashkent and Sirdaryo viloyati (provinces), the Syr Darya River carves up the steppe and cultivated lands. To the northeast of the city, the Chatkal National Park, with its alpine meadows and mountain forests, is a welcome natural haven amongst the mines, factories and infrastructure projects that are driving the Uzbek economy forwards.
Before the 1966 earthquake, the Anhor Canal separated old (Uzbek) and new (Russian) Tashkent, the former a tangle of alleys around the Chorsu Bazaar, the latter with shady avenues radiating from what is now Amir Timur maydoni (square). The city has since grown out of all proportion and sprawls over a vast plain. Covering it on foot requires long walks and it’s best to use public transport.
Traditional Uzbeks perhaps still consider Chorsu their ‘centre’. The Soviet centre was Mustaqillik maydoni, which has attained prominence anew thanks to its huge Senate building. Another square, Amir Timur maydoni, is a useful reference point, with Broadway leading off to the west.
Tashkent’s main (north) train station is 2.5km south of Amir Timur maydoni; the airport is 6km south of Amir Timur maydoni; and the main bus departure points are about 15km southwest of Amir Timur maydoni, at Sobir Rahimov metro and Ippodrom Bazaar.
The city which I eventually reached in the depths of its winter sprawled extensively between the desert and the steppe. Though it was bitterly cold there was little snow about, but thick mud awaited the pedestrian almost everywhere, once the main streets were left behind. It was especially adhesive in the barren spaces that separated the endless housing blocks of the suburbs, and in the meandering lanes of the old quarter, which survived from the time when there was a considerable slave market here. Few of the old houses remained, partly because the city soviet was bent on modernisation and had condemned buildings of that period as insanitary, but also because most of the mud-walled dwellings had collapsed in the 1966 earthquake, when one-third of Tashkent was destroyed. Given that this was a notoriously unstable area which had already suffered disaster, I didn't expect to find that the city's great pride nowadays was an expanding subway system modelled extravagantly on Moscow's. In one station the walls were lavishly decorated with mosaic, in the next station bronze sculpture was the motif, and at the stop after that chandeliers dangled sparkling from the tunnel roof. The trains ran as swiftly as any I have known, a taped message announced the stops in plenty of time for the passengers to pick them out, and the doors opened and closed to a melodious chime: but whenever I travelled underground, the compartments were just as crowded as at rush hour on the Piccadilly Line.
On the surface, the citizens commuted in electric tram-cars and in the red and cream buses which seem to do service throughout the communist world, here bearing gas cylinders the size of torpedoes on their roofs. They trundled along in convoy with cumbersome lorries belching sulphurous fumes that would presently join the muck emitted by factories which made Tashkent vital to the national economy. Only Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev were more significant. This was a very big base of heavy industry; including, someone told me almost in a whisper, an important part of Soviet aircraft production. Perhaps as a result of replanning after the earthquake, the traffic travelled out of the city centre along extremely wide roads which could take three vehicles abreast in each direction quite easily. Except in that small area of old lanes, the entire city was an overwhelming rejection of all that was traditional in the urban life of Asia, especially the closeness of buddings, the limited view from the front door, the acute sense of neighbourhood. Everything here was spacious, with large perspectives and a feeling that you might never get to know the people in the next building except in time of general catastrophe. Tashkent was not a place for agoraphobes, who might jib at crossing the average boulevard and be petrified at the prospect of the smallest civic park. In one of these was a monument to the earthquake, in which a family stood defiant as the ground opened up before them. At their feet, set into a marble cube, was a clockface announcing the moment, 5.22, when the frightful upheaval occurred.
By the time I had walked some distance on my first exploration of the city centre, I was quite ready for the revelation that here was the biggest square in the Soviet Union. It was two or three times the size of Red Square in Moscow, large enough to accommodate a couple of villages, and from any point on its perimeter it was only just possible to make out figures moving along the opposite edge across an expanse of tarmac and cobblestones. It was, of course, dedicated to Lenin; and although it was so vast that nothing short of the Eiffel Tower could possibly have dominated it, someone had made the attempt by erecting half-way down one side the nation's largest statue of the demi-god. An enormous base of red granite had been imposed upon the square in a succession of terraces, with a flight of steps so wide that a regiment might have marched up them in order to stand at ease around more red granite, which rose much higher in a colossal pedestal. On this was the figure in bronze, his bald pate, I estimated, about as far from the ground as the torch held by the Statue of Liberty. The head, gazing steadfastly at a distant horizon somewhere far beyond the municipal boundaries of Tashkent, was very stern and unblinking.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse