Shoba Jolly, a passionate photographer and avid traveller, loves to tell stories about people and places in faraway lands. She has held many exhibitions of her photographic work at The Aparna Caur Gallery, the Habitat Centre in New Delhi, and in New York. When she told us she was going to exotic Uzbekistan, we couldn’t wait to hear all about her trip! Over to Shoba:

Uzbekistan, Photo by Sultonbek Ikromov

Sitting snugly on an Uzbekistan Airways plane to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I glance out of my window only to be jolted upright – the stark, harsh, desolate panorama of the Hindu Kush mountains below, seems so close…

I am transported far back in time, when hordes of invaders such as Genghis Khan and Timur thundered through and plundered these impregnable mountains, ravaged the prosperous, flourishing cities on the legendary Silk Route, much of which today is Uzbekistan.

After a comfortable three-hour direct flight from New Delhi to Tashkent, I  am whizzing through the modern capital, and the violent barbaric visions that the mountains evoked, have all but gone. A contemporary, well groomed city presents itself, replete with broad boulevards, fountains and immaculately laid out squares bursting with the colour of thousands of flowers bobbing in the wind. A distinct scent of the orderliness and strict governance inherited by this former Soviet Republic, pervades my senses.

We pass by an imposing statue of Amir Temur, who, equally revered and feared by all, invaded the Delhi Sultanate in 1398, unleashing terror and boundless cruelty.  The next day, after a good night’s sleep at the plush Hotel International on Amir Timur street, I am happy to discover how easy it is to explore the city, as cabs and buses are easily accessible, as is the underground Metro. The Uzbekis are warm and friendly, eager to help, and many of the younger generation speak English.

Khiva, Uzbekistan, Photo by Chi Lok TSANG

Khiva:

The next day, a short flight from Tashkent transports me to Urgench, from where a 30-minute drive by cab takes me directly to Khiva. To get a true feel of  the country’s history, this 6th century UNESCO World Heritage site is a “must see” for any visitor.

I check into my charming boutique hotel, Malika Kheivak, on 10 Islam Hoja Street, located, to my delight, right outside the ‘Itchan Kala’, or Walled City. Excited,  I immediately saunter into the ramparts of the city, and am surrounded by the colour blue! Grandiose mosques, imposing mausoleums, exquisite madrassas, all intricately adorned with vivid blue tiles… Glazed tiles and majolica in a thousand shades of blue…turquoise, aquamarine, cyan, teal, cerulean; all reminiscent of some Caribbean ocean. The Kalta Minor, (short minaret), built by Mohammad Amin Khan, and completely draped in luminescent blue, shimmers like a jewel in the setting sun.

In the midst of all this precious architecture are well laid out pedestrian lanes, dozens of little silk weaving shops, carpet shops and “chai” stalls. Delicious aromas of freshly baked Uzbeki snacks waft through the air, and friendly hawkers, flashing gilded smiles, implore you to take a look at their stocks of souvenirs and fur caps in every style.

Later, as I dine alfresco in the lap of these charismatic monuments, heady with the local wine and musical strains of the “Ud,” I look up at the stars and the cruel story that Khiva once held the largest slave market in the world, seemed jarring and at odds with the emotions evoked by this magical and exquisitely alluring city.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara, Photo by Zuyet Awarmatik

Bukhara

The next morning, a one hour flight transports me to the beautiful, ancient desert city, Bukhara. 

My hotel, The Zargaron, is right in the midst of the ancient city that Genghis Khan invaded about 800 years ago. The infamous wild Mongol desecrated the mosques, terrorized and violated the hapless people, and rode off with all the skilled artisans, the like s of whom created the mesmerizing blue domed Kalyan Mosque and the massive Ulugbek Madrassah .

A veritable paradise for lovers of antique carpets, Bukhara offers priceless rugs like the double woven sumacs and the Bukhara turkmens. Wandering along the labyrinthine alleyways, it isn’t  long before I acquiesce to the smiling, beckoning carpet sellers and agree to risk a chance at bankruptcy. Within minutes, endless bowls laden with dried apricots, peaches and almonds appear, and cups and cups of delicious chai, all testimony to the warm, friendly and simple people, and their unsolicited hospitality, which is universal all over Uzbekistan. To say that you are from India, is to invite chants of ‘Hindistan!! Raj Kapoor! Shah Rukh Khan!’, and before you know it, someone has broken into song, “Mera Joota hai Japaani..!”

I am totally bowled over by the luscious carpets, but settle for bedspreads and runners with intricate Suzzane hand embroidery, a uniquely Uzbeki craft.

Dinner is a sumptuous affair that night. Familiar sounding dishes with very different flavours are served course by endless course. “ Non” similar to “naan”, and “Plov” which is a delectable rice pulao brimming with dry fruit, and luscious kebaps ( kababs) give me sudden amnesia about my diet resolutions, and I gorge with  unfettered abandon on the delicious Uzbeki meal.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Photo by Artem Bryzgalov

Samarkand

Driving onwards to Samarkand the next morning, I cross an idyllic countryside, replete with cotton fields, mulberry trees, and ensconced in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. A farmer on a donkey and a smiling old woman in traditional attire wave cheerily at me to complete this charming bucolic scene, so different from the steel and glass high rises and cold materialism of the so called “developed” world. I find myself falling into a reverie on how life would be more meaningful, carefree and fulfilling in these pastoral lands.

Three hours later, I have arrived at Timur’s capital city Samarkand. To my surprise, I find a modern bustling city, very different from Bukhara and Khiva, and I am shaken out of my languid countryside dreams.

But, next morning, the veiled modernity of Samarkand is lifted, as I begin to visit the treasure trove of historical monuments embedded in blue patches all over this legendary city. The magnificent Registan, which is the site of three great Madrassahs, and built by Timur’s son, the legendary astronomer, is Samarkand’s most famous landmark. The sophisticated geometry of tile work, architectural patterns and calligraphy is a sight to behold.

Registan Street, Photo by Artem Bryzgalov

A visit to the necropolis known as Shahi Zinda is a must, as for the Uzbekis, Shahi Zinda is second only to Mecca in Holiness. The Prophet’s cousin was mortally wounded at these walls and hid underground where he continued to live, and thus the name Shahi Zinda or “Living King”.

Later, at the mosque of Bibi Khanum, I listen in utter rapture as I am told a famous tale about the beautiful queen of Timur. When her husband was away at war, the loving queen ordered a monument to be built as a surprise for him when he returned. The architect however, spellbound by her ethereal beauty, agreed to complete it only if he could kiss the queen just once. Eager to have the monument ready in time, the beleaguered queen acquiesced, and let the brazen architect kiss her cheek once through her veil. When the cruel Timur returned and heard about this , he was so enraged that he took his queen to the top of the tower and pushed her to her death.

Shahi Zinda, A necropolis in Samarkand, Image Source

A breeze blows softly, and as I close my eyes, visions of the exquisite blue tiled mosques, the richly designed red carpets, mounds and mounds of delectable dry fruit and the enchanting smiles of the handsome and hospitable people, all blur into a kaleidoscope like dream. In that profound moment, I know that memories of magical Uzbekistan will often return, touching me softly, whispering; memories always to be cherished and held precious in my treasure chest of travel gems.

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