Tashkent, Capital of Uzbekistan

Lois and Gunter in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Those of us who have grown up in a country that has known democracy for centuries have no idea what a difficult road this is for fledgling democracies that have recently broken free of the yoke of communism. While touring Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, we came to understand the struggle Uzbeks have gone through since gaining independence in 1991. Visiting the structures, monuments, and museums allowed us to gain an understanding of this proud and independent Uzbeck people.

Uzbekistan, like it’s Central Asian neighbors, is not particularly well known to the outside world. For about seventy years, it was one of the 15 republics of the USSR. Few westerners knew much about the culture and ethnic differences within this huge country. In 1991, after gaining independence, The Republic of Uzbekistan joined the family of “stans” that lie beneath Russia on the globe and span most of central Asia. We’re more familiar with Pakistan and Afghanistan because they’ve been in the news. Yet, it is Uzbekistan that contains the exotic ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara—reminding us of the Great Silk Road and the stories of Arabian Nights. It is Uzbekistan that’s the crossroads of cultures from Persian to Turkic, from European to Russian, from Chinese to Mongolian. We could see this cultural melting pot for ourselves in the capital city of Tashkent. Arriving on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul, we dipped into a vibrant, colorful, and exotic slice of Central Asian life. But this life is not the overwhelming chaos of New Delhi, or Cairo, or Saigon; it’s more constrained—with careful city planning, wide tree-lined streets, and well-kept architectural monuments and public spaces.

Having recently embraced tourism, Uzbekistan has yet to fall victim to globalization. Refreshingly, there are no ATMs, McDonalds, Starbucks or broadband outside the major hotels. But we did find remnants of Soviet-style restrictions and bureaucracy. And the people seem to like a certain order. That’s to be expected; change does not come overnight. We were reminded of this by our guide, Fak, now 33, who was only six years old when the country broke free of Russian domination. He represents this new generation—hopeful, ambitious, energetic and full of love for his country. It is the generation of his parents who remember how Russia had forced her satellite countries to furnish raw materials and products to fuel Russia’s empire; e.g., Uzbekistan was to provide natural gas, minerals (such as uranium) and cotton. Russia would, in turn, provide the food and products to keep the country dependent. So, when the country broke free, the people were starving; quickly, they had to grow and produce everything they needed to survive on their own. This was a tough time—becoming independent—but most saw it as a growth experience. They hated Russian domination as much as they loved Reagan’s “tear-down-that-wall” style of freedom.

Uzbekistan is a Presidential Republic. Elected for a five-year term, the president appoints ministers and selects provincial governors. The constitution was modeled after that of the U.S. and even the government buildings mirror the U.S. White House and congressional architecture. The current president, Šavkat Mirzijojev, took office on September 8, 2016. In his address to the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017, he stated, “We are deeply convinced: the people must not serve the government bodies, rather the government bodies must serve the people.” He promised to eradicate the child and forced labor the country had experienced in the past to pick the cotton crop for export to Russia and China. And, he abolished past policies, such as exit visas, and opened the country to tourism and other investment opportunities, hoping to grow other industries to replace cotton exports.

During our time in Tashkent, we wanted to understand the people and culture of Uzbekistan by viewing what was most important to them. And that desire led us to Independence Square.

Independence Square tells the story of Uzbekistan as a country. The old monuments of Karl Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were torn down. Three others dominate the square:

The Monument of Independence, raised during 1991, is a large golden globe that symbolizes the desire of a young, independent state to join the world community. The 6-meter Happy Mother monument, completed in 2006 and placed in front, depicts a simple Uzbek woman as the symbol of the homeland, life, and wisdom. Her eyes are fixed on her child, symbolizing the birth of the young, independent state. The child is an image of the future.

In the square, our guide walks us by a memorial to those who never returned from the fields of World War II. Near an eternal flame are tragic figures of bereaved mothers who await their children, sometimes called “The Crying Mother Monument.” More than one million Uzbek soldiers fell in battle. From all parts of Uzbekistan, people come here to see and remember the names of their fallen inscribed in gold.

Our next stop: Khiva, a town founded back when Shem, son of Noah, reportedly discovered a well there. Little did we know what we would find.

We booked our Independent Travel tour to Uzbekistan through Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours. Coincidentally, she was attending a travel conference in San Diego during our first weekend back home! She visited us to debrief and is bringing back my first two books to add to The Long Way Back she already has.

Our travel took over a day—from San Francisco, to Istanbul, to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When we arrived, our guide, Fakhriddin, was waiting at the exit of the airport with a sign. We walked into the cool early morning air to a waiting car and driver and were off to Tashkent Lotte City Palace. We were checked in by 2:45 a.m.

Günter and I were wide awake by 6 a.m. so we had a chat with AT&T in New York about how to switch our phones to Wi-Fi only and avoid international roaming. Then we enjoyed a deluxe east-meets-west breakfast soon after the dining room opened at 7 a.m. Our Day 1 schedule said, “check in and relax” but we were too excited. I’d fueled myself with a cappuccino and we were ready to stretch our legs and see the sights. “Just a short walk around the area,” Gunter said, “to get out the kinks from all that sitting. Then we’ll relax.” Famous last words. After 4.2 miles on our sports bands, we arrived back at the hotel exhausted. But already, we’d seen and learned enough to get a sense of place.

Navoi Theatre

Navoi Theatre. This Soviet-era Opera House, directly across from the Lotte hotel where we stayed, was built by Japanese WWII POWs but with the Uzbek design detail shown here.

Directly across from our hotel stands the huge Navoi Soviet-era opera/ballet theatre built by Japanese POWs using Uzbek architectural techniques. We walked around the huge building trying to get that concept into our jet-lagged heads while Fakhriddin (Fak for short) riddled us with other stories. I liked the one about the 7000 children—most of them Jewish orphans from Europe—that were dumped by the Soviets into the city of Tashkent along with orders to “just take care of them.” Rather than build an orphanage, the Uzbeks took them into their homes; sometimes half a dozen would be taken into one family and brought up along with their own children. That story introduced me to Uzbek culture: one of hospitality in which foreigners are treated as guests of honor. Tashkent has a sizable Jewish and Japanese population to this day.

I was amazed at the mix of nationalities and styles of clothing in Tashkent. Street vendors were dressed in multicolor dresses and scarves and clunky shoes with socks. But at the main thoroughfares, businessmen wore black suits, white shirts and ties with dark, highly polished shoes and women wore long sleeve blouses, blazers, and skirts at knee-length or slightly above—with nylons and heels. It could have been New York!

Tashkent plov and samosasAt one corner, an open-air restaurant was serving plov out of a humongous wok and samosas (meat-filled pastries) from another. “Take a look,” Fak urged. Plov—a conglomeration of rice, vegetables, and bits of meat swimming in lamb fat and oil—is a staple throughout Central Asia, but most closely associated with Uzbekistan. Each province has its own style, which locals proudly proclaim is the best. Rumor has it that drinking the oil at the bottom of the kazan (large cauldron) adds a spark to a man’s libido. “The plov here is the best,” said Fak while directing us to an oil-cloth-covered table. “You have to try some. I’ll make sure the cook selects portions that he’s pushed up along the side of the kazan, so you don’t get the fat.” Soon dishes of plov, samosas, and a heap of naan-type bread covers our little table. And we weren’t even hungry.

We walked off our lunch by walking through the near-by park, art lining the sidewalks. Then we walked a long way to the main post office to select commemorative stamps for a friend. By then, we were ready for a taxi back and a long, well-deserved nap!

Tashkent Barak Khan

If Day 1 was a taste of Tashkent, Day 2 was some serious touring. We walked through Old Town and much of the Khast Imon Square, ending with the Barak Khan Medressa (school) on the west side where we strolled along souvenir shops that formerly housed students. Northwest of the square, we peeked into the mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, a famed Islamic scholar and poet.

We ended our tour at the famed Chorsu Bazaar, one of Tashkent’s 16 open-air farmers’ markets. What an amazing and energizing experience! This slide show depicts a few of our many encounters with locals there:

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A restaurant bordering a park was the perfect place to eat and relax. As we were finishing our lunch, a bridal party asked their photographer to have a picture taken of them with us. Americans! How special! Who knew? This scenario would be repeated throughout Uzbekistan.

We booked our Independent Travel tour to Uzbekistan through Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours. Coincidentally, she was attending a travel conference in San Diego during our first weekend back home! She visited us to debrief and is bringing back my first two books to add to The Long Way Back she already has.

Silk Road Treasure Tours

Lois and Zulya in San Diego

Kublai asks Marco, “When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?”

“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go to the rounds of groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story; it is the ear.”     __Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

What stories will I tell when I return from the lands of Marco Polo, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan? And who will listen? What will you choose to hear? The first step has been taken: Gunter and I are underway, and so excited! We’re flying Turkish Air from San Francisco to Istanbul, and after a brief layover, on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The Culture and History of Uzbekistan

I enjoy reading about the history and culture of a country before I enter. This long flight gives me plenty of time. Although Uzbeks make up about 70% of the population, the country is ethnically diverse, with Russian, Tajik, Kazakh, Korean, Jewish, Armenian, Tartar, and other communities. Over the centuries, waves of mostly Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes passed through the area—interspersed with Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, and Mongols. We’ll meet descendants of a mix of cultures, dynasties, and cultures whose ancestors emerged and disappeared along the famed Silk Road. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and independence in 1991, many Russians fled and major cities who had been 30-50% Uzbek are now close to 100% Uzbek. I’m amazed to learn that Uzbekistan has a literacy rate of nearly 98%. Teachers are highly respected, and a higher social status is ascribed to those with a college degree.

Tashkent, our first stop, is the capital of independent Uzbekistan and by far, the nation’s largest city, with about 3 million population. One of the oldest cities, Tashkent was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219, but was later rebuilt and became a strategic center of commerce, trade, and scholarship along the Silk Road. Unfortunately, in 1966, a 7.5 earthquake devastated much of the old colonial adobe structures of Tashkent. Only a few older structures survived, so it was rebuilt as a model Soviet city, with wide tree-lined streets, vast squares, and fountains. Since then, many Soviet-era buildings have been taken down or remodeled with modern tinted glass, white walls, and concrete columns.

Uzbekistan with Tashkent

Uzbekistan with Tashkent

Today, Uzbekistan’s democratic president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power in 2016 following the death of his dictatorial predecessor Islam Karimov, has initiated a new development, Tashkent City, a magnet for foreign investors. He’s kick-started an economic revolution to transform the Uzbek capital back into a business hub for central Asia and beyond. But rapid growth has its downside: many houses in the historic mahalla district are slated for demolition to make room for glitzy silver skyscrapers, luxury apartments, hotels, and offices. The process reminds me of how we saw China demolish thousands of hutongs in Beijing to widen freeways prior to the 2008 Olympics.

The future of The Silk Road.

I’m a curious traveler. Yes, I want to photograph those famous teal-blue mosaic tiles brought into the Silk Road markets by the Mongols. But I also want to gain an understanding of these people of Uzbekistan who form a mosaic of different historic, ethnic, class, educational, and cultural backgrounds. And I want to understand what the future holds these countries of Central Asia.

We are seeing the birth pains of a new world emerging before our eyes. We in the West wonder where the next threat may come from, how to deal with extremists, how to negotiate with states who seem willing to disregard international law, and how to build relationships with peoples and cultures about whom we’ve spent little time trying to understand. Meanwhile, “networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather, they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” __Peter Frankopan.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time.

Uzbekistan and Central Asia

Do you stare at the window at work, nod off into a travel dream while watching TV, or dream of yourself in another place while you’re waiting in the check-out line at the grocery? Do you say to yourself I wish I could be there now…but I can’t? Maybe, someday…Why dream when you could actually do it? Here’s how:

Step 1: Prepare your bucket list and set your travel goals.

Do you have a travel Bucket List? If not, start a Pinterest Vision Board and pin your favorite travel ideas from the Internet. That will give you some ideas of where to go. If you already have such a list, so some additional work on it. I use an accordion-style folder and then add individual file folders inside. My Bucket List folders have expanded into an entire desk drawer over the years. You could divide your own list by national and international, long-term travel vs. vacation, must-do vs. nice-to-do, immediate and later, or simply year by year.
We’ve all learned how to set goals in business. We know that goals must be:
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Realistic
• Time-based
You can use this same goal-setting process to achieve your personal or family travel goals. For example, we added “Central Asia” to our Bucket List after we’d completed our world circumnavigation and wanted to travel to landlocked areas yachts and cruise ships couldn’t reach. About four years ago when traveling in Myanmar (Burma) we met a couple from New York who had been there. They recommended Uzbekistan because they had used a travel agent who had grown up there. We contacted her and set a measurable goal to go there in two years. That goal was achievable but not realistic because it was not the right time of year and we had time-based family obligations. We changed the plan to four years, and voilà! we will make that trip in April of this year.

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Step 2: Decide where to go and make your travel plan.

Decisions are never easy. And sometimes you can be overwhelmed by so many choices that the year goes by and you realized you haven’t gone at all. Think of it this way. Yes, there are so many places left to see, but you do not have to do it all at one time. So simply decide how long you can be gone and then block off that time on your calendar. Select a trip that fits your timetable and budget. If you don’t travel often, start small and stay close until you’re comfortable with longer trips. If you’re not comfortable traveling alone, go with a group or with a friend who knows the ropes.
What is holding you back? Bring that Thing out of the closet and examine it. Can you go anyway? If that Thing is money, think about what you can give up to make it happen. Going out for dinner? Going to theaters when you could get a subscription to Netflix and pop your own corn? Do you really need that new car, new sofa, new bike, new…? Remember, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” (see my last blog). If you decide not to travel, it’s because you don’t value it enough.

Step 3: Research your chosen destination.

This is the fun part. Do take the time to look through travel brochures and tag the specifics you want to see. Explore alternatives before you choose what you want. Research on-line comments about day tours and hotels, keeping in mind that complainers are more vocal than “happy campers.” Learn from the mistakes of others but stay optimistic and excited about the places you’ve chosen to visit.

The Travels of Marco PoloBuy guide books, travelogues, and history books and read, read, read. Watch movies and documentaries about your chosen destination. Immerse yourself into the customs and cultures of locals.
Right now, I’m buried in the romance of the Silk Road. My head is bursting with blue-domed cities filled with gorgeous blue tiles, remote yurts (yes, one night will be a yurt-stay), and colorful bazaars. I’m ensnared in the clutches of Samarkand, founded in the 5th century BC. In 329 BC, the walled city was taken by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda (Samarkand) is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” This strategic city sat on the crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia. In Bukhara, two thousand years old, I want to bury myself into Marco Polo’s world, so I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo, an illustrated classic about his excursions from 1271-1295. In Tashkent, the capital, I want to see for myself a city destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219 and rebuilt to become a prominent center of scholarship, commerce, and trade along the Silk Road. Altogether, I want to take on what has been called “the glorious weight of history” by understanding the customs and culture of just one country: Uzbekistan. Instead of sailing in the wake of ancient explorers, such as Cook and Zheng Ho, I’ll be traveling the sandprints of some of history’s greatest travelers and invaders.

The Travels of Marco Polo

What type of travel do you prefer? At our ages, Gunter and I opt out of group tours whenever we can. We prefer independent travel. We generally go through a travel agent who helps us plan our unique itinerary; sets up inter-country flights, trains, and cars; and books with a local guide. We also prefer “slow travel.” We choose a relaxed itinerary that includes time for leisurely breakfasts, “walking a village” (by ourselves, if permissible), and an extra day or two near the end for me to catch up on my journaling and posting before we head back.

Step 4: Make a commitment.

Those who achieve their dreams go out and do what others dream of doing. So, get out of your little bubble of existence today before you dig so deep into that comfort zone that you become mired and cannot claw yourself out.

“Some people live in a dream world and others face reality and then there are those who turn one into the other.” –Douglas Everet.

Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this  nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time.

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