Silk Road Day 1: The Qu'ran, the shops, and botellon

Day 1: Monday, December 28th, 2015

 Today and yesterday we've managed to squeeze a lot in, both sightseeing and food.

First, the food. We've been eating quite well, and mostly 3-course meals. We've all gotten in the habit of asking Bek (our Uzbekistan tour guide) two things before diving in to the food in front of us: 1) How many courses are in this meal? 2) When is our next meal?

We've made some unfortunate eating decisions before we thought to ask those questions, and now are wiser from it.

Last night for dinner we ate at a nice restaurant, which unlike lunch, found us surrounded by almost all men. We ate a three-course meal, which was not what we were expecting. We got a large plate of lagman, which is a noodle dish with hand-pulled noodles, a delicious broth, boiled vegetables and lamb meat. They served it with a small dish on the side filled with chili paste. It was very much like some Chinese or Thai dishes I've had in the US, and Yvonne mentioned that the word "laman" means "hand-pulled noodle" in Chinese. After downing the entire plate, they brought us each a tray of four large meat dumplings filled with mutton and onions, with a small gravy boat filled with sour cream on the side. I ate half of one dumpling and declared myself full. Oh and we were then served one slice of cake per person AFTER THAT. The people there found us entertaining, and when we asked Bek to take a group photo he happily did, and the waiter joined in on the photographing, and then we realized that no one gave the waiter a camera.

I already spoke about lunch yesterday, when we ate battered fish, but I don't think I mentioned the bread. Let's talk bread for a second. Non in Uzbek, or kleb in Russian. Yesterday's lunch had the very best Tashkent Non, and nothing since then has lived up to it. It's round with a flat part in the middle, and the flat part is ornate, much like a Swedish holiday cookie wafer. Yesterday it was warm and buttery and soft and just the best. Nothing has been like it since. Tashkent, you are such a tease!

Anyway, the afternoon yesterday found us at a large plaza where we went to three mosques: Hazrati Imam Jome, Nomozgoh, and Tilla Sheykh. We took pictures inside a mausoleum that was built hundreds of years ago, but then destroyed in the famous 1966 Tashkent earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.5. It was repaired and rebuilt, and the Arabic on the outside of the building is two different shades of white...a bright one from the reconstruction, and a yellowed one from the original building.

Then we shopped in the Burakhon Madrasah. The madrasah had a handful of little shops selling handmade goods, and in a couple shops you could view the people making them. In one, two women were intricately painting flowers with enamel paint on miniature picture frames. In another, a man and his grade-school son use a chisel and block to carve curved details into wooden plates and incense holders.  They're surrounded by fur vests, carved wooden d├ęcor, and flattened/shaved bamboo portraits. In another, an English-speaking storeowner compliments me on my beauty and body type while peddling me silk and ikat scarves. She speaks 5 or 6 languages, including farsi, which definitely helps her sell her wares, making a customer out of one of our farsi-speaking tour groupies. I leave without a purchase and meander into another shop, and upon entering hear my multi-linguist shop owner friend from across the plaza shouting to me "Yes, Melissa! That is my friend's shop! She has lovely items!"

While I've experienced this sort of behavior in Europe and heard about it in places like Morocco, here it never feels like a cheap scam. These people are genuinely interested in us, in speaking English, and in peddling their wares. They aren't trying to rip you off, but rather they take pride in their work and want to give it a good home.

After the Madrasah, we entered a little museum that held the Qu'ran of Uthman, a large manuscript of the famous book hand-written on large sheets of buckskin and dated to be written at least 1200 years ago. In the museum were also dozens of copies of the Qu'ran in many languages, to prove how wide the Muslim religion has spread. There were Korean, English, Spanish and even braille copies of the book. 

We then went to Independence Square where we wandered around to see street vendors peddling trinkets and handmade bracelets on blankets in the street, and legitimately good artists boasting the talent to make your portrait in fifteen minutes. The sketches were amazing and completely uncanny, as I watched them work. However, what am I to do with a 12x14 inch portrait of myself? I passed.

So far the most restrictions I've encountered here in Uzbekistan are the restrictions on photo-taking. While in Independence Square for example, we couldn't take pictures facing one direction because some government building was off in the distance. At the mosques, some we could take pictures of, others we could not. We couldn't take pictures from the bus as we passed certain buildings. It seems hard to regulate, but Bek strongly pushes us to follow the rules.

From there we walked to Amir Temur Square, which had a large statue of Amir Temur, a famous conqueror. To one side was hotel Uzbekistan, once a dump and now a remodeled hotel (which our guides Eilidh and Ben prefer to stay at while in Tashkent). To the other is a building with two clock towers, one of which was built in the Soviet era, and one which was built when Uzbekistan gained its independence.

We went to dinner (see above) and then popped over to a liquor store (or the 'off-license' as Matt calls it, or the 'grog shop'  or 'bottle-o' as Ben calls it...those non-American-English speaking weirdos) to buy vodka and beer. A bottle of vodka costs about $2 USD, and a 1 liter of beer a little less. We stocked up and had a little botellon in the lobby of our hotel until it was time for bed.