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Uzbekistan and the Silk Road

Ffestiniog Travel’s ‘Small & Traditional’ escorted tours are about discovering those areas of Europe and the former Communist bloc that still remain untouched by tourism. So when introducing a new S&T destination, a thorough, hands on approach is required to establish its suitability. Here FT director Alan Heywood invites us to share his experience of his recent research trip to Uzbekistan.

Having already added Moldova and Georgia to our successful “Small and Traditional” programme of tours to the former Communist bloc, we wondered where else might be of interest for a Ffestiniog Travel tour.

“Uzbekistan” suggested Ramona. I gulped. “Yes, it’s on the Silk Road, has lots of interesting history and culture, trains too of course and there is a series of familiarisation trips for genuinely interested tour operators as part of the government’s programme to boost international tourism.”

“Ah, now you’re talking. When can we go?”

Why write it up in a blog such as this? The answer to that question rather assumes that most potential customers know as little about the country as I did before I started and will therefore need to be reassured that they are considering booking a holiday which suits their aspirations. We were delighted with what we found but everybody’s tastes are different.

One final point – what follows in this blog can be no more than a précis. We were short of time and therefore unable to include some of what will eventually appear in our published tour.

Day 1

Although Uzbekistan Airways operate a direct service from London to Tashkent, this doesn’t operate on the right days of the week for the programme we had been given by our agents and so a foggy Sunday evening saw me on a Lufthansa flight from Manchester to Frankfurt. Ramona had already arrived from Bucharest and made her way to the hotel long before I left Manchester, some 90 minutes late. I felt sorry for many of my fellow travellers. Connections weren’t held and, before we arrived, a long list of affected flights was read out and passengers told they would be continuing their journeys next day to Prague, Milan, Stuttgart or wherever. Stuttgart, I thought, wouldn’t it be quicker to catch a train?

Baggage took forever to arrive and, at 10.30, I received a text from Ramona. “Where are you? I’m going to bed.” I didn’t blame her. Next, a 25 minute wait for a hotel shuttle bus and I eventually arrived at 11.30. I was thankful that our tour would fly direct from London.

Day 2

Ramona and I met for breakfast which was early as we had to be at the airport for 8.00 to check in. The plane was a Boeing 767, very comfortable and the service and food were good. I played chess against the computer in the seat back in front of me but, as this had no doubt been programmed by a Kasparov, it won. There was no point in having another game as the same thing would have happened. I tried ten pin bowling but, every time I was delicately poised to throw my ball, the person in front suddenly reclined his seat and my ball shot off in the wrong direction. So I resorted to watching the moving map and gazed at those faraway places passing below.

The flight was a little under seven hours and watches went forward four so it was already late evening when we arrived in Tashkent. This was exciting and mysterious, a “real” foreign country like none we had ever been to before. I had a shiny new visa in my passport but Ramona had to collect hers on arrival as there is no Uzbekistan Embassy in Romania. This inevitably caused some delay and here I learned my first lesson about Uzbek security – it is very tight. Stand in one place at an airport for more than five minutes and somebody will ask to see your passport and want to know why you are standing there. “I’m waiting for my colleague who is collecting her visa.” I was impressed by my composure under pressure until I realised the person I was addressing didn’t really understand (or believe) the excuse. Anyway I got away with it on each occasion until, eventually, Ramona appeared out of the immigration office.

The customs official was very nice considering we had kept him on duty for an extra half hour when he wanted to go home. We had to hand in a form containing details of currency and any expensive goods in our possession and keep a copy but this was straightforward.

Our local driver and guide, Bahrom, was waiting in the car park outside. Once again security rules prevent anybody not flying from entering the terminal. Bahrom explained that everybody in Uzbekistan is very relaxed about this kind of thing – it is far better than having somebody getting into the terminal with the intention of causing mischief. Later in the trip, we found exactly the same at railway stations and even had our bags scanned when entering the Tashkent metro. After a while, you hardly notice and Uzbekistan, like Singapore, has an excellent record for low crime rates and street cleanliness. Civil liberties groups in the west would be less than amused but the Uzbeks lived as part of the USSR for 70 years and so what they have now is actually quite liberal.

It was a short drive to the hotel near the city centre and, with a reminder that breakfast next day was at 5.00 with departure at 5.30, Bahrom bid us goodnight.

Day 3

Breakfast was indeed at 5.00 and we were impressed that the hotel provided it in the dining room instead of the more usual carrier bag of yesterday’s sandwiches at that hour of the morning.

Bahrom was on time and we set off through the darkness back to the airport. It was raining – surely it wasn’t supposed to do that. Most of Uzbekistan is a desert!

We were dropped off at the gate. We showed passports and walked to the terminal. Passports again and bags scanned. Then to the check-in. Passports again and, in return we were given boarding cards. We dropped our suitcases and went into security. Here we got the full works – passport, boarding card, backpack, body scan though, it must be stressed, without the queues that accompany these procedures at UK airports – eventually we made it to the gate for our 7.35 flight to Bukhara, a short internal flight of around 90 minutes.

The plane was a turbo-prop Ilyushin 114. Daylight arrived shortly after take-off and after a low altitude journey with good views of the desert scenery, we arrived in beautiful sunshine. Here we were met by our new local guide, Dilya.

Bukhara is a small city with an old medieval city centre, so compact that exploration is easily done on foot. It was here that we first came across those beautiful domed mosques and madrasahs decorated in blue and white ceramic tiles that were to become so familiar on our trip. Nor should we forget to mention the colourful bazaars with their silk goods and tapestries on sale. Then there was the bazaar selling food and household goods – spices, dried fruits, bread, meat, vegetables and so on. Almost all food produced in Uzbekistan is still organic and the market place is an important part of daily life. There are no supermarkets in Bukhara!

There was something else too. Go into a shop and you are immediately followed by somebody waving a teapot. Uzbekistan is a land full of men running around with teapots. Tea is served (black, green or lemon) as part of the browsing process. They use china pots, cups and saucers too - none of your plastic mugs here. We went into a carpet store to admire some beautiful carpets, some in fine silk that had taken two years to make by hand. I was followed for at least ten minutes around the store by a teapot but, sadly, they failed to make a sale. Dilya then took us to a vendor of various teas which would be carefully weighed and put into packets for transport home. Needless to say, it was impossible to ignore the teapot here and the stall owner flashed an impressive row of gold teeth in appreciation. Ramona bought some tea and the smile widened.

Later in the day, we went to look at some small guest houses, similar to those we use in Romania where we can enjoy the local atmosphere. Not that there was anything wrong with the hotel chosen for us but we like to enjoy local hospitality on these tours if we can. We were impressed and the owners were most friendly and welcoming. We made a note of their names and Ramona took a selection of photos of bedrooms, bathrooms and so on. Getting the quality of accommodation just right is an important part of the job.

Dilya left us for the evening but not before she had arranged for us to enjoy a nice meal at a local restaurant.

Day 4

Next morning after a more leisurely breakfast, we drove to the railway station which was actually outside town. We already had our tickets (provided by the agency). Once again we had the security performance – passport and ticket at the gate, ticket, bag and body scan in the station building, passport and ticket to get out onto the platform and yes, you’ve guessed, passport and ticket to get onto the train. If you think that this is a huge irritation, you would be wrong. It is surprising how quickly you get used to it. The only people who might be irritated are those enthusiasts who want to nip onto the station to take a picture but, since railway station photography is forbidden, this isn’t an issue. Ramona did manage a couple of sneaky photos on arrival in Samarkand but this isn’t recommended.

The trains themselves are fairly standard ex USSR in design but clean and comfortable. We saw one of the new Talgo high speed units in Samarkand but didn’t get to ride one.

The journey from Bukhara to Samarkand takes around three hours and speed is moderately impressive. Lemon tea is served en route and whilst there is nothing remarkable about the semi arid scenery, the journey was pleasant enough. Indeed it would be fair to say that this isn’t a country of fine scenery but rather one of beautiful cities with an interesting history.

None is more beautiful than Samarkand where we arrived at 11.25. Here we were met by Denis, a man with an infectious enthusiasm for his lovely city and a knowledge of its history to match. First stop on our tour was the mausoleum of Amir Temur (1370 to 1405) better known to us as the Emperor and famous military leader, Tamerlaine. Over several military campaigns, he reversed the thirteenth century successes of Genghis Khan throughout Asia, the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. He had been born near Samarkand and this was his capital.

After a break for lunch and to inspect more guest houses, the tour continued and culminated at the impressive Registan Square – an open area with large mosque at the far side flanked by two madrasahs, all in the same ornate style with the now familiar blue domes and blue and white ceramic tiled facades. (It looked even more impressive later in the evening when floodlit).

Day 5

Our train to Tashkent wasn’t due to depart until 11.40 and so there was time for Denis to show us more of his home city including the bazaar. The railway station was an impressive building constructed in Soviet times. The trains seemed well used although it has to be said that the service wasn’t particularly frequent. International services served an array of Russian destinations whilst the train we were due to catch to Tashkent was the same one by which we had arrived the previous day.

We made our way to the platform and were soon surrounded by other passengers – Uzbeks of all ages with a variety of suitcases, cardboard boxes, canvas bags and suchlike. The train was slightly late arriving from Bukhara but not much and, in the meantime, I was able to observe (but not photograph) other train movements in and around the station, including a couple of commendably long freight trains.

Finding our reserved seats in the open saloon was an easy matter and we settled down to our three hour journey. On the glass panel which divided the two halves of the saloon we noticed the name of the train, “Sharq”, etched in the glass accompanied by a string of camels – a sort of Uzbek “Ghan” no doubt.

By 3 pm we were in Tashkent where Bahrom greeted us and asked what would we like to see in the two and a half hours between now and a booked evening meal. We had spotted the railway museum right next to the station. “That”, we said.

No sooner said than done. Not only that but Bahrom had introduced himself to the museum’s General Manager, an ex USSR professional railwayman, who invited us into his cosy office – for vodka of course.

“Alan, you are my brother. Ramona you are my sister.” He was drinking quicker than we were!

It was getting dark before we emerged from the office but we were still able to have a quick look around the museum – Various USSR built steam, diesel and electric locos plus a German Kriegslok requisitioned after the Second World War. Whether this had been built for the Russian broad gauge for service on the Eastern Front or whether it had been subsequently re-gauged we don’t know.

We were due to meet Lola and Rinata from Elite Tours for a business meal and then, in no time at all, Bahrom announced that we must rush to the airport for our evening flight to Fergana. The rest of Tashkent would have to wait until later.

This was a very short flight and, in normal circumstances, we would have gone by road but time was pressing – so much to see and so little time in which to see it.

In Fergana we were met by a driver who took us into town and our overnight stop at the Hotel Asia.

Day 6

Highlight of the planned day’s sightseeing in the Fergana Valley was a visit to a silk “factory” to look at the whole process from worm to fabric but, as so often happens, it was the unplanned that turned out to be the real highlight. Those who are familiar with this kind of tour will know that one of our objectives is to get to meet the local people so, when our driver said that we could skip the organised lunch in favour of attending a wedding for a friend of his, we jumped at the idea.

The venue was a large restaurant in Rishtan and we arrived around midday. The function room was huge with a ground floor area surrounded by a balcony. Both were full. We were ushered upstairs and, after a while noticed all the women except Ramona were downstairs. The balcony appeared to be “men only” but nobody complained. In fact the men at our table seemed pleased to see us and were most welcoming. No doubt the vodka helped.

“Where’s the bride and groom?” asked Ramona.

“There isn’t a bride and the man is only six years old. It’s a kind of pre-wedding ceremony – something everybody goes through.”

We began to wonder if this was a prelude to an arranged marriage but we thought it impolite to ask.

The drinks flowed and the food was good – no sooner had we demolished a plate of goodies than another arrived. Then we spotted the young boy making his way to every table greeting his guests. Before long he was at ours – immaculately dressed in a dapper suit and with a smile to match. He shook us warmly by the hand and said a very clear “hello”. We later commented how charming he was for a six year old.

By now the music was in full swing and the women downstairs were dancing one of those “full of eastern promise” dances they do so well. Gifts were bestowed on the mother and grandmother of the young lad and everybody was having a whale of a time.

All too soon it was time to leave and we made our way back to the car. It was only then that our driver plucked up the courage to tell us that we had been to a circumcision party. We last caught sight of our young hero outside in the street with some friends. Having escaped the formalities, he was buying burgers or something similar from a street vendor. I must say that he looked remarkably cheerful, all things considered.

Later that day we were taken back to the airport for the flight to Tashkent where Bahrom was once again there to greet us.

Day 7

What bliss! We were allowed a lie in as Bahrom didn’t need to see us until 10.00. Bearing in mind that we hadn’t yet seen anything of the capital city other than the railway museum, there was much on offer. The lasting impression of Tashkent is that, although it is a city of over four million inhabitants, it didn’t look crowded. There were a large number of parks and other open spaces, each with either a monument to a past hero, a war memorial or, in one case, a memorial to those killed in the large 1966 earthquake. Wide, tree-lined roads criss-crossed the city and there was a complete absence of ugly high rise apartments which usually characterise former communist cities. No doubt there were some in the suburbs but we didn’t see them.

We checked out three more hotels to give us a good choice when planning the final itinerary and because we wanted to ensure that our hotel would be close to a metro station.

Bahrom was an excellent tour guide, not only showing us everything we needed to see but also explaining in some detail about Uzbekistan’s attitude to the Muslim faith. Perhaps he felt it necessary to do this in view of the increasing worries that tourists have about visiting Muslim countries but, whatever the motive, he was quick to reassure us that Uzbekistan has a secular constitution. This even stretched to the mode of dress. Hijabs are banned when working for the state in whatever capacity and burkas banned completely. Preaching in the mosques is also tightly laid down by the state – this Friday the subject will be the family, next Friday help for the poor and so on. All this makes it as difficult as possible for those with radical views to make their voices heard and Uzbekistan has been free from terrorism for nearly twenty years.

Day 8

As befits the capital, Tashkent boasts the largest bazaar of them all – a huge place which would dwarf Earls Court or Kensington Olympia. One building housed fruit and vegetables, rice, dried fruits, spices and so on, a second seemed to be full of butchers’ stalls, dairy products and the like whilst a third had household goods, wooden products and ironmongery.

After lunch it was time to learn about the metro – in any city it’s never very long before our customers ask about how to buy tickets for the metro or the trams. In particular, is there a day ticket? The answer to that is “no” but fares are very cheap. A token which operates the turnstile is bought at the small ticket office and is valid for any distance. (On trams and buses you pay the conductor –yes, just like the olden days in the UK!)

A minor irritation is that there are no system maps – not even a map in the concourse of the metro showing where the three lines go.

Once again we were warned that photos are not allowed which is a pity because all the stations have large and very ornate public areas similar to those very famously seen in Moscow. Each one is different.

Security was in no way unpleasant. In fact we found the police and staff very friendly everywhere and Bahrom explained that they would be in serious trouble if anybody complained about their unreasonable behaviour. It seems that jobsworths are absolutely not tolerated.

Day 9

“Bright and early” is a cliché. Let’s just say early next morning Bahrom came to collect us to take us to the airport. There were the usual multiple passport and baggage checks – we’ll miss them when they’re gone – the customs man wanted to be reassured we were not departing with more money and valuables than we arrived with and then, suddenly, we were at the gate awaiting our flight.

Once again the Uzbekistan Airways flight was uneventful but I do wish airlines would learn to serve meals which are appropriate to the time of day. Who wants a full chicken dinner at 7.00 in the morning? Not me certainly but I could have murdered a croissant, butter and strawberry jam.

We’ll let Lufthansa have the last word. On arrival at Frankfurt we found them on strike with no flights to Manchester. However, to their very great credit, the staff at their enquiry desk found me a flight to Heathrow and a BA shuttle to Manchester, all at Lufthansa’s expense. A mid evening arrival in Penrhyndeudaeth from a breakfast time departure in Central Asia can’t be bad, even allowing for the five hours time difference!

This trip took place before the November 2015 Paris bombings though after the Sharm el Sheikh airline disaster. However we doubt that any recent events coloured Uzbekistan’s attitude to their security beyond enabling our guide to draw our attention to the wisdom of having it.

View Ffestiniog Travel’s current Small & Traditional tours.

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