Uzbekistan Unveiled: Central Asia’s perl

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan has not been easy. A lady was stopped because she was bringing too many fabrics and carpets than allowed. My travel mate, Jasir, also had problems, as he bought a book written by the first president of Turkmenistan about how to be a good person in this world, a kind of a bible for Turkmens. The problem is that the book was in Russian, and he doesn’t know Russian. Anyway, we managed to speak with an officer in English and went through. Also, the picture on my passport caused some issues, but given that only half of the face was visible, instead of taking the front picture of my face, the officers at the border decided to take only a profile picture, for the half-visible side. Luckily, the sergeant was an AC Milan supporter, therefore being an Inter Milan supporter was partially useful this time: we managed to divert the discussion towards football.

At the exit of the border, many taxi drivers were waiting for the people coming out. There is no public transport, and the Dashgouz-border is far from any city. Here, taxi drivers ask for a huge amount of money, but the true price is around 10 Euro. We managed to exchange the money in Uzbek SOM before crossing the border (1 Euro = 12850 SOM at the moment of writing), and that was a huge improvement in the negotiations. People here do not know English; they only know Uzbek and Russian, so the only way to talk is with gestures (Italian for deafs), a few names of cities, and money in your hand; the latter is the most convincing. We managed to enter a taxi for 100K SOM, but after five minutes, the taxi driver turned his phone with “200K” written on it. At that point, I wrote on his phone the agreed number of 100K, and he turned around and brought us back to the border. There we started to negotiate again with other taxi drivers, with a lot of patience, the main ingredient needed during the negotiations. In the end, we managed to enter this taxi shared with other 4 local people.

One of the things I am scared of is cars whose engine has been converted to a gas engine. We were seated in an improvised seat just against the gas bottle present in the trunk, our luggage were tied on top of the car. The position was very uncomfortable, and the travel lasted more than 1 hour as we first had to go to Urgench to drive these people who were with us. They were living in Soviet-style buildings in the neighborhood of Urgench, with peeling paint and broken windows along the stairs. During the way, we also stopped by a mechanic to inflate the tires of the taxi. At that point, I was already missing Turkmenistan, with our white comfortable jeep (a Mitsubishi V6) capable of safely running along the desert. But, once arrived at the hotel in Khiva, where we reunited with two other friends of mine, Greta and Samu, I completely changed my mind.

We stayed at the Caravan Hotel, and the owner is one of the kindest people on Earth. He knows to speak English, and he is always there for you to fulfill any possible request. Greta asked to have longer sheets for the bed, and she got them. We asked for hot milk for breakfast, and he went out to buy it. Also, he noticed from my passport that it was my birthday, and when we came back from dinner, we found a huge cake for me at the reception of the hotel. The day after he led us to the Bazaar where we bought some local honey, fruits, and nuts. He also paid for the taxi to go to the bazaar and also for our taxi to the station when we had to leave Khiva. I usually don’t like to use names of places on this blog, but when the places are so outstanding, I cannot avoid recommending them.

Khiva is an incredible city; the old town is an open-air museum with tiled decorated minarets and domes. The typical orange color of the buildings and the blue tiles produce surprising and delightful light effects. When night comes, the buildings get lit, and the atmosphere is magical. The food is also exquisite, mostly based on beef, lamb, and chicken. The pumpkin soup in this period (October) is also a must. Many madrassas and mosques can be visited with one single ticket, which can be obtained at one of the main gates of the old town. There are merchants all around the old town, and there is also an indoor bazaar, with shops for silk, fabrics, games, carpets, hats, and many other amenities; you should always remember to negotiate, but never be too harsh. Asking for half the price may interrupt the negotiation abruptly with no way back as people may feel offended, so give the proper value to everything.

From Khiva, we then took a night train (even if it was 9 in the morning) to Bukhara. The train has cabins where you can sleep, and the beds don’t seem very clean at first, but officers will bring you cleaned and sealed sheets to cover them, so the trip will be very comfortable. Also, if you take the train in the opposite direction, you may get the chance to sleep during the night hours. Once in Bukhara, we noticed that the station is not really in Bukhara, and one needs a taxi to go from the station to the town. The station is in Bukhara 1, while the old town and the citadel are in Bukhara 2. Actually, there is a station in Bukhara 2, but it was temporarily closed, so the trains now stop in Bukhara 1.

The main language here is Tajik, and only second comes Uzbek. The city looks bigger than Khiva, but with fewer things to see and visit. The old town has a couple of mosques, a mausoleum, and is full of madrassas, namely schools where religion, philosophy, and other subjects were taught in the past; some of them are still working today. The Mir-i Arab madrass is one of the most attractive, in my opinion, and it just stands in front of the greatest mosque of the town. The old town buildings stem mostly from the sixteenth century when the Uzbek tribes came to power. It was also conquered by Genghis Khan, but one of the few buildings that remain from the period before the conquest is the Kalyan minaret. It also lays in the square between the madrass and the mosque, sometimes this elongated building is also known as the Tower of Death. Indeed, the minaret was used both for calling the believers to prayer and for public executions. The crier first announced the crimes of the accused, and then the prisoner was thrown out of the 45-meter-long tower. Executions were often held during market days so that as many people as possible could attend. This practice has been continued even under the following kingdoms; it was only when the Bolsheviks came to power that both the prayers and the executions were halted. In the old town, mosaics with smaller and bigger tiles adorn most of the walls of the buildings. Shops and merchants crowd the cobbled streets, and negotiations can be heard at every step. Here in Bukhara, we could try the Borscht, a typical beetroot soup with beef and cabbage as well, served with bread and sour cream on the side. The main dishes are still all based on beef and lamb, but soup and vegetarian options are more available than in Khiva. Near the Bukhara’s Ark, the entrance to the citadel, there is a coffee spot, Coffexona, where you can try the Raf, a typical coffee created in Moscow during the Soviet period and named after the customer who asked for “something different” at the bar, Rafael Timerbaev. Raf is made of coffee, condensed milk, and vanilla syrup; even if I don’t drink coffee, this one was pretty good.

From the citadel, one has an overall view of the city from above. A panoramic point of view both on the old and new city, but nothing more than that. We didn’t stay long in Bukhara, just one day. Then we took a train to Samarkand. This travel was a pleasure for people who love trains. We moved from one city to another on board of different carriages, with beds, cabins, or just normal seats. The panoramas along the way vary from the desert to fields, villages, and steppe.

Samarkand, once the capital of the Timur’s Empire, a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea to India, with many vassal territories depending on it, nowadays is a magical city full of history and art. Its name became famous thanks to Amir Timur, also known as Tamurlame, because he was lame to one leg. His military campaigns in the second half of the 14th century created this large kingdom, and its name still echoes all around this town in the present days. Mausoleums, mosques and statues have been built to honor him. Here, he is considered the most victorious general, having won 18 out of 18 battles he fought. He also had 18 wives, and one of them built the greatest mosque in Samarkand for him. This majestic building can still be visited, just outside the main bazaar. The legend about this building is that the master in charge of the construction fell in love with the married woman, who on the other hand wanted the building to be finished before the return of Timur from one of his campaigns. The master proposed an agreement to the lady: if she would let him kiss her on her cheek, he would finish the building on time. She refused at first and told the master that he could have any of the beautiful women in her court, but he was completely infatuated with her. So he rejected the offer, and in the end, the only option remaining for Timur’s wife was to accept his offer. The master finished the mosque on time, but his kiss left a mark on the woman’s cheek. When Amir Timur returned to Samarkand, he was astonished by this enormous building built in his honor, but nowadays there is still no trace of what happened to the master after the king noticed the mark on his wife’s cheek.

We went into the bazaar, where we bought some souvenirs, as well as rare spices and sweets to carry back to Europe. We also visited a carpet factory, where carpets are still handmade. We had the chance to observe the whole production process and to learn how to distinguish a machine-made from a handmade carpet. This particular factory won many prizes, as the owner said, not because they are the best at producing carpets, but because they don’t use child labor, and the process is all human-centric, with no aid of machines. The farm has been visited by various statesmen, and there is a wall with pictures of them, from Germany’s president to Russian Federation’s president Vladimir Putin, passing from Kofi Annan, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, etc…

Whish I could work with the same dedition

The main square of Samarkand, Registon square, is bordered by three buildings, two madrassas, and a mosque. One of the two madrassas was built by a heirs of Timur, one of the most famous Uzbeks of all time: Ulugh Bek. Ulugh Bek wasn’t as good a general as his grandfather, but he was passionate about science. He built many madrassas in his kingdom, where five subjects were taught: Mathematics, Physics, Geography, Astronomy, and History. He also built an observatory and wrote treaties about celestial bodies. He is considered one of the fathers of astronomy, and many craters on the moon (as well as other planet’s satellites) have his name. Obviously, all the buildings in Registon square have been decorated with the usual mosaics of blue tiles. In front of his madrassa, there is another one, built by the people of Samarkand, to teach religion and philosophy, which were two subjects missing in the program of Ulugh Bek’s school. It is well known that Islam forbids the depiction of any man or animal, but one peculiarity of the latter school is that on its facade, there seem to be figures of animals. Those are actually mythical animals, so technically not forbidden by religion. There are two tigers which represent the students who are eager to learn; on their back, there is the sun (this is the feature making them mythological) representing the teachers who light their way. In front of them, there are hunted reindeers, or at least something similar to these, which stand for the knowledge the tigers are chasing. The last building is the mosque, in the center of the square. One thing not to miss here is the light show happening every night at 9 pm in the square. The square is also used once every 2 years for an international music festival. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the food is amazing. We tried the Samarkand Pilaf, a dish based on rice, beef, chickpeas, raisins, carrots and quail’s eggs. Another very typical dish is Samsas, a kind of savory pastry filled with beef and lamb, served with a tomato and oil sauce to be garnished while eating.

One curious fact about Uzbekistan, that anyone will note easily, concerns the cars. 99% of them are Chevrolet, usually white. Talking with locals, we understood why. Imported cars are taxed at an 80% rate, while Chevrolet has a farm in the northeast of the country. This pushes everyone to possess only such brand of cars.

We left Samarkand for our last destination, the capital city: Tashkent, on board of a train. We shared our cabins with a family with a small kid. We started the trip by listening to Uzbek lullabies, which had an effect also on my travel companions, but after some time, the kid woke up, and the trip wasn’t so relaxing anymore, but he was kind of fun anyway. Tashkent is an expanding city, but still has a Soviet footprint. Talking with taxi drivers, we discovered that up to 10 years ago, the main language in the city was Russian, and if anyone from the rest of the country wanted to move there, they had to know Russian, and some companies were also requiring a language test. Now, this has changed, and the main language is Uzbek. We did not have much time in Tashkent, but we were able to pass through the bazaar. Here, the market is huge, and one can easily get lost in it. Merchants are more stubborn and active than in other parts of the country.

My travel-mates on board of the train while I am writing this article

I may have also upset one of them when, in an attempt to free us from him, I said I didn’t like his pieces of patisserie after tasting some of them. There is one part of the city that is completely uncorrelated with the style of other buildings, the latter being mostly offices, residential, or political buildings. It is called Magic City, and it looks like Disneyland. It is a small village inside the town, and part of its buildings are replicas of different cities in Europe, from Amsterdam to London and Barcelona. There is also a replica of Casa Batl√≥ and the Big Ben. This was surely an unexpected discovery in this country.

This country has actually been full of surprises since the very first day. For me, it was unimaginable that a thousand years ago this part of the world was the intellectual center of it. Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a very famous mathematician from the 8th century, came from this part of the planet and is known as one of the fathers of Algebra. In Greek, he was known as Algoritmi, combining al-Khwarizmi and arithmos (which in Greek means number). Thus, the word “algorithm” comes from him. He also wrote one very well-known book at his time: “Algebr Wal Muqabal,” translated also in English as “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing,” which described his two methods for simplifying equations and gave the name to the subject: Algebra. One thing that contributed to the flourishing of this region was paper, invented in China around the first century and further developed in what today is modern Uzbekistan. In Samarkand, the production of paper was refined by using cotton cellulose. The craftsmen here produced paper that was thinner and cheaper, becoming the primary exporter of paper to Europe. The Silk Road passing through this country also contributed to its development, making these places a magical melting pot of cultures and people. We went back home to London with a baggage full of memories, both material and spiritual, as well as the unfaltering magnets for my aunts.

An unattainable country

The first act of this journey can be called: “Fighting against destiny.” I arrived at Gatwick airport significantly earlier than my usual half-hour before departure. Calmly, I approached the Emirates Airlines desk, and that’s where the problems began. I showed my passport, which, due to an unfortunate event (rain in the UK, very likely but also unlucky), had my picture partially ruined. Nevertheless, I had never had problems flying with it and crossing borders so far. This time, however, I was blocked from entering the plane. Nothing could change the Emirates’ ground attendants’ minds, not even my Letter of Invitation from the Turkmenistan Government, endless explanations that I was only transiting in Dubai (where I was supposed to meet my friend Jasir), or the fact that every security check had access to the Interpol system where they could see my original picture.

At that point, there was no time for panicking. I knew the only other airport connected to Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, was Istanbul. Thus, I went straight to the Turkish Airlines desk. There, I asked whether I could fly to Istanbul and then to Ashgabat with my passport. They also cast doubts, but they told me that with an ID card, I could have flown to Istanbul. From there, I would be on my own, even though my ID card was expiring just three days later. I summoned my strength and decided to go there. In the meantime, Greta, one of the friends I was supposed to meet in Uzbekistan (after Turkmenistan), called the general embassy of Italy in Istanbul. They told her that I might have more than one problem once at the Istanbul airport if Turkish Airlines there wouldn’t sell me the ticket to Ashgabat. Indeed, with an ID card expiring so soon, I couldn’t leave the airport.

While already on board and flying over Europe, my mother was fortuitously in Rome to a conference where the Turkish ambassador in Italy was also present. Without any hesitation she went to him to ask for help. In the end, I didn’t face any problems in Istanbul because the Turkish Airlines desk sold me the ticket to Ashgabat for the day after. In conclusion, the morale is Turkish Airlines >> Emirates. I would have arrived one day later in Ashgabat, but I had the chance to visit Istanbul, a bridge between the East and the West. Walking around, crossing the Bosphorus, staring at the millions of mosques and minarets, and listening to the Ottoman band celebrating some historical event of the Ottoman Empire was undoubtedly excellent compensation for all the troubles I needed to go through to get there.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

I then visited Topkapi Palace, the imperial palace, with its luxurious rooms, where sultans administered the empire, decorated with colorful carpets and tiles, the harem, the treasury, and the reliquary. The latter contains everything one can imagine about religion: the staff of Moses, the sword of David (the one used to fight Goliath), a box that belonged to Abraham, the beard hair of the prophet Muhammad, footprints of the prophet Muhammad, letters of the prophet Muhammad, and swords of the prophet Muhammad. The Ark of the Covenant was the only thing missing there. I must admit, I have doubts about the authenticity of all these reliquaries. Anyway, the palace also had an incredible terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, dominating both the Asian and European sides. After that, I attempted to enter the Hagia Sophia mosque, but there was an incredible queue, longer than 1 km. Given my limited time, I decided to skip it and just admire it, along with the Blue Mosque, from the outside.

Nevertheless, I have been able to visit the underground basilica, a Roman cistern used to store water for the imperial palace, incredibly similar to the mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings for its dark atmosphere. A fascinating statue of Medusa is hidden in one of the corners, projecting her shadow on the wall and petrifying the observers from her beauty. I concluded my brief trip in Istanbul by walking through the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. These are huge markets, as large as a whole village, where merchants from all over Turkey and nearby countries sell jewelry, fabrics, sweets, food, games, perfumes, and everything the human mind can think of. I like merchants, and I love observing them in the art of selling as they are truly the engine of every country, with their industriousness and enthusiasm.

Turkish people are very friendly, and I had the sensation that they appreciate Italians. I have been stopped many times, and people walked with me along the Bosphorus or in the streets and alleys around the city, talking about our countries (sometimes also about women) and cultures. I have also been invited to share a beer. Even though I was alone visiting, I never felt alone in this town. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy this beer because I had a flight waiting for me (this time for real). While in my taxi to the airport, looking at the sun setting over the city, one thought filled my mind: I need to come back to Turkey; it deserves much more than a single day.

I arrived in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, late at night. It was 3 am, actually. I had a COVID test inside the airport, but it was really just a formality; the swab was never truly inserted into my nose, just softly touched it. I had to go through the visa process, where they issued a visa for me, and then I paid for my visa and COVID test. After the passport control, there is also a luggage check at the airport exit. My flight was full of local people, and one thing that one can immediately notice (especially if one comes from the UK) is their inability to queue. They just amass in front of the desk and push and pull until it’s their turn.

The airport from the outside has the shape of a white eagle made out of marble. I was carried to my hotel, an avocado-shaped, astonishingly luxurious palace, where, unfortunately, I could only spend 4 hours. My friend Jasir was waiting there (actually sleeping). We were supposed to meet in Dubai, but life is sometimes surprising. Early in the morning, we were picked up by our guide to visit the capital. One immediately gets struck by the extensive presence of “White” everywhere. All the buildings are white, cars are mostly white, and if not, they are gold or silver-colored. This is not by chance. The government aimed to achieve many world records, including something like the whitest city in the world. So cars are only allowed to be of those colors, and buildings are all made with marble (the fanciest ones with Carrara marble from Italy). Cars not from Ashgabat must be left in one of the huge car-parks just outside from Ashgabat.

We visited the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world, the monument to the constitution, the monument to independence from the USSR, a monument to liberty, and a monument to a book. Apparently, the first president of Turkmenistan wrote a book about how to be good in the world; they translated it into countless languages and also made a statue for it. We went in front of the presidential palace, but it is not allowed to take pictures of it. Surprisingly, the Department of Physics and Mathematics was located in front of it. In my whole life, I have never seen such a fancy department. Usually, my department was always relegated to the corner of towns. We were supposed to visit the fortress of Nisa, an ancient Parthian fortress from the third century before Christ, at the border with Iran, but the Turkmen secret services blocked us because a “delegation” was visiting it at that point.

We went to eat in a local cafe, where we had Pilaf and dumplings, typical of this region. After that, we aimed for the desert, to the north of the country. The road soon after leaving Ashgabat wasn’t a road anymore; it was a mined field. Many camels crossed it freely; they are the real owners of the road in the desert. After 2 hours, we stopped inside a village to buy food for the night. Villages in the desert are poor; you can spot USSR trucks left there and used by the locals. The mini-market was selling unpackaged pasta and biscuits without any brand. The Coke wasn’t the original one, but there was everything one needs for immediate needs. We also bought a Turkmen beer to celebrate my birthday, which would have been the day after. We visited two craters, the result of Soviet gas excavations in the 1970s, one filled with water and another with mud to stop the gas from leaking, before reaching the Gate of Hell.

Bubble of gas methane and propane are visible as a foam on the surface of the water

The Gate of Hell is a crater, which was also created by Soviet scientists while looking for gas in the soil. The ground collapsed due to a void underground, and gas started leaking out. In the beginning, no one cared, but after some time, the nearby villages started to smell it, and one night, two shepherds with their sheeps were found dead near the crater. Therefore, the Soviets decided to light it in an attempt to stop the leaking. They calculated that in a few days, maybe weeks, the crater would run out of gas, but 40 years later, the crater is still burning, and one cannot be if not astonished by its effect. I had the chance to read and study next to the crater while looking into its burning flames, and this is an image that will always stay with me.

Once darkness arrived, the temperature in the desert fell steeply. So, we went back to our camp and prepared our Yurt, a typical West Asian large tent where we would spend the night. It is very comfortable and also had a wood heater inside. We heated our food next to a fire that the camp guardian lit to cook food for some other tourists. They also shared two baked potatoes with us. In turn, we gave them some Turkish delight I bought in Istanbul to celebrate my birthday, happening that night. After dinner, we went back to the Gate of Hell to enjoy it during the night. The atmosphere is completely different, and the crackling and popping of the flames filled the air. I offered the Turkish delights to a couple of Mexican tourists there and exchanged some words before heading back to the camp. When walking back, we lost our way in the desert, just at the moment when we were talking about the fact that if anyone were to be lost, they could always spend the night next to the crater where the temperature was higher (I would say around 30 degrees Celsius). Luckily, the Mexican tourists and their guide were still there at the crater, which emits a reddish light when looked at from a distance, so we reached them and went back to the camp together.

Our Yurt was a sauna at that point because of the heater, but 2 hours later, by midnight, the fire ran out, and it started freezing inside. The sleeping bags were warm enough, but when one needed to get out of them for any reason, the suffering was real. I woke up around midnight and went outside the Yurt to stare at the starry night. Nights in the desert are amazing. There is no point in the celestial sphere left unlighted. Stars completely fill every corner, and the Milky Way crosses the dark like a river through the fields. Whenever I look at a sky like that, I wonder about the questions that the human race has been asking since the beginning of time: why are we here? Are we alone? Is all of this created? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is time and space? What is my role in all of this?

I started getting anxious, and I had the sensation that I wasn’t doing anything worthy with my life. But at that point, the cold was biting me, and the survival instinct took over, driving me back to the Yurt. The night at that point didn’t pass so smoothly, and when Mercury decided to lead the sun out from the dunes of the desert, we finally woke up and had our quick breakfast. It was 3/4 degrees, and the shivers were uncontrollable.

In the end, we jumped in the car and headed towards the border with Uzbekistan. After a double passport check, a passage on top of a Soviet-era bus, some troubles with my passport, and some small talk about Italian football (which helped me divert attention from the passport; sometimes being Italian has its perks), we managed to cross it. Although there were many problems to reach Turkmenistan, this trip has been one of my favorites, and I would like to go back to Ashgabat to explore it more than I was able to do. Now, let’s enjoy Uzbekistan though.