Thursday, August 21, 2008

Aug 18 - Tashkent

An extra day for us, since originally we had been intending to take the early train to Samarkand, and now we were taking the evening train to far-away Urgench.

In our previous travels there have been some cities we just couldn't "crack." In Thessaloniki, Greece, we spent the weekend in a town that empties of locals on non-workdays. In Canberry, Australia, there was simply no "there" there. That city is designed so that all commercial activity is hidden on side streets. Now we can add Tashkent to the list.

Perhaps it was an omen of our inabilility to truly understand Tashkent that we shared a tram with a well-dressed middle-class lady in her twenties who sported a shirt reading: "Shake, Rattle & Roll Your Mother Fuck." (Oh, the wonders of the English language as interpreted by non-English speakers.)

We tried to do two things: (1) see the Chorsu area, including the Old Town, the bazaar, and the site that contains the oldest Koran in the world; and (2) eat plov at the Central Asia Plov Center, getting there before noon.

We finally had realized that we were within walking distance of a Metro stop, it being only one LONG block past the Grand Mir. We got on the metro around 10:30 am, after undergoing a short stop by Uzbekistan's finest, who checked our passports and looked in our bags.

The Metro is all marble, chandoliers, and high ceilings. Part of it was designed as a nuclear shelter, and all of it was designed in the aftermath of the 1966 earthquake which had totally destroyed the city. It is still considered sensitive, and one does not dare take photos. The token is a plastic "zhyton," the fare is 300 sum, and we bought an extra token as a souvenir. These are probably the cheesiest tokens around.

Chorsu is 5 stops away. We got out, and took a quick look at the bazaar. It was time to get on to the Plov Center, hopefully by 11:30. We decided to take a bus across, rather than the Metro again. We were told to get the 91 bus. So we walked over to where the buses where, and caught the first 91 bus. We rode for less than 10 minutes to the end of the line. We got out, walked across the street to a beautiful mosque, looked in, took a few photos, and asked someone to show where we were, relative to the plov restaurant.

We were in fact well on the wrong side of town, having taken the 91 bus in the wrong direction. So we caught the next 91 bus, rode past Chorsu, past all of downtown that we had now seen so many times, and turned north. It was now 12:30 pm. We got our near our destination (we thought), and caught a taxi for the last 5 or so blocks to the restaurant. Better safe than sorry.

The Central Asia Plov Center turns out to be just another street-side restaurant with one specialty. We ordered 2 bowls of plov, a bread, and tea. This plov was expertly spiced and topped with a quail's egg and sliced hen's eggs, along with pieces of lamb. Delicious meal. It truly is some of the best plov anywhere.

The price of the bowl of plov was 2500. The bread appeared to be 500 and the tea was 200. Imagine our surprise when the total was 7600. The waitress brought us a "corrected" menu with new prices taped over the old. Well, the bread was really 600, the cover charge was 300 apiece, something else was 150 apiece, etc, etc, and on top of all was a 10% service charge. At least the bathroom was free. This was our first introduction to the World of For-You-Special Tourist Pricing, which is prevalent over much of Uzbekistan.

It was now close to 2 pm. We walked back the 5 or 6 blocks to the Metro and took it back to Chorsu. Our first endeavor was to walk through the bazaar, a larger multi-story version of Mirabod. There we ate two ripe, delicious pears, and drank much cold liquid (sparkling water and bottled lemon tea). While we were drinking, we noticed a box that held Halal chicken leg quarters. It had been processed and packaged in Pittsburg, TX, USA, by Pilgrim's Pride.

We left the bazaar, walking toward an older neighborhood. Private housing in this part of the world is all inwardly directed. Large metal doors face the street: inside is an open patio surrounded by the living areas. Walking through the old town is hot, dusty, and esthetically neutral. So we decided to get back to Chorsu and find the Khast Imom, the official religious center of Uzbekistan, containing the library with the Koran.

We got out of the older city in which we had been wandering, out to a main road, and walked back. As we got toward some Muslim buildings, we wandered in and around. Eventually, at 3:35 (the Koran library closed at 4), we arrived at a ziggurat shaped building, and were invited to climb to the top. So we walked in circles up to the top, and found . . . the top.

Across the street was a grand dome-topped building. We high-tailed it inside, only to discover Uzbekistan's newest shopping paradise, the Turkuaz Hypermarket. Here you find not Korans, but stores selling real western brand-name clothing, and a supermarket selling something that could almost pass for peanut butter. (The ability to purchase peanut butter outside the United States and Canada is our standard for detecting commercial incursion.) The Hypermarket is so modern, that . . . the only toilets inside are sitters, not squatters.

Anyway, it was cold inside from generous air-conditioning. The toilets were great. In the food area, Mike was called Santa Claus (again) by the sales clerks. We bought some water, and scored the rare 50 and 25 som notes, and a 100 som coin, in change.

We had not seen the Koran, from about 700 CE, but it was time to get back to the SamBuh Hotel, finish packing, and get to the train station.

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