I am currently staying in Tashkent to teach a class on street photography together with French photographer Cyril Robin, a joint project of the German and French embassies here. As I’d never been to Uzbekistan or any other Central Asian country before, I was beyond excited to come here and have been delighted ever since. This country fuses so many different influences – though the official language Uzbek is a Turkic language (related to Turkish, yes, but also Kazakh and Siberian dialects) everyone also speaks Russian, the food is a mixture of arabic, turkish and russian cuisine, as is the architecture, and Tashkent’s inhabitants descend from Uzbeks, Russians, Koreans, and Europeans. While I spend most of the time with my more than lovely students, I luckily had a little time off yesterday to do some sight-seeing.
The first thing that surprised me was how lusciously green the inner center of Tashkent is, lots of parks, trees, and perfectly cut lawns line the wide streets, giving the city quite a natural feeling and somewhat tempering the already very hot temperatures around 36 degrees. Although water isn’t a good that’s abundant in Uzbekistan, the city’s government obviously decided it’s important to have a very green city center and most of these parks are artificially watered every day. Most of it is also only meant to be looked at instead of used, so unlike in Berlin you won’t see families having a picnic, let alone a barbecue, or someone having an afternoon nap in the shadow of a tree or even walking past a lawn.
As I mentioned, the streets here are wide, humongous, really. Now, I expected to see wide streets — they’re a common feature of Soviet city planning and were implemented here after a disastrous earthquake in 1966 — but although traffic in Tashkent is quite busy, the roads are never filled to capacity. The few drivers around are not really concerned about pedestrians’ safety, but as most streets are not jammed, I’ve not yet encountered any seriously dangerous situations. There seems to be no alternative to either option, as both biking and rental bikes have recently been forbidden (!?).
Still, getting around is fairly easy, even for tourists: if you don’t use the beautiful and well working metro (where photography is absolutely not allowed), you can just wait on the curb for someone to stop (mostly Daewoo Matiz drivers), name your goal and price (about 3000 Sum, or 1 Euro) and the driver will decide if he can or will take you. Everyone does it, groups of people, men and also single women, Uzbeks or even the German and French women working at the embassy. It’s completely normal.
The center of Tashkent is dominated by the giant Amir Timur Square with the Timur equestrian statue in the middle, circled by Hotel Uzbekistan (my hotel — four stars that must have been mainly awarded to the beautiful facade structure) and the Timur museum. Amir Timur, a 13th-century warrior, was installed as a kind of forefather of the Uzbek nation at the beginning of the 1990s to replace the Soviet symbols and historiography. What also disappeared in the 1990s were most of the big trees on the square, turning it into a unbearably hot, and thus deserted, spot in summer months with little shadow. Except the few obvious tourists, there’s no one around.
Departing from Amir Timur Square is “Broadway”, a wide pedestrian street lined with parks and trees that used to be filled with small shops and cafés and which was crazily busy until those mostly illegal businesses were removed 10, 15 years ago and the area was (once again) turned into a lonely street with only few spots to stop left. It left me confused why a city’s government would decide to re-design and clean up the city’s center only to leave it deserted and empty.
The main attraction, though, is Independence Square, a giant area with several ministries as well as the senate, and several crazy monuments. Another gigantic fountain (the city is full of fountains), for instance, a huge arcade structure topped with silver birds as symbols of independence, or the giant golden globe showing a map of Uzbekistan that replaced the tallest statue of Lenin in the Soviet Union (30m tall). Although the ever-present water features and fountains cool things down a bit, the heat is seriously too much without any high trees providing shadow and thus we happily fled to the Anhor canal just beyond the square.
The canal is used for swimming and is also a preferred spot for dating for the young people of Tashkent, with girls in nice dresses and make-up and boys trying to impress them. In summer, when temperatures here reach over 40, sometimes even 50 degrees, the canal and its bridges are crowded with students seeking some cool relief.
We ended our tour with a typical Uzbek lunch by the canal. Now, Uzbek kitchen is mainly focussed on meat and meat only. You get it grilled, mostly as a shashlik (kebab), either minced or in bite-sized piece. A national dish is plov, a mixture of rice, vegetables, meat, and boiled egg. Also served are salads, most of them with mayonaise, but then the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes with herbs are so delicious, one can well live off those alone. They are as fresh and tasty as the local strawberries and cherries, bursting with flavor, so sweet and enjoyable.
Coming up: Chorsu bazar and many pictures of cherries, strawberries, mulberries…