As an ancient hub of the Silk Road, Tashkent has long been subject to outside influences and this is evident today. One of the defining moments in Tashkent’s modern history was the devastating earthquake of 1966, which struck right in the heart of the city with a magnitude of 5.1. Many of the ancient buildings of central Tashkent were levelled, several people died and around 300,000 were made homeless. When the rubble was cleared and rebuilding began in earnest, the new city was planned in the Soviet style, with many giant monumental buildings facing off across leafy public squares. The city today is the largest in Central Asia, and is by far the most appealing place in Uzbekistan for those in search of fine restaurants, breezy city parks and buzzing nightlife.
Uzbeks are thoroughly devoted to iconic national favourite plov, the staple of Central Asia, made with rice, meat, vegetables and oil. The dish is close to the heart of every Uzbek household, and although there are around 120 official recipes, in reality every Uzbek home cook has their own variation. Tuy plov is a version only available in Tashkent, featuring all the classic elements with the addition of raisins and chickpeas. The most famous place to sample tuy plov in Tashkent is the Central Asian Plov Center, a kind of plov buffet where several versions of this revered dish can be found bubbling away in giant kazan cauldrons while throngs of people eagerly await their turn to be served.
If you are invited to sample plov in a family home, it will normally be on a Thursday, as that is the traditional day to serve it. This dish really is central to Uzbek identity and culture, especially in Tashkent, and a plate or two are pretty much obligatory during your visit. Other important foodie experiences in Tashkent can be uncovered during a browse around the Chorsu Bazaar, a huge covered farmer’s market where you can buy everything from dried fruit to whole sides of beef. You can also find many stalls selling rounds of bread, which carries mythical status to Uzbeks and is seen as a kind of talisman as well as a staple food.
Take in the beautiful buildings surrounding Hast Imam square, which remarkably were spared destruction in the 1966 earthquake. With its trio of important religious monuments, this is the religious centre of the city. The square hosts the madrassa Barak-Khan, the Imam al Bukhari Islamic institute and the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, home of the Osman Koran, amongst the oldest Korans known to exist. All are beautiful examples of Islamic architecture with domes of dazzling blue and intricate timeworn adorning the portals and minarets.
The Friday mosque (or Juma mosque) and Kukeldash madrassa are another hub of religious activity in Tashkent, particularly busy on - you guessed it - Friday. Don’t miss the fascinating History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, taking you through Uzbekistan’s Zoroastrian roots through the Soviet conquest to the present political landscape. The Hotel Uzbekistan is worth at least a drive-by and possibly even a night’s stay to contrast the brutal Soviet architectural style with the colourful and graceful Islamic style you see elsewhere in Uzbekistan.
Part of the delight of spending time in Tashkent is the prevalence of greenery in the wide open public spaces. There are plenty of clean, modern and well kept parks that tempt you to linger and people watch. Monuments and statuary are scattered through these public spaces, adding an artistic angle to a stroll. Combine entertainment with culture by getting your hands on a ticket to see a performance at the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, an imposing building with a sumptuous interior and a good calendar of shows.
Admire the view from the landmark TV tower, which reaches a lofty 375m high and offers great views over the city from the viewing platform. When evening comes, head for one of Tashkent’s many pubs and clubs, from a German style biergarten complete with foaming steins and bratwurst, to sports bars to sophisticated clubs and late bars. Many of the more tourist-oriented restaurants also offer live entertainment, often featuring music and dancing, which might sound a bit cheesy but can be a lot of fun and give a flavour of Uzbek musical traditions.
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