Modern Uzbekistan flourishes with historic relics
Published: May 25, 2023 11:03 AM
The aquarium of Magic City in Tashkent, Uzbekistan / Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

The aquarium of Magic City in Tashkent, Uzbekistan / Korea Times photo by Ko Dong-hwan

Landing at Tashkent International Airport on a blindingly sunny afternoon, one can expect to feel the heat rising from baked asphalt under the strong sunlight and amid countless passing vehicles. Another local scene that somehow relieves the beholder of the grilling grey landscape is plush greenery from a surprisingly large number of trees alongside roads.

The contrast evokes two distinctively different feelings first-comers to Uzbekistan will take away after visiting Tashkent and Samarkand, the country's two biggest cities that are over 300 kilometers apart.

The two share a historical link: Samarkand was the capital of the Timurid Dynasty (1370 to 1857) that included the present Uzbekistan. Now, Tashkent, the most populous city in Central Asia, represents the country. With its historical significance, Samarkand is much more bespoken by rich troves of heritage and relics than the country's present capital.

Travel between the two cities is most convenient with Afrosiyob, the country's fastest train service which can reach 230 kilometers per hour and has a capacity of over 280 passengers ― almost 50 percent of whom are international tourists, according to a train employee. A one-way trip takes no longer than three hours, slicing through the country's small rural towns, farms, mountains and fields while serving free beverages, bread and cookies.

Colorful capital

With plenty to watch, eat and talk about, Tashkent, for tourists, might as well be a huge playground good for day and night. Magic City, one of the most outstanding local landmarks, is a mega-size amusement park with a wacky museum of the world's most outlandish articles, an aquarium, upscale restaurants and dozens of shops for high-end fashion brands.

Introduced in 2021, this family-oriented place is more welcoming at night when visitors can spend hours in the cool night breeze enjoying the extravagant pavilions built with different architectural styles from all around the world.

The city is also home to various sports complexes that host an array of events from ice hockey to martial arts and combat sports. In early May, the Grappling World Combat Games Qualifier and Pankration World Championships were held simultaneously at Yunusobod Sport Complex. Outside the complex, outdoor tennis courts fit for international matches remain well-groomed.

A few minutes of walk from the complex, the city's highest manmade structure towers tall. Exhibiting replicas of dozens of world-famous skyscrapers just outside its main entrance and along the main corridor on the first floor that connects to its elevator, Tashkent TV Tower presents itself as if Uzbekistan also belongs to the global league of advanced building technologies. From the observatory 375 meters up, the city expands endlessly in all directions.

No trip would be complete without tasting the local cuisine. For those who are firm believers of that statement, Tashkent has hundreds of unique local spots that will not disappoint. At one smoky restaurant near the TV tower that is as large and crowded as a small bazaar, patrons are welcome to watch how the city's world-famous pilaf is cooked.

At the outdoor open-space kitchen hot with five giant caldrons with bonfires blazing below, chefs at each wrought-iron pit maneuver huge wooden cooking flippers and ladles to mix cooking oil, rice, vegetables and meat. It is one of the most vivid local authenticities and a good place to chill in the hot weather.

Speaking of food, the city government runs a large-scale street market selling a huge selection of ingredients at varying prices ― a good place to encounter more local authenticity. At one marketplace strewn in and around a huge white-domed structure, natural produce sells cheaper outside the building than inside. Outside vendors are wholesalers who sell their own farmed produce, while insiders sell at retail prices. It is one of the city authority's policies to help out local farmers so that they can sustain their businesses.

Connected to the city subway is the Korean Cultural Center in eastern Tashkent, a recently renovated structure that from time to time stirs the public with festivals featuring K-pop, Korean food and traditional culture.

It is run by ethnic Koreans whose family roots in the country date back to the 1930s when the Soviet Union forcibly moved all Koreans westward from its eastern territory in fear the Koreans would help the Japanese military. For those interested in how Koreans settled in Uzbekistan and started empowering themselves ― with an elected lawmaker now serving at the country's parliament Oliy Majlis ― the place is worth a visit.

Massive heritage

Mausoleums on a gigantic scale decorate the UNESCO World Heritage-designated city of Samarkand. It might be hard to keep up with memorizing which king, martyr or figure of historical significance each of these structures was erected for.

But the architectural grandeur of these mega-structures ― not just their size but meticulous touches from ancient builders evident from detailed brick patterns on walls, doors, domes and exterior frescos ― goes a long way.

"Samarkand cannot be experienced in a single day," Sobirova Firuza, a local English instructor who helped the reporter with interpretation in the city, told The Korea Times.

Respect for the country's historical figures underlies the city. Mausoleums and museums exhibit relics and pictures about Timur ― the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire in and around the present Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia ― and Mirzo Ulugbek, a grandson of Timur who ushered in science, astronomy and math in the country in the 13th century. A local couple in wedding dresses and a photographer were busy taking photographs in front of Ulugbek's giant bronze statue near the Observatory of Ulugbek. They are a reminder of how close the country's heroes are in present-day Samarkand.

Siyob Bazaar, the largest marketplace in the city with restaurants, offers more local tastes to visitors. At the heart of the city, several universities are situated close to each other, with verdant forests across city parks nearby providing pleasant shade under the hot sunlight.

A back-to-back trip between Tashkent and Samarkand requires some stamina and plenty of sunscreen. But it can be replenished by stopovers at local restaurants or cafes. A sip of hot or iced tea or a bowl of moxora ― soup with chickpeas ― both popular among the Uzbeks, should be good enough to keep the adventure going.