Zahid, our guide for the trip met us bright and early in the morning. He got the first whiff of what the next two weeks had in store for him i.e. two hyperactive women who believe that a day has more than 24 hours and hence want to do more than is humanly possible! We gave him a rather ambitious plan for what we wanted to do on Day 1.
As we stepped out, Tashkent on first glance was odd and sanitized. Old box-like Soviet style buildings, mixed up with new structures pretending to be grand give the city a rather confused identity. New buildings are coming up around the city in record time especially in the Amir Timur square area. The new International Affairs Center that came up in (hold your breath) just four months! Only 3,000 people worked on it – if only we could ship this efficiency out to India.
Timur has been restored as the national hero after much bashing by the Russians. He now occupies center stage in official monuments, names of streets, squares and history books in schools. His statue at the main Amir Timur square was set up demolishing statues of the previous residents of the square – Frederick Engels, Karl Marx and Lenin. This is the story of most key landmarks in Tashkent – their names have been changed post independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Our first real ‘cultural’ stop was the Abulkasim Medressa for practicing artisans. The medressa has small rooms doubling up as workshops for artisans who come from all over Uzbekistan. Each workshop has a tiny door that open up into these rooms that have exquisite handicrafts. The crafts range from wood carving, miniature gold leaf painting, ceramics, paper mache, silk, musical instruments and more. The artisans work away despite the intrusion. We then moved to the Barak Khan medressa and spent the early hours of the evening with a charming master craftsman who specializes in wood carving. His studio walls were lined up with rows of intricately carved platters, gift boxes, Qur’an stands and small gifts – and what struck us most was the impeccable finish in every object. We were clearly coming back here for more!
We then moved to the Khast Imom area in the holy part of the city, home to the oldest Qur’an written on buckskin. Written in Kufic script, this rather large book is placed in a 16th century mosque and is known to be one of the six original copies of the holy Qur’an. It used to be in a little humble mosque which has now been renovated into a spiffy building with sparkling chandeliers – all lost on this magnificent book that lies quietly in the middle of all this fuss.
The day came to an end with a hearty meal at the fancy Caravan restaurant. And again, people in the restaurant wondered what two girls were doing together for dinner on Valentine’s Day! We enjoyed our meal of plov and kebabs and walked out happily with our heart-shaped candies – it was a good day!