Indians looking for an ego boost should travel to Uzbekistan. Especially if you have been on the receiving end of the condescension reserved for Indian travellers. Imagine people stopping you on a street to take a photo of you because you are Indian.
In Uzbekistan, the Soviet influence mingles with the Islamic one to create a liberal result. Still a young country (it gained independence only in 1991), there is fresh optimism in the structures and symbols of the nation’s modern architecture and life.
Foreign vehicles still retain their awe-inspiring novelty but traffic jams are not unheard of and while most of Tashkent’s roads are wide and well-maintained, the road from Samarkand to Bukhara is vertebrae-rattling. The history has its phases – from the lovely baked-brick structures dating back to the 9th and 10th century in Bukhara, to the beautiful blue-green mosaic tombs and mosques of the 17th and 18th century in Samarkand.
If You’re Planning to Visit
Prepare to be dazzled and I mean that literally. If it isn’t the brilliance of the Uzbeki traditional costume, it will be the mandatory gold tooth that will blind you. You might also have to close your eyes in delicious appreciation of their melons. The surfeit of sun means your watermelon and muskmelon taste otherworldly! And vegetarians can rejoice. Enjoy their bread with pickled carrots.
Brush up on your make up, especially if you are an Indian woman. Chances are random Uzbekis will stop you in the street and ask for a photograph. Older Uzbekis might not bother to ask and just drag you into a frame the rest of the family is posing for. They love all things Indian, as evidenced by the Uzbeki girls who followed us asking for bindis which they had seen in movies.
Learn the lines of Jimmy jimmy aaja aaja, from 1982’s Disco Dancer. It is one of the most popular songs in the country for some reason. If you mention that you are Indian, rest assured someone will expect you to sing it. In ‘Indian’ restaurants, the newer numbers cannot keep Jimmy down. We visited an Uzbeki restaurant that offered belly dancing with dinner. The prelude, however, was an Uzbeki girl coming up on stage to sing Jimmy jimmy before launching into her Uzbeki repertoire.
Consider carrying a note-counting machine. One US dollar is roughly 2,000 Uzbek som. However, don’t let that trick you into thinking that it’s a cheap destination. A decent meal for two may well cost 25-28,000 soms. I remember one meal where the total came to a few lakhs (in soms). The bundles of cash assembled on the table top made us feel like debauched thekedars. There’s lots to purchase with your bundles – dry fruit, local wines, ceramics and carpets.
Revise your history. Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India, was born in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and is a descendant of Temur, who holds a special place in Uzbeki hearts. Also, artists from Samarkand were brought to Agra to build the Taj Mahal. So, you will find something familiar about the buildings in Samarkand. Tashkent is where former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri lost his life. There were rumours he was poisoned which Uzbekis deny.
Look for the unexpected. Tashkent has Central Asia’s tallest TV tower that also houses a restaurant many feet above the ground. Some of the ceiling artwork in the mosques, madrasas, and other structures in Samarkand probably required as much labour as the Sistine Chapel. History, shopping or belly dancing, whatever your motivation, Uzbekistan is worth a visit.
Way to go
When to visit: April to June and from late August to November. Carry your suntan lotion and woollens. The weather is a little unpredictable.
Flights: An online search will not yield Uzbekistan Airline flights, so ask your travel agent for help.
Visa requirement: Again, rope in a travel agent. A passport, photos, a letter from employer and a filled visa form are mandatory. All these might have to be physically submitted to the embassy in Delhi.
Currency: It’s best to exchange your Indian rupees for dollars in India and then change your dollars for Uzbeki soms in Uzbekistan.
From HT Brunch, July 28
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