Uzbekistan has many attractions, but the low temperatures make Balan Moses long for the warmth of Kuala Lumpur
I ARRIVE in Tashkent aboard Uzbekistan Airlines at the beginning of spring.
It’s exactly 0°C as we walk onto the tarmac. There are icy signs on the road of the snow that fell the day before. As we hastily pull on sweaters, our guide, Robert Shin, a naturalised citizen of Uzbekistan of Korean origin, says the temperature is signaling winter although it should be spring.
“The weather is strange this year. In four days last week, we went through autumn, winter, spring and summer with temperatures ranging from -5 to 20°C,” he says.
The truth for me, this late March morning, is this: My breath is coming out as vapour and I am near freezing point as I stand outside the no-star Hayot (life) Hotel on the outskirts of Tashkent.
We have had a couple of hours of sleep after a long flight and am ready to climb into a Soviet-styled mini-bus to the snowy mountain resort of Chimgan, about 85km from Tashkent.
The “we” refers to a motley group of four journalists (two Malaysians, a Singaporean and an American based in the republic), a senior official of the Malaysian Islamic Tourism Centre, and the owner of a travel agency in Sungai Petani.
It is the start of a six-day visit to Uzbekistan arranged under the Uzbek government’s mega familiarisation trip programme for foreign journalists.
I am reminded of the remark made some months before by Uzbek ambassador Dr Shukor Sabitov that he would not be sending Malaysian pressmen to his country during winter as we would not be able to stand the cold.
He had no idea about how cold early spring would be this year. For the record, Uzbekistan has extreme temperatures ranging in areas from -35°C to 45°C.
THE SNOWY MOUNTAINS
The dual carriageway to Chimgan is a fair artery lined by single-storey homes cemented outside, but having poplar framework inside to protect the structures in the event of an earthquake.
The white-capped mountains are alluring and beckon us. They come almost into touching range with the narrow road hugging the slopes as we ascend.
We stop at a little bazaar where we buy almonds for 4,000 sum (about RM6) a packet.
The road for the first half of the journey is not as difficult as one imagines, with a few exciting hairpin curves, but the driver is unperturbed.
It narrows to a single lane further up with the trail, becoming a mini stream as the sun melts the snow. The best season to ski, I am told, is January and February when the snow is thick.
The view is magnificent with snowy slopes around every corner. We see skiers, many of them Russian, on the slopes. Families are picnicking on the snow — enjoying the three days of public holiday in conjunction with Navruz. We are surprised that though the local population is said to number around 50,000, we hardly see them.
There is honey being sold every few hundred metres with bees kept in containers and fed on nectar from pine trees.
At the peak, we see horses for hire, but there are few takers for rooms at the old Russian resorts which stand derelict after more than 20 years of independence from Soviet rule.
On the way back to Tashkent, we come upon a sight to behold — a reservoir that is partly frozen due to the severe winter. I am told this phenomenon has only occurred four times since the reservoir was built 20 years ago.
We sleep for the best part of the journey back.
Day two sees us waking up before dawn for a breakfast of, among others, sweet wheat porridge, yoghurt, Russian beef sausages and a variety of bread ranging in colour from white to black.
The downside is that the staff do not speak a word of English and our group not a word of Russian, with the exception of Abdul Rahman Shaari, the director-general of the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, who appears to be expanding his limited Russian vocabulary by the hour. We manage with sign language and pictures drawn on serviettes.
About 8am, we leave Tashkent for a four-hour drive to Samarkand. The highway, with intermittent stretches of good and bad road, is lined by vast stretches of cotton fields lying fallow, and apple and apricot orchards awaiting warmer weather to come back to life.
There are only two or three clean public toilets on the highway, which actually follow the 350km route taken by traders on the original silk road.
As we approach the midway point, our driver decides to take a shortcut through village roads. The ride becomes bumpy, an experience ameliorated only by the colourful scenes of village life against a backdrop of hills draped by the last snow of winter.
The police checkpoints at the entrance to the various districts are tedious and time-taking — a vestige of Soviet times when movement was restricted.
Samarkand is a hive of activity as we enter for a late lunch of plov (like biryani), mutton soup and tomato-cucumber salad.
With its 2,750 years of history, the ancient city of Greek, Persian, Mongol and Uzbek, Samarkand is a sight to behold.
The stop at the mausolem of Imam Ismail al Bukhari is awe-inspiring as we take in the fine wood-work and ornate structure of the buildings in the large compound.
The Islamic scholar, revered for his extensive record of the sayings or Hadith of Prophet Muhammad, travelled to many Muslim countries in his lifetime. He died in AD 870 but it was only after 1998 that the Uzbek government fully restored the monument. We have the rare privilege of going below to the crypt of the holy man where an imam leads in prayers.
That Samarkand is a veritable storehouse of historical artifacts and buildings dating back centuries is amply proven during our stop at the mausoleum of Amir Timur and his family. For 8,000 sum, we get an eyeful of 600-year-old artifacts.
SIGHT TO DIE FOR
It’s then on to the Registan Square, which I personally believe is the most beautiful ancient site in Uzbekistan. A magnificent collection of three buildings built between the 14th and 17th centuries, they are unbelievable in breathtaking splendour.
Registan, meaning a sandy square, used to be a bazaar on the Silk Road. Spices, textiles and animals, among others, were traded here.
I can almost see hundreds of weather-beaten faces gathered around the place haggling, shouting and laughing in raucous unison with hundreds of horses and camels milling around.
It is freezing as we stand in the square, listening to Armida, our guide of Armenian origin, who agrees to negotiate with the guard on duty on our request to climb to the top of the minaret for a bird’s eye-view of Samarkand. We pay US$10 (RM31) each (the guard refuses to accept sum, the local currency) for the climb.
But we notice minutes later that there are people trying to squeeze past us through poorly-lit passage that has us on all fours inching our way up.
Sixty-three steps and a lot of scary moments later, we reach the top of the 32m tower for a splendid view.
The descent is far better although I would not advise those past 55 and in poor shape to attempt the climb.
At the foot of the three buildings is a clutch of little shops selling a range of clothes, ceramics and knick knacks.
I buy a small water-colour painting done with horse hair for US$15. This, I am told, is the seller’s first sale for the day. Business is slow as the tourist season has just started. It will pick up in summer and go on until November when winter sets in.
TOMBS AND BAZAARS
We are next taken to what is believed to be the tomb of Prophet Daniel or Hodja Danyar. The spot is where his hand is said to be buried. The tomb is very long and visitors are advised to circle it three times for wishes to be fulfilled.
We visit Siyob Bazaar late the next day as an icy drizzle begins but the stallholders preparing to close for the day are rejuvenated at the sight of camera-toting visitors.
The bazaar is small with separate sections for fruit and vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, clothes and appliances. The stallholders are a friendly bunch who practise their English on us and pose willingly for photographs.
The return trip to Tashkent by road, which is in bad condition, takes a toll on our sleep-deprived and tour-exhausted bodies.
For those used to our country’s excellent roads, I suggest a 50-minute flight between Tashkent and Samarkand instead.
The road “disappears” along stretches, leaving those with back problems or finnicky stomachs in the lurch.
We arrive in the Uzbek capital about lunchtime after which we head for the Chor Su bazaar, by far the largest we have seen in the city. The bazaar offers anything from horse meat, beef and fish to prayer mats and carpets.
A chilly breeze sweeps through the market that has been here for hundreds of years with minimal changes with the exception of electricity, running water and the city’s first metro station.
LONGING FOR WARMTH
At the Sim Sim Cafe, we hungrily tuck into dinner of mutton soup, boiled mutton and chick peas, more bread than we can finish and a fresh salad of tomatoes and miniature cucumber.
We retire to our rooms at the Indonesian-owned four-star Le Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Tashkent. At 1am, I cannot stand the cold any longer and ask for a portable heater. It arrives shortly and I sleep fitfully for a couple of hours.
Soon it is time to fly back to warm Kuala Lumpur and the pleasures of home and family. Last words for Malaysian tourists visiting Uzbekistan: Bring large amounts of chilli sauce, soya sauce and other spicy concoctions as you will not find them in Uzbek cuisine, which is largely grilled meat, fresh salads and non — a kind of oven-baked bread that is a staple at every meal.