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If you received a postcard from Tashkent in the 1970s, it probably would’ve borne the image of Hotel Uzbekistan. The wide, curved structure, with its interlinking-cube façade, is a classic example of Soviet modernist architecture. The lobby of the once “10-star” hotel is now a picture of faded glamour: salmon pinks, pine-hued marble flooring and large gilt chandeliers.
Stepping outside brings a sharp contrast; into dry heat and onto the flat, wide Imperial Russian esplanades and lawns of Amir Temur Square. Beyond that extend wide, tree-lined, perfectly manicured boulevards.
Much of Tashkent was devastated by an earthquake in the 1960s and the Uzbek capital’s modern-day aesthetic was shaped during rebuilding under Moscow’s direction. The result: a mix of blocky, clean-lined Soviet edifices, classical Russian architecture and restored, dazzlingly blue-tiled 12th-century mosques. I am drawn to Uzbekistan for its unique design mash-up of a few lucky surviving buildings and newly added architecture that combines to reflect a fascinating political and cultural history.
Tashkent has the look and feel of a modern post-socialist city – its clean-lined buildings and pristine boulevards are much like those you’ll find in the Chinese city of Shenzhen or the newer parts of Beijing. The city feels tidy, intriguingly homogeneous: around 80% of the cars in Tashkent are Chevrolets (thanks to a deal with the Uzbek government) in a heat-reflecting white. Perpetual sprinklers keep the impeccably tended street-side foliage lush in this desert city.
Uzbekistan’s aesthetic edge, though, is in the incorporation of traditional Islamic design. In Independence Square (Lenin Square until independence in 1991), solid white marble columns hold up mirrored, silver beams and three storks (the national animal) dancing on a globe – but look closer for typically Islamic cobalt, cyan and white tile patterns. Design reflects the imperial approach: opposed to nation building, but making just a small concession to local identity.
A stone mural above the entrance to the square’s subway depicts a typically Soviet image of the region’s different nationalities working together, while inside is a temple to modernism with an art deco nod in boxy, tiered gold-and-glass chandeliers. Each of the 29 stations on the Tashkent Metro – built in the 1970s and one of the most ornate in the world – are different, taking inspiration from their location. There are underground baroque caverns, ornate Islamic interchanges of turquoise and carved alabaster, and stark, pared-back post-modern marble-walled spaces – linked by a fleet of trains, some of them baby-blue with heavy purposeful doors that look like something straight out of the Eastern Bloc.
As the country begins to open up more to visitors, it’s adding more flights from major global cities (Uzbekistan Airways flies from Heathrow three times a week and a weekly JFK flight just launched) and working towards making the visa process cheaper and easier. Get here before the crowds: there’s enough mosaic, geometric and floral majolica tile porn in all shades of blue to rival Lisbon. And it’s wonderful to have the country’s mosques, monuments and mausoleums in all their beauty almost to yourself – my photos are tourist-free and I have the space to wander, imagination running wildly to the time when these architectural masterpieces were first unveiled.
I am most awestruck by Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Registan Square deserves its status as the country’s most famous monument (even here it’s refreshingly un-busy). Built during the dynasty of Amir Temur – a Turco-Mongol conqueror who ruled over much of Persia and Central Asia and went on to conquer Delhi and found the Indian Mughal empire – Registan was once the commercial heart of medieval Samarkand. As a major stop on the Silk Road, the turquoise domes and mosaic-clad buildings housed hectic, thriving bazaars selling textiles and fabrics. The flat roof inside its ornate mosque is painstakingly painted in dark blue and gold to create the illusion of a dome.
Samarkand’s Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, with its intricate gold leaf and tiered azure interior, and ribbed exterior turquoise domes, is worth checking out, and we spend hours photographing the Shah-i Zinda Necropolis in the north-eastern part of the city, with its palatial medieval tombs for royalty and nobles that stand as a shrine to Islamic art.
Key cities are linked by an inexpensive high-speed rail line, also calling at Bukhara – worth a stop for its Old Town, endless domes (always in a shade of cyan, chosen in the 15th century to represent ascension to paradise in the sky), old bazaars, Po-i-Kalyan Mosque and and Kalyan Minaret, a former execution site. Here, we make our base at Hélène Oasis, a charming, traditional Bukhara-style courtyard guesthouse, with Gallic hospitality (and breakfasts), run by French-born Hélène, who fell in love with the country and decided to stay.
But Uzbekistan isn’t all about the cities: 60% of the population live in the countryside. The Nurata Mountains are as good a place as any to experience the Central Asian desert. The drive out from Bukhara traverses an arid, almost Martian landscape of arid banks and craters, swathes of burnt scrubland and dust devils whipping themselves up on the sand. A harsh landscape, yes, but one that leads to the vast Aidar Lake, perfect for a cooling swim and respite in an eponymous camp of charming, cosy yurts with handmade carpets and textiles inside. Entertainment here comes in the form of camel rides, Uzbek wine and music by a campfire.
The stars are way too bright here for sleeping inside, though: with zero light pollution, we can even see Jupiter shining bright in the night sky. To our hosts’ wonder – apparently we’re the first to have this idea here – we drag our mattresses out onto benches and spend a peaceful (thankfully mosquito-free) night under the twinking, panoramic canopy.
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