I could have sworn that I knew absolutely nothing about the history of this country I was visiting but it so happened that we were going to Samarkand, which was once ruled by Timur the Lame, and there were streets, restaurants and hotels named after Babur, Timur’s great-great-grandson and the progenitor of the more than two centuries Mughal rule in India. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with memories of history lessons from my childhood. I was in a familiar territory: Uzbekistan. We were visiting madrassas built by Timur and his descendants in Bukhara and Samarkand and we were hearing about their similarities to Mughal architecture in India, the forefathers to younger edifices built in India by Babur and his descendants.

The Uzbek cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand have another connection to our past — they were key outposts in the famous Silk Road from China and Spice Route from India. The ancient routes of trade and communication have been major contributors to Uzbekistan’s development, and outlook towards itself and the world. Uzbeks like to point out that they are a secular and non-religious country. This is partly because of the Russian invasion and occupation that lasted till as recently as 1992. But contemporary Uzbekistan is worlds apart from its past as a Islamic country, before the Russian occupation. Today, local women proudly wear, not the rigid camel hair paranja of yore but delightfully colourful and patterned headscarves with their traditional attire, showing off different cultural patterns. The intricate designs flow from the gorgeous silk fabrics to the famous silk carpets.

And it doesn’t stop there. Their monuments also reflect similar shades of turquoise, blue and white, the traditional symbols of luck, health and prosperity. So, women wore colours and patterns similar to those on the façade of the madrassa at Shah-i-Zinda, or the ‘Tomb of the Living King’, a collection of mausoleums in Samarkand built in the Timurid style — for devout Muslims, three visits here equals one to Mecca.

It’s not by chance that these colours dominate Uzbekistan’s beautiful fabrics, carpets, ceramics and buildings. Blue symbolizes peace and stability for the Uzbeks, white is for a pure soul, and turquoise signifies hope and prosperity. The symbols are also part of Uzbekistan’s original religion and culture — long before the Islamic and, later, Russian conquests, Uzbekistan was one of the few places in the world where Zoroastrianism took root. It became prevalent along the Amu and Syr daryas (rivers), and the Zerafshan, a tributary of Amu and Surkhan daryas. The nations that formed along them find mention in the Zend Avesta, the original Zoroastrian text. Scientists are excavating new archaeological sites related to Zoroastrianism throughout Uzbekistan and, despite the conquests, its symbols and signs are seen embedded in Uzbek culture and architecture — like the pomegranate blossom, a symbol of knowledge and fertility, which is found as patterns not only on silk fabrics but the façades of madrassas, too.

As we travelled, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the Uzbek language has a lot of similarities to Hindi. We were amused (and proud) to ask waiters at restaurants for the hisaab kitaab, and it was the darwaazaas of the walled fortress at Khiva that showed us the way out. English is rare among the locals but we were embraced with wholehearted, arms-folded namastes and one day, while shopping for colourfully embroidered coats, scarves, bags and knickknacks at a shop in Khiva, we met a curious young salesman. When we mentioned that we were from India, his eyes lit up and he called his father from inside to introduce us to him. We got talking although none of us could understand each other. He then took his phone out and played us a Raj Kapoor song from Mera Naam Joker, saying it was his father’s favourite. We felt right at home.

Sometimes, though, the meanings of similar-sounding words were quite different, especially when it came to food. Uzbek food is distinct to the country’s different regions — the naan is three to four inches thick, a round bread with an indent in the centre. Their tandir kebabs or tandoori kebabs are a typical family meal had with the Uzbek plov, a rice dish made with white carrots and meat. The story goes that plov is a special dish prepared on special days and Thursday evenings are meant for romance. There is a saying among the Uzbek people: “If I die, I would like to die while eating plov.” Our guide said, on a lighter note, that most Uzbek children are said to have been conceived on a Thursday, thanks to the plov.

While the Uzbeks clearly enjoy their plov and naan, tourists might find the food bland even though they use spices that are familiar to us. Being a vegetarian can be quite a challenge — one lunch of mine consisted of  bland fried potatoes, popcorn and ice cream, though we were able to find solace in other foods like Italian pasta and pizza.

The chai khanas around the country also more than make up for the lack of spice and taste. Ever since the days of the silk trade, these tea houses have been providing food and an incredible variety of spiced teas to weary travellers. Make sure you order the meat or onion somsas, and sample the teas flavoured with rosemary, ginger and saffron. And while you’re sipping the tea, notice the ceramic tea cups. The patterns are most likely to be Zoroastrian designs and symbols.

We found that most of Uzbekistan’s architectural monuments have been patterned in the Zoroastrian Khorezmi style, with a large helping of Timurid façades and layouts. One such design detail can be seen on the tower in Khiva. It’s a simple enough pattern but it conveys a Khorezmi message — the top triangle facing down, signifying good thoughts; the bottom triangle facing up, referring to good words; the rectangle at the centre completing it thus: good thoughts lead to good words, which in turn lead to good deeds. This unique combination of cultures makes the country so different from its neighbours and the friendliness of the local people makes it all worthwhile.

Nestled in the Khorezm (pronounced Khawrezm) province of Uzbekistan, Khiva is also a good place to observe the old tradition of majolica in ceramic tile design. Unlike mosaic, majolica features square tiles laid in a brick pattern. Each wall is designed by a single artisan, who works for hours on each wall, which makes each wall different from the other.

Khiva is one of the most fascinating towns in the country. It has four grand entrances, each of them opening to a spectacular view of the original Zoroastrian civilization. Khiva consists of the Itchan Kala or the inner town, which is situated within ten-metre high clay fortress walls, and the Dichan Kala, the outer town located outside the wall. The Itchan Kala has approximately 4,000 inhabitants and it’s a living, breathing museum with more than fifty historical monuments, including mosques, madrassas, towers and narrow lanes. The entire town has a fairy tale look to it.

But it’s Bukhara that has been known since the days of the Silk Road for attracting the finest artisans and architects of its time. No wonder it boasts of a different mosque for every day of the year, and world famous silk carpets. There’s even the ‘magic carpet’, woven simultaneously by two women, with completely different patterns on each side.

It’s intriguing how the Uzbeks have tried to reconcile with their past. They could have easily brought religion back into their lives and let it rule them. They have also had the opportunity to turn around and reject all association with their past and start anew. Instead, we see them embracing their roots in Zoroastrian traditions and customs wholeheartedly. Khiva is a clear example of this balanced approach. This deliberate revival and re-learning of a once-lost culture takes a lot of inner courage and patience.

Only time will tell how this story will play out. Those who think Uzbekistan is like any other ‘-stan’ in Asia will be pleasantly surprised, not only for its unique and spectacularly preserved architecture but for its friendly and curious people, who are slowly getting accustomed to having the world peering into their doorstep. We are fortunate that it’s the legendary Uzbek hospitality that welcomes us when we visit here.

The information

Getting there
Uzbekistan Airways provides direct flights between the capital, Tashkent, and two Indian cities — New Delhi (five flights a week) and Amritsar (three flights a week). September, November, December and January are peak season. Non-peak return tickets cost about Rs 29,000. April through June (spring) and September through November (autumn) are the best months to visit — summers are very hot and winters very cold in Uzbekistan’s desert terrain. A lot of tourists from Spain and other parts of Europe visit during the Easter week.

Som (Rs 1 = UZS 37.7) is the Uzbeki currency, carried around in bundles — a bottle of water (tap water is not potable) can cost between 1,500 to 3,000 Som; a meal for two in a decent restaurant will cost 40,000-50,000 Som. Toilets aren’t reliable although many places have minimal pay-and-use facilities for 500 to 1,000 Som. The highest denomination (to eliminate counterfeiting) is the 1,000 Som note. Dollars and euros are accepted in many places but credit cards are not.

Getting around
Tourism is still nascent in Uzbekistan and it’s better to go with a group tour — navigation isn’t entirely modern, a lot of roads are being upgraded, some drives are long and tiring, hotels aren’t up to anything great, and English speaking guides are advisable since Uzbek, Tajik and Russian are the only languages spoken commonly. Most tours to Uzbekistan fly into Tashkent, then fly out to Urgench near Khiva, travelling by road along the famous Silk Route from Khiva to Tashkent with one-day stops at Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, covering key sites over 7-8 days. Try 365 Tours (365Tours.in) or Thomas Cook (1-800-2099100 — toll free in India, thomascook.in).

What to see & do
We, too, followed the traditional circuit, seeing the Itchan Kala and, within it, the Khuna Ark (observe the majolica here), Juma Mosque and the old slave market of the East Gate at Khiva.

The main sites at Bukhara were the Kalon mosque and minaret, and the Mir I Arab madrassa. Bukhara is also a good place to look for silk carpets.

At Samarkand, you’ll see the Registan (an ancient public square that literally translates as ‘sandy place’), Shah-i-Zinda, the Bibi-Khanym mosque, Timur’s tomb, and the Ulugbek observatory and museum. Samarkand’s ‘Tomb of the Living King’, or Shah-i-Zinda, is a collection of mausoleums built in the Timurid style of architecture — for devout Muslims, three visits here equals one to Mecca.

The lively Chorsu Bazaar and its many spice, fruit and grain shops are at Tashkent, where we also visited the Kulkedas and Barak Khan madrassas with their countless souvenir shops, and the Moyie Mubarak Library Museum, which has treasures like the world’s oldest (7th century) Osman Quran.

Where to stay
It’s agriculture that’s Uzbekistan’s mainstay, not tourism. Don’t expect too much from the hotels and the friendly hospitality of staffers will compensate for any disappointments. At Samarkand, try the spacious upper-floor rooms overlooking a traditional courtyard at the Grand Samarkand Superior — it’s an extension of the older hotel by the same name on the opposite side of the road (from Rs 4,300, breakfast inclusive; 38 Bakhodir Yalangtush Street, grand-samarkand.com). Or opt for the Malika Classic Samarkand (from Rs 3,000; 37 Khamraev Street, +99-86623-70154, malika.samarkand.com), which is about 15-20min away from the main sights and features woodsy interiors behind high walls. Khiva’s location at the edge of the desert with a handful of hotels that shut down off-season may give you pause, but you can find  comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms at Malika Kheivak (from Rs 2,800 with a big breakfast; 10 Islam Hoja St, +99-86623-30197). Bukhara’s Amulet, a restored madrassa, has atmospheric rooms and a pretty courtyard near the main attraction of Lyabi Hauz (from Rs 4,000; 73 Nakshbandi St, amulet-hotel.com). There’s also Zargaron with its tidy rooms, hospitable staff, two courtyards and a rooftop bar with great views of the old city, including the Poi-Kalyan minaret close by (from Rs 4,200, breakfast inclusive; 3 Haqiqat St, bookings via advantour.com or tripadvisor.in).

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