TRAVEL – Unspoilt Uzbekistan

I have friends who travel to places most of us only read about. I’ll be introducing them in my blog because for unadventurous folks like me, it’s an opportunity to go on a magic carpet ride to distant lands like Timbuktu (no kidding!).

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track, let my Singaporean gal-pals lead you to fabulous places they’ve visited on their own madcap getaways or for work trips.

For instance, my friend, well-known chef and cookbook author, Devagi Sanmugam was in Uzbekistan a couple of months ago.  Bet you’re trying to figure out where it is as Devagi was when she was invited by the World Association of Chefs, under the Train the Trainer’s program to teach Asian cuisine to chefs there.

Devagi says,

“Part of the trip was sponsored by the Association of Cooks of Uzbekistan and International Centre of Uzbek Culinary Art.  I was there for 10 days and I taught the following cuisines:  Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and also Street Foods of Asia.  I also went to the Uzbekistan Airways Catering centre to train the chefs there and eventually, I also developed a number of recipes for the first class passengers of Uzbekistan Airways.”

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Devagi (centre) in the colourful traditional Uzbek outfit

 

UZBEKISTAN, WHERE?

 

Uzbekistan is in Central Europe and South of Russia. It was formerly part of the Soviet Union. The immediate neighbouring countries are Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  Uzbekistan was part of the Silk Road and famous personalities whom I have read about in my History lessons example Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great have been here.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country making it difficult to access to the open sea and the surrounding countries have to access to the sea too!  There are only two rivers,  and quite a large part of the country is desert. Apparently, the summers are intensely hot, and winter can be as cold as -20°C.  I was there at the end of autumn, and it was still hot – about 35°C.

Their main industries are liquefied gas, gold, cotton, fruit,vegetables and poultry farming, and textile manufacturing.

VISAS & CURRENCY

 

Before you get your air tickets, apply for a Visa. It is about USD65 for a 15-day visa, and it takes about 2 days to process.  It is not as easy as one would think – you must go and pay for a Visa at HSBC bank, take the receipt with you to the embassy and then wait for about 10 minutes for a visa. When you enter the country, you must fill up 2 forms and declare how much in foreign currency you are bringing in.  The customs will retain one of the forms, and when you are leaving the country you will have to fill up another form and hand it over along with Form 2. Basically, they need to know how much money is entering and leaving their country!

You cannot change your Singapore dollars to Uzbekistan Som in Singapore or Malaysia.  You will have to change Singapore dollars to US dollars and change it to Uzbekistan currency when you arrive.  You get a 35-40 percent better rate if you change the currency at some “black market” shops – grocer, baker, or anyone except an authorized money changer.  Anyone in Uzbekistan will tell you where the nearest black market currency exchange person is!  At the time, I was there I got 1,724.52 Uzbekistan Som for SGD1!!  Can you imagine how much money I had to carry around for changing SGD300?!

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Market stall with enamel ware

 

 MUST-SEES & MUST-BUYS

Uzbekistan has many famous monuments, museums, naturally spectacular and beautiful landscapes, tombs, mosques with beautiful minarets, palaces, ski resorts,  and other places of interest.  Those who enjoy mountain trekking will love Uzbekistan – there are many trekking expeditions, camel riding, camping out in deserts etc. There are also winter activities like snowboarding and paragliding if you go during winter

The tour guides have many entertaining and fascinating stories.  I found transport and food cheap too.  The streets of Tashkent are extremely clean and green!  I also found the area safe; there are always policemen around!  The people are friendly and full of warm hospitality and helpful even if many of them don’t speak English.

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Plov being cooked

 

The best part of my trip to any country is a visit to the local market! I think a visit to the market can give you a glimpse of the roots of a community and their customs and the memories of places I visited are preserved.  I visited the famous Chorsu (Eski Juva) Bazaar in Tashkent. I enjoyed the smell, the colours, the noises and everything in the market; it was a treat to the senses. People were selling their products on makeshift tables or wooden boxes; from vans and even on prams!  Many displayed their products on the ground.

This bazaar is supposed to be the oldest and biggest in not only Uzbekistan but also in the whole of Central Asia.  I was told by my guide that the market was founded in the 2nd century B.C.  The bazaar area has seven towering domes under which are the activities of the busy market. More than 60 over types of spices and herbs were on sale, and the smell of spices just enveloped me as I walked into the market.  There was the fruit market where some of the local farmers were selling grapes, pomegranates, apples, unusually large watermelons and honey dew melons, large peaches, apricots, prunes, persimmons, yellow figs and many other fruits. I found these fruits about sixty percent cheaper than those sold in Singapore.  I spent about 6 hours in the market, and it was not enough and I did not see all!

I found many fascinating things to get in Tashkent.  But then luckily for me my luggage was already heavy with presents from the host; therefore, I was not tempted to buy everything I fancied.  Most of the souvenirs are hand made by women in the deeper parts of Uzbekistan like Samarkand and Bukhara.  Making ceramics is an ancient art in Uzbekistan.  I came across so many designs and shapes, and what is particularly interesting are the kosa eating bowls.  These hand-made bowls look like peacock feathers. Uzbek jewellery pieces can be worn as well as used as a decorative ornament –some of it is so chunky that you can frame it up. There are very delicate wooden boxes to purchase.  There are of course carpets and more carpets as well as tapestries and wall hangings.  Do not forget to bring home some traditional Uzbek bread, Non.

EXOTIC FOODS
Uzbek cuisine is highly traditional, and recipes that may be hundreds of years old are still used.  For example, the national dish is Plov (we call it pilau or pilaf), and it is served at weddings and any other celebrations. People still cook it with mutton fat!  The rice is cooked with yellow and orange carrot, pea, quince, meat, dried apricots, pumpkin and many other vegetables.  It is a tradition for men to cook the plov, and it is usually cooked in a deep cast-iron pot (kazan).  Bread is relished like it is sacred. The most common bread is non, a round bread, and it is available everywhere.  The breads are baked in clay ovens called thandir (it is like the Indian clay oven tandoor). The non is  fluffy, light and and addictive. It’s got a glossy crust and an open, airy crumb and when it’s piping hot, it’s delicious without butter or anything.  Some savoury snacks like the Samsa is actually another form of the Indian samosa; Manti is a steamed mutton or beef dumpling that resembles a Chinese steamed dumpling; Lagman is a thick soup with hand-made noodles.  There are also some Korean, Indian and European restaurants.

WHAT TOURISTS WANT

Uzbekistan is a terrific place for people to travel to.  However, personally I think there should be more English speaking tour guides; more non-Uzbek cuisine restaurants and Uzbek restaurants should offer healthier food (less oil/fat and more vegetable options); perhaps offer Uzbek bread making course (I am sure everyone who visits Uzbekistan would want to learn how to make those yummy breads); create tours to fruits orchards; offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation in traditional homes.

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