While Uzbekistan might not seem like an obvious winter vacation destination, I was thrilled to be able to visit Tashkent, a city that I’d heard about which stood out in Central Asia as a beacon of modernity and convenience for tourists. I was ready to try kurut, a salty and sour milk-based Central Asian snack, from the Chorsu Bazaar, and attend a show at the Navoi Opera Theater, but what else would I find?

A Metro Ride Through History

After settling in at my accommodation, I ordered a taxi via Yandex GO/Yango, the Russian taxi app most popular in the country, and kept an eye peeled for a white Chevrolet. Very quickly I realized this would be harder than it sounded; that was the single most common car in town, due to General Motors history in the country and collaboration with the government, so I triple checked the license plate before hopping in. 10 minutes later, I arrived at the nearest Metro station, ready to see the first metro in all of Central Asia, and found that, luckily, I could pay with cash (2,000 uzs, or approximately $0.16 USD) for a single disposable paper ticket instead of needing to purchase a card (which would cost slightly less).

I rode down a few lines, whimsically stopping to take photos at random stations en route to my end destination. The guards, at least two positioned every 30 feet, initially eyed me warily and I recalled that up until recently, it was prohibited to take pictures inside the stations. Fortunately, no one said anything, and I quietly absorbed the shimmering space theme of the famous Kosmonavtlar station, the painted ceramics depicting poems by Alisher Navoi, the most famous Uzbek writer, around a station bearing his name, and the mosaic flowers of the Pakhtakor station.

The trains themselves, hurling down the tracks reliably every three to four minutes, were a part of the adventure. The older cars clunked along noisily, the brown interiors and a slight smell all contributing to the ambiance of a former era. However, the modern ones boasted electronic screens that mapped out where I was and how many stops I had left before my transfer. I caught a little girl staring at me with seemingly the same fascination that I had watching the doors flash green when it was safe for passengers to disembark, and red when they were about to close again.

Pepsi Nation

Finally, I emerged into Amir Timur square, named after a military leader and ruler with significant historical importance in the region. At the center of the park stood the iconic hero on a horse rearing up on its hind legs triumphantly. With the snow hailing massive flakes on my head and the temperature dropping rapidly, I made a beeline for Broadway Alley, the long pedestrian street heading down towards Mustaqillik Maydoni (“Independence Square”).

The most eye-catching part of the stretch was not, in fact, the ice cream vendors amidst the snow and literally freezing weather still patiently awaiting customers, or the army of e-scooters ready to be rented, roped together at the handles with a few solid inches of snow amassing on the base. Instead, strings of Pepsi logos draped from side to side hanging over the street all the way down. In an ode to the region’s nomadic history, a Pepsi yurt stood to one end sandwiched between a shawarma stand and a coffee stall. I turned in a 360 trying to find any signs of other corporate competition but was just greeted with more red and blue circles.

An Uzbek friend explained that back in the days of the Soviet Union, an enormous franchise from the United States such as Coca-Cola wasn’t permitted to enter and Pepsi took this opportunity to lock in their grip on the marketplace. “If you think that is crazy, wait until you see the Magic City….” he smirked. I didn’t know what that was, but I was intrigued. Fortunately, I didn’t need to wait long to find out.

The Magic City of Lights

That evening, under some friends’ advice to go at nighttime, I made my way to the Alisher Navoi National Park, the largest in the city with 65 hectares. The pathways of the park curved around structures such as the Parliament, the registrar’s office, and the Istiqlol concert hall. At the top of a long flight of stairs, overlooking a large proportion of the park, was the largest existing statue of Alisher Navoi with long columns holding up a blue dome. From that vantage point, I could make out the unmistakable reason for Magic City’s name.

A flood of lights emitted from one end, nearly blinding me with its contrast next to the dark park. Upbeat music cascaded over the treetops and as I got closer, my friends who’d joined me at the entrance in tow and equally in awe, a resplendent castle with a wooden bridge, not unlike Disneyland’s, came into focus, its reflection shimmering in the nearby artificial pond. My eyes didn’t know where to look first.

Leftover Christmas decorative gift boxes and ornaments the size of small houses were lit up so Instagrammers could take photos under and in front of them. The castle’s arched entrance had a steady stream of eager children and begrudging parents flowing in and out. Tall sign posts pointed towards various stores, attractions and theaters. I jumped backwards as a clown on 3-feet-tall stilts sauntered by with a cluster of children hopping around to get a better look at him.

Making our way towards the front entrance and some eateries for dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Surely there could be no more light bulbs left in the entire city”. I glanced upwards to find Pepsi banners on each lamppost, a tunnel thoroughly branded in Pepsi logos, and even an inflatable Pepsi can on top of one of the shops. A “beep-beep” brought my gaze back to the ground and I hopped out of the way of an oncoming Pepsi-wrapped children’s train, weaving slowly around the shoppers and relatives taking photos.

Towering over Tashkent

The Tashkent TV tower was at the top of my agenda for the following day. For 50,000 uzs ($4 USD) to enter, I breezed through the security on the ground floor and walked down a long hallway with model towers from around the world; the Tokyo Tower’s distinct orange and white markings stood out next to darker buildings like the CN tower in Toronto, and the Shanghai Tower stood over the Makkah Royal Clock Tower of Saudi Arabia. The two functioning elevators only had a few stops that passengers were permitted to press, and I got off on the 6th floor along with nearly everyone else. While it didn’t sound very high, the observation deck was 318 feet up in the air, out of the total 1,230 feet tall tower, which was a previous record holder among the world’s tallest towers.

On this observation deck, I looped in a large circle, taking in the far off sights of downtown Tashkent, followed the train tracks heading towards Samarkand, and admired the enormous water amusement park with a long slide looping into a massive pool. When I climbed up to the 8th floor, where a revolving restaurant very slowly crept in a full rotation, I could more clearly make out the Memorial to the Victims of Repression (Shahidlar Xotirasi Monument), commemorating the location where thousands were reportedly murdered in the 1930s during Soviet times in a political and ethnic purge. In contrast with the minarets of the mosques, I even spotted some iconic golden bulbs of a Russian Orthodox church gleaming brightly amidst the cloudy gray skyline.

Before the sun set, I hurried to visit two more gardens. First, the Japanese Botanical gardens were conveniently located right by the base of the TV tower. For 30,000 uzs to enter (about $2.40 USD), I took a relaxing stroll around the gazebos and around the duck and swan pond with water lilies in the distance. Breathing in the fresh air and encircling the engraved stones in the shrubs by the tea house, I felt the harmony and serenity in the eye of the busy city.

Finally, at Navruz Park, I learned why everything I’d researched briefly advertised the park as a theme park. A roller coaster and several rides to the side of the park were almost as lit up as the Magic City, and I couldn’t resist but try out the ferris wheel. It was, without a doubt, the slowest one I’ve ever been on in my life, but I attributed the snail-like pace to the safety regulations and concerns, so I didn’t object to the single 17-minute-long rotation.

What drew me to visit the park, instead, was the artisanal center and shops to the side of the rides. Built into reconstructed old homes and repurposed traditional structures, the small shops boasted of the region’s best wool, silk, and colorful skull caps. The pomegranate motif proudly featured its signature crown and shape on the long chapan robes hanging outside the doors, flapping in the wind, and throughout various murals on the semi-covered area. Beautifully painted ceramic, “secret” boxes with hand carved floral prints, and handbags draped all around the shelves and flapped in the wind, beckoning me to stay a little longer. Alas, I only had time to grab a few gifts and a cacao tea from the local cafe before heading to the grand finale of my trip.

A Cultural Evening

The Human House sounded to me like a bizarre, and possibly illegal, exhibition hall, but my friends reassured me it was a cultural center where they had an entire evening planned for me. Upon arrival, the guide Akmal welcomed me through a few shops crammed with tea warmers and postcards, to the back patio. An outdoor seating area with traditional carpeting was much too cold to be used at the time, and a set of stairs led to another picnic spot on the rooftop that I could imagine in the summer would be a scenic place for tea.

In the center of the courtyard, a table jam-packed with ingredients for the Uzbek national dish of plov awaited me and my friends. With Akmal translating, a chef, who had emerged from the back kitchen, gave step-by-step instructions for making “the best plov in Tashkent”. These included such tips as how to slice the yellow (not orange!) carrots correctly, how to fry the onions before putting anything else in the massive wok-like-pot, and how to crumble the rock sugar in for a touch of sweetness. After the initial steps, they treated our group to cubes of fried lamb fat before offering up shots of vodka in order to coat the stomach- it was surprisingly effective!

While the vegetables stirred and stewed, Akmal showed us a table of ceramic pomegranates waiting to be painted. I jumped at the chance to test my artistic skills, and 30 minutes later, a semi-recognizable Uzbek flag was splotched on the decorative fruit. The potter patiently collected the artwork to cook in the kiln, and before I knew it, Akmal whisked us back to the patio where the chef demonstrated the next big step. Because of all the oil on the bottom of the pot, the uncooked rice was poured in on top of all the ingredients. The chef let me stir and flatten the mound of rice a few times, making sure not to mix it with the fatty bits beneath until they’ve burned off later.

Jostling behind me drew my attention to a semi-circle which had formed around an elderly musician who was holding a string instrument delicately. He explained that it was either called a tambur or sato, depending on if you’re using a pick or a bow. One main string sat alongside four strings to the left, and the frets, much to the group’s audible amusement, were made of lamb intestines. He proudly spoke of his grandparents who hand carved it from mulberry wood. His grandfather even contributed to the movement to keep the instrument’s tradition alive in contemporary times. The three melancholy tunes he played seemed to fit the nostalgia well.

“Now…traditional dance!” I turned around to find that Akmal had just finished hooking up a laptop to the speakers as the musician packed up his things to leave, and the semi-circle inverted to face the other direction. Akmal and a female colleague took center stage, confidently demonstrating several quick-paced dances, like the Andijon polka, impressing us with their smooth shoulder jerks and hand-slicing movements up and down the arm. As more and more people joined the melee, I found myself being pulled into the hypnotically quick hops and shoulder wiggles. An uncontrollable grin spread across my face, as the wafts of cooked lamb and potato distracted my nose, and my body moved of its own accord, jiving to the Uzbek beats throbbing in, around, and through me.

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Elle picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles, although she’s been working and living abroad continuously since 2011. Currently living in Tajikistan, she’s traveled to over 110 countries and enjoys playing volleyball when she can.

Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01

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