Jim, Linda, Alex and Julie arrived on the Uzbekistan Airways flight from Frankfurt Saturday night. It was nearly midnight by the time they got to our hotel, across from the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater in the tree lined streets of Tashkent’s European sector. Even though the team had every right to be weary from many hours of travel all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, the excitement of arriving in Central Asia needed to be contained a bit before they could sleep. We sat and ate pizza in the hotel lobby bar until nearly 2:00 AM.
On Sunday morning we got a relaxed start to our day. After breakfast we got out maps and checked our routes and the locations that we would be visiting in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the next two weeks. Our Tashkent city tour guide, Natasha, met us at 10:00 AM and we set out on a walking tour of the modern Soviet and European areas of downtown Tashkent.
One thing that will strike all visitors to Uzbekistan is the smiles and warmth of the people. On a sunny Sunday the city moves slowly and the streets are nearly empty. We saw no other tourists, but we enjoyed the morning with many locals who were out walking in the parks and tree lined streets of their beautiful city. Everyone was extremely friendly and gracious. We quickly noticed that gold teeth are in fashion here and that they flash beautifully when people of all ages smile.
After viewing the Senate building and other giant modern structures and well as the palace of Prince Romanov, we went to see the names of 400,000 Uzbekistan soldiers who were lost in the Great Patriotic War, (World War II) carved in gold plated sheets at the impressive war memorial in a park. We also saw the Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Patriotism and honoring past sacrifice is a key trait of everyone in modern independent Tashkent. The 37 meter high statue of Lenin has been removed and is replaced by a globe signifying world involvement and “Tammerlane”, Amir Timur, is the national father who image appears everywhere in public places now, but the struggles of the 20th century are still very much a matter of pride and provide the people of modern day Tashkent with their identity.
Later in the day we drove with Natasha to the Old City where we enjoyed lunch at a typical restaurant crowded with locals enjoying Sunday. We had the first of what will be many loaves of the wonderful bread that Uzbekistan is famous for, as well as soup and Lagman (local noodles).
I learned that on Wednesday, only two days before they left home, Jim and Linda had learned from their daughter Elise that they were going to become grandparents in a few months time. The pink and blue balloons that had been delivered to their home to announce the surprise were still fresh on their minds and the excitement showed on their faces all the way around the world from Georgia. Family is extremely important to all people in Uzbekistan and everywhere we go we are asked about our homes and families. In the parks we saw several couples having their wedding photos made.
Later when we visited the new Islamic Center that has just been completed in Tashkent we were greeted by an Iman or priest is the caretaker of the 1300 hundred year old original Koran that was moved from a closed room to public display earlier this year. When he heard that this group was from the U.S. he came out of his office to meet them. He proudly told us of his son, who is living in Ft. Meyers Florida.
For a crew that had not yet been in Central Asia a full 24 hours this team was looking surprisingly good as we returned to the hotel in the afternoon. Leila was scheduled for a 3:30 AM transfer to the airport for her flight back to Canada and the rest of us knew that we would be going to the domestic airport not much later for our flight to Bukhara, so we took an early dinner at the rooftop restaurant at the top of our hotel. When we got off the elevator we saw that it was going to be a very pleasant place to enjoy a meal in the fresh, cooling evening air above the city. “Let’s eat in the bedroom”, Leila jokingly said when she saw that we could be seated in at one of the typical low Uzbek tables that look somewhat more like a bed than a dining table to us.
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