What comes to mind when you hear of Tashkent? For most, absolutely nothing. The famous sights of Central Asia tend not to be in the main cities, but in small historical cities and the surrounding nature. To be fair, I too knew close to nothing about the city before I decided to visit, so it was a refreshing experience. I only had a one full day in Tashkent, but that was enough to cover the most interesting things to do.
1. Metro Stations
One of the things I love doing most when exploring a new city is check out their public transport system. It’s easy, cheap and non-touristy. Tashkent’s metro system is the first in Central Asia, and the seventh to be built in former USSR. Like most Soviet metro systems, it doubles as a nuclear bomb shelter. Due to this military classification, photography inside any of the stations was illegal until June 2018. Although photography is officially allowed now, some of the watchful guards posted at every station may still get antsy about it and tell you to stop.
Which is a shame, because Tashkent’s metro system has become quite famed for its architecture and décor. The designs differ for each station, often based on a particular theme connected with its name.
There are currently three lines in operation: Chilonzor (red), Oʻzbekiston Line (blue) and Yunusobod Line (green), with an additional two lines proposed. Personally, I felt the most impressive stations were Alisher Navoi, Kosmonavtlar, Pushkin, and Bodomzor.
The train itself is a creaking, steel box that looked like it stepped out of the 1960s. It can get pretty full between certain stations, so riding it is definitely an experience in itself.
You can access all of the spots on this list just by using the metro, so kill multiple birds with one stone!
2. Hotel Uzbekistan
A reminder of the indelible mark the Russians have left on the country, Hotel Uzbekistan is an icon of the city and always ranks somewhere in Tashkent things to do lists. This one is no exception. In fact, I was so enamoured by a photo of the imposing structure that it cemented my then still airy plans to travel to Uzbekistan and Central Asia.
Built in the classic Soviet-style architecture resembling an open book, the hotel comprises of 17 floors with parts recently refurbished to meet 4-star requirements. However, Uzbek Travel writes:
“If you happen to be in non-refurbished room then expect power points not working, cracked bathroom tiles, toilet paper holder broken, curtains and bed-sheets torn, ancient air-conditioning units, exposed wires in some places, etc.”— Uzbek Travel
I stayed in the hotel for two nights just to experience the retro atmosphere and gaudy light-up of its facade at night. I was given a room on one of the upper floors, where there was also an English school and mostly-empty offices of some sort. The room was modest but comfortable, with a decidedly European flavour. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a refurbished room, as it didn’t look new. But it also wasn’t as bad as described above (although the shower could have been better), so I was quite satisfied with my stay.
The room charge includes a buffet breakfast, served in an expansive ballroom restaurant on the first floor. The food is local-inspired, although standard eggs, toast and cereal are also available. The hotel offers a lot of conveniences, with money exchange, ATMs, SIM cards and tourist information in the lobby.
Address: 45 Mirzamakhmud Musakhanov Street, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Getting there: Take the metro to Amir Temur Xiyoboni Station and walk 100 metres.
3. Amir Temur Square + Uzbekistan Palace of International Forums
If you’re at Hotel Uzbekistan, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the city. From there you can take a short walk over to the park across the road to see the famous “guy on a horse” statue. It’s actually Amir Temur, Uzbekistan’s reverred Turco-Mongol Persianate conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire, of which Uzbekistan was a part.
Also close by is the gorgeous Uzbekistan Palace of International Forums (Dvorets Mezhdunarodnykh Forumov Uzbekistan), allegedly the most expensive building constructed in post-independence Uzbekistan. The Palace is purported to “be decorated with marble from the Greek island of Thasos and with chandeliers made of hundreds of thousands of Swarovski crystals.” (Olma 2018: 74)
I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to go inside, but from the pictures on the ArchDaily website, it looks absolutely amazing.
Getting there: Take the metro to Amir Temur Xiyoboni Station, or walk over from Hotel Uzbekistan.
4. Central Asian Plov Centre
Ask anyone what to eat while in Uzbekistan, chances are they’ll say “plov.” A hearty dish consisting of rice with onion, carrots, lamb or beef, plov is a must try for non-vegetarians. While you can eat plov almost anywhere, travellers swear by the Central Asian Plov Centre for its cheap prices and generous servings. What’s more, come before the lunchtime rush and you can actually see plov being made in giant cauldrons outside.
Staff don’t speak English, but are friendly and helpful. You can ask for an English menu to point-and-order, like I did. Top it off with a side of tomato salad and non (bread), and you have a meal that will keep you full for the whole day for less than US$3. I didn’t even have dinner that night. Note: plov is translated as “wedding pilaf” on the menu.
The TV Tower is only a few hundred metres away, so this is great place to eat if you are planning on visiting it.
Getting there: Located between Bodomzor and Shahriston stations. The latter is closer but you can get off at either station and walk there in 10-15 minutes either way.
5. Chorsu Bazaar
Bazaars, a staple of the Central Asian shopping scene, cater more to locals with their wide selection of fresh meat, fruits & vegetables, spices and non. As a traveller, you will probably just be “window shopping” and soaking up the atmosphere. Around the bazaar, there is almost always another market with stalls selling clothes, accessories and other trinkets, so it’s worth poking around here if you’re looking for some souvenirs.
I’m not really a shopper so to be honest I was a little bored (and very hot) here. But if you’ve never been to a Central Asian bazaar you should go at least once. And once you’ve seen one, you’ve sort of seen them all.
Getting there: Take the metro to Chorsu Station. You can’t miss the blue-dome structure or bustling market.
So Tashkent, is it safe?
Even though Tashkent is more conservative than some of its Central Asian brothers, I was pleasantly surprised with how safe it was. People were helpful despite me not speaking Russian, and I am especially grateful to all the people who helped me cross the border to Kazakhstan.
Tashkent has a lot of lovely greenery and open spaces, and the streets, when paved, were very clean.
Another thing I noticed was the ubiquitous presence of police. Uzbekistan is at times referred to as a “police state”, and for good reason. There are police everywhere – subway stations, tourist sites, on the street corner. Dressed in turquoise uniforms and rectangle-shaped hats, they reminded me more of the bellboy in The Grand Budapest Hotel than law enforcement officers.
Being a solo female traveller with an East Asian face, I did get a lot of stares. However, it was mostly due to curiosity and people were generally friendly. Practice the usual street safety, stay alert, and you’ll find it’s as safe as any capital city can be!