Khast Imam Complex – Tashkent

madrassa dome

Barak-khan Madrasah

It’s hard to find “old” Tashkent, but seeking it out is certainly worth the effort. 50 years ago, an earthquake damaged the city, and opportunistic Soviet planners used the seismic event (described in various magnitudes depending on the source) as an excuse to bulldoze the old town and build a social modernist utopia. Today, wide avenues and massive concrete apartment blocks dominate the landscape. Finding authentic Uzbekistan in post-soviet Tashkent is therefore a challenge – one that should ultimately bring you to the Khast Imam Architectural Complex.

Architectural authenticity in Uzbekistan comes with an important caveat. Recent renovations of nearly every historically significant building in the country have left them looking better than they ever were. After centuries of exposure to the harsh elements of Central Asia, the neglect of the Soviet Era, and the passage of time, a newly independent Uzbekistan took great, and swift, efforts to preserve their architectural heritage. The facades and interiors you see today reflect this, so excursions further afield than old Tashkent are required to find ancient structures in their original condition.

mosque and trees

Park-like Khast Imam Square

The Khast Imam Complex can be found on the north side of Tashkent. Getting there by taxi is recommended, but it can be easily reached on foot from Chorsu Bazar, or by Metro, about 2km distance. The trek between Chorsu and the complex feels as if you are going back in time as you get lost among the historic mudbrick homes and narrow streets of Old Tashkent that were fortunate enough to escape post-earthquake Soviet planners’ utopian ambitions.

An approach from any direction will feature the impressive rise of the twin 53m (175ft) minarets of the Khazrati Imam Mosque. Built in 2007, the mosque, while not at all historically significant, dominates the square with its massive facade, and two blue domes.

Across the square is the 16th century Barak-khan Madrasah. Built by the grandson of Mirzo Ulugbek, today cells formerly occupied by students feature local artisans selling their handicrafts to the occasional tourist. On any visit to the Khast Imam complex, a short shopping excursion to this historic gift shop provides a welcome respite from the brutal heat of the relentless Uzbek summer sun.

minaret

One of the twin 53m minarets

Additional landmarks of the square include the 16th century tomb of Abu Bakr al-Kaffal ash-Shashi. Said to be one of the greatest muslim scholars of all time, Kaffal-Shashi was deeply devoted to the faith, and dedicated his entire life to the spread of Islam, and religious education. In his extensive travels throughout the muslim world, he was a student of  great theologians including the Imam Al-Bukhari. When Kaffal-Shashi died in the 10th century, he was buried at the city wall of old Tashkent in a mausoleum which did not survive. The present 16th century structure became a pilgrimage destination for the devout, and is today one of the most important historical landmarks of modern Tashkent.

The remainder of the grounds of this park-like complex are occupied by various state-sponsored religious institutions, including the library of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, where the Koran of Khalif Uthman, the world’s oldest copy, which is said to date from the 7th century, is kept for study and safekeeping.

While impressive, the Khast Imam Complex of Tashkent is no substitute for the ancient silk road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara. However, since nearly every trip to Uzbekistan begins and ends in the capital city, this major architectural complex deserves a visit either as an introduction of things to come, or a last taste of Uzbek heritage on your way out.

moon mosque

Blue domes and blue sky! A perfect alignment, with birds, and the moon, captured via telephoto in March 2016.

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Noryangjin Fish Market (노량진수산시장)

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Gallery level view of Noryangjin

Some may call it an aquarium of death, others a seafood lover’s paradise. Whatever your inclination, a visit to Seoul’s Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market is a one of a kind experience you won’t soon forget.

PashbyMaul Adventures was in Seoul for a conference last November, and with precious little free time explore the city, we had to pick and choose what highlights to see. While we always strive to stay off the tourist trail as much as possible, on our maiden voyage to South Korea we simply had to cram in what we could. As Uzbek residents for the next few years, seafood is something we rarely get to enjoy anymore. Thus Noryanjin Fish Market made the cut, and on our final evening in Korea we gleefully made our way towards the market via the expansive Seoul Metropolitan Subway.

Frequent visitors to fish markets worldwide understand the certain fishy atmosphere that seems to rather unpleasantly permeate everything in the vicinity. Not so at Noryanjin. Established in 1927, and moved to its current location in 1971, the fishiness in the air as you approach the market is in no way unpleasant, and instead serves as a kind of beacon for the curious and hungry alike as they make their way up the stairs from the metro and across the pedestrian bridge over the station before descending into seafood heaven.

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an enthusiastic fishmonger

Your first glimpse of the vastness of the market takes place as you emerge from a nondescript concrete stairwell. From this gallery level perspective the expansiveness of Noryanjin becomes clear. There isn’t really a way to plan a strategy as a one time visitor, but with this perspective you can at least appreciate the kaleidoscope like tapestry of sea creatures carefully arranged by fishmongers in their front row stalls that stretch nearly the entire length of the 300 meter building.

It doesn’t get much fresher than this. Stalls keep their catch alive until the moment it is sold to the customer. Many serve up fresh sashimi, or hoe (회), sliced right from the fish. Not a fan of raw seafood? No problem! Crabs, shrimp, lobster, shellfish – it’s all available – and waiting to cook it all up for you are several eat-in kitchens lining the back of the market. For a small fee, customers can take their “catch” to any of these restaurants for what might just be one of the freshest seafood experiences of your life. Chopsticks, water, and banchan (반찬) side dishes are included. Soju (소주) and beer are not.

Your authenticity meter will surely peak during a trip to Noryangjin. Sorry Seattle, but your Pike Place Market has nothing on this. For true lovers of seafood, a missed trip to this market on any trip to Seoul, no matter what the duration, is a missed opportunity you’re sure to regret.

 

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PashbyMaul Adventures – Update

It’s been six months since our last post. An epic failure on our part to keep our followers updated on life in Uzbekistan. This time last year, we were nearing the end of our “Last 100 Days in Italy” series, as we prepared to continue the great PashbyMaul adventure in Central Asia. Here’s what you’ve missed:

seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace – Seoul

Shortly after our last update on the October trip to Samarkand, the PashbyMauls took a short trip to South Korea. Compared to Uzbekistan, we were amazed by the futuristic level of advanced technological infrastructure in Seoul, and of course ate as much seafood as we could get our chopsticks on. We won’t soon forget our luxurious stay at the ultra modern Courtyard Marriott Seoul-Pangyo where we experienced the best of international style Korean hospitality. We can’t wait to go back for more!

Our winter holiday travels saw us experience our first flight on the post-soviet Aeroflot Russian Airlines and the still draconian transfer experience that is Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport. Contrast that to the ultra efficient semi-automated arrivals process at JFK airport and the Delta flagship lounge experience of terminal-4. One thing we did learn is that an Uzbekistan to USA flight itinerary is a completely exhausting experience we do not wish to repeat anytime soon.

gazgan shrine

13th Century Shahimardan Shrine in Gazgan Village, Nurata Region

Christmas was spent in Midland, Michigan, followed by a brief stop in Athens, Georgia, before embarking on a five-day Mexican Riveria New Year’s cruise from Tampa, Florida. In addition to relaxation, and exploration of Mayan Ruins, we were able to reconnect with family who are the majority of the time literally half a world away. By the time we arrived back in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, it became crystal clear how far away we really are living in Central Asia.

In February we had the privilege of being hosted by an Uzbek family in Navoi for a quick weekend getaway, and got to experience a side of Uzbekistan well off the typical tourist trail. We joined a family outing to Nurata, clambered all over a hill fortress of Alexander the Great, and participated in a blessing at the ancient shrine of Shahimardan, in Gazgan, city of stone. Our hosts also graciously drove us to and from the Samarkand train station, while en-route, we were stopped by the police no fewer than three times!

khiva

local children on the streets of Khiva

Our Spring Break adventure we’ll detail more thoroughly in a separate post – but it involves our best travel companion, Mike, who flew all the way from Belgium to visit us. We flew Uzbekistan Airways to Urgench, Karakalpakstan, explored the silk road cities of Khiva, Bukharah and Samarkand, and drove deep into the desert to witness the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm.

More to follow… but if you can’t wait, and want to check out some of our photography, feel free to view our instagram feed at instagram.com/pmtravels

 

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Legend of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque

The 40m dome of the Bibi Khanym mosque towers above modern Samarkand

The 40m dome of the Bibi-Khanym mosque towers above modern Samarkand

For a bit of a romantic twist in the history of Samarkand, we visited the massive 14th century Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The monument is best known today for an illicit affair that supposedly took place between Timur’s Queen, and the mosque’s architect.

Legend says that while Timur was away during his military campaign to India, his favorite wife, Queen Saray Mulk Khanum, ordered the construction of a mosque adjacent to the Samarkand Bazaar to honor his return. The mosque was to be the grandest cathedral mosque in the known world, and the tallest most magnificent monument in all of Samarkand.

In Timur’s absence, the architect of the project fell madly in love with the queen. The architect, due to his love for her, purposefully delayed the works in order to spend more time with the queen, who frequently visited the site to monitor the construction progress. Knowing that she feared the mosque would not be completed in time for Timur’s return, the architect proposed that perhaps he might be encouraged to finish on time if the queen were to grant him a kiss.

Outraged, and determined to teach the architect a lesson, the queen ordered a servant to bring her a dozen eggs all painted in different colors. “Look at these eggs!” demanded the queen. “They are all painted with beautiful colors, but on the inside, they are are identical! You have the choice of any woman you want! Why pursue me? It is impossible. Don’t you know who I am?”

from within the spacious park-like courtyard of the Bibi-Khanym complex

from within the spacious park-like courtyard of the Bibi-Khanym complex

The architect then asked the servant to bring two glasses. One glass he filled with water, the other glass he filled with wine. He said to the queen, “Look at these two glasses. They look exactly the same. If I drink the first glass, I will  feel nothing. If I drink the second, it will intoxicate me. It is the same for my love.”

In light of his valid argument, the queen relented, and the architect was granted his request. But this kiss was so intense, so passionate, so true, it left a visible mark on the queen which was unmistakable. Timur soon returned from his successful conquest of India and was thrilled beyond belief with the magnificent gift of the mosque. However, he soon realised there was something different about his beloved wife.

No one knows what happened next, but unsurprisingly, the impudent architect is said to have mysteriously disappeared.

In reality, the mosque was constructed by order of Timur the Great, funded by plunder from his conquest of India in 1398. In his absence (he didn’t get back until 1404) the queen likely made some changes to the plan for the mosque to honor her husband. However, on his return, Timur was not happy with the way the project was progressing, and ordered additional changes, which were not finished until only shortly before his death.

Architectural issues plagued the completed structure, and the mosque fell into disrepair within 200 years. In the 16th century, a restoration was begun, but regime change soon canceled the effort. Left alone for some 400 years, what was once the most spectacular mosque in the Islamic world finally succumbed to the elements, looting, and frequent earthquakes.

The ruin became a quarry for the residents of Samarkand over the centuries, and little remained when the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic undertook modern restoration works beginning in 1974, which were only recently completed. However, as if refusing to give in to the tests of time, a 2013 earthquake again damaged the structure, and today only the exterior can be appreciated. Restoration works are ongoing. The sheer size of the monument means your best photos capturing the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in one frame can only be taken from afar.

It's magnificence best appreciated from afar, the Bibi-Khanym rises above an old-town mahalla of Samarkand - Viewed from viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah at the Registan complex

its magnificence best appreciated from afar, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque rises above an old-town mahalla of Samarkand – viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah at the Registan complex

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Samarkand Photo Essay – The Registan

the iconic registan complex lit up the night before our tour

the iconic registan complex lit up the night before our tour

Our photo tour of Samarkand continues with a visit to the iconic Registan. As the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, the Registan was once the center of all activity in the city. As caravans met from all corners of the known world via the Silk Road, the square was a bustling center of commerce and trade.

Today the square itself bears little resemblance to its ancient past. Once park like with trees and landscaping, the square has been recently paved over with cobblestones and rigged with permanent high tech lighting fixtures in order to host the biennial Sharq International Music Festival. Shiny marble terraces and viewing platforms play host to visiting dignitaries and busloads of tour groups. The ancient monuments themselves however remain very well preserved.

Ulugbek Madrasah (1417-1420)

traditional embroidery demonstration within the walls of the Ulugbek Madrasah

traditional embroidery demonstration within the walls of the Ulugbek Madrasah

Beginning in the 15th century, the first of the great Madrasahs was constructed on the square. Named for Ulugbek, grandson of the great conqueror Timur the Great, the Ulugbek Madrasah was one of the best muslim seminaries in the world. Ulugbek himself was a lecturer there, and during his time as ruler, established the madrasah as a center of scientific learning.

within the picturesque 15th century courtyard of the Ulugbek Madrasah

within the picturesque 15th century courtyard of the Ulugbek Madrasah

Today, the madrasah functions only as an architectural monument. The picturesque shaded courtyard beyond the majestic gated entrance is filled with souvenir hawkers and camera wielding tourists. An empty mosque serves as an art gallery, and the ancient lecture halls stand empty. For a small entrance fee, access is granted to climb one of the two precariously leaning minnerates. The view from the top is worth the price of admission, but those with claustrophobia are advised against attempting the steep narrow staircase.

Sher-Dor Madrasah as viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah

Sher-Dor Madrasah as viewed from a minaret of the Ulugbek Madrasah

Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619-1636)

Fast forward 200 years, and the 17th century ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, ordered the construction of a nearly identical madrasah directly opposite the square from the Ulugbek Madrasah. Standing out immediately are the two tiger  mosaics above each side of the forward facing facade of the structure. While traditionally images of living creatures were prohibited in islamic art, the two tigers are on closer inspection actually a kind of mystical tiger-lion hybrid creature. As depictions of mythical creatures do not represent actual living things, the artwork was allowed to remain… or so the story goes.

exterior of the gilded mosque within the Tilya-Kori Madrasah

exterior of the gilded mosque within the Tilya-Kori Madrasah

Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646-1660)

Completing the complex, constructed only ten years following completion of the Sher-Dor Madrasah, is the Tilya-Kori or “Gilded” Madrasah. Within this complex is a grand mosque with a spectacularly gilded main hall – hence the name. Architecturally distinct from the other two Madrasahs of Registan Square, you immediately notice the two story columned facade lined with individual cells. Despite being built as a Madrasah, the Tilya-Kori was used primarily as a mosque throughout its active lifetime, right up until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of Soviet rule. Since that time, the Gilded Mosque, as well as the rest of the Registan complex, have remained only as monuments to a bygone era.

the truly "gilded" interior of the blue domed gilded mosque within the Tilya-Kori Madrasah

the truly “gilded” interior of the blue domed gilded mosque within the Tilya-Kori Madrasah


detail of the mystical tiger-lion beasts above the entrance facade of the Sher-Dor Madrasah as viewed from Registan Square

detail of the mystical tiger-lion beasts above the entrance facade of the Sher-Dor Madrasah as viewed from Registan Square

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Samarkand Photo Essay – Gur-Emir Mausoleum

the blue dome of the Gur-Emiur dominates the skyline of the surrounding neighborhoods

the blue dome of the Gur-Emiur dominates the skyline of the surrounding neighborhoods

PashbyMaul Adventures just returned from a much needed and very restorative autumn break to the Silk Roads midpoint capital city of Samarkand. We were blessed with amazing conditions – perfect temperatures, blue skies, clear air – conditions that only enhanced the photogenicity of Samarkand’s many spectacular monuments. In the ancient city of Kesh, just 100km to the south of Samarkand, stand the remains of Timur’s summer palace. On the ruins of the impressive gateway the phrase “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!” can still be made out. In Timur’s capital city of Samarkand, his impressive monuments still inspire awe and wonder nearly 700 years later.

Our private tour guide for the day, procured through advantour, was totally worth the money. He knew absolutely everything there was to know about the city, its history, and culture. The deal we got through advantour was a bit pricey at US$70 per person, but it included a car, driver, and guide for the day. We weren’t tied to an itinerary other than the included sights as part of the package, and we could take as long as we wanted exploring along the way. Admission fees to all landmarks, monuments, mausoleums, were also included in the price, and we even had the flexibility to walk from one stop to the next instead of piling back in the vehicle every time. I’m sure the driver appreciated this, but so did we, because it was a beautiful 65°F (18°C) picture perfect sunny day. Our guide met us at our hotel, the Jahongir B&B, which we’ll write more about later, and led us outside to our waiting jalopy, where our tour begins.

Gur-Emir Mausoleum

First stop was the impressive 15th century Gur-Emir Mausoleum. Located on the edge of the old city, the new Russified city of Samarkand spreads out in all directions north, west, and south. The complex started out as a madrasah, but when Amir Timur’s grandson suddenly died, it became an impromptu mausoleum. Later, when Timur died, his other more famous architect grandson Ulugbek completed the structure. While not originally intended for Timur, he ended up being buried here anyway. His intended mausoleum specially built for that purpose is located 100km to the south, over the mountains, in his hometown of Shakhrisabz, where we will visit later. Today, the Gur-Emir Mausoleum is an iconic example of Azeri style architecture. Timur the Great’s eternal resting place is in the crypt, beneath a solid slab gravestone of pure jade. Cursed are those who dare disturb his resting place, as the last to do so, Soviet scientists, found their country being invaded by Nazis two days later.

The following four photos fail to capture the true impressiveness of it all, but at least hopefully provide some wanderlust for your next travel adventure!

exterior of the impressive Gur-Emir complex illuminated at night

exterior of the impressive Gur-Emir complex illuminated at night

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classic example of muqarnas ceramic design adorns the exterior facade of the main gate

the unfinished madrassa was left alone while the impressive mausoleum was constructed alongside

the unfinished madrassa was left alone while the impressive mausoleum was constructed alongside

ornately decorated gold leaf interior of the blue dome from within the chamber above Timur's crypt

ornately decorated gold leaf interior of the blue dome from within the chamber above Timur’s crypt

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Samarkand – Hovrenko Wine Factory

 

Hovrenko Wine Factory tasting experience

If the bus loads of silver-haired European tourists are any indication, we feel very fortunate to be here in Samarkand well before our 65th birthday. Never a fan of the massive group tour, there’s something inherently unauthentic about being driven around in an air-conditioned luxury motor coach. Sailing by in blissful comfort high above the locals in their gritty soviet era taxicabs, the smells, sounds, and experiences of Samarkand are bound to escape you.

Our time here in Samarkand has been remarkable. Authenticity for us is as always a priority, at least as far as our limited frame of reference allows it to be. So we arrived here with an open mind, tried to forget what the naysayers told us to expect, and jumped in head-first. This is our first of several posts about our trip to Samarkand, which began in true PashbyMaul style – yes it is authentic – with wine!

tasting experience includes 10 wines and cognacs for a very reasonable 35,000 сум each

After our arrival on Uzbekistan’s flagship “Afrosiyob” train service from Tashkent, we ran the gauntlet of eager guides and taxi drivers and pleaded with the police at the checkpoint to let us into the main train station building to use the toilet. Note to self – use the bathroom on the train before disembarking. Emerging visibly relieved, we found the crowd dispersed, and had a much more relaxed encounter with a friendly (and knowledgeable) Russian taxi driver who was pleased take us where we needed to go.

Even though it was 1015 in the morning, our first adventure was the Hovrenko Wine Factory. It was recommended we call ahead, but despite our best efforts, none of the phone numbers from our multiple sources seemed to work. Our friendly taxi driver saved the day when upon arrival at the seemingly closed museum, he managed to track down the proprietor. After about five minutes waiting, we exchanged pleasantries with our driver, and were ushered inside the late 19th century house to begin our Samarkand wine experience.

scenes of Samarkand wine history adorn the tasting room

The wine factory is located within the converted home of a 19th century Jewish industrialist. As far as we could tell, the founder of the business – we’ll call him Mr. Hovrenko, came to Samarkand during the time of Russian imperialism in Uzbekistan. Here he began making wines and cognacs in the European style, using European vines, in the European tradition, which continues to this day.

After a short self guided tour of the little museum in the central room of the house, we were taken to what we assume must have at one time been a ballroom. A massive table with room for probably fifty chairs was set for just the two of us. We took our seats and were led through a tasting experience consisting of 10 wines and cognacs.

practice your russian language skills in the museum – no english captions here!

We began with a dry white similar to a very light soave, and then progressed through more memorable dry reds. These included a very nice “French style” cabernet-sauvignon and an excellent saperavi from Georgian root-stock. The most popular wines in Samarkand are of the sweet white and sweet red variety, of which we especially enjoyed the white “Shirin” with a distinctive essence of honey.  We finished off with two potent Uzbek cognacs, both good, but one extra special, aged for seven years in oak barrels.

Taking home several cases might prove to be difficult since we arrived by train. The wine factory doesn’t do direct sales (illegal apparently), but they told where locally we could find their products. Needless to say, we’ll be stopping by that shop on our way out-of-town, ensuring our trip to Samarkand ends as it began, with good local wine.

the wonders of Samarkand are ahead!

 

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