Sunday, 28 September 2014

Totally bazaar

Before we begin, I have breaking news. I have finally tried plov! On Tuesday evening we were treated to a meal at an amazing Tashkent restaurant. We sat outside in a little courtyard covered like market tents, with beautiful carpets all over the walls and wicker baskets everywhere. It was not only the best food I’ve had in Tashkent but probably the best food I’ve had anywhere.

This weekend, we went to a bazaar called Chorsu, which is, apparently, the largest bazaar in Tashkent. So far we’ve seen a few bazaars but this one was something else; if Tashkent doesn’t hold the next World Hide and Seek Championship, I will be disappointed. Also if I find out that there is no World Hide and Seek Championship. Sorry to anyone who found my blog by Googling World Hide and Seek Championship.

We found where everyone goes!

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got to the bazaar, so peak bread-selling time had already passed, but there were still piles and piles of it in the stalls. There was a long corridor dedicated to nothing but bread, mostly this flatbread with a pretty pattern in the middle called Obi Non.
I made a joke on Facebook about Obi Non Kenobi but no one liked it.

After exploring the main buildings with their vast amounts of bread, fruit, vegetables and meat, we had a wander around outside. Many of the older women here wear long patterned dresses with matching headscarves, and we managed to solve the mystery of where they had found them. There were some really glorious examples of Uzbek national dress, including some with extra sparkles.

I know what I'm wearing to work tomorrow.

Looking at everything on sale made us really peckish, so we decided to nip to a fast food restaurant. The fast food here is pretty similar to everywhere else with a couple of exceptions, one of those being the inclusion of lavash on the menu. Lavash is a sort of kebab rolled up in a wrap and then toasted. But it’s so much more than that. When you see them being made, you start to doubt yourself and think about un-ordering what you’ve got; they start by squirting mayonnaise in thick lines, then cover it with cucumbers and tomatoes. The next step, however, is what absolutely makes it. They sprinkle crisps inside, then add some scraps of kebab meat and some spicy sauce. To top it off, sometimes they’ll stick in a bit more mayonnaise. To be honest, I have heard that ‘proper’ lavash is completely different, but the crisp-themed stuff from fast food places is just magical. Apart from the orangey grease that inevitably seeps out of the bottom.

It is part of a balanced diet; it has cucumber and tomatoes in it.

Next up was a visit to the old part of town. We got rather excited because we saw an old building with beautiful windows professing to be a ‘gallery’. However, on closer inspection, it was actually a surreal and empty shopping centre in which everything was closed. The rest of the town was less of an anti-climax; the sun was coming down as we walked across the square, so it made some lovely photos. There were gorgeous domes in the obligatory turquoise and narrow streets that made us feel as though we’d gone back in time. That’s probably why it’s referred to as the ‘old town’.

Inexpicable umbrella frame attached to a rock hanging from a phone wire. There were several of these.

This week I intend to be a lot more responsible with my time and try to find a definite day to write my blog each week. Work has been quite busy, so finding time during the week is a little tricky! Perhaps next Sunday, I will write something else – apologies for being so sporadic.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Traditional post-ballet clubbing

I apologise most profoundly for the lack of blog update on Tuesday! Unfortunately, I had had a rather tough day at work and decided that going to the pub, then organising a Spanish lesson and learning to play poker with pasta in one night would leave me time for blog-writing. Evidently, it didn’t. The bad news is that I have not done anything particularly photo-worthy in the past week, so most of this entry will be text-based. Feel free to close this now.

A picture of a theatre to keep you sweet.

On Friday, we went to the ballet! One of our colleagues emailed around to see who wanted to spend about £4 for an almost front-row seat at a performance of Swan Lake. Of course, we all paid up, dressed up and went. Everyone was wetting themselves with excitement to get to the weekend.

First of all we went to a restaurant not far from the theatre. We had kebab meat with a tomato sauce and lumps of sticky bread and a side of sour cream; again it probably has a proper name but it has slipped my mind. It was utterly fabulous, especially when accompanied with chips and ketchup. No meal can be made worse with chips and ketchup, let’s face it. As there were thirteen or so of us, the restaurant found us a special secret room with its own table and we all felt like film stars.

We enjoyed the meal so much that we ended up being about twenty minutes late for the ballet. The good part was that we timed it exactly to arrive during a particularly loud piece (I can’t remember its name, but it does go “DUN DUN DUN DUN-DIDDLE-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN” so any fans of Tchaikovsky will know what I’m on about, of course). We faffed around for a little while and then snuck onto the back row for the rest of the first half, which was fine and cosy until one man, who had fallen asleep, woke up with a terrified ‘yelp’ and caused a few of us to cry a little bit due to surpressed giggles. Giggles are infectious anyway, but during an emotional ballet scene, they seem to last a lot longer than is really appropriate.

This is just some ballet, this isn't when we got the giggles.

The ballet itself was fairly enjoyable – it wasn’t quite the same as the ballet that we saw in Petrozavodsk two years ago, but it was certainly a hell of a lot better than I could have done.

After the ballet, we did of course go to the pub. We visited that typical Uzbek establishment renowned all over the world: The Irish Pub. No capital city is complete without at least one ‘Irish pub,’ and Tashkent is no exception. We had a couple of beers, chips and some almonds. That should have been it, but when one is surrounded by graduates of the University of Sheffield, someone will always suggest continuing the evening somewhere. Luckily, one of our friends from Tashkent knows the best places to go, and we ended up somewhere pretty interesting (but my camera had run out of battery by this point, so you will have to picture it in your head using the power of reading).

We got out of the taxi/car that some man was driving in front of a building that looked like a lot of closed offices. If there was one thing that we had definitely not wandered into, it was the ‘strip’ of Tashkent. It was silent and there was no one around, although, as anyone who has seen my photos would already know, that is not exactly unusual over here. We went over to a door that was guarded by a couple of men who assured us that there was something to do inside this mysterious building, and indeed there was. A band played all of the songs that you would expect to hear in a mainstream club in the UK but so much more. They went from Pharrell Williams to Rammstein, everyone dancing like they had not been at work all day. We met some Uzbek and Turkish people who were lovely and whose only flaw was that, when they bought me a glass of water, it was fizzy.

The next day was a little difficult, especially as I had not been back to my house in about 21 hours, but a difficult day is a small price to pay for Swan Lake and an entertaining night out.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Our day out to the mausoleum made from papier maché. And more.

It seems as though I have become a proper human being in that weeknights are now ‘bed by half nine’ nights and the weekends are when life happens. Not only that, but the realisation hit me hard that being hungover on a Sunday and having to be up by 6 on a Monday is actually pretty upsetting.

This weekend’s adventure was a trip to Samarkand, a place that some people from Britain might have heard of. It is the third largest city in Uzbekistan and contains a lot of stunning ancient Islamic architecture. The whole place comes across as a lot more ‘Eastern,’ but more on all that later.

In order to be able to spend an ‘excursion-length’ amount of time there, we had to meet at the station at 7am, which some members of the group were happier about than others. Then bags are searched, tickets are stamped and passports are checked. It makes going on a train a lot more of an experience, honest. We had little compartments on the train, where they brought us tea, and there was a restaurant with a wide range of biscuits and… other biscuits.

British trains don't have carpet quite like this.

Upon arrival in Samarkand, we decided (well, most of us decided) to go and get some plov. We went to a seriously fancy place, was told there was no plov for us so left in disgust for a more canteen-like place. The plov was served with the salty milk stuff, or ayran, as I should call it, which apparently will cure any stomach ailments. I just wish I could eat more of it; the taste isn’t too bad but it does give off a ‘farmy’ flavour if you overdo it.

The next stop was the Amir Temur mausoleum. We paid for a guide who told us all about the place, peppered with jokes about how pomegranate juice was the Red Bull of the 14th century. Apparently, before Amir Temur’s battles, a huge stone bowl would be filled with pomegranate juice and the soldiers would all drink from it. After the battle, the soldiers would drink again, and the difference in the levels would show how many soldiers had died.

This was all fascinating, but it was not until we went into the mausoleum that my brain melted. The main building was under a dome with a selection of graves in the centre. It was so beautiful that it nearly made me cry, and actually did make me do a little tear when the guide informed us that the entirety of the decoration in the building was made from papier maché. It had been restored in 1994; some of the outdoor tiles were put in 600 years before and were still bright blue, yet the ones that were around 20 years old were already losing their colour.

Can you make that from paper soaked in plaster? Can you?

The next place we visited was Registan Square, which was a massive open square surrounded by three buildings called ‘madrasahs.’ The buildings themselves were lovely, little courtyards surrounded by archways. However, they may have become a little more touristy since being built, as these courtyards were full of shops selling plates, bowls and, surprising, pictures of naked fairies.

Our last stop before heading home was a mosque with several tombs and a graveyard. I think it was called Shah-i-Zinda, but I may be wrong. It was super gorgeous, but had many rules to follow. Some were fairly reasonable, such as ‘do not shout’ and ‘be respectful’ but some were interesting translations, for example: ‘prohibited kissing and going around’ and ‘forbidden cooking, having a rest.’ So we made sure that we did not go around while avoiding resting. It was a pretty impressive feat.

The train home was rather lovely; we took pictures of the sunset and played a card game which we named Islambek after the lovely man who taught us to play it. The train guards came to watch and one of them even joined in. He loved us so much that he shook our hands as we got off the train.

Post-Samarkand was obviously pub time, Sunday was a good old rest and then on Monday evening, I went to my first ever football match! How many people can say that their first ever live football match was an international friendly between Uzbekistan and New Zealand? Spoiler: Uzbekistan won 3-1 and there was a hilarious fight. Which Uzbekistan probably also won.

This is how many people can say their first ever live football match was an international friendly between Uzbekistan and New Zealand.

That is all from me. Have a lovely week.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

If your country is doubly landlocked, make your own sea! (well, lake)

Anyone who knows me well, or has at least come across me two or three times, will know that I am very, very open. Sometimes too open. Sometimes, people stop eating after I’ve finished talking because what I have said has made them want to regurgitate. So I will just warn anyone reading this that the next few sentences might contain a little too much information. Let’s just say that Uzbek food has not been friendly to me. I like to eat it, but apparently I don’t like to digest it. So when I was invited last weekend to see Charvak, a manmade lake in the mountains not far from Tashkent, I was a little worried about potential in-car catastrophes.

Here is a camel to take your mind off that.

Luckily, an all-rice diet for two days had set me just about right, so I got into a car with some of my lovely colleagues and we drove for a couple of hours out of the city. Tashkent seems to go on forever; eventually it dwindles into smaller villages where everything is sold by the side of the road and camels chill under the trees. I don’t know if anyone else has ever played on Golden Sun 2 on Gameboy Advance, but when the mountains appeared in front of us, they reminded me of some of the mountains on that. They were yellow, brown and dry and hairy. But utterly stunning.

So mountainous!

We went to a little viewpoint above the lake to take photos in every combination of the four of us possible, and then drove down to a little resort. It turned out that going for a swim in the nearest lake to Tashkent on a sunny Sunday wasn’t exactly an original idea, so the only option was to park the car a little way away from the lake and fight our way down through many cars, getting beeped at by just about everything except pedestrians. It was so busy that we saw three cars cuddled up under a tree, hiding from the sun.

I wasn’t expecting the lake to have a beach, and although it was not much like any beaches I had seen before, it was definitely a beach. It was mostly made up of pebbles, but when we waded into the water, the ground was soft and sticky. It was rather pleasant while mildly worrying. So we jumped in and swam around for a little while, admiring the murkiness from all the other people’s sweat and the oil from jet-skis. It turned out that a man on the beach who was running speedboat rides actually knew two of our group, so he offered to get someone to drive us around the lake. We took pictures of the mountains from every angle, blasting out the europop and Uzbek classics while a little boy showed off his sick moves. Pretty jammy.

"WHAT IF I FALL OUT OF THE BACK OF THE BOAT AND DIE????" - my brain while this photo was being taken.

The evening finished with a gorgeous meal on one of those benches where you have your feet up and the table is really little. I’m sure there’s a much more elegant name for that, but I have yet to learn it. Feel free to share if you want to fight my ignorance. The meal was delicious, but I was encouraged to try a salty milk drink. The two Uzbeks kept telling us “it’s just a runnier version of the salty yoghurt you’re dipping your cucumber in!” which I think is a very fair point. On the other hand, I was only dipping things into it, not watering down the yoghurt and drinking it.

Here are some lovely pictures.