Ever since Tashkent, the 4th-biggest city in the former Soviet Union, became the capital of the area we now know as Uzbekistan, its lords have tried to put their stamp on the place. You can learn a lot about their vision for this country sauntering the boulevards, especially in the new heart of Tashkent.
What’s more, central Tashkent is actually a rather pleasant place to walk, at least compared to the traffic-choked streets in the rest of the city. If you just arrived in Tashkent and didn’t make any friends yet, you should ramble here.
This itinerary takes you across central Tashkent. It’s grand, quiet, there’s lots of things to see. It works well as an evening walk, perhaps after a visit to the opera, or as a series of daytime walks if you want to visit the museums along the way. Without stops, the route will take 2 hours, but you can easily spend a day if you go slower.
Kosmonavtlar metro to Alisher Navoi metro
We start our route at the Kosmonavtlar metro stop (1). Glorifying the space pioneers of the Soviet Union, the underground stop is a time capsule to the early 1970’s when Tashkent’s metro was constructed. Nothing has been changed since those days, except for an ever-thickening patina of nostalgia covering the lamps, artwork and attendants.
Exiting the metro, a romantic statue unites visions of a space dream: Vladimir Dzhanibekov, Uzbekistan’s only cosmonaut, Ulugh Beg, the astronomer-king, and the ascendancy of Soviet man.
Before heading north, let’s take a left along Afrosiyob Kochasi for 2 intriguing sights. Across the street, a fairy tale castle awaits: it’s the Tashkent Puppet Theatre (2). If you brought kids along, you’ll have a good excuse to catch a show.
Continue along for another 100m, and you come to the former Presidential Palace of the first president of Uzbekistan (3), Islam Karimov. It’s fair to say he was a terrible leader and the world is a better place without him, but a golden statue has gone up anyway (it gets a yearly wash with 1800 liters of cola, we have been told) and his palace has been converted into a museum to glorify the man.
Let’s backtrack now and head north along Sharof Rashidov Kochasi. Take the right side of the street to catch some shade. In the back of the little park, book sellers ply their trade, whilst in the center stands the iconic Blue Domes restaurant (4). An atmospheric and storied place for a good meal, even if service is rather weak.
Turn your gaze upwards and across the street to see an ode to world peace (мир миру) on top of an apartment building. Next to it stands the Academy of Arts (5), bathing in Modernist splendour. The exhibitions focus on new work from local artists. Behind it stands a mausoleum-like building: the Kamoliddin Behzod miniature gallery (6), focused on the famed 15th-century miniaturist from Herat.
If paintings big or small are not of interest to you, turn right onto Ozbekiston kochasi. On your right stands the TsUM shopping mall (7) , the ultimate in luxury Soviet shopping. It has since been renovated, but they kept the plucks of cotton on the top.
On your left lies the Opera Square. The Navoiy Opera (8) is not the Bolshoi, but this grand Stalinist construction reminiscent of the Abay theatre in Almaty has seen a plush renovation. Performances are ludicrously cheap and there are a few stars that carry the show. Opposite stands the Lotte City Hotel, built in 1958 when it was known as the Tashkent Hotel.
Continue north along quiet, shady Buyuk Turon, and the National History Museum (9) comes into view. Even if you do not give a hoot about the treasures buried inside, the building itself is the pinnacle of Oriental Modernism. Originally completely dedicated to the personality cult surrounding Lenin, it was completed in 1970 to mark the centennial of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich.
Turn right into the park and, passing painters at an open art bazaar commonly known as Broadway, head for central Amir Timur square (10).
Amir Timur Square
Built to form the center of a new Tashkent when Russia first colonized the area in the 1860’s, it’s now Amir Timur and his horse who occupy the center of the capital. It’s a heavy irony, since he was famous for saying: If you see an Uzbek, kill him (Timur was a Mongol and his empire would finally be destroyed by invading Uzbeks).
Before Timur trotted in, the central square hosted the sculpted image of the first Russian governor of Tashkent, Konstantin Kaufmann, followed by statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Marx, neatly tracing the rise and fall of past personality cults. Like elsewhere in Tashkent and Uzbekistan, the century-old chinor trees on the square were cut down in 2009 on the order of President Karimov.
The area has some lovely brick-built tsarist-era gymnasia, as well as 2 clock towers, the older one built in 1947 to house a set of clocks brought home from Germany after the Second World War. The jolie laide Uzbekistan hotel is fascinating to look at, but, much like Almaty’s iconic Hotel Kazakhstan, you should stay elsewhere. In its heyday the hotel hosted celebrities like Federico Fellini and Raj Kapoor. Nowadays the plumbing is faulty.
Stay away from the Amir Timur Museum. Spend your money on ice cream instead – the simplest looking ones are the best, they are more milky. The House of Photography holds temporary exhibitions of varying interest.
Let’s instead return to Rashidov street. Sharof Rashidov rightly deserves to have his name attached to this central lane. Under his rule as Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, corruption and nepotism took on unprecendented scale, leading up to the Great Cotton Scandal of the 1980’s, where it was discovered that more than 1 billion dollars was embezzled through an immense patronage network tied together by lies, kickbacks and fake harvest reports.
If you ever wondered why some people in Central Asia are still nostalgic about the Soviet Union…it’s because it was so damn profitable!
So, Rashidov rightly deserves his statue in the park opposite the Romanov residency. He helped shape Central Asia’s post-independence politics of clientelism, corruption, dictatorship and patronage.
Just before reaching Independence Square, the former residence of Grand Duke N.K. Romanov (11) offers a last eccentric reminder of tsarist Tashkent. A first cousin of tsar Nicholas II, the Grand Duke was exiled to Tashkent for shenanigans involving the crown jewels. The firebrick building of domes and spires now houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reception hall.
The long fountain ahead announces Independence Square (12) . A globe with a very pronounced Uzbekistan has replaced what once was the largest Lenin statue in the world (Khujand still has a very big one left). The area is off-limits, but the surrounding parks are a good place for a pick-nick.
On the other side of the road stands the Art Gallery of Uzbekistan (13); a very decent collection of Uzbek painters pre- and post-independence, with everything from still lifes and landscapes to wild abstract blurs, supplemented by a superb coin collection.
Alternatively, stay on the side of Independence Square, and move north to see the Mourning Mother (14), honouring the fallen during World War II. While the other newly-independent nations of Central Asia still follow Moscow’s jingoistic line of heroic victory in 1945, Uzbekistan under Karimov got rid of military parades on 9th of May and instead put Mourning Mothers up across the country to emphasize Uzbekistan’s human loss, rather than Russia’s political victory.
Cross Navoiy kochasi and Abdulla Qodiriy kochasi as well to reach the Monument to Courage (15), perhaps Central Asia’s single most inspiring monumental Soviet sculpture. It commemorates the devastating 1966 earthquake, and the subsequent rebuilding of Tashkent.
The museum of Olympic glory (16) is just beyond. Surprisingly interesting if sports is your thing, the museum has collected a ton of memorabilia from the Olympic Games throughout the ages. Hidden in the brushwood, the cafe Olympia is well-suited for lounging on a summer’s evening.
Let’s follow the Anhor canal behind the museum back to Navoiy street (or you can follow the canal north). Moving west along this broad boulevard, there’s the Turkiston theatre on your right. On the left, the first street leads to the stadium of Pakhtakor (cotton-grower) Tashkent (17), the city’s most succesful football team, anchored in the common consciousness of the Soviet Union when the whole team perished in a mid-air collision in 1979.
Unless there is a match on, continue until the next sidestreet left, where you will find the elegant concrete of the Alisher Navoi cinema (18).
Capping off this walk across central, new Tashkent, we take you to the furthest outpost of Old Tashkent that survived the test of time. Surrounded by residential apartment blocks, 3 mausoleums dating back to the 15th century stand in the courtyard of the Islamic University of Tashkent, the final survivors of the Sheikhantaur burial complex (19).
From here, continue west and you will soon find your way into Old Tashkent. If you’d rather leave it for another time, or take the metro there instead, head underground at the Alisher Navoi stop (20). The statue of the celebrated poet stands on the corner of Navoi and Olmazor street.