Want to see what Tashkent used to look like? Take a walk through the mahallas of Old Tashkent. A mahalla is a traditional neighbourhood, governed by a council of local old men (aksakal or white beards). These tight communities have endured over the centuries and are still a vibrant form of local government today.
We’ll start our trip at the Tinchlik metro stop. Head north along Nurafshon street, and dive into the sidestreet that splits off and veers left. Here a bazaar-cum-street food corner starts that continues along busy Farobi street. A specialty of the Chigatay bazaar (1) is slow-cooked chickpea and lamb soup (nokhat shurak or gushtnut) with non bread with walnuts and raisins. They start serving very early in the morning. Arrive with appetite.
Across the street lies the Chigatay cemetery (2). It offers at once an insight into Muslim and Soviet burial rites, as well as a pilgrimage site for devotees of recent Uzbek history. From the Odyssey guide to Uzbekistan:
Left of the entrance lie buried the common people of the neighbourhood, a crowded mix of Muslim and Soviet-style remembrance. To the right are the servants of the people, the grand tombs of the dignitaries and celebrities of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, commemorated with deeply un-Islamic busts and engraved faces.
Take a guide for a personalized history lesson: Hero of Labour Turson Akhunova (1937-1983), the first woman to drive a cotton-picking machine. She travelled widely, encouraging women to enter agriculture, until the chemical fertilizers sprayed on cotton fields gave her cancer. People’s Writer Mirza Aiybek (Oibek) (1905-1968), among the first to assert Tamerlane’s role in world civilization; official persecution led to a stroke that robbed him of speech. Shukur Burkhon (1910-1987), the first Uzbek to play Othello; so impassioned was his performance, he almost strangled Desdemona for real.
Former Uzbek president Sharaf Rashidov (1917-1983), lies beneath a marble tombstone of marked simplicity compared to the ostentatious structure which Gorbachev’s anti-corruption drive removed from near the Lenin Museum.
Moving on, we now dive into the confusingly named Tashkent mahalla (3). Cross Nurafshon street and take an immediate left, as we try to follow the Kolkouz canal. The walls encasing the narrow, winding streets of the mahalla are high and windowless to guard against the heat (and prying eyes?).
Only the occasional opened gate offers a peek into vine-covered courtyards. You might spot a donkey here, or a horse, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Russian living in these conservative backstreets.
The canal leads us to the spiritual heart of Tashkent, Khast Imam Square (4). Mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums and one very old Quran, there is a lot to discover. Once you have seen it all, dive into Zarqaynar street leading out of the southwestern corner of the square between the Barak Khan madrassah and the Tellya Sheikh mosque. We are now back in the mahalla.
Around Chorsu bazaar
As you progress, the roar of traffic announces a busy intersection. Just follow the crowds to lead you to the Chorsu bazaar (5). Shop and eat to your heart’s content, then move south to have a look at the 16th-century Kukeldash madrassah (6).
This area marks the former Registan (sandy place), the center of the city where executions were held. Before the arrival of the Russians (and Tinder), unfaithful wives were sewn into sacks here and dropped from the minarets of the Kukeldash, or stoned to death by their husbands and passersby.
Nowadays the madrassah is back in use as a college for the study of Islam. Nextdoor sits the Juma mosque (7). Although the mosque was originally built in the 15th-century, subsequent dilapidation and reconstruction means only fragments of the initial structure survive.
On the crossroads of Navoi and Furqat streets, you get a good view of the cosmic Circus (8). In the distance, on the other end of Furqat street, stands the Istiqlol Palace, another one of Tashkent’s impressive/oppressive leviathans from the 1970’s.
Now walk the forceful straight line of Furqat boulevard towards Navoi park to feel the full power Soviet urban planning (and the burning sun) has on one’s mental state.
The Istiqlol palace (9) used to be called the People’s Friendship Palace and was designed as an event hall, which it still is today. Its facade combines oriental decoration (pandzhara blinds) with elements inspired by technology (enormous bolts on the roof). Quite a sight.
Just behind, inside Navoi Park, stands a final reminder of a more religious era. The Abdulkasym madrassah (10) was built in 1850. It has now been converted into a crafts center where local artists ply their trade, with souvenir shops occupying the former students’ cells.
From a distance you can see the fenced-off Uzbek Parliament (Oliy Majlis) (11). Opposite stands the Navruz wedding palace (12). Especially on weekends it is crowded with wedding parties surrounded by camera men, drones, Hummer limos and all the other attributes a traditional Uzbek wedding needs. Hang around long enough and you will surely get invited.
The park is big, a good place to put your feet up and relax from a long walk by the lake, dug out by Komsomol youth in 1939 in only 45 days. Exit through Milliy Bog metro stop.