It does not seem so at first sight, but Tashkent is an old city. A fertile oasis fed by the Chirchik river, bringing meltwater from the Tien Shan mountains nearby, settlement probably started more than 2000 years ago. Once called Chach, then Shash, the city got its current, Turkic name from its Karakhanid rulers in the 10th century: Tashkent, city of stone.
The town’s history mirrored that of its neighbours Shymkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kokand, and it must have largely looked the same in medieval times: a warren of mud-walled houses and workshops, crowded bazaars, mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums. With the tsarist Russian conquest of 1865 and the subsequent October Revolution, however, Tashkent changed irrevocably.
How Tashkent changed
The new capital of the colony of Turkestan and later the Uzbek SSR, was refashioned in the image of a Russian city. The ethnic make-up of the city changed as well. After the first Russian colonists, deportees from around the Soviet Union were dumped here in the 1930’s; during World War II, more than half a million Russian refugees doubled the size of the population. Many stayed, and Uzbeks became a minority.
In 1966 a devastating earthquake struck Tashkent, occasioning a blank slate for architects and city planners from across the Soviet Union to create the ideal Communist city. The remnants of the past were now truly relegated to a sideshow in a corner of town as New Tashkent became a monumental metropolis in the 1970’s, Moscow’s “beacon of Socialism in the Orient.”
Half a century later Tashkent still retains much of that Soviet spirit. Broad avenues lined by oak trees take aim for imposing solitary buildings in manicured surroundings. Although many Russians and Jews left after independence, people with roots from all across Eurasia can still be seen knocking melons and squeezing tomatoes at the bazaar. A sense of forced peacefulness and security are pervasive amidst the gentle splash of fountains.
Add in the new mosques, dictator chic construction and craft beer pubs of today, mix it with the mausoleums of yesteryear, and we’d venture that the biggest city of former Soviet Central Asia is an interesting place to visit.
How long should you stay?
Having said that, Tashkent does not get a lot of love from the travel community. As a large, modern city, it fails to live up to the image of Uzbekistan conjured up in tourist brochures. If medieval architecture and colourful arts and crafts is what you came for, you probably don’t need more than a day in Tashkent.
To tick off all of the obligatory highlights, add another day. If, on the other hand, you are a flaneur and a fan of Modernist architecture, you can easily spend 3 more days on top of that, simply strolling Tashkent.
First or last?
If you are entering and leaving Uzbekistan through Tashkent, we recommend you get out of the city soon after your arrival. Tashkent is best visited on the way back, when you might care to eat something other than plov and somsa and might actually even welcome a bit of big-city buzz; in this respect Tashkent serves as a halfway house between your holiday experience and the world back home.
Also, the museums make more sense after you have visited the places where the art came from.
Old Tashkent lies in the northwestern corner of town, with the Chorsu bazaar and the Khast Imam complex as its center of gravity. It contains the old mahallas that survived the modernisation push (so far), as well as Tashkent’s remaining medieval monuments. Take a walk around Old Tashkent to see the sights and get a feel for the place.
Central Tashkent is the area roughly between metro stops Kosmonavtlar and Oybek in the south, Amir Timur Square in the center, and north up to Bodomzor metro station between Amir Timur street and the Anhor canal. Here you will find most museums and monuments as well as the best restaurants and hotels in Tashkent.
Together, these 2 areas comprise almost all points of classic tourist interest. Beyond lie residential neighbourhoods, parks and shopping and entertainment districts.
Some people find the police presence around metro stations oppressive (they obviously haven’t been to Xinjiang at that point). I’d let that thought fly; police is courteous towards travelers, and the police state, despite its obvious dark side, does make Tashkent a superbly safe city for tourists.