Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Uzbekistan - A Rural Homestay in Hayat, the Nurata Mountains

uzbekistan eco tourism, uzbekistan art craft textile tours, uzbekistan small group tours
Hayat valley landscape. Image: Natalia Beshko
Nestled in the Nurata mountains ridge lies Hayat village, a perfect spot to spend a few days with an Uzbek family and enjoy the beautiful, natural landscape and traditional life of this region.

There are no hotels, so the development of eco-tourism is a welcome opportunity for travellers to explore this area.

In conjunction with Uzbek Tourism, the German development agency DVV International, ran a series of training programs with villagers.

These courses covered guest house management, eco-tourism, hygiene and sanitation, meal preparation etc to meet the needs of foreign visitors. Importantly the home stay is able to issue registration slips for your stay. This is a requirement for all tourists to Uzbekistan.

I stayed with Narzullo and his family during Novruz, the spring New Year festival. The guest house is simple and comfortable. Built from local materials, there are seven cosy rooms. Guests share bathrooms - solar panels provide hot water.

Like all 650 inhabitants of Hayat, Narzullo's family has lived there for generations. They produce almost all their own food. Breakfasts included delicious homemade yoghurt and cheese, garden fruits, jams and local eggs.

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Severtsov wild sheep. Image: Natalia Beshko
Adjacent to the guest house is a nature reserve, where Narzullo's father worked in the Soviet era. The reserve is home to the endangered Severtsov wild sheep as well as wild boars, foxes, wolves, porcupines and badgers. Plenty of stone grouse inhabit the reserve; golden and dwarf eagles and the bearded vulture also live there.

There is no internet, no cell phone coverage. Instead, relax in the garden under the shade of almond, apricot, mulberry and walnut trees.

Or, accompanied by a family member, hike up the village slopes or along the river banks and ancient agricultural canals that crisscross the countryside. Ancient petroglyphs can be seen on the rocky slopes and in spring the display of tulips is dazzling.

Guests are more than welcome to help make Uzbek bread in the tandyr oven or participate in the preparation of the national dish - plov.

Narzullo can also arrange excursions a little further afield, such as a visit to the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reserve. Within this beautiful reserve is a vast and holy 1500-year old Madzherum archa (biota orientalis) tree. The tree's circumference is 24 metres.

uzbekistan eco tourism, uzbekistan art craft textile tours, uzbekistan small group tours
The ancient biota orientalis tree. Image: Natalia Beshko
Some people believe that the tree was planted by Alexander the Great on the grave of one of his military chiefs. (Nurata was founded as the ancient town Nur, in 327 BC, by Alexander the Great).

According to local legends, the tree is endowed with miraculous powers, - pilgrims visit and tie a fabric scrap on a branch as they request God to fulfill their wishes.

At least 5 people can fit in the tree's hollow - locals claim that there was once a school there. The ruins of a mosque are adjacent. A brook near the tree is a delightful spot to have a picnic lunch.

Nearby are the the Aydarkul and Tuzkan lakes, the Kyzylkum desert, Farish steppe and the highest point - Hayatbashi - at 2198 metres. Again, Narzullo can arrange visits to these places.

With Narzullo I visited a farm and picked wild mushrooms that were included in the meal that evening.

I was there at Nowruz, spring New Year, and, while hiking, a family invited me to help them stir the sumalak - the traditional, sweet paste made entirely from germinated wheat.  A Novruz festival was held an easy 4-kilometre walk from Narzullo's home. People from all the surrounding villages streamed along the valley paths to enjoy musical contests, buzkashi (Central Asian polo), and picnics.

Uzbekistan is celebrated not only for its famed monuments and applied arts, but also for the remarkable warmth and hospitality of its people. I can think of no better place to experience the latter than with Narzullo and his family.  Hayat village is about 3 hours from Tashkent. Contact Narzullo at

uzbekistan eco tourism, uzbekistan art craft textile tours, uzbekistan small group tours

uzbekistan eco tourism, uzbekistan art craft textile tours, uzbekistan small group tours
Stirring the sumalak pot
Related posts:

Celebrating Nowruz - Spring New Year in Uzbekistan
Nowruz Spring Festival – Part #1
Samarkand: Exploring the Aman Kutan Valley

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pushkin in Babur Park, Tashkent

Pushkin monument in Babur Park, Tashkent. Image: Stanislav Magay
Although the great Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin spent time in the Caucausus (in exile) he did not visit Central Asia.

Nevertheless, Pushkin's poetry is much loved by Uzbek people. It is still studied in schools and taxi drivers will sometimes regale you with quotes from Pushkin's works.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, statues of Soviet heroes were removed from Tashkent.

However, the city kept the monuments dedicated to poets, writers and artists who were not associated with the Soviet regime. These include the Georgian poet Shota Rustavelli, Azerbaijan's Nizami Ganjavi, Ukranian poet Taras Shevchenko and Russia's Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin.

The renowned Soviet sculptor Mikhail Anikushin created Tashkent's Pushkin monument, which was unveiled in 1974. (In 1957 Anikushin created the bronze Pushkin monument in Arts Square, in St Petersburg. He was awarded the Lenin prize in 1958 for this remarkable sculpture).

For many years the monument marked the enduring role of the great poet in Uzbekistan’s culture and has strengthened Russian-Uzbek cultural ties. Russian compatriots and Uzbek public personalities traditionally gathered at the monument to mark memorable dates associated with the life and work of the poet.

The story-telling cat in Pushkin's poem Ruslan and Ludmilla.  Image: Stanislav Magay
As part of the ongoing urban development plan of Tashkent, the Pushkin monument required relocation. Tashkent residents were initially concerned - the monument is a city favourite.

However, in collaboration with the Russian Foreign Ministry, beloved Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is now the centrepiece of Pushkin Square, a redeveloped corner of Babur Park.

This is a much more accessible venue and has quickly become a favourite spot for family outings, couples young and old, and groups of friends. And of course brides and grooms have their photos taken with the Romantic poet.

One of Pushkin's celebrated epic poems is Ruslan and Ludmilla. Based on a Russian folk tale, it tells the story of the abduction of Ludmilla, the daughter of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, by an evil wizard and the attempt by the brave knight Ruslan to find and rescue her. (This poem formed the basis for Mikhail Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmilla).

The poem's narrator describes a wise story-telling cat that walks on a golden chain. The narrator remembers one of the cat’s stories in particular, namely Ruslan and Ludmilla.  Look out for this cat on its golden chain when you visit the Pushkin monument.

Behind the monument, on the right-hand side of the yellow, Uzbek Light Industry building is a small Pushkin library devoted to the poet's work. There is talk of a Pushkin café and poetry evenings.

Benches in Pushkin Square, Tashkent. Image: Stanislav Magay
The area has been beautifully landscaped - park benches with birch tree legs are built around trees - and there are many flower beds with basil borders.  At night the monument is illuminated and fountains cool the summer days.

Babur Park is a large park on the corner of two main streets - Babur and Shota Rustavelli. Babur was a descendant of Uzbekistan's national hero Amir Timur (Tamerlaine); he founded the Mughul dynasty in India.

The park is divided into the Korean garden, the amusement centre, Pushkin square and strolling paths.

Within the grounds is also the Seattle Peace Park.  Remarkably, in 1973, during the Cold War, Tashkent and Seattle (Washington) became sister cities, the first US-Soviet agreement under the sister cities program.

According to Piney Kesting, writing in Aramco magazine, "The spirit of friendship reached a peak in the summer of 1988, when more than 200 volunteers from Washington state and the Tashkent region joined to build the Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park, dedicated on September 12 that year. The centerpiece was a fountain and pool ringed by tiles, each one individually hand-painted by school children in Seattle and carried to Tashkent". 

For travellers on an Uzbek Journeys tour, Babur Park is just a 5-minute walk from the hotel. Take a picnic, a copy of Pushkin's poems and sit on a bench to enjoy this city oasis.

Related posts:
Tashkent: A Stroll Along Anhor Canal
Tashkent's Small House Museums
Tashkent's Churches
48 Hours in Tashkent 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Kyrgyzstan: Flash Mob Opera in Bishkek Supermarket

kyrgyzstan musical traditions, kyrgyzstan art textile tours
Opera singer, disguised as a regular shopper, in Bishkek's Frunze supermarket
Kyrgyzstan may well be one of the world's least known countries.

Yet this tiny, alpine nation in which there are still more horses than cars, is well-worth exploring -  not only for its stunning panoramas and strong nomadic traditions.

Like other Central Asians, the Kyrgyz people are warm and hospitable. But it is the creative energy of young Kyrygz that is impressive. Fashion designers, artisans, jazz and rock musicians, classical and traditional performers freely experiment with ancient and contemporary forms.

In December 2015, performers from the National Kyrgyz Conservatory in Bishkek staged a flash mob opera in one of Bishkek's major supermarkets. Their goal was to advertise an upcoming free concert at the Conservatory.

Looking like regular shoppers and store employees, the singers suddenly burst into Libiamo ne` lieti calici from Verdi's La Traviata.

Shoppers were enthralled by this delightful event. I am sure, just like me, you would be happy to be regaled in this way at your next visit to the local supermarket.

Enjoy the 3-minute clip below. (If this does not appear on your device, please go directly to ).

Related posts:
Kancha - Design for Urban Nomads
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
Manaschi - Bards of Kyrgyzstan
Tea with Bread and Jam – a Traveller’s Appreciation of the Finer Things in Kyrgyz Life