21 July 2017

Hasti Imom Complex

This is probably the most well-known ancient site in Tashkent, although it's hardly the only one, in spite of what some people tell you.  

The first time we went here was after wandering along Zarqaynar Street from Chorsu Bazaar, which is worth walking down, especially since you'll run into some other old structures.  Having this complex open up in front of you as you walk through the old mahallah is lovely.   Here's some info about it, or you can just look at the photos. Some of the buildings are new, some are older madrassahs and mausoleums.  One of the oldest copies of the Qur'an is here too, although we've never been there when it's open.

19 July 2017

Istanbul Symbol

As soon as we left the airport in Istanbul, I noticed the city's symbol everywhere.

This has to be one of my favorite city symbols ever.  It won a contest in 1969 and has been used since then.  You have the Bosporus on the bottom with city wall topping that part, and the domes and minarets of the city.  The seven triangles represent the city's seven hills.  To me, it also looks like the Hand of Fatima which adds to its wonderfulness.


As you can probably imagine, there aren't a lot of easy ways to get to Tashkent from Riyadh.  There are some nice flights that just have a short layover in Dubai, but those were unreasonably expensive so we flew Turkish Air through Istanbul. But this time, we left the airport!  How exciting.  It was just overnight, but it was lovely to finally see a little bit of Istanbul.

We poked around the New Mosque and the Egyptian bazaar in between eating lots of good things like lokmalar and borek and pide and Iskander kebab and simit and kofte and kokorec and more things I can't even remember.  The second day we mostly spent on the water, taking the public ferry to the Asian side of the city and then taking a cruise up the Bosporus to the second bridge.  The child with us liked that and it was so pleasant to be on the water.

I loved the public transit in Istanbul.  It's a hilly and watery city so there are sky trams and funiculars and ferries in addition to the usual buses and subways and trams.  And it was so diverse.  So many different people and ethnicities, wearing everything under the sun, eating so many things.

Also, the lira and the riyal are worth almost the same amount in dollars which made the money part uncomplicated.  And even though it was humid, it felt so wonderfully cool the entire time we were there.

And it felt so Turkic.  Both my husband and I noticed that right away.  I loved that.  Turkish is worth speaking if you're there, but a lot of the signs were in Russian and Arabic and English too.  It seems to be the perfect place for us.  I've always wanted to live in Istanbul, but it just moved way up on my list of cities to move to sooner than later (for the record, the short list includes Cairo, Tashkent, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Mexico City).


We spent the last couple of weeks of June in Jeddah, which was lovely.  I didn't quite know what to expect, since it's still Saudi Arabia but everyone says it's more liberal.  And it was, in lots of ways.  It felt like a vacation even though we were there for work.  The place we stayed was like a resort with swimming pools everywhere and even a little grocery store.  It was lovely to be able to get food without an abaya with just a short walk.  

I'd been worried that the humidity would be bad, but even though the heat index was around 120 a lot of the time we were there, it still wasn't as awful as Riyadh at 115.  Everyone liked not being so dry and when the wind blew, it felt good, instead of like someone had put you in the dryer like it does in Riyadh in the summer.  

We didn't end up doing that much in Jeddah except hanging out.  Part of the family went snorkeling one day and got very, very sunburned so there was lots of recovery time.  But we did go to the aquarium and poked around al Balad, which was my favorite part.

We stayed in Taif on the way there and back.  It was noticeably cooler which was so nice.  But I picked the wrong hotel on the way there because it was next to a large mosque and we were getting into the last week of Ramadan so there were prayers being broadcast every couple of hours all night long.  But we survived and enjoyed the cooler weather and got around Mecca the next morning without accidentally going in.  And we were able to drive down the escarpment outside Taif which is amazing and also has baboons.  Really.  We went north around Mecca on the way home which is boring.  

Al Balad is the old city in Jeddah.  The Saud family may have rural roots, but Saudi isn't entirely Bedu.  It was interesting to see and read about the difference between Hijazi and Najdi Saudis, to see different architecture, and to feel like we were in a place that probably wouldn't control everyone's lives so strictly if Hijazis were in charged of Saudi instead of Najdis.  Al Balad is still very conservative, but it's not Najdi.  I loved seeing the old buildings and it was recently declared a World Heritage Site so I hope more restoration will happen.  There are a lot of falling-apart buildings in there.   Mostly it was nice to be in a city that felt lived in, rather than the artificialness of Riyadh (and Tashkent, to some extent, but in a different way).  There was even street art.

One evening we went to a bit of a street festival during Eid al-Fitr.  There were hand-cranked ferris wheels and street food and people selling things and just generally having a good time in a mixed crowd.  We also found a couple of the old embassies from when Jeddah was the capital of Saudi Arabia which was fun.  I seem to be missing a chunk of photos but when I track them down I'll try to remember to add them here.  

I didn't get everything done here I wanted to.  I'd like to spend a lot more time in al Balad, and we need more snorkeling.  I'd like to go back during Eid al-Adha if we can make the logistics work.

Escarpment, Again

In my never-ending quest to explore the Tuwaiq escarpment, I found another access point that seemed to involve a paved road most of the way.  I convinced the necessary people to take me there (I even scanned a stack of papers for one of those people) and we drove off in the few days we had in Riyadh between Jeddah and Tashkent.

And the road really did work.  It took about an hour to get to the edge of the escarpment, which is twice as long as our quick blocked-off way, but shorter and much less bumpy than anything else we've found to replace the block-off way (except for Camel Trail 1, but there are people there).  I think we can manage this one on a weekend afternoon when it's cool.

As always, the photos never do this place justice.

14 July 2017

Tashkent Food Prices

I can't not do a post about food prices.  These are from Tashkent in July of 2017 at a Korzinka grocery store. Keep in mind that living off $5000/year is normal here and that a lot of this produce is either not available or very expensive for at least 4-5 months of the year.

Tomatoes- 34 cents/pound
Milk- 5.41/gallon
Eggs- 2.45 for 15
Onions- 44 cents/pound
Garlic- 1.10/pound
Peppers- 26 cents/pound
Carrots (precut yellow)- 53 cents/pound
Local lemons- 2.44/pound
Not-local oranges- 1.84/pound
Apricots- 1.10/pound
Cucumbers- 38 cents/pound
Lazer rice- 85 cents/pound
Laghman dough- 1.14/500 grams
Sugar and flour- about 60 cents a pound
Naan- 30 cents a loaf
Kashar cheese- 5.31/pound
Creepy processed cheese- 2.41/pound

I didn't check meat prices.  I haven't seen bulgur here like in Kyrgyzstan and red lentils are relatively expensive.  The spice packets are around 20 cents.  I didn't buy the watermelon so I don't know how much it cost.


So.  I'm sitting in Tashkent right now and even though I've been here for several days now, I still can hardly believe it.  After dithering over our summer plans all spring and not having anything quite work out, it suddenly became possible to go to Tashkent in July if we could get everything together in time.  That wasn't a given since it's Central Asia, but we pulled it off with only a few days to spare. I keep looking at the Uzbekistan visa in my passport and remembering how we spent 6 months in 2010 trying to get visas here without success.

We mostly have to be in Tashkent but we're working on weekend jaunts to Bukhara or Khiva.  Plus Samarqand, of course.  It's been a long, long time that we've been waiting to go to these places.  And Tashkent is interesting too.  Just for a reminder, Tashkent is also a very old city but it's almost entirely Soviet now since it was demolished and rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake.  But there are still some old mosques, madrassahs, and mausoleums around the city.  Last night we spent a lovely few hours in the area around the Hasti Imom Masjid. There will be many more photos and posts about the buildings we see.

It's so nice to be back in Central Asia.  It's complicated, like always (it took five days to get the internet sorted out, even with expert help) and we were dropped off at our house at 3 am with no money, no cell phone, no food, and no idea where we even were in the city because the street name we had been given was either old or incorrect.  But we've done this before, and this time we speak some Uzbek and Russian.  So when I woke up, I went outside to find out the name of our street.  Then I found an old map in the house.  Next I got the house phone to work after 15 minutes of trying and figured out how to call from a landline to a cell phone.  The nice LDS man on the other end understood where we live based on my very sketchy instructions and took us to his house for church where we also met the son of a couple we knew well in Bishkek 12 years ago. They fed us shepherd's pie for lunch and loaned us 200,000 som to get through the day and dropped us off back at home.  We found a grocery store down the street and got naan, juice, salami, crouton snacks, cheese, and bananas and checked the guidebook to find an ATM that might have cash in it.  We found a taxi (since any car might be willing to taxi you about) and got money. So by that night, we had friends, food, money, and we knew where we were.  Mormons to the rescue again.  The cell phones and internet have been more complicated, but one can deal without those for a longer time.  One of the people we met on Sunday gave us a ride to the grocery store on Monday morning. You can't imagine how lovely it was to go grocery shopping without an abaya on and be driven by a woman.

The house we're in is so Central Asian.  It's a much bigger and nicer house than anything I've lived in before in this part of the world, but it's definitely not western.  The doors, the floors, the windows, everything is so familiar. And it smells like Central Asia outside. Also, everything works (almost) which is nice.  I warned my youngest son who doesn't remember Kyrgyzstan that you have to be careful with things here because they break easily. He is getting the hang of that.  He doesn't love the walking everywhere part though and can't believe he used to walk 3 miles in Kyrgyzstan when he was four.

It was unusually hot when we arrived, but it still felt cooler than Riyadh.  Now it's a little cooler than normal we are loving it.  It's so nice to be outside again.  The stars are lovely. We went on a walk at 2 pm and didn't die.  Everyone kept warning us that Tashkent is hot, but they can't scare us anymore.  The mid-90s, which are normal, feel AMAZING and right now the temperature is around 90 which is like early November in Riyadh.

It's interesting coming here straight from Saudi Arabia (Suudi Arabistan in Turkic languages).  Uzbekistan is so paranoid about Islam that they don't even allow the call to prayer to be broadcast. We were standing next to several mosques last night during maghrib and there was no hint of the call to prayer.  Also, they've adjusted the official prayer times quite a bit.  The dawn prayer is over an hour later than it should be, noon prayers are at 1 pm instead of about 12:30, and asr which should be around 4:30 here isn't till 6.  In other words, the prayer schedule is adjusted to fit the work schedule, except for maghrib. I hadn't really paid attention to this in Kyrgyzstan (I should go back to check old photos to see if they did the same thing) but it's so glaringly obvious right now since prayers control your life in Saudi.

We've eaten laghman twice- they sell the noodles at the grocery store- and potato vareniki once.  I found beshbarmak(!) noodles today so we're trying those along with another local noodle and we'll get creative with some Sovietized ajika (and since I didn't get this posted that day, I'll report back that it was delicious).  We've also had lots of juice, plenty of hot naan, kattama, and more.  There was some unfortunate processed cheese that was so creepy it couldn't even melt, but there was backup kashar cheese and everything was fine.  We've had yellow carrots and orange lemons and the yellow-green peppers I love so much here.  And watermelon for the little one, of course. And milkshakes in a bag.

Money is a little complicated here.  There aren't many ATMs (to the point some people say there aren't any at all) and the exchange rate depends on whom you're talking to.  The official, legal rate is just over 4000 som to the dollar.  The (black) market rate is quite a bit above that- I've heard anywhere from 5500-8000.  The largest bill is the just-introduced 10000 som.  As you can imagine, you need a large number of bills on hand when the largest bill is worth less than three dollars at the official rate, and much less at the real rate.  Up till just a few weeks ago (maybe a month or two) the largest bill was 5000.  The 10000 notes aren't very common yet.  You spend a lot of time counting money here.  Places like the grocery store have money-counting machines at each register.  I also haven't figured out how people colloquially give prices and once even had to resort to handing the cashier my money and having him figure it out.  How embarrassing.  I'm doing a separate post about food prices.

I hope I get to live here someday.