By Sakini Mohd Said
TASHKENT (Bernama) -- Visiting historical places, trying out the local cuisine and shopping are usually what people enjoy doing when they travel.
As for me, I wanted to learn more about the local culture when I visited the beautiful city of Tashkent recently to cover the 12th Sharq Taronalari or International Music Festival. My photographer colleague Mahayudin Mohamad and my trip to Uzbekistan was sponsored by the Uzbekistan Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahayudin, who was on his second trip to the Central Asian nation, informed me that to know more about the local people's culture, my best bet would be to visit Chorsu Bazaar, located not far from our hotel.
Earlier, by a pure stroke of luck, we met an Uzbek who approached us after he overheard us speaking in Bahasa Melayu. Introducing himself as Alisher, he told us he had worked in Malaysia previously and could speak a smattering of Bahasa Melayu.
We were delighted when he told us he was a tourist guide and offered to take us to Chorsu Bazaar. Chorsu in the Persian language means 'crossroads'.
Located in the centre of Tashkent's old quarter, the bazaar's main structure is shaped like a dome which is said to be the largest in Tashkent. I was, in fact, struck by the beauty and uniqueness of the aquamarine dome which sparkled in the sunshine.
FULL OF HISTORY
The bazaar is huge and I spent three hours exploring it. Anyone wishing to visit Chorsu Bazaar should plan ahead what they wish to buy as its sheer size can leave one feeling utterly confused.
It helped that we had local boy Alisher to guide us around the market. Alisher, who has been working as a tour guide for six years and is married with three children, said tourists usually give Chorsu Bazaar a miss as they prefer to visit Tashkent's more famous historical sites.
But Chorsu Bazaar is no less historical. It was built during the 15th century and once upon a time it served as an important stopover for traders plying the silk route between China and the Mediterranean nations.
In 1966, an earthquake destroyed the bazaar but it has since been rebuilt.
Today, Chorsu Bazaar is teeming with activities. Besides the usual vegetables, fruits, fish and meat, it also has traders selling a variety of nuts, dried fruits, spices, souvenirs, handicrafts, clothes, accessories, shoes and bags.
The bazaar is indeed a haven for tourists who wish to take souvenirs back home and the best part is that the prices are very reasonable.
I myself bought several packets of saffron — a type of spice that adds flavour to dishes like nasi beriyani and nasi Arab — to give my friends back home, with each 20-gramme packet priced at only RM11. A similar packet of saffron in Malaysia will set one back nearly RM300!
I remember buying saffron in Istanbul, Turkey, some years back and the price was definitely higher over there.
The Chorsu Bazaar traders are a generous lot and often give their customers something free along with their purchases. The trader from whom I bought saffron gave me some cajun (seasoning with ingredients such as star anise and cinnamon) free of charge. Bargaining is also an integral part of this bazaar's culture.
Traders here accept the US dollar and the local currency Uzbekistani Som. One US dollar is equivalent to about 9,539.52 Som.
Fortunately for visitors like me who are overwhelmed by the hugeness of the bazaar, the stalls are arranged systematically in sections according to the nature of goods sold by the traders.
The section offering a wide array of nuts, spices and dried fruits was my favourite. I was drawn to the nuts, especially the pistachios, almonds and hazelnuts that looked so crunchy and tempting. I bought some pistachios at a mere RM22 per kilogramme.
I was also attracted to the local handicraft section where I bought an Uzbek suzani embroidered wall hanging, as well as a fully-embroidered sling bag made of goat hair that only cost me RM80.
All that shopping and exploring had made us hungry, so our guide Alisher took us to the food section.
He introduced us to a couple of local favourites, lepeshka or non which is a type of bread that is eaten with sliced red onions mixed with chilli powder and shashlik (lamb kebab).
Non is round in shape but its size differs from district to district. It is a popular staple food among Uzbeks and is made from the flour of wheat grown locally. It is understood that the Uzbek non has a distinct taste that is incomparable with similar types of bread available in other countries.
The locals eat non by tearing the bread into small pieces with their hands, instead of using a fork or knife, out of respect for this food item which they consider very special.
Translated by Rema Nambiar
Malaysia National News Agency
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