The capital Tashkent, situated in the east of the country, is home to about one-tenth of Uzbekistan's inhabitants. The old town is a maze of narrow dusty streets lined by low mud-brick houses, mosques, and medressas (Islamic colleges), a few dating from the 15th or 16th century. Here also is the huge Chorsu Bazaar, which draws crowds of people from the countryside, many in traditional dress. However, the city's architecture is predominantly late Soviet in style. This is largely the result of reconstruction after the destructive 1966 earthquake. A variety of ancient artifacts have been preserved in the museums, especially the Museum of Fine Arts.
Most of Uzbekistan's historic monuments are not in Tashkent but in other places, and especially in the three ancient cities of the Silk Road—Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Here are the great mosques with their majestic shining turquoise domes, elegant minarets, intricate tile mosaics, and geometrically proportioned spaces, as well as medressas, mausoleums, palaces, fortresses, and ancient public baths. Other famous sights include Shahi-Zinda, the street of decorated tombs in Samarkand, and the plaza of Labi-hauz in Bukhara, built around a natural spring (Hauz in Uzbek).
The rocky Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert and arid plains take up over two-thirds of Uzbekistan. Most of the country's people live in three intensively cultivated and irrigated valleys that occupy only one-tenth of the land area—the valleys of the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and Zeravshan Rivers.
Uzbekistan is flat except in the far southeast, where the terrain rises toward the mountains of neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In the west are some stretches of shallow water, surrounded by an expanse of loose sand swirling in the wind—all that remains of the inland Aral Sea. The drying-up of the sea has ruined the health and livelihood of the local people who used to fish in it. The fishing boats of the once thriving port of Moynaq lie rusting in the sand beside depressions marking the town's futile efforts to keep channels open to the receding water.
Uzbek men usually wear somber colors, except for the bright-colored sash that older men use to close their long quilted coats. Outside of the capital, older men wear the dopy, a square black skullcap embroidered in white. Most women wear knee-length cloth dresses over cloth trousers. In Tashkent, both men and women dress in western styles.
The usual Muslim holy days are observed. The most popular holiday is the spring festival of Nauruz (New Year's Day) on March 21-22. A traditional vitamin-rich dish called sumalyak is prepared and given to friends and family. A wedding or circumcision is likely to be celebrated by the whole mahalla—the neighborhood unit that serves as the basis of community and local government. In some places, local harvest festivals take place in December.
An Uzbek vendor bakes local bread in a traditional Uzbek oven in Tashkent. 17 October 2001 (© AP/Wide World Photo/Sergei Grits)
Typical Uzbek dishes include plovs (pilafs), kebabs, noodles and pasta, stews, and elaborate breads, sweets, and pastries. Preparing Plov is traditionally considered a man's job. Most Uzbeks are too poor to afford meat, except on special occasions. Tea is ubiquitous, usually served without milk. The local teahouse is always a gathering place for Uzbek men. But many Uzbeks drink alcohol as well, even vodka (outside of the conservative Fergana Valley), at least when they entertain guests, despite their Muslim heritage.