If visiting or passing through Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent be sure to take a look at their fabulous metro stations. Tashkent’s metro system was the 7th constructed in the USSR. Its red line opened in 1977 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution, with a further two lines added in the 1990s and early 2000s. There are 29 stations across the three lines, each one completely unique aesthetically and symbolically.
I had wanted to visit Uzbekistan for many years and had heard about the ornate secret metro stations in the capital. As they served dual strategic purposes as bomb shelters and transport hubs, it was forbidden to photograph them until 2018. Uzbekistan has recently emerged from an oppressive regime after the death of former president Islam Karimov in 2016. The new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made notable changes towards a much more relaxed regime and you really can feel it in the air in many parts of the country. He wants to encourage tourism and lifting the photography ban on the metro is part of that policy shift. I spent some time travelling around the country during the summer in 2019 attending Stihia techno festival in the deserts of Karkalpakstan and visiting the Solar Institute near Tashkent and the beautiful mosaiced city of Samarkand on the old Silk Road. Photographing Tashkent’s metro stations was a priority for me on the trip. I don’t have a good camera or any photography qualifications, but I hope this piece will illustrate some of the beauty contained within the tunnels beneath Tashkent.
Travelling by metro is cheap and easy. Its quite safe too as all stations have security staff, identifiable by their green uniforms, and a relaxed atmosphere. It costs 1400 Uzbek som (€0.14 approx.) for a metro token. This token allows you to travel to as many metro stations as you like once you don’t exit onto the street. If you do, you can just buy another 14c token and hop back on again. Metro stations look inconspicuous from the outside and tokens can be purchased from the ticket counters marked ‘Kassa’.
On a night out I travelled from Toshkent on the blue Uzbekistan line to Yunus Rayabiy station, changing to the green Yunusabad line at Oybek. Toshkent metro station connects to the main Tashkent train station and has murals depicting historical representations of everyday life in Uzbekistan. The huge golden emblem at the entrance is quite impressive.
Yunus Rayabiy is the only station on the newer green line that I visited. You can connect to the red line here. The platform has hefty marble columns and an imposing staircase. Ornate lights on top of each column give off a yellowish glow in the grey marble hall that sees Soviet era trains breeze through every ten minutes (trains are more frequent during the day).
Another day, while back in Tashkent, I dedicated some time to exploring the blue line and boarded the metro at Chorsu close to where I was staying that night. On this trip I visited Gafur Gulom, Alisher Novai and Kosmonavtlar. I took this trip in the mid-afternoon so the air conditioning in the stations was lovely. They are spotlessly clean and well-staffed. Security personnel allow you to take photographs but may not always want to be photographed. Remember to show respect to them, other metro staff and passengers.
Gafur Gulom is a late Soviet era station that opened in 1989. It has unusual art deco style mosaic columns and ceramic murals on the walls. Some might find the blue, green, orange and red colour pallet gaudy or kitsch but I loved it.
The station is named after Uzbek writer and renowned Soviet era poet G’afur G’ulom. He wrote extensively about the Soviet war against fascist Germany and was a member of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics Union of Writers. There are a number of ceramic murals on the walls with one containing the Communist red star as its centrepiece. This is good to see as many stations have had some of their Soviet symbols removed in recent years.
Alisher Novai is a delicate-looking turquoise, white and gold station that harks back to the imagery of the Silk Road and its Islamic architecture. This station was actually opened in 1997 but it feels like stepping into a fairy tale. Its vaulted ceilings and gilded décor give it a magical feel. It is also named after a famous Uzbek poet and the murals on the walls here depict scenes from his poems.
Kosmonavtlar was the station I had heard most about prior to my trip. Its blue tiled walls are an ode to the Soviet Union’s cosmonauts and great astronomers featuring portraits of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and Yuri Gagarin, the first ever astronaut in space. This metro station reminds us of how progressive the achievements of the Soviet Union’s space programme were.
The shimmering blue walls are offset by shiny green columns and the lighting down the centre of the platform represents the Milky Way. There is a real space-age out-of-this-world feel to the place which only intensifies when the trains shuttle past.
On my last night in Uzbekistan I stayed in the famous Soviet monolith that is the Hotel Uzbekistan. It was an experience in itself after hostel-hopping around the country for a few weeks. Built in 1974 by architects Ilya Merport, L. Yershova, V. Rashchupkin, it has accommodated some of the main players of the Soviet Union over the years along with many Soviet celebrities. It is a huge imposing somewhat iconic building. The reason it is iconic, apart from its rather unique appearance, is because it is one of the more notable Soviet era buildings left in Tashkent. Uzbekistan has carried out quite a bit of decommunization since the fall of the USSR in 1991.
It is modelled on an open book and clad in a fabulous concrete geometric curtain on the front with balconies at the back. Apparently, the fancier, refurbished rooms are at the back, but I chose the lowest budget standard room on the 15th floor at the front of the hotel. From my window I could view the city through the concrete mesh. Smoking was allowed in the room, with ashtray provided. The carpet and chairs had a few cigarette burns and the bathroom was in need of revamping. The aircon in the hostels I’d stayed in throughout Uzbekistan was better than here, but I loved the 1970s vibe and the bed was comfortable.
Breakfast was served in a colossal ballroom on the ground floor and was really good. There’s a bar and restaurant on the top floor and a chilled-out park outside on Amir Timur Square with some interesting brutalist water features and a huge statue of Amir Timur on his horse. Amir Timur was a 14th century Uzbek leader who ruled over much of Central Asia. Hostels and cheaper hotels in the city are much better value and often of really high standards so staying here for one night was purely for the novelty and experience of getting inside the belly of the beast. It was well worth it. I hope this place will never be torn down in the name of decommunization.
I set aside some time on my last day to visit a few more metro stations. The metro station closest to the Hotel Uzbekistan is Amir Timur Hiyoboni station, formerly October Revolution station. Beyond its original name and strategic location, it is not hugely remarkable, but is still streets ahead of any metro station I’ve visited anywhere else in the world. From here I travelled to Chilonzor on Tashkent’s oldest metro line, via Mustakillik Maydoni, Pakhtakor and Novza on the red Chilonzor line. I did this trip much earlier in the morning than usual so there were a lot more commuters around and the trains were really frequent.
Mustaqillik Maydoni is one of the earlier stations like many on the red line which opened in 1977. It translates to Independence Square but until 1992 it was known as Lenin Square which is in central Tashkent. This station has a ballroom vibe with marble used throughout and elegant glass chandeliers hanging from ceilings adorned with elaborate geometric designs.
Next on to Pakhtakor which translates as cotton-worker. The walls are entirely mosaic depicting the cotton flower amongst traditional patterns in blue/green and gold. The cotton industry is huge in Uzbekistan, but it has also caused huge environmental destruction and caused the Aral Sea to dry up. I’ve written more about that here. This station is nonetheless beautiful despite the detrimental outcomes of over-reliance on the cotton industry.
The next place I got off the metro was at Novsa station. This was one of my favourite metro stations. Its low arched ceilings are patterned with honeycomb shaped lighting. This busy station was friendly, and no one seemed to mind me taking photos although I’m always conscious not to intrude on people’s privacy as they go about their daily lives.
As the last rush hour train left the station three female cleaners sprinkled grains on the ground and brushed it along the platform effectively cleaning any residual dirt from the otherwise glossy floors. I waited for the next metro to Chilonzor, one of Tashkent’s oldest metro stations.
Chilonzor is named after the district it serves and its low bowed ceilings host golden chandeliers with different coloured gems and resplendent metal work. In cosy contrast its walls are bedecked with purple, yellow and green mosaics portraying scenes of traditional life in Uzbekistan. Opened in 1977, this station feels cosy and old.
After this it was time to head back and prepare for my flight to Moscow and eventual return to Dublin. I was so glad to have made this trip to a country that had fascinated me since I was a child.
I would highly recommend Uzbekistan to anyone up for an adventure. It is an amazing country with hugely varied regions and some fantastic architecture. The culture is quite relaxed now and evidently secular despite roughly 90% identifying as Muslim. The place feels very safe and public spaces are clean and well maintained. Drinking bottled water is essential. Tourists do get noticed especially in country areas, but not hustled or harassed. It is impossible to purchase Uzbek som outside of Uzbekistan as it is a restricted currency but there are plenty of money exchanges and banks in the cities. ATMs that take foreign cards can be hard to find so it is worth bringing both euros and dollars when visiting Uzbekistan.
If you visit Uzbekistan, make sure you ride the Tashkent metro!