Tea is almost as much a part of daily life in Uzbekistan as it is in Turkey. If our experience is anything to go by, you’re likely to be offered a pot as soon as you walk through the door of anywhere you’re visiting, and usually it’s served in beautiful blue-patterned ceramic, whether in an elegant hotel or in the scruffiest café in the middle of a busy market.
Our very first cuppa in Bukhara came with the welcome tray brought to us within five minutes of walking in to our hotel (the family home of Akbar, a local art collector).
But for venues that specialise in serving fine teas, you won’t find better than the Silk Road Tea House in Bukhara.
This place is tucked away in the corner of the same square where we found the Wishbone Café (for coffee). It’s set in a beautiful building, with wood panelling and wall hangings, giving it the feel of an old silk road house, though it’s actually a fairly modern build from the look of the brickwork.
It’s the only tea house we found in Uzbekistan where you can come near to an ‘afternoon tea’ experience. You choose from a range of teas, and you then have a selection of sweet goodies to go with your pot of tea: there’s a fudge, a sesame crunch sweet, dried fruit and nuts, and then some glacé sugar (which defeated even the sweet tooth fiend that I am usually).
All in all, though, it’s a delightful experience, very fitting for tea on the Silk Road. And if you like what you had, you can buy the teas or the spices that flavoured the teas on your way out.
For a different kind of Silk Road tea experience in Bukhara, your other option is to sit where the traders must have rested when the pool in the centre of town was first built, in the 1620s.
The chaikhana right next to the pool is really more of a restaurant than a tea house these days, but they will still bring you an excellent pot of loose leaf tea if that’s all you want, and you can sit under the mulberry trees that presumably were one filled with the silk worms that made the Silk Road what it was.
The only camels you’ll find here these days are the carved sculptures across the pond, but they make a nice backdrop for this most romantic of venues for a cuppa.
On the Sharq Express train from Bukhara to Samarkand, we were impressed with the little glasses of tea served up as we journeyed across the country: just a basic green or black tea to choose from, but all prepared in the usual Russian-style samovar at the end of the carriages.
Samarkand slightly disappointed us for tea. The only venue that made any claim to be a tea house in the touristy centre actually closed its doors on us when we turned up at about 3.30pm looking for a cuppa. They told us to come back at 7pm, when dinner would be served. But that said it all for us: this is the kind of ‘tea room’ that sees itself mainly as a restaurant, and tea is just a side product from the meals it makes its money from. We didn’t return for dinner!
In Tashkent, we were delighted to find Panda Tea.
This is not a tea shop in the afternoon tea sense of the word, but more a retail outlet where you can sample the teas for sale before buying.
But we were given a very warm welcome by Deng, the Chinese-born owner, and his Russian assistant Ilnura, who sat us down and chatted about tea while serving up some delicious oolongs and other favourites from their list.
Deng comes from Chengdu originally, and since Chengdu was on our itinerary for the weeks ahead, he wrote down some tea tips not to be missed when we get there.
Deng is actually like many of the coffee shop and tea room owners we have met in the UK over the years in that he made a complete life change (from chemical engineering) to get into tea – he was just lucky enough to come from one of China’s biggest tea-loving cities, so could use contacts there to set up in Tashkent, where he had made his new home.
Panda Tea is the result (named, of course, after Chengdu’s other main claim to fame). And this retail outlet is an absolute delight to visit. A must for tea lovers in Tashkent.
We left with a box of milk oolong to add to our collection of teas from this journey, but we’re going to save that till we get to Australia to taste – we’ll keep you posted when we do!
Our only other tea experience worth noting in Uzbekistan was the Turkish café in Andijon, on our very last day in the country. It’s not that the tea was particularly special here, but we were given a fantastic welcome from young Moazzem, who was very keen to practise her English on us.
And they did a great line in cakes. Yes, the people of Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley really love their cakes, and since cake is almost as important to our tea house visits as the tea itself, we can’t leave Uzbekistan without a mention for Mo’Jiza Café in Andijon…