Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and Central Asia's premier metropolis, betrays little of its 2,000-year history as a crossroads of ancient trade routes. This modern city of 2.5 million people, the fourth largest in the CIS after Moscow, St. Peterburg and Kiev, holds much to arrest the curious traveller, from imposing squares, monumental architecture and fine museums, to the mud-brick maze of the old Uzbek town, autumn colors on dappled poplar lanes and the sweet spray of fountains on burning summer days.

Rebuilt after the 1966 earthquake, Tashkent comprises concrete apartment blocks decorated with Uzbek motifs and illuminated slogans, yawning parade grounds around solemn monuments, and a remarkably comprehensive public transport system. There's also the other, older city, a sprawling Ubzek country town with fruit trees and vines in every courtyard.

tashkentIt's hard to visit Uzbekistan without passing through Tashkent, and there are many facilities - consular, communications and medical, along with a busy (and very affordable) cultural life. The architecture and sculptures are an organic part of the city's landscape and give Tashkent a cheerful air.

Head out from the Hotel Uzbekistan to leafy Amir Timur Square, where a statue of Tamerlane on horseback. Follow the direction of Tamerlane's horse, between 19th century gymnasia, along Sayilgokh Street, reborn as 'Broadway', where portrait artists, hawkers and cafes compete for your custom, the former residence of Grand Duke N.K Romanov (1850-1917), a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, exiled here in 1881 for exploits involving the crown jewels. The firebrick building of dog and deer statues, domes and spires, is based on the outline of the double-headed eagle.

tashkent Ahead sprawls Independence Square (Mustaqillik Maydoni), the largest city square in the former Sovie Union, flanked by public buildings and walls of fountains. In 1992 the Lenin mark was shuffled off and replaced by a globe showing independent Republic of Uzbekistan. May Day parades of Soviet army have been replaced by the singers, dancers and fireworks of 1 September, Independece Day.

Beside the globe stands the former Government House, first built in 1931 and now housing the Bakhor Concert Hall and the Alisher Navoi Library. Northeast of the globe burns the flame at the Tomb of Unknow Soldier, killed during the World War II. Another essential place is the Earthquake Memorial, one block north past the Turkestan Concert Hall. A granite cube displays the time (5.22 am) of the first tremor while an Uzbek man shields a woman and child from the earth opening before them.

Tashkent's citizens are justifiably proud of their metro, Central Asia's first and bursting with decorative intent. Construction began in 1972 and five years later the first train rolled. Extensive rubber padding makes the system, 30 km and growing, as earthquke-proof as possible. Metro is the most convenient way to traverse the city, and a cool escape from hot avenues in summer.