Tashkent: history, chaos and the birth of a nation
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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Hundreds of mainly female faces looked back at us, perched on airport trolleys laden with towers of baggage. They wore long, floral dresses and gold-embroidered headscarves, their teeth glinting with flashes of gold from between their lips. There was a particular Uzbek face that many shared, their eyes almost oriental in shape, but with heavy European-like features and dark tanned skin.
Most of the baggage was encased in a thick layer of brown parcel tape, so much so, that a nuclear holocaust might only leave minor charring on their contents. We felt rather conspicuously British as we joined the end of the snaking queue, and worried if the parcel tape was required baggage protection for all Uzbekistan Airways flights
“They buy goods cheap in Turkey and bring them back to Uzbekistan to sell in the markets,” explained the smart-looking man behind us in perfect English. An Uzbek businessman who regularly made this flight, he was a welcome presence in this sea of confusion. We had heard so much about Uzbekistan – that no-one speaks English, that all they eat is meat and bread, that the police always hassle foreigners for bribes – and it was a good opportunity to speak to someone with first-hand knowledge.
As we waited in the slow-moving queue, we quizzed him further on this mass import of cheap goods. One might expect that Uzbekistan, with a weak economy and low wages, would be the perfect place for speculative capitalists to open factories. However, in a peculiar reworking of the old Silk Road trade routes, Uzbekistan now finds itself importing cheaper goods from more economically developed countries like Turkey. Rather than wind-beaten nomadic men leading their caravans of camels to trek through the desert, hundreds of Uzbeks now squeezed onto a flight, hopping over Iran to and fro between Tashkent and Istanbul
Piling onto the aeroplane at midnight, armed with our last loaf of Turkish ekmek, we awaited take-off and relished the idea of sleeping all the way through the overnight flight that was to follow. But first, the stewardesses brought round snacks and drinks. And then a re-fill. I took two large glasses of sweet Uzbek wine, hoping that it would have just enough edge to knock me into the following morning. However, a short while after drinks had been served, an impressively late dinner – or a remarkably early breakfast – arrived at around 3am.
By the time the very pleasant dinner had been tidied away, there was barely enough time to sleep, and dawn would break very soon over the deserts of Turkmenistan below us. We had perhaps an hour or so of sleep, before the pilot began the descent and we caught our first glimpses of Uzbekistan from above. A patchwork of small, square fields covered the land in an array of browns and greens. The square fields became bigger and bigger, until we touched down at Tashkent Airport.
A great deal of a fuss had been made on websites and guidebooks about the allegedly heavy-handed, petty and corrupt approach to policing that had been deployed in Uzbekistan
“Don't worry guys, stick with us and you'll be alright. The police aren't so bad really.”
John and Sanji were a pair of Uzbeks who had lived in Bournemouth, and startled us with a torrent of English in an incredibly native-sounding south coast accent. Throughout the nerve-wracking immigration and customs process, they translated for us, and aided our swift movement through to the outside world. The bored-looking guards waved us through, and into the muggy arrivals area.
Still nervous about our trek across big, bustling Tashkent, we were ushered by our new friends through the lines of predatory taxi drivers to the car park. They assured us that a friend of theirs who had also studied in the UK would drive us to our accommodation. Timur welcomed us and shook our hand, accompanied by a warm smile. We drove across town along unnecessarily wide boulevards, and past huge, rectangular monoliths of Soviet architecture. The flat sprawl of the city stretches for miles, thanks partly to the huge space available in this wide, flat land, and partly to a massive earthquake in 1966 that allowed Soviet planners to 'Russify' the tangle of Uzbek lanes that existed previously. Some of the old city remained standing, now the heart of old Uzbek life and culture in Tashkent, and the area where we would be staying for a few days.
“You got any Uzbek Som yet?” asked Timur as he negotiated our way through the chaotic traffic
“Not yet, but we have Dollars,” we replied.
“OK, we will visit the black market.”
Timur headed to a street corner near the massive Chorsu bazaar in the old town, where black market money-changers were waiting. A bizarre twist of mathematics has led to a boom in black market trading for US Dollars, whereby $100 can be changed for the equivalent of about $130 in Uzbek Som. We swung into a lay-by, and two young men scuttled towards the car with carrier bags. A brief conversation in Uzbek ensued, and Timur leant back to let us know the exchange rate was good. We handed over two $50 notes, and received a brick-sized wad of Som in return. Here, $100 could be exchanged for a whopping 270,000 Som.
Timur sped off, and dropped us at our little B&B, Gulnara's Guesthouse, on a quiet residential street near the bazaar. We bade him a warm farewell, and went inside to settle. Later, we emerged to explore our new home on the Uzbek side of town. We passed the vast Chorsu bazaar, with its separate huge, dome-shaped sections selling grain, fruit, meat, and close to everything else you might ever want. Cars honked their horns as they attempted to pass through the throng of people carrying bags, pushing carts, and selling their wares on the crowded pavements. Boys with grubby faces pushed trolleys laden with sacks, while elderly women in headscarves carefully arranged heaps of radishes and tomatoes.
In the midst of the traditional costume and dusty atmosphere could be seen a large minority of 'Russified' Uzbeks – women in tight black jeans and high heels; men wearing designer t-shirts and leather jackets – who still came to Chorsu for their supplies. The schizophrenic nature of the city's layout, half Russian and half Uzbek, was brought into focus at the bazaar, where modern and traditional worlds mingled and haggled together.
To us, in our jet-lagged and culture-shocked state, the bazaar was a wild and difficult place to make sense of, and we resorted to the relative (cultural) safety of a supermarket. housed in a huge Soviet cuboid a short walk from the bazaar, the anonymity and legibility of a supermarket would have been a pleasant relief had it not been for the friendly security guard who engaged us in conversation at the door. He knew a little English and wanted to practice in order that he might one day get a visa to work in the UK. Excited that so many people spoke English and found us interesting, but too tired to engage fully, we spoke for a few minutes before making our apologies and seeking the sanctuary of the supermarket aisles before returning to the huge, noisy streets for food.
We wandered for some time, as the huge boulevards were so long and buildings so scattered that the effort was exhausting. In the dimming evening light, the deep, open drains that skirted most roads were perilous, and the many broken paving slabs likewise. Finding a decent fast food place, we sat down and looked at the menu with surprise. Pides and kebabs looked back at us from the pages, written in Cyrillic but strongly Turkish-influenced.
All across the Turkic regions of Asia, cultural and linguistic connections have been present for centuries, but here we were, hours after leaving Turkey, eating what was ostensibly Turkish food in an Uzbek restaurant thousands of miles away. Next door, huge cauldrons of the Uzbek rice dish, plov, were being served with local semi-flat bread, non, and accompanied by little pastry parcels of meat and vegetables called somsas. These national foods, influenced from the east by pillau, naan and samosas, were sitting alongside the western influences of Turkey. As the steam rose from the plov cauldrons, illuminated in the street lights outside, the situation created a feeling of truly being at the centre of Asia.
After food, we began to make our way wearily back towards our accommodation. The streets were very dark, and few people were out. A few black silhouettes shuffled past as we picked through the cracked pavements and hopped over the black caverns of the ever-present drains. Pausing to consult our map in the light of a street lamp, a figure came out of the shadows.
“Hello, where are you from?” asked the young man in front of us.
“England, London,” we replied, almost in unison.
“Are you lost?”
“We are going to our hotel.”
Misunderstanding our last reply, he thought we were indeed lost, and proceeded to help us find our way
“Yes, I know the road. This way!”
Perhaps, we mused, our friend knew of a short-cut to the hotel. Ten or fifteen minutes later, he stopped to ask directions from another passer-by, who assured him that the hotel was even further from where we knew it was, waving his arm in long, exaggerated movements in the opposite direction to the bed we now desperately needed. Maybe they were conspiring to keep us from sleep for a full 24 hours, rather than the mere 20 hours we had so far experienced. A point came where it was necessary to disappoint the poor lad. Helen thanked the man for his help and company, but told him that we would be re-tracing our steps. Reluctantly, he let us go.
The walk back was long, dark and tiring. Our legs dragged heavily, and our arms swung like dead weights. Suddenly, a figure lurched out of the dark from behind us, panting heavily. We both jumped with shock, jolted into life, only to find our 'guide' from earlier.
“I called your hotel,” he spluttered. “I know where it is now.”
“We did all along,” was the reply that rang through my head, but impressed with his commitment, we thanked him politely and continued together back to the accommodation
A large breakfast disappeared rapidly from our plates the following morning. Ready to view Tashkent in a less sleep-deprived state, we set out to explore the Uzbek side of the city. The noisy, dirty city was still there when we left the guesthouse, but somehow colours were more vibrant and faces more friendly. The sun shone over a new city, brimming with life and energy, with warts and all.
To the north lay Khast Imom, the nerve centre of the Islamic faith in the country. Shattered by half a century of Russian Orthodox Christian rule by the Tsar, followed by seventy more years of atheist Soviet government, it is at first surprising that Islam has survived in Uzbekistan, or anywhere in the former Soviet Central Asia. However, the deep cultural affinity with Islam, and the proximity to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan made it hard to eradicate the faith altogether. Khast Imom, like many Muslim buildings in Uzbekistan, has been renovated under the nationalistic post-Soviet government of Islam Karimov. Whereas he has clamped down on religious (and political) freedoms, he has also recognised Islamic architecture to be an important element in cementing national unity and boosting the country's small but growing tourism industry.
The blue-tipped minarets of Khast Imom glinted in the distance, as we walked in their direction. As we walked, a spiral-shaped building appeared in front of us, urging us to climb it, where a dozen or so other people were congregating at the top. We climbed the spiral staircase that snaked around the brick-built building, and as we neared the top we realised that it was in fact used as a congregating area for the local youths
Spying the Khast Imom, we descended the staircase and headed towards it. As we approached the complex, we were transfixed by what would become a common sight in Uzbekistan – high, sandy brick buildings with smooth azure and turquoise domes perched like ceramic hats on their heads. The site appeared so contrasting with the fast, dirty Tashkent we had experienced so far that a serene calm washed over us as we wandered the grounds.
Somewhere here resided the Uthman Qur'an, the oldest Qur'an in existence, dating from the seventh century, but the warm sun kept us outside. Skirting the side of the Telyashayakh mosque, we emerged onto a large square, around which were yet more Islamic buildings and mausoleums. Dozens of children were taking advantage of the strong breezes and flying home-made kites all across the square. The kites hung in the air, and emitted a feint vibrating sound as the wind caught them. Crossing the square, we ran the gauntlet of the kite strings, which were almost invisible in the bright, hazy sky. Had it not been for the occasional cheery “hello!” from the children to warn us of their presence, it would be easy to become entangled in the strings, much to their annoyance.
Carefully picking our route between these avid little kite-flyers, we returned to the noisy throng of Tashkent's streets. In the evening, we were due to meet for a walk with Bek, a local from Tashkent who had kindly offered to show us the modern side of the city. Hopping on a rickety Metro, we crossed town and emerged at the huge, geometric-patterned Hotel Uzbekistan at the heart of modern Tashkent shortly before sunset.
Across the street, looming over Tashkent's central square was a statue of Uzbekistan's national hero, Amir Timur. His powerful horse champing at the bit, and stomping the ground, Timur's arm reaches forward with an open hand beckoning his army, and his people, forward with him. Much like elsewhere in the former USSR, the newly independent Uzbekistan has needed to find a new collective identity to cement the fragile republic. The Uzbeks found new national unity in the figure of Amir Timur, who led the Turkic people from Mongol control and towards a united, independent collective identity in the 14th Century.
Timur, whose military campaigns reportedly led to around 17 million deaths but who was also a lover of art and literature, was born in Shakhrisabz, a town south of Samarkand, and was deemed by the Karimov government to be the perfect antidote to the malaise and identity crisis that was felt across much of the former USSR. In a sense, Timur's elevation to an Uzbek symbol of unity replaced 'the workers' with 'the nation' in this nascent post-Soviet country.
We waited in Timur's shadow for Bek, who arrived a few minutes after us. He was slight and neatly turned-out, unlike us, who immediately felt scruffy in comparison. With him was his cousin and her daughter, who were likewise impeccably smart. We greeted each other with a handshake, and some pleasantries.
“I hope you don't mind,” said Bek, “but I have invited a few more people this evening.”
Bek was part of an English language practice group in Tashkent, and fellow members began arriving. One suggested we should have some chai, at which point yet more arrived. We sat at the middle of a long table in the café, and chatted with Bek and his friends. It felt at times like we were more of an attraction to them than vice versa. Exchanging stories and knowledge about our respective countries, we felt more of the warmth of spirit and generosity that we had encountered time and again since we arrived in the country. It was, nonetheless, difficult to keep up to speed with the questions and comments launched at us from across the table.
Later, we walked the streets by night. Passing through Independence Square, a vast monument to the Uzbek nation gleamed pristine white under the strong white up-lighting surrounding it. At its pinnacle, a pair of golden Storks rose from the tall pillars; a symbol of birth and renewal built in 2011, the twentieth anniversary of an independent Uzbekistan. Nearby, a smaller bronze monument depicting a mother and child was said to represent the care and nurture given to Uzbekistan by Mother Russia as it began to take its own course in the early 1990s. Indeed, relations between the two countries have been positive, and much of Uzbekistan's natural gas deposits are sold to Russia, generating significant income for the economically fragile state and the elites that have emerged since independence.
A pleasant evening with Bek and friends passed quickly, and we returned to our accommodation. The following day, we were due to apply for our Chinese visas and book train tickets to Samarkand, our next destination. I had found an address for the Chinese Embassy online, and we headed out early to find it. Taking the Metro to the end of the line, we wandered the streets to find the building. Up and down the long road we wandered, searching for a red Chinese flag or official-looking building, but to no avail. Frustrated, we checked the internet and Helen found an alternative address, but the embassy closed at midday and it was already one o'clock.
Another Metro across town led us to a street lined with tall trees and flanked by large buildings guarded by police. A disapproving gaze left Helen's eyes towards mine, with a raised eyebrow and a shake of her head. Clearly this was the correct address all along and, as expected, the Chinese Embassy was closed. The police guard waved us along, as we made the long, straight walk to the train station.
When we arrived, tired and frustrated, at the station, the ticket hall was chaotic and noisy. Uzbek queuing appeared to chiefly involve pushing to the front of a mass of people crowding around the ticket window and thrusting your passport and a wad of Som in the face of the down-beaten person behind the glass. Shouting through the little gap in the window, despite the worker trying to talk to another customer also seemed to be a popular technique. The queue for the window dealing with non-Uzbek citizens was a little less raucous than the others, but by British standards it was pandemonium.
An hour or more of 'queuing' at this window passed, as we became weaker and more annoyed. Eventually, we managed to thrust ourselves to the window and speak to the woman behind the glass. Immediately, she left her seat and disappeared for a further fifteen minutes, only to return with a wad of tickets which she proceeded to divide into two smaller piles and bind them with rubber bands. It was as if she was deliberately stalling us, perhaps to get a break from the madness on the other side of the window.
She looked at the piece of paper we gave her detailing our required train, and told us that we had the wrong window, pointing to the other end of the ticketing hall. Borrowing a Turkish phrase, we exclaimed “Allah Allah!” as we barged out of the melée in growing anger. When we finally made it to the front of the queue at the other window, we were promptly informed that this train was an executive class, high-speed train and the ticket price would be astronomical. Angered, we stomped out of the building which we entered two hours previously.
Another trip across town, fuming in our squeaky leatherette seats on the Metro, took us to the vast but near-empty autovöksal, the state-run bus station, where we were promptly sold a pair of cheap tickets to Samarkand, and breathed a massive sigh of relief. Our final day in Tashkent had not gone well, and our limbs dragged us wearily back to the B&B to pack and recover from the ordeal.
Tashkent had certainly given us a crash-course in Uzbek life and society. As we readied ourselves for departure and reflected on our time here so far, the young country seemed to be teetering on the fulcrum of society – between chaos and strict order; between west and east; between wealth and poverty; between old and new – and it doesn't quite know which way it will fall.