Saved: December 29th 2012April 13th 2011
My first interaction with someone from Uzbekistan occurred on the short flight from Almaty to Tashkent. The young woman seated next to me was stunningly beautiful. “Hi, where are you from?” she suddenly asked me after our meals had been served. When I told her I was from the UK, her eyes widened. She introduced herself as Zamira, a student, who’d been visiting her sister in Almaty. “One day soon I will visit London to see Big Ben and Oxford Street!” I had no reason to think she wouldn’t get there either because as we chatted further I found out that she’d already been to South Africa, India, Malaysia and of course, many of the countries that surrounded Uzbekistan.
“Bishkek is not so nice,” she informed me, referring to the capital of Kyrgyzstan. “It is very poor and dirty. And it has no good nightclubs.” I remembered being Zamira’s age and thinking that my life revolved around nightclubs too. How things had changed. I mentioned to her that after Tashkent, I was heading to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. “Ashgabat is very nice. Lots of gold! I have not been there but my father was born in Turkmenistan,” Zamira said.
“He says there are only two types of people in Ashgabat: rich and poor. You will see this for yourself I am sure.”
Soon after we landed and I bid farewell to a clearly educated and cosmopolitan girl. She wished me well and was off, tottering along the aisle in her impossibly high heels and mini-skirt. I entered the terminal and collected my visa to allow entry into my 75th country.
My first morning was sunny and very warm. I left the Retro Palace Hotel (not the best hotel I’ve stayed in) wondering what the city would have in store. In virtually everything I’d read, Tashkent was not geared for sightseeing. Instead, according to my guide book and other things I’d read, most people used the Uzbek capital as a stepping stone to see other parts of the country. Well I was here to just see Tashkent and so I headed away from the hotel towards a main road.
Unlike Almaty just a day earlier, the people of Tashkent were dressed for summer, none wearing coats or fur hats. They also seemed more Middle-Eastern than I’d expected, but there were still a fair smattering of Russian-looking people
about so I didn’t stand out too much.
As I strolled along, I began to look more closely at those around me. The young of Tashkent were dressed in the same fashionable way as their counterparts around the world, jeans or short skirts mostly. Small children going to school were all smartly-dressed, some of the boys wearing white shirts with black waistcoats. A little girl wearing a Bratz
backpack stopped to pick some flowers at the side of the pavement and further on some boys had climbed a tree and their friends were trying to shake them out of it. Certain older ladies of Tashkent were large and buxom, often wearing traditional-type clothing comprising of colourful dresses, chunky footwear and large headscarves.
Many of these women, I noticed, also possessed gold teeth, and not just the odd one, but whole sets. In fact the more I looked, the more I began to notice glinting-gold from inside a person’s mouth. The policemen wore simple dark green uniforms with small, conservative caps. One blew his whistle at me when he spotted me taking a photo of a building.
I noticed a small booth that seemed to be selling food
and drinks. On the side there was a picture of what looked like a latte. I approached the hatch and pointed at what I wanted. The young man nodded and set to work. First he picked up what looked like a discarded white plastic cup, peered inside and shook the contents into the sink. Next he searched for a spoon and found one under a dirty dishcloth. He gave it a quick rub with his greasy fingers and dunked it into some white powder, coffee whitener I presumed. Then he shook in the most miserly amount in instant coffee and filled the cup up with water. After stirring it with the filthy spoon he passed me my latte. Starbucks it was not.
My first stop was the Assumption Cathedral, another pastel blue building topped with golden-onion domes. It looked pretty good in the sunshine. Across the street from it was the Mirobod Bazaar, a market filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables. I ambled in soon spotting a humongous queue of people all heading to the back of a large white van. Curious, I walked to the head of the line to see a man selling boxes of
white eggs. Why his eggs were deemed so special that they warranted a queue of about a hundred people I couldn’t guess, but I was clearly missing something because the waiting customers couldn’t get enough of them. One man who had just been served walked away with a couple of trays full of the things.
Tashkent’s main thoroughfare, Amir Timur Street, was a large multi-lane highway full of traffic. As well as modern cars and minibuses, Ladas were swerving around buses and potholes as they made headway along the busy street. Eventually, the road led me to a large and strangely peaceful square. A statue of a man on horseback was in the centre and when I wandered to inspect it closer, I noticed that the guidebook was indeed correct. The stallion’s appendage had been stolen, leaving only a large pair of testicles in its wake. It was a statue of Amir Timur, a 14th century Uzbek warrior and conqueror. He was certainly a colourful character.
Timur was a skilful military tactician who spent most of his adult life involved in wars and expeditions. He was also a bit partial to killing sprees. For instance, after capturing the
Persian city of Isfahan, Timur ordered a mass killing of the city’s citizens until eventually 70,000 people were massacred. One eye-witness from the time claimed that he counted almost thirty towers of severed heads piled up.
His troops were fiercely loyal to him even though he paid them no wages. Instead they knew could take whatever they wanted following a victory. Slaves, jewels, women, they could have as much as they could carry.
Timur’s army faced some unexpected opposition in Delhi when 120 elephants dressed in armour blocked their passage. Timor quickly came up with a plan that was both terrible and genius at the same time. He piled wood onto the back of his camels and set them on fire. The howling herds of camels were then made to run towards the elephants, all of which predictably panicked. With flames leaping from the backs of screaming camels, who could blame them? The elephants turned heels and stampeded their own troops. Timur entered Delhi, executing 100,000 Hindus and leaving the city in ruins.
Because of the bloodshed he caused (some estimates say he was responsible for the deaths of 17 million people) his legacy is mixed. In
central Asia, his image is one of a conquering hero, but in other places, especially India, he is regarded as the opposite. His tomb was eventually unearthed in the 1940s and a chilling inscription was found inside his casket. ‘Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible that I.’ Two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR.
To the east of the square were two large and imposing buildings, one the mighty Hotel Uzbekistan, one of the top-end hotels of the city, and next to it the Congress Building, a large white building with some metallic good-luck pelicans on its domed roof. It was the place where foreign dignitaries were met when they arrived in the city.
I was quite enjoying myself. The area I was stood in was clean and pretty-looking, and the only thing spoiling it was the heat. Summer had evidently arrived in Tashkent and so trying to get back in the shade, I strolled up a leafy pedestrian-only street until I came to Independence Square. It was heralded by a striking long silver archway with some more shiny pelicans on top. In the near distance was the huge white Senate Building, home
of the President, Islam Karimov. I walked up to a large monument in front of me, which featured a seated woman holding a baby overlooked by a giant golden globe. It looked superb and was known as the Independence and Humanitarianism Monument, a mouthful by anyone’s reckoning. In Soviet times, the largest ever statue of Lenin had stood on the plinth now occupied by the globe.
Five minutes away was the Crying Mother Monument and eternal flame. Constructed in honour of the 400,000 Uzbek troops who died in WWII, it was set at the end of a wooden corridor which looked truly marvellous. Colourful flowers had been planted along the edge and with the sun shining, the whole place looked great. I shook my head thinking of all the people who bypassed Tashkent in favour of other places.
In 1966 a terrible earthquake struck Tashkent, destroying much of the city and rendering thousands homeless. With most of the historic sites now in ruins, the Soviets were free to completely redesign the city, constructing large buildings and wide boulevards. But as a memorial to those who had lost their lives in terrible event, they also built a monument. I
was staring right at it. Like a lot of other Soviet statues I’d seen, this one was large and commanding and featured a man, woman and child all striking proud and valiant gestures.
After a hefty hike up past the InterContinental Hotel, I finally arrived at the gigantic and spindly TV tower. Strangely, this one had three legs. After paying the entrance fee (and handing my passport over) I was soon in the elevator to the viewing platform of the ‘highest structure of such type of construction in Middle Asia,’
according the pamphlet I’d been given. Even though there were not that many people up there, but there were still obviously enough to warrant the small stall which served drinks and snacks. I ordered a local beer, Sarbast, and took up station at one of the large windows. The views, as expected, were impressive, and from my vantage point I could see just how sprawling and flat Tashkent was. No wonder my legs ached so much.
The people in charge of the tower had kindly produced scale models of lots of other TV towers around the world. It seemed that at 375 metres tall, Tashkent’s TV Tower was
pretty high up in world rankings, but it still fell short of Toronto’s CN Tower, which came in at an impressive 553m. But it easily eclipsed England’s Blackpool Tower (they actually had a model of it) which only measured up to a paltry 158m.
After a long rest at the hotel, enabling by legs to stop quaking and quivering, I felt up to more sightseeing but decided to get a taxi. The discussion I had with the driver and the hotel receptionist (acting as interpreter) was quite interesting. “Tell him I want to go to Navio Park,” I instructed the girl behind the desk of my hotel. “And tell him that when I get there I want to him to wait while I take photos. Then he can drive me back.”
The girl nodded and relayed my request to the driver, a wiry individual with a couple of day’s stubble on his chin. He didn’t seem impressed with my proposal but the girl persisted until he looked me up and down and finally came up with a figure. The look of shock that registered on the receptionist’s face gave me an indication of how ludicrous his asking price
was. She turned to me and informed me the driver wanted 25,000 som.
I mentally calculated this to be about a tenner, which didn’t seem that bad, but I didn’t want to seem an easy touch and so shook my head. This brought about a new discussion between the girl and driver, none of which I understood. Eventually the girl addressed me again. “He wants to know how much you will pay?”
I thought for a second before telling her I’d be happy to pay 15,000 som (about £6). She turned back to the driver and told him this. He pulled a face that seemed to suggest he was not going to undertake such a lengthy journey for such a pitiful amount. Another conversation ensued before the receptionist finally looked back at me. “He says wants 10,000 som.”
Hang on just a cotton-picking second! That was less than I’d just offered! What was going on? Plainly something had been lost in translation but with both parties waiting for my answer I gleefully accepted and was soon on my way.
Navoi Park, Tashkent’s largest, was about a ten minute drive away from the hotel. At the north entrance
stood the enormous Istiklol Palace, otherwise known as the Friendship Palace. With my driver chatting to a policeman he seemed to know, I hopped out to take some photos. The palace was quite ugly-looking, I thought, but because it was so large and imposing it couldn’t help but be impressive. It was used as a concert hall.
The next stop in the park was even uglier. The Wedding Palace was a prime example of bad Soviet Architecture. But at least it was set in peaceful area of greenery. My final stop on my rush through the Navoi Park was perhaps the best of all. It was a large statue of poet Alisher Navoi, the namesake of the park, standing proudly under an ornately decorated roof supported by tall columns. My driver had followed me up to the monument, perhaps making sure I wasn’t making my escape without paying the fair, and after a few snaps, we walked together towards a large manmade lake. At the other side was a grand-looking building which was sadly off limits to visitors. This was a shame because the Lower House of Parliament Building looked fantastic. The driver didn’t seem bothered that it was
off-limits though and gestured that he’d take a photo of me standing in front of it.
My final day in Tashkent wasn’t anywhere near much fun as the first one, mainly due to getting lost three times. Because I didn’t speak Uzbek or Russian, together with the abysmal lack of street signs in the city, meant I was left totally alone to sort out my problem. The first time it happened I’d taken a wrong turn and realised this after perhaps fifteen minutes of trudging. Cursing my luck, and wincing at the pain in my shins, all I could do was plod onwards, hoping to stumble upon something I recognised. Eventually I did and so after consulting my meagre map, I finally managed to get myself back on track after walking perhaps five kilometres the wrong way. The second time I got lost I felt like cursing into the sky, and by the third time, I’d had enough. I decided to find a metro station.
Like all other metro stations in Tashkent, this one was guarded by a policeman at the entrance and another one down on the platform. After witnessing my ineptitude at buying a ticket from
the booth, the platform plod approached me, demanding to see my passport. After flicking through it, and studying my visa in particular, he handed it back and waved me through.
The metro was spotlessly clean and the one I was in featured a fantastic sculpture. Unfortunately taking photos was a big no no, possibly due to the fact that all metro stations in Tashkent handily double up as nuclear bomb shelters. Without any fuss or ado, I jumped on a train and was soon speeding towards the Old Town of Tashkent.
If the Russian population of the city regarded Independence Square as the heart of Tashkent, to the Uzbeks, Chorsu was their centre. Ascending the metro, the scene before me was how I’d imagined Tashkent to be, thronging with bazaars and women in headscarves. This was much more Islamic than the Russian-style part of the city I’d visited the previous day. All around me, people were flocking to the huge Chorsu Bazaar, and once again I noticed the abundance of gold teeth. People here seemed to love them but to me they reminded me of a certain villain from James Bond.
The market was not geared for
tourists at all, that much was plain to see. Mind you there weren’t any tourists apart from myself and so it was hardly surprising really. Most of the stalls were selling clothes, fruit and vegetable and lots of meat. There were also smaller sections peddling spices and nuts, and around one alley there was an aisle selling clucking chickens. Every now and again a shifty-looking gent would sidle up to me and say something I couldn’t understand. I brushed them away, continuing with my wandering, finding myself among stalls selling carpets and skull caps.
Nearby was the large Friday Mosque, an impressive looking building that overlooked the market below. From my viewpoint I could see a woman with a colourful dress laying down some bananas and green leaves on a piece of cloth. Boys pushed carts through the market and at the periphery were the taxi drivers, most enjoying conversations with each other.
Despite the pain in my legs I was soon on the move again, this time heading to the Khast Imom complex, Uzbekistan’s official centre of religion. The first thing I noticed as I approached were the enormous minarets of the Hazroti Imom Mosque. At 54
metres tall, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed them before. As I wandered around the other side, I noticed a trio of middle-aged Western women, all taking photos of the magnificent blue-domed complex. They were the only other tourists I saw in my time in Tashkent.
According to the guide book, the Islamic complex contained what was believed to be the oldest Quran in the world. Dating from the 7th century, the deerskin covered book was brought to Tashkent by Timur (he who enjoyed bloodlust) only to be pilfered by the Russians in 1868. Lenin returned it to Uzbekistan in the 1920s where it has remained ever since.
So with my sightseeing of Tashkent more or less complete, I made my way to the hotel. In only a few hours I’d be heading back to the airport for a flight into my third ‘Stan – the most elusive of them all: Turkmenistan.
The sting in the tail occurred at the airport. Never before in my travels across the world have I come across an airport so bogged down in pointless bureaucracy and officialdom. Needless to say I was searched in a private room, the inspector wanting to
know exactly how much foreign money I was taking out of the country. And I lost count the number of times I foolishly thought I’d made it through to the departure lounge only to be confronted with another queue. At the head was always a uniformed official waiting to check pieces of paperwork with ink stamp at the ready. By the time I got through them all, the fight was boarding. Strengths:
-Surprisingly lots to see
-Lots of parks and greenery
-Beautiful Khast Imom comlex
-Paying for a meal with a massive wad of banknotes
-Getting lost (due to lack of street signs)
-The airport and its officialdom
There are more photos below