Published: April 1st 2009February 2nd 2009
The Global Financial Crisis was dominating the news as I left for Central Asia in January, so it isn't surprising that not many column inches were given to the birth of a new country. But an old university friend from Uzbekistan emailed me the news that the province of Tatarwalistan had separated from Tashkent, and invited me to take part in the month of celebration that followed its independence. I adjusted my itinerary and made it the first leg of my Silk Route trip.
A valid Uzbek visa was all that was needed to allow me to go to Tatarwalistan, but I had to give the British embassy in Tashkent the address of where I would be staying there, and return to Upper Uzbekistan within 72 hours. Until its independence is stabilised it is not a place that they want westerners to become too acquainted with.
As my bus took me along the bumpy road from Tashkent to Tatarwalistan's capital, Bolgalvret, I re-read an email from Timur that I had printed off at the internet cafe in Tashkent. It told me a little about the nation state that I would be visiting. Until 2008, Tatarwalistan had just been a
part of Uzbekistan, tucked away in the south of the country, bordering Tajikistan. But for generations its culture had been quite different to that of Uzbekistan - its name comes from the two ethnic groups who have settled there, the Tatars (descendants of Chinggis Khan's Mongol Empire, who also settled in Central Russia and Crimea) and the Wali, nomadic Tajiks who left their homeland in the 1940s to escape Stalin's oppression. Both groups are Sufi Muslims - Upper Uzbekistan practices the Sunni faith, and it was decided that, to avoid religious conflict like the ones currently occurring in the Caucasus, Tatarwalistan should be given its freedom democratically.
The official language of the new nation is Uzbek, although for centuries the population has infused Tatar and Wali words into the lexicon, and many people prefer to speak Wali at home. The new unit of currency is the Jot Rouble
, which is made up of 100 leml
. I changed £50 at a bureau de change in Tashkent, and was given a heap of jots
so large that I had to buy a separate bag at the local market to keep them in.
At the moment the province's independence is recognised
only by the governments of Serbia, Mozambique and New Zealand, and the state is waiting for full independence before drawing up its own constitution. For the time being, Tatarwalistan has kept Uzbekistan's legal code, and administrative duties are dealt with by consulates in Tashkent. Tatarwalistan is still waiting for its flag to be approved by the UN: when the country's quickly-assembled football team went to play its inaugural friendly in Kazakhstan recently, the event organisers just flew the Uzbek flag upside down. The national anthem is the melody to the Russian folk song "Kalinka", with the first verse in Tatar and the second in Wali.
The King of Tatarwalistan is Edash Sallan. He is a childhood friend of Uzbek president Karimov and a camel trader by profession. He was not democratically elected, rather chosen by Karimov as a puppet ruler, so that Uzbekistan could still control the region. Timur's email went on to say that there are rumours that Sallan was chosen as king in return for his silence, after he had learned of an affair that the Uzbek leader was having with the Belarussian female shot-putter, Olga Shokolovskaya.
The email was written in Timur's fluent but quirky
English. I remembered fondly the two semesters I had spent with him in the halls of residence at our university in London, and the time he asked me where he could find a badger to put in a stew he was making. Badgers are an Uzbek delicacy, often marinated in spices and served when a man's mother-in-law comes to visit, as a way of proving to her that he is wealthy enough to afford rarer meat, and therefore is fit to provide for her daughter.
Timur had graduated two years before me, and moved back to Uzbekistan to marry Farida, his childhood sweetheart, and to set up a doctor's surgery in a village just outside the capital. He and Farida moved to Bolgalvret from Tashkent in 2006, enticed by the slower pace of life in the provinces.
As I stumbled around his country, struggling to read the street signs written in cyrillic script and made dizzy by the chaotic babbling of an exotic but unknown language, I began to realise what a huge culture shock he must have experienced at the beginning of his placement year in England.
When I arrived at Bolgalvret bus station in mid-afternoon,
Timur was already waiting for me. He was wearing a stylish overcoat and had put on weight - life, I thought, is treating him well. I move to shake his hand, and he wraps me in a bear hug. He carried my rucksack of laundry and leml
for me and we took the tram to his street.
Timur and Farida's house is a small whitewashed cottage, with a humble kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and a living room with four bean bags pointed at a Turkmen television set. The new satellite dish - Timur explained proudly - can pick up several foreign programmes, including Timur's favourite from his student days in London, 'Neighbours'. That evening though our choice was between the film "Casablanca" dubbed into Uzbek, a speech by King Sallan and celebrity ice-dancing.
Farida called us to dinner, and put a casserole pot in the middle of the table. She lifted off the top and revealed....... Badger stew with rice! I swallow most of it, and am flattered that Farida has prepared a special meal for me. We toast our reunion with a Russian soft drink, Pepski - although Timur and Fatima are not devout Muslims, they do
not drink alcohol.
The next morning Timur takes me for a walk around Bolgalvret. We start at the mosque, which looked stunning in the early morning light. He tells me that the minarets of Wali mosques are taller and thinner than those seen elsewhere in Uzbekistan.
We stop at the town square to watch a dancing display by the town's travelling theatre, which took place at mid-day each day during Independence Month. I suspect that, for the Tatarwalis, the best part of independence is not connected to any ideological ideas of freedom from Uzbek rule, which for the most part was fair and unobtrusive, but the chance to miss school or work for an hour to watch the dancing, and to enter their own song in the Central Asian Song Contest.
We go for breakfast at a cafe near Timur's new surgery. He orders me a chicken shaurma
, chuckling to himself at the foreigner's weak stomach as I spot badger on the menu, and we reminisce about university. After breakfast we stroll along Bolgalvret's main boulevard, and dodge the camels grazing from the flower baskets of the pretty whitewashed houses that line the dusty street. King Sallan
the camel trader's first royal decree was to free all camels that cannot be sold, to allow them to wander the streets.
In the evening Timur took me back to the bus station and I took another bumpy bus back to Tashkent. It was very sad to say goodbye to Timur so soon after arriving, but we promised to keep in touch. No sooner had the sun set over the dusty Tatarwali landscape than my thoughts turned to Kyrgyzstan, the next leg of my journey, and the new adventures that would be waiting for me there.