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Published: September 26th 2008
Ulugbek Medressa in the very early morning
On one side of Samarqand's jaw-dropping Registan.
“He's followed us a long time now”, M whispered nervously, eyes flickering over the crowd around us. “A very bad man. You know the CNG?” Not personally so far, thankfully, but I’d heard a bit about them. The Uzbek branch of the KGB, which had apparently survived more or less intact after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While they don’t inspire the same level of fear as back in their Soviet heyday, these are still not guys you want to have to deal with if you can avoid it. Keeping her head down, and barely looking at me at all, M outlined her plan in a panicky whisper that was starting to scare me, and then slipped suddenly away into the crowd. I stared after her for a moment, and then couldn’t resist surreptiously scanning the faces around me, trying to guess what an undercover CNG agent might look like. And how I might evade him... Despite knowing that this could potentially be a big problem for both me and M, I have to admit that I was also kind of enjoying it all. =P Andijon
My time in the police state of Uzbekistan had started out smoothly enough.
Waiting for the dawn...
The Registan, Samarqand.
Roughly a week before the CNG incident, I’d crossed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border at Jalal-Abad - a reputedly problematic border-post in Uzbekistan's north-east. In fact, I’d been advised by a number of people to carry a few small bills with me - or, at the very least, a pack of cigarettes - to hand around if it turned out that the wheels were in need of some greasing. As well as being a bit of a cheap-skate, I’m also a strong believer that a confident & friendly manner will get you through most situations, so I decided to just go with that instead. And, in a nice twist of irony, one of the border-guards actually offered me one of his own cigarettes while we stood chatting about football. =P
After crossing the border without incident, I made my way to Andijon, a pretty & laidback town in the Fergana Valley with an unexpectedly dark event in its recent history. Surprisingly, until arriving in Central Asia I’d never even heard of the Andijon Massacre
. I’m not sure if this says more about how well it was covered up, (the government denies or at least plays it down to this day), or about
how poorly informed I am about what goes on outside of my own little world. Either way, it seems that Uzbekistan’s current president Islam Karimov has made shrewd use of Bush’s ‘war on terror’, simply branding any of his various enemies “terrorists”, justifying in this way his often brutal attacks on them. In May 2005, a number of Andijon businessmen were accused of being members of a local extremist Islamic group, and summarily thrown in jail. When a huge but largely peaceful crowd turned out on Babur Square to protest against this, police opened fire, killing between 200 and 5000, (reports vary, and the government has consistently rejected calls for an independent inquiry). People in Andijon are understandably touchy about the whole thing - I was asked repeatedly if I was a journalist, and any questions as to the location of the afore-mentioned Babur Square were met with blank looks or shifty evasions.
Nevertheless, I had a very good time in Andijon, mostly due to the hospitality extended to me by practically everyone I met there. The young man who saw me sampling one of the local street-side drinks and insisted on buying it for me, before continuing on
Lunch with a view
The Mir-i-Arab Medressa in the background
his way, whistling a jaunty tune. The old businessman who walked a long way out of his way to show me to a bank I was looking for, despite my protests. The bank security guard who called all his friends, on his own mobile phone, to help me track down a working ATM, (a fruitless search, in the end). A group of young guys I met in a cafe that night; we ended up piling into their car - six of them crushed into the backseat while I shared the passenger-seat with their pet cat ‘Soccer’ - and going in search of a late-night ayran
, (sour milk drink; imagine thin, very strong yoghurt). In retrospect, I wish I’d spent a bit more time exploring the Fergana Valley - a region claimed by many to be the ‘real’ Uzbekistan - but I decided to press on quickly. Tashkent
Early the next morning I negotiated a shared taxi to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent; my companions this time a surly young guy - face criss-crossed with badly-stitched scars - who had to be vigorously persuaded to share the car with the ‘americanski’, a formidable matron with the tattooed mono-brow (?!) that’s
Sayilgoh, (also known as 'Broadway')
Apparently once the backpacker centre of Tashkent, this all changed when Karimov decided it didn't quite fit with his ideal of a well-run police state...
not uncommon among Uzbek women of a certain age, and an insistently curious boy who pestered me with countless and surprisingly-detailed questions over the next five hours. (“How much would a second-hand Mercedes C-Class cost in Australia? How about a spare tyre for it? And how much to service it?”)
On arriving in the very spread-out, relatively modern & foreigner-friendly city of Tashkent, I checked into the spotless dorms next to the new train station, and was delighted to find that the maids there could be persuaded into opening up the ‘lux’ rooms’ pristine showers for a small ‘tip’. I hadn’t had a real shower for a week by this stage, usually just cleaning up at a grimy hotel sink instead, so it felt pretty amazing to indulge in a long, steaming-hot shower... =) Using this shower-equipped dorm as a very comfortable base, I spent the next two days walking all over the city, not visiting any ‘sights’ but just trying to get a feel for the place instead, and then attending a performance at the Alisher Navoi Opera & Ballet Theatre each night. Both of which were very interesting - Pugni’s ‘La Esmeralda’ & then a so-called “potpourri”
of ballet scenes & opera songs the next night - although I could never quite shake the feeling that I was at a high school performance. I guess this was just because all of the performers were so young, and also that the crowd seemed to be entirely made up of family members there to support them, (with brisk, energetic clapping and heavily Russian-accented cries of "Bravo, bravo!"). Amir Timur / Tamerlane
Anyone who spends any time at all walking the streets of Tashkent, or any Uzbek town for that matter, will constantly be running into reminders of a leader called Amir Timur, (also known as Tamerlane
- Timur the Lame) - ponderous statues, glorifying museums, and countless squares, streets & cafes named after him. It was a name I’d heard before, but knew very little about, and I imagine it may be the same for you. So who exactly was this Timur character?
Born in the 14th century, Timur was a military genius of Turkic-Mongol origins, (he claimed a fairly indirect descent from Jenghiz Khan himself), who eventually conquered an area stretching from Turkey in the west, all the way across to India, and even parts of
China. Unfortunately, Timur was not as gifted in statecraft as Jenghiz had been, and his ‘empire’ was in a constant state of disarray, requiring frequent & brutal re-invasions to reassert control. Timur’s military tactics included the sophisticated use of spies, whose missions usually also involved spreading exaggerated rumours about the cruelty, size and strength of Timur’s advancing armies. Not that much exaggeration was required when it came to their cruelty. As well as the usual post-conquest procedure of raping, pillaging & general destruction, Timur was given to massive displays of calculated brutality, warning his new subjects against uprisings & rebellions. For example, after invading Esfahan (Iran), he ordered a pyramid to be built of 70,000 human heads. In Baghdad (Iraq), it was 90,000. Altogether, it has been estimated that around 17 million people died as a result of his tireless conquests. Samarqand
However, Timur is also remembered as a patron of the arts, mostly because he pillaged the very best materials & artisans wherever his rampages took him, and then put them to good use back in his capital of Samarqand. As a result, Samarqand quickly became Central Asia’s economic and cultural centrepiece, as well as a centre of
Waiting for 'La Esmeralda' to begin
Alisher Navoi Opera & Ballet Theatre, Tashkent
learning during the reign of Timur’s grandson Ulugbek. Nowadays, it’s a sprawling & fairly modern town of Soviet-built blocks & wide streets, sprinkled with isolated pockets of ancient splendour. Some of which are truly amazing - the Registan, (pronounced with a hard ‘g’; it means ‘dusty place’ in Tajik), was probably the single most impressive (man-made) sight I came across in Central Asia. Catching a crowded marshrutka
from the train station directly to the Registan, stumbling across the busy road, blinking against the sun, and suddenly finding myself gazing up in wonder at the three majestic medressas
that surround the square... A special moment.
I spent a few days in Samarqand; wandering around its many sights overdosing on Islamic architecture (all light & space & curves - I much prefer it to European styles of the same period!), catching up with an Uzbek friend who studies in Singapore too, and getting to know James & Al, (two fellow backpackers at my guesthouse; I ended up spending the next week or so travelling with them - great guys!). Particularly memorable was a night out to watch the Euro 2008 final, followed by a visit to a quirky little Uzbek nightclub
with the others, before walking back to the Registan on my own to wait for the sunrise... Amazing! Bukhara
There was still no word on my Iran visa, (which I’d been hoping to pick up back in Tashkent), so I decided to take a gamble and press on, trusting to assurances that it’d be no problem to finalise it once I reached (the incredibly bizarre city of) Ashgabat, (Turkmenistan)... A little risky. =/ Anyway, the next day I caught the train on to Bukhara with James & Al. Walking down the main street in search of accommodation, we were tempted by the offer of a $5/night homestay, despite suspecting that there might be something a little off. In Uzbekistan, foreigners are only allowed to stay in particular hotels who’ve acquired licenses to that effect - a time-consuming & probably costly process for an up-and-coming B&B. In this case, we were assured it wouldn’t be a problem - this particular B&B was scheduled to receive its license in a couple of days and, in the meantime, the owner’s sister worked at a nearby (and fully-licensed) hotel and could provide us with the necessary hotel receipts.
Technically, you have to
produce enough of these, when leaving the country, to account for every single night you spent there - or risk a ridiculously large fine. It’s the size (more than enough to share around) of this fine that causes the problem; informants are everywhere, keeping an eye out for unlicensed ‘foreigner hosting’, and then either extorting a bribe for keeping quiet, or involving the CNG to try and increase their extortion leverage even further. =/ We were spotted by one such informant/delinquent, a pockmark-faced lout by the name of Memeen, (just in case you run into him next time you’re in Bukhara), who we’re pretty sure ratted us out to the CNG. Which is how we came to pick up the ex-KGB tail with which I started this entry, a problem our host M ended up solving with some audacious quick-thinking. Before coming to find me that afternoon in the bazaar, she’d boldly confronted the agent following us, inviting him to join her family for lunch the next day in an attempt to prove she had nothing to hide. The plan she then outlined to me was a little complicated, but our part in it was very simple - she just
Soviet toilet paper
Available near you too; just ask for 'fine sand-paper' at your local hardware store.
asked us to trust her, waiting out of sight for a few hours, while she & her brother packed up our stuff & moved it to another hotel she trusted. It seemed the best option open to us so we agreed, retiring to a nearby hammam
for a much-needed scrub and to consider the possible implications of all this... Deportation? Massive bribes? A fellow traveller had told us a similar story, in which he'd been taken to a police station, intimidated for a few hours, and then told he could make this all go away for the paltry sum of US$20,000. Eventually, they ended up settling for $200, but even this relatively small amount would mean we'd all have to change our onward travel plans.
In the end, everything sort of petered out in a slightly unsatisfactory anti-climax, (probably extremely unsatisfactory for any readers who've managed to get this far! =P). By the time we returned to M's house for an update, (one at a time, and by a different route to normal, as she'd directed), she'd taken care of everything, making some calls, hiding our stuff, and arranging for false accommodation receipts at a new B&B. An inauspicious
welcome to Bukhara, perhaps, but I ended up loving it - probably my favourite town in Uzbekistan. A beguiling combination of page-turning history, compelling anecdotes, old town atmosphere, amazing architecture, the best tea-house in Uzbekistan, and even a wide selection of surprisingly-good Uzbek wines... But more about all that next time!
Happy Birthday Dad, hope you're having an awesome day!
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