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Published: February 6th 2006
It is now ten days after the attacks on the twin towers, and the western world has suddenly found itself engulfed in islamophobia. News reporters, self-proclaimed experts, politicians, coffee table rethorics; just about everyone seems to have a view on the geopolitical situation which they are more than happy to share. As people struggle to cope with the new world order many a careless and judgmental axiom spread across the community like wildfire. The self-appointed company security advisor, normally engaged in counting unlocked doors at the office and scouring the shared printers for classified documents suddenly saw his chance to greatly expand his responsibilities. A company wide instruction was sent out to all employees, asking us to refrain from visiting nations loosely defined as "muslim countries". Apart from the regrettable lack of insight it was also extra amusing since our company conducts its business in Scandinavia and the vast majority of my colleagues simply travel in the region where their office is situated. More disturbing statements were heard on local radio - "Arabs" should "go back to Arabia" whatever that means... And on top of it all, the world is holding its breath waiting for the inevitable American counterattack.
my travel agent is doing business as usual, the trip to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is still on, and pretty much all of the people that have signed up also intend to see it through. I had anticipated a sharp rise of last minute cancellations, similar to last year when the Iran travellers got cold feet during the Al Aqsa unrest in Israel, but I was proved wrong by a healthy group of some 15 travellers all set to go. Although it is comfortable and secure for a junior traveller like myself to travel in a group I only reluctantly choose this form of travel. I keep a low profile during the trip to Tashkent. I stay anonymous on the flight from Stockholm to Frankfurt, and not until we are boarded on the Lufthansa Airbus A340 am I discovered by our guide Bengt, who is walking around the cabin doing an improvised headcount before take off. The poor man has one of his arms bandaged due to an illtimed accident but is still in good spirit; this being the first time the travel agent is arranging a group tour for these countries. Obtaining visas had been a slow affair, involving surrendering my passport to the agent for weeks. They then travelled in person to the nearest embassy or consulate in Berlin. I was disappointed not to have recieved an Uzbek visa in my passport, since we were travelling on a group visa only.
The flight is comfortable although nothing remarkable, and when we arrive in Tashkent it is 23.30 and peeking out the window I can see row after row of exotic planes on the flightline hiding in the darkness. Tupolevs, Ilyushins, Antonovs - at first I am completely capitvated and amazed at finally seeing these behemoths of Soviet technology, but then a creeping anxiety is starting to manifest itself. I find myself wondering what on earth I am doing here in Tashkent in the middle of the night. It turns out to be a nervous reaction which is immediately dampened as soon as we get out of the plane and are shuttled to the immigration desks. My first impression of Yuzhny Airport is that it is a drab and dreary place. Surrounded by plain and uninspired concrete walls bathing in a stark and cold light the immigration queue seems to move at roughly the same pace as an inland glacier. Since we have no individual visas we are slowly being herded together by our accompanying guide Bengt and I get a first contact with some of my fellow travellers. Judging from past experiences I had a fairly good idea of what to expect, and when I find out that everyone else is practically old enough to be my parents or grandparents I am not at all surprised. The main surprise instead comes when we meet our local Uzbek guide, who is a young woman in her late teens. We are herded outside to a waiting bus and promptly driven through the sleepy streets. Even though I am quite tired from a day's travelling I still sit and stare out the windows with big eyes at the strange world around me. We arrive shortly at the Shodlik Palace Hotel where we will spend our first night in Tashkent. The room is quite nice and I have a longed for shower before lying down on one of those hard beds the Asians seem to be so fond of.
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