Friday, 4 October 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3i: Tashkent (II)

world-map tashkent


And once again, apologies for the late arrival of a post! I’ve been having further computer issues, this time my mouse proceeded to pack up and so I was out of internet action for a week since all the computer shops are only open when I am at work… grr!! However, all good now (fingers crossed…), and so it’s on with Across Asia With A Lowlander, this time taking a short haul flight on that greatest of air carriers, Uzbekistan Airways back to Tashkent where they unload your luggage straight off a truck onto the waiting tarmac and the best hotels are in the dodgy part of town…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



22nd August, 2002 – nr. Urgench, Uzbekistan

We awoke at a reasonable hour that day and breakfasted on the terrace on small dumplings akin to Chinese gyoza that are apparently a local delicacy, before enjoying several more hours of the waiting game and then climbing into the Lada and heading to Urgench Airport.

Urgench the town, looked uninspiring and tatty and we were glad that we were only passing through. The airport on the other hand, was a different story entirely. A new terminal, (in the national colours of white, green and blue), glittered in the sunshine. So, there was some money in Uzbekistan.

Kolya would not enter the airport with us. “Police everywhere,” he said by way of explanation. So, it wasn't just the tourists that they harassed then. We felt sorry for the citizens of a country that are afraid of their own police force so obviously. Perhaps it's the same in China and Korea too, (I know that the Japanese are none too fond of theirs), I don't know, but what hit both the Lowlander and I was how blatant and open it all was here. Anyway, we understood, and it was with a twinge of sadness that we bade our goodbyes to the man who had started off as the annoying train drunkard and finished by providing us, (well, me at least, I never asked the Lowlander about it), with the highlight of the entire trip. Kolya Babamanov, we thank you!

Our plane was not for some hours, so we settled down and drank tea in the pristine cafeteria. Sparkling and swish though the terminal was, the Lowlander was far from impressed and if anything it even lowered, (if that was possible), his opinion of the country that built it.

“It's propaganda, that's all!” snorted he. “The whole country's a dump and they just build this to fool the tourists and diplomats that all's well.”

“But we're tourists and we're not fooled!” protested I.

“Yes, but we arrived on foot over the border and have then travelled everywhere by train. That's what it's really like. Most tourists however, fly in on some 'Marco Polo' package deal to this place, stay in a posh hotel, look at the old city and then fly out again. Nice hotel, nice airport, beautiful old buildings and none of the police shit. 'Oh yeah guys, that Uzbekistan doing bad, don't you believe, we went and it's all like new!' What would you believe?”

He was right. Virtually all the other tourists that we'd met, (and considering the attractions on offer, they weren't many), had come in on a package deal like the one that my Dutch comrade had just described. And who could blame them? As we were fast finding out, independent travel in Uzbekistan was little more than one big stressful, (and not all that cheap), headache.

“And then there was that shit at the entrance,” added the fuming Dutchman, who by now had (I also) quite a lot that he wished to get off his chest. “The poor guy was too scared even to come in and see us off because of those bastards!” He pointed at the police down in the foyer below. Away from the oasis of tranquility that Kolya's home had provided for us, Uzbekistan was once more starting to get us down.

Trying to divert my attentions towards something more uplifting, I fixed my gaze upon a group of pretty girls all clad in their becoming national costume, sat at a nearby table. It was nice to see people wearing traditional dress, as we'd seen nothing before of it, the men generally donning shirts and trousers and the women, loose, long floral dresses that were singularly unappealing. This group were a welcome exception, a gaggle of girls wearing their national garb out of choice, perhaps waiting to attend a wedding or some other special occasion.

Then to my surprise, they all got up and headed down the stairs to the foyer. Puzzled, my eye followed them. No plane was due to depart for hours. I soon found out the reason though. No planes were departing, but there was one arriving, and these young ladies were employed to welcome the hordes of tourists that were inside it. The traditional girls, like the airport, were alas, but a sham for the foreigners.

The journey on the Uzbekistan Airways flight to Tashkent was as uneventful as any flight. It was fast, clean and on time, and that was it. But was that really a problem? Initially we'd been a little disappointed with ourselves at having broken our pledge of travelling by land and sea alone, but looking down on the vast, featureless wilderness below, I was glad. I was sick of Uzbekistan with its corruption and hassles, and sick of dry, desolate Central Asia, and the train out to Moscow was forever in my mind.

Urgench's airport may have been state-of -the-art but touristless Tashkent's was a trip straight back to the Soviet Union and far more in keeping with the city that it served. We alighted from the plane onto the tarmac and walked across to the exit which turned out not to be through a terminal building but a mere gate onto the street. 'But where's the baggage reclamation?' thought we, puzzled. The answer to that question soon came in the shape of a pick-up laden with suitcases. We grabbed our rucksacks from the pile and hailed a taxi to the centre of town where the Western Union office, and our money, lay.

The Western Union office however, was closed. This was perhaps understandable since it was by now five in the afternoon, but it nothing for our mood. And thus with naught else to do, and little money to do it with, we decided to head for a hotel.

Now you may remember from before that we'd had a slight problem with our first choice hotel in the shape of it being half demolished, so this time we had to look further down the none-too-big list provided by our guidebook. And looking down that said list we hit upon a Hotel Baht, situated near to the Khamsa metro station in the suburbs. So, we took the metro and then a taxi to our abode for the night.

Or so we thought.

Hotel Baht however, when we got there, wasn't there. Or something like that anyway. 'It used to be here,' said the lady, 'but it isn't now.' She then added that she could tell us about another place nearby.

“Ok then.” So she told us and so there we went, to a crumbling apartment block with Hotel Baht scribed on the entrance. Strange. There are two of them. Or at least one where it shouldn't be. Hmm... Nonetheless, we gratefully unloaded and then presented ourselves at the reception desk.

Nyet!” said the lady.

“What do you mean, 'Nyet'?” asked I.

Nyet!” Yet another example of the joys of post-Soviet service.

Thankfully, a fair maiden came to the rescue of the gallant knights from afar. “Foreigners are not allowed to stay here, I'm sorry,” said the pretty raven-haired wench who was sat in the hallway.

“Why's that?” I asked.

“Government regulations.”


“But I do know of another hotel where you may stay.”

“You do?”

Oh yes, she did, and not only that, but she hailed us a taxi and gave the driver the necessary instructions.

Our Lady's hotel of choice turned out to be the Tara. It was on the very edge of town and shouted post-Soviet decay. We looked up at the gloomy grey apartment block with 'Tara' written on the side in blue bathroom tiles (classy, eh?) and wondered. But what choice did we have?

tashkent_2_1 Hotel Tara: Proletarian Luxury

The door was opened by a scary-looking lady with bleached blonde hair who incidentally, also smacked of post-Soviet decay. She escorted us through the hallway which stank of paint, and into an office.

“We're redecorating for the Independence Day celebrations,” she explained.

'You'd be better knocking it down and starting again,' thought I, unsure if I was just referring to the hotel, or instead the country that was celebrating independence.

Awful as Hotel Tara was, it was also ridiculously cheap, (I suspect that on our last night, we'd actually finally entered an establishment that charged Uzbeki prices), and the staff, though looking like they'd just come from the red-light district, were the friendliest that we'd come across so far. I was reminded of just how deceptive appearances can be.

So cheap was the Tara in fact, that we booked a room of four beds just so we didn't have to share. Despite ordering twice as many beds as usual, we were still paying less than a quarter of the Bukhara prices which showed that someone somewhere had definitely been ripping us off. Hmm...

I put my bags down and asked the Lowlander if he wanted to go out for a bite to eat, but he refused.

“I'm sick!” said he. He never explained however, of what exactly. I expect that it was Uzbekistan. After all, I was suffering a slightly less-serious bout of that myself.

I took a tram to the nearest metro station and grabbed myself some native fayre at a cafe nearby in a small bazaar area. Sat there, reading in peace, I was brought back to the real world with a bang and an example of something that the former USSR is famous for and luckily (Kolya aside) we had so far eluded.

Vodka Terrorism!

“Hello! Where are you from?”

“Great Britain.”

“I am from Uzbekistan. Want to drink vodka?”

“No thank you.”

“Let's be friends! Drink! Nostorovya!”

“No thank you.”

“What's 'Nostorovya' in English? I know, 'Cheers!' Cheers!”

“Cheers!” I raise teacup.

“No friend, no tea! Vodka! Cheers! Nostorovya!”

I escaped as soon as I could and headed down into the metro station, a tired and stressed man.


Not again, surely...

“Passport! Visa!”

“Here you are.”

“Hmm... Please come to our office.”

''A-ha!' thought I, 'I know you game.' This was looking remarkably similar to the way that Brian had got robbed in Almaty. Still, I had nothing on me bar a few thousand sum, so you can search me all you like.

And so they did. Very amiably, but exactly like Brian had described. Officer One takes wallet and checks. He then starts making idle chit-chat with you whilst the wallet is passed around officers Two, Three and Four who all finger it thoroughly. Then, the wallet is returned to you, and only later do you find out that you're considerably poorer than you were previously.

But not me, because in my wallet there was nothing to steal. At the end they waved a cheery goodbye accompanied with an 'Enjoy Uzbekistan!'

'Oh I will,” thought I. 'Since I know that I'm leaving the damned place tomorrow! You however, are stuck here.'

And with that cheery thought in mind, I rode into town and had a jolly good time checking my email before returning to the Tara by taxi and thus not encountering one single member of the Uzbeki Police Force.

23rd August, 2002 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Neither of us has expected this, but there again, things seldom turn out as we'd expect them to. If you'd have asked us before the start of our trip what we were most looking forwards to on our travels, well my Dutch friend would have probably said Dunhuang and I, perhaps Korea's DMZ, but both of us, without doubt would have agreed on Central Asia. That was the purpose of the expedition, to go where the tourists do not go, to get stamps in our passports of countries that people don't know exist, to see what Colin Thubron terms the 'Lost Heart of Asia'. Ok, so it sounds a bit stupid, crazy, well, so what? I always knew that I was a bit of a screwball anyway, and as for the Lowlander...

No, we'd expected to enthusiastically tour Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to revel in the post-Soviet decay, be fascinated by the Islamic heritage and only leave when we had to, when our visas finally ran out, and then look back on our days in the Stans with love and affection.

Yet here we were, rising early to get our money, get our tickets and then get out! And with days to spare on the visas. And not to stop until the train pulled into the Moscow terminus. We were tired, stressed and sick to the back teeth of the Stans, and that's the sad reality. We'd have left earlier if it were possible. The countries that we'd looked forward with so much expectation, had alas more than disappointed us. They'd in fact beaten us, and that was not a nice feeling.

But before we could leave, we had another day of hassle ahead. On paper it would be simple. We'd go to the Western Union office, get our money in the twenty minutes that the adverts stated, head to the ticket office, two tickets for a hundred and fifty euros please, (I'd checked the prices the night before), then drink tea, buy junk and send postcards until our train out in the evening.

But of course, things don't always pan out as they should. Or at least, not in Uzbekistan.

We decided to take a taxi to the Western Union office as we didn't want to risk encountering any over-zealous police officers on the metro since today we actually had some money on us, and so it was, we were driven through the streets of Central Asia's foremost metropolis and deposited at the Western Union door just in time for opening.

Money transfers such as this were an unknown experience to both the Lowlander and I, and we knew not what way to go about it all. That wasn't helped by the fact that we spoke not one word of Uzbek and only basic Russian. Thankfully however, we had help.

Tatiana Tsoi spoke English. Not only that, but she was polite, friendly, exceedingly beautiful and Korean. She was not something that I would expect to find in most places, least of all Uzbekistan. I was smitten. What's more, I was not alone. Little did the charming and diminutive Ms. Tsoi realise, but she'd just accquired admirers from both sides of the North Sea. “Please fill in these forms, sir,” she asked of the Lowlander. Fill them in he did. I however, kept myself busy drinking the free mineral water on offer and watching Uzbekistan's greatest attraction.

Even the presence of a Korean beauty with more manners than the rest of the country combined however, could not prevent another outbreak of the worrisome Uzbekistan Syndrome. The promised twenty minutes passed and no money appeared. Another twenty went by. “I'm sorry,” said the tantalising Tatiana, “but they seem to have sent it somewhere else by accident.”

That somewhere else turned out to be somewhere in the USA, (America, Uzbekistan, easy mistake), and an hour later we finally walked out of the building, our good mood severely dampened and only beautiful thoughts of fair Asian ladies keeping us sane.

Next up it was the tickets. The time was now coming up to twelve and in our eternal wisdom we reckoned that the office would probably shut for lunch twelve to one, so we decided to eat first and book later. We made our way across the park to the outdoor market which was lined with eating houses, at one of which we stopped and enjoyed the ubiquitous shashlik and tea served by a rather pretty and friendly dark-haired Russian girl. And thus it was that at half past one we rolled up at the ticket office for Uzbekistan National Railways.

Only to be confronted with an 'Out to Lunch 1-2' sign.

So we waited, played the five dice game and waited some more. And at half past two the lady rolled into work, (and no one seemed to mind about the lost half hour), and we got our tickets.

318 euros was the price that she quoted.

“But I thought that it was half that?!” protested I.

“That's for Uzbekis. You are a foreigner. Foreigners pay more.”

I was about to complain using such words as 'racism', 'rip-off' and 'robbery', when I remembered. Foreigners are all immensely rich individuals with money to burn, (in fact they probably do have money-burning ceremonies in the really rich places like Switzerland, America and Norway), who travel to Uzbekistan for the sole purpose of paying exorbitant prices so that the police and high-up officials can pave their halls with marble and eat the finest of foods. How stupid was I not to have remembered that before, and how grateful was I to Uzbekistan for reminding us. The Lowlander, who'd begun the complain about the double-pricing, I chastised and reminded, and he too was grateful for being made to remember that he too was just an absolutely brainless walking wallet and we both had a drink to celebrate.

And we invited the local police to join us.

Except that they declined, saying that they had too much work to do, and besides, never accepted gifts from tourists. It was unethical.

But seriously, at least we had now tickets, and money, and a passport out of a place that whilst sunny, Soviet and satisfying on the surface, was underneath naught less than a form of purgatory. We took the metro to the cafe by the fountains that we'd liked so much on our first visit to Tashkent, and upon finding it closed, we headed to the one next-door which was equally satisfying.

Then we went to Azis's office to bid our goodbyes to the man who had saved our skins last time round, and who, (along with the veritable Kolya Babamanov), had shown us that whilst Uzbekistan's authorities do all they can to scare the visitor away, her people are as welcoming as anywhere on the globe. He was sad to see us leave and urged us to stay an extra night. “My brother got into university and we're having a party to celebrate! Please come!” But even if we'd not already got our tickets to pastures new, both the Lowlander and I could not have stomached another day of hassle and bureaucracy. We made our excuses, bade our goodbyes, and moved on.

Having much sum left, we took a taxi to the post office to waste some on mail to all and sundry, and then went onto the outdoor market near to the Presidential Palace, where we loaded up on Soviet kitsch, before roaring over to the railway station to collect our baggage and board our train.

Tashkent's railway station was in chaos. Everywhere be-baggaged people hustled and jostled with each other, eager to board the twenty-coach long train to their former capital. At one check point a bedraggled-looking man was having a full-blown argument with a female official who proceeded to shout obscenities and hit him. We wondered what he'd done to provoke such an unladylike display of anger. Then we found out. He wanted his passport back that she'd (unlawfully) taken. 'Just get me out of here!' I thought.

However, even now we discovered that things are never as simple as they should be. Our ticket said Compartment III but the attendant said Compartment V. Remembering our Samarkand to Urgench experience we rebelled. It said Compartment III and that was what we were getting! Reluctantly the attendant opened the door. We were confronted with a wall of watermelons. So that was why II was unavailable.

So we went into V, and so too, (as we'd anticipated), ten minutes did the real occupants of that compartment. An almighty row ensued. We were not moving, now were they and all blamed the moustached attendant. Several minutes later he came wheedling up, begging us to go to our rightful compartment. Return we did, only to find that whilst entry into the vestibule and sleeping on the beds was now possible, little else was. Every storage place and inch of floor space was still filled with watermelons. We were far from impressed and what's more let it be known, hollering at the Melon Man attendant and locking the door behind him. We had fast found out that niceties, attempts at understanding or compromise and manners got you nowhere round here, which is sad since in my (very British) opinion, such things are what society is built upon. Yes, we hated doing it, and yes, it was out of character, but alas, if we wanted any peace at all, then nasty bastards we had to be.

And it worked, or at least partially. Melon Man returned to let in a surly-looking Russian, his brother who resembled Sinbad the Sailor and their pet rat who were to be our travelling companions, but that was all.

I was glad to be leaving Uzbekistan. Very glad in fact. Yet why? No other country on Earth has shown me kindness on the level of that provided by Kolya Babamanov and Azis Arislanov. Plus she has so much to offer the tourist. Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand are all world-class tourist cities, whilst Tashkent is probably the pleasantest place that the Soviets ever built. So why did I, (and the Lowlander), detest it so much? It was the corruption, the infernal passport checks and the attitude of the general populace. Foreigners are seen as big fat wallets on two legs and one has to be constantly on one’s guard against scams, the police and rip-offs. Yes, we had lots of tales to tell in the pub from our mere two weeks in the country – carrier bags of notes at the railway station, arrest on the Underground, two nights in the home of the train drunk, the friendship of the Director of the National Railway Museum – but it was all simply too much. I couldn’t cope with the pace and stress of it all. I didn’t want to get out, I needed to. For sanity’s sake.

And so, as the sun set, and the train pulled slowly out of Tashkent, embarking upon the longest single train journey of my life, I hung out of the window in glee. At last, we were leaving Uzbekistan.


tashkent_2_2 Moscow bound!

Next part: 3j: Tashkent to Moscow

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