A wee intro to Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is one of the weirder stops on our trip so a geography lesson might be in order. Located in Central Asia near a lot of the other ‘Stans, Uzbekistan was under Russian rule from the 1860’s until the fall of the USSR in 1991. Over 90% of Uzbekistan’s citizens self identify as Sunni Muslim, but 130 years of Soviet rule have resulted in a pretty dilute (and distorted) adherence to Islam. Many cities in present-day Uzbekistan were key waypoints on the Silk Road, and the stunning mosques, madrassas, and caravanserais built along the trade route are the main draw for tourists.
Arranging travel in Uzbekistan is hard, and to get a visa you need to apply for a letter of invitation. You have to be careful to find hotels that are ‘licensed’ to host foreigners, and booking trains is tricky. Jeff and I departed from our usual travel style and booked our Uzbekistan trip with a travel agency called Caravanistan to help us arrange drivers, trains, hotels, and guides. Our itinerary relied on trains wherever possible, and included Tashkent, Fergana Valley, Samarkand, Bukara, and Khiva.
Like most travelers to Uzbekistan, our first stop was the capital city Tashkent. Like most travelers to Uzbekistan, our first thought was, “This place is odd. Like, really… odd.” Tashkent is massive city geographically, and its streets are remarkably wide (definitely wide enough to turn around a wagon). In stark contrast with the city’s physical size, the streets are completely empty. No traffic, no vendors, and no pedestrians. I honestly don’t believe the cited 2.3 million population statistic – there’s no way. It’s a strange feeling to be in a big but empty city and much more Pyongyang-y than Jeff and I anticipated. We arrived at 6:00 pm ‘rush hour’, but we easily breezed our way from the airport to our hotel in like 10 minutes.
We stayed at the Hotel Uzbekistan, and it was the living embodiment of the Soviet era. The hotel is a massive 16-floor structure best described as ‘Socialist Modernism’ and taking the elevator to our room on the 15th floor was a triumph of our patience and endurance. The breakfast was served in a gaudy ball-room fit for a Russian ‘Sweet 16’ party, and consisted of Wonder Bread and margarine inexplicably floating in ice water. To cater to the 10 hotel guests there were 1,000 employees, each of whom was especially eager to change money.
And speaking of money in Uzbekistan… it’s complicated. There is a ‘government’ exchange rate ($1 USD = 4,000 Uzbek SOM), a ‘black market’ exchange rate ($1 USD = 8,000 + 1,000 SOM), and widespread use of the US dollar. The largest denomination is 5,000 SOM ($0.62) which means you pay for everything with unwieldy stacks of cash like a drug dealer. In Uzbekistan’s cash-centric economy, haggling and paying for everything can be an awkward multivariate math problem so we found it best to stick to one currency. Using dollars means you’re negotiating an exchange rate with each transaction, so SOM it was. Luckily every taxi driver is willing to change money and it’s a bit of a thrill to be handed giant stacks of cash by a cabbie in a dark corner of a parking lot.
Money changed and iced margarine consumed, we were ready to start our tour of Tashkent. Our guide Somiya met us at our hotel and throughout our tour she was stubbornly dedicated to the party line. Like other countries with difficult pasts (or presents), tour guides in Uzbekistan are certified by the government and usually adhere to their approved script. Uzbekistan is the place where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. 😉
Somiya took us to the fantastic Applied Art Museum, the Abdul Kasim Madrassah, and the Khast Imam Complex, which houses the Samarkand Kufic Quran, one of the oldest Korans in the world. The Koran was beautiful, and was written in an old style ‘Kufic’ script. Evidently the book was splattered in the owner’s blood when he was stabbed whist reading the Koran (awww), and splatter has dated the book to the 8th or 9th century.
We also visited the Chorsu bazzar, where we got a nice introduction to the meats of Uzbekistan. All the meats.
The final stop on our day with Somiya was Tashkent’s Independence Square. Every former communist city has a Freedom Square (aka the former Lenin Square), and they’re always an interesting sociological study. Jeff has a mathematical theory that the geographic size of any city’s ‘Freedom Square’ is inversely proportional to actual freedom – and often directly proportional to the number of protesters killed in said square. In Uzbekistan our theory holds true… The square was super huge, desolate, and odd. I could just taste the freedom.
After a long and surreal day in Tashkent, Jeff and I ventured out on our own to find some food. Instead we found our favorite thing in Tashkent – the Tashkent metro system. Built during the Soviet era, the city’s metro stations are elaborately decorated and often aggressively themed. We visited the most well known station, the Kosmonavtlar Station, which is a space-exploration-themed station dedicated to Tashkent’s very own cosmonaut Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dzhanibekov. The walls of the station are decorated with astrologers and scientists from Russia and former soviet states, and you can just feel the good intentions of the metro-station designers. Let’s get these school children pumped up about science!!!
Wandering the empty city and taking the empty (but fancy) metro made us happy we had only one day in Tashkent. The next morning, we caught a train up to the rural area of Fergana valley to continue our adventure.