I know probably you would not believe me, having also said that every second car in Georgia is a Toyota Prius, but in Uzbekistan, pretty much every new car is a Chevrolet. Ok, I looked it up: thanks to a joint venture between GM and the government, apparently 95% of the new cars in Uzbekistan are Chevrolets.
Because of Uzbekistan’s vast resources of gas (and no oil), majority of those cars are adjusted for methane and propane, which are half the
price of oil. It was strange the first time we took a long-distance taxi and it
had to refill: the driver stopped about 200m away from the gas station and
asked us to get out of the car for safety.
I was really looking forward to visiting Uzbekistan. The country was a major destination along the Silk Road and I had heard so much about the magic of Samarkand already in my school days in Bulgaria. I was also very curious to see a country which was literally locked up for so many years after the breakdown of the Soviet Union: Uzbekistan’s borders were pretty much shut down until 2005 – during and until the end of Islam Karimov’s reign, the first president after gaining independence.
In fact, developing deep and meaningful international relations are still in their early stages. For example, the tourist visa regime was only recently simplified, and only a couple of months before our visit, Uzbekistan finally introduced e-visas. But also, because the country was closed off for the majority of the world for so long, it actually learned to produce a lot of goods locally. Ironically, the joint venture with GM was both an example
of this (locally produced cars) and an exception (foreign joint venture).
One could say that we entered Uzbekistan through the “back door”, from Beyneu, Kazakhstan. In fact, Uzbekistan is one of only two double land-locked countries in the world – these are countries which border land-locked countries themselves – yet another curious feature which made me
eager to visit it..
“Back door” is also in reference to the way tourists travel when they visit the country: they normally fly into Tashkent, go to Samarkand, and then Bukhara. Some of the more adventurous may go to Khiva as well. And
then back. We did it the other way around: Khiva-Bukhara-Samarkand-Tashkent.
We encountered a peculiarity about Uzbek culture already in the
border town there: vodka. When it comes to liquor, restaurants seem to offer a large variety of vodka, and pretty much nothing else (and people do drink their vodka – and it shows!). I seldom saw beer, and when I ordered it, it was not particularly good.
What is surprising, though, is the lack of wine. Uzbekistan has different varieties of amazingly sweet grapes but, as far as I know, not much of a choice when it comes to wine. We did try a bottle of wine in Nukus,
the only one on the menu; it was OK, but it turned out it was sweet (what a
But while we may have gone ‘against the tourist traffic’, so to say, we definitely went with the local traffic. The train left Beyneu,
the last stop before the Uzbek border at 4am. We had ‘camped out’ at the train station for the night which was full of people; in fact, at some point one could barely even stand there. There were traders selling all kinds of stuff outside along the railway line. It was incredibly busy!
The kids by now were used to such an experience and promptly fell asleep on the chairs, their heads resting on their knapsacks. As our trip has progressed, it is actually interesting to see how they finally started to grasp the concept of different kinds of comfort. For example, before
this trip, they were used to staying in 4 and 5 star hotels where their concern would normally be if the facilities include a swimming pool. Now they worry not only about the availability of Wi-Fi but sometimes, as in the case of Beyneu, also of a bed!
Around 2 am, a kind officer in the train station, with whom I struck a conversation about football, informed us that we could actually board the train. What was our surprise when we found out that we did not have any assigned seats, it was ‘first come, first serve’ kind of service, and people had already taken any seats where one could lie down! Eventually we managed to find two bench-seats for the kids.
As usual by now when crossing land borders, majority of travellers were ‘traders’: we were asked several times whether we could take some of their stuff in our bags. Overall, however, people were very nice and we
were simply treated as a curiosity. The border crossing was fast and
straightforward. The customs officer did ask us though whether we were bringing any history books!
We arrived in Nukus after 17 hours, travelling through mostly desert-like terrain. There, at the train station, trying to figure out a way to get to a hotel (we had no booking) I encountered another peculiar feature of Uzbekistan culture: they don’t seem to like to negotiate. Having travelled through all the other countries, but especially Turkey and Iran, where negotiating was part of the process, I found this strange. The taxi drivers in Nukus, for example, had very strict rules, one could say, the equivalent of taxis in the West with meter machines: 5,000 Soum (that’s the local currency) for the first 3km and 500 for each after. They would simply
zero out their odometers on every ride.
Even in the bazaars, Uzbek people did not seem to engage in negotiations. They were a bit more flexible there, but they would almost get offended if it went for too long and eventually refuse to sell you the product at any price if “pushed”. I don’t know if this is a specific Uzbek
characteristic or it is a vestige of the Soviet system but I had to respect that this is the way it is.
Our first planned stop was Khiva, a 3h drive from Nukus. The day we drove to Khiva, the temperature dropped from almost 30C, from the day before, to half that. We did not expect such a big change in weather that
soon, and definitely did not welcome it!
Khiva’s old town is surrounded by a wall, inside which old residential houses stand next to centuries old mosques and madrases. Both Uzbekistan’s history and culture are interlinked with those of Iran (and, later, Turkey), so the structure of the mosques is somewhat similar. Yet, unlike Iran, Uzbekistan is famous for its madrases, Muslim religious schools. Samarkand’s Registan, for example is composed of three madrases (but there is one small mosque in one of them).
Despite this, Uzbekistan did not strike me as a particularly religious country. We barely saw women wearing hijabs (actually they were predominant only in Tashkent’s old town). We even had pork in a restaurant in Nukus (the proprietor was Korean) and in a cafe in Tashkent.
As we advanced more eastwards, the arid land gave way to some green vegetation, orchards and grapes. Along the roads, there were people
selling fruits and vegetables at almost any time of the day and (probably)
night. What was amazing to see was the melons: apparently Uzbekistan has the biggest varieties of melons of any country in the world (and the ones we tried were exceptionally sweet – it is a shame they do not juice them like in Iran).
Uzbekistan has plenty of cotton fields. As we were in the country right at the time of harvesting it, we could see people picking up the cotton and piling up the bags in massive containers along the road. We were told that students had to help with the harvest as well (i.e. no school for a month!). I remembered with fondness that we had to do the same in Bulgaria when I was a student there in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, the weather refused to ‘cooperate’ and it got progressively colder. So much, that we had to buy my son a winter jacket in the local market in Bukhara (he had lost his warm jacket somewhere along the
Silk Road before!). We were also forced to wear pretty much all our layers just to keep warm. Yet, that did not seem to help Georgia who fell ill and had to stay one full day in bed! The next day, while feeling better and able to walk around the streets, she also bought something to keep her warmer: a traditional long Uzbek coat. She looked different in it, and enjoyed the curious (from some, the older ones, obviously approving, from the others, the younger generation, amusing) gazes of the locals as we passed them by.
Another reason I wanted to visit Samarkand was Timur the Great, the legendary local leader I had read about as a kid. He created an empire which spanned a vast area, going deep into Persia and all the way to Delhi. However his reign was a one-off, i.e. there were no successors who could maintain his expansions. Timur was peculiar in a sense that he was illiterate himself, but he believed in the power of knowledge and appreciated the beauty of art. Legend has it that when he first ransacked Samarkand ,he killed the majority of the population but he spared the lives of architects, teachers and generally, people of knowledge. Then, under his guidance, Samarkand was rebuilt with the focus exclusively on madrases and other places of knowledge (Ulug Beg, the famous astronomer lived approximately at the same time).
Our last stop in Uzbekistan was its capital, Tashkent. I did not expect much of Tashkent, especially after visiting all these other places before that. Still, I was looking forward to being there because a friend of mine from both university and Morgan Stanley, whom I had not seen for decades, lives there. Unfortunately, he surprisingly had to go to New York the same week we turned up there. It was a shame, not only because I was looking forward to reconnect with him but also because speaking to a local, who I knew previously,would have enriched massively our view of Uzbekistan. As it was, Uzbekistan, after Iran, was a bit of an anticlimax.
However, we managed to get the best of our visit nevertheless. In fact, I enjoyed Tashkent, if not for anything else, for the blast from my ‘Soviet’ past that it provided, more than any other ex-Soviet capital I had ever been to.
So, a lot of things reminded me of how it used to be in Bulgaria in the 1980s: the monuments, the old block of apartments, the local market (where people would still offer to record music for you!), the circus. Even the main department store in the town where I went to high school was called ‘Tashkent’. We took the metro a lot (by the way, there was no metro in Bulgaria back in the ’80s). Some of the metro stations had very interesting decorations, the way I remember the Moscow metro when I visited it in the late 1980s.
The one thing we struggled with in Tashkent was knowing which restaurant was worth going to. In fact, that is one of the things we missed the most on our travels – after eating ‘street food’ most of the time, we were craving some variety…some
vegetables. Luckily, our next stop, Almati, would offer plenty of it.