Me-go: Around-the-World

Concrete Buildings Never Looked So Good


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My route through Kyrgyzstan and into Uzbekistan looked good on paper but in reality it didn’t really work out the way I wanted. My plan was not to backtrack, but without a Kazak visa I could not take the direct bus from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Tahkent, Uzbekistan. I knew this, of course, and somewhere in the back of my mind had decided to fly a long time ago. The distance isn’t that great but the road goes through Kazakstan to avoid a large Mountain range. My other option was to head back South to Osh or Jalal-abad and cross into the Fergana Valley, but that would have taken a few days of driving and passing through Fergana, the most militant Islamic area of Central Asia. Besides, I promised the Uzbek Counselor that I wouldn’t go to “the mountains.” After all, the USA’s criticism of the Uzbek government’s massacre in Andijan a few years ago was what got it’s air force jets and Peace Corps kicked out of the country (and made my visa aspirations more difficult).

With that in mind I copped out as a “hard core traveler” and bought a place ticket to Tashkent. Of course, my plane left Bishkek at 7am so I had to check in around 5am. Luckily, three Japanese travelers at my guesthouse were on the same flight so we shared the early morning ride to the airport. There was a man near the check-in desk who wrapped my backpack in plastic sheeting, sealed it with tape and wrapped it with plastic bands to ensure it made it through the flight intact. With all of the straps on my bag it was 80 com well spent. This was wonderful for the flight but getting the bands off and my straps off was difficult without my knife, which was packed inside the bag.

Manas Airport in Bishkek is practically an US Air Force base

The flight was full of tour groups and my first impression of this supposedly conservative country was of the flat screen TVs over the Passport Control booths showing a fashion show with barely-dressed models. My taxi driver was a very animated Russian who pointed out all of the buildings in town to me on the way to my hotel. Uzbekistan has a tradition of bed & breakfast hotels which are hard to find for under $10 per night. When I arrived and was shown to my room the man took my passport to register it with the government but when I asked about the price and said that I had been told it was $10, not $15 per room he threw my passport back at me and said no. I was pretty tired and went to sleep, deciding to work it out later. I surprised the man a few hours later when I came back down because he expected me to leave. I usually leave when someone is so rude to me but I was too tired to move all of things across town. He turned out to be very nice most of the time but flew into a rage when you mentioned anything to do with money.

The Uzbek cym (pronounced som, like in Kyrygzstan) only reaches a 1,000 note (less than $1) so I was handed a stack of bills one inch thick after changing $60. I’m a little disappointed that more people aren’t appreciating how wonderfully crisp and new my dollars are after I went to three banks in the US to get the best notes possible for this trip. With local currency I was ready to explore Tashkent and headed for the metro. I love cities but I love metros even more. Tashkent has the only metro system in Central Asia and in true Russian fashion it was built to double as a massive bomb shelter. The stations are nondescript outside, with barely any signs, but once you drop your blue translucent plastic token into the gate and walk downstairs each station opens up with a vaulted ceiling and different decorative theme. Overall, the style is a cross between art deco, early 1900’s Russian design and 70’s kitsch. Every time the train stopped I strained to see what interesting design the doors would reveal.

The only problem with the metro is that it’s swarming with Militsia. I have to keep a watch out for the green uniforms and tried to blend into a crowd of step behind a pillar if they got to close. Usually I don’t try to hide from police but the police here love to check traveler’s passports and papers and then go through all of their bags. Some palm a bit of cash in the process and I really didn’t want to deal with the whole process. Once a man called to me and I just smiled and waved. The local woman in front of me tried to tell me to back but I just gave her a wink and continued on. Most times I passed through without any notice but on my last day an officer motioned me over because I had gotten too close. I started toward him and he motioned for me to come over. Stopping I just shrugged my shoulders, patted my bag and said “niet.” He sighed and let me go. I saw other foreigners in small corridors being searched, usually men, and felt sorry that they had not been so lucky.

Trademark infringement

Sightseeing in Tashkent seemed overwhelming at first, with lots of parks, monuments, museums and important buildings to see. But it turned out to be very easy because the monuments were easy to get to near the metro and most of the buildings didn’t allow visitors so I just needed a little time to walk around. The two and a half days I spent in the city were enough to get a feel for the city without getting bored. Unlike most travelers and guidebook writers, I love massive Russian-style parade grounds and especially adore the “ugly” concrete 70’s style buildings the Russians left behind. The Palace of the Friendship of Peoples is an elaborate example of the style, which looks like a building out of the original Star Wars movies. After being underwhelmed by the other monuments in town I came back to the palace to do my cartwheel.

The Palace of the Friendship of Peoples—sight of my Tashkent cartwheel

Both The Applied Arts Museum and The Fine Arts Museum had wonderful examples of embroidered “Suzanes” which were made for a woman’s dowery. I spent a long time drawing the small birds, peacocks and tulips that adorned the designs. The museum docents tend to assign themselves to you in these museums and stand at the entrance to every gallery, watching silently until you move and they follow with an annoying “click-click” of their high heeled shoes. I become so sick of being watched that I purposefully stood still and tried to see how long the woman would stand behind me until she gave up and moved herself. The modern Uzbek painting I saw was mostly poor mimicry of European works, but I did enjoy many of the brightly colored, almost Fauvist, portraiture from the 1960’s. To round out my cultural experience I went to the opera, something about Alexander the Great and a leopard, which was amateurish but performed with a lot of effort considering it used to be state-sponsored under the Russians. The theater held only as many spectators as performers and it was sad to see the cultural experience go to waste when the expensive seats were only about $1.25.

Cheap opera

Luckily, the first day I arrived a Swiss woman I spent time with in Bishkek came up from Fergana (she crossed from Osh) and we shared a room for my short time in town. Not only did I have someone to go for a drink before the opera, but I also had someone to take my carthweel photo and to complain about whatever local custom was bothering me at the moment. I was sick of hearing people ask where I’m from “acoodah?” and she had a run in with her taxi driver on the way into town. Uzbekistan seemed less Russian in many ways, although I still saw many Russians in town and most people seemed to speak Russian still. The people notice you as a foreigner more so than in Kyrgyzstan and make a point of it, shouting out from far away and asking too many personal questions.

On my first night in town I was walking back from dinner in the Chorsu Bazaar only a few blocks from my hotel when a man standing in the middle of the sidewalk shifted to stand in my way. I naturally swerved to avoid him but when he changed directions again I knew he was doing it on purpose. I kept walking forcefully and stepped up onto the slightly raised concrete next to him when he moved more quickly in front of me. I kept walking while he said something to me and when I didn’t answer he grabbed my right arm which I promptly pulled away. Then he grabbed my ear and I slapped his arm away again. My left hand held a full 1.5 liter bottle of water ready to smack him in the face but he was content just following after me yelling and carrying on. I don’t often have these sort of problems and was shocked that it happened along a well lit street in front of a bus stop surrounded by about 50 men and woman sitting around gossiping. It’s nice to know that my intuition and reflexes are still there after successfully avoiding all the drunks in Kyrgyzstan with little effort. After traveling as much as I have I’ve learned not to expect so-called religious people to necessarily be more honest, less violent or more sober just because they wear a special hat and wave their hands over their faces when driving by a cemetery. Of course, with every country the capital holds a certain kind of person and I was anxious to see what more traditional Uzbek life was like on the other side of the country.

2 responses to “Concrete Buildings Never Looked So Good”

  1. Nancy Avatar

    Ooh that would have scared the hell out of me! But it sounds like you are able to handle it! Nancy

  2. Nina Avatar

    What else can I say except be careful. When I was attacked in London I was freaked out for weeks.