First Impressions of Tashkent

By Rob Packer

Contrary all warnings of people in Kyrgyzstan, I like it. After barely a couple of hours, it’s hard to put my finger on how and why Tashkent just feels different from Bishkek. It could have something to do with the way the trees still have leaves, although some might says it’s cheating to use evergreens. It could have something to do with the neon lights in national blue, white and green that flash and flow along the bridge between the airport and Tashkent, welcoming you in. It could have something to do with the way that the son of the guesthouse owner came to meet me at the airport, saving me from the usual taxi tout gauntlet. But really, I’m not sure; here are some of my first thoughts.

One of the things you first notice about Uzbekistan is the money. The official exchange rate is around 1500 so‘m to the dollar and the largest note is worth 1000 so‘m. Like everywhere else in Central Asia, people only want you newest, crispest $50 or $100 bills, so in exchange for your 50, you get around 75 notes wrapped in an elastic band. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I’m in a hyperinflation country taking a wheelbarrow of cash through the streets of Weimar Germany. Except for one thing; the exchange rate has actually been reasonably stable for the last few years. Someone in the government must just like having a fistful of dollars.

A fistful of so'm.

The traffic on the streets of Tashkent looks different to Bishkek’s traffic too. Instead of Kyrgyzstan’s assortment of second-hand Mercedes cars and vans of various vintages, Tashkent is full of new cars. When the ride from the airport seemed so much smoother than what I was used to, I was left wondering if this is because the roads are a lot better than in Kyrgyzstan, or whether the suspension is newer. The guy who picked me up at the airport told me that the taxes on foreign cars are high, which encourages people to buy cars made in Uzbekistan, similar Malaysia’s Proton-selling drive. Unlike Malaysia though, the cars here are by international car companies, but weirdly an identical car can be either a Daewoo or a Chevrolet depending on whether it was made before or after 2007. It’s almost like no-one told the factory and they just kept making the same cars with a different badge on the front.

A typical car park in Tashkent. They all look the same!

For a neighbour with language similar enough for Kyrgyz to watch Uzbek films in the original, the people also look surprisingly different. The Kyrgyz are a surprisingly heterogeneous-looking group where a more Chinese facial structure is quite common, but sometimes combined with northern European tones like pale skin, mousey brown hair, or blue eyes. On the other hand, Uzbeks seem to look a lot more Middle Eastern; if you took a picture of the clientele at the local café I went for my first Uzbek lagmon trip (Central Asia’s ubiquitous noodles), you’d be able to convince someone that the photos were taken in Turkey or Iran.

Outside of Central Asia, people expect “the Stans” to be a homogeneous group and after my two months in Kyrgyzstan, I realize I’ve fallen into the same trap to some extent. Rather than being a larger version of Bishkek, Tashkent seems to be a different beast at first glance. And at the same time does it even make sense to imagine that an enormous region that stretches from China to Iran and from Russia to within spitting distance of Pakistan would all be the same? I’m looking forward to exploring it.

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