Constitution Day in Tashkent
December 7, 2009 1 Comment
By Rob Packer
Tashkent spent the weekend working to make up for a two day Constitution Day holiday. This arrangement of making up for public holidays is quite common around the world, especially in the former Communist sphere and parts of Asia, but what took me by surprise is Uzbekistan is that I had, and still have, no real idea if most of Tashkent was doing something special for the holiday other than spending time with the family. But I can say they definitely didn’t spend the day visiting the sites of Tashkent, such as the Historical Museum, National Art Gallery or the oldest Quran in the world, because all of these were all closed. I saw a lot of people shopping at Chor-Su bazaar or travelling on Central Asia’s only metro (until Almaty’s is completed at the end of the year), there weren’t enough to account for the two million people of Tashkent. With Tashkent semi-deserted, I was able to explore the city.
Tashkent is not particularly well signposted so it took me a while to work out where the metro was and to get to Mustaqillik maydoni (Independence Square). When I arrived there, I was amazed to find an enormous Christmas tree in this predominantly Muslim country and even more amazing were the very Islamic-looking crescent moons decorating it. I stood there for a moment trying to work out what was going on, until it hit me that Christmas trees don’t exist in Russian and former Soviet cultures. The most similar festival to Western Christianity’s Christmas in Russian culture is New Year, a tradition that seems to stretch further back than Soviet times and even comes up in Tolstoy as the time of year presents are delivered by an old man and pine trees are decorated. And this, in central Tashkent, was a New Year tree. Nearby the pseudo-religious theme continued at an unmarked monument, which I’m assuming is to independence given its location in the middle of Independence Square. Here a woman cradles a baby in her arms, which is understandably a reasonable theme for the subject. Less expected was the way that the composition looked like it had been lifted from a manual of Christian religious art.
In the same park as Tashkent’s festive conifer was the more solemn site of the memorial to Uzbekistan’s war dead during the Great Patriotic War. Unlike most other memorials around the world to the Second World War, this post-independence memorial was made of carved wood, rather than concrete. Despite the differences in building material, the memorial had much the same effect as every other one that I’d seen in the former Soviet Union, that of unbelievable loss. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was far removed from the war in terms of distance, but the repeated surnames on every province’s list drove home the facts of Uzbekistan’s 400,000 dead and what that contributed to the total of 30 million dead from the USSR.
In the afternoon I headed to Tashkent’s old town, which doesn’t look incredibly old, but isn’t made up of Soviet-style rows of high-rise apartments. I also heard that this was the only part of Tashkent to survive the 1966 earthquake, which flattened most of the Soviet-built parts of the city. I first went to Chor-Su Bazaar, which has a main hall that looks like the top half of the Montgolfier’s hot-air balloon, decorated in the style of the mosque tiling that crops up all over Uzbekistan. Inside this enormous structure was a typical Central Asian produce market selling spices, sweets and honey, with part of the enormous amount of Uzbek fruit being sold just outside. After the market, I headed off the edge of the Lonely Planet’s meagre map of Tashkent to find Khast Imom, a square filled with mosques, medressas and a building containing the world’s oldest Quran. It took some finding, but even though nothing was open with the holiday, it was worth having a look around to get a feel for what I’ll be seeing in Samarkand and Bukhara.
My last experience of the day was of Uzbekistan’s legendary hospitality when I arrived home at my guesthouse to find the door locked and the doorbell not working, as always seems to be the way in the CIS on this trip. I don’t have a mobile in Uzbekistan because my Kyrgyz number doesn’t work internationally and no-one I’ve met is prepared to sell me an Uzbek SIM without an Uzbek passport. Stuck for a plan, I decided to ask the neighbours what I should do. Once they’d worked out I actually knew how to ring a doorbell, they decided the best course of action was to invite me inside, offer me tea and bread and for them to phone my guesthouse. You hear a lot about Central Asian hospitality, but every time it happens, I find myself overwhelmed by it. In a similar situation in most of Europe, you’d be left to fend for yourself.
As I said when I first arrived, Tashkent feels different from Bishkek and from what I expected. The capital of a country that most regard as a police state is never going to have a great reputation. Having said that, its reputation as a police state seems right enough and you can really feel the police presence everywhere. In one day in Tashkent, my estimate is that I saw around two hundred policemen, in metro stations, in parks, on the street or at bus stops. Tashkent also has a reputation for hassle from police checking documents and working out if you’ll pay a bribe; this has apparently been on the decrease since Karimov rightly worked out that a reputation for hassling tourists is not the best way to promote the industry in the world. For my part, the only people interested in my passport so far have been the railway ticket office, my guesthouse and a few other people, but the reputation remains and is normally one of the first things that people ask when trying to get advice on travelling in Central Asia. Despite its bad reputation for corruption, the parks and tree-lined streets of Tashkent actually make it feel like quite a decent city. I don’t doubt that the problems are there, and am not keen to scratch the surface to go corruption-hunting either.