Samarkand in the Snow

By Rob Packer

I have the ability this week to show up in a place where the first snow of the year is falling. At the weekend, I was in the Chong-Kemin valley of Kyrgyzstan just after the first snow fell. Now I’m in Samarkand where Tuesday’s rain became Wednesday’s snow. It goes without saying that snow was the last kind of weather I was expecting. I’m sure the BBC’s weather website, which is the most accurate you can find for Kyrgyzstan, said that the average temperature was around 5°C or 10°C. Added to that, if you say “It’s Tashkent!” in Russian in Central Asia, it means it’s really hot. Neither of these mentions snow, so I’m glad I brought my walking boots.

The Registan with snow falling all around.

After a lot of trudging through the streets of Samarkand from the old city of Afrosiyob, which work badly in bad weather, I arrived at the Hazrut-Hizr Mosque, which has a wooden portico nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in a mosque before: a wooden, ribbed ceiling. Read more of this post

Central Asian Family Entertainment

By Rob Packer

One of the perils of travelling alone in Central Asia lies in the way that restaurants, in the Western understanding, aren’t as common as you might think. Sure, there are chaikhanas (teahouses) or cafes, but when these are hard-to-find or just plain dodgy, and when you don’t have a home to cook in, you’ll probably end up in a “restaurant”.

Most restaurants I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are far from places for a quiet meal; they’re more of a strange hybrid of restaurant (they serve food), club (there’s plenty of dancing and sometimes light shows) and wedding party (the first people dancing are young children and some uncle you hardly ever see). And if it looks like a restaurant at first, wait a bit – the process seems to start about 7pm – you’ll see the tables empty and the dance floor fill. In Kyrgyzstan, the energy shown on the dance floor is normally proportional to the amount of vodka drunk; in more pious Uzbekistan, I wasn’t sure whether the dancing I saw in my first restaurant trip was fuelled by surreptitious alcohol, endless pots of tea or something else.

Food in Central Asia: the hard way to a bowl of lagman (Central Asian noodles).

Although the basic concept is similar between the two countries, from what I’ve seen, the music is different. In Kyrgyzstan, something called zhivaya muzyka is preferred, but you shouldn’t be taken in by a literal translation of the Russian term as live music because this is no live band. In my view, it’s probably best described as “professional karaoke” with a selection of Russian, Soviet and Kyrgyz classics with the odd international song in English thrown into the mix. In Uzbekistan, people seem to prefer traditional Uzbek romantic music with some recent American hits. In both countries the energy levels are quite similar.

Safer is to eat at home like this plov in Bukhara.

What I found strangest about this whole culture of dance restaurants is the age spectrum of patrons and dancers. It really is a full range: I’ve seen a women-only group of twenty aged between 15 and 60 dancing at one in Kyrgyzstan, and the one I visited in Samarkand looked like a wedding party except people didn’t necessarily know each other. This makes for some strange viewing, such as watching a group of ten middle aged women dancing to what seems to be Central Asia’s song of the year, Pitbull’s I Know You Want Me.

Whatever the music, whether it’s zhivaya muzyka, traditional Uzbek chanson or Russian, Romanian or American chart music, you can be sure that right now, somewhere in Central Asia, someone your grandparents’ age is tearing up the dance floor.

Fear of Disappointment

By Rob Packer

It’s taken fifteen years for me to reach Samarkand. If you’ve been dreaming of visiting somewhere for this long, you really hope it’s going to live up to all those expectations, especially if the version of you that first hatched the plan is a demanding 12-year-old.

I’ve written before that what drove me to learn Russian is my Romanian heritage. While I have no doubts that this was the main driving factor behind my decision, I’ve only started to realise recently that what sealed the decision was a BBC television documentary from 1994. It seems that the BBC runs an update on their Great Railway Journeys of the World every decade or so, and the second series of the early 90s was, like me at the time, filled with optimism for our new free world in a reunited Europe, although with the fickle memory of a 12-year-old I’m not sure that I saw more than one episode of the series. The episode that I saw was presented by Natalia Makarova, a ballet dancer and Soviet defector, who was followed by a camera crew on her first trip back to Russia after the fall of the USSR, and the first trip for her son who was born abroad. They travelled from St Petersburg to Tashkent via Moscow, Volgograd, Astrakhan and then Central Asia. My memory of the sections of the programme in Petersburg and Moscow is mixed up with news coverage of the time, but my visual memory of the post-Moscow part includes views of the statue of Mother Russia in Volgograd, collecting caviar from a sturgeon in Astrakhan and a trip to Samarkand’s Registan. It was the view of Samarkand that sealed my fate: I was obsessed and had to go there one day. Learning Russian would be my first step.

The Registan. When I first saw a film of here 15 years ago, it was sunny, but the madrasahs are impressive rain or shine.

As time went on and the promise of an open and democratic CIS faded, my enthusiasm for Russian faded too Read more of this post

Constitution Day in Tashkent

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.

Uzbek flags flying. Whatever you think of Uzbekistan's positions in Freedom House's Index (Not Free) or Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (174 out of 180), most would have to admit that the flag is one of the world's best.

The busy streets of Tashkent.

I walked past this nationalistic montage of Uzbekistan's greatest hits. I'm a big fan of the crackling behind Ulugbek (a Timurid astronomer ruler) on the left and the three people on the right.

More from the Uzbekistan photo montage. Here, the culture section.

 

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). Read more of this post

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.

Coming to Uzbekistan!

By Rob Packer

It’s been a tense week and a half while my Uzbek visa process has been going through. Uzbekistan is notorious amongst Central Asia veterans and novices as being the second-hardest of the ‘Stans to get into (number one is famously bizarre Turkmenistan). So I stayed sceptical of my chances when I arrived on a cold Tuesday morning last week at Bishkek’s Uzbek embassy as a citizen of a country, which does not have a fantastic relationship with Tashkent, with nothing but my passport, some photos and a visa form. For a select number of nationalities, these are supposed to be all you need, but for everyone else you’re supposed to be invited by a travel agency and arrive at the embassy brandishing a letter of invitation. None of these were required and as I sit here with an Uzbek visa in my passport, I’m left wondering whether Anglo-Uzbek relations have thawed, the fierce look I tried to give as I went in worked wonders, the woman took a liking to me, the rules really have changed, or I’ve just seen the consular equivalent of an astronomical conjunction.

My Uzbek visa. Worth the wait.

Although I didn’t have to come bearing paper, I did have to deal with the bureaucrat’s other weapons: multiple visits (three), a long wait (10 days processing) and slavishly following your request (I may have the world’s only 11 day visa). And then there was one last hurdle and CIS special: the soiled note. This is when you give someone a US bill and they decide it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on because it’s dirty, torn or has some other imperfection. My $100 bill’s crime? That note had a very small stamp mark, probably done by someone in a bank. This is a fight that can only be won with a new bill. So I jumped back into the car with the driver from work who took me to the nearest bank while I was sweating inside my coat. On the way back from the bank, where they seemed to be getting their dollars straight from the US Mint, Zakir was telling me about when he’d been at the Russian embassy in Tashkent and had been asked to explain why they was a pen mark on his bills and who’d put them there: I decided the best answer would be Barack Obama. At least when my unsoiled Franklin was changed hands, I got the crispest notes I’ve ever seen in return.

A soiled $100 note. See the small grey mark? Not counterfeit, but as good as.

Happy Thanksgiving, any of you USA people!

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