A Chilling Story from Uzbekistan

By Rob Packer

Only yesterday, I was telling some of my secondary school language teachers about how beautiful Samarkand and Bukhara are (see previous posts for photos). Today, I was reminded by the BBC’s Crossing Continents documentary (listen online or link to podcast here) of the absolute horror of everyday life in Uzbekistan.

The government of the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, is notoriously repressive and Craig Murray, a British ambassador there, was dismissed for exposing human rights abuses. In 2005, the regime killed hundreds or thousands—it’s unclear how many—of its citizens in the city of Andijon in 2005 (see here for background).

When I visited in 2009, the people I spoke to looked towards other (marginally) freer Central Asian countries with a mixture of envy and sadness. At the same time, some were also quite candid to me, a Russian-speaking foreigner, about their distaste for the government and their nostalgia for “our USSR”. It felt like they were trapped. When I passed through Andijon on my way back to Kyrgyzstan, the city was deserted under cold December drizzle. Maybe it was the weather. Could it have been fear? I don’t know (the now notorious city of Osh across the border in Kyrgyzstan, in comparison, was bustling with traffic and bazaar crowds).

This documentary looks into reports of a forced sterilization programme in Uzbekistan, in which women are subjected to hysterectomies or other procedures, sometimes without their knowledge. Natalia Antelava, the journalist, was deported on arrival in Tashkent Airport and conducted interviews with Uzbeks fleeing to Kazakhstan, making independent information hard to come by. According to one source, 80,000 women were sterilized over seven months in 2010; another talked about provinces with quotas to sterilize 1000 women a month; most people say that around 80% of Uzbek women give birth through caesarean section and a particularly disturbing story was of one woman had a hysterectomy without her knowledge after her first baby was born: her baby later died and she will never have children.

The reasons for this programme are opaque—the government describes it as “slander” and denies that it exists. A likely reason could be population control, but Uzbekistan has not had a census since the 1980’s. But more chilling was a suggestion from Human Rights Watch that the increase in caesareans and sterilizations is to somehow improve the country’s ranking in infant mortality rates. This seems both illogical and within the perverse logic that I’ve seen before in Central Asia.

When I think of Uzbek families, I think of grandmothers taking to the dance floor in restaurants to dance to Pitbull and taking sweaters from a worried mother to her daughter studying in Bishkek. But Uzbekistan is also a country that makes me feel unspeakably sad for its people from the ubiquitous green-uniformed police to widespread prison torture (it is estimated to have more political prisoners than all former Soviet states combined). It’s depressing to hear that the state is making its mark felt on families too.

Even more depressing is to replay the documentary in my mind and realize the amount that didn’t surprise me.

Wrapping up Central Asia

By Rob Packer

My time in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end. I’m sitting on a plane to Colombia flying over Venezuela’s Andes Mountains, so there feels like there’s no better moment of closure to my Central Asian experiences than this. This is my second blog about my Central Asian experiences: the first was about my experiences with Kiva, this is more about my personal experiences.

Central Bishkek. It really is pretty in some places.

Legenda, a convenience store on a backstreet of Bishkek. The name means Legend.

People Search

At first I found being in Bishkek to be a very sobering experience: I usually don’t find it that difficult to meet people, but I ended up doing a whole lot of reading in my first few weeks in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek in winter is a dark and forbidding city with few streetlamps and drainage ditches ready to be fallen into. There are few options apart from being the weird guy in the bar who starts conversations: a hit-and-miss strategy that can lead to a night of vodka drinking with cycle tourists or to just meeting duds. A chance introduction to a friend of a friend was the more sure-fire option; when that happened after about a month, my progress through War and Peace slowed to a crawl. Although I didn’t leave Bishkek with a large group of friends, I felt that in my last week I was getting tantalizingly close to having an active social life. You know who you are: thank you!

How I Learnt To Love The Marshrutka

Between marshrutkas, deserted dark streets, sometimes dangerous taxis from the street and the fear of having to book one over the phone in Russian, getting around Bishkek is not that easy.

The marshrutka is a staple of Central Asian transport, but also one of the hardest to use. These are second-hand Mercedes minivans with half the seats ripped out that ply the streets of cities in Central Asia packed to the rafters. Each one runs a set route with a board at the front with the landmarks it passes. The problem is that the board is so small that you can’t read it until the marshrutka’s at point-blank range; even then some of the landmarks can be pretty obscure to an out-of-towner who knows street names, but not where the Government Registry is. There’s a lot of asking passers-by and trial-and-error. But once you’ve got used to the fact that you might pick the only marshrutka not going to Osh Bazaar, it’s strangely addictive. It turns out there’s something special about it being so crowded that you have your face buried in someone’s coat and the only way to stay in one place is to wedge your head against the ceiling.

Philharmonia Square in Bishkek. Important: when a marshrutka goes past here, it does not say Ploshchad (Square) - that's somewhere else.

Relearning Russian

I spent the seven years between my Russian diploma at Cambridge and arriving in Kyrgyzstan mostly neglecting the language. Before I headed off to Kyrgyzstan I had a look through a Russian textbook and thought I remembered it; when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I could barely speak and understand even less, and spent two weeks feeling like a fraud before it came back. For all my struggles, it’s an incredibly rich and nuanced language, and every time a full, comprehensible sentence comes out, it feels like a mini triumph. By the end of the trip I was training people in Russian, telling anecdotes with colleagues after lunch, and then a shopkeeper in Bukhara asked if I’d been born in the Soviet Union. I enjoyed getting it back, but now the struggle’s going to be not losing it again.

For all its usefulness in Central Asia, however, Russian is definitely on the decline after eighteen years of independence and a resurgence in national languages. Bishkek is still resolutely Russian-speaking, but the story is different in rural Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where more than one person bemoaned the declining standard of Russian among the younger generation. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with that view, but for more than the egotistical reason that I speak Russian. None of the Central Asian republics are particularly ethnically homogeneous (Turkmenistan is the most where the Turkmen population is around 80%); Russian provides and has provided a useful lingua franca between ethnic groups and between countries. At the same time, I feel that Central Asia will only be a strong region without the in-fighting that includes shutting off gas and electricity to neighbours and a visa regime in most countries that seems to actively discourage the tourism most countries are trying to promote. Could its loss alienate part of the population and make the region weaker as much as nation-build?

Bishkek's Opera House. The only time I went was to see Rigoletto. In Russian.

Coming Back?

I’ve been drawn to Central Asia for a long time. Shortly after Central Asian independence, when I obsessed about visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, I was always fascinated by the intricate shapes of the countries. Central Asia has some of the world’s most bizarre borders, especially around the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan surges up to grab the mouth of the valley, meanwhile Uzbekistan floods over the mountains from into the valley’s lowlands, and Kyrgyzstan stays in the mountains around the edges. The situation is complicated even more by two teardrops of Uzbekistan and one of Tajikistan lie completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. It’s said that this cartographer’s dream comes from an almost slavish adherence to ethnic boundaries by Stalin when the boundaries of the Soviet Socialist Republics were being drawn up. Even then the results didn’t please everyone: the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were historically Tajik-speaking, but I’ve heard that Tajiks had to register as Uzbeks on their Soviet-era passports or be sent to live in Tajikistan. And there are still people in Tajikistan who want Samarkand “returned” to them.

The roads and railways complicate things even more, because in such a mountainous region these must follow topographical realities rather than whims: the main road to Batken, a Kyrgyz provincial capital, actually bisects two Uzbek enclaves. Meanwhile, countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were left with fragmented rail networks that dip in and out of those countries without joining up: a theoretical train journey from Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan to Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan would take in five border crossings and four countries, so it’s no wonder people prefer to fly or drive over the mountain passes.

Central Asia continues to fascinate me: far from being a homogeneous region, it is surprisingly diverse ethnically, geographically and culturally. Although autumn and winter are not the best seasons to enjoy Central Asia, it hasn’t been all that cold. During my time there, I’ve had some amazing cold weather days: snow in Chong Kemin and Samarkand, and the cold of Bukhara. I have a long list of things to do next time, such as yurt stays, a trip to Almaty, hiking and visiting Tajikistan. As I wrote it another blog, if you love Central Asia in the winter, it’s true love and I’m sure I’ll be back.

The road from Osh to Bishkek.

A more snowy part of the Osh-Bishkek road.

Reflections on Uzbekistan

By Rob Packer

Uzbekistan has a reputation for corruption and totalitarianism. I have deliberately not referred to these issues in my posts on my trip to Uzbekistan for a number of reasons. I don’t aim to have a political view in my travel blogs and I have a long-standing personal curiosity to visit the country. The Uzbeks who I met were some of the most engaging people and were strangely worldly for a country that is so closed, yet they live in an environment of outstanding cultural, religious and architectural achievements. At the same time, perceptions of the way that country is governed come from experiencing and talking to people over time, unless you have a major brush against the political system of a country. I consider myself lucky not to have had many serious dealings with the Uzbek authorities during my trip; as soon as I got back to Kyrgyzstan, I started being told stories of problems at the border, confiscated cameras and the like that fill guidebooks to Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is undoubtedly a country with extreme levels of corruption. It consistently comes at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index: for 2009, it sits at 174 out of 180 countries and only comes higher than countries like Chad, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. Whatever the criticisms of TI’s index and the difficulties of finding an absolute measure of corruption, the trend in the country is clear. Most people’s primary interaction with institutionalized corruption is with the police force. For all that people tell you about the police presence in Uzbekistan, nothing can prepare you for the sheer mass of police in the country: I’ve written before that I felt I saw around 200 policemen in a day in Tashkent, but the rest of the country is similar especially at all-too-common road blocks. The police also have keys to places, which is what happens at tourist sites where a guide might suggest going on the wall or climbing a minaret for an “extra fee”. It also means that a ‘friendly’ cop might try to offer to change money with you on the sly; this was a conversation I decided not to continue for long enough to find out whether this was a serious offer or entrapment. But for all their infamous reputation, the body language of the interaction between police and civilians didn’t seem to be a relationship of fear: people seemed to be engaged in friendly conversations or were having dinner together.

Uzbek police outside a mosque in Bukhara.

Neither is Uzbekistan known for its political freedoms, and is best known for the Andijon Incident of 2005 where between 200 and 1,500 civilians were shot in a square while protesting poor living conditions, in an incident with shades of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City or the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The history of Andijon means that of the few tourists I met, most said that people in Uzbekistan were wary about political conversation. Some people I met seemed to open up to me after asking about Kyrgyz politics, which is probably due to my position as a partial insider and Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as the most politically liberal Central Asian republic. For all that I repeated a standard Bishkek expat view that things are not getting freer in Kyrgyzstan, the general reaction was that some kind of choice is better than none. And as this blog from NewEurasia.net shows, some in Uzbekistan seem indifferent to the elections taking place in the country on 27 December and don’t seem afraid to say it anonymously in public. Alongside the dejected pessimism that I saw on one side, I also heard optimism for the future and approval for Karimov’s, mainly economic, policies: some praised the fact that Uzbekistan is still a rich and more developed republic, while others thought that existing controls on credit had saved Uzbekistan from the credit crunch that they see happening in Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan seems a temporal paradox: a dazzling ancient civilization and an incredible country to visit, but with modern difficulties that put it near the bottom of most league tables of freedom or corruption. In a week’s visit, I don’t pretend to understand the country or the issues that I briefly looked at in this post. Corruption is often said to be a hindrance to business, which is something I didn’t properly understand until I started to wonder about two new Uzbek friends are new businesses that they’re starting: how many backhanders will they have to pay? The lack of political freedom may have been temporarily resolved by a Beijing-style palm-greasing on a national scale, where the political class gives economic growth but withholds the freedom of choice, but it remains to be seen how that holds with Uzbekistan’s historic resistance to foreign investment.

Either way, Uzbekistan’s reputation in Kyrgyzstan seems to be at rock bottom: after I came back from Osh, I was talking to someone from Osh about the roads in the south and we started talking about Batken, the most remote of Kyrgyzstan’s provincial capitals, which lies 200km and 7 hours beyond Osh. The most direct road passes through two Uzbek and one Tajik enclaves although it’s possible to use bad roads and stay in Kyrgyzstan: the message was clear that this southerner would rather drive off-road than go “through their territory”.

Bukhara to the Border with 35,000 so’m

By Rob Packer

When I left Bukhara, I had 35,000 so’m in my pocket. I went over the maths carefully in my mind to work out whether this would be enough and checked with my Bukhara guesthouse owner, Abdu, and yes, we decided it would be enough. In the end it wasn’t, but as I sit in Osh, Kyrgyzstan after 1,000km of Uzbek rail and road over the course of the last 24 hours, it seems time to reflect on my journey. Read more of this post

A homom in Bukhara

By Rob Packer

I decided to spend my last afternoon in one of Bukhara’s hamams (homom in Uzbek). It was easiest the warmest place in Bukhara, so was an easy escape from the cold that stalks the city in the late afternoon.

I had my first hamam trip for about ten years in Marrakesh earlier this year and my first four thoughts were exactly the same. Firstly, the architecture of them is stunning, and this Bukhari hamam was a classic multi-domed brick structure with marble slabs everywhere. Secondly, wow, isn’t it hot! Thirdly, for all that the mystique that is written about them in guidebooks and elsewhere, it really is just a bunch of old guys having a wash. And fourthly, I wonder how many times this place has had a deep clean in the last five hundred years, especially the one I went to in Morocco, which was just a simple mosque hamam where all cleaning and massaging was done on the floor, not like the more tourist-friendly one in Bukhara, which had posh marble benches in wall niches.

Forhod, the masseur, was a busy man, so I was told to go to one of the wall niches to lie on my back, then stomach (easy) and then to go to a much hotter room and stand up in one of the niches (ok for ten minutes, but otherwise impossible). Once I was suitably warmed up, I was scrubbed, helpfully called peeling in Russian. This is really not my favourite part of the homom massage process: why do they have to do it while I can see what’s coming off? Can I request a blindfold next time? And then it was time to lie down for the massage: I normally have trouble working out which way I should turn my head when being massaged on a marble surface, but Bukhara adds an extra little something. I first chose to turn to the right where I had a view into another room and could see an old Bukhari shaving his bits. With the image indelibly seared onto my retinas, I turned my head the other way and Forhod started demonstrating that some of those yoga moves really are possible. Pretty soon, another old man started doing the same thing on that side too! Luckily by that point, it was all too painful so I closed my eyes and hoped it’d be over soon. My bones had been cracked who knows how many times and then Forhod took his final revenge by smearing powdered ginger over me, telling me to sit in one of the side rooms for 10 minutes and then wash it off. If you had spread chilli paste on sunburn and then sat in the sun, you’d probably feel something similar. Needless to say, I had to wash it off pretty quickly, but it carried on burning for hours after.

Hamams hurt, and although I’m never sure how clean I really am after one, I feel like I’ll keep going back for more and am already thinking about a send-off from Bishkek with birch twigs at the banya.

Bukhara al-Sharif

By Rob Packer

Like Samarkand, Bukhara (Buxoro in Uzbek) sounds impossibly exotic and seems to conjure up orientalized images of teeming bazaars, caravanserais and domed mosques, not too different from Disney’s Aladdin. As I was standing on Bukhara’s ruined Ark, its royal palace, I was struck both by Disney’s vision of “the East” and the late Edward Said’s brilliant Orientalism.

The view of Bukhara from the Ark. It was weird to have Disney and Edward Said pop into my head at almost the same time.

There is something quite other about Bukhara in the winter. It’s a city of 300,000 with over 200 madrasahs and a similar number of mosques and its centre is packed full of bazaars, but you won’t find the exoticized, romanticized image of bustling markets. There’s barely anyone about at all. It’s almost as if the other here is history. Bukhara, known as Bukhara al-Sharif, or Noble Bukhara, was a major stop on the Silk Road between China and the Middle East and became a major centre of Islam, but with the decline of the Silk Road, the city lost its way and struggled to create a bigger role for itself than the capital of a despotic emirate. After Russian imperial expansion took Bukhara under its sway in the 19th century, the city became more tied into the Russian-speaking world and after the royal palace was bombed by the Red Army in 1920, the city became part of the USSR. Any legacy of being such an important centre of Islamic thought seems to have come to an end under seventy years of Communist rule: despite the enormous number of madrasahs, a Bukhari told me that anyone serious about a career as an imam leaves Bukhara after their madrasah studies for further study in Egypt. Only since independence has the city managed to reinvent itself as a centre of tourism for the country: everyone you speak to in Bukhara tells you how many tourists there are in the summer.

Inside Bukhara's Kalon Mosque

The deserted Taqi Telpak Furushon, what was once the cap makers' bazaar of Bukhara.


Bukhara's Registan with the Ark behind (Registan means something along the lines of sandy square in Tajik). I saw an old photo of this square covered with a teeming market that looked like a 19th-century Orientalist's fantasy.

In the winter, though, you continually get the feeling that everyone is somewhere else, Read more of this post

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

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.

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