Since arriving Uzbekistan has been a revelation for the whole group. Maybe it was born of ignorance. Our arrival in Tashkent only reinforced that. The guide books has described our hotel as being central, located on the corner of a busy square. I had imagined congested traffic, with a statue of Tamerlane stuck in the middle of acres of barren asphalt, and Soviet grimness pervading.
The gardens, acres of brightly coloured flowers and the planned park lands as far as we could see from our hotel window came as a surprise. And the traffic was missing.
Tashkent, with a population of 3m, was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union after Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev. Today it’s just the largest city in Central Asia. It had been ruled by Islam Karimov before and after independence in 1991 until last year when he died. He must have been popular as he received over 90% of the vote in the few elections he bothered to contest. I understand that there was an opponent on one occasion, but he is no longer a resident of the country.
Like many newly emerged countries, history gets rewritten to suit the purpose. Many figures who had been banished under the Soviet regime have now emerged as national heroes. Tamerlane has gone from blood thirsty maniac to having his statue place prominently all around the countryside, while statues of Lenin, see to have disappeared.
But as far as I can see the Soviets did shape modern Uzbekistan (and the other Central Asian ‘Stans for that matter) and made them clearly different to the surrounding countries. The first is that the whole culture has a clear European flavour to it, in stark contrast to China which is just a hop over the Tien Shan away and India and Pakistan, just over the Pamir/Hindu Kush. This is particularly reflected in secular nature of the political system. We had imagined that the place would be far more conservatively Islamic. It is far more like Turkey was than we had imagined.
Alcohol is widely available. We had imagined that we would be struggling for a cold beer, and never imagined that Uzbekistan would have a thriving wine industry. The dress varies from city to country markedly. In the cities less than 5% of the women wore scarfs, while in the country they were more prominent. Jeans and T shirts are common place with the young.
I had also imagined that we would also be starting to feel the heat. But so far the temperature has not risen above the high 20s, and generally has been accompanies by a gentle, cooling breeze. The heat is dry, so the shaded areas under trees, is very pleasant.
It would appear that inflation got out of control at some stage in the past as the most dysfunctional thing about the place is its currency. The Uzbeks have recently introduced a 10,000 Cym note, but it is rarely seen. The largest we have is a 5,000 Cym note, equivalent to $1. With smaller notes, everyone wanders about with a brick of notes wrapped in a plastic shopping bag as they won’t fit in your wallet. I am told there have been some discussions about consolidating the currency.
We started our day on a bus to the Khast Imom complex a large square in the old city consisting of the Barakkhan Madrasah, Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum and the library of Islamic Literature, the centre piece of which is a VII century Koran. The book was compiled by one of the 4 disciples of Mohamed. Six copies we made, and this is the only surviving copy and said to be the world’s oldest Koran. It was brought to Samarkand by Tamerlaine, taken by the Russians and then returned by Lenin in 1924.
The Madrasah and Mausoleum had been in a particularly poor state of repair at the time of Independence. A main road had discected what is now a broad square. Karimov ordered the restoration of the Mausoleum, creation of the square and the construction of the new Hazroti Imom mosque. Like many of the historical sites we are visiting, it was difficult to determine what was old and what was new so pervasive has been the restoration of the dilapidated buildings which the Soviets had no interest in preserving.
We walked through the old town to the vibrant Chorsu bazaar. Like other areas we had visited the streets were lined with blank walls dotted by doorways. Windows were absent. The living areas opened onto cool and often vine covered courtyards.
A ride on the metro system is a must in Tashkent. Built by the Soviets, all the stations are decorated in an individual theme. The striking Kosmonaught portrays a history of Soviet space exploration. Another elegant one is dedicated to Alisher Navoi, a 15 century Uzbek poet.
We hopped across a couple of lines and ended up in Independence Square. Pre Independence it had been known as Lenin Square, the centre piece of which was now missing, a statue of the man. Flowers were blooming everywhere, as I walked down the tree lined avenues of the park back towards our hotel through the post independence war memorial dedicated to the thousands of Uzbeck soldiers who lost their lives on the Russian front in the second world war.
Next stop was the National Art Gallery. Another post Independence construction and again dedicated by Karimov. A large, circular building with the atmosphere of a cathederal. The entry cost was 10c. I resisted the temptation to pay an additional 60c for a license to take photos. There were security guards to check me in, and again in every room. As I entered each room, the dozing guard rose to turn on the lights. I was the only one in the whole building, other than all the sleeping guards.
Past the statue of Tamerlane and I was back at the hotel in time to meet up with Aliya, our agent who had very efficiently organised the Uzbek leg of our journey. I had promised her a drive in the car, with the roof down. We headed off across the city to her office to show the car to the other staff. By the reception we got on the roads, not many had seen a car without a roof before.
In the middle of Ramadan the afternoon lethargy gives way to evening celebration. The restaurants were packed by 8.00pm as everyone who was obeying, hit the streets, to break their fast. We found a popular family run restaurant around the corner from our hotel. No beer was being sold, but they would organise to go up the road to the bottle shop and get it for us if needed. We thought we would feel out of place if we did partake, so settle for juice. The dress of the patrons varied from the few women with headscarves, to men in shorts, and girls in very skimpy party dresses. And often all friends, sitting at the one table.
We had heard that there was a bar on level 17 of our hotel, so we set out to find it. Not daunted by the elevators only going to level 16, we found some stairs. There it was with an expansive view of the city. One barman, 4 patrons, cold beer and a few stools lining the window. The adjoining restaurant looked as if it last functioned in Soviet times.