I have crossed from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country. Like its neighbours, Uzbekistan is still recovering from the cultural, political, and environmental mismanagement of the Soviet era. But it’s hard to deny the country’s amazing place in history, and the sometimes-quirky, sometimes-frustrating way of life here is undeniably beguiling.
In this two-part post I hope to give the reader some insight into the circus that is Central Asia. I toured the incredible ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, but I will not dwell on history here—Wikipedia provides plenty of reading on the subject. I instead hope to tell a more personal story of my experiences navigating through the realities of this peculiar country.
The road to Uzbekistan is paved with bureaucracy
My journey to Uzbekistan began long before I left home. Before I could apply for a visa, I had to obtain a letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek government—a process that took over two months. LOI in hand (a month late), I was able to apply for a visa at the Uzbek embassy in Tokyo.
My hard-earned visa in hand, I approach the Uzbek border with a feeling of trepidation. The validity of the visa is very specific, being limited to the dates of my tour, so there is no option for arriving early or departing late (most countries issue visas with a roomier range, allowing for last-minute changes). Central Asian border agents are known to arbitrarily turn people away, even when all of the paperwork is in order. Almost all tourists fly into Tashkent, the capital, and those who enter overland typically do so as part of a Silk Road tour group.
At the border I am asked to show my passport to half a dozen people over the course of about an hour. The officers often ask about my occupation, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. The customs form is very detailed and must be completed in duplicate (no carbon paper here!), and includes such details as the model and value of all my electronics, the exact amounts and currencies of all money I’m carrying, and a declaration that I’m not carrying any weapons, documents, or propaganda. I am made to log on to my laptop computer, and the agent spends five minutes browsing through my photos and probing my documents. He makes me explain the purpose of all the medication I have in my first aid kit. Fortunately he understands my meaning before I get too far into a pantomime of diarrhoea.
When I am finally permitted to enter the country, I walk towards the waiting cluster of ragtag taxis. I negotiate a spot in a share taxi to Tashkent for $20 USD, but after 45 minutes nobody else comes, so I offer $50 for a private ride. The driver picks up additional passengers along the way anyway, and so within a few hours the car is full, making me feel a bit cheated. But at least I get the front seat.
The police state of Uzbekistan
My first encounter with the police state is close to the Kyrgyzstan border. As we pass through a mountain tunnel, the driver quietly tells me to put away my camera. Photography of key infrastructure is forbidden, he says. Inside the tunnel, armed guards stand at regular intervals inside shadowed alcoves.
As we drive across the Fergana Valley, our progress is interrupted by regular police checkpoints and blockades, where we must stop and present identification. Several times I am asked to exit the car for questioning. These stops do not take long, but they are unsettling. The gas stations are gated, and all passengers must wait outside while the driver refuels. I can’t figure out why.
Tourists must register their whereabouts with the police (hotels do this for you). Armed green-clad officers guard all government offices and monuments. Police guard the subway system in Tashkent, and I must present my passport and submit to a bag search every time I enter the underground. (Incidentally, the subway stations are incredible works of art, on par with Moscow’s. Photography is forbidden, but you can Google it.)
After a few days, I get used to the strong police presence. As long as the rules are obeyed there are no problems, and life generally goes on as normal. Still, it’s sobering to thing that thirty million Uzbek citizens have lived their entire lives under the watchful eyes of the state security apparatus.
Tashkent: the shrugworthy capital
The roads in Uzbekistan are in terrible condition—notably worse than Kyrgyzstan—and it’s well into the evening before I make it from the border to Tashkent. The driver drops me at the Hotel Uzbekistan, and hulking semi-luxury dinosaur that predates the city’s obsession with white marble.
My friend Brenna, who is joining me for two weeks, arrives early the next morning, and we set out immediately to explore Tashkent. It is the most populous city in Central Asia, so I’m expecting bustling streets, vibrant businesses, and lots of tourist sites. The area around the hotel, the administrative district, is disappointingly quiet, however. A few people stroll down a nearby leafy pedestrian mall (nicknamed “Broadway”), but most of the monuments, squares, and museums are deserted. Broadway used to be more exciting, I’m told, with lots of bars, shops, and street vendors, but the government recently had it demolished and rebuilt as a pleasant, but dull, park.
Colossal buildings, all newly constructed, festoon the streets of the administrative district with the subtlety of a bull walrus. Ionian columns, fenestrated rooflines, dark-tinted glass, and gilded bas-relief mix freely in a grand display of wealth and poor taste. Each palace is situated on a preposterously immense square, fronted with rows of tiered staircases, and finally ringed with an imposing fence. Not once do I see anyone enter or exit any of these buildings, except for the omnipresent security personnel. When I ask our guide to show us the presidential palace, he shakes his head no. It’s located in a sprawling compound in the suburbs, he explains, and is off limits to visitors. Almost nobody has seen it.
We visit the History Museum to get better acquainted with Uzbekistan’s past. As far as I can tell we’re the only visitors—a recurring theme. As I meander through the ages the history of the entire civilized world unfolds before me. Greece and Rome, China and India, Mongolia and Europe all collide here, giving Uzbekistan’s history the flavor of both East and West. Its position at the crossroads of the world made it an irresistible target for conquest, and all of the world’s great tyrannical conquers used it as a teething ground, each taking a turn burning its cities and slaughtering its citizens. When I start to climb the stairs to the second floor of the museum (which highlights tsarist Russia’s turn as diabolical overlord), a woman scurries over to tell me that the rest of the museum is closed, so really I should just leave now, please. Another recurring theme: arbitrary partial closures of attractions, and people employed to shoo away puzzled tourists. We check out several other sites, including the Chorsu Bazaar and the Khast Imom mosque complex, and though they are interesting enough, they are not particularly compelling.
When we depart Tashkent a few days later, I wonder to myself whether the city was just being coy, a blushing debutante in the society of world cities, or whether that was truly it. Then again, it’s unfair to expect much else from a city that was purpose-built in modern times. The real treasures of Uzbekistan lie to the west along the ancient Silk Road.
Som cash is all you need
Uzbekistan has a money problem. The collapse in the banking system after the disintegration of the Soviet Union made people mistrustful of banks, and as a result most people keep their savings under the mattress in US dollars or gold, creating a strong demand for greenbacks. Unfortunately for Uzbekistan’s citizens, government capital controls limit how much foreign currency a citizen may legally buy per month, creating a black market for American dollars that is about 60% above the official exchange rate (in April 2015, anyway).
There is no shortage of buyers for my American dollars—the moment I step into the bazaar in Tashkent sporting my giveaway quick-dry pants and a goofy tourist grin I am beckoned by shifty men carrying plastic bags of cash. Consistently high inflation has devalued the banknotes over the years, and the largest bill in wide circulation is the 1000 som note, worth about $0.25 USD (a limited number of 5000 som notes have recently been printed for the benefit of tourists, but locals rarely use them). I trade a single $100 USD bill for four raggedy bundles of 1000-som notes, each containing a hundred notes held together with a grubby elastic band. Brenna and I start quoting the prices of things in “bundles”.
Food and attractions are really cheap in Uzbekistan, so a bundle goes a long way. A pot of tea typically costs 1000 som, for instance, while an on-the-go samosa might cost 1500. Even our lushest dinner in an exotic restaurant in the capital, including a cocktail, costs less than 50,000 per person. A ticket on the Tashkent subway costs only 1000 som, and attraction entrance fees rarely exceed 10,000.
Credit and debit cards are not used, so large purchases—including cars and houses—are also made in cash. I hear many stories, simultaneously humorous and sad, of people using trucks to deliver the cash payment for a new family home. No wonder Uzbekistan is said to be one of the greatest importers of bill-counting machines in the world.