Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Uzbekistan update

Gamar jobat! (That's hello in Georgian, where I am atm)

Right, where to begin? It's been far too long since the last update, partly because we've been in towns, ferries and deserts without email and partly because the days have been packed leaving no time for email... which makes this difficult. ok, here goes - country by country...


Words are of little help trying to explain the majestic ancient cities of Uzbekistan - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Mosques, medressas (sort of islamic universities), caravanserais (a type of travel lodge for wandering merchants and their camels) and mausoleums that are as grand in scale as they are ornate in realisation. Walls and towers 30-40m high completely covered in multicoloured tiles and decorative brickwork. Archways and gates that pushed the limits of the engineers of the day. And tiles made with arcane knowledge that modern potters cannot reproduce - such that the patches of 1980s restoration are more faded than the original tiles - which are more than 500 years old.

Then there are the people. It's the oldest travel cliche in the book to talk about the friendly natives, but the Uzbeks have a tangible joie de vivre that makes every interaction, from making purchases in the bazaar to walking down the street an experience to be savoured. Where else would 3 hours of attention and shouting from kids trying to sell you things be recorded in your journal as part of a 'perfect day'? Or where would you run into a group of people, talk to them for 5 minutes then have them show you around their city for a few hours and buy you dinner at the end of the day?

But (and there's always a but), Uzbekistan is still undeniably an ex-soviet republic. There are police checks stopping cars and our truck at every regional border and in the cities, there are plenty of vodka drunks and a huge number of prostitutes plying their wares in every hotel bar and night club after dark. There's also the distortion of the local economy by tourism and the import of goods from abroad - the average monthly wage for a state employee is about $50 a month, but imported food, toiletries, etc all cost the same (or more) than they do in the west. However, these are symptoms of all the CIS countries in central asia and, in a way, most of the poorer countries I've visited - I just hope that these fantastic people can find some way up.

No McDonalds in Uzbekistan (nor Kyrgystan or Turkmenistan).

President of Uzbekistan is trying to make the country less Islamic, and as such the call to prayer is not played in cities and most Islamic groups have a tough time. Meetings broken up, etc - nothing too rough.

Our local guide (an ethnically Russian Uzbek) fears for the future - and has a contingency plan to move to a relative's house in Russia at the first sign of trouble. Trouble from the Taliban. The fear he, and apparently several Uzbeks, holds is that any remnant of the Afghanistan forces will create insurgent groups in Uzbekistan (which has large pockets of strong belief) because of the
proximity to Afghanistan and because Uzbekistan allowed the US to use it as a base.

I met the future president of Uzbekistan - a 13 year old girl selling souvenirs in her school holiday.

We had a perfect day on the 1st of September (Uzbek independence day).

Local food includes shashlik (shish kebab), pelemeni (like tortellini), monty (giant pelemeni), shurpa ('lazy soup' made with big chunks of mutton and vegetables) and french fries.

Vodka is 75 cents for 100ml in most bars.

The going rate for pros is $25 a night (we found out by accident - honest!)

Yikes - time's up!

Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia will have to wait till the next post!


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