After our ‘fabled’ Silk Road City adventures we boarded the train back to Tashkent. Heading east again though the desert felt liberating. Communal train compartments bring people together with a mutual sense of adventure not felt on other forms of transport. People share food, drink and experiences – for many this is not simply commuting – most people are travelling the full length of the country at a major crossroads in their lives. In our own little transient universe, the major concern was arriving in Tashkent before noon the following day to catch the Chinese Embassy before it closed for the weekend.
Jumping off the train in Tashkent there were the usual mob of taxi drivers to meet the train. In a complete roll reversal I grabbed the first one I saw by the arm and dragged him along the platform. He seemed quite excited by this attention – and even though he didn’t know the location of the embassy I remained loyal to my decision. I was thrust into the role of navigator, as we raced through an unknown city of 2.5million in the oppressive midday heat. Screeching to a halt opposite the big red flag he seemed a little overawed at the ease of our arrival, and even though I’d broken the cardinal rule of not agreeing a price beforehand. The rapport formed between us meant he didn’t argue when I paid him what I deemed a fair price for the use of his car.
When two smelly-sweaty back packers charged into the embassy at 11:55 grinning like Cheshire cats I was half expecting a round of applause and a shower of confetti – We got a surly Han and two sheets of paper. We exchanged our passports for a squiggle of Chinese characters. Now, without our passports we were stuck in a city which most tourists had described with complete contempt.
In the morning we prepared for our onslaught on Tashkent only to find the Camera was fucked!
Dead as dead! This was a major inconvenience. I took it apart – looked in ignorance at the wonderfully intricate ‘stuff’ it contained, lost a few screws and put it back together. Since there wasn’t much chance of me fixing it, we went in search of the local Fuji camera dealer. Of course there wasn’t one, so we just went in search… Most camera shops we visited had never even seen a Digital Camera before, let-alone fixed one. The advice was always the same; ‘take it home cos nobody in Central Asia can fix it’. We persevered and found Sergey. He talked at us for 2mins in Russian, and gave us his mobile no. with instructions to return in 5 days. So We’d left our beloved camera in the hands of a complete stranger – Clutching at straws was an under statement. If Serguy failed or disappeared, we had a contingency plan – The old ‘my bag was stolen by a foreigner Mr insurance man’ trick. Though in reality this was meagre consolation, since we couldn’t buy a replacement in Central Asia.
We settled into our cheap Russian Hotel in the Suburbs. Which was run – as normal – by an obsessively bureaucratic Russian women with purple hair. We met up with Simon, a Jewish-American Law Graduate, who we had met previously in Azerbaijan. He was travelling from Israel (via Turkey) overland to South East Asia on a miniscule budget in a miniscule timeframe. We passed the days waiting for our visas in the Restaurant chatting conspiratorial politics, watching the Olympics and eating anything the old Russian women put in front of us. My girlfriend on the other hand was a little more constructive – visiting bazaars, parks and ‘propaganda’ museums (in the state museum there was a picture of Karimov receiving ‘the most honourable President of the year award 2002’ from Henry Kissinger). Our own forays out into the City consisted of being harassed by the local police or ‘Militsiya’. (Many tourists complain bitterly about this harassment – but compared to the locals we had considerable power). My favoured retaliation was asking whether they thought President Karimov was ‘Plakhoy’ (Crap!) to which they became very nervous and left you alone. Or after another 6am hotel registration-harassment check answering the door stark-bollock-naked – clutching our passports for inspection.
Tashkent was completely rebuilt by the communists in 1966 after an earthquake destroyed the City. What it lacks in charm it certainly makes up for in efficiency. It used to constitute about 50% Russian. Along with the Tatars, Caucasians, Koreans and Germans moved here in Stalinist times, Tashkent seems almost cosmopolitan. However since independence, a peaceful genocide has been implemented – with Slavs finding it very hard to eek out a decent living in the new Uzbek run capital – many are leaving. Though in fairness to this policy – of all the Russians we’ve met in these former Soviet countries, none seem to speak more than a few words of the local language.
On returning to Sergey’s shop, we were shocked to discover our camera was alive. We were equally shocked when the charge was $85! There were two approaches to this situation; ether the ‘you-think-I-was-born-yesterday-C@NT’! … Or ‘the lost puppy’. I was still shell shocked by the fact the camera was actually alive, so my girlfriend got stuck into the second approach. Net result: once they realised we weren’t blood-sucking ex-pats, we got the camera back for free. Even though it was obvious the problem with the camera had been trivial, I still felt we should at least pay something – but in a genuine show of solidarity amongst the ‘poor peoples’ of the world, they wouldn’t accept our money.
We got our visas and cleared out of Tashkent.
From the ‘fabled Silk Road Cities’ to the ‘volatile Fergana Valley’. It seems The Lonely Planet has been swallowing some of Karimov’s shit as well. Even claiming there’s AL-QAEDA!!! So no tour groups then! Besides there are no ‘sights’ anyway – just people. The Fergana Valley is the most devout and conservative part of Uzbekistan. Historically the most resistant to Soviet change and the most ‘vocal’ about the current state of affairs. If change comes in Uzbekistan it will come from here.
We stayed in a family home in Fergana. Something which is illegal in Uzbekistan and therefore all the more worthwhile. Sampling the Uzbek hospitality was great, but the feverish exchanging of information, ideas, and experiences was the biggest draw. It’s shocking to discover how little about their own countries history and current affairs they actually knew. This is not because they aren’t interested, but because the govt. has such a tight grip on information – and after years of Soviet propaganda they’re very sceptical of the information that leaks out anyway.
From the books I had read about their country, I relayed some incidences which fascinated and baffled them. Some things they just simply didn’t believe – like the medrassas in Samarqand and Bukharra selling carpets, and yet others they did – like the disappearance of several powerful regional mullah’s at the hands of the secret police. The more they heard, the more their hunger grew. To me it felt like passing on some juicy gossip – but I soon realised that I was playing a more dangerous game. If they were heard repeating this information, the secret police would most definitely have taken an interest. I began to feel an enormous sense of responsibility and felt it was better that the information ceased flowing. Anyway, what could they really use the information for? What they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.
Besides they were happy – in comparison to soviet times, things had never been better. They were a middle class family. Mother and father both worked in senior positions earning $40 a month. They had three sons, between 20 and 30. The two eldest were married (earning $30 a month), and in keeping with local custom, their wives had both left their homes to come and live in their husbands family home, where they would live for a few years with their newly born children. As compensation for the loss of a daughter, the family usually give a sheep and a cart-full of wood! The husbands family provide the home for his wife to live, and the daughters family fill it with lots-and-lots of colourful silk cushions…? The youngest son remains in the parental home even after he’s married in order to take care of his parents until they die – when he and his wife will inherit the family home. This resulted in a large and very closely knit family structure.
But what held it all together? Tradition obviously pays a huge part, but so does financial necessity; a young man simply cannot afford to keep his own home, wife and child on $30 a month.
Is it natural state, that once financial wealth makes it feasible, people will pursue individualistic lifestyles? When and how did our own civilization drive a wedge between parent and child?
Next stop was Andijan, the administrative capital of the Valley. Since Uzbekistan was celebrating thirteen years of independence; the police state descended into martial law, and the streets were alive with colour. Everyone wore their best clothes and promenaded about the place enjoying their leisure time to the hilt. Perfect for taking pictures I thought – but the shear mass of swirling people and sensory delight created an affect akin to shoaling fish; when I finally decided who
to photograph the moment was gone. I sat back to contemplate ‘could it really be that these people, living under this Totalitarian system are just as happy as those in the ‘free and democratic’ west?
What does one vote every 5 years – or 3million people marching through the streets of London really achieve anyway?
Is it all just an illusion?
Visiting The Fergana Valley gave me hope for the future of Uzbekistan. Traditions are still alive and on the rise. Many people around the world fear that the spread of Globalisation will destroy cultures and traditions. But after visiting Uzbekistan you can rest-assured – If 75 years of planned Soviet cultural destruction failed – what chance a few McDonalds drive-thrus?