The Centre of the World

The Centre of the World

 

Tashkent is the kind of city that grows on you.

 

My initial arrival had been hot, wearied, and apprehensive.  This last because I had built up in my mind the importance of obtaining a Russian visa for the successful continuation of my trip, whether it be by the route north around the Caspian Sea into Caucasian Russia, or across that sea by boat into Azerbaijan, with Russia coming later. 

 

Of course there were contingency plans but none of them were very satisfactory.  So I took meticulous care to ensure all my papers were in order when I lined up outside the Russian embassy on that first Monday morning. 

 

It turned out all the waiting was in vain.  Despite being vaguely assured by one of the travel experts on the region that it was possible for a Brit to get a Russian visa in Tashkent, this turned out to be simply wrong.  And no amount of persuasion appeared to move the officials there.

 

After this failure, it seemed the northern route was now out.  So my only option was to get hold of an Azeri visa in Tashkent and hope to get the Russian one further west, where it wouldn’t be such a problem to be separated from my passport for a few days. 

 

Annoyed at being misinformed and wondering where all this would end up, I went to the Azeri embassy on the following day and had a completely different experience.  I was ushered straight in to see the consul himself, who made it clear that getting a visa for Azerbaijan wouldn’t be a problem, with or without any kind of official invitation.  It was just a question of price.  I found out later that this consul appears to do a good trade in Azeri visas with all the tourists that come through Tashkent, pretty much plucking a price out of the air (usually with great hubris),and only lowering it if the tourist kicks up a fuss.  Most of them don’t because they think the price is the price and simply pay it, so it’s easy for him to make some money.  I only found out after handing over my cash that a French woman obtained a visa for almost half as much as I paid.

 

I guess you live and learn.  I was just happy to have a way out of Asia.  And my couple of trips to the Azeri consul gave me at least one insight into the Azeri mind.  Lying on the table in front of any visitor to the consul’s office was a single book, entitled “Armenian Terror”.  When the consul was taking a phone call in the next door room, a cursory flick through this book revealed a horrific gallery of gruesome and graphic images of Azeri dead and maimed at the hands of the Armenian army (or terrorists).  The small amount of text that accompanied these photographs related in emphatic terms the injustice and wickedness of Armenian claims and actions against Azerbaijan’s territory and people in the conflict between those two countries during the 1980s and 1990s.  The tone of the language was straight-forward propaganda, but since I know almost nothing about the causes behind this conflict, I am not in a position to know to what extent this propaganda is true or exaggerated, or indeed why this intense hatred between the two countries has arisen.  But I thought it revealing that the only issue that an Azeri diplomat took the opportunity to bring to the attention of any foreigner that passed over his threshold was this one.  I will find out more about this as I get closer to Azerbaijan later.

 

Meanwhile, my new riding companion Kellen Smetana had turned up from Kyrgyzstan.  I had met Kellen in Bishkek and since our routes more or less coincided at least as far as the end of Georgia, we had agreed to team up.  Kellen had been riding with another Englishman, also all the way from Hong Kong, but they were now parting company, as the Englishman was flying home.  Kellen is from Detroit in the US and has taken six months’ sabbatical to carry out his ride from Hong Kong to Lisbon, before he starts business school, having taken a break from his career as a business consultant at Deloittes.  He’s very switched on, easy going and fun.  He even used to row at university so we have a fair amount in common.  I am sure it’ll be a great experience riding one of the hardest (or at least hottest) sections of the whole trip with him.

 

We are also joined by Kellen’s brother Cory, who is an engineer student at Michigan State University, and has taken off the summer to join his older brother for a few thousand kilometres of his adventure.  He’s also a rower, but he’s certainly been thrown in the deep end here, with the temperature most days climbing over 40 degrees Celsius, and we need to keep up a pace of roughly 130km per day. 

 

Once I had my Azeri visa, I was more or less ready to move on myself, although I ended up spending just over another week, waiting for my companions to get the visas they needed to get back to Europe. 

 

And we used this time to get a sense of Tashkent. 

 

Although it is the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent is not historically the most important of the Uzbek cities.  Samarqand – the glittering capital of Timur the Great - Bukhara, Khokand in the south-east, and even Khiva in the far west outstrip Tashkent for historical significance, as great centres of commerce and political influence in Central Asia for many centuries in the first and second millennia. 

 

But Tashkent had nevertheless been a significant trading city, rich enough to be sacked more than once in the 13th century (by no less than Ghengis Khan on one occasion).  Later it was chosen as the capital for the region, known as Russian Turkistan, by the Tsarist Russians when their influence and dominion spread south into Central Asia.  It had actually been taken by the Russians after two days of heavy fighting in May of 1865.  Thereafter, as the regional capital and location of a large garrison, more and more Russian settlers began arriving, and Tashkent developed into the schizophrenic sprawling metropolis that it still is today.  Part grand Russian boulevards of large spreading trees and monumental state buildings, part sun-baked rabbit warren streets, thriving bazaars and towering mosques, the city has a wide range of sides to its personality.  This development was violently interrupted by an earthquake in 1966 which flattened most of the old city, but even since then it was rebuilt with this fusion of architectural influences.

 

Relaxing in a Tashkent park

Tashkent parkland

 

More recently, under the new Republic of Uzbekistan, a new government stronghold has been created, with state ministry buildings and presidential palaces forming an impressive and sparkling new centre in the previously “centre-less” city.

 Modern monuments in central Tashkent

New monument in the new government centre of Tashkent

 

As with many Central Asian cities, Tashkent has seen its fair share of intrigue during the 20th century, not to mention a fair amount of heartache.  The National Historical Museum of Uzbekistan leads you on a chronological journey through the life of Uzbekistan.  Perhaps the most pathetic section of years spans the early 20th century, relating the power struggle between the White Russians and the Bolsheviks (many of whom had come to the region originally as railway workers to build the Trans-Caspian Railway and then settled there).  The conflict between the two sides during the Russian Revolution turned even this far-flung corner of the Russian Empire into a vipers’ nest of intrigue, betrayal and blood-letting.  The doleful faces of dozens of Uzbek “Islamic heroes” stare out blankly from blurry black and white photographs, and underneath the legend records list after list of their executions at the hands of the Bolsheviks for collusion with the hated Whites or opposition to the Reds. 

 

It was in Tashkent that one of the last, yet most energetic of the players of the Great Game had his final run around.  In 1919, the British agent Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Bailey was sent on a mission to Tashkent to gather intelligence about the power struggle between the Whites and the Reds that was playing out just beyond the frontier of British India, and to do what he could to confound the schemes of the Bolsheviks, especially their grandest and most daring of plans, to spread the flame of world revolution in the name of Communism down into the plains of British India. 

 

Bailey was a gifted linguist and by all accounts a master of disguise.  With these attributes he seems to have run rings around his Bolshevik antagonists, although the net did begin to close on him.  Eventually, fearing for his life, he disappeared undercover disguised as one of the many Austrian prisoners of war deported to this remote corner of the Russian Empire during the First World War.  Under this persona, he was somehow hired by the local Secret Police and charged with the task of weeding out the elusive British Agent Colonel Bailey who was known to be at large in the city. 

 

Hanging around just long enough to appreciate the joke of being hired to hunt down himself, Bailey soon high-tailed it south to British India, where he was fêted as a national hero and all round good chap.

 

All this is documented in great detail in his book about his exploits called Mission To Tashkent, which is worth a read for anyone interested in hair-raising (but true) tales of the early 20th century espionage. 

 

It happens that this is the only slice of Central Asian history with which my own family history intersects – that is until my younger brother served as an Apache pilot in the current War in Afghanistan.  A certain Captain Alfred Brun, a young Danish officer, who I believe was my great-great-great uncle, was a friend and sometime associate of Colonel Bailey, helping him at various points in his intrigues.  Though Captain Brun was in Tashkent for quite different reasons, being engaged in providing humanitarian aid to the Austrian and German POWs from the Great War who had been incarcerated in and around the city.  It seems being a Danish humanitarian didn’t excite quite the same level of animosity in the Bolsheviks as being as British Imperialist, so he was left more or less to his own devices.

 

Anyway, all this is somewhat beside the point. 

 

In September of this year, Uzbekistan will celebrate 20 years of its independence from the Soviet Union.  For the entire span of these 20 years, Uzbekistan has been presided over by one man, President Islam Karimov.

 

Karimov has a round head and open face, covered with neatly cut grey hair, still dark eyebrows, a warm smile and an avuncular air about him.  In every picture of him, he appears in immaculately-styled suits.  Of course, this image belies a national leader who some in the West regard as one of the world’s worst dictators in power today.  If that is true, then I should hastily add that travelling through such a reputedly severe dictatorship does not feel as I would imagine.

 

Karimov’s administration has certainly presided over the systematic erosion of any real possibility of political opposition, with current laws making it extremely difficult (if not illegal) for any unregistered political party to meet or take any action or have any real access to the media, and of course the government retains the power of registration of any party.  Karimov has been re-elected three or four times (the last two being extensions to the constitutional limit on the terms of presidential office), with every single election being criticised by outside observers as failing to offer the Uzbek people any real choice.  Along with this more or less autocratic form of government go accusations of financial and business corruption, torture and oppression of political opponents, a heavy hand on civil liberties (with the ubiquitous presence of police, especially in the capital) and the stifling of any form of free press.

 

Many of these threads were drawn together in the notorious “Andijan Incident” on May 13, 2005.  Occurring in the eastern city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley, the details of this event are murky at every level. 

 

In brief, a collection of 23 businessmen went on trial amid accusations of crime against the state in the city of Andijan.  The charges were brought under the pretext that these men were involved in one or more militant Islamist groups.  However, what is probably closer to the truth is that there were men growing in economic power, unwilling to pay off the government powers above them and at the same time gathering some sort of political power about them.  Another view holds that they simply represented rival clan to the clan power-base on which Karimov stands. 

 

As their trial continued, large numbers of protesters appeared daily before the courts, with occasional violence breaking out between the police and smaller groups of protesters.  When the court held that it would delay its sentencing of these accused, their supporters went a step further and carried out an armed attack on the prison in which they were being held and broke them out.  During this action, several people were killed (both police and protesters).  Even more protesters gathered the following day in the main square in Andijan, and eventually government forces sealed off the square and began shooting on the crowd of several thousand who by then were unable to disperse even if they had wanted to. 

 

The official figure of the deaths given was around 15 dead (all of whom were supposed to be terrorists) and around 35 wounded.  But the highest estimates come in around 5,000 dead of mostly civilians and the probable figure is around 400-600.  The killing seems to have continued in the following days as many protesters and refugees tried to flee Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan to the east (which refused them entry) amid open skirmishes with the Uzbek government forces. 

 

[A major in the Uzbek secret service who later “defected” in 2008 claimed the Uzbek government was in fact aware of around 1,500 deaths – more than double the highest of outside observers’ estimates.]

 

The massacre was internationally condemned as you would expect, but despite all the calls for an independent international investigation into what occurred, Karimov refused to allow this to go ahead.  This changed the diplomatic atmosphere within Uzbekistan and since then, for example, many (if not all) foreign NGOs critical of the government’s actions have been squeezed out of Tashkent, and the US military base at Karshi-Khanabad was closed soon afterwards.

 

In this atmosphere, supplemented by terrorist bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara in 2006 in which a handful of people were killed, it is easy for the government to justify the operation of Uzbekistan as a police state.  The slightly sloppy-looking “militsia”, in their crumpled green uniforms and cocked green hats, stand in every metro station and on most street corners, ready to pull over any car they choose to check papers are in order, or any passenger to check what’s in their bag or peer through their passport.

 

Foreign tourists sometimes complain about this, particularly on the metro, but this didn’t strike me as anything other than a little time-consuming.  They are doing their job and the tales of police casually extorting small bribes out of tourists seems to be a thing of the past.  If you can speak some Russian, they are actually pretty friendly and are usually simply interested in what you are doing there.

 

Metro architecture - one up on the London Tube

Metro - highly decorative as most ex-Soviet metro stations

 

Apart from the police, the other main inconvenience for the visitor is the currency.  The local currency here is called Uzbek Som.  At current exchange rates, US$1 gets you approximately 1,700UZSom if changed at the official rate.  However, no tourist does this (unless they are stupid).  In general, it is best to change money either in the local bazaars or marketplaces where it is always easy enough to find someone who will buy your dollars, or else most of the guesthouses will exchange dollars at the black market rate.  This rate is 2,400UZSom to the US$1. 

 

A local businessman explained the discrepancy behind these different rates.  In general, there is a dollar deficit in Uzbekistan.  Many businessmen are now looking eastward for trading opportunities, travelling to China to buy cheap goods which they can sell back in Uzbekistan for often up to 3 times their original price.  But it is difficult to get hold of enough dollars to do the level of business they want to in China.  They are only allowed to carry US$5,000 out of the country in cash.  And they are limited to buying only US$1,000 from Uzbek banks (at the lower rate).  But this is obviously not enough.  So they make up the remaining US$4,000 by buying dollars on the black market.  The higher rate they are prepared to pay to obtain these dollars simply comes out of their final profit margin when they sell their Chinese goods back in Uzbekistan.  And apparently this is worth it. 

 

So once again, China’s boom is having a big knock-on effect on its neighbouring economies, and continues to guzzle American dollars.  I asked my American companions whether they felt bad about personally weakening the American dollar in this way, but they seemed happy enough to take the higher rate. (“Ask not what you can do for your currency, ask what your currency can do for you.”  With apologies to JFK.)

 

What is more annoying is that the highest denomination of banknote in Uzbekistan is the 1,000UZSom note.  Immediately following independence, inflation in Uzbekistan soared to over 1,000% for several years, only to be reined in more recently to a more reasonable level of something under 5%.  But the government never introduced any new denominations to reflect the loss in value in their currency.  So now if you change, for example, US$100 (not that much) you will be lumbered with a large wad of at least 240 notes.  Some tourists make the mistake of changing too much money on arrival before they’ve figured this out and spend the next days (or weeks) wandering around with banknotes flapping around out of every conceivable pocket. 

 

The number of notes is also deceptive in that, laden with such a healthy looking wad of cash, it is easy to feel buoyed by that happy confidence of being “in the money” – only for this wad to diminish at such an alarming rate for apparently minor transactions that one is constantly reproving oneself for having such a prodigal nature. 

 

But this is normal here.  Taxi drivers will drop open their glove compartment to reveal a mass of sometimes orderly sometimes manically disorderly notes, which is their float for the day.  I did even hear of one couple being given change from literally a chestful of cash that the driver carried around in his boot – like a kind of 21st century pirate. 

 

And the handling of such large quantities of notes has certain consequences.  Every person in Uzbekistan, from the humblest stall-keeper to a long-experienced bank clerk is an expert at counting money.  Any one of them could give an electronic counting machine a run for its money (no pun intended).  In China, people were speedy handlers of money because it is in their very nature to be money-handlers (and paper); in Uzbekistan this skill is born out of necessity.  As a visitor, you soon pick up their technique.  Before you know it, you’re buzzing your way through dozens of notes to pay for your dinner, or room, or toothpaste or whatever.  The visitors who fail to make some progress in this skill do look a ham-fisted, even half-witted lot. 

 

And of course, there is something beautiful about the sensation of counting all that money!!

 

This seems to be an article for long digressions, for which I apologize, but perhaps it is instructive to describe in some detail some of the particularities, even peculiarities, of this country. 

 

My final digression is the last impediment that a traveller faces here.  As a reminder that we are all – after all – in a police state (albeit a friendly one), every tourist has to register his or her passport through each hotel in which they stay, accounting for every night during their stay in the country.  This is usually a formality, but makes things a little complicated if, for example, you want to go off hiking for a week in the mountains (as many do), or you need to camp somewhere along the road (as many cyclists do) before you reach your next destination.  Ever-ready at the end of your stay are the airport officials who will smack you down with a healthy-sized fine if you haven’t managed to satisfy the conditions of registration through your stay. 

 

I mention this because I heard why this system is in place only recently and it says something about how the country works.  Apparently, only a few years’ ago, there was no such requirement for registration.  Visitors were free to stay wherever they wanted, and no one would mind very much if that was in an official hotel, or courtesy of the hospitality that is so characteristic of the Uzbek people.  However, the problem was that the Uzbek people were indeed so hospitable that as tourists were more and more accustomed to staying night after night in private homes as the owner’s guests, the more expensive hotels in the tourist hot-spots around the country began to feel the pinch in their bottom line.  Eventually the big hotels lobbied together and told the government that they would not pay any more tax unless the government did something to alleviate their steady loss in business. 

 

So the government came up with this system of registration.  Consequently, tourists’ freedom of movement is very much more restricted, and the opportunity to enjoy Uzbek hospitality to its former extent is now hugely reduced. 

 

Still, we have managed, and certainly have been lucky enough to be treated to wonderful kindness by various Uzbeks along the way nevertheless.

 

So Tashkent.

 

Well, Tashkent for me was fun.  As the days passed, with my new companions, we ventured out to try to enjoy what nightlife the capital had to offer.  Which turned out to be pretty lively. 

 

Although we perhaps made a few wrong turns.  On one occasion we ended up in a pick-up joint very reminiscent of Moscow, in which the average male was a 50 year old Pakistani businessman waving his wad of (valueless) notes around, and the average female was tall with long, dark hair, long legs, very tiny dresses and extremely lithe on the dance-floor (and very obviously alone); where the average second question was “Which hotel are you staying at?” and the inevitable third question was “And do you want “massage-sex”?” (Whatever that is.)  

 

Escaping from this den of iniquity with the honour of all intact, we managed to elevate ourselves to a slightly higher level and find some great outdoors restaurants and clubs, where it seemed young Uzbek people have just as much fun, listen to exactly the same music, and the men dance just as badly as in most other countries in the “free world”.  By the end of my week and a bit in Tashkent, I could imagine that for those expats that still work in Tashkent (and haven’t yet been kicked out), life there could be interesting and amusing. 

 

People are friendly and helpful, the city is full of greenery and nice parks and fountains, where kids are free to splash around to escape the heat.  The bazaars are thriving, and when the summer heat is gone, the culture returns to the city with opera, art galleries, movie houses and sport stadiums all providing a very modern vibe to the city. 

 

But after nine days here, I was ready to go.  And eventually, visas all safely acquired, late one afternoon, Kellen and Cory and I got our machines moving and headed south out of the city.

 

Leaving "Gulnara's" - Tashkent

Packed up and ready to go

 

Although itching to be away, I was surprised to feel a moment or two of sadness at leaving this city.  I’m sure there is a lot more to discover in Tashkent if you give it the time. 

 

As I pedalled away, I wondered whether I’d ever return.


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