Early on Friday morning we jumped into a taxi to Taoyuan airport, we checked our luggage in, bought our insurance (medical and life), changed money and were finally ready to join the lines at immigration. As we joined the line Queenie saw her friend Jack and his friend Emily standing in the line. They too were going to Uzbekistan.
Queenie had told me about her friend who was travelling to Uzbekistan but she wasn’t too sure when he was leaving. Bumping into them was a pure coincidence. The big difference between them and us was that they were in a group tour and we were independent travelers. Since they were in a group, they already had an itinerary but we didn’t! After seeing Jack, Emily and their group, Queenie was assured that it wasn’t only her mad husband who wanted to travel to Uzbekistan but that there were other people who actually visited this central Asian republic. She didn’t think I was so mad after all.
We chatted with Jack and Emily for a while. Jack’s expectation for Uzbekistan was to see camels and, as he said jokingly, hoped to ride horses with “Ali Baba and the forty thieves.” Emily said she wanted to see more or less the same but that she expected Uzbekistan to be very different to Taiwan. So did we! To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, it was going to be adventure for all of us and we were all excited to see what would be discovered on the road.
Flying to Tashkent
|Transit in Korea|
Since we were flying Korean Air we first flew from Taipei to Seoul and then after a two hour layover we took a smaller plane from Seoul direct to Tashkent. The flight from Seoul took us over the Yellow Sea and into China over Tianjin. The plane then headed North up to Beijing before turning Westward once again and flying in more or less a straight line all the way there. The flights were uneventful if not a little boring. The flight to Tashkent featured one stupid movie (The Emerald City) on a small screen TV, but beyond that nothing exciting. The Korean air hostess was very friendly and seemed to enjoy chatting to us. It was her first time to Tashkent too and she would be there on a five day layover. The aircrew would stay in the Intercontinental Hotel for the duration of the layover. Lucky them!
The great thing about meeting Jack and Emily was that in Incheon we managed to chat with their tour group leader who gave us a lot of useful tips about what to do when we got there. His advice turned out to be spot on when we arrived and largely because of it we managed to get through customs with no major complications.
The Landing Form and Other Concerns
The main issue of concern was the landing form. The landing form required we declare the exact amount of foreign currency we were carrying. Of course, this was so they could make sure we didn’t earn any foreign currency in Uzbekistan and that when we left, we left with fewer dollars, pounds and Euros than we arrived with.
The landing form requirements, combined with expensive visas and the Lonely Planet’s assurance that police sometimes shakedown tourists started to create a sense of trepidation within us. We were expecting high-levels of corruption and that the police and authorities would be interested in grabbing money from us. The Lonely Planet said foreigners were especially prone to being shaken down on the subway. Although this did concern us we believed we would be able to navigate/negotiate our way through any awkward situation.
As it turned out these concerns were happily unfounded. We were only asked for our passport once and we never had to hand over money to any person in authority. Either we were well behaved, looked too poor, or the shake downs are a thing of the past.
Arriving in Tashkent
|On the way to Tashkent|
After a quick seven hour flight we arrived at the airport in Tashkent. We could see it was cold outside looking out the window. After what seemed to be an eternity we finally reached our docking bay and disembarked from the plane.
Now, remember this if you ever go to Tashkent! At the bottom of the staircase to the plane were two buses. We inadvertently got onto the first one. Thankfully, before the buses left, someone came to us and asked, “Bishkek or Tashkent?” We replied “Tashkent” and were quickly hustled off the first bus and onto the second bus. Bishkek of course is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and we were about to head to the wrong country. No doubt upon arrival we would have been turned around but who knows the complications this would have caused?
Inside the airport terminal was just as confusing. We had to collect our visas. However, before we got there the leader of a Hong Kong tour group with thirty visa applications was already there. After we arrived the Taiwan group leader also arrived. Despite the fact we were queuing at the office, there was no one there. The tour guides made some noise and after about 10 minutes someone arrived. Another 10 minutes to process the visa and then back into the immigration line.
Now considering there was only one plane on the tarmac, it seemed ridiculous that it took a further 30-minutes to get through the immigration. But it did! There was a clear line drawn on the ground over which people could not step unless called. One person’s job was to make sure no one crossed that line. He was a top performer! After immigration, baggage collection and then customs and currency check. By this time we were exhausted and we were happy they decided NOT to physically count our money.
|Outside Tashkent Airport|
So, after an eventful 45 minutes or so in the airport, we were finally in Uzbekistan, and it was cold, bitterly, bitterly cold. But our driver was there to meet us and take us to our hotel for US$15. When Queenie decided to turn around and take a picture of the airport, our driver jokingly remarked “spion spion” (did I spell that correctly) which we guessed meant spy!
Our driver Sadique drove us to the Marakizy Hotel through the fog and darkness of Tashkent. Saqique was an older, humorous man who was always making jokes. He told us that the Uzbek’s love Lenin (we never found out if this was true), pointed out many buildings including the old KGB building. When pointing out the South Korean embassy he mentioned the North Korean embassy was a few blocks away but that he had never seen a car in there. He said he thought the North Korean ambassador had to walk or take the bus because they were too poor. Sadique also said in winter the tourists were mostly Japanese and Korean and that the Europeans mostly came in summer. He didn’t mention when the American tourists came!
Sadique knew about Taiwan and had heard about Chiang Kai Shek. He said he also knew about South Africa, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela. We would throughout our time in Uzbekistan be surprised by the breadth of the general knowledge of people in Uzbekistan, especially the older generation. How superficial this general knowledge was we didn’t know but many of them seemed to know quite a lot.
The Marakizy Hotel
|Foyer of the Marakizy|
After twenty minutes in the taxi we finally arrived at the hotel. The Marakizy Hotel used to be the Sheraton. It was fairly grandiose and decorated in Uzbek and Russian themes making it different to the generic styles of many hotels we have stayed in before. The room was very spacious and elegant. Our only complaint was the heating. The heating was controlled centrally and the entire hotel was heated at a single temperature. It was way too hot for comfort. However, by this time we were exhausted and it was time to sleep.