In February 2009 we went to Uzbekistan for Chinese New Year. It was an amazing journey. This is the fourth installment of our travelogue. Hope you enjoy and feel free to comment. Quick note, I cannot find the cd with the pics for this part of the journey, so you will have to make do with the videos.
After Tea – A Paraplegic Taxi Driver Figures Out the Route
We finished our tea outside Khast Imam and decided to visit the History Museum. Getting there was a blast. We managed to find ourselves a polite, paraplegic taxi driver in the most beat up taxi we have ever been in. The guy spoke rudimentary English and tried to communicate with him. We told him where we wanted to go and he said he knew the place. He didn’t. Five minutes into the drive he stopped and asked some policeman for directions. They too were perplexed. He carried on driving and after five more minutes his eyes lit up, his voice boomed and he shouted “History Museum” and we were on our way. And when he found out Queenie was from Taiwan, he excitedly exclaimed "Chiang Kai Shek!" Our one regret was we only paid him SOM2,000, we should have paid him more out of generosity, love and compassion.
The History Museum - Why the Propoganda?
The museum itself wasn’t that great. It was a regular appeal to the greatness of the Uzbek nation and there was a lot of propaganda about modern Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan we found is a great country. I couldn’t understand the need for the propaganda. True, we didn’t understand the politics of the place or the history and the culture, but on the surface level the country seemed to be functioning well and many of the people we spoke to believed there was progress being made and not because of the propaganda being spread but because of the improvement in their own personal standard of living. At least that is what they said. The museum however wasn’t too bad, especially on the more ancient history side of things. There were no English subtitles which did prevent a fuller appreciation of what we were seeing. As it turned out, while we were in the museum there was a huge rainstorm outside that we completely missed, so we were fortunate in that regard.
The Area outside the museum was far more impressive. The main political buildings (which are impressive) were across the street, and there were some beautiful gardens to stroll through and to sit and relax in. While in the museum we befriended some school kids and they seemed to be going along the same path as us and they tried their best to communicate with us. Also, as we walked around many people approached us and tried to welcome us to Uzbekistan and talk with us. We did the best we could but with no Russian, Uzbek or Tajik in our linguistic arsenal, and with their limited English abilities, deeper conversations than the rudimentary “hello, where you come from” and “welcome to Uzbekistan” proved to be impossible.
We did take the time to visit the Art Museum too (mostly because we needed to use the bathroom). This in a way was better than the history museum as the works seemed to be original expressions of the artists. Some of the paintings were pretty good and other art pieces (statues etc.) weren’t too bad either. Despite this, we barreled through the museum in about 45 minutes as we were anxious to get to the first of the many markets we would visit: The Chorsu Bazaar.
The Most Incredible Subway in the World
To get to the Chorsu Bazaar, we decided to take the subway. This truly is the most incredible subway in the world. The one we walked in to had vaulted ceilings and chandeliers hanging down. The one we transferred at was done up in the elaborate style of an ancient Mosque. The trains themselves were not too frequent, but the actual décor in the stations kept us alert and not too anxious to leave. Apparently the subway is a nuclear bomb shelter so no photography of any kind is allowed inside. It is also a place where tourists are apparently shaken down by police (although nothing happened to us). When we saw policeman approaching, we just drifted off unobtrusively to another spot in the subway. We had been warned and decided to really behave. But still, the subway was an incredible experience. If you are in Tashkent, you need to take it at least once or twice, just to see the stations. Apparently all the stations are done up in this way.
Chorsu Bazaar lies in the heart of the old town of Tashkent. We had read tourists are regularly invited into the private homes of the Uzbeks living there. Although this didn’t happen to us, we were still excited to get our first view of a Central Asian Bazaar. We weren’t disappointed! The bazaar was teeming with people and stalls and vendors. It was huge. Some of the vendors saw we were tourists and gave us free samples of their fruit and foods. We also brought some bread too. We were just stunned at the size of the bazaar and it took us a full hour to amble around the full circuit of the bazaar. Queenie did buy some fruit for us and negotiating with the vendors was quite a challenge in terms of language but something we discovered (again) was how sincere and honest they were. They were incredibly patient with us and always made sure the correct change was given. We were never cheated once. Not once! Which we thought was really surprising! This is not to say it doesn’t happen, it just never happened to us, and this is not to say we weren’t overcharged, it is just to say that prices were negotiated and once a deal struck, they kept to it always.
The bazaar itself was an incredible place to visit. Queenie even found a vendor who could speak Chinese. Of course all the people thought Queenie was from Korea, but soon understood she wasn’t. Once we had finished at the bazaar we walked out, passed some knife shops, tried on some Russian Hats for fun, and then drifted into the old part of Tashkent. We stumbled across a road that had roadside cafes/restaurants and once again decided to stop for a bite to eat (who needs a fancy hotel meal?).
While we were inside the bazaar a fight broke out between a couple of Uzbek men. I tried to record it on my video camera but as soon as they realized I was recording they started yelling at me. One of the bigger female vendors immediately stood in front of us to protect us and I felt that the other vendors were willing to defend us too. Of course I immediately stopped recording. The funny part of this story was that the following day while waiting for a taxi to take us to Samarkand, somone came up to us and asked us to see the video. Turns out he was one of the men in the fight and he thought it was quite funny. He kept on wanting to watch the video over and over again.
The vendors were once again very understanding and patient in taking our order. We once again ordered some meat dishes and the staff really enjoyed being filmed. Queenie went over to a different kitchen and some of the chefs even did a dance for her. Sitting on that roadside café in the middle of Tashkent, and being the only foreigners there made us realize just what we had done and were doing. All I needed was a beer, but the beers would start to flow in Samarkand. For now it was tea and some meat sandwiches of some sort, and it was delicious.
After Dinner Walk – The Stalker
The temperature had already started to drop significantly and it was starting to get dark. We still jet lagged and decided to head off to the hotel. We strolled through the old town and happened upon a Mosque during prayer time. As we approached the Mosque we noticed this young guy in a thick leather jacket following us. We decided to just carry on walking and ignore him. If anything untoward were to happen I figured I could hold my own. As we got to the Mosque courtyard, prayers had just finished and a stream of people flowed out. We started to head back down towards the main road to catch a taxi when our stalker approached us.
It turns out he was a really shy English student who was trying to think of a way to talk to us. Afterwards he escorted us down to the main road. We took some videos of Tashkent by night. The young man, as it turns out (I wonder) was going in the same direction as us and offered to take us to our hotel. So he put us on the correct bus, jumped on the bus with us and we were off. As we approached our hotel stop, he wanted to get off with us but we insisted he carry on going to his final destination assuring him we would manage to cross the street to our hotel by ourselves. To this day we couldn’t really figure it out what the guy was about. He was friendly in a strange kind of way.
We did however enjoy the Mosque. It was on a hill and very beautiful in the dying light. The business of the road below reminded us that Tashkent was a growing metropolis where many people were going to make their fortunes. Standing on the side of the road, we realized how happy we were to be there, even though it was cold. Although the view from the Mosque was beautiful, the sadness was the very poor woman and children begging for alms outside. Some children running around nearly naked with their hands out trying to get a couple of SOM is very sad. One only hopes the government would do something for these poor people. Of course one of the tenants of Islam is to be generous to the poor so it is understandable that they congregate outside the Mosque at prayer time, but it was very sad to see.
Day 1 Ends
So the day ended as it began in the foyer of the Marakizy hotel. Day 2 would see us bouncing down on four hour shared taxi drive to Samarkand, to the home of Timur the Great. Little did we know that this was only the beginning and our true adventures lay westward. There wasn’t anything to do but pack, prepare, sleep and dream Central Asian dreams.