Saturday, August 07, 2004
Two weeks in Uzbekistan...
I’ve been in Uzbekistan about two weeks now and I think I may be getting used to the police presence. They’re everywhere, and everywhere they’re a constant threat of hassle. Evidently they can read from your body language whether you’re new, as I had a few encounters with the police for documents in my first few days but these soon stopped. I did ignore whistling police a few times and got on a train in Tashkent metro the other day rather than hand over my passport for inspection. The local people seem to be happy to see foreigners give the police a bit of grief, perhaps because they can’t get away with the outright hostility and swearing that foreigners do.
In Tashkent I learned to love the most beautiful Soviet concrete architecture but that horrid techno synthesizer Russian and Uzbek music came to be the bane of my existence. The horrible music, played full blast though poor speakers goes best with the bland and always fatty food here.
The Fergana Valley, east of Tashkent, turned out to be less than I was hoping for. It is now perfectly clear to me why most tourists who pass through there are only their way either to or from Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The Fergana Valley is supposed to be the most densely populated region of Uzbekistan and while it is relatively densely populated, the towns and cities there, like Tashkent, at times seemed eerily quiet. I’ve heard that the claimed 24 million population is a fabrication by President Islam Karimov, inflated in order to help his not so subtle claims to regional hegemony. From looking around so far, it certainly seems like there has been significant shrinkage in the population since the breakup of the USSR. It was about 21 million in 1991 and with the mass exodus of Russians, likely coupled with a sharp decline in the birth rate, today’s claims of 24 million seem to be inflated at least a little.
As part of Stalin’s grand strategy for Central Asia, most of the borders here were drawn very arbitrarily, explaining why Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all wind together in the Fergana Valley. What is perhaps the strangest legacy of this is that there are enclaves of one country inside some of the others. One such enclave is Shakimardan, almost directly south of Fergana town. It sounded like a pretty nice place, set in the mountains with some good day hikes and treks leading out from the main town. I heard that provided one takes a bus rather than a taxi or share-taxi to get there, one can pass through Kyrgyzstan and into the Uzbek enclave and back without any Kyrgyz visa or multiple entry Uzbek visa. Unfortunately for my adventurous side, the Tashkent bombings last week woke me up and made me realize testing my luck probably isn’t the best idea, especially as I fully expected more rigorous checks at all the frontiers in the wake of the attacks. Relax Mom; I didn’t go. It would have been fine of course, but with my dollars running a little low and the vary real possibility of having to bribe my way out of a little trouble if I got there and couldn’t get back, I’d be able to write great tales from some wonderful Central Asian prison.
Most of the hotels here seem to be government-owned monstrosities, staffed by Russian women. Particularly in Tashkent, these older women are always happy to see you despite the language barrier. They all seem to live at the hotel and run it like it is their own, save for the cumbersome registration paperwork they have to do for you each and every day.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
I fooled a Turkmen today! Twice!
Yes, I fooled a Turkmen today! Now, before you conjure up some image of a poor pensioner on a street corner fooled by some westerner (me), let me assure you that I did no wrong.
But, I managed to get an extra day on my Turkmenistan transit visa by confusing the idiot at the counter. I'm no fan of the arduous visa process, and Turkmenisan, being in the same league as Belarus and North Korea as far as wanting to keep pesky foreigners out gets zero respect from me. Sure, I've wanted to see the country, but only because the President is a crazy man and builds crazy stuff all over his capital. I'll get some photos up of some of it when I get them. Despite it being illegal to take a photo of it, I promise I will do whatever it takes to get one of the giant golden statue of the President that spins on top of the 'Arch of Neutrality' in order to greet the sun in the morning and set it off in the evening.
Anyway, he wouldn't take my money for the visa -- $31US. I gave him $100 but the note had a small tear so he wouldn't accept it. He also wouldn't give my passport back. Now, I claimed I had no more dollars and was quite bothered that he would keep my passport even when I told him to take the visa out and give it back. Anyway, not wanting to get the mighty Irish diplomatic core on the case of the Turkmen, I went away after much protesting with the guards in order to go 'change my money'. In Central Asia they're really finicky with the dollars they'll take, to the point where I wonder if people keep them pressed between glass as soon as they get them.
Upon my return to the embassy I paid, then complained about the length of stay -- I tried for seven days and was granted five. When I protested that the five day period they gave me was no good, I first asked for another five day period, then another. In the end I got a whole extra day! What's the big deal? A sixth day that I probably won't use just is like Christmas morning...to fool some Soviet-type bureaucracy like that. To top it off, he gave me wrong change and gave me a whole extra dollar in change. There goes Niyazov's plans for another stupid monument or world's biggest something or other in Ashgabat. Just in case somebody asks you where the world's biggest fountain is, it is in Ashgabat. Why? I don't know. Why not?
Anyway, I'm in Tashkent now but tonight I hope to begin a bit of a whilwind tour of Uzbekistan's main 'sights' of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
The Central Asian Information Dirt Road
I got about six or seven photos ready to post here today but the connection is so painfully slow I won't be able to get them up. Sorry! Hopefully I'll get them up in the next couple of days but as most 'internet cafes' are really only a room full of computers with boys playing games and no internet connection, I'd say this is unlikely. Finding a real 'internet cafe' with computers with (gasp!) USB ports is a difficult task. Then, there's the potholed dirt road that is the information superhighway in this part of the world to slow me down.
Back in Tashkent
I returned from the Fergana Valley late Tuesday, unavoidable backtracking given the shape of this country. Despite the hideous Soviet-era architecture (I was going to post some pictures of my favorite), I quite like Tashkent.
For some reason I have encountered the most offensive habit here amongst some Uzbeks, particularly taxi drivers but others as well. Language difficulties are nothing new for me, but generally negotiating a fare is not too difficult. Despite now being sure to be explicit in writing down the agreed to fare with taxi drivers in particular, they all seem to allow inflation to kick in as we're driving. This is terribly, terribly frustrating. I firmly believe that what I do or don't do will impact on foreigners who come after me and I detest the notion that I encounter from time to time that westerners have inexhaustible resources and therefore it doesn't matter if they're ripped off. I don't like but I'm well used to paying foreigners' prices but I don't think I could never get used to this sort of thing.
From talking to other foreigners, it doesn't seem like I'm alone in this and further discussion seems to always end at the same point, that people here seem to be more interested in making the 'quick buck' than building up a sustainable business. Sure this is a real generalization, but I've seen evidence of this and heard tons of stories from others that would support me on this.
Last week's bombings
I have yet to hear any mention of them from any Uzbeks. They're relatively common here -- supposedly the Israeli embassy alone has been bombed three times this year. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the government deliberately keeps press coverage of the bombings to a minimum.
Monday, August 02, 2004
Out of Tashkent in the nick of time!
Most of you have probably heard by now that there were two suicide bombings in Tashkent on Friday, one in front of the US embassy, the other in front of the Israeli embassy. I'm still not sure what time of day the attacks took place, but I left at around 3pm for a city far east in the Fergana Valley called Andijan. On the highway there the road passes through a tunnel and the guards there did seem to be fairly alert -- perhaps this state of readiness was a result of the attacks, or maybe they are always like this.
Strangely enough, I had heard from some others that the Indonesian embassy has a lunch special on the grounds and I headed over there on Friday with two other guys. The Indonesian embassy in Tashkent happens to be right across the street from the British mission and down the street from the French one but I saw no evidence of much security at either place and no police around at all. Because of this, I'd be surprised if the attacks took place while I was still in Tashkent.
My lunch was not great, but a welcome change from the "cuisine" of Central Asia.
Andijan proved to be a little disappointing, but to be completely honest I don't know what I was expecting beyond a medium sized-town in the Fergana Valley. I moved on to Fergana town, mostly because of it's proximity to another town, Margilan, supposedly famous for its market and silk factory. The silk factory was closed and the market like others I've seen in Central Asia. I decided not to go back today (Monday) to see the factory and moved again, to Kokand.
I'll be returning to Tashkent in the next day or so and I'll post more before too long.