Thursday, 10 March 2011

Uzbekistan: trains and diplomatic incidents

It was both cold and beautiful in Uzbekistan.
When entering Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan it's easy to think that one is leaving behind a highly paranoid, authoritarian country and entering a more relaxed one. The truth is that the Uzbek government is probably more distrusting: the internet is more open but everything is still monitored, and I had to register my location with the police every night during my stay.

As I filled out my declaration forms at the border, I was worried about reports that foreigners have been fined hugely disproportionate amounts for failing to declare even the smallest amount of cash. But it was cold (very cold) and I didn't want to hang around. Fortunately neither did the border guards who were otherwise engaged searching bags of live chickens, and waved me through. First obstacle down, next was to change money into Uzbek Som. This is more complicated than you might imagine for two reasons: first, you cannot trust anybody at the border to give you the correct exchange rate. They practically halved it on my first asking. Second, there are two exchange rates in Uzbekistan: the official one, offered by banks and exchange offices at stations and airports, and the unofficial, black market rate offered by almost everyone else. The difference is dramatic, the illegal rate being some 40% higher.

Armed with wads of cash (the highest note is worth just 30p, which makes you feel both rich and highly vulnerable) I haggled with the mafia taxi drivers and made it to Bukhara. After the massive redevelopment of Turkmenistan, it was a stark reminder that I'm on the Silk Road, passing through aeons of history. Although much of the city is under refurbishment, there's no hiding the sheer age and beauty of the place, with stunning turquoise mosques, an imposing fortified city and what must be the world's most astonishing pointy things: the Kalon minaret. In fact it was so beautiful that even Chinggis (Genghis) Khan decided not to knock it down. (This was a rare act of mercy shown by the infamous Mongolian invader, who otherwise destroyed absolutely everything else in his path.)

Just to reiterate, it was cold in Bukhara, so much so that sightseeing had to be done in one-hour stages to prevent the onset of frost bite in the -20 C temperatures. Nor was it warmer in Khiva, an eight-hour taxi ride north across the desert, where I ate dinner in a toasty -5 C restaurant.

Whereas Bukhara is being restored, Khiva has been perfectly preserved. Some say it's too pristine, too ideal, but this is how it was designed: a walled-in town, fortified to protect it from numerous invaders such as the other khanates - city states such as Bukhara and Kokand - and later the Russians. Inside life is peaceful, though this was probably because of the painful temperatures. Still, this allowed me to walk around the narrow alleys, catching glimpses of the shimmering blue minarets and mosques, gleaming in the low sun as locals darted in and out of buildings, snatching warmth wherever possible. I did the same, drinking far too much tea in buildings heated only by a tiny stove. In the middle of Khiva stands, or rather squats, a huge cylinder covered in thousands of turquoise tiles. It was built by the khan in 1851 with the aim of creating the world's highest minaret to enable him to see to Bukhara. This was particularly stupid given that it would have had to have been several kilometres high and that his advisers must have known this. Needless to say it was never finished and now sits like a giant washing tub dominating the view along most of the streets.

Buying a ticket at the station, I was initially exasperated at the lack of queuing going on at the ticket windows. People just push as hard as they can and somehow eventually get a hand on the frame and heave themselves into view of the cashier. They then shout over the person already there, throw money in and make off with a ticket. I stood no chance: the pushing bit is fine, but the shouting in Uzbek and knowing how much to pay hindered me somewhat. I was saved when a lady saw my distress and led me upstairs to the VIP ticket booth. As I've mentioned before: being foreign qualifies as Very Important in this part of the world.

I took the overnight train to Samarkand. I like trains. I like the way I can stretch out my legs, walk around, admire the view, dine in the buffet car. I enjoy watching the world go by, reading a book, listening to music, or talking to fellow passengers. I love being rocked to sleep like a baby. But at the back of my mind, when stepping on to yet another overnight train, I know there are things guaranteed to happen that will destroy these romantic notions. Firstly, your fellow passengers will be more keen on talking to you than you are to them and will choose to do so as soon as you have put your headphones on or earplugs in. The burly man next to you will slap your thigh and make jokes in his language; when you don't understand he'll repeat them much more loudly. What's more, the cabin will be entirely the wrong temperature, though this apparently won't bother anyone else: in the summer the AC will be on so cold that you'll have to wear all your clothes in bed. But in the winter the heat of the engines will be siphoned inside so as to slowly cook you. The windows won't open, but they'll have handles just to tease you. And don't think you'll be able to escape to the restaurant car. If you're lucky enough to find a seat that hasn't been requisitioned for the entire journey, you'll only be able to eat or drink on your own for a few minutes. Then, the group of drunks next to you will invite you to drink with them. No amount of protesting or feigning of tiredness will prevent one of them declaring you his new best friend and treating you to shots of the local spirit by way of welcome. Naturally, you'll need to go to the toilet. But your bladder will only decide so when you're at a station, when the guards will lock all of the toilets, and the stops will be at least 20 minutes each. When you finally manage to get in, it will seem as though the rest of the carriage has performed some kind of dirty protest. And woe betide you if you cross a border by train. The trains are timed to ensure you arrive at the border at just the point you finally manage to get to sleep, and the crossing will take several hours as every nook and cranny is searched, passports and visas are checked and stamped, the train edges through no-man's land to the next post and the process is repeated. Finally, two hours before you arrive at your destination, everyone will wake up, turn on the lights and pack their belongings. Even if you've put earplugs in, you will not be allowed to sleep because they will shake you awake out of some warped sense of kindness. Still, they're quite fun.

The Kyzylkum desert in eastern Uzbekistan. There's not much to see.
Samarkand is always known as the jewel of central Asia, the town featured on the front of every guide book and the place that everyone mentions when talking about this part of the world. Indeed, it has some impressive sites - the Registan being the main one, with three massive facades facing each other in a kind of architectural battle - but the city has been turned into a tourist haven, the main streets having been walled off to protect our eyes from the old town. (For me, it's much more of a pleasure to find a way through the walls and wander the 'real' streets, seeing the town for what it really is, the way it evolved.) But this is the area where Timur was born and buried, yet another of Asia's massively brave and violent conquerors, and it's easy to imagine how Samarkand was built in a show of power.

The Registan, Samarkand
I finally arrived in Tashkent, the capital, and promptly realised that I had just a few days left on my visa before it would expire and I would risk deportation and/or a massive fine. I'd heard that it was possible to extend it at the airport, so I dashed along there and proudly presented my passport to the official in the registration office. He did not understand at all and a three way conversation ensued between him, me and someone I didn't know on the phone. Not sure what was happening, I was marched off to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where plain clothed agents quizzed me on my intentions. I politely explained my predicament and they told me I should have contacted an agency. They phoned one for me. The man on the other end of the line has almost in tears, telling me that I'd gotten him and his boss in very big trouble. I apologised, though I'm not sure what for, and asked whether it would be better if I just left. In true Central Asian style he said he wanted to help me, but I thought I'd better spare him his life and just leave. I hope he's ok.

I spent two nights in Tashkent in the warm family home of a local student. She was kind, welcoming and interesting, and her mother cooked up astonishingly quick and tasty meals. Her brother, whilst not having great English, had an hilarious dry sarcasm. They made me feel perfectly at home surrounded by cosy cushions and the pleasing smell of traditional cooking. At one point I felt comfortable enough to ask her about the massacre that occurred in Andijon in the east of Uzbekistan in May 2005, when upwards of 200 protesters were killed by the government in the main square. She knew little about this, but when I explained that this was fact, and that it had been well reported at the time, she said, "Well, they must have been bad people. People need to be sacrificed in the name of progress. I was shocked and disappointed. She went on, stating her faith in the government (which has had the same president since before the collapse of communism) and its program of 'reform'. "You know," she said, "It's too early here for real democracy. People shouldn't protest; we should get behind our government. We need strong leadership." But if you let your government disallow opposition and free press, to control what information you can access, and to violently quash protests, they will never be answerable to you. They will control you.

I raced to Andijon for my last night. Without the knowledge of what had happened there, it would simply be a pleasant border town with more of the genuinely friendly and hospitable people I've encountered everywhere else. But this hides the tension and fear; tension that was to become all the more evident when I crossed the border to Kyrgyzstan.

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