Blood red fingers and a limp man

Tashkent to Samarkand – Uzbekistan

Immediately upon landing in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, I was met with scenes I suppose I was hoping for along. Our plane taxied towards the airport terminal passing parked up planes dating back to soviet times and all the way up to the present-day Dreamliner. It was a little like a supermarket carpark, and as we came to a halt in the middle of it all and buses came out to greet us, my mind filled with images of pilots walking out from the terminal building clicking on their key fob and looking for the indicators on their plane to light up thus giving away its location. There appeared to be none of the usual convention but then so what? Despite a long wait for the luggage, I had an effortless venture through the quaint airport, and I really don’t mind waiting for luggage so long it does turn up.

The following morning our group of 14 hopped aboard a 50-seater coach and watched on as the driver backed out onto a three-lane highway forcing cars to dramatically stop or simply swerve around the bus’s rear end. Being the first day this was a little surprising, but it turns out that doing U-turns in Uzbekistan is an acceptable practice with opportunities to do so on roads of all shapes, sizes, and speeds. Therefore, why should backing a bus into busy traffic be anything but normal. The first thing to note about the capital is how clean it is. This is thanks to the army of men and women slowly sweeping at nothingness on lawns and pavements with witch’s brooms; it’s job creation at its very best, but as I said, the place is immaculate. The streets are wide and lined with the green of trees and verges with splashes of colour from the many flowerbeds carefully tended by another workforce. Every tree is painted with limewash around the base of its trunk in an effort to prevent disease, although those around the presidential buildings apparently do fine without it. The roads themselves are full of Chevvies thanks to the domestic factory and the huge import tariffs on anything but, the first visible example of a country that maybe isn’t as free and open as they like to admit. This is backed up by the fact they have only had two presidents since independence from Russia in 1991, although obviously they are greatly loved. Our guide repeatedly talked about Uzbekistan being a secular nation even though the moon and star of Islam sits proudly on the flag and president number two is constructing a colossal Islamic building called the Centre for Islamic Civilisation which to be fair looks beautiful. Indeed, 80% of the population is Muslim although the call to prayer is little heard, women wear whatever they want, and beer and vodka is cheap and plentiful. This is what makes Uzbekistan so interesting to travel. It’s a combination of Russian and Arabic influence with the familiarity of the West, and it takes some time getting used to if not experienced before. They have tried to take the best from all three; beautiful soviet era subway stations new and old, vodka, and the freedom to drink it while wearing whatever you want. Yet the cost is watching heaps of public money go into religious projects, no democracy, and most annoyingly me not being allowed entry to a mosque because my shorts didn’t sufficiently cover the knees (they did).

Man cleaning street

Uzbekistan is a very odd shape. Incidentally ‘stan’ means land, and so Uzbekistan means ‘land of the Uzbeks’. I’m not sure either of those facts are relevant but nonetheless we departed Tashkent in the narrow eastern part of the country and began our trek into the expanding girth of the west. Outside the capital life falls back to simpler times. It’s flat, very flat, where irrigated wheat dominates the agriculture and cows are left tied up on the roadside grass verges looking content but envious of the vast wheat crops favoured ahead of pasture. Between the lying cows are electricity pylons, each topped with a stalk’s nest and its owner standing proud. I have no idea how the nests stay secured to the pylons, especially considering such flat land must command some impressive gusts of wind, but there are times in life when one must accept a bird could be more knowledgeable on such a matter. Old three wheeled tractors tend the fields and what they can’t do, gangs of men, women and children do on their hands and knees. Modernisation appears to be selective in this part of the world but sometimes this is good. You should try strawberries from Uzbekistan. They stain the fingertips a deep red so much so that I had to check I hadn’t bitten my finger off when demolishing the first I tried as I drifted to heaven in a flavour of strawberry I never knew existed. Tomatoes are the same, packed full of flavour and can do nothing other then fill a European tourist with depression over the knowledge of returning to flavourless biological bags of water that the supermarkets apparently say we demand.

A lovely mausoleum

Samarkland, as with every place we were to visit in Uzbekistan it seemed, was the capital city for a period of time at some point in history. It is well worth the five-hour coach journey from the current capital boasting an impressive collection of mosques, madrasahs, and mausoleums, all elaborately decorated, all much of a sameness after a full day of them, although there is nothing samey about Registan Square, on the outside at least. This square is the crown jewel of Uzbekistan. Three huge madrasahs dating back over half a century and returned to their former glory thanks to UNESCO status and no doubt their ability to attract an impressive number of tourists. But it was local tourists that dominated thanks to a government incentive to boost local tourism yet they appeared just as interested in us as their local culture given that blond hair and blue eyes were few and far between. I geared up for the selfies, but I ended up being the only member of the group that received no requests for a photo with a local, I’d like to say I’m not bitter, but I am. The madrasahs of Registan Square are polished white with colourful and intricate patterns and Arabic inscription throughout and topped with those instantly recognisable turquoise domes. Originally used for the teaching of Islam they have since been turned into curio markets because apparently the only thing to do with anything these days is to turn it into a shop selling tat. But let’s not forget that this is 2023, not 2022, and so in the spirit of my newfound positivity if tat is to be sold then it may as well be done in one of the most beautiful manmade structural complexes in the world.

We visited a lake. It really isn’t worthy of note other then the fact that we probably witnessed a murder. I’m not sure why we even visited the lake, but I think it was Soviet made, borders Kazakhstan, and broke up the journey as we headed from Samarkland and deeper into the empty desert. There was the promised opportunity of a swim with the provision that it may be cold, but it turned out the lake was so shallow that swimming was impossible without walking several miles towards its centre, but it did mean a warm wallow was possible. With that out the way, munching on strawberries, we heard shouts come from further down the shore. Our guide informed us it was a group of drunken Kazakhs (always best to blame the neighbours) having a bit of banter. As we continued to be nosy, it became apparent there was a body lying motionless on the floor, a suspicion confirmed when we saw the limp body hoisted up by two men, dragged over to and thrown into a white minivan which promptly drove off at pace while an angry shirtless man was held back from taking on the whole world. Our guide then told a few stories. One involved the fact that a Kazakh wedding isn’t complete without someone getting killed. The second involved a Kazakh getting hammered on vodka and uninvited, passing out on top of one of his (our guide) lady passengers one night who was fast asleep in a yurt in the middle of the desert. Needless to say, the women on his current group didn’t take too well to this story considering we were to spend that very night in a similar yurt camp in the same region. And of course, this is no reflection of the Kazakhs, I am merely reporting what I saw and heard, and I make no assumptions of their general character. What I can confidently say is that I drank a lot of vodka myself that night and I avoided screaming, killing, and passing out on top of an unsuspecting lady.

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