Many Kyrgyz people were frowning at me when I told them I would visit Uzbekistan afterwards. According to them Uzbeks are arrogant and not friendly at all! The recent events in Osh illustrate this in a very dramatic way unfortunately. At my first stop on the way from Osh to Tashkent, I was rather surprised to be welcomed so warmly by the local vendors. These ladies had smiles I will never forget. All of them! “Welcome to Uzbekistan!”, were they saying happily. It didn’t take me long to understand that the prejudices were totally unfounded once again. And these beautiful smiles were not be the last ones I would see in Uzbekistan.
Tashkent was my first stop in the country, and I wasn’t immediately convinced by this big city with its ultra-wide streets that give it a not very human feel. But the Turkmen embassy decided that I should give it a second chance, by making me wait for two weeks for a five-day transit visa that I would finally never obtain. This embassy illustrates the craziness of central asian bureaucracy. It is open two hours a day from 11 to 1pm, five days a week. To get in you need to be on a waiting list, and for that you should arrive at around 6am to write your name down, or bribe the guards if you arrive too late. Once that is done you need to stay to make sure nobody gets before you on the list. Or that nobody starts a new list! Once in the embassy, nobody speaks a word of English and nobody seems at all willing to help you in any way. They first told me to come back one week later to collect the visa. But once I arrived after a week, I was told: “it is not ready, come back in another week”. And whenever you need to enter the embassy, you have to go through the whole list procedure again! After two weeks when it was refused again, I abandonned exhausted and decided to go through Kazakhstan instead.
Thanks to all this time, Tashkent slowly grew on me. I enjoyed the old market area, the magnificent metro stations that take you back in time to the sovietic regime period, and the extravagance of the official buildings amused me. But this was most certainly also due to some of the friendliest people I’ve met on this trip who made me discover a side of Tashkent that isn’t obvious to discover at first sight ( Hello Z, Yulia, Daniel, Olga, Yulduz, Zafar and all the others!). These new friends took me to some surprisingly good restaurants and introduced me to Tashkent’s really funky nightlife. I know no other place on earth where you can smoke a Shisha at 5am on the comfortable cushions of some traditional Uzbek tables with a good plate of plov and modern techno in the background! Neither could I forget the party organised by the Marines at the US embassy, where the soldiers with their black anti-terror t-shirts were drinking beers on loud american hip-hop.
To understand the soul of Uzbekistan better, I had to finally leave Tashkent and visit the mythical ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Only there could I realize the richness of Uzbekistan’s history. The architecture jewels in these cities are magical, with sumptuous azur mosaiques ornating their walls. With sunset these enchanting buildings turn to a superb goldish color.
Of course, I’m not the first to notice, and Uzbekistan was the first place in a long time (Halong Bay, Vietnam?), where I saw tourists in organised tours. An amusing sight to witness these big groups of people of the same nationality, being driven from attraction to attraction in air-conditioned coaches, and then staying altogether patiently nodding at their guide detailing the history of each monument. Extremely interesting, I even sneaked in on some occasions. But by limiting their contact with the local population to some bargaining at a souvenir shop, aren’t they ignoring the present?
Before leaving the country, I met with my Swiss friend Daniel again to witness the Aral sea disaster. And this turned out to be much more of an adventure that I had imagined! Our driver was a friendly, but one-eyed Uzbek and the jeep, a Daewoo Nexia which is of course not a jeep at all. At the first break for lunch, our driver took out a bottle of Vodka to go with the food. We didn’t like the idea at all, but soon realised that if we didn’t join, he was going to finish the bottle on his own. And finish the bottle he did! So there we were with a drunk one-eyed driver in the middle of a hostile desert! Luckily it all went well as there wasn’t much to crash into, except the occasional camel. It actually became amazingly fun when we stayed with a Kazakh family in the desert surrounded by their sweet camels and tons of children. You already heard enough about our driver to understand that we spent the night drinking toasts to the good health of the children, camels, to peace and every other imaginable thing you can drink to!
Uzbekistan certainly adds itself to my ever-growing list of highlights on this trip. Leaving the country was difficult and the people suddenly became much colder when I crossed the border to Kazakhstan, where I took a ferry from Aktau to Baku in Azerbaijan for some new adventures!