Travelling up from Khujand to Tashkent proved quite straightforward. A taxi up to the border, and then a bus on to the Uzbek capital. There was a bit of a wait at the frontier. I was ultra-careful filling in the customs declaration, in two copies, before entering Uzbekistan. I had been given to believe that I should not miss off anything. I carefully listed the different kinds of pills I had – just the usual things that travellers carry, painkillers, pills for upset stomachs; also reading material, including a couple of magazines, laptop, ipod, cameras, they all got listed with their estimated values. Of course, the customs official did not know English, and I struggled to mime each of the items on the list. He was plainly irritated that I had gone into such unnecessary detail.
Next I had to change some money and find transport up to Tashkent. As I left the border post, taxi drivers descended on me, offering to take me for large sums of dollars, and assuring me there were no buses for Tashkent. But there was a bus stop not fifty metres away, sitting on the long straight main road that led away over the dusty plain towards Tashkent. At the bus stop there was also a shop, where a jolly lady exchanged some of my dollars for Soms, and told me that buses went by all the time. This was my first experience with Uzbek money. Thick wads of tatty low-value notes (there are no high-value notes), bound up with elastic bands, stuffed in envelopes. Uzbekistan is one of few countries left where there is still a black market in currency, and the rate is sufficiently better than the official rate to make changing money at official outlets highly unappealing. Soon a bus pulled up. What a difference from Tajikistan. Proper public transport. A normal, comfortable, air-conditioned bus.
Tashkent was my base during my stay in Uzbekistan. From there I set out westwards for Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and then eastwards to the Fergana Valley. A big sprawling city, baking hot in summer, for a short visit Tashkent does not have much to charm. The main centre of Russian Turkestan from its conquest by the Tsarist Empire in 1865, Tashkent has two faces, a modern city with monumental squares and gardens, and an older, traditional city, with dusty streets and plain walls concealing the shady courtyards and family lives behind them. It still contains a significant Russian population.
Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. In recent years, the authoritarian President, Islam Karimov, in power for more than 20 years, since before the end of the Soviet Union, has overseen the remodelling of the city centre, a testament to his own aggrandisement, with its parks, monuments and ornamental gardens. When I was there, in baking summer temperatures up into the mid-40s, it all seemed rather empty and sterile. Elsewhere, in the bazaars and the popular restaurant streets, the city was bustling, but not here in the great new centre of the capital. The central Amir Timur Square is dominated by a statue of Timur, or Tamarlane, where one of Marx had stood until 1993, and before him Stalin. Timur, whose capital was at Samarkand, is now a national hero in Uzbekistan. The square had been shaded by old plane trees until they were chopped down on Karimov’s order in 2010. Before then, apparently, old men had sat in the shade of the trees, playing chess. It must have been a cooler, pleasanter and altogether more human place. Now Timur sits alone astride his horse on the parched square, with just a few visitors briefly braving the heat to take a few snaps.
I was staying close to the sprawling Chorsu Bazaar. In among the vast galleries, filled with traders selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, I was after a very particular commodity, cash. In Tashkent, the Chorsu Bazaar was the place to buy Uzbekistan currency from black market traders. I changed money in other towns in Uzbekistan, but I found it particularly nerve-wracking in Tashkent. I had read online about how and where to change money, including official websites with dire warnings that changing money on the black market was illegal, and that stiff penalties could result if caught. What made the exercise difficult in Tashkent was the pervasive presence of policemen, in their green uniforms and little peeked caps. A police officer stood at each entrance of every metro station; more of them often loitered inside. In the market, they were all over the place, strolling around.
The money changers were not hard to spot: men holding carrier bags homed in on foreigners. The transaction was not all that speedy. I had been told what the going rate should be, and usually I had to haggle briefly to get it. But the most time-consuming part was counting the great bundles of cash. Receiving wads of 100 1,000 Som notes, tied up in elastic bands, I usually counted one pile, and if it was OK, accepted the rest without counting. The amount I received was not always exactly right, a 1,000 or two either way. But more or less, it was correct. But as I counted, I was always worried that a policeman might home into view at any moment. A couple of times, as I emerged from Chorsu metro station, a money changer was there, offering me a rate, in full view of the policeman standing over the entrance. I didn’t know, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it were not some kind of entrapment, enticing me to break the rules and pay the price. I declined.
I had never before been in a place where the police were so omnipresent as Tashkent. They no longer harass foreign visitors as I had read they once did. Tourism is now encouraged. In Uzbekistan foreigners may only stay in registered hotels or guest houses, and must receive a small slip of paper at each place to prove it. As required, I carried them with me all the time. If asked, you have to be able to produce a slip for each night since you arrived in the country. And you have to present them at the airport on departure. I was only once asked to show my documents by police, at a desk inside a metro station, where they also looked through my small rucksack. They were polite and correct. But still, the sense of being always under surveillance and control was unsettling. It is a mark of the paranoia of the regime, its insecurity and fear of its own people, heightened since the Andijan massacre in 2005, when Uzbek troops fired on protesting crowds. I was only in Uzbekistan for three weeks. For the people who live there the heavy police presence is a constant reminder of the limits of freedom in their country.
Not far from the Chorsu Bazaar, by the circus, is the national food restaurant, a temple to Central Asian cooking. Entering the great big hall of a place, you pass huge cauldrons filled with different national dishes. Outside, shashlik sizzles on charcoal stoves. Gathered around a large table, a couple of dozen ladies in white overalls prepare various dishes, laughing and joking all the while. While in Tashkent, I ate there every day.
Barakhan Medressa, Tashkent
The most important surviving historical site in Tashkent is the Khast Imam complex, the centre of Uzbekistan’s Islamic community. Dominating the complex is the vast Hazrat Imam mosque, built in 2007 at the initiative of President Karimov, and flanked by two towering 54-metre minarets. But the complex also includes important historical buildings, now restored, including the 16th century Barakhan Medressa. The smaller Muyi Muborak Medressa, also built in the 16th century, is named after the ‘sacred hair’ of the Prophet Muhammad, which it is said to contain. It also houses a library of rare manuscripts, most notable of which is the 7th century Uthman Koran, believed to have belonged to Islam’s third Caliph, and to be the oldest Koran in the world. The enormous tome may have been brought to Samarkand by Timur, before being carted off to St. Petersburg by the region’s Russian conquerors. Lenin had it sent it back to Tashkent as a gesture of goodwill.
- A few days in Tashkent