Monday 11 May 2020

2019 Uzbekistan

10.6.19 Tashkent

Sitting in the airport at Nur-Sultan.  Modern, clean, efficient.  You buy stuff in euros…  Six-hour flight from London Heathrow.  Plane half empty, which meant I managed to lie down.  Slept quite well.  During the flight, the sun behind us, refusing to set.  Then suddenly rising in a great bloody ball. What little I could see of Kazakhstan looked flat, flat, flat.  Astana/Nur-Sultan shimmering like a crazy mirage, an impossible 21st-century city in the middle of nowhere.

A few Westerners milling around, but most central Asians.  The women all look quite similar.  Air stewardesses quite pretty.  Flying down to Tashkent.  I have never seen so much nothing: no towns, no villages, no roads.  Just flat steppe, a few rivers, low hills.  A tiny track leading to some fields, a house(?).  What looks like a rail track – going to Almaty, I presume.  It's a moonscape down there: dried-out lakes, weird forms etched into the flat surface.  Occasional line of a road, like a last spider's thread.  Below, straight roads meeting at a perfect right angle, like some cosmic geometry lesson.  This is the most terrifying landscape I have ever beheld.

I've just realised why these roads are so weird: I've not seen a single vehicle on any of them.  It's like they are relicts of an extinguished civilisation.  A tiny patch of bright green around a river.  Everywhere else scorched brown, the colour of no colour.  As we move into Uzbekistan, the landscape changes.  Below, folded and creased with gentle contours.  Tinged with green, but mainly browns.  Occasional settlements, still few roads.  Now lots of thin rectangular fields – cultivation, surrounding a large-ish town.  We begin our descent.  

A weird day.  Very tired because of travel and time difference.  Also the heat – hard like Turkey.  Slept at various times, since I have to rise at 5am tomorrow (body time 1am) to get an early train to Bokhara.  Decided to eat in the hotel to avoid going out in midday heat.  Very limited selection – no plov – but it filled a hole.  86,000 som – and they wouldn't take Visa, euros or dollars.  So I had to find somewhere that would give me som using a credit card.  Found one, took out a million (about £100).

More sleeping, then out to find milk: I will be too early for hotel breakfast, but I've brought the electric caffettiera we used in Hong Kong (amazing that was less than a year ago).  Will brew some Lavazza, eating Pret bars before taxi to central station, which is near, but not near enough to walk.  Even finding a supermarket hard.  Located a small one, paid 75p for litre (at Nur-Sultan airport, they were selling mare's milk - for 60 euros a can….).  Now sitting in Anor, waiting for manti and lagman.  Very busy, very good selection.  Nicely buzzing.  Noticeable lots of all-female groups in the city – and very few headscarves.  Islam doesn't seem strong here in Tashkent, at least.

11.6.19 Tashkent

Up early – 5am local time – to go to Tashkent Central railway station, gleaming in the early morning sunlight.  I'm the first there, of course, but that meant easy passage through security – not super rigorous, but frequent – to get into station area, then into station, finally onto train.  Flash Spanish model, new and sleek.

Lots of passengers, very few Westerners.  Pair of Chinese behind me.  Mostly locals, loaded with bags.  As with the plane, the stewardesses pretty – young and petite.  When they greet, they kiss each other three times – right, left, right.  So, despite booking early, and asking for a seat on the left-hand side, I get one on the right-hand side.  <sigh/>  Still, nice and cool, zipping along at 160km/h.  Bit bumpy…  Outskirts of Tashkent, houses all have metal corrugated roofs.  A few cows grazing.  Tashkent very spread out, quite green here.  Amazing to think I am hurtling on the Road to Samarkand.

Halfway there, going through a narrow valley.  Low hills with sparse vegetation.  Breakfast rather thin: two buns, packet of coffee.  Luckily, I bought peach tea and madeleines in the station shop.  Quite a few Ladas on the road.  But in Tashkent, top model is Chrysler.  Weird.  Also, Anor last night only took Mastercard, not Visa…

Just stopped in Samarkand.  What a magical name.  I wonder where I first heard it...James Elroy Flecker, perhaps?  There must have been a reason why I went there in 1982, the year Brezhnev died, and I was stuck in Tashkent, funeral music all day on the radio and TV.

Bokhara busy when I arrived, but happily a pre-booked driver was waiting for me.  20 minute ride to my hotel, Amelia Boutique, down a tiny alleyway.  Pretty much lives up to its reputation.  Magical rooms, courtyards that take you back in time.  Big room (#6), with over-the-top wall paintings.  Out to Chayxana Chinar for lunch.  Rice soup and Bokharan plov.  Nice view onto road.  Uploaded 58 pix – first to tablet, then to cloud.  Managed to share link.  Works well as backup and is a way to let everyone see pix.  Now about to take a first stroll out.  Hope the heat has dropped a little.

It hasn't.  At 4 o'clock, still baking, but not humid, and a nice breeze.  Out along to Lyab-i Hauz.  Even better than I hoped.  The presence of so many old trees makes such a difference.  Old Islamic buildings around its edges.  Sitting on the bench on the west side, in hard shadow.  Breeze lovely.  A few Western tourists, but not oppressive.  In a few years' time I predict this place will be mobbed.  It's too beautiful for people not to come once it's known and easy to get to.

Uzbeks uniformly friendly people.  Makes me hate Thubron's Lost heart of central asia even more.  It's not at all fair, certainly not now.  As well as ducks on the pool, people fishing too.  Glorious.  Noisy birds in the trees.  Around the pool, near me, mulberry trees, the fruits blood-red on the ground.  Nearby, a mulberry that dates back 600 years, they say… Well, 1477.

At the station this morning, the old women throwing water to wash down the paths.  All wearing headscarves, as they did in Moldova, also by the station.  Looking at Uzbek, seems fairly easy if you know Turkish – even the few words I know.  Since I won't ever need to speak Uzbek – I can probably use Russian – seems like learning Turkish would be good for all the turkic nations in central Asia.  It's hard to know which of the four – Uzbek, Kirghiz, Kazakh and Turkmen – to learn.  Must learn one soon (maybe after Georgian…)

20 minutes later, still sitting on my bench, the evening breeze cooling me.  This is the luxury of independent travelling: not just doing, but simply being here.  A coach has just disgorged a dozen tourists, who are being shown around here.  They can see, but they cannot stop.  Only fleeting glimpses, tantalising but leaving you hungry for more.  Swifts flying surprisingly low: perhaps they do things differently here.  In Tashkent, there were some very strange (to me) birds, but common as sparrows.  

Sitting in the Minzifa Restaurant, the sun setting in front of me, the hammam domes to my left reminiscent of Tbilisi's baths.  Drinking red wine – Uzbek wine.  Food limited, but location amazing.  The sky a wonderful apricot colour.  All Westerners here, but that's to be expected for an upmarket place.  I'm lucky I managed to book a table.  Uzbek wine quite resiny – very like Greek "μαύρο", strong, nice.  One of the great things about Uzbekistan is that Islam occupies the same place as Catholicism in Italy: respected, but not oppressive.  I've only seen one young woman with all her body covered, just her face visible.  Most dress like Westerners.  Long may it continue.

Swifts swooping in the sky, diving low for the flies.  

Quite a few (small) groups of Westerners.  Two black blokes – unusual to see here.  An amazing first day.  Almost all spent near Lyab-i Hauz.  So much to see and experience there.  Mostly old Westerners visiting, I suppose because it's expensive to get here.  Certainly cheap to eat – lunch cost 35,000 som – about £3.50.  My room is 80 euros a night.  Great value.  Looks like they are renovating the hammam – surrounding area rubble and ruins.  You can see that they are developing/renovating/repairing all the old monuments.  Very wise.  Already evident in some areas.  Quite a few French around, I heard Spanish earlier today.  

I'm impressed – and pleased – that I haven't looked at Twitter or Feedly once.  And have no intention of doing so.

I remember when I first stepped out from Santa Lucia station in Venice, and thought: I am in Venice.  It seemed impossible, but it was true.  And, I am thinking: I am in Bokhara.  Even more impossible, but still true.  What a privilege.  Food good, service slow – but a function of its popularity.  And then I am sitting with the best view, so who cares?  Lining up the  Minzifa special – loadsa fruits.  Uzbek wine really good, but best to go easy…

12.6.19  Bokhara

Sitting in the old Kalon mosque.  In fact, here for the second time – I got here very early, avoiding tour groups.  Lovely courtyard with ancient tree in the middle.  Blues and turquoises everywhere.  Well preserved/restored.  Outside, the amazing Kalon minaret, sadly still closed.  Must have incredible view.  The last thing many saw before being thrown off the top. The Mir-i-Arab Madrasa opposite full of people - especially muftis.  Tables set, music playing.  A festival, perhaps?  

Breakfast this morning amazing in an amazing room.  Coffee dubious.  Slept moderately well, but at least no problems with food yet.  Swifts flying low in the sky again.  Clear blue sky matching the tiles.  Swifts screeching inside the courtyard, in a small flock.  Sitting here in the mosque, I feel close to the Registan in Samarkand, even though it was 37 years ago.  How much has happened since then… Lovely to see the swifts swooping in and out of the arches at high speed.  A flock of birds wheeling around the main part of the mosque.  Most are white, and catch the sun as they turn.  Doves/pigeons perhaps?  

Back to the pool for coffee, which I need - 10.30am and the sun is already searing… Back to the room to transfer 50 pix from mobile to tablet.  Still no Internet.  Then out to Budreddin Restaurant, but it looks very hot.  So moved on to Lyab-i Hauz restaurant.  Lovely setting with the sprays all around the pool.  But: when the wind changes, you – and your food – get sprayed.  Not sure how healthy this is, but hey.  On the plus side, lots of locals here, so food seems to be reckoned.  Had hugely greasy lagman which I tried to mop up with non. Now having black tea, as all the locals do…

Back to the hotel, still no Net.  Transferred files to tablet.  Then out and finally found a SIM – cost £2.90 for 2G…  Went to two madrasas that are now full of craft stalls – Ulan Beg and the other, opposite.  The latter amazing for its picturesque ruins.  This is Uzbekistan in transition – soon will all be tidied up.  But great to see.  Then back to the hotel, where the Net is back.  Started uploading 100s of pix to cloud – slow.  Then back to here, by the Kalon masterpieces in the Chashmai Mirab restaurant.  Fab views, slight spoilt by a man cutting paving stones, noise and dust everywhere.  More signs of change.  Meal not spectacular, even though the view is.  The stone grinder still at it, at 8pm… Kalon buildings turning rose-coloured.  Swifts diving and screeching.  For dessert I took a mixed plate of local sweets – like Greek/Turkish ones.  But harder and sweeter.  As darkness falls, the minaret is illuminated more brightly, and seems preparing for lift-off…

13.6.19 Bokhara

Inside Ismail Samanis mausoleum.  Lovely structure.  Reminds me of San Biagio, strangely.  Walked along road to Ark.  Dusty, low dwellings, lots of building, rubble.  Ark smaller than I expected.  Walls impressive, but not much to see.  Lots of maps and pix of emirs.  Astonishing to think that Bokhara was independent a century ago.  Went up the Soviet water tank structure.  Nice re-use – you can see the cut metal.  Then to the nearby mosque, still functioning, so shoes off.  Thin columns holding up the porch.  Reminded me of Egypt, but more delicate. Endless walk through the park to here.  In general, distances much further than they seem on the map.  Rather bizarrely, I am in the German café, eating apfel strudel. Ismail Samanis mausoleum was lovely because so different.

Forgot to mention, yesterday after lunch I went to Chor Minor.  Hard to find in the backstreets, which reminded me of Georgia.  Not much to see: the weird little Chor Minor was closed.  But opposite, the Russian memorabilia market was pretty interesting, especially the badges and old photos.  Who were those people, what were their lives…?

Back to the hotel, where the Net is fast – uploaded all this morning's pix.  Back to Lyab-i Hauz restaurant – packed with locals, and they should know.  Sun pouring down, but low humidity.  After walking in the finally bearable heat, taking pix of Ark, back to room, then out to Minzifa restaurant – the best food I've had here.  Drinking white Uzbek wine – dry.  Very nice.  Mostly Westerners here – clearly group bookings.  Good job I've reserved.  Out into the glorious night, cooling breezes blowing quite strongly.  Everyone out walking, children and babies too.

I sit with my back to Ulan Beg's madrasa, facing the one of Abdulaziz Khan, which I prefer.  Eavesdropped on a pair of Chinese young women trying to work out where they were.  I expect more Chinese will come soon.  Otherwise, French, Germans, Italians, Spanish and Brits.  Few Yanks or Russians.

14.6.19 Bokhara

Zindan, by the Bug Pit.  Extraordinary to think two Brits suffered this for years.  Unimaginable.  Earlier, I walked through the maze of the old town.  Smell of concrete dust everywhere.  Second time I've needed to use GPS in my life (first time was when driving in Tbilisi).  To the merchant's house.  Very fine.  To a photography exhibition, where I bought three postcards.  Then to here.  Sweating profusely.  One thought: Bug Pit full of litter.  It's money notes…

Back to the hotel, packed and left.  Went along to nearby Chayxana Chinar.  Ordered plov, but not ready for 40 minutes.  The central part of Bokhara is more or less pedestrians only.  What few vehicles allowed there are electric – clever move.  Clean, quiet.  Adds to general peace of the place.  The Uzbeks in general seem very calm and happy.  Generally smiling, lots of children around.  About to start reading Sikunder Barnes – looks fun.

On the train to Tashkent, full by the looks of it.  On the right-hand side, so I can see the mountain spine.  Just outside Samarkand, some quite high peaks with snow.  But lacking the majesty of Ararat.  Land fertile on either side of tracks, but mountains gaunt.  Some clouds over the mountains – cumulus here, they were cirrus in Bokhara. A group of Hungarians joined the train at Samarkand.  Hungarians now playing lousy trashy music from a mobile, deafening everyone else.  I'm fast growing to dislike Hungarian.

Ripped off by the taxi driver, who took the long way around.  Still only £3.50… Smaller room at Gloria Hotel this time, but fine.  Nightmare on the Tashkent Express… The Hungarians utterly insufferable.  Still, the valley pass was fine, very narrow, rather like Georgia.  Tashkent feels familiar, which is good. 

15.6.19 Tashkent

Sitting with Hotel Uzbekistan behind me.  Did I stay here in 1982?  Seems likely, but sadly I have no memories of it (if only I'd kept a travel diary…).  Took metro here.  Had intended to walk but it started raining… Metro as I expected: marble smelling of disinfectant.  Not many around.  Cost per jeton: 12p (1200 som).  Journey here from my station – Oybek – took several minutes, reminding me that Tashkent is big.  (I can feel the metro under me as I sit in Amir Timur maydoni).  Metro slightly disconcerting because not a word of Russian anywhere.  You can see how hard they are – rightly - pushing Uzbek, and that Russian will fade away…

Need to go back to hotel to book plane seats, if I can, on my tablet.  Fortunately, metro is cheap and fast, and I am intentionally near an important interchange. Spent ages looking for monument to cosmonauts, after finding the main Art Museum closed for repairs.  Was overcast, but sun out now, alas… To Chorsu Bazaar.  Incredible.  Is it the biggest in the world?  Looks it.  Hundreds of stalls selling the same goods, all beautifully presented – the fruit piled in pyramids.  The stench of meat and blood, thousands of people milling around, looking, tasting, buying…

Afterwards, in the debilitating heat, I staggered to the old part of the city.  It was just like the corresponding part of Bokhara – only much bigger, and much more of a labyrinth – in fact, it reminded me of Venice – without the canals. I still have a vague memory of being brought here when I came in 1982.  Because of Brezhnev's death, we were trapped in Tashkent, and were given a guide to the place.  I remember the metro, and being shown these incredibly poor dwellings.  At the time, I couldn't understand why there were taking us there, but now I do: it was the real, old Tashkent.  It's taken me 35 years to get it.

Went looking for a new restaurant – doesn't exist, apparently, so back to Anor.  Trying an amazing meat doughnut – obviously fried, but rather tasty.  The food is generally good, but I am so sick of eating meat… One thing I noticed when looking for the other restaurant is the number of Korean places here.  I keep forgetting that Tashkent is probably nearer to Korea than it is to Europe…  also a couple of Chinese shops – supermarket and travel bureau.  Just the start…

16.6.19  Tashkent

After a night of rather fitful sleep – if I missed my flight to Nur-Sultan, I'd miss my flight home – a decent breakfast – with Uzbek cherries and sweet rice soup – then to the airport.  Sun already hot.  The security here is insane: they check you at the perimeter.  Then they scan luggage and you at the entrance to the terminal building, and then again after check-in – including taking your shoes off, and putting plastic covers on your feet.  Well, I suppose it's a pretty good deterrent.  I notice in Uzbekistan a number of families with three children, and a fair few pregnant young women.  I expect its population is growing quite fast…

It certainly seems a hive of economic activity.  Not just tourism, which is obviously bouncing along.  In Tashkent and Bokhara I saw thousands of new homes being built – many unfinished shells.  I wonder if they will ever sell them all?  The roads here are insanely big.  The main road near my hotel – Rustaveli St (sic) - had four lanes on each carriageway, more than most motorways in the UK.  Since everything is new, it is being built with huge spaces.  I found it (literally) exhausting from place to place not just in Tashkent, but Bokhara too.  Makes London and Paris seem so cramped...

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