Posts Tagged ‘Uzbekistan’


Uzbekistan in retrospect

November 8, 2008

            7/11/08 Shymkent, Kazakhstan

            I am aware that my writing during the three weeks that I spent in Uzbekistan has not been as stimulating as it was while I was in Iran, nor has it offered as many interpretative ‘snapshots’ of Uzbek people or life as I feel my Iran writings did. I think this is because I engaged much less with Uzbekistan, in the sense that I both learned less about it and felt that what I did learn was, perhaps, somewhat superficial. I feel like I left Uzbekistan with a piecemeal idea about its history and a glimpse of its geography, but no comprehensive sense of Uzbek social dynamics, no hint of individual perceptions, tastes or hopes, which are aspects that I felt I gained a minimal yet significant exposure to in Iran.


            One of the biggest causes of this sense of lack was definitely due to the fact that I experienced much less interaction with Uzbek people than with Iranians. In Iran, I felt that I had several meaningful encounters with different people, even within the frame of ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ to which I am inescapably bound in my travels. Generally, I suppose, I found Iranians to be more open, more curious, more eager to strike up a conversation in which they inquired about me and spoke about themselves. Moreover, while they actively sought my point of view on ‘touchy’ subjects such as politics or religion, I was surprised to find them willing to express often dissident opinions about those matters. When I expressed such surprise to one Iranian man quite early on in my trip, he said that he was not afraid to voice his disapproval to foreigners (when asked his opinion about Ahmedinejad, he had replied, without a second’s hesitation,: ”asshole”), but that he would never choose to act on his feelings because he felt that there was too much at stake. I found that his comment shed light on the ideas that condition the circumstances under which many Iranians feel more or less able to manifest their opinions.


            In Uzbekistan, I was privy to only a handful of conversations with Uzbeks, and their scope was far more standard: origins, education, family. On one hand, I think it had something to do with the language barrier: more people spoke English in Iran, and Arabic is far closer to Farsi than it is to both Russian and Uzbek, which had proven very useful at times. (I managed to make some headway with the ethnic Tajiks we met near Bukhara and Samarkand, because Tajik and Farsi overlap quite heavily).


            But language aside, I felt that many Uzbeks reacted to my foreignness with a certain distance. In the rural areas, I felt this translated into amusement, where my linguistic ignorance was often met with laughter.  In the cities it expressed itself less endearingly, and, especially Tashkent, I felt general apathy, manifested in a scarcity of smiling faces and a lack of willingness to help. This stood in such drastic contrast to the hospitality of the Iranians, the scale of which I had never encountered before. Perhaps mistakenly, I attribute the relative disinterest, even coldness that i experienced in urban Uzbekistan to a combination of the proliferation of mass tourism and the indifference and anonymity that accompanies the way that Central Asia has come to be atomized along post-Soviet Russo-European lines.


            By the same token, I must acknowledge my own agency in not connecting as much with Uzbeks as I felt i did with Iranians. Two months of travel (coupled with a week’s worth of traveller’s diarrhea) have doubtlessly drained my explorational energies. My laziness manifested itself as much in my lack of efforts to learn Uzbek or Russian as in my favouring  early bed-times over nights out in local haunts, which is where I could have potentially met and chatted to more people.


            The amalgamation of these factors, set against the frequency and depth that characterised my conversations with the Iranians I met, led me to feel that my interactions with Uzbeks revealed to me less about aspects of Uzbek society. This might sound patronising, but I did not find that my conversations with Uzbeks were as eye-opening or as insightful as those that I had with Iranians.


*          *          *


            Personal interaction is not, of course, the only source of knowledge, but unfortunately, the information that I acquired through other channels proved hardly illuminating either. There is undoubtedly a plethora of material artifacts and architectural structures that bear testimony to the hayday of Uzbek history, the glorious days when the Silk Road was the centre of the world. However, I failed to find the curation and presentation of these stimulating. Something that i found particularly offputting in the ancient Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand was that each mosque and madrasa was being used more as a market stall than a place of archaeological import. When one enters through the huge, arched, blue mosaic-tiled entrances of the centuries-old structures, instead of being able to absorb the characteristics and imagine the past life of the building, one is encountered with flocks of old ladies clad in colourful head-scarves peddling embroidered bags, throws and carpets; terra cotta plates and bowls with intricate geometric designs; and small boxes with hand-painted miniature scenes of courting, music and feasting.


            Now, do not doubt the craftsmanship and consequent appeal of their wares, for both are evident. But I felt that it was inappropriate to allow four hundred year-old courtyards, celebrated as prestigious centres of learning of Islamic world some 500 years ago, to serve as platforms from which unsuspecting tourists could be wielded out of a few dollars. Although it could be seen as infusing otherwise ‘dead’ places with a new commercial life, I found that it distracted me from being able to imagine their histories. The vaulted rooms which were once the classrooms of the Islamic world’s most ground-breaking philosophers, doctors, astronomers and poets had been transformed into tourist bazaars. Sight-seeing came to be quickly replaced by browsing and, eventually, shopping. Yes, time and time again, i was sucked right in.


            Even the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, aka national museum, offered a shallow overview of over 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the stone tools of Neanderthal man and ending with fragments that represent the modernity of post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the production quota of chemical plants; various Olympic medals; Visa cards and Mastercards. Admittedly, some of the more interesting material concerning popular Uzbek uprisings against Russian and then Soviet imperialism was not translated into English, so again language proved a significant barrier to learning.


            Thankfully, one avenue of cultural/historical discovery was opened for us: we were fortunate to be able to get tickets for a production at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent which had English subtitles. Ecstasy with the Pomegranate told the story of a Russian painter who had been sent to live in Tashkent in 1916, as part of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Against the background of the ‘civilizing’ mission of imperial Russia which sought to replace traditional Uzbek culture with Russified values, the painter finds his objects of both artistic and social interest in a group of ‘bachas’, male dancers that perform in a sexual, homoerotic style similar to Arab belly-dancing. The themes were multi-faceted, ranging from traditional Uzbek gender roles (one character is a girl who dresses as a boy in order to be able to fulfill her passion for dancing); the dynamics of the colonial encounter, including the sexualisation of the cultural other which stimulates unconventional affections (a Russian soldier who falls for a young bacha) and the difficulties in blindly applying the Russian legal system in a completely different cultural context; and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on both Russians and non-Russians.


            It was a long production, almost 3 hours, and though i nodded off during the last act (shame!), I found it was the most interesting representation of Uzbek history and culture that I had encountered in Uzbekistan. I left the theatre feeling like I had engaged emotionally with Uzbek history as well as having witnessed a snippet of the avant-garde contemporary arts scene, which, judging from the fact that the show was sold out, seems to be in full bloom.


            *          *          *


            I think that ultimately, though, my overall disappointment with my time spent travelling in Uzbekistan is a consequence of the fact that all experiences are perceived of comparatively. Generally, the interpretation of any experience is significantly influenced by the past, and therefore the ways in which we come to think about or see something new will always be imbued with previous encounters. Our perceptions will always be influenced by the many factors of our own construction. We can never experience something as it is; but only according to the conditions that structure our encounter with it.


            In my mind, my experiences in Uzbekistan will always stand in relation to my experiences in Iran because I visited the two countries as part of the same trip, in which one followed nearly immediately after the other (save the brief four-day transit through Turkmenistan). I believe that this relationality dampened my appreciation of the country, which also means that should have made extra efforts to break through my high-expectations. Therefore, I wish to mediate my previous negative comments about Uzbeks, their hospitality, the organization of their tourism etc by stating that I realise that my interpretation is equally, if not more responsible for the mediocraty of my experience than any of the flaws i previosly pointed out.


            And this is not a disclaimer! It is only the meager efforts of a wandering wonderer to bring sense and meaning to the many different, often conflicting emotions that the (largely indulgent) act of perpetual vagabonding entails….


Donkey love

October 27, 2008



            Weaving along the crumbling back roads that connect Sentap to Samarkand, we passed two donkeys on the roadside affectionately nuzzling one another. Reacting to that humbling display of animal emotion, Mark said that it made sense that donkeys would be so caring to each other: after so much time spent suffering as beasts of burden, it seemed only logical that they would manifest great empathy and compassion for those that shared the same fate.


            ‘Yeah’, Di agreed. ‘I’m sure that donkeys would make pretty good lovers, although I  bet they’d be really loud in bed!’


Off the Silk Road

October 27, 2008

            26/10/08, Samarkand

            We have spent the last three days off the Silk Road tourist stretch. After Iran and Turkmenistan, whose precarious politics have not yet made them popular tourist destinations, the proliferation of mass tourism in Uzbekistan took me by surprise. The towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, each with its own claim to some civilizational greatness over the past millennium, are seeped in bed and breakfasts, tour buses and shop after stall after sidewalk of Uzbek women selling their coloured embroidered wares. Retired Europeans seem to be the pick of the moment, with French leading in terms of numbers.


            The combination of these tour groups with the recurring architecture of the Silk Road cities, which started to become tedious in that it is very similar to the mosques and madrassas of Iran, lead us to splurge over our $25-a-day budget in order to take a trip out to a nature reserve north of Samarkand. On the way there, we spent a night in a yurt camp in the Kyzylkum Desert near Lake Airdakul. Sure enough, we were joined in the camp by a group of about 20 retired French people, who filled the tranquil air with inquisitions as to the location of each other’s flashlights and an amusing, vodka-induced rendition of ‘Champs Elysees’. Yet this was to be expected, as our own presence there was equally explained by a penchant for the ‘roughing it’ type of tourism offered by yurts and camel treks that no doubt attracted them in the first place.


            On the other hand, the most amazing aspects of staying at the yurt camp were what raw, remote nature had to offer: a sunset so electric and vivid that it had me thinking that the whole planet was on the verge of bursting into flames; a night sky so brimming full and vibrating of stars that I could imagine the universe expanding; a sunrise so sublime and unassuming that it made me contemplate the insignificance of humans in that face of such simple majesty that has existed for eons before us, and will continue long after all of us loud, parasitic, digital camera-weilding, adventure-seeking travellers have faded into dust…


*          *          *


            The next day, we ventured up to the small village of Sentap in the Nuratau mountains, which sit . On the way, our driver stopped on the desert road and motioned towards some men working in the scrub. ‘Gold’, he said in English.  We got out of the car and walked over to them. There were two: one was manning a small, hand-held shovel, scraping rocks and gravel onto a grill-lined trough on an incline, while the other poured bucket after bucket of dirty grey water over the stones. The stones would run down the rough and out the other end, while small flecks of glinting material would stick in the grill. Behind them was a huge mound of gravel that had already been sifted through. Not far away was a hole that had been dug 10 metres into the ground. From the bottom, our driver explained, they had dug 200 metres horizontally and pulled out all the gravel in that tunnel, which would then get sifted through as they were currently doing.


            They said that hey sifted through some 30 buckets of gravel a day, which yielded about 2 grammes of gold, and that they received $28 per gramme. Which meant that they made $28 each a day, but only during the last phase of the extraction process, which was the shortest and least physically challenging. Factoring in the length and effort of the entire process compared to the income, the Uzbek gold mining industry came across as a harsh livelihood.


            Back on the road, we headed towards Sentap. Originally, we had been seeking the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve, and we are still unsure as to whether or not this village was actually part of the reserve. Regardless, it proved to be a charming place, situated on the banks of a small river, where it seemed that humans were far outnumbered by farm animals. The dusty, meandering road and the walnut groves on either side of it were the realm of cows, sheep, donkeys, goats and turkeys. Here and there, big fluffy dogs with their ears snipped curled up in patches of sunlight, straining for the warmth.


            We were able to stay in the guesthouse of a lovely family spanning 3 generations, who we were fortunately able to have some minor communication with due to the fact that the village, like Bukhara, Samarkand, and much of southern Uzbekistan, is ethnically Tajik, and that Tajik differs from all the other Central Asian language in that it is almost 80% Farsi. The ‘boss’ of the house Shoddiboy and his younger brother Umid also spoke some French, because most of the visitors they received were French (ah, gotta give it to the French for their undying search for adventure…)


*          *          *


            On the second day, Umid took us on a 21km hike through the mountains, up to a lake 1000 metres higher than the guesthouse. the beginning of the walk was easy, following the river up along wide paths, under the bright yellow and orange leaves that still remained in the brisk end of autumn. About 6km in, we started to climb steeply, increasing our altitude by 400m in about a kilometre. Arriving at the top, we had spectacular panoramic views of the mountains as they sank quickly into the desert and completely disapppeared into flat yellow sands, with Lake Airdakul glowing sapphire on the horizon. The remainder of the way to the lake was much easier, along the light inclinations of the plateau atop the gorge we had just suffered up.


            The lake itself was quite disappointing: muddy, shrunken and shallow. An oversized duck pond more than a lake. We huddled next to a pile of rocks, the only minor protection from the harsh wind that swept the plateau, and ate a meager lunch of boiled potatoes, tinned corn and hard bread with our icy fingers, although our fare was more than Umid’s, who refused the potatoes and corn and only picked at some bread and an apple.


            Eager to begin walking again to fight off the cold, we started off on a different return route and encountered a stunning sight: five wild horses emerging from a distant hilltop, galloping in our direction. Four had milk-chocolate coats, while the fifth shone pearl white. As they approached, they varied their pace but didn’t seem bothered by our presence. They came within a couple hundred metres of us and stopped for a few seconds, as we fumbled with our cameras like the imagophiles we have come to be. Then, they altered their direction and galloped past us. The grace of their flowing manes and the rhythm of their hooves against the hard ground held us in rapture for the entirety of their passing. At one point, Caro noticed that one of them had a rope attached to it, which led us to question how wild they really were. Yet despite the somewhat shaming reminder of the presence of humans in their lives, the majesty of their movements still hinted at an image of absolute freedom, that notion for which they have come to symbolise. 


            The descent was more grueling than the climb, for the alternate path was no more than a goat trail over the tops of the mountains and along slippery scree slopes on the side of the peaks. For a second time, we were rewarded for the difficulty of the route when we passed underneath a rock face that housed eagles nests. Three, five, eight, twelve, as we walked the number of great birds that we saw circling above us in the sky just kept increasing. With J’s binoculars, we were able to gain excellent views of the pristine white down of their underbellies, and distinguish the shapes of the thick brown feathers at either end of their outstretched wings. They glided with such ease, mastering the heights of the gorges below. I felt humbled, embarrassed at the limitations and aches in my own limbs as I plodded along so disorientated and earth-bound beneath them… All the effort we have to go through, I thought, to get one single glimpse of these beings whose innate strength and beauty shame the human condition.


*          *          *


            The following morning, while tucking into rice and pumpkin for breakfast, the sounds of music being blasted through great speakers nearby and flocks of villagers walking in its direction aroused our interest. A party for a new baby, Umid told us. Requesting our unhappy driver that he wait another hour before taking us to Samarkand, we ventured off towards the music.


            In a field not far away, hundreds of green plastic chairs and tables had been set out in two separate sections, one for men and one for women. The majority of the 1,500 villagers were there, all decked out in their finest attire: the men in grey suits or black jackets, often accompanied by some traditional hat or other; the teenage boys in logo-embedded tracksuit jumpers which ranged from Adidas to Arsenal; the older women with their hair tied in wildly colourful scarves, wearing ankle-length dresses and waistcoats in brightly patterned, sequined and sparkling materials; the young girls in solid synthetic dresses with shiny black shoes. 


            A stream of people was entering the festivities from the house closest to the field,  every person carrying a bowl of soup with bits of meat and veg poking out in each hand. Every table was crowded with bottles of fizzy drinks and vodka, plates of various cold cuts and pieces of meat, round loaves of bread, and bowls of peanuts, almonds and individually-wrapped sweets. At the front of the layout, two amplifiers were set on a deafening volume, blasting out the voice of a man who stood with a microphone, singing against pre-recorded music. Behind him sat the table d’honneur, the family of the newborn.


            The six of us wandering in in our fleeces, hats and scarves was obviously an amusing sight to many of the children. We were welcomed by a man who seemed to be of some sort of authority, and he pulled up chairs for us at one of the tables with the men. Fearing I would be forced into a vodka shot at 10:30 in the morning, I managed to slip off in order to go back tot he house and collect something to offer as a present to the baby: a scarf I had gotten in Khiva and a pair of knitted socks Caro had from Bukhara. Returning 10 minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed when Di said that she had not managed to escape the obligatory celebrational vodka.


            I was not let off completely though, for as i offered our small gifts to grandmother who held the bundle centre-of-attention in her arms, I was pulled by another granny, the hostess of our gueshouse, into the space between the tables that was obviously the dancefloor. Imitating as best i could her movements, I pranced about for a couple of minutes to the amusement of the many gathered around, and then made a pink-faced exit towards my friends stood laughing from the sides.


            I would have liked to stay for longer ( think that after a few vodkas, the dancing would have been a lot easier), but our impatient driver awaited. i was grateful nonetheless for having been able to witness the celebration, however briefly. The aspect that fascinated me the most about it was that it was not only an open invitation for everyone in the village, but so many people were participating in making the event happen and run its course. I thought of how many women there would have been slaving away in several different kitchens in order to produce enough food for the hundreds gathered. I thought about how we saw big present packages wrapped in cellophane filled with dolls and clothes for the baby, and how that would also have required a pooling of resources. I thought of the beeline of people carrying bowls of soup to the guests. All this made me realise that everyone was making a tangible contribution to the event.


            I concluded that the dynamic of the celebration was very different from the way that we have large-scale parties in Europe. There, festivities are an industry: one rents a space, one hires caterers, waiters, photographers, entertainers… Whereas in Sentap, I think that the only person who might have been receiving a fee was the singer. Everybody else was just assuming their part of the responsibility that accompanies the festivity.


            These were the ethics of community that have been largely lost in the way we celebrate in urban centres around the world, where solidarity is replaced with convenience. I think that in the first major shindig I have in my life, I will take inspiration from that village party in the mountains of Uzbekistan instead of bowing to the weight of my own social conventions; not as an appropriation of some romanticised exotic, rural purity, but as a reclaiming of a set of communal values that, in many places, I feel have been forgotten.


Uzbekistan visa in Tehran

September 21, 2008

The process of collecting an Uzbek visa in Tehran should have been easy, considering that we had applied for a letter of invitation and received a collection notification. We used the company STANtours, which i would highly recommend: fast (7-14 days, we got ours in 7), friendly and do not demand hotel bookings alongside.

However, trying to find the embassy was very difficult, and rendered the whole process much more stressful. Unlike several other embassies that are situated in the centre of town, the Uzbek, and incidentally, Turkmen, embassies are to the far north of Tehran, an area not reached by the metro. Luckily, we had found a hand-drawn map in the guest book of our hostel (Mashhad hostel on Amir Kabir street, also recommended), which was very helpful once we found our bearings. From the metro station Mirdamad (last stop at northern end of Line 1, the red line), take a bus towards Noubaniad. From there, you can follow the jpg image of the map that we used: SEE BELOW (sorry to the cartographers for disseminating this information without your permission, but considering that you left it in order to help others in the first place, i don’t think you’ be very bothered. Thank you, it was infinitely useful, and hopefully will be to many others).

Lesson 5: Uzbek visas are issued at the Consulate, not the Embassy.

A one-month visa costs $75 and is processed the same day, in less than an hour. You need two passport photos. Unlike other visas, where they give you a certain period of validity (1-3 months) during which you can enter and stay however long is permitted by the visa, the Uzbek visa issued in Tehran are quite strict about entry and exit dates, so its better to know approximately the date of entry. If you’re planning on traveling overland through Turkmenistan (in which case you’ll probably be wanting a Turkmen transit visa), your best bet is to make the beginning of the Uzbek visa overlap with the end of your Iranian visa, in case you are refused a Turkmen transit visa. That way, if you cannot travel through Turkmenistan, at least you have the option of flying directly to Tashkent.