Tashkent - A Lesson in Uzbekistan Bureaucracy!

Trip Start May 14, 2009
Trip End Jun 15, 2009

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Rude Awaking OR a Lesson in Uzbekistan Bureaucracy – From Urumqi to Tashkent.

Like most travellers, we undertook a deal of reading and research before embarking on our trip into Central Asia. We were fascinated by the complex history and the impossible journeys, the enormity of the battles fought and countries taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlame and more recently, yet no less horrendous the rule of Joseph Stalin. And of course the romance of the ancient Silk Road, Marco Polo and the amazing trade across Eastern Europe and into Asia.

On a local level, we knew about the term coined Absurdistan and the associated tiresome and frustrating bureaucracy. And we were well aware also that on every hotel or airport check in desk we would be greeted by a ferocious woman of Russian descent, equipped with dyed dark cherry red hair and curiously always called Svetlana. And apparently all Svetlanas come with "Bride of Frankenstein" personalities.

We didn't ever meet a really ferocious Svetlana but we certainly had some exasperating and nerve wracking times with Central Asian bureaucracy.

Once again our departure from Urumqi airport to Tashkent, Uzbekistan placed us in yet another country capsule. As we queued up for our departure, gone were the Uighur people, there certainly were no Chinese looking people and quite disconcertingly the pushing throngs of people returning to Uzbekistan from China looked more European and yes, more like us.

There were in fact no queues, just a sea of Uzbek people pushing into one gate. To be fair, it was not aggressive pushing. People were very friendly and the pushing bit seemed quite normal – to them. It is hard to explain just how much luggage these people had. Shopping sprees in China are apparently very popular with the Uzbek peoples and most passengers were equipped with at least two trolleys, each piled precariously high with Chinese electrical goods and children's toys. Other people carried on ridiculously large rolls of commercial rubber matting. Curiously, every bit of luggage was heavily taped. Someone was obviously making a fortune out of selling sticking tape as it was plied layers thick over every item. And frantic last minute taping became a very serious and furious affair amongst the trolley pushers.

We were well aware that to date our trip had gone swimmingly well (our trips never do) and having spotted the queues before we entered the main flight desks, we were somewhat concerned about collecting our pre-paid air ticket at Urumqi Airport. All we had to do we were told by our travel agent is to simply ring the Urumqi manager of Uzbekistan Airlines Mr Ulugbek Husainov when we arrived at the airport and it would all be fixed up. However, to say getting our pre-paid air tickets was difficult would be gross understatement.

First problem – our mobile phone did not work in China. In fact it did not work for the entire time we were away but that is another story and of course certainly not Mr Husainov’s fault. Second problem, there were no ticketing desks for any airline before this blessed Gateway and no-one spoke English. And so there was no way to contact our Mr Husainov. Great…

Thankfully Alan found a woman airline official amongst the crowds who miraculously spoke a little English but then she raced off though The Gate through more seething crowds with our only ticket vouchers leaving us for what seemed like forever – yes, back in the trolley pushing section with the trolleys increasing in number and the people becoming more frantic in the pushing process.

Another miracle happened and some half an hour later Alan’s friend finally appeared with our tickets, without which we would not have been allowed to go through The Gate.

Although we were still in China, this was our introduction to endless body searches, multiple baggage scans and the first of the beginning of a nightmare load of thermometers of all improbable varieties being probed at or in us just in case we were infected with the dreaded Swine Influenza Virus. More than intimate body searches were carried out by Svetlana look alikes and to my dismay I was found to be carrying OMG! two stolen sachets of sugar that I had hastily pocketed at breakfast to boost our coffee supplies. I saw two officials smirk at my embarrassment at the berating I received from my Svetlana.

Just before our plane departed an exuberant Mr Husainov burst through the closing plane doors and greeted us like long lost friends. We were pleased to see Mr Husainov too but we were just pleased that we were safely aboard our flight. This was our first flight on Uzbekistan Airways and we had to admit that it was very pleasant, even though our rather old Russian built Ilyushin plane had just a mere two propellers. It was also our introduction to the robust Uzbekistan and Russian food. We were amazed at our huge lunch which was an enormous piece of smoked fatty goose with potatoes, more potatoes, heaps of assorted salads and masses of breads, topped off with an entire roll of fat salami.

Our arrival at Tashkent airport was another salutary lesson in Don’t Bother Getting Upset with the Bureaucracy- Just Wear It. As Australia does not have an Uzbekistan Embassy, we had to obtain our visas at Tashkent airport. We obediently queued up for at least an hour where we were told to (at the Passport Control Counter) only to find that we should have gone to the Visa Counter beforehand. The only problem was that there was no one at the Visa Counter and we of course could not communicate with any of the airport staff. But of course we should have realised that the Passport Control Officer after processing all of the flight’s passengers’ passports then becomes the Visa Control Officer.

Up until now this process had taken about two hours but we were pleased to see the transformation of the Visa Person. But, another problem – Visa Person looks concerned and is pouring over his printer. The printer has broken down and there was no way to print off our visas…. Another hour passed while we waited for his printer to be repaired.

We were finally through to Customs with our bright and shiny new visas. We knew this bit would be a breeze as our travel agent had emailed to us the unbelievably detailed Customs forms and we had laboriously filled them out before we departed from China. But no - silly us - we had not printed the forms out back to back and so we had two forms each. And we had printed them out on A4 paper. Of course this was the wrong size too. And yes, we had to go to the back of the queue and fill out yet another set of forms each containing details to the last coin of what currency we had with us.

If Tashkent airport had not been as stifling hot as it was, it sure would have been by then. A bit of tension between the two of us? Never. But tempers rapidly turned to relief when we saw our driver who met us on the other side of customs. Welcome to Uzbekistan!

Our first destination on our travels was the city of Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan with a population some 2.5 million. Totally rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1996, it is hard today to see that this modern city was once the cross roads of ancient trade routes with a history of some 2,000 years. 

Our impressions of arriving into Uzbekistan and in driving into Tashkent was just how Russian it was. Well, of course post Soviet countries had only had their independence since 1991 but it was still quite a start (at least for me) as to how Russian the architecture was, how Russian the names of streets were and how Russian many of the people looked. Depending on who we asked when we were in Central Asia there was certainly mixed feelings about the demise of the Russian empire, with the Soviets literally walking away overnight from its satellite states. Soviet paranoia and insistence on states specialising in narrow industries caused the newly found independence to result in failed economies, high unemployment and immense hardship and poverty for many of the people of Central Asia.

Rather exhausted from our ordeals we met that afternoon with Odil Akhmedov, our travel agent representative. We had been in contact with Odil for almost a year and it was good to finally meet this person with whom we had communicated so regularly. And we were not disappointed. Odil (oakhmedov@advantour.com) organised a wonderful private tour for the two of us throughout our travels in Central Asia and we were more than happy with the Advantour company.

Anastasia was our guide for our afternoon in Tashkent. A young vivacious woman of Russian descent, Anastasia spoke perfect English and provided us with a lively introduction to the city and peoples of Tashkent. Like many of the guides we were to encounter on our travels, she was university educated with her studies majoring in English language and history.

We certainly were surprised – or perhaps rather gob smacked - by our introduction to Tashkent. The material we had read about this city indicated that it was a relatively dangerous place seething with corrupt officials and even more corrupt police. At the best it was described as bland or as a place where you stayed mainly for trying to get somewhere else. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Anastasia. And that was certainly our impressions on our first visit to Tashkent.

Tashkent is a leafy, clean city with wide roads, numerous tree filled green parks and low rise buildings reflecting the earth quake prone nature of the country. We wandered the streets and parks of the city, visiting Amir Timur (otherwise known as Tamerlame) Square, Independence Square, the former government house and now Bakhor Concert Hall and the Earthquake Memorial.

It is true that there is a certain oddness about a city that is both Russian and Muslim in architecture but even the most in your face Russian architecture seemed to be not so out of proportion in a city with such generous large parks and city squares. The city certainly looked thriving and prosperous.

We were also surprised by the local Tashkentians. They were a bizarre mixture of European and Asian influence and included peoples of Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Korean and other Central Asian ethnicities. Young and rather robust women wore the most revealing and body hugging tight clothes and the sort of high heels that were in fashion in Australian in the 1970’s. They looked horribly uncomfortable – just like we used to. Couples openly embraced it the streets. It was almost like the young people had discovered liberalism only yesterday. A strange sight in the capital city of a supposed police state.

For us a visit to a new city is never compete without an inspection of the supermarket scene. At Mir supermarket, we were delighted to find an electrical plug adaptor (we thought that we had brought with us every sort available) and a round of processed Viola brand "no need to refrigerate" cheese triangles. Viola was to save the day for us on a number of occasions in Central Asia.

We finished our day in this unusual city by dining on the street side in Tashkent at a very pleasant but equally strange Japanese-Korean sushi bar before having an early night in our gloomy and miserable Russian built Tashkent Palace Hotel. It may have been advertised as being in a great location but that was the only positive attribute we could find about this dive of a place.
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