Our final days in Uzbekistan
Trip Start May 25, 2008
19Trip End Jul 27, 2008
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Thursday 3 July Samarkand - Tashkent
Early start, another very ordinary breakfast, plenty of it, but no-one has much. Management must be thinking "these people must all be on a diet". Photos of the tapchans - the bed-like sitting platforms popular all over Uzbekistan.
Bit of information we picked up - Uzbekistan, along with Liechtenstein, are the only double land-locked countries in the world - that is, not only do they have no sea coast, but the bordering country has no sea coast. Luckily they have oil, otherwise they'd be in real trouble.
Effusive farewells from the owner, pity he didn't direct the same enthusiasm toward fixing the hot water and breakfast problems. Back out past the Registan, poor photo of Tamerlane statue, good views back at the Registan from high ground right on the outskirts of the large suburban and industrial area. From here it dominates the whole town, and they should limit, or eliminate highrise to keep it that way.
Back on the flat land, we cross braided rivers, getting closer to the source and highlands. The canals are full and fast flowing. There is still a lot of irrigated cotton and other crops, and a lot of fruit trees.
Tashkent is a seriously large (population 2.1 million) city, high rise hotels, wide boulevards, plenty of large trees, parks and fountains, but we turn off into a very suburban street to find our small, 3-storey, pale blue hotel. It has a steeply pitched metal sheet tile roof, and rows of windows with brick architraves, looks vaguely Austrian, rejoices in the name Grand Orzu (dream).
It is actually pretty good, well run and clean, good bathrooms with hot water, a fair restaurant, and a small, cloudy green swimming pool.
Have a reasonable light lunch, then out to get a look at the area in the heat of the afternoon. Our walk takes us
Carry on to find an Internet, check the emails, walk back via a more direct route to the hotel.
A group meal has been arranged as part of the changeover in party members (we and Natalya are leaving, and two new people are arriving) so we all walk up to the main road. The guide hails cars off the street, not necessarily taxis, arranges a price and sends us off, hoping the driver finds the right place (the accepted norm here - good for helping with car expenses. Have to assume the crime rate is minimal here - one advantage of a Police state. Can't imagine it being successful in Sydney!)
There is an English menu, and a Russian one, but they are not even close to identical, and only the Russian one has prices, so ordering and reckoning the bill at the end is a nightmare for the guide, who handles it well.
MP has good local beers, DP splits another bottle of cheap, sweet champagne. The salads tend to be good, the meat dishes pretty fatty, but not bad. Back home fairly early in another taxi fleet, with the stayers kicking on elsewhere.
Sit around the fast emptying pool for a while, then to bed to luxuriate in a full queen-size double bed with real, full-size sheets, and covers which are not too thick, not too thin.
Friday 4 July Tashkent
Breakfast, then out onto Bobur St to catch a bus to the Chorsu bazaar. Watch the traffic flow for a while, then decide on a #47 mid-sized green bus. Work out that you don't need to pay immediately, stand up all the way down Bobur, over the large cutting with a canal and boys swimming in it, past Navoi. the large park with an artificial lake, and and some major public buildings and squares.
Everyone gets out somewhere near the Chorsu area, as per the sign on the bus, so we do too, but we cannot see where the markets are, and cannot see any obvious market patrons in the crowd. Stop to take photos of what has to be the Friday mosque and the 16th century Kulkedash medressa, and from the grounds of the mosque, can look down on the sea of cloth shades, and the large blue dome of the market proper.
From the market, we head towards Khast Imom, the major Islamic centre of Tashkent, which features the 6th century sheepskin Koran associated with Timur. Unfortunately the complex is off the map, we have left the compass behind, and the streets leading to it are under the map legend, so we can't see them. so we guess, and head for a street where we can get a bus. On the way, pass a mosque with a Friday sermon in progress, and a policeman with a walkie-talkie watching it. Avoid it, then try at a bus-stop to get on a bus, or get info, without luck. Walk up the street, find a street sign, which shows us it is not the street we wanted, so now understand why we couldn't get a start on the bus.
Head west, where more information tells us we are on the right track. DP is wilting by now (once again in the high 30's-low 40'sC), so find a modern supermarket in a new, official looking building, and cool off in the A/C, but can't find a really cold drink. Cross the road to look at a strange helical-spiral building, turns out to be a
Closer to the complex, take a few photos, then find there is a BIG crowd of worshippers, and a sermon in progress. Not only is the mosque full, but the worshippers are three deep outside. We're surprised by this, as it's the first sign of any widespread mosque attendance. Thought could be because we're close to the Ferghana valley, but later talked to a few people, and came to the conclusion it was because the Government was being a bit lenient at present as it is receiving aid from Arab countries (Western countries, especially America, as they wanted a base here, gave lots of aid after 9/11, but pulled out after the Government massacred thousands of people in Andijon who were protesting). The people we spoke to reckoned that once the Government received the aid, they'd again crack down on mosque activity.
Buy a coke in a mini-mart, just across the road, directed to a kebab restaurant to sit and drink it. From here, we can see the mosque, and some of the large group of police observing and directing traffic. Could probably take photos, but police keep coming in and out, so don't.
The building is modest, but beautifully decorated, the Koran is large and thick, say 60 x 60 x 20 cm closed, but it is open at the place where it was being read when a famous person was assassinated. The calligraphy on the sheepskin is large, but difficult to see in the low light levels.
Outside, head back to the road, catch the first bus going past, and after a few direction scares, it places us back at the market area.
Decide to catch a 47 bus home, so walk a way down the main road to a stop to make sure we are on the right route. Have to wait a while, but get one all the way back to the end of our street.
Retire buggered, Front up later to find out what is going on tonight. A few are going out to a nightclub. DP has read that the programme calls for a night at an "extremely risque" show, and she tries everything short of physical violence to find out "how risque?"
For various political reasons, some are going, some are not, some might. In the end, the whole group, except Fulvio, set out in another taxi convoy to the FM club, at Broadway, previously the red-light district, now sanitized by the regime. FM features a monstrous Russian looking bouncer who gives us the once over, particularly Dan, in a sleeveless top, and Jim, in a spare pair of Dan's long pants, with some grease, but considerably less than normal, almost pukka.
Entrance is 5000 sum each, plus mandatory drink inside. DP manages the deal of the year, with a bottle of sweet, almost drinkable champagne, for 6000 (about $4.50), beers were 4300, quite reasonable.
The floor show was a dancing pole with mirrors on 2 sides, and a succession of skinny Russian tennis player types, in bikini tops, ultra-micro skirts, thong underwear, possibly body stocking, and savagely high platform stilettos. There was no nudity, not even topless, and not a lot of suggestive actions. Exceptions were an Asiatic girl with a chest fitted in Thailand, and a local dark haired girl with a bit of meat on her bones. The dancing was livened up by a viciously bright computer laser, directed indiscriminately at dancers and patrons.
After their turn on the pole, the girls circulated amongst the patrons, doing neck massages, and lap dances, for a price. MP, finding no alternative strategy, copped sweet a neck massage for 2000 sum. Having just about finished our drinks, Jim suggested a change of venue, as lap dances were eating savagely into the $100 tip we gave him in the afternoon.
After a 200 sum trip to the loo, repair to the Diamond club, quite close by. This is a genuine dance club, in a large basement, with pounding techno music, light shows and a large, polished granite dance floor.
There were a lot of young girls about, quite "hot", and of indeterminate age. The champagne, plus afternoon gin and cokes, and a pre-expedition heart-starter of Uzbeki port on no food had kicked in by now, and DP was determined to dance, and vigorously at that. Some of the troops had deserted to greener pastures, and some were doing vodka shots. We decided to bail out, so the guide took Jerri, DP and MP to negotiate with the local taxi and limo drivers. Started out with quite a flash large, new Russian car, ended up with an older model, and a very large driver for 3500 sum, for a very quick return to the hotel through the almost deserted 6 and 8 lane streets.
DP not feeling well by the time we got to bed about 1am, having trouble closing the eyes without the room spinning, but managed to correct the problem the hard way.
Saturday 5 July Tashkent
Not a lot of troop surfacing for early breakfast, but manage to recover enough to meet the new starter, David, a 70ish Canadian geologist from Edmonton. Advise him not to hold his breath waiting for the drivers to surface, as they don't often get a chance to drink without having to drive the next day.
Decide to take another bus to get ourselves to the Emir Temur park area. Try a #67 on Rustaveli, on the basis
Retire to the main road, walk past a very large pool and long waterfall fountain, with locals wading in the pool, getting wet under the waterfall, getting their dresses soaked by splashing each other.
We see a large fountain and old building behind the Tashkent Palace Hotel, turns out to be the Opera theatre. Check out a nearby supermarket, get iceblocks, walk through another park to the Kosmanovtov Metro station, celebrating the Soviet cosmonauts. Put the camera in the daypack to avoid Nick's trouble yesterday, get tokens to pass through down into the station proper, which is decorated with horizontal fluted ceramic tiles in blue and green.
Don't wait long for the metro, have found information in a readable alphabet, know which one we want, get seats. Too easy!
It is a quick run to the next station, emerge from the wrong end as usual, orient ourselves by the sun, also recognise the large supermarket building. We are prepared to take any bus, but a 67 comes along, so take it all the way home, actually passing our street with its landmark Hot Pizza Restaurant, so have to guess which way we have to walk home.
Relax by the pool for a while, then DP out to internet and put photos on our blog, MP up later, then back in time for our 7.30 date with Jerri. She is not in a hurry, suggests Caravan Restaurant but we really don't want to do another taxi trip, would prefer something local. It turns out that Caravan, in spite of being right up-market, is 50 metre away on the corner of our street. It is pretty low-key during the day, so we have missed it, but at night there is a large group of flash Mercedes and 4WD's parked outside.
Nick J decides to go with us, just for a drink, but balks at the price, something like 3.8 EUROS. All the menu is in euros, but you have to pay in sum, at a rate of 2000 to the euro.
The menu is pretentious, but the food pretty ordinary. The sweet champagne is 10,000 here, but no better. Retired pretty early . Bid Jim farewell as he is taking off at 6 in the morning
Sunday 6 July Tashkent
MP up for an early breakfast with the team, DP gets up in time to make farewells and swap emails. Spend a fair bit of the morning talking to Raz, a 60ish pommy Maths teacher who is joining the Drago tour heading the other way. Advise him on how to get the 67 bus it to the Emir Timur area then lunch and read. In the PM, DP is not feeling too flash (either last night's dinner or breakfast today) so rests while MP continues conversation with Raz, covering why we had put him on a 67, when the return route wasn't all that obvious, rugby refereeing, travel in South America, Australia and just about everywhere else. DP, who now has a bit of a fever, takes a panadeine and tries not to chunder, while MP does a trial pack of the bags, with all the compressible gear tightly packed, as we're flying back to Istanbul, and a couple of weeks in Turkey, early tomorrow morning.
Seems like what we came with will, indeed, return with us in pretty fat bags.
Just on dark, head down to see if there are new faces, as a Dragoman group, doing the same route as us, but in the opposite direction, is due in, after rendezvouving with our people at lunch time. Find that they did meet our bunch OK.
There are 8 in their group, and they had a scary high speed trip in taxis from their meeting with our group. Their "truck" tried to run the roadblock as a real truck, without passengers, but they think it was turned back, as they saw a Dragoman truck going the other way, but couldn't see if it was theirs or Daphne. One of their group was a lively 30ish woman, not sure about the rest.
Spend a fair bit of the night alternating with DP on the loo. Feeling pretty wrung-out by morning, but probably on the mend.
Summary of Uzbekistan
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Uzbekistan. Before we came, reading about it being a Police State with the President being in complete control, and the Police continually soliciting bribes, made us a little anxious, but we had no problems at all. We've found before that there is very little street crime when the penalties are particularly harsh. I can't imagine hopping into anyone's car in the middle of the night in most countries, but it happens here all the time.
The standard of living, and public facilities, and the absence of visibly impoverished people like you see in countries like India or even Russia, was a surprise.
After talking to various people, we got the impression that the people are not happy with the President, who, in effect, is the government. The country earns plenty of money from oil, but most of it doesn't get to the people. In particular, one of the President's daughters spends LOTS of money.
The tourist sites of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were great, though they did start to get pretty similar by the end. One thing that was interesting, was trying to establish just how much of the buildings was original, and how much was reconstruction. Looking at some of the old photos, and reading the history of destruction of cities through conquest, earthquake, and abandonment, you'd get the impression that there was plenty of reconstruction.
Summary of Dragoman Trip
We thoroughly enjoyed the six weeks we spent on the Dragoman trip, however we were very glad that we weren't spending another six weeks on it, like most of the others. Six weeks in such close contact with eight other people was enough for us, and in fact for most of the others as well, judged by the various private discussions we had.
I'd only recommend it to older people (we're 57 and 65) who were physically quite fit (even getting in and out of the truck required a fair bit of agility).
I think the concept of the enormous truck with a bus cabin may have been a good idea for travelling 25 years ago, but there is limited need for such a vehicle in most places of the world these days. Also, even though motors may have been replaced, things like window slides are original, and don't work easily.
In most places we would have been better off with a van, which would have got us to our destination much quicker, with more time for sightseeing. Also because the truck was so big, it was just parked in cities, and we had to get our own way around. With a van, we could have driven around the cities more. A good example of this would have been Baku, where we could have visited more places on the Caspian, which were a few kms out of town.
The demographics of the customers has probably changed a bit (particularly in the locations we visited). More older people are retiring early, and travelling. Of the ten people on our trip, two were in their late 40's, one in their fifties, and two in their mid-sixties. These age groups are usually less interested in saving a few dollars by camping in dust bowls, and having to prepare a meal for ten or so people after a hard day's travelling.
One thing we did notice was that at least half the people were repeat customers, and although they had some negative comments about their trips, they kept coming back. Maybe we'll be one of those!
Where I stayed
Grand Orzu Hotel, Tashkent