The Lonesome Smoking Santa

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Despite what you might think after the recent posts, Tashkent offerred more than just visas and militsia and apparatchik. As the largest city in Central Asia, Tashkent was a winter playground of Metro stations, historical monuments, and museums.

The record cold continued. One man said it was the coldest winter in ten years. So the Metro was a good place to thaw while visiting interesting Metro stops, the central ones each with their own theme (Greek columns or cosmonauts in space, for example). The Metro was clean and futuristic, in a retro Soviet 1950s way. The Metro meant I could visit the entire city every day, if I wanted.

The Orthodox Christmas came and went on January 7th, the date of Jesus' incarnation using the Julian calendar. The Roman Catholic Church once also celebrated on this date, but switched the date to the Roman winter festival to compete with the birthdays of the Roman Gods and also switched to the Gregorian calendar.

Secular Santas dressed in bright red and electric blue were in the parks, with secular Muslim Uzbek families taking childrens' pictures with him and his elf helpers. Teenagers took pictures with the nearby Amur Timur statue, a paradoxical symbol of their new country, which has never existed before in this form.

The Amur Timur Museum was a metaphor for this symbol. On one hand, the museum showed ample quotes of Amur Timur the benevolent ruler. On the other hand, they didn't mention the butchery he committed as he extended his rule from Samarkand out to Delhi and Baghdad and the Caucasus, with perhaps 17 million people slaughtered.  On one day in Delhi, Timur's army killed 100,000 Hindu infidels.

So Amur Timur seemed a perfect symbol of a country whose leader puts signs outside every major building saying he built it or he restored it, while at the same time suppressing and improsoning and murdering people who do not have the same views.

Exiting the Chorsu Metro Station, I climbed the stairs with dozens of other passengers into the largest bazaar in Tashkent, where people sold fruits, bread, socks, underwear, coats, detergent, cell phones, and more. I came here several times to eat shashlyk kababs and bread and meet local vendors.

Just to the northwest of Chorsu was the Khast Imom complex, with Barakhon Medrassa and Telyashayakh Mosque, dating to the 16th centuries but newly
restored by president Karimov himself. The medrassa was supposedly the residence of the Central Asian Muslim Religious Board, though inside they only sold souveniers.   Nevertheless, Islam is reviving after the dissolution of the USSR, with some wanting to re-establish a Caliphate and unite Central Asian countries into Turkestan.

Around the complex was the icy old town, some of which wasn't too old, given the destructive power of the 1966 earthquake, which leveled the city. Still, the mud-brick homes and narrow winding streets were a contrast to the wide boulevards elsewhere.

Exiting the Mustaqillik Maydoni Metro Station (Independence Square), I saw a few more Santas posing with balloon-holding children in the vast square. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was more sober, with a Santa taking a cigarette break behind the 400,000 names of Uzbek soldiers who died in World War II.  During World War II, Tashkent, never historically a significant city, became a major center of Soviet industry and production, well hidden from German bombs.

Nearby,  The Modern Art Museum was full of colorful and intriguing paintings, which provided relief to the icy cold grey outside. President Karimov built this museum himself, according to a sign outside. Inside, I looked into the thoughts of others, with their brush strokes, wondering what they were trying to convey with their work (nothing too Islamic, of course).

Though the Metro made getting around easy, places to stay and eat were sparse after the shashlyk and fruit in Chorsu. For five nights, I stayed in the railway station gastinitsa and for another three nights, I stayed at Gulnara B&B in the old town. There were no restaurants near these places that I could find and the holidays meant that establishments were often closed, so shashlyk and fruit it
was, despite the cold freezing the onions and congealing the lamb's fat before you could take a bite.

The two weeks in Tashkent had their moments, but was more of a learning
experience, if you will. Having no books to read, meeting few English speakers, seeing all the sights several times, memorizing the Metro routes, facing the bitter cold grey skies and slippery sidewalks, searching for places to eat a warm meal, avoiding the stare of corrupt militsia, and chasing after visas that would never be stamped, I was a lonely traveler trapped and unable to travel because of bureaucracy.

But loneliness is a part of the travel experience and helps you appreciate, understand, and be mindful within the present,
when you do not have control over your future path, so to speak,
the times when the sun doesn't shine,
the times when you are missing a home,
friends and family, 
and sending little e-mail notes to people wishing them a Happy New Year, and
meaning it.

Be happy, even when the skies aren't blue.
It's tough to do,
but possible.
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