Uzbekistan: A Tale of 4 cities (Part#2)
Uzbekistan: A Tale of 4 cities (Part#2)
It’s a minor curiosity that Uzbeks will take any opportunity to remind you what a horrible pestilence Genghis Khan was for the swath of destruction he unleashed upon their lands (Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were all left in flaming piles of rubble) while in the next sentence, sing praises to the man known as Timur AKA Tamerlane AKA Timur the Lame, a man possibly more capricious and bloodthirsty than Genghis and Hitler combined, but with the handy distinction that he was Uzbek. He also made Samarkand his capital, and what a capital he made it into.
As the last great conqueror to emerge from the Eurasian Steppe, Timur spread terror and destruction throughout Asia and the middle-east whilst simultaneously turning Samarkand into the greatest city of its time. It would have been a site to behold at the height of his power in the late 14th Century, but as luck would have it – parts of it still are.
It all got started when an imperial architect showed Timur his plans for a Madrassa that would not be the largest that was ever made. The architect was swiftly executed and the point was well made. Gigantic things continued to rise out of Samarkand for centuries after Timur’s death, culminating in arguably Central Asia’s greatest architectural showpiece – The Registan – A massive public square flanked by three Madrassas whose construction spanned three centuries. Fittingly Timur himself is entombed in an obnoxiously large Mausoleum called the Gur-e-Amir, though it’s actually nowhere near as interesting as the row of Mausoleums known as the Shah-i-Zinda where many of his relatives are buried – second only to Registan as Samarkand’s best known spectacle. While I loved all these grand historic sites, they’re all very spread out amongst a sprawling, sweltering, shanty-like city. Khiva and Bukhara, Samarkand is not, but it’s still a must see for Uzbekistan.
My Top rated experience:
As far as sites go, I was enchanted by the Shah-i-Zina. But in the end, I found the various of quirks of the modern city to be far more memorable.
For starters, my room at the 50’s American inspired, yet Soviet named Konstantin Hotel was totally loony. I’ll forgo an explanation and just show you this picture:
One afternoon I decided to pay a local gym a visit. Shamelessly called ‘Golds Gym’ and garishly ensconced with camp décor and dilapidated equipment, my presence attracted an enormous amount of attention amongst the other patrons. What really blew my mind though was the range of anabolic steroid vials available for purchase in plain site.
This is fine.
In the very same country where customs officials will scrupulously search your bags for codeine, a drug that in Uzbekistan, will get you sent to prison. But no worries on the Roids. Shoot that shit up.
On the way home I passed a subtle homage to Monty Python, in the form of a pet store featuring dead parrots for sale in the window. While I was afraid to see what they had inside, right next door was a Liquor Store that also had an intriguing offering on display – elaborate cobra shaped bottles of Cognac. While assuming such wares were available only in exchange for something worth at least as much as a Camel – I was floored to learn that each bottle cost a mere 18,000 Som – about $3USD. I had to have one for the bottle alone, but to my surprise, it turned out to be damn near excellent Cognac. Touche.
What Tashkent lacks in history, charm or general likability, it makes up for in Monolithic Soviet blocks, blistering summer heat and authoritarian omnipresence. Thanks to a cataclysmic earthquake in 1966 and the uninspiring Soviet rebuild that followed, Tashkent doesn’t have much to see on the historic front, but simply serves the basic functions of any other capital city. Now ruled over by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan was still on the last legs of its first dictator, Islam Karimov, when I was there back in August. But Karimovs legacy will likely take some time to dissipate, given Mirziyoyev was more or less his successor in waiting.
Ruling with an iron fist since the Soviet Unions disintegration in 1991, Karimov found himself a finalist in the awards for Most hilariously inflated currency (The Uzbek Som), Most hard-line suppression of Islam (the religion – not himself), Most Henry VIII inspired execution of dissidents (Boiling), and Least concerned response to the region’s most horrific ecological disaster (the Aral Sea).
I arrived in Tashkent as the last stop on a guided tour that had started 2 weeks earlier in Turkmenistan, though all but 3 days of it was based in Uzbekistan. While the tour had been great for the fact that it would have been exceptionally difficult to visit the key sites of both countries without one, I’d been getting a little tired of the average quality, shared accommodation, the long rides in between stops, and Uzbek food. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Uzbek food – It’s great! The signature dish is Plov, an oily mix of rice, vegetables and Lamb that tastes better than it sounds. But on account of almost almost all non Uzbek eateries serving up garbage everywhere else in the country, it was all I’d been eating and I needed a break.
Now on my own again, I decided to check into the second best hotel in town – The Radison Blu – and spend a few days wallowing in the various luxuries of modernity, high speed wifi, international cuisine and sedentariness. It was also averaging a scorching 47 celcius when I was there, so I mostly preferred the air-con of my room to lingering by the pool for too long.
One thing in the hotel you can’t escape from is the ever-present security of the police state, which comes to a nexus in the capital. Police and Military roam the streets of Tashkent day and night, and I consider myself fortunate to have avoided the harassment and extortion that so many other tourists are subjected too. Obviously this wouldn’t happen in the hotel, but security guards and metal detectors framed every entrance and exit to the Radison. When I tried bringing a tinder date back with me they acted as though I was attempting to spread Anthrax through the lobby with a snow blower. But this paled in comparison to the airport. When it came to leaving Tashkent to fly to Kyrgyzstan, the airport security made LAX look like fucking Tellytubby land.
My Top Rated Experience
Other than doing nothing in the comforts of the Radisson, I did venture out a couple of evenings to see some of the token monuments of the city. These were mildly interesting but I found the local bar scene to be a lot more interesting. Without the benefit of a local girl to show me, I’d have missed out on this entirely. Due to local laws, many establishments are forbidden to have signage, people loitering outside or even a trace of sound escaping the premises. While they’re all on main streets, they’re also all hidden entrances. You’d have absolutely no idea anything was happening anywhere at all. Going up to random doors on dimly lit streets, and pulling them open to reveal the place pumping inside was quite the thrill. Though not as thrilling as the local prices. I was paying 15 US cents per beer and vodka shot.
I also enjoyed making it rain in my hotel room with absurdly inflated wads of Uzbek Som – this has got to be one of the best places on Earth to do that.