October 2017: Both Turkmenistan and Iran prove a bit tricky with the visas, so I fly over the Caspian sea to the capital of Uzbekistan: Tashkent, and join a tour group through this land locked country.
I'm so tired that I sleep through the plane taking off, and find myself mid-air being served lunch by an Uzbek air hostess. The plane lands and the que for the passport control is, just like in Turkey, a chance to hone one’s skills as an amateur wrestler. Still I'm through the border with the minimum of hassle. I was expecting lengthy questioning and a check of all my bags, but no-one seems to bat an eyelid. The only unusual thing is that I must declare all foreign currency, I'm then given a certificate for this, which I must not lose. On leaving the country I must have less money than this on my person. They cannot afford to let precious dollars leave their country. To the hostel, and I'm still a little apprehensive about exploring Tashkent on my own, so I chill out at the hostel for most of the day.
The next day I go exploring. The first stop is the bank. I manage to stock up on dollars in Baku, there are very few cash machines here, and the dollar is king. I change 40 dollars, which gets me more than 300,000 som. If only I'd changed 150 dollars, I'd be a millionaire. There is so much cash that it does not fit in my wallet, so I have to stash some with an elastic band in my bag. I then walk to the metro stop. On entering the metro I am stopped two times by police officers to search my bags. The metro looks like it is completely unchanged since it was built in the soviet times. Kitch stalinesque art adorns every stop; this is a tourist attraction in itself. I get off at the western edge of the town, where there is a grand market beneath a blue tiled dome. The market spills out of the domed area for miles around the structure. You can buy all kinds of weird meats, fruits, nuts, sweets and other assorted artifacts here, and I spend a couple of hours simply gaping in amazement at the bizarre world in which I now find myself. This is truly an alien land, the people dress, act and look so different from anything I have ever seen. It feels like a world which is a love child between the mongol empire and soviet russia (incidentally most of the people here are also said love children), the faces run the gauntlet from Mongol to northern Russian and everything in between. They dress with a weird mix of 1970 style and traditional steppe land getup. I feel quite far out of my comfort zone, occasionally the odd tourist with a large camera breaks my illusion that I have time travelled. I spend the rest of the day wandering the streets of Tashkent. There are police officers everywhere, and I am a little apprehensive of them. I'm always searched if I enter a public building, or a metro station, otherwise they don't bother me, nonetheless, this feels like a police-state; I want to shake these people and scream at them "don't you know the cold war is over". If, like me, you never got the chance to visit the Soviet Union, this might be the next best thing, but even here westernism is creeping in, so do it soon!
To travel here is not to experience the sublimely beautiful, but to be immersed in an alien world, to be taken out of your comfort zone and to have your preconceptions of the world challenged. I think I need to acclimatize to this place slowly, so I head back to the sanctuary of the hostel and chat to some of the European tourists, of which there are actually a few, slowly I'll get a bit braver and face Uzbekistan head on, but for now I'll spend a few days here. In any case I have done some kind of sight seeing or travelling everyday for nearly 3 months, so I treat myself to a day of doing nothing the next day, and spend the time writing my diary.
Over the past few days in Tashkent I was chatting to a girl that I met on Tinder: E (I won’t use her real name as she said some disparaging things about the government and you never know in a place like this). Rather unusually for this country she has made it to 30 without getting married. Such an ailment is treated with both pitty and bewilderment. She works for the UN and speaks excellent English. I played the role of the confused tourist, which comes easily to me, and somehow managed to get her to show me around the city. She is an ethnic Tartar and speaks Russian as a first language, and works for the UN drugs and organised crime unit. Much of Europe’s Heroin comes through Samarkand from Afghanistan (they share a border). Before the US invasion of Afghanistan the warlords would smuggle the raw poppy seeds through the border with Uzbekistan, but now, more emboldened, they make the heroin themselves in Afghanistan, as this is more profitable. As the borders of Uzbekistan are in such tight lock down it is almost certainly the case that the police are themselves the main ringleaders of this smuggling operation. E. works for the anti-drugs department of the UN in Central Asia, she informs me that much of the heroine that ends up in Europe comes through here, and the state is very much a part of the operation. She tells me that the political situation has improved immensely since the death of Karimov, but whenever I ask a particularly sensitive question she deflects, or else whispers that she will tell me later; whenever she says something critical of the state she always looks nervously over her shoulder. It's difficult to tell the extent of the oppression in Uzbekistan; tourists are completely shielded from this aspect of the country, but there is definitely a sinister air to the streets of Tashkent. You never seem more than 20 m from a police man, and that's just the ones wearing uniforms, who knows how many more plain clothes officers there are around the place.
Our first stop on the tour is the national history museum, housed in one of the many grand soviet buildings in the centre of Tashkent. The exhibits are all explained in Uzbek, English and Russian. Many of the exhibits are very interesting, but many border on the farcically propagandic. I am told that the first anatomically modern humans came from Uzbekistan: patently not true. The story of the Soviet Union is entirely negative, not wholly unjustified, but is written in a language that would be unusual for a museum in Europe or the west "Our violent Soviet oppressors crushed our Uzbek traditions" etc. There is also a fair bit of hero worship for Karimov; what it does not tell you is that Karimov was originally an ardent supporter of the Soviet regime. He oppose Gorbachev because he was too liberal, eventually when he saw that it was a lost cause he rebranded himself as an Uzbek nationalist and claimed the throne of the Uzbek republic for himself. Until his death he has won all three elections, once even receiving more votes than there were registered voters in Uzbekistan. My favourite bit of the museum is the modern section at the end of the museum about the police force which simply states that "even the police are getting better". Despite the unabashed propaganda of this museum this is the warmest thing they can say about the Uzbek police.
We walked some more around Tashkent and looked at a few more monuments, the most striking of which is the monument to the second world war, featuring simply a crying mother cradling a dead child. The Nazis never made it this far, of course, but many Uzbeks died defending the Soviet Union from the war machine of the Wehrmark. The other monument of note was the monument to the earthquake of the 1960s. A large clock shattered in two, stopped at the exact time of the quake; man and woman, soviet style jaw lines and muscles, forcing the cracked earth together again, perhaps symbolising the triumph of socialism over these earth shattering events. This large earthquake destroyed much of the historic architecture of Uzbekistan, along with many of the poor quality residential buildings of Tashkent.
One thing that really struck me about Tashkent was how empty it is. It's a big city with over 2 million people, and was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union. It's full of vast open squares which can only be adequately filled by red army parades. The vast spaces compound the fact that there is almost no one around on the streets of central Tashkent, only the police men who stand in the corners of the squares. It's utterly perplexing that the central square of a city of 2 million people could be literally devoid of people in the middle of the day. E. informs me that the government actively discourages people from congregating in open spaces, the regime also one day decided to close all the food and market stalls from many of the public squares in Tashkent, the result is an imposing city, with grand architecture, which is utterly devoid of all soul and life. In anycase simply the spooky experience of being in such a quiet urban area is a memorable experience in itself. I also enjoy E. company for the day. It’s good to have some in-depth intellectual company; she does some great guiding, the fact that she is stunningly beautiful as well doesn't hurt.
We end up in a dinner place, and order the national dish: plov. Each region has its own take on the classic Central Asian dish of rice, meat carrots and sometimes dried fruits such as raisins. It’s a treat here, I'm starting to see that the Cuisine of Uzbekistan is actually, contrary to what you might expect, quite rich and subtle. I offer to pay for the dinner and for two people two courses with drinks the bill comes to under 5 pounds, it’s rather easy to make a generous gesture in this part of the world.
We part ways finally, I imagine never to see each other again as I must leave Tashkent the day after.
For the next 10 days I booked a tour of Uzbekistan. I was uncertain as to how hard it would be to travel in this country, so before I left I booked myself on a tour for the highlights of the country. Now that I'm here I feel confident that I could have done this under my own steam, but it's good to have the company and to relieve the mental effort of having to work out how to do things and how to get places. We're to meet at 6 pm at the hotel Uzbekistan and spend the night there before starting the tour proper. I fill the morning with a quick look at the very charming museum of applied arts, which showcases some of Uzbekistan's folk crafts and traditional costumes, before heading to our rendezvous.
At 6 pm we all meet at the reception of the hotel Uzbekistan. The building is an extreme concrete monstrosity on the Amir Timur square. The middle of the square has a statue of the mongol despot astride his trusty steed, a good third of the rest of the square is wrapped with the enormous 23 story ugly concrete of the hotel Uzbekistan. Everything about this place reeks of the Soviet Union, not least of all the service. In any case I meet with the group, who are a mixture of mostly the anglophone countries, and a mix of old and youngish people. These look like a more serious and sophisticated traveller compared to what you might find in Europe, they seem to know their stuff and are all seasoned travellers. I'm to share a room with Paul, a young guy from London. We seem to get on well. In all my travels this is only the second time that I have been on a tour group, I'm generally not that keen on the idea, as it removes some of the sense of freedom that I feel when travelling, and also I feel can put a barrier between you and the locals; but I make an exception as I have been travelling for so long. Our guide is a Kyrgyz national but an ethnic Russian called Veronica, or Nica, for short. She's only 24 and is therefore significantly younger than most people on the tour, but she does a great job of keeping everyone happy and keeping the mood light as we go along our way. We all have dinner together, another excellent feast, the food here is good and cheap, the major cost we incur here is the foreign wine that we buy. I found Uzbek wine hard to distinguish from Vinegar, and therefore would recommend avoiding it for all but the most ardent of alcoholics.
The next day we set off on the bus to Samarkand. I get chatting to some of the other people, including a guy called Abdullah, or Abs, a British Indian from the East of London, who at first impression stuck me as you stereotypical checky ladish cockney, but after a while I found a much more reflective intelectual side to him and warm to him a lot. He's also a muslim and has a good knowledge of Islam and Islamic history and can also read Arabic, which comes in handy for some of the tour. I also get on well with a girl called Holly from Manchester and an Australian guy called Nick, and American-Korean called Suzie and an Irish woman by the name of Patricia. We form a little clique as most of the other people are much older than us, or are coupled up and pass some of our evenings playing cards or drinking together while the oldies hit the hay.
On route to Samarkand we stop at a plov demonstration. Some enterprising locals offer tour groups demonstrations of how they make plov, cutting all the ingredients and slowly frying them in an open cauldron. More delicious food, and we eat al-fresco in their beautifully decorated garden, with grape vines growing up a wooden decked structure. It all seems just that bit too nice for central Asia; where is the squalor and the grime! Chatting amongst our almost entirely anglophone group I hardly feel like I am abroad at all.
After four hours of driving we arrive at the almost mythical sounding destination of Samarkand, even the name gives me a tingle of excitement. One of those places, like Timbuktu, that you may have heard of but are not quite sure if it is a real place or not and are too embarrassed to ask.
After freshening up we are given our orientation walk. The structure of the tour is that Nica gives us a quick look around a city and tells us some funny stories, and where to get the best food and coffee etc. and goes light on the history, and then later hands us over to a local expert who can really give us the detail on the place. Samarkand is a reasonable sized city which, unlike some of the next stops, merges tourism with the lives of actual people. The touristic centre piece of the city is the Registan, a series of three madrassas (essentially Islamic boarding school, like Eton but instead of latin and classics you get arabic and the Koran), forming a square, the last side of which is open, with a viewing platform. The three structures together form, almost, but not quite, a completely symmetrical picture from the viewing platform. These three structures each have two minarets each, which are each slightly different, and none of which seems to be quite vertical. The outside of all the buildings are decked in the Uzbek trademark blue tiling, but with some interesting, and one might say, un-islamic decorations, as they depict human and animal form. Some say these decorations were a nod to both Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, which were all tolerated and practised religions in the days of the Mongols. The centre of this visual feast is a grand open square, which is used, this being Uzbekistan, as a place for policemen to congregate and tell people not to congregate. At night this place is lit up spectacularly, and it is well worth checking out this sight in as many levels of light as possible.
As well as the Registan there is also the Bibi Khanum mosque, built by Amir Timur’s wife, or rather at her request (I doubt she did much masonry herself). The architect allegedly took one kiss from the King's wife as payment for the building, an unwise choice as it led to him being hurled from the minaret upon the mosque's completion. Almost certainly not a true story, but what does it matter. The whole of Samarkand has that magical mystical feeling to it, like a magic realist novel, one is not quite sure what is real and what is not. To add to this sensation there is the knowledge that almost all historical buildings that you look at were actually not there when I was born, most of them being rebuilt by Karimov in the late 90 early or 2000s, and indeed there is much that is still not finished. In any case the only reasonable way to describe the Bibi Khanum mosque is that it is really f**** big. It's like a normal Mosque, with the same proportions, the size of the place looks almost comical, like the architects were compensating for something.
These two sights would be worth the trip alone, but Smarkand keeps hitting you with more and more. There is the tomb of Amir Timur himself. He asked to be buried here, but he died in Kazakhstan, so they brought his body across the desert, breaking with Islamic law and not burying him for the several weeks necessary for the journey across the desert, he must have been fairly stinky by the time he got here. His tomb is architecturally sublime, but much more modestly proportioned than his wife's mosque. In here you can que to see the tomb under which he lays, many Uzbeks stand there in referential silence. Just be careful not to mention that the Uzbeks’ national hero was in fact not an Uzbek at all, but ethnically a mongol, like his grandfather Genghis, and that of all people in history he certainly ranks as one of the greatest murderers of the Uzbeks. The Uzbeks look quite different from the other central Asians, without the swollen eyelids of the mongols, but Amir Timur is always, inaccurately, portrayed as an Uzbek.
As if this weren't enough there is also the tomb of one of Muhammad's Cousins. Muhammed himself said that this cousin was one of his dearest friends, and the man who most resembled the prophet himself. His body is housed in a labyrinth mausoleum, decked with cooling blue marbled tiles, just in case you hadn't seen enough blue tiles in Samarkand.
Finally we went to the observatory of Ulugbek, who was a great scientist and politician in the heyday of the arab empire. Samarkand was a great centre of learning in those days. The Arabs kept the knowledge of the Greeks alive, infused it with the advanced mathematics of the Indians and added to that many of their own original contributions whilst the Europeans were throwing their shit at each other and arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Ulugbek built a great observatory in Samarkand, including a compass on metal rings measuring 60m across, whereby he could make accurate measurements of the positions of the stars and planets.
Bukhara and Aydar Kŭl Camp
The next day we drove further into the desert to go and stay in a yurt camp in the middle of the desert, close to the border with Kazakhstan. The south west of Uzbekistan is quite mountainous, but the vast majority of the rest of the country is flat desert and semi-desert. Despite these arid conditions the Soviets thought that it was a great place to grow cotton. Consequently much of the hinterland of Uzbekistan is strewn with endless mono-cultured cotton fields, which is almost exclusively picked by hand to this day. Indeed it was, under the soviets, and continuing under Karimov, compulsory for all citizens to lend a hand to the cotton picking in the harvest season completely for free. In order to fuel this agriculture the soviets diverted a number of rivers from Kazakhstan and built a system of irrigation canals to feed the thirsty cotton crops. As a consequence of this move the vast aral sea has now almost completely disappeared. It is economically and politically not viable to re-chanel the water back into the sea as so much of the income of this poor country now relies on the cotton fields of central Uzbekistan. Still the traditional women in colourful hijab with their baskets for the cotton make for a pretty scene. On the drive out the cotton fields finally give up the ghost and are replaced by a sandy shrub covered monotonous desert, which is beautiful but repetitive and featureless. We make a brief stop at a mosque built on an oasis, which has behind it the remains of a castle built by Alexander the Great, so strange to think that the Greeks made it all the way here, as I feel in such an alien world, so far from Europe. Finally we arrive at the yurt camp towards the dusk.
Yurts, for those of you who don't know, are large tents made from a collapsible wooden frame and covered in felt. They can be loaded onto the backs of horses or camels as the nomads follow their livestock through the steppe lands. This yurt camp looks like it is going nowhere in a hurry though, it seems purpose built just for tourism and the atmosphere of adventure is somewhat ruined by the arrival of another bus load of French tourists. Still we have some fun walking into the desert and watching the sun set. We didn't go far from the camp, and the lights were always visible, but still I got a sense of how easy it is to get lost in a place like this, as I soon felt disorientated in this featureless landscape. We head back to the camp before it gets dark and the jackals come out to play, and share some Vodka and a sing along with the locals. The local owner forces more vodka on me and I began to feel quite merry. One of the locals brings out his two stringed Kazak guitar and we all get up and have a jolly dance together. I notice that our women and their men are all dancing together, but that their women are all safely tucked away in the kitchen, I don't want to find out what would happen if I tried to dance with one of them. The owner of the yurt camp points to Suzie and asks me if she is my woman, after I say no he looks delighted and pulls her to her feet and compels her to dance with us, but it all seems in good fun.
The next day, still a little sore from the vodka and having spent the night on the hard bed of the yurt, we begin our trip to Bukhara, the second of three silk road cities on our itinerary. Along the way we stop at a caravanserai, a stopping point for traders plieing the silk road, a sort of 15th century travelodge, if you will. Not too spectacular as it is mostly in ruins and the state doesn't think it economical to work their creative restoration magic on this one as it is so far from anything else. In the afternoon we arrive in Bukhara and check in to the hotel. The hotel is much more atmospheric than the drab soviet affairs of the last places, built around a courtyard in a historic building. Here we are right in the action of the old town. Bukhara does not have the same massive monumental sights as Samarkand, but in Samarkand the old sights are in and amongst the grimey life of a modern city with busy roads surrounding them. Bukhara has a large old town entirely pedestrianised and concentrated in one place, with a series of atmospheric domed roofed markets. This feels the most touristy place that I have visited in Uzbekistan, with many of the market sellers gently hustling you as you walk past "Magic carpet sir, almost free". Still the place manages to keep its enchanted arabian magic atmosphere. The centerpiece sight is a very wide imposing minaret, that so impressed Genghis Khan (allegedly) that it was one of the few things that he decided not to burn to the ground. There are of course more splendid Madrasas, Mosques and Mausoleums and the pretty grounds of the last Emir of Bukhara, who was eventually disposed of by the soviets, who had him shot, and absorbed the Khanate of Bukhara into the Soviet Union where it would stay until 1990 when it became a part of the republic of Uzbekistan. Also not a comfortable fit as a large number of the people here are Tajiks. Tajik the language is more like Persian/Farsi as opposed to the Turkic languages of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Kazakh. I soon realise that the borders here do not make too much sense, as many different ethnic groups are arbitrarily split by modern day borders. It does make Uzbekistan an interesting place to travel though, as each area has different faces, food and customs.
I found Bakhara an enchanting place to wonder. Uzbekistan, and particularly this town, are actually quite touristy, not overrun, but there is definitely a fair stream of tour groups that pass through this place, not what I was expecting from this country at all. Still what you loose in sense of being an intrepid adventurer you gain from some of the comforts that tourism brings, including, shock horror, a real coffee shop run by a German woman (Uzbeks are a tea drinking nation, and asking for a coffee usually get you Nescafe with milk, another of Uzbekistan's gross violations of basic human rights). Me and the group spend some time in these coffee shops, and were all becoming quite chummy now, and it's great to have some sustained company for a while, and the tour seems to afford us quite a lot of spare time. Our next and final stop in Khiva, but before we leave there is just time to slot in a visit to my old friend the hammam!
Firstly, they segregate the men and the women and tell us to take off our clothes and cover ourselves with large sheets. We then stand in the steam room which does wonders for my sinuses. One by one we are led into the other room to be given our massage. I'm close to last, so I have to wait and listen to the screams of the others before it is my turn. Finally, I am called through and I lie down on the hot marble as my masseur/torturer begins to bend and click me in ways I didn't think possible. Compared to this treatment Istanbul seems like a gentle back rub. The most brutal of these treatments involves him standing on the back of my knees and grabbing both of my arms and yanking me upwards arching my spine back. All attempts to keep on your flimsy towel are in vain, it’s not easy to retain your dignity in this place. Yet after all this rough treatment I feel great. The final step is to be doused in ginger and left in a cool room with your skin on fire. Finally the sadistic bastards come back in with a bucket of water and tell you to cover your eyes as the water is very hot, they then proceed to dose you with ice water and laugh to themselves and you gasp in shock! After all this rough treatment I feel serenely happy for the rest of the day.
The next day is a very early start to the city of Khiva. Our tour guide tells us that this is the Northern Ireland of Uzbekistan, as it is famed for its multicultural religious tolerance, I agree with her assessment of the city, but I'm not convinced by her knowledge of Irish history and politics. Khiva does indeed seem like a jolly and free place, if the women wear the hijab they do it creatively with brightly coloured scarves. People here seem happy to see foreigners, and we are constantly waved at and greeted by the locals. Of all the silk road cities that we stop at this is the smallest and most concentrated, being contained in mud caked old fortified walls, which are reminiscent of North Africa. Again to walk around here is to be bombarded with more brightly tiled minarets, mosques and madrasas. The place is also a maze, and with the guide I'd be completely disorientated. The guide does a great job of explaining the history but keeping it light and fun. I find the emir’s private quarters quite interesting. Here he has four bedrooms, one for each of his four wives, and in addition to this a much larger living quarters for his 44 concubines. Islamic law states that you are only allowed 4 wives, so the Amir would keep an Imam on hand to perform a marriage with whichever lucky concubine he chose for the night, only to annul the marriage in the morning again to free the Amir for the next night. What a hard life indeed!
We all go up onto the walls to watch the sunset, and the fading light plays magically on the mud baked walls and bricks of the old town, we stay up there for more than an hour and watch the town in the changing light. It's hard to pick a favourite from these three hard hitting silk road towns, but if forced I might have to say that this one was it. After people go to bed I sneak out of the hotel late at night and stroll round the eerily quiet town all by myself. Everything is beautifully lit. Truly magical, if a little spooky, to explore this ancient sight all by myself, and then to bed.
The next day we take the night train back to Tashkent. It leaves the nearby town Of Urgench at 2pm and arrives at 7.30 am the next morning. We are 4 to a cabin, but by now we all know each other pretty well and the journey has quite a party atmosphere to it. I even manage to smuggle in some vodka to see us on our way. Some local men invite me to their cabin and ply me with even more vodka and delicious food stuffs. We seem to sustain some kind of conversation despite the fact that we don't have a common language between us and I sit with them for a number of hours. Every time I put down my empty vodka glass it gets filled up again. This could get dangerous, so after the third glass I make my excuses and leave, feeling already quite light headed. I keep bumping into the guys at the end of the carriage and they are getting pretty drunk now, and try to plie me with more vodka which I keep politely declining. Everyone in our group does a shift with the locals and between us we manage to finish off their vodka supply and drift off to sleep. Many people in our group are getting a bit tipsy now and there is quite a comaradarly atmosphere with people fritting between the cabins and chatting excitedly to each other. Finally, I drift off to a fitful sleep, my head swerling from the vodka. When I awake we are back almost back in Tashkent, and back to my old friend the hotel Uzbekistan.
We take in one last sight in Tashkent, which is the national library housed in a beautiful building on the outskirts of town. The prize exhibit here is a 7th century Quran, written on leather sheets, thought to be only the 4th Quran ever written, the thing is massive and housed in a glass case, and heavily guarded of course by the ubiquitous policemen, whose presence I am finally becoming accustomed to. That evening our group all goes bowling together at the suggestion of our guide Nica, who is still around. Mostly we say goodbye to people as they catch flights back to their home lands, but Nica, Susie, Patricia and Abs all stay another night.
I stay another night in the hotel Tashkent, which has already been paid for by the tour group. My roommate, Paul, stayed behind in Khiva for a few more days, so I have the place to myself. The tour has been weirdly tiring so I sleep like a baby tonight.
The next day the remaining people from the tour, including our guide and interpreter, Nica, all go together to the mountains. Most of what we have seen of Uzbekistan is arid flat semi-desert, but the north west finger of Uzbekistan that borders both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. The mountains are part of the Tien Shan range, which tower over 7000 meters as they hit Kyrgyzstan in the east. Here they are more modestly sized, but there is a slither of snow at the top of the highest peaks. We take the metro to the very last stop in the North of the city and charter a taxi for the 5 of us from here. A young man in a Chevrolet van appears out of nowhere and offers to take us all there for a very reasonable price. He is a guide in the local area and has done this trip many times, he recommends to us a long chair lift which is 2 hours away. The drive takes in the grey urban sprawl of Tashkent, and after 40 minutes the mountains finally become visible, a welcome change to the flat hinterland of Uzbekistan. As we climb through the mountains we pass through a large walnut forest, the leaves of which are turning a beautiful brown orange, the first indication on this trip that summer is well and truly over. The trees give way and the view opens out onto a backdrop of high snow covered peaks and we reach the base of the chair lift. The chair lift is a dilapidated bare metal two seater. The safety bars are a tiny thin strip of metal that barely extend halfway across your seat, offering mostly psychological comfort. The lift slowly chugs up the hill, and we meet many people, mostly locals coming down the other way, many of whom cheerily wave and say hello to us. The views at the top are stunning again, and we simply stand there for an hour and admire the views and chat some more and then head back down on the chair lift. On the way back our driver takes us the scenic route back, taking in a large reservoir and a beautiful little lunch stop. Despite the hight and the autumnal setting its still upwards of 20 degrees and gloriously sunny and we take our time over lunch with the dramatic backdrop and soak in the rays, a serenely happy ending to a great tour through the enigmatic and enchanting land of Uzbekistan, although I am not yet done with the place and intend to make one more stop before I reach Kyrgyzstan.
Back at the hotel I transfer back to the Topshan hostel, along with Nica, our tour guide, who is staying one more day along with me in the hostel. I'm greeted with the mandatory shot of vodka on my arrival, and everyone welcomes me like an old friend. Along with the final stragglers we go to a Korean restaurant in Tashkent, one of many, and I'm surprised to find out that there is a large Korean population here in Uzbekistan. After Japan occupied Korea in the 19th century many Koreans fled to the eastern part of the Russian empire where they remained until the empire became the Soviet Union. During the second world war Stalin forcibly moved most of the Koreans to modern day Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, under the ludicrous pretense that they were spying on behalf of the Japanese. The modern day consequence of this folly is a string of excellent Korean restaurants in Tashkent.
That evening I say goodbye to Nica as she is to leave very early the next morning, but I convince her to show me around Bishkek and take her number and promise to come and find her when I finally arrive in Bishkek in about 3 weeks time.
The final day in Tashkent I spend lazing around in the sun and reading a few books. Earlier in my trip in Baku I stupidly left my kindle in the hostel as it was charging. I realised in Baku airport, but it was too risky to rush back with a taxi to get it, so I left it in the hostel. I've been deeply suffering from the lack of reading material on my trip, mitigated a bit by the company of the tour group. Amazingly the great people of the hostel in Baku arranged for someone who was staying at the hostel there to bring it with him to Tashkent. I met Denis in the hostel in Baku, and knew that he was from Tashkent, luckily he was returning to his home town just as I was getting back to the city, so I met up with him during the day, and gave him a case of beers to say thank you for his efforts. He doesn't speak English, and I don't speak Russian, but I was able to convey my gratitude as we stood talking in sign language for a few minutes before he headed back into town. Reunited with my kindle I then did something illegal in the state of Uzbekistan: I downloaded a book that was recommended to my by my UN tour guide E. called Murder in Samarkand. These are the memoirs of the British ambassador to Uzbekistan during the Blair years, and it certainly does not show Uzbekistan in a positive light. During the US lead war in Afghanistan the Uzbeks allowed the Americans to build an army base in the south of the country in exchange for favourable economic treatment and turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of the Karimov regime. Craig Murray was something of a whistleblower to the abuses of the Karimov regime and an advocate for human rights. The British eventually fired him for his outspoken criticisms, which were seen as an embarrassment for the west’s new found ally on the war on terror. Karimov used this war on terror as a smoke screen to round up and kill anyone who opposed them, often on trumped up charges of being an islamist terrorist. His favourite way of killing someone was to suspend them by the wrists with rope and submerge them in boiling water. The Uzbek government does a good job of hiding this grisly side to their recent past, and possibly present, to the average tourist, so books like this are well worth a read to see another perspective on the country.
My old room mate Paul returned to Tashkent this evening, and Abs was still around. Only the three of us were left in Tashkent from the tour, so we went for some Turkish food, a quick beer and ended the night sharing a hookah pipe between the three of us. Some small enclaves of this otherwise dead city seem to be showing the first flushes of a slightly hipper, more cosmopolitan vibe, but this scene is very much in its infancy. In contrast to more rural Uzbekistan there is a more trendy urban elite here, the girls shed the hijab in favour of their ridiculously over the top makeup and high heels and hit the town. But this scene is still quite small in Uzbekistan and our night out is quite sedate in the end. We all say goodbye, and I'm back to travelling by myself.
The next day I travel to Fergana by taxi. The system of transport in Uzbekistan, like most of the former soviet countries, works by shared taxi and marshrutka (mini-bus). These are simply taxis that wait at a designated spot, with the driver calling out the name of where they are going, and wait until they are full before they set off. This way you can quite easily and cheaply travel the country, paying for a seat, rather than chartering the whole taxi. The journey takes around five hours, over another stunning mountain pass into the Fergana valley. The Fergana valley is a region in three parts, the region has a fairly coherent ethnic and cultural makeup, but is spread over three modern day nations: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Stalin, perhaps intentionally, split this region into three administrative areas, which later morphed into the three modern day republics, on purpose, as this is one of the most conservatively muslim regions in the former USSR. Here Islam is more immediately obvious, with some people reportedly even belonging to the Saudi Wahhabi sect, an ultra-conservative backwards looking branch of sunni Islam that dictates, among other things, that females should never been seen by a male other than their husbands or direct relatives. The valley itself is wide and at a high altitude, so wide in fact, coupled with the often dense fog, that it is not usually possible to see the mountains surrounding the valley, and one has very little sense that you are in a valley at all. The climate here is much more suitable for arable farming, and the scenery changes from arid to lush and green once more. Many farmers ring the main highway into the valley selling various crops that are grown here. A good 10 million people live in this small area, making it by far the most densely populated region in the otherwise largely empty part of the world. As well as the farms there are myriad factories that dot the horizon, this is the economic powerhouse of central asia.
When the Soviet Union fell the previously non-existent borders between the 5 central Asian republics sprung up overnight. Many ethnic Uzbeks live in Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana valley and the surrounding areas. The Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz have had a fraught relationship since independence and for most of their histories the border between these two countries has been completely closed. This has caused enormous problems, not least of which is the fact that the main highway into the Fergana valley crosses through what is now Kyrgyzstan, so the government of Uzbekistan had to build a whole new mountain pass into the Fergana valley. Judging by the state of the road they have yet to finish the process 27 years after independence was declared.
I arrive in the city of Fergana just before the sun begins to set and check into the guest house, run by an old lady by the name of Valentina. Valentina, unusually, is a Russian speaking Christian, in a region where many people cannot even speak Russian, and practice Islam much more strictly than the other regions of Uzbekistan. Next door to the city of Fergana is a smaller city, which has almost been absorbed by Fergana, called Magilan. This is the main silk producing region of central Asia and the silk factories here are one of the main tourist draws of the region. Further East from here is the city of Andijon, which is right on the border with Kyrgyzstan, and is the main land border crossing. Andijon is famous for the scene of a great massacre. A number of bombs rocked the city of Tashkent in 2005. The Karimov regime blamed this on islamist insurgents, and the US went along with this story, but many believe, quite plausibly, that the bombs were planted by the regime itself as an excuse to round up and kill anyone who disagreed with them. Evidence that points to this is the fact that there were no policemen in the bazaars when the bomb exploded, remarkable as bazaars are normally crawling with police in their green uniforms. In addition to this the bodies of two girls that were accused of the crimes showed no marks of explosions, instead the pictures show that they were strangled to death, so it seems like the bombs were detonated, and then the already dead girls bodies were amateurly dumped into the ruble. The fact that this attack was completely implausibly pinned on islamist extremists barely matters in a state which has complete control of the justice system, the police and the media. In any case, the government spent many years arresting, torturing and sometimes executing people simply for being overly devout muslims, this culminated in mass riots in Andijan, Uzbekistan’s Islamic heartland. The police allowed the protesters to gather, and then closed them in and began to shoot them down one by one. This is the main reason that Andijon is famous, and is still known to be a combustible region, perhaps I'll stick to the silk factory in Magdilon for the moment.
After a quiet night at Valentina's place I take a marshrutka to the nearby town of Magilan, only 15 minutes drive from Fergana. This is a small old fashioned town, but with quite a bustle to it. Once again I seem to be the only tourist; the place has a much more real feel to it than the tourist set pieces of the silk road cities that I have previously visited, and I seem to be attracting a lot of attention for being here, all of it good-willed it seems.
During the soviet times the silk factories in the region were collectivised and industrialised, but the nostalgic love of the old ways of processing silk was so strong that people risked their lives to continue the cottage silk industries in their basements. One of the main reasons that the people so opposed the collectivisation of the silk farms was that it would involve sending their womenfolk to public factories, where, presumably, other men would be able to see them. Most silk factories are now small time home affairs, with a clear gender based division of labour, but some of the factories allow tourists inside to look at how things are done. It's a fascinating experience. First the silk worms in their cocoons are boiled alive (in the spirit of Karimov!), one of the young girls sits cross legged by the boiling machine and turns a spinning wheel which gradually extracts the thin threads from the worms. The silk is bundled up, and is still quite coarse at this point. It is sometimes optionally bleached at this point to make it pure white and smooth. In the next room a man sits by an enormous square spinning wheel and deftly gathers these bundles into large collections. Ten individual threads are combindes on the hooks of the large spinning machine to make thicker bundles of silk. An old man then lays out the silk on racks on the floor and begins to mark a pattern on the silk with charcoal. The silk is protected by a wax coating in parts and then repeatedly dyed. Three submersions in dye are enough to give the 5 colours of the pattern, by using mixtures of different colours. Finally the silk is taken to the looms, which are operated by women. These complex machines gather the silk into carpets, putting horizontal wafts, sometimes made with cotton, to the vertical heft of the silk. These machines are incredibly complex, entirely human operated, with a series of seven pedals, which the old ladies tap rhythmically in the necessary order. The result, two months down the line, is a beautiful silk carpet. So that's where they come from, unless of course they are made by a machine in China, which is you buy one from one of the tourist markets on the silk road they almost certainly are.
I head back to Fergana in the afternoon. Fergana is the most cosmopolitan city in the Fergana region, it is claimed, but all things are relative. Nonetheless, it has quite an interesting bazaar, and a pedestrian street lined with tea houses, and a park with a coffee shop where young people often hang out. I park myself in the outside area of the coffee shop, there are many young students milling around. I get the impression that many of them are looking at me, and some of them begin to giggle. They obviously don't see too many tourists around here. After a while one of the braver ones asks to take my photo. She poses for a selfie with me, and then laughs and runs away. This opens the floodgates, and one by one they line up to take a selfie with me and then retreat. One of the braver ones comes up to me and talks some English to me. Her name is Shahlo, and she is stunningly beautiful 20 year old, with pale skin and wide dark brown eyes and jet black hair. She talks to me for a while, and is a lot more forward than her friends, taking my number, asking me if I am married. When I tell her that I'm 29 and am still single she blushes, but also seems deeply shocked. This is something of a rarity in this region. She tells me that she lives with her family and they expect her to get married soon and that she has never had a boyfriend. Women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and it is still very common after the wedding night for the groom’s family to inspect the bed sheets for blood the next morning! Marriage in Uzbekistan is still a very traditional affair, after a few dates, accompanied by the woman’s family, the man may offer an expensive gift to the woman, if she accepts the gift they are then engaged. The parents can of course at any point veto the arrangement if they are not suitably impressed with the social standing of the other family. After a long engagement the wedding finally takes place after the groom transfers a large sum of money to the woman's parents. Weddings are crazy affairs, and some people reportedly spend three years' wages on the ceremony and associated festivities! As the conversation progresses I get the impression that Shahlo wants me to begin this whole process with her. Stunning though she is, I don't quite have the stomach for this drawn out process. She has my number though and over the next few days she keeps trying, I can't fault her determination. It's clear that the young people here, although quite superficially westernised, retain their traditional ways of life. They also seem quite naive about the outside world. After I tell her that I am from Britain she asks me if I have ever been on Haj, which seems like a strange question in the circumstances. As tempting as an astonishingly beautiful 20 year old subservient wife is, I can't help but think that it would all end in tears, so I gracefully extradite myself from the situation and continue with my travels, maybe in some parallel universe somewhere there is a version of me who decided to stay and make a life with his young Uzbek bride, I guess we'll never know.
The next day I set off for the Kyrgyz border. As luck would have it two Italians I meet at breakfast are heading in the same way, so we save ourselves the hassle of several bus hops and take a taxi the whole way to the border. The only words our taxi driver offers to us are as we pass Andijon, he points and says "bad place". We reach the border in just over two hours, and begin the fairly lengthy process of leaving Uzbekistan. There is a fair bit of bureaucracy in entering and leaving Uzbekistan. First of all you must declare all the foreign money that you bring into the country and keep a copy of this declaration. You must then make another declaration upon leaving the country. It is not permitted to have more money than you came in with. In addition to this, and more annoyingly, you must collect a registration slip for every night that you stay in Uzbekistan. Getting any of this wrong can, at least in theory, result in a $1000 fine. The border guards check all of our stuff, but not too thoroughly, and the process takes us less than 40 minutes, much easier than I expected. Kyrgyzstan seems to let almost anyone in for however long they might like to stay and does not require a visa. Politically Kyrgyzstan is a bit of a contradiction, it is the most pro-Russian of the 5 former soviet stans, but is by far the most liberal and democratic of them all. The border guard barely even glances at our passports as he stamps down the Kyrgyz stamp onto one of the few empty pages I have left in the passport. I'm now unceremoniously in country number 12 of my trip.