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Saturday, August 07, 2004

Two weeks in Uzbekistan...

I’ve been in Uzbekistan about two weeks now and I think I may be getting used to the police presence. They’re everywhere, and everywhere they’re a constant threat of hassle. Evidently they can read from your body language whether you’re new, as I had a few encounters with the police for documents in my first few days but these soon stopped. I did ignore whistling police a few times and got on a train in Tashkent metro the other day rather than hand over my passport for inspection. The local people seem to be happy to see foreigners give the police a bit of grief, perhaps because they can’t get away with the outright hostility and swearing that foreigners do.

In Tashkent I learned to love the most beautiful Soviet concrete architecture but that horrid techno synthesizer Russian and Uzbek music came to be the bane of my existence. The horrible music, played full blast though poor speakers goes best with the bland and always fatty food here.

The Fergana Valley, east of Tashkent, turned out to be less than I was hoping for. It is now perfectly clear to me why most tourists who pass through there are only their way either to or from Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The Fergana Valley is supposed to be the most densely populated region of Uzbekistan and while it is relatively densely populated, the towns and cities there, like Tashkent, at times seemed eerily quiet. I’ve heard that the claimed 24 million population is a fabrication by President Islam Karimov, inflated in order to help his not so subtle claims to regional hegemony. From looking around so far, it certainly seems like there has been significant shrinkage in the population since the breakup of the USSR. It was about 21 million in 1991 and with the mass exodus of Russians, likely coupled with a sharp decline in the birth rate, today’s claims of 24 million seem to be inflated at least a little.

As part of Stalin’s grand strategy for Central Asia, most of the borders here were drawn very arbitrarily, explaining why Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all wind together in the Fergana Valley. What is perhaps the strangest legacy of this is that there are enclaves of one country inside some of the others. One such enclave is Shakimardan, almost directly south of Fergana town. It sounded like a pretty nice place, set in the mountains with some good day hikes and treks leading out from the main town. I heard that provided one takes a bus rather than a taxi or share-taxi to get there, one can pass through Kyrgyzstan and into the Uzbek enclave and back without any Kyrgyz visa or multiple entry Uzbek visa. Unfortunately for my adventurous side, the Tashkent bombings last week woke me up and made me realize testing my luck probably isn’t the best idea, especially as I fully expected more rigorous checks at all the frontiers in the wake of the attacks. Relax Mom; I didn’t go. It would have been fine of course, but with my dollars running a little low and the vary real possibility of having to bribe my way out of a little trouble if I got there and couldn’t get back, I’d be able to write great tales from some wonderful Central Asian prison.
Most of the hotels here seem to be government-owned monstrosities, staffed by Russian women. Particularly in Tashkent, these older women are always happy to see you despite the language barrier. They all seem to live at the hotel and run it like it is their own, save for the cumbersome registration paperwork they have to do for you each and every day.