Monday, November 26, 2007


(The reason my promised comeback got put on hold for a few more days...)

I’ve just got back from Uzbekistan*, which is not a sentence I expect to be able to type very often. I spent most of my time there inside a large Turkish owned hotel, in which I lived, worked, and ate, which means that I can’t really make that many observations about the country, though I did manage to get out to Samarkand for a day at the end of the trip.

(*When I say "back", I'm currently writing this in Vienna airport between legs of a gruelling Tashkent-Moscow-Vienna-Bucharest flight plan.)

Uzbekistan, as you may be aware, is run by a particularly brutal dictator, noted, among other things, for his penchant for boiling people alive. I’m not sure he actually personally does that, or whether he delegates it, but it certainly seems to be a feature of the regime. It’s difficult being in such a place, because I always want to ask people how they feel about the government but realise that it’s perfectly possible that someone will be listening in somehow, and obviously I don’t want to put anyone in an awkward position. The few conversations along those lines I did have made it pretty clear that the upcoming presidential elections, which Karimov (the dictator) will win by a landslide, will not be in the least bit reflective of public opinion.

The BBC website is strangely inaccessible from Uzbekistan, but most others are available, including the Guardian, and, really bizarrely, - though maybe that’s still online there because it recently had to change its host server thanks to threats of legal actions from Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek oligarch who has, shall we say, a murky past, and is now a major shareholder in Arsenal football club. If you haven’t followed the whole blogosphere vs Usmanov case, you can get an overview here, and a much more detailed account here.

The Uzbek Som (the currency) isn’t worth a great deal – coming in at 1300 to the US dollar (and bear in mind that the US dollar these days isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on). That wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the problem lies in the fact hat the largest banknote is 1000 Som. So if you change, say, $50, you get this massive brick of cash wrapped in an elastic band. I’m told that until a couple of years ago the biggest bill was a 200 Som. A fellow consultant told me that two years ago she’d come to Tashkent for the first time and she and a mid-sized group of people (10-12) had been taken to a restaurant by their host, who had brought with him a box of photocopy paper, and surprisingly didn’t leave it in the car but brought it into the restaurant. It turned out, of course, that it didn’t contain photocopy paper at all, but was instead full of cash so that he could pay the bill.

Other observations in brief:

Uzbek is the only language in “the Stans” which is written in Roman script. They made the decision to switch from Cyrillic in the mid-nineties. Still, most things are written in both Uzbek and Russian anyway, so you can still get your fill of the enjoyable game of code-breaking Cyrillic script. It is a Turkic language, and sounds really really similar to Turkish.

I’m told that many of the men are working abroad (in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey) most of the time, so when you go to a restaurant for lunch, for example, it’s notable how nearly all the customers are women.

They’re a very friendly and hospitable people, who would do anything to make you feel welcome. It’s also a really traditional society in many ways (though not really related to its nominal Islamic nature – the vast majority identify as Muslim, but do not practice the religion). People get married young and the family is still very strong.

It has a fair degree of ethnic mix – there are not only Uzbeks and inevitably Russians, but Tajiks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Koreans, and I think in the south some Afghans. The Ferghana valley I the east of the country is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the border is quite possibly the most ridiculous one you’ll ever see, with enclaves all over the place. A legacy of the Soviets attempting to make sure of whatever it was they needed to make sure of. It was here, in the town of Andijan, where there was an uprising a few years ago that was brutally suppressed, Tiananmem style.

The hotel I was staying in was mostly populated with Koreans on business. One evening we were sitting in the lobby having a drink with some of our participants, some of whom had led pretty sheltered lives, when in walked...well lets call it a delegation of young female professionals. There were two youngish Korean guys there who were obviously the fixers, and after a large amount of to-ing and fro-ing, the young ladies disappeared into the lifts. A few minutes later, in walked another group, and the same procedure was followed. It was all very interesting from a kind of voyeuristic/journalistic standpoint. Shortly afterwards when I went up to my room, there was one woman still out there in the corridor, knocking at a door, presumably hoping to wake her assignment up. One of the things they had to hand over was a copy of their passport to the hotel - which presumably means this whole palaver is not only sanctioned by the hotel, but also by the state (since that is no doubt why the hotel makes this stipulation).

The contrast between arrival and departure at Tashkent international airport couldn't be greater. On arrival, the bus picked us up from the plane and drove us to the terminal at which point some passengers sprinted to the passport control. I soon realised why this was - because the "queue" to go through there was a massive melee of hellish proportions. Getting there first was definitely the way to go. For me, it made no difference as I needed to get my visa before I could even think about joining the passport scrum. So I, and 4 Qatari blokes had to hang around for over half an hour before some bloke actually bothered to come along and open up the visa desk. While I waited I chatted to my visa companions who turned out to be the FIFA appointed officials for the upcoming Uzbekistan v South Korea Olympic qualification football match. Eventually we got our visas, and joined the tail end of the passport queue . Once through there (which was a mere 20 or so minutes because most of our plane had already made it), we picked up our bags and joined the next set of elbows for the customs. My Qatari companions showed admirable restraint in not telling people who they were, in the hope that this would get them through faster - in their shoes I'd definitely have attempted to get some VIP treatment. The whole process eventually took two hours - and apparently this was a good day.

Departing from Tashkent (at least on business class) is another matter entirely. There is actually a separate part of the airport for business class passengers, so you do your paperwork with no queue, pass your bags through the machines with nobody else present and eventually end up in a special departure lounge. When the flight is called, you actually get on a separate bus from the economy plebs and are taken to the front steps of the plane, while the others have to go up the back. It's very odd. Mind you, I'm told to get out in the economy section you have to arrive 4 hours before your plane leaves. In short, the advice has to be - if you're flying out of Tashkent upgrade your ticket.

God, I've gone on a long time, and haven't even talked about Samarqand. That one will have to wait.

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