Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Central Asia

Back in the happy capital of Uzbekistan. I don't want to disparage it but the best thing I have seen so far is the metro. The sovs were useless at many things (like keeping their system alive) but they could build a good underground when they put their mind to it. Some of the platforms are quite spectacular so it's a bit of a letdown when the place you went to see is not as nice as the nearby station.

Tashkent for me is a place were things get done. In Central Asia unprepared cretins like me are often stuck getting visas or sorting out tranport. In my case the Turkmens told me to sod off so Tashkent is the place where I will depart Central Asia. This might sound like the easy way out but Uzbekistan Airways ensured this would still be a hurdle.

Should a reader find himself in the position of having to buy a ticket from Uzbekistan's national carrier there are 2 options.

Option 1: Go to the main booking office, conclude that it looks like a Chinese train station at New Year and try to work out how things work as there are no English speaking staff.

Discover that you need to elbow barge your way to a counter, say what you want, get a chit, go to a different counter to pay, discover that the credit card machine is broken, go to nearby exchange, get a shoebox-sized wad of cash (the biggest note here is 1000 Sum which is less than a dollar), go back to pay and then return to collect your ticket.

After you have figured out the system you must choose a counter and spend a long time defending your position. Wait for an hour or so then, just as you might be next, understand that their computers have crashed and see everyone sit down for a long wait.

Option 2: Agree with a nearby Russian businessman that this is a piss poor way to do things, decide to sod this for a game of soldiers and storm out. Spend an hour walking in Tashkent mentally rethinking options and cursing impotently. Have an idea.

Walk into a 4 star hotel, go to the resident travel agency and book it through them for a $5 fee. Save more than $100 dollars on the cost of the actual ticket as they can get good deals and go through the whole painless process in 10 minutes sitting in a comfy chair and looking at the pretty Uzbek lass doing the work.

Beyond giving sound advice I suppose I should do an Uzbekistan and Central Asia post. The Uzbek one will be brief. For all its famous sights and the quite nice Uzbek people, I didn't really enjoy the place that much. I did the usual getting drunk and seeing wonderful things but for some reason I couldn't get enthusiastic about this country. I would recommend others to come here but I don't think I will come back.

I will be even more succint about the politics of this place. The guy in charge is a cunt and has been since he was the Soviet appointed cunt. Very simple.

In a sense Karimov is also very representative of Central Asian politics. The merry bunch who were in power when the USSR collapsed are still in charge and do everything to stay where they are through various methods. Kyrgystan likes to change constitutions regularly presumably so that the head boys get more power each time. The leaders of Kazakhstan just subvert the judiciary to do their dirty work and seem to model their methods on Putin. Uzbekistan uses old fashioned brutality and laughably rigged elections. Turkmenistan is just crazy.

So what did I make of my little jaunt in Central Asia?

It was nice being back on the trail again even if it a bit stranger than the East Asian one and despite the above Central Asia has got a lot going for it. I liked the sights and scenery and the folk are a fun bunch. There's no silly face bollocks here so there are no headaches working out what the people really want. I also enjoyed the combination of high police presence with their utter uselessness. The problem with being a bunch of corrupt thieves is that you hardly command respect. The sensible way of dealing with the fuzz here is to be openly contemptous. It's always fun to laugh at the impotent.

I also liked the boozing here. For A Muslim area the place is swimming in alcohol and it's wonderfully cheap. It's quite common to drink very early in the day so you don't create the misconception that westerners are a bunch of degenerate alkies.

Paradoxically it's also one of the things I will definitely won't miss. The locals tend to force booze down your throat and get slightly huffy if you decide that for one night you are going to stay off the sauce or, evcen worse, decide you've had enough. Stopping before they do is a wise course of action as they drink prodigious amounts.

I guess they mean well but I get rather defensive when drunks start trying to make me drink. I have had a few guys get quite shouty which, after a bottle of vodka, doesn't produce the best reaction in me. I have often felt sorry at the young guy who speaks English (there's nearly always one hanging about) being forced to explain to me that refusing the next round is insulting and then having to diplomatically convey to someone that I couldn't give a toss about whether or not I offended them.

There are other aspects of Central Asia I am glad to see the back of.

The local music is qute excrutiating as there are many languages that are suited for pop but those in the Turkic linguistal group are not. The food is OK but just lacks variety (it's not a good sign when people are glad to see Russian restaurants). I am often annoyed at the way the train and/or bus stations are fecking miles out of town. Bloody Soviet town planners. But these are all trivial whinges and haven't really got to me.

My biggest gripe with Central Asia is that it forced me to plan. One of the greatest aspects of travelling is that you can dispose of your time as you see fit. It's great to stay or go on a whim and that is something I have done a lot. The insane visa regulations of Central Asia make this unwise if not impossible. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they are so bloody awkward about who comes into their country. Uzbekistan is even worse as they want to know where you are at all times. As per the custom of this place I have in my passport the registration chit of every bloody hostel I have stayed in as not having them allegedly guarantees problems when leaving the country.

In case anyone wondered I am not morphing into some "No Borders" hippy. My objections are quasi colonialist. Who do they think they are? I'm hardly going to work illegally in any of the countries of the area. The last problems any of these countries face is unregistereed foreigners and I resent police states that can't even make their police scary let alone competent.

Anyhoo it's been nice coming here but as Central Asia is famous for being a place of transit I will now depart. The Silk Road was important in itself but the places at the end are why it existed. Henceforth tommorow I will get back on the way to Damascus. I will go from an area I knew precious little about to one where my ignorance is quasi American; the Caucasus.

Next stop, Baku. Then again the next stop might be bottom of the Caspian Sea if Uzbekistan Airways maintains its planes the way they run their ticket office.

Take care,



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