It feels awfully nice to type 2,000,000 into an ATM and have a big stack of money come out.
The good news: my card worked. The bad news: 2,000,000 som is only around €145.
The only time I’ve held more cash in my hands was after changing $50 USD on the street in Rangoon in 2002. I took it back to my cockroach infested hotel and physically rolled in it.
But there would be none of that at Tashkent airport. Not at 3am, and not with the stink eye I was attracting.
The customs agent peered at my face and my passport and back at my face again with the steely intensity of an elementary school staring contest. He didn’t blink. He didn’t even breathe. I smiled and nearly started to giggle, but I got myself under control when he took a magnifying loupe to the security features of the photo page.
Was he having trouble matching the photo to the economy-class-ravaged wretch standing before him?
Had I become more gray and haggard, and did it happen between Istanbul and Berlin?
Did he really think foreigners were determined to sneak into a part of the world so many had tried for decades to sneak out of?
I’d just begun to wonder if he mistook me for Alexander Burns when he thumped a stamp in my passport and let me pass.
I grabbed some cash in the Arrivals area and bought a local SIM card to access the Yandex app. A ride to our hotel with the app cost 15,000 som (about €1). The local airport taxi mob demanded $15 USD.
My first impression of Tashkent was broad roads teeming with an overabundance of white Chevrolets, with the occasional faded blue Soviet truck smoking past. Tall glass towers and new apartment blocks were rising everywhere next to dilapidated USSR-era buildings, and a backdrop of distant snowcapped mountains bounded the horizon.
Central Asia’s largest city (population 3 million) looks pretty young for its 2,200 years, thanks to a shallow 5.2 magnitude earthquake with an epicentre in the middle of the city that flattened pretty much everything in 1966. Tashkent was rebuilt in the Soviet style, and today it’s being transformed to ‘generic glass high-rise’.
Christmas decorations were everywhere — except they weren’t Christmas decorations at all, or so I’m told. No, that white bearded fellow in the red suit who stood under every heavily-decorated tree posing for photos with children is Korbobo (Grandfather Frost). His female sidekick is Korkiz (Snow Maiden), and they have something to do with New Year.
Ho ho huh? Don’t ask me. I came for the history.
The other thing that really struck me about Tashkent was the sense of being in the Russian sphere of influence.
Tsarist Russia annexed what we think of as the -stans in the second half of the nineteenth century, and those territories remained Russian until the fall of the USSR.
Eastern Europe and Mongolia were dragged into the Russian sphere too, but they shrugged the Soviets off in 1991 and went back to what they were before. Even Georgia felt more like that — defiant, wary, a bit resentful of Russia. But Uzbekistan still felt like part of the Russian world. So many of the flights from Tashkent airport were going to different parts of Russia, too.
Another thing travelers will want to know is that Uzbekistan is incredibly cheap for those of us who earn in euro or U.S. dollars. A 20 min taxi ride in the capital cost around €0.90, and the cheapest meal we ate cost the equivalent of €6.72 for salad, two main Uzbek dishes, bread and a pot of tea.
Those are a few first impressions to whet your whistle.
I would’t see much more of Tashkent. I hopped an early flight the next morning further west – and further back into the region’s medieval past.
I’ll tell you about that over the next seven or eight blogs — hopefully with a related podcast episode thrown in.
Not a bad way to start 2024.