Past the Durand Line and Across the Oxus (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan)



Uzbekistan was quite welcoming tourists; “friendly” even, just like the bridge between 1979 and 1989. First, there was Sanitary Inspection 1, with a doctor that, apart from filling his notebook, would have liked some dollars as well; this was not his lucky day, for money does not bring happiness and we did not want to share our misery with him. Then there was a soldier with yet another notebook to fill and a phone call to make, to wake and let the other people know there were foreigners coming. Then we were pushed in a "taxi" (i.e. a van run by the customs and immigration people, meant to add some cash to their income, welcome to the capitalist world and its niche markets) which took us to the main immigration and customs building, 100 m. away, for USD 2. Then Sanitary Inspection 2 followed, with two smiling ladies and their notebook to fill, the first Uzbek citizens we met which were happy to see a tourist. All these procedures were nothing but the foreplay, as only then we entered The Main Building. Immigration was rather quick and formal, as the officer there had no notebook, but a computer which he was even able to use. Then, when in the large customs hall, we stared like fools at the lane marked "Green Channel / Nothing to Declare" and smiled, wondering whether, coming from Afghanistan, anyone was allowed to simply walk away through there. The process was actually lightly more complicated than that: our luggage was X-rayed and we had to take everything out anyway afterwards, with our medicine, tooth paste and soap being carefully inspected; however the customs officer was nice and professional at least. Then we were body searched and free to go to the government-run exchange office. Seeing me, the lady there hid away the paper with the day's exchange rates, "offering" a 10% lower rate. She needed some money on top of her wage too, but at least she provided a complimentary smile, which faded out when she saw that we only wanted to change USD 10 at her rate. Without anyone ever ahead of us, it had taken us 2 hours on the Uzbek side; had there been 10 other persons, we would have made use of the sleeping bags and would have learnt to bake na’an on the coals provided by a fire built out of the dry bushes outside. However we were not out like in "out" yet. Just out of the border crossing post there were drivers willing to take us to Termiz, 10 km. away, for USD 20. We walked another 200 m. and, after yet another barrier, some other drivers were waiting (they had not paid the bribe to be allowed in): USD 10 to the city. We liked walking, as it lowered prices, so, 500 m. farther on, before entering a village, there was a marshrutka stop: 400 UZS to the city centre (approx. 0.30 USD). Harasho, harasho.

The officials were not the only thing that had changed by just crossing the Oxus: the whole anthropic scenery had changed, with those large, formerly state-run farms, with the same featureless and standardized fences one can see from Bulgaria and Romania all the way to Russia and Moldova, with those eternal mid-aged women dressed in long capots with red and pink roses, with the concrete boxes best expressing communism's failing to understand that humans are different and they subsequently have different needs and desires. On the other side, there was that joy, that never dying laughter, that table full of various donuts, boiled eggs, pots of chai and coffee, where one simply sits down, eats and drinks what he / she wishes, and in the end pays accordingly to the lady that cooked them all. People shared the same curiosity about the two strangers with the ones on the Southern side of the river, but:

1. When we did not have the large backpacks with us, we were sometimes assimilated with the locals (probably being considered Russians)

2. It was no longer "Hello, how are you, where are you from?", but rather "zdrasvite, odkuda, priateli?"

Speaking some Serbian helped, and the broken phrases of Russian I had once learnt came back to me before I even noticed.

If Afghanistan did not have the infrastructure for ATMs across the country, Uzbekistan did not want to have it: in November 2007 the biggest banknote they had was of UZS 1000 (less than USD 1), and the government was planning on issuing banknotes of UZS 5000. There were ATMs only in the capital, while only a couple of banks were allowed to change foreign currency; out of the capital, only one or two banks in a city had a POS, being able to give cash to credit card holders. The whole system had made the population stock on foreign currency rather than Uzbeki sums, and it had encouraged a huge black foreign exchange market, as nobody was walking around with the equivalent of a few hundred dollars in sums unless he / she had a car with a large enough trunk. Furthermore, every clerk handling a lot (by local standards) of money had to be backed by another clerk counting the bills, as even a domestic train ticket meant a brick-like wad of money. To balance things, slogans and pictures of President Karimov lay everywhere, along main roads, next to or on museums and old madrassas. Beyond and far more important than that, the Uzbek people were eager to live, to talk to the ones next to them, to help the stranger which visited their country, to ask about one's opinion on their country, to show their traditions.

Getting on an evening bus to Samarkand, we were dropped at the city limits at almost 2 AM, after a memorable dinner in a modern caravanserai serving shashlik, chai and mantu, respectively after cracking pumpkin seeds two girls offered me while on the bus (two girls that I could not refrain from imagining wearing burqas and sitting in the "women only" section of the bus, should they have been born a few kilometers to the South). Helped by a few curious and charismatic police officers, we found a taxi to take us to the city centre, but it was not that easy: the old taxi driver only spoke Uzbek and some Russian, however that was not the problem, but rather that he did not know the city well and had a very bad sense of orientation, mistaking the South for the North and right for left. After going round and round a few times, eventually he agreed to drop us off and, walking for a while, we found our guesthouse at around 3 AM.

Samarkand was beautiful as they say indeed, with its madrassas, shrines and mosques having been nicely restored, best depicting the most impressive shapes of Timurid art. Fine tile work, great painted interiors, intricate carved and painted wooden ceilings, all these were simply beautiful, especially at that time of the year, with the yellow or reddish leaves of the trees completing the picture. There was, however, a major drawback: the old part of Samarkand had a museum-like touch, with the small exclusive tourist-targeting shops installed in the madrassas, with the mosques that were no longer used for service, but just for tourists, with the exaggerated restoration of the tile works that had somewhat wiped out the history traces from old monuments. The biggest mistake in Samarkand was that someone had had the desire to try and eradicate the very imperfection which had created superb designs and patterns. It was just like building a plaster madrassa after a computer-generated design and having the original, partly ruined one, replaced with the plaster, brand new one. It would be too much to say I did not like Samarkand, but I shall always prefer a city where old monuments still lived by having preserved their initial purpose and their very imperfect nature, hence their being genuine and vibrant. For that reason, Mussala Complex in Herat are better survivors than any of the old mosques and madrassas in Samarkand, Bukhara or Khiva. The old quarters in Samarkand were interesting, with narrow streets, unfortunately only a few of the old houses had survived, most of the dwellings being partly or entirely rebuilt. The fine painted or carved wooden pillars, as well as those beautiful painted porch ceilings still survived in a couple of mosques and old households, as well as some superb wood carved doors with floral patterns.

After a 3 hour train ride, we reached Bukhara, just in time to have a brief walk through the city and to watch the old madrassas and mosques fade away in the sunset light from the Kalon Minaret. More compact and with less huge-monuments-turned-into-museums an atmosphere, I liked Bukhara more than Samarkand, the city was more relaxed, it imposed itself less on the humble visitor. It was still suffocated by the souvenir vendors however, as they were the only ones to occupy the old bazaar. It was strange in a way to walk around madrassas or those wonderful caravanserais which had long lost their initial purpose, catering for tourists in the best case or being simply abandoned otherwise. Every tiny room or corner of the main monuments was occupied by a merchant selling the same wholesale style carpets (most of them being machine-made), embroideries and silk (most of which had come from China or India), carved wood, metal work, CDs of traditional music or of that never dying turbofolk, miniature paintings, fur hats and caps, ceramics, as well as - when possible - combinations of the items above. The problem was not that these things existed, because they do everywhere, but rather that they were the only things in the whole old city, while local people had been virtually kicked out unless they were involved in tourism in a way. Even though it was more compact and one could still find a quiet corner easily, just like Samarkand's Registan, Bukhara had that ghost town feeling, only with the echo generated by the arrival of a group of tourists seeming (but only seeming) to give the city a boost; actually this only woke up the souvenir merchants and the museum caretakers, all of which had something handy to sell, whether it was woolen stockings, pottery or photo albums. It gave one the creeps to see the extent to which 100 years of foreign (and SO foreign) domination had changed a whole nation's habits and its very lifestyle, or the extent to which it had made these people no longer show their inner selves. As I was to see while traveling, people still said their prayers, before starting on a journey, after eating, before going to bed. Yet the mosque as a public institution no longer existed for them but like a museum, like a monument; access to it as a place of worship had been forbidden for too long and many people had forgotten its meaning. Just like in medieval Albania, they had however taken their once vital public institutions (the mosque in this case) in their hearts, and no longer felt the need of a physical place, it was with them always and everywhere. One has to travel to this part of the world to realize what the Great Game really meant, apart from its written, possibly interesting to read, story.

Early in the morning, when going to the city outskirts to catch some transportation towards Urgench and eventually Khiva, we could see where the soul of the city had gone. The makeshift marshrutka and taxi stand for rides to the NW was located near Karvon Bazaar, a large marketplace planted out of the city proper during the Soviet rule. This had been the easiest way to both kill tradition, the individuality of people living in Bukhara, and to place the overrestored city centre under a sterile glass cover, protecting it from anything or anyone that might have given it a spark of life. Nowadays people from the city and from the villages around were coming here by hundreds of marshrutkas, in this structure of ugly, industrial design, as their beautiful brick-and-clay alleys had been turned into a Hollywood-like movie set.

Eventually we got on a taxi with two other people and started on the road to Urgench, crossing Kyzylkum Desert, with its barren flat ground dotted with countless dry bushes. After seeing the Oxus again (this time marking the border with Turkmenistan), we reached Urgench and, after two more marshrutkas, we arrived in Khiva just in time to enjoy the sun setting over its clay minarets of an interesting design. The fortified town was relatively quiet, brought to life only by the buzz from the nearby bazaar and by two young men selling CDs, playing very loud music. Especially after dark, the streets were deserted and the otherwise rare lights made the sky full of stars simply overwhelming. The old carved wood doors and gates were amazing in Khiva, with hardly two sharing the same patterns. Even here however, an overzealous rush to restore everything showed that someone had been desperate to forcibly create an artificial face for the country; unfortunately this excess had turned beautiful monuments into chocolate boxes, giving one the feeling of looking at a computer-generated image of an old temple. The old covered bazaar provided one of the few breaths of "fresh air" (i.e. normality), with its merchants selling everything normal (i.e. not exclusively souvenirs), from boots and CD players to furniture, aiming at local people rather at visitors solely. During the morning it was sunny and Khiva was popular with weddings, as grooms, brides and their families enjoyed greatly to have their picture taken in front of various monuments, to buy souvenirs; this brought a degree of life to the fortified town which, out of the tourist season, was almost completely dead, with locals otherwise having little reason to be in the sterilized old district.

In the afternoon I took the train to Tashkent. The old, former USSR service for the almost 20 hour journey across the country was welcome, as it had preserved all of its charm. The other people in my coupe were curious, as always, about the stranger: where I was from, what my job was, how much I earned and how come I traveled so much, what the price of a Daewoo Matiz was in my country and what my impression of Khiva was, what airline I flew with and how much the ticket had cost, whether Dracula had been a real character or just legend, what traditional food was like back home, how Romanian banknotes looked and why they had been made of plastic, how much this and that cost at home, whether my country had any gas and oil resources and, yes, where my wife was (for I was married, of course). Their curiosity was kind and, with my also asking them about their lives, time passed rather quickly and we "soon" left the desert behind over the already familiar handle less cups of chai. The carriage attendant kept on coming in, bringing a full pot of chai every now and then, respectively asking whether the guy from Romania needed anything (for half of the carriage already knew there was a foreigner on board, where he was from and probably other things as well).

Reaching Tashkent in the morning, I was wondering why the metro (which resembled quite a lot the one in Moscow, except for the depth at which it had been built) was not so crowded; one could hardly feel he / she was in a city hosting over 2 million people. The reason lay above the ground. There were rather few apartment buildings in the Soviet era city centre, as this one hosted mainly government offices, the brand new, grand, White House-like Senate, as well as imposing monuments and wide parks. The few large bazaars were in or around the city centre this time, making the capital look and feel more human, but that could hardly balance some of the architecture around. Most of the living quarters lay at a distance from the wide, tree-lined avenues bordered by those familiar structures set in the first half of the twentieth century in many former communist countries. Even though both of them expressed a degree of imposed will and authority, it was interesting to see how Karimov's grand, imposing, impeccably white Senate almost mirrored the much smaller, but more beautiful and elegant Romanov Palace surrounded by a small and cosy park.

The city was nonetheless a contrasting place, with its wide, clean streets (as compared to other large cities we had crossed on this journey), busy bazaars, excess of police, with its narrow alleys of the old district, bordered by clay houses and followed by an overwhelming network of zig-zagging gas and water pipes (some of the former seriously leaking), with its - again - impeccably restored Khast Imom complex or Abulkassim Madrassa hosting various great local artists' workshops. Without providing much on the standard sightseeing list, Tashkent was a good place to relax one's feet after a journey, before going back home, with a topping of "normality", whatever that means to anyone.

On the flight out of Tashkent, "The Moscow Times", courtesy of Aeroflot, read:

Musharraf had been recognized and confirmed as president by the (new) Supreme Court. In turn, he had accepted to step down as head of the army.

Karzai said he was looking forward to negotiations with fractions of the Taliban, which had seemingly contacted him in search for developing a peace process.

I looked through the plane window, but there were no pink angels I could see. A few days later I was to read that 2 civilians had died in a suicide bomb blast in downtown Kabul; a week later, 6 more people died and at least just as many were wounded in another blast. Benazir Bhutto was shot dead while leaving an anti-Musharraf rally in Rawalpindi a month later.

I could see no pink angels because there aren't any. Bismillah, the Afghan driver that had taken us to Jam, was lucky to be illiterate.




THE UZBEK SECTION (you are here)

A country where old monuments have been restored like new, the life was squeezed out of them and of the old cities hosting them, while local people have been pushed away to make room for tourists to enjoy the perfect movie set. It is a country where the last 100 years pushed people more and more off the public sight. However the same Uzbekistan is a country the people of which have preserved their faith, their traditions or curiosity towards the stranger in an almost incredible way, given the above terms.