Authoritarianism rules, and has done for centuries. (October 2014)


Uzbekistan, especially the capital Tashkent, appears to be much wealthier than Kyrgyzstan, our previous Stan.

The roads are better, there is manufacturing and a strong, if authoritarian, government.

And there is oil.

Kazakhstan also had oil, yet in both these countries there seems to be a shortage of it, well a shortage of petrol. There’s no lack of petrol stations, however the vast majority of them are closed.

The evidence of the authoritarian government was everywhere.

About an hour out of Fergana we were stopped at a military road block where cars were searched and all documents had to be presented.

This was yet another shemozzle.

Five lanes were clearly marked, yet everyone formed their own queue.

We had been told that there were five million in the Uzbekistan military and if these check points are anything to go by, I now understand. The one we passed was crawling with armed soldiers in full battle fatigues.

There is also a large police presence and drivers are routinely pulled over for a license check or for speeding.

I lost count how many times our driver’s radar detector went off.

Another bureaucratic nightmare was paying at a restaurant.

We hadn’t really celebrated our wedding anniversary properly, so this was the time.

It was relatively upmarket and the bill was more than we had been used to. This was definitely going to go on the Visa, as we would have needed a Brambles truck to deliver the cash in Uzbek Som.

When I slapped my card next to the bill, both the card and I were given a quizzical look by the waiter, he then rushed over to the cashier with the card.

The conversation then went something like this:

Cashier: “Sorry we can’t accept Visa, we have only been open for 12 months and don’t have the authority yet.”

Me: “We can pay in US Dollars if you like.”

Cashier: “I’m sorry we can’t except US Dollars, that’s illegal.”

Me: “Well what can we do?”

Cashier: “Just come back tomorrow with the cash in Som.”

The Uzbeks are both friendly, and very trusting.

Hitching a ride isn’t dead, as we have found out in all of The Stans so far. People of all ages just wave down a passing car, and if it’s going in the right direction, you get a lift.

The next morning our guide Maria, and driver Sharzot picked us up from the hotel. Our first task was to get the cash for the restaurant.

It was Sunday and the banks were closed but we did manage to find an ATM at the Intercontinental Hotel. All we could get out was US Dollars as the machine, not surprisingly, had run dry of Som. Fortunately there was also an exchange in the hotel so would convert our dollars into yet another truck load of Som.

Then if was on the road to do some sightseeing rather than banking.

There are many monuments, statues and buildings that have been instigated and unequivocally   attributed to Uzbekistan’s first, and to this point only, president, Islam Karimov.

Karimov’s legacy to Uzbekistan and to the world seems to be a number of building and renovation projects that have been ‘Inspired by his dream’

We visited many of these with Maria, like the Shahidlar Xotirasi Monument, dedicated to the many thousands who lost their life in one of Stalin’s many ethnic purges. Next was the Earthquake Monument, again dedicated to the victims of the devastation earthquake of 1966.

Included was the Museum of History of Timurids, The Dom Forum and the rather grand statue of Amur Timur.

Apparently President Karimov, apart from having a love of grand plans, also has a love affair with Amur Timur, the Uzbeks historical hero.

Timur, also known as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame (approx. 1320 to 1405) was an Islamic leader who conquered vast parts of South, Central and Western Asia. It is estimated that his battles resulted in the deaths of over 17 million people, about 5% of the world’s population at that time.

We then spent time in Independence Square where storks (not pelicans as incorrectly written in the Lonely Planet guide) adorn the gates to the park.

We had visited many of these sites the evening before, but it was good to get a locals point of view.

We also spent time in the old part of Tashkent and went to the Khast Imom, the official Muslim religious centre and the sprawling Chorsu Bazaar.

The produce here is as varied as the people who sell it.

Tashkent is a very green city with wide tree lined streets and expansive parks.

In 2010 President Karimov had all the trees chopped down in the park that is home to a statue of his hero Tamerlane. This was apparently so the people could get a better view of Temur on his steed.

This is a shame considering many of the trees in Tashkent were brought in by Russian soldiers during their occupation of Uzbekistan in the 19th century. These soldiers were instructed to bring two trees from their home region in Russia.

Our driver from the first day, Imar, became our guide for our trip to the mountains.

It was a very slow journey to the ski resort of Chimyoan as Imar had previous speeding violations and one more infringement would leave him without a license.

Not a good position for a ‘driver’ to be in.

Chimyoan was in a state of suspended animation. The summer season, with walking and mountain biking, was over, while the ski season was still a few weeks away.

The rattly old ski lift was still operating, so we took a ride to the top to get a better view. There was still some snow on the mountains but the rugged rock faces were the main attraction.

From the top of the ski lift we could see Charvak Reservoir, our next destination.

This man made lake is both a water catchment area, hydro electricity producer and summer resort for the people of Tashkent.

The reservoir was very low and not producing any where near its maximum output of hydro power.

On the way back to Tashkent we passed through the satellite city of Chirchiq. Hundreds of new homes were under construction, all identical but far better than the ones they are replacing.

Very early the next morning we were dropped off at the station to catch the fast train to Samarkand.

Imar insisted we needed at least 45 minutes to get through security. I certainly didn’t doubt him, given our previous experiences with Uzbekistan security.

We were through the checkpoint and into the train in under ten minutes.

That was the first pleasant surprise, the second was the train – it was a gleaming new Bullet Train. I had imagined shades of the Orient Express.

It may have looked like a Shinkansen but that’s where the similarity ended. I am sure the locomotive was capable of high speeds but the tracks were not.

The train rocked and shuddered its way to Samarkand. We were forced to abandon using our computers, for fear of them ending up on the floor of the train.

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