Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kazakhstan Can Two / Tashkent

Immigration was again a snap. I trundled on through and got back on the marshrutka. Truth to tell, the environs looked about the same as we continued along the wide valley floor towards Taraz: Nondescript fields, scattered trees lining the road, brown hazy mountains in the distance.

We got to Taraz around 3:30. The climate had returned to being reasonably hot. A waiting marshutra had one seat to fill. I was it, and we immediately took off. Now the agriculture thinned out and it the landscape was similar to what it was a lot further east going towards Charyn Canyon: Mostly flattish brown dirt with hints of green and scattered scrub. No real towns for the next couple of hours.

We pulled into Shymkent just before 6. A young, friendly, honest cab driver immediately offered to take me to the Olenbazy Hotel for not much money. Shymkent turned out to be surprisingly big, around 500,000. In normal terms it wasn't incredibly prosperous, but compared to Bishkek it could have been South Florida. The Olenbazy was in front of giant Olenbazy Square. It was refreshing to see how much nicer greenery and fountains and giant statues were when they were taken care of.

For $20 I could get a stuffy, really crappy room. For $33 I could get a much nicer room with a/c. I splurged. Then I lay down in the a/c for a while. Then I had to attend to my never ending need to find edible food.

About 200 meters down a clean, nice modern street I found a clean, nice modern Turkish restaurant. The Turks and, surprisingly, the Korean businesspeople are the ones taking over Central Asia. The extremely friendly restaurant people served my up gut busting portions of dolma, pide, and baklava for less than I paid at 'Fat Boys' yesterday.

That was the high point of my evening. When I got back to the hotel room I discovered that for all its clean tiled facade, there was still much of the old Soviet in it. The toilet seat fell off of the toilet. Remember those old jokes about Soviet sandpaper toilet paper? They were/are true. I went downstairs to the 'internet center', got off a few emails, and the connection died. Well, at least the a/c was still working. I went to bed.

These days when I wake up in the morning my mind is alert. And my body feels like it was just worked over by a bunch of drunken Hells Angels. I lay there and went over my options for the day. I could take a day trip to a mausaleum in the city of Turkistan and come back. I could hang out in Shymkent. I could go to Tashkent. Or I could be really ambitious and try to get to Samarkand. I went down to check the internet. Still out. That conveniently collapsed my options down to Tashkent.

My 'free breakfast' included a bowl of cream of wheat, two tiny pancakes with an imaginery wisp of sour cream, and a cup of black instant coffee, no milk.

I got my things and went outside, immediately getting a cab to go to where the share taxis left for the border. There wasn't much business this morning, so I had to pay a lot more than the going rate to get the share taxi moving. Now the land we were going through was dry, slightly green, grassy hills, kind of like central California north of San Luis Obispo. Pretty much empty.

The border here was a pretty elaborate setup. But taking pictures of borders in these countries is an even bigger no no than taking pictures of airports. The cab driver directed me to his sister (!) who had a little money changing booth. I pulled out my $80 worth of Tenge. Now it got interesting, since the largest denomination bill in Uzbekistan is 1000 Som, which is worth about 45 cents. So in exchange I got two giant wads of 500s and 1000s. Feeling like a successful drug dealer, I stashed them in my backpack. And headed for the first gate.

Painless again. Even Uzbekistan, which I had been a little worried about, seeing as how it's supposed to be a police state and all. But I was out the other side and dickering with cab drivers in little more than an hour.

Uzbekistan wasn't at well off as Kazakhstan, but it was much better off than Kyrgyzstan. And it had an immediate air of permanent semi-slapdashness. A slight hang looseness not in keeping with honored Soviet tradition. Moreover, Uzbek used the American alphabet! (By the way, the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen are all variations of Turks and the Turkish language. Tajiks speak Persian.) Well, okay, many of the signs were still in Russian, but this was all getting too easy.

I got a guy to take me to a Metro stop in Tashkent for under $3. Then I took the Metro to the southeast corner of town for 25 cents. Then another couple of bucks to take me to the guesthouse door. I rang the bell.

Nobody answered. Hmmm. A went over to a step and sat down, pondering my position. Try to get to Samarkand? Ten minutes went by. Then people showed up, opened the gate, and profusely apologized for not having been there. Considering that my reservation wasn't until a couple of days from now, I couldn't really blame them. And I was glad that they would have a room available at 4 pm.

When I made the online reservation, it came with a note that there was 'No Harlotry Allowed'. Then I later noticed that the guesthouse was run by an evangelical Christian group. So I was half dreading an attempt at proselytazation. But these turned out to be people who were actually trying to act Christian instead of just talk Christian. They were very friendly and refreshing.

And they had internet! And Uzbekistan didn't block Blogger! Although while here I could only use it from 9 to 5 during office hours. Still, I was finally able to communicate a little. Then they directed me to where there was, what else?, a Turkish restaurant about ten minutes away, I left my bags with them, and went and had a pizza.

I came back, moved into my room, turned on the a/c (everywhere in Tashkent seemed to have a/c), then headed out to see what I could see before it got dark. The impromptu taxis here were even more ubiquitous. And cheaper. A couple of dollars would get you just about everywhere. And Tashkent, like all Soviet cities, was incredibly spread out, with endless boulevards and parky areas and fountains and...

You had to hand it to the Soviets. They really tried to be grand. But all of their green spaces and quasi-modern triumphant sculpture and such are almost invariably uninspiring. Of course, trying to make atheism inspiring was always going to be a tough sell.

But that's what you need to know about the Soviet Unioners. They were an odd mix of atheism and utopianism. Which made for so much of the bizarrity of their manifestations. But it's also important to remember that many of them, including the bureaucrats, were motivated by a sort of selfless idealism.

Anyway, Karimov, the present and future ruler, is keen to bring Uzbekistan into the modern world. So many of the avenues are lined with spanking new construction. There's no oil money here, but somehow he's coming up with the cash. And there are a lot of nice snazzy new apartment buildings going up, too, so at least some people are doing well. On the other hand, the fact that you can get every other car to stop and take you to the other side of town for two bucks means that a lot of people aren't.

I went to the Chorsu area, the old part of town, but didn't get much past the giant bazaar. Which like most bazaars in most poor countries, isn't about exotic spices or antiques, but concerned with selling lots of fruits and vegetables and cheap plastic crap to the locals. There were a couple of old tiled mosques and a smattering of people in colorful Uzbek garb.

Next I took the Metro. Since taking pictures on the Metro was even more verboten than taking them at the airport or the border, I was expecting the stations to be really fancy and artistic, like the ones in Moscow. Uh uh. Really blah. And blah train cars. And it was about the least populated Metro ever. I got off at the Oybek stop, where I started walking around looking for the Tandoori Indian Restaurant, which the LP said was 'an enduring Tashkent favorite'. But the LP has a habit of touting luscious sounding restaurants which turn out not to have existed for at least ten years. I finally found the address, which was currently occupied by a giant hole in the ground.

I stuck out my hand and took a car back to that Turkish restaurant. But I wasn't going to have another pizza. No, I would have them direct me to an internet place. Which they did, but it was closing in 5 minutes. So I bought a little bread and cheese and went back to my room in the dark.

An hour later I was regretting not getting that second pizza, and I was ravenously devouring my meager rations. I had also noticed a slight problem with my accommodations. My 'mattress' was about an inch thick, and it rested upon an incredibly hard slab of thick unyielding particleboard. Even when young and with a good back it would have been unbelievably painful. Fortunately there were two other beds in the room, and by piling up all three 'mattresses' it became barely tolerable.

Other than that, it was a really nice little setup. The next morning 4 Chinese ladies--excuse me, Hong Kong ladies (they were insulted to be lumped in with China)--told me about a great place in Samarkand.

But first I had to wait for the nice Christian people to show up at their office, and check my email. Then I felt the need to see a little more of Tashkent. After all, although it was supposed to be foreboding and boring, so far I had found it kind of pleasant and boring. And you call this a police state? Sure there were cops on just about every corner, but the biggest one was about 5'6" tops, and they seemed intent on doing as little as possible. Anyway, so long as you avoid eye contact and always look like you know what you're doing, even in real police states they'll usually leave you alone.

But after going to the main park and walking around some, I had run out of things to do in the big city (population 2.5 million). So I took a car back to the Turkish restaurant and had another pizza for the road.

Then back to the guesthouse, pack up my belongings, and take a car out to where the share taxis left for Samarkand. As usual, pretty aggressive guys, but once one has snagged you they all quiet down. I stood around waiting for about a half an hour until my guy had snagged his full allotment.

These included a man who spoke basic English and his university bound son who was actually pretty good. He of course was eager to get some real practice in, and I was happy to oblige. The next four hours included a lot of, 'Sir, which is your favorite country? For beauty? Where do you find the nicest people?'

Also included was a stop at a roadside melon market, where everyone got out and bought beaucoup de melons. Maybe the vendors don't need to take any home at night. The rest of the scenery alternated between irrigated farmland and semi-barren to barren waste. I looked out the window and absorbed the reality that here I was in the middle of friggin' Uzbekistan.

The roads so far had been paved, but not up to an incredibly high standard. Usually four laned, although nobody abided by lanes that much. Traffic was never too heavy, was more chaotic than the States, but a lot less so than Mexico.

As we got near Samarkand, the kid's father took out his mobile and called the B&B the Hong Kong ladies had raved about. The guy said that he would meet me at the supermarket in front of the Registan. The cab driver had become really friendly and was more than eager to take me there. I shook hands all around and walked across the street into the Samarkand about-to-twilight.


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