As the explanation on why to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan fell on deaf ears, it was time to give another explanation. This was convincing enough. We are traveling to Kazakhstan in $1 and adding two more countries to our list of countries visited 🙂
The main attraction was Kazakhstan – covered in a separate blog series, but the $1 scheme demanded that we visit some other country which happened to be Uzbekistan. Easy visa, fall of dictatorial regime of Karimov and opening up of tourism were the reasons to opt for Uzbekistan over Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan (all of which remain in our bucket list)
Uzbekistan is considered one of the most autocratic and bureaucratic countries in the world and we did get a glimpse of what life would have been behind the iron curtain.
The hotel had advertised wi-fi but it was restricted to the lobby. For the five days that we stayed there, we were told that the wi-fi will be fixed soon. It seems it was never meant to be fixed. Most of our tours are self curated with local guides and that means a lot of hard work over the phone and whatsapp. A local SIM was essential, but before that we needed local currency – which was available in the hotel itself. The soviet era hotel had a soviet era currency exchange with multiple breaks throughout the day – one such was ongoing when we visited. A while later, armed with 7,77,000 uzbekisom in exchange of $100, we left the hotel in search of a mobile sim card.
Until last year, the official exchange rate was half of the actual rate which had given rise to black market. Post Karimov era, this was wiped off in a single day with the new government matching the black market rate as official exchange rate. Only recently did the country relax rules to allow foreigners to buy sim cards. The black market for sim card existed earlier, where a local would use his/her credentials to purchase a sim card. We walked to a beeline store to know the cost and buy sim. The exorbitantly priced SIM card was handed out without any documents. I am still not sure if the SIM does cost as much as what the shopkeeper charged us. While the currency is cheap, everything seemed expensive.
Uzbekistan is disconnected from the banking world. Card swiping machines are common at hotels, restaurants and shops but only Uzbeki cards are accepted. Foreign credit / debit cards dole out USDs from ATMs but that is restricted to $20. With half the cash gone in purchase of SIM card and rules this stringent, I panicked. How are we going to spend the next 5 days with limited cash! I counted and re-counted the SOM and USDs we had with us before heading to Plov-Samsa, a local restaurant which has been creative in naming itself after the two most famous dishes of Uzbekistan.
Plov-Samsa served us delectable plov, kebabs and local drinks. The exorbitant sounding bill increased my worries, pissing off TW, as I went through one more round of budgeting. How do we manage? Manage we did and we did it well!!
Over the next couple of days, we experienced the iron curtain closely. Tashkent has a metro. It was part of the rebuilding efforts of Soviet Union after the 1966 earthquake flattened the entire city. Metro, wide roads, buildings, boulevards were constructed keeping in mind how an ideal communist state is. Known in India for the untimely demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Tashkent can be a great case study of Urban Planning and co-existence of cars and effective public transport. 35% of the city is covered with greenery and it is maintained well to buffer the harsh and dry heat. We spent two evenings in the Amir TimurPark opposite our hotel, full of walking tracks, greenery and fountains.
Tashkent was the fourth largest city in Soviet Union. Apparently a soviet city would be eligible for a metro when it crossed a population of 1 million and Tashkent became eligible in the 1960s. The 1966 earthquake changed the design and the metro is neither as deep as the Moscow metro nor as ornate. We still did a trip. The fare is UZS 1200 and a guard checks your token, touches your hand bag with a hand held metal detector and lets you in. The machine swallows the token – which meant that we do not have a photo of it. We started at Chorsu Bazar station and reached MustaqillikMaydoni station to see the Independence monument via an interchange at AlisherNavoiy. The ex-USSR states are synonymous with banning stuff. Photography at public places is still banned in Uzbekistan and until recently, was the case with metro. The ban was lifted in June, yet we got stares from fellow passengers and law enforcement authorities. The subway cars are definitely from the soviet times, if not from the first lot of 1960s.
With Mirzoyeyav government relaxing norms, new businesses are being set up. We walked through a street full of new restaurants, with burger joints, wok, pizza, bakeries and patisseries on offer than the traditional stores selling Moscow icecream or plov and samsa. Pepsi has taken up most of the advertisement space on bus stops and public spaces, even as people roam around with a bottle of coke.
Uzbekistan is under-rated, breathtaking but not inexpensive as it is made out to be in spite of its devalued currency. If you are a student of globalization or economics, this is the time to visit Tashkent as the economy is opening up rapidly. We met some of the finest people in Uzbekistan who were trying hard to rebuild lives post Karimov, help bring in tourism and try their best to speak English. The country is clean and disciplined. At 2330 or 0345 hours, signals were operational and importantly they were followed by one and all. From chorsu bazaar to the upmarket restaurants, there was a method to the madness this country was!
Uzbekistan or O’zbekiston as the country is named means Home of the free. It was anything but free since its independence from the soviets as it was under the dictatorial whims of Karimov, opening up in 2016 post his death. We had some uzbekisom to burn and thought of using them to eat at Tashkent airport. The terminal had 3 stores. TAS Burger, where a small pringles cost 5USD, a bakery which was closed and a café where the starting price was more than the money we had. The mix of experience or being behind the iron curtain and peeping out of it is what made Uzbekistan special. Not to mention that it is one of the two double landlocked countries in the world and one of the rare places to visit on earth!