Uzbekistan 2000 – Tashkent
Tashkent – Sunday, September 3
The overnight flight from Moscow left me feeling dopey. At the Tashkent airport I saw people filling out a form, but I was in a hurry and got in the customs line without one. When I got to the front the agent looked at me and asked, “Declaration? Where is your currency declaration?” So I went from being at the head of the line to the rear. Where had I seen those forms?
I found them sitting on a counter but when I tried to fill one in, I found I couldn’t read a thing – it was all written in Russian. I walked around with it in my hand until I found an official who offered to help. Mostly he just said, “Write ‘Yes’ there,” and “Put ‘No’ there.” I still wasn’t awake enough to care what I was Yes’ing and No’ing. Back at the custom stand I found I was now last in line.
Outside the airport the last few unsuccessful taxi drivers were frantic for my business. “You want taxi?” “Taxi!” “You need car?” They all shouted at once. I stepped into the middle and asked, “Ok, how much?” Someone shouted, “20 dollars.” I wasn’t that asleep. “No, five dollars,” I said and braced myself for counter offers. To my surprise a guy in the back yelled, “Ok, five dollars,” and waved me to follow him. Other drivers joined in too, “Ok, five dollars,” but that guy had been first, so I followed him.
As we walked toward the parking lot another guy joined us. “Who’s this?” I asked the driver – I was a little wary of riding with two guys. “My friend,” he replied. I could see that – why had I even wasted my time asking? I decided quickly that as it was daytime, I would be safe, so I got in the car and we set off for Tashkent.
It wasn’t long before the pitch came – “You want to change money?” It was the driver’s friend talking. “650 Sum for one dollar.” I knew that was way below the black market rate, even below the bank rate. “No, thanks,” I said and looked out the window. We rode along in silence for a few minutes as I admired the clean, tree-lined streets. “Ok, 700,” the friend said, turning to face me. “No, sorry. I’m not interested,” I replied. His face saddened. “Ok, best rate, 750,” he said trying again. We talked a little more – I tried to get him to go higher but he wouldn’t. Finally I agreed to change 50 dollars. They both broke out into huge smiles. So, this was why they had so quickly accepted my five-dollar offer.
We pulled off the main road and stopped in a little dirt lane. The friend jumped out and ran into one of the low, dusty houses. In just a few minutes he came back with a large bundle wrapped in newspapers. I wondered what it could be. He got in and handed it to me – it was 4 piles of 100 Sum notes, almost 400 bills. Each pile was as thick as a dictionary. “No way,” I said handing them back to him. “I want 200 Sum notes, or nothing.” The friend’s face saddened again. “Sorry bud,” I said, “But I don’t want to carry that load around with me.”
The friend ran the bundle back and returned empty handed. We took off and drove to a little street market where the friend jumped out again. We sat waiting. The driver turned around and apologized, “He be back quick.” Sure enough the driver came back and this time his hands were empty. He had two bundles in his pockets. Each was the size of a large paperback book. I could live with that.
I started counting them. Being tired, I lost count and had to restart several times. I could see the driver and his friend were getting nervous. We were sitting in the middle of a market and this kind of transaction is illegal. I finished my counting as quickly as I could and gave them $50. The friend ran off again to pay his contact and when he returned, we drove to my hotel.
As we were pulling into the entrance, I handed the friend five dollars in Sum – I had plenty of them now. He looked at me and tried one last pitch: “Five dollars for us, ok?” I just smiled and got out – nice try.
In my room, after I checked in, I looked at the huge piles of bank notes and wondered if I should hide or carry them. I decided to take half of one pile with me and hid the rest in my bag. I didn’t want to carry them all – if they were stolen from my room I would only be out about 30 dollars. I also kicked myself for cashing so much – $20 would have been a better start.
I went down to the restaurant and had breakfast. Then I took Tashkent’s clean, modern metro out to the bazaar. I walked around taking pictures of the women in brightly colored dresses and men in knee boots and long coats. There were many different faces – some looked decidedly Asian, some looked more Turkish while others could be European – what an interesting collection of people to look at.
Also, there were piles and piles of produce: bright red tomatoes, shiny green peppers and melons, more varieties than I had ever seen. There was also a man with a pile of pomegranate. He had peeled a few so that you could see the bright-red seeds and then stuck them on sticks for all to see.
Most of the vendors were happy to have their picture taken. There was a lady selling some interesting little peppers – they were all shades from pale yellow to dark red. When I stopped to look, she held them up for me to see. I had my camera ready and took her picture. After a few hours of walking around in the heat, the lack of sleep got to me so I headed back to the hotel and took a long nap.
In the afternoon I walked east from my hotel into the Soviet-era part of Tashkent. I was fascinated by the mildly decaying apartment buildings and the decrepit old streetcars and buses. The latter rattled down the street not much faster than a walk. It had the feel of a place that time had passed by.
In the early evening I walked over to Broadway, a pedestrian street that reminded me more of Moscow than Asia. Young women in skin-tight dresses attracted the attention of well-dressed young men sitting in the cafes along the street. There were karaoke stands where kids were practicing their singing for all to hear. There were also portrait artists and vendors selling souvenirs. The night was mild and the sky star filled. I walked around and finally found a quiet café away from all the activity and noise – I had a beer and brought my journal up to date.
On the way back to my hotel I saw an antique vendor who had a small globe for sale. I was looking for one that was written in Russian or Uzbek, so I bent down to look. He picked it up to show me and at the same time turned a little knob on the top – music came out of it. It was a radio too. It was a physical globe that showed the characteristic of the land and not the political boundaries – it was just what I was looking for. I asked how much and he wrote down 18,000 Sum. I got out my calculator – that was only $25. I asked again just to be sure. It was perfect and I was going to buy it without bargaining. He saw my calculation and wrote down $20. I quickly got out the money and gave it to him – no bargaining at all.
Next morning I took another walk around my hotel. People were on their way to work and school. Everybody was well dressed. I liked Tashkent and wished I had more time to spend there. Other travelers advised me to get out as soon as possible, but I think better advice would have been to spend a few days there and learn a little about the new Uzbekistan. At about 9:30 I took a taxi to the airport for my flight to Bukhara.
On the way to the airport we passed a statue of Timur, the Uzbeki national hero. I said to the driver “Wasn’t there a statue of Lenin there before?” “Yes,” he said, “Lenin, Stalin and now Timur. Who knows who’s next?” After Uzbekistan achieved independence, they started removing all the Soviet statues – I didn’t see any my whole trip – Timur now replaces them all.