Flying in from South Korea, I seem to be on a sort of ANZAC tour of Uzbekistan and The Silk Road. Three couples, one from Australia, one from New Zealand, one from Canada. (Well the acronym still works.) And me. The spare part. One of the Kiwis is also called Sue, so it has been ordained that I will be known as Susie for the duration of the trip. The guide is called Surat and he's a bewildered little man from Tashkent.
Breakfast - I consume rice pudding, cauliflower cheese and a peach.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan , was one of the major trading centres along the Silk Road, and remains one of the largest exporters of cotton, silk and textiles to Eastern Europe. It is a pleasant city with several green parks and a very modern centre. Very little that seems to predate 1970. and there are new mosques. There was an earthquake in 1966 and there's the usual ex Soviet state reconstruction.
The people of Tashkent are friendly, but also seem to regard us with a great deal of curiosity. They all stare unashamedly, especially the young men, and several groups want to include me in their photos. Blonde, curly hair is a real novelty. The women mostly wear headscarves (not hijabs) and longish floral floaty dresses. The men wear jeans and T shirts. Like the women they are dark haired and olive skinned and tend towards thick set and squat in build. It's Eidh at the moment and many have their holiday/visit the city gear on. It also means that most of the bazaar and all the museums are shut.
Although Tashkent is his home town Surat seems to be at the peak of his indecisiveness. He seems to be improvising wildly and strangely at a loss when it comes to navigation. In the end we accomplish a tour of metro stations (ornate like Moscow but no photos allowed), a visit to the opera house ( which is being refurbished so we can only look from a distance) and take a bus trip out to the memorial park (for the thousands of Uzbeks massacred by Stalin) next to the TV Tower. There is a very large police presence, especially on the Metro. I suppose that's reassuring.
Lunch is a point-at-what-you-want-self-service cafe. Surat doesn't seem to be able to recommend dishes or know what anything is. All very odd. ( I would say that perhaps he is taking after his namesake and going dotty, but that would be a terrible joke.)
A last quick excursion to Chorsu Bazaar, the granddaddy of them all. A huge and frenetic sprawling old style bazaar in domed and tiered new style surroundings. If you want it they've got it. The most interesting and photogenic stalls are the bakeries. The loaves (are they still called loaves? ) are disc shaped, decorated large trays propped in various displays.
Our hotel in Tashkent(ostensibly three star) is very basic and everywhere reeks of cigarette smoke. There's a sign on my bedroom window that says 'No Photography'. It might have something to do with all the satellite dishes on the tall cuboid building opposite.
It's not been a great couple of days for me. My lens cap has jammed on my main, wonderful NIKKOR camera lens and no-one, not one of these muscly men, can get it to budge. I've got blisters all over my fingers, where I've tried to unscrew it. And of course all the shops in Tashkent are shut. Tomorrow we are off into remote areas. I've lost the key to the safe deposit box in my room, my passport and my wodges of thousands of sum notes are in there (4000 sum to the pound). And something has bitten my foot. It's swollen and I can't walk very far.
We take three smallish cars into the Fergana Valley. We are following the main Silk Road route between Samarkand and Kashgar in China. The three cars drive strictly in convoy, speeding along the highway weaving in and out of the other traffic, too close together. It's a little traumatic squashed in the front. My brake doesn't work. It was like lucky dip - which couple do I get in with? Today I'm Canadian. None of the drivers speak English and Surat isn't with us, as only foreigners are allowed through the land border into Kyrgyzstan. Mini vans aren't allowed over the mountains either, hence the Italian Job style operation. There are umpteen army posts with men toting very large guns and passport checkpoints before we get anywhere near the border. Photos are banned in numerous areas. It's all very KGB.
There don't seem to be any actual taxis here - Surat says that every car in Uzbekistan is a taxi. Most of the cars are white Chevrolets. White because they are cooler and Chevrolets because there is a big manufacturing plant here. We're speeding so fast that the scenery is a blur. This despite the fake police cars along the verges supposed to deter bad drivers. At one point I spot a herd of goats with a driver on a donkey in the opposite fast lane. We cross a range of mountains with the mandatory ex communist bloc smoke belching factory or row of marching pylons marring every potentially beautiful spot. There are head-scarved women selling melons and wheels of bread from roadside booths, interspersed with clunky unsympathetic restaurants and filling stations. It's a curious mix of soviet and the orient.
The Fergana Valley is a lyrical land of fruit and honey. The valley is very flat, and supplies a large proportion of the world's cotton, though we can see snow tipped mountains in the distance. En route, we stop at one of the most ancient cities of Uzbekistan, Kokand, and the potters town of Rishton. We visit a khan's reconstructed palace, a mausoleum and two more reconstructed mosques, one of which is now a museum. I'm already very familiar with mosaic tiling and turquoise blue domes. Though it's interesting to know that this is where the Mogul Empire originated.
Today's hotel room smells strongly of drains rather than tobacco. There's a sign in my room that tells me I will be fined if I use the towels to clean my shoes. In the restaurant I have to gear myself up to navigate the menu. These are typically long with odd sprinklings of excruciatingly unhelpful English. Top billing tonight goes to 'sloppy veal'. I thought beef stroganoff might be safe, but it comes with tomato, onion and fries instead of the rice I ordered. The next door table gets that and no fries. The food is pretty bad everywhere we've eaten so far, mostly meat in different stews and really heavily salted. I cant complain about the bill though - just over two quid.
And things are getting better. One of the drivers has managed to get the cap off my camera lens, a screwdriver was involved.
It's not easy getting ready in the morning when you have to hold your breath every time you go into the bathroom. Every action takes careful advance planning.Today we have a minibus. All the drivers are very law abiding. There are 2D police cars along the road reminding them to behave.
As we are travelling The Silk Road a visit to a silk factory is obligatory. This one is at Margilan. It is very traditional and the silkworm cocoons are boiled in vats over wood fuelled fires. The peoples' attire is very traditional too- they don't get many tourists. The local bazaar with its seductive sights, sounds and aromas is also worth the visit. Then onward through the valley to Osh and Kyrgyzstan.
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