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October 23, 2014 / oneworld82

Tashkent – A Soviet Capital City

Uzbekistan is, according to most international civil (and human) rights organizations, an autocratic country. Touring Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand you don’t feel a strong authoritarian vibe – people are relaxed, there is not much police around, and overall everything looks fine. If you drive between major cities, things are a little different, as you have numerous checkpoints here and there with armed policemen/armymen. Then you get to Tashkent. The city itself is so well-kept and well-tended that you can’t help but wondering what’s wrong with it. I mean, not even small towns in Japan are as manicured and well kept as Tashkent. Throngs of cleaners sweep streets cleaning garbage and leaves away. Traffic is moderate, mostly thanks to 6 and 8 lanes streets crisscrossing the city. And that’s when you realize that you have landed in a dictatorship: while I did not see a single monument to the father and master of the country, President Islam Karimov, the abundance of monuments and grandiose buildings give the city a very actual, very real Soviet feel. Like in we still are under a dictatorship kind of feel.

Overall, Tashkent doesn’t offer too much to tourists, but yet it deserves a day or two. I highly suggest to stay in one of the hotels near the center and near a subway station to avoid the hassle of dealing with cab drivers. Tashkent metro is efficient, reliable, and safe.

I stayed at one of the great modernist buildings of the city – the Hotel Uzbekistan.

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This is a truly remarkable building – both during the day and at night, when the lights are on and make it look like a bee hive. The hotel is not fancy by any standard, but it’s clean and comfortable – a decent 3 stars hotel. The hotel enjoys a great location – right in front of Amir Timur’s square. While staying there, a few teams competing in the Wrestling World Championship that would be held in Tashkent the week after I would leave – pretty neat to see World Class athletes in your hotel.

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Amir Timur square is the heart of Tashkent: a majestic exhibition hall flanks Hotel Uzbekistan, and a wide roundabout circles Timur’s statue – from which a tree-lined, perfectly-manicured boulevard departs and goes towards the Senate house – passing by the Arts Museum and History Museum (which is very informative and very well-kept).

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Fountains, more boulevards, nice buildings, the national stadium, the Circus (an impressive building) go by on the 5 km or so that divide this part of town from the old part of town – home of the huge Central bazaar: the hustle and bustle here is incredible, and every type of merchandise and Uzbek food is on sale. This ought to be one of the highlights of any visit to Tashkent.

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Tashkent Subway

Tashkent Subway

After visiting the Museum of History I headed back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and meet my driver (who had driven me from the train station to the hotel the night before) who would take me to the Uzbek-Kazakh border. Tashkent is very close to Kazakhstan – merely 20 km – and the drive took more or less 20 minutes. My driver was a very affable and talkative person, and we discussed about economics and communism – he gave me a very good perspective on things that I highly appreciated.

Once near the border, I waved my taxi goodbye, I took my stuff, and I would about half a kilometer to the actual border post (this post can be crossed only on foot). A lot of people cross this border daily – Kazakh tourists on the way back home and Uzbek workers seeking better fortune in prosperous Kazakhstan. The border post on the Uzbek side is quite chaotic – people don’t really follow lines pushing against one another towards the immigration officers. Luckily for me there wasn’t too much traffic this time of the day, and after completing an exit form I was through to customs. Here, as almost every foreigner, I was asked to step aside and to empty the content of my backpack for inspection; I was mildly annoyed by that (given the heat and the tiredness), but I started comply. Yet again, though, my Italian passport proved itself useful. As soon as the officer saw that I was from the “Bel Paese” he started laghing and asking me about soccer and about my favorite team. After that, he waved me through and that’s it, I was off to Kazakhstan. It’s amazing how Italians are beloved everywhere in the World – I still fully do not understand why! The Kazakh side of the border was less chaotic and in better shape. Here again, the immigration and custom officers took a liking on me because of my nationality. The immigration officer started talking about Italian rock singers from the 19070s – how did Adriano Celentano and Toto Cotugno even gain notoriety here??! These are the anecdotes that I like to tell people, because they are simply so bizarre! Anyways, in almost no time I was back in Kazakhstan. As soon as you cross the last fence letting you into the country, a hoard of people start yelling at you offering to exchange money and to drive you places. Nice. No one, of course, spoke any English – but it was sufficient for me to say “Shymkent”, my destination, to have a driver approaching me and offering to drive me (and other people, of course) there. It was a little awkward to negotiate the price, but never underestimate Kazakhs’ resourcefulness! In no time we agreed on a fair price and off we went to the next chapter of this incredible trip!

Uzbekistan has proved itself an incredible destination to visit. Remarkably enough, not many people even know that this country exists. Hopefully, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand will soon be on mainstream tourist routes – these UNESCO World Heritage sites deserve much recognition that they get today. Uzbekistan is not an easy or cheap place to get to; but if you’ll make the effort, I promise you will be completely blown away by this one-of-kind land.

P.S.

– To get a better idea of the recent past of Uzbekistan I read “The Railway” by Hamid Ismailov – an insightful novel set in a small provincial town in Soviet-era Uzbekistan. While this book is rather difficult to read and it is banned at home (and Ismailov himself lives in exile in London), it’s nonetheless a great read that  I highly suggest to anyone preparing to visit the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

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  1. awtytravels / Oct 25 2014 12:37 pm

    Brilliant read! Indeed many Italian singers are, or have been, quite popular in the East for God knows what reasons. A few years back, browsing through vinyls at a large music shop in Moscow, I was surprised to find a few copies of stuff from Pupo, Toto Cotugno, Matia Bazar and, best of them all, Giacinto Ferretti’s CCCP! I seem to remember that they wrote an article on Wired about this sometimes in the past. I certainly remember that they interviewed Pupo about a tournée he did in Mongolia, of all places.

    Looking forward to read the rest of you instalments! Are you by any chance going to write about Almaty and Biškek? Thanks!

    • robertocusato / Oct 25 2014 1:28 pm

      Very insightful comment – thabk you very much! I have written avout Almaty already, but i have not visited Kyrghizstan yet.

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