After overdosing on nature and hiking in Kyrgyzstan, I was ready for some Silk Road history, stunning Islamic architecture, perhaps a bit more plov as well as a little heat. It’s only the end of May but it’s already pretty toasty, getting up to around 30 degrees during the day with the sun beating down like there’s no tomorrow, which I guess it’s a bit of a welcome change from down jacket and sheep poo heating just a week or so ago.
I spent my birthday in Tashkent, and unlike when I’m home, I didn’t feel the need to celebrate. Maybe because being in Uzbekistan was special enough. Not only was I spending my birthday in a very foreign place, I also had the privilege to experience earth tremors in the middle of the night. I think that’s definitely a sign of good things to come!
My travel companion Rita was due to arrive in two days so I took the chance to relax a little. We travelled together in Iran in 2010 after ‘meeting’ on a travel forum. She is a quiet and soft-spoken lawyer from Riga, Latvia and speaks excellent English. Not surprisingly, she also speaks fluent Russian which sure is handy in this part of the world. I can stop miming so much now that I’ll be travelling with her.
Tashkent, ‘City of Stone’ in Turkic, was a major caravan crossroad by the time the Arabs took over in 751 A.D. Then it got stubbed out by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century before recovering under the Mongols and then under Timur. It grew more prosperous under the Shaybanids (descendents of Genghis Khan) in the 15th and 16th Century. Around the mid 1800s, Tashkent became the tsarists’ (and later the Soviets’) main centre for espionage in Asia.
Today, sprawling Tashkent is a city of about 2.5 million. It is a city of Muslim-and-Soviet oddness where modern buildings on broad Soviet-built avenues sit side by side people in traditional costumes carting produce with donkeys. There is a fairly efficient metro system which is easy to use, clean and cheap. It was built as a nuclear shelter and there are policemen everywhere since the 1999 bombings. Photography is strictly forbidden in the stations which is a shame as some stations have beautiful designs and motifs. There is not one poster, or any advertising in the metro.
The black market is the best way to exchange money in Uzbekistan. ATMs often run out of cash, and since no one seems to want their Uzbek soms (who can blame them with inflation at about 12.5% in 2012), they will often try to give you a really good deal. The spread between the official and the black market rate can be up to 30%. Of course, you mustn’t tell anyone where you got your soms from, and at what rate. From street vendors to taxi drivers to policemen, everyone is a money changer. Not only can you get black market exchange rate, you can also get black market train tickets, black market entrance fees amongst other things.