I’ve come to the opinion that there are really two Uzbekistans – yes, there are two Frances, two Italys, two Britains – or probably more in these fractured Brexit days – two anywheres, but bear with me. The main cities and tourist sites, above all Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, are now places that visitors can reach by high-speed trains or frequent flights, where they can find ATMs, good hotels, hostels and restaurants and where they can speak English or German with guides or even an increasing number of ordinary people in the streets. Restaurants and buses have prices posted and you can just get on with your stuff. These are pleasant and relaxing places to be – I’ll say it again, the Uzbeks (and I include the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomens and others living in Uzbekistan) are some of the nicest people I’ve come across, really enjoying the way their country is opening up to the world.
Then there are the smaller towns and villages which are not yet surfing this wave. Here you need to speak Russian (or Uzbek, Tajik etc) to get much done, and you also have to accept that the internet is barely functional and that nothing here has any fixed value, except train fares – but for pretty much everything else there’s a haggling culture which means that no-one will tell you an actual fixed price for anything. That’s just the way it is, the Uzbeks are some of the nicest people around but as a tourist in these less touristy places you will end up paying far more than the locals do for just about everything. I don’t mind a ‘tourist tax’ (or non-Russian-speaker tax) of 10 or 20 per cent, and I don’t agree with the UNESCO policy against charging foreigners more at places like Angkor Wat – but it’s ironic that any Uzbeks who found themselves there would have to pay the pretty steep foreign tourist rate, as would any Cambodians visiting the Registan in Samarkand. But I don’t want to pay three or four times what I ‘should’ pay every time, and I really find it odd living in a world where almost nothing has a fixed value. Especially when I’m supposed to be telling my dear readers what the cost of things is.
To be marginally more specific, I’m in Termez, the crossing point from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and thus the southernmost point in Uzbekistan. The night train from Samarkand was cancelled (find out at 22.30, get given your money back and told to go into town to find a bed – but the point of the night train is that you won’t need a hotel) so I came the next day in a shared taxi. The night train back was full, so I’m killing another night in a hotel and will waste most of another day in shared taxis. I spent today visiting the ruins of the earlier incarnations of Termez (it was founded by Alexander the Great, and was an important military and commercial stop on the Silk Route until Genghiz wiped it out), and I intended to do this by using the marshrutka (minibus) routes detailed in the book what I am updating. Unfortunately, the route numbers have all changed, so firstly, after a while by the road, I got bundled into a car which took me to the Hakkim al Termezi mausoleum, and the driver massively shortchanged me. Fine, I did my business there and was able to get a marshrutka back (with a quarter-hour hiccup at a check-point, but that’s another story and certainly nothing to do with me, I wasn’t the person who didn’t have ID), and I only paid a bit over the odds. Then I went out to the Sultan Saodat mausoleum, and happily had exactly the right change to pay exactly what I saw everybody else paying. I lugged my rucksack to a couple of other sites but then had to get the same marshrutka line back – this time I didn’t have the right change and so got given back a few thousand Som less than I should have been (I thought I’d get off at the end of the line to have a bit of time to sort things out, but he was actually taking someone further on, they’re helpful that way; anyway, he may have been charging me for my baggage or something). All in all, it’s only a matter of a few dollars over the whole day, but I just find it a bit wearing. Actually, it’s also strange that time has no fixed value either – mostly life is pretty relaxed here, with plenty of time to chat, but occasionally someone (usually a driver) will be in a tearing hurry.
You can actually learn more about Old Termez by visiting the fine Archeological Museum in New Termez than by schlepping out to the ruins – this was one of the main centres of Buddhism in what is now Uzbekistan, and I was hopeful of finding some examples of Gandharan sculpture, which you may recall I was thrilled to find in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore. It seems that the Buddhist culture here was heavily influenced by Gandhara (the Khyber Pass was an important part of the Silk Route) but there’s nothing that comes close to the pure beauty of classic Gandharan Buddhist sculpture.
I kept reading that Termez was the launchpad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while I was under the impression that it wasn’t an invasion, but rather ‘fraternal support’ for the embattled communist regime there. Well… it was a bit of both, it seems. In April 1978 a left-wing coup overthrew the democratic government, and two communist parties formed a coalition in order to govern the country. In December 1979 the Soviets sent in 30,000 troops over the ironically named Friendship Bridge, just outside Termez, in order to support one of the communist parties and overthrow the president, who was the leader of the other one.
Actually, there is one place that lies in between the two Uzbekistan – Shakrisabz is a small town without much tourist infrastructure, but then there’s no need to stay the night as it’s an easy day trip from Samarkand (over a pretty spectacular mountain pass). This is another place where the old town has been swept away to create a rather sterile new park linking the town’s tourist sights, from the Dor at-Tilyavat mosque in the south to the massive remains of Timur’s Ak Serai palace about a kilometre to the north.
In general, though, you can take your choice – the ‘new’ Uzbekistan where tourism is easy, or the old one where you have to work that much harder, but with the compensation of knowing that you’re away from the tourist crowds. Of course, with a guide you can cross the boundary, to see Termez and its surroundings for instance, but in a sense you’re still in the bubble of the new Uzbekistan. When I got to the Fergana Valley, at the end of my tour of Uzbekistan, I was given a car and driver by a local tourism company (the excellent DOCA Tours), which you might think was the perfect way to visit this pretty untouristed part of the country – but I had to use Russian to communicate with the driver, so it didn’t really solve my problem. It was only in the wonderful Margilan silk factory (hardly a factory, as pretty much everything is still done by hand) and the potteries of Rishtan that I was able to relax and speak English.
PS After four weeks away I returned to Tashkent and realised that there are actually three Uzbekistans – because the capital feels nothing like the rest of the country. It actually seemed like a Russian city to me, although half the population is no longer ethnically Russian as it was in Soviet times. It’s maybe 20% Russian now, but the contrast with the rest of the country is so strong that it seems more. Women’s skirts are about a foot shorter than in the rest of the country (kudos to the wife of the British ambassador for strutting hers with more style than any of the locals), there are couples kissing, even the odd alcoholic passed out under a tree, all more Russian than Uzbek.