Chronicles of a misfit Pakistani in Tashkent
There are no fast food chains in Uzbekistan, no credit card facilities, internet is slow, but history is enthralling.
October 17, 2012
The journey started from Karachi en route to Lahore. Flights to Tashkent run only on Uzbek Airways and originate from Lahore (Islamabad has recently been added); why not Karachi is a mystery to me? Maybe people from Punjab are more inclined towards history and hedonistic tendencies?
Karachi was balmy. Lahore was cool, and we were anticipating cold weather in Tashkent.
It is situated right in between Siberia and Pakistan, and who cannot forget those chilly winds in Quetta and Karachi, courtesy of mother Russia.
The latest forecast showed temperatures ranging between 2C-14C, and I prepared accordingly; mufflers, caps, wool coats… hardly would I miss any opportunity to use my cold weather repository, which otherwise comes out for only a month or two in Karachi- if we’re lucky.
The flight timing was in the middle of the night, as is the case with most international flights out of Pakistan- another mystery to me; perhaps our sleep is dispensable!
I was accompanied by two dozen colleagues who were embarking on a leisure conference in Uzbekistan, effectively filling up a quarter of the plane.
At least the plane was new, not the ancient behemoths that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has, I thought to myself.
However, there was one commonality; the stewards and stewardess all looked as if they were being forced at gunpoint to deal with us unruly Pakistanis.
On the bright side, the food was good and was served with courtesy. But as all good things have to come to an end, the courtesy seen throughout the flight was seen flying out the emergency exit when the plane landed.
As usual, everyone scrambled to grab their luggage and be the first to leave- as if the plane was on fire! Despite polite reminders to stay seated, not a word was heard until one of the stewardesses, extremely fed up, stood up and yelled out,
“Sit on your chair!”
What happened afterwards was expected. Unfortunately, the saying “Laaton ke bhoot baton se nahi maante” (Ghouls who kick only understand when they are kicked) stands true for us.
Us Pakistanis only understand when we are threatened with something.
The landing was very comfortable, compared to the helicopter like landing that we are so used to, and so was the immigration.
Inevitably, regardless of the fact that these countries are no longer part of the USSR, the monochromatic communists feel permeates everywhere, from the stoic looks on the staff, to the ambiance, to the cars, and even the cold lifeless weather. As we ventured out at 5am, we saw a procession of young Uzbek guys waiting anxiously for their football star to arrive (God knows who?)
Our hotel was a short ride away, and had a salacious aura about it. The name was recently changed to Le Grand Plaza Hotel from Tata Hotel; legacy of the autocratic ruler, Islam Karimov, penchant for driving all foreign investment from the country to save the dollar outflow.
Speaking of dollars, their currency rate is atrocious: 2,500 soms (Uzbekistani currency) to a dollar. I had to carry the currency in polyethylene bags.
Thank god the city is extremely safe. Imagine carrying money in a plastic see through bag in Karachi!
There are no fast food restaurants in Uzbekistan - no credit card facilities, no nothing; if you have cash -well, if you have dollars-the whole of Uzbekistan is at your disposal.
Internet is woefully slow. Food is bland to the extreme. People are typically mongoloid by the look (except the Russians, which are what draws most Pakistanis and Indians to Tashkent in the first place.)
Nevertheless, the best thing about Uzbekistan is its history.
Amir Temur, the hero of Uzbekistan and a tryant who was responsible for the death of 15 million people was the great great great grandfather of Babur, father of the Mughal dynasty. So my trip validated one question for me; we are descended from Mongols (and Genghis Khan -god help us. No wonder we are so belligerent!)
The trip was well planned. Enough time for rest and recreation (even the schedule stated that ‘all night club activities at your own expense.’)
As I ventured out next day after a good night’s sleep, I realised that Tashkent is almost a twin of Islamabad, albeit not as hilly, beautiful and verdant. And of course, it’s a lot more clean everywhere too. People tend to mind about their own business as well.
People are quite friendly (especially Pakistanis, not Indians), except the language barrier, which is endemic. People speak Uzbek and Russian, and that is about it.
At night time, we ventured out to a club, which was the start of our hedonistic adventures; behold, seven scantily clad, beautiful Uzbek and Russian women trumpeted seductively to Pakistan (Atif Aslam), English and Indian tunes. As usual, our colleagues were intoxicated and become totally unruly, throwing money at them left, right and centre.
I am not in the unenviable position of going to a foreign destination for the first time, but for a majority of our colleagues, this was indeed the first time, and I can imagine the double shock that they got; a new country and white women so close in their reach, just imagine!
The revelling went on for a better part of the night, with some determined colleagues opting to extend the night and consummate their efforts.
On the other side, people like us spent the better half of the night trying to surf on the extremely slow internet connection (5K per second, perhaps), a critical exigency of my life; another problem with this anachronistic country.
The tour of the city began in earnest and ended quickly after. All there is to see is an ugly TV tower being the tallest structure in Central Asia, the independence square where the Uzbeks proclaimed their independence from USSR and numerous statues of Amir Temur spread around the city. That’s it; end of Tashkent.
Of course, the night life is a totally different affair, and there are numerous clubs catering to different segments - Russians, us poor south Asians, and white Europeans.
Our night ended (not for all though) with dinner at a local restaurant, and that was another cultural shock. Food is bland and overly reliant on beef, and to accommodate us, they relied excessively on daal and channa. Imaging coming to a foreign country, and being forced to go through the execrable ritual of eating over cooked curry, parathas and channa everyday.
Lesson learned: never go on organised tours, they cut corners everywhere, especially when it comes to food.
Day trip to Samarkand - it was the jewel of the tour, at least for those who value history. Once there, the only people we could see were groups of old people from Europe (mostly Switzerland) marvelling at the Islamic culture and magnificent edifices.
The road to Samarkand from Tashkent is decrepit, and is a bumpy ride of over six hours; our highways are like roads to heaven in comparison. We should have taken the bullet train (Afrosyab) which takes just two hours to reach its destination. As always, and in all likelihood, the tour company cut corners again and gave the ersatz pretext of not having enough seats available in the train.
Samarkand arrived, and we basked in its past glory.
Mosques in blue shimmered throughout the city in the undulating plains of the desert. But there was one huge negative - every single building was heavily restored. So much so that they looked new. The biggest element of history/antiquity was craftily removed in the machine like enterprise of the soviet era.
There was another issue and that most mosques looked exactly the same (what you see in Istanbul; all mosques look alike.)
Boredom sets in very quickly, and so we all longed for a good lunch after an arduous day (it was not as cold as Tashkent.)
Food arrived, and what a disaster it was - pieces of beef in a strange fat infused broth. It was so bad that a few of our colleagues threw up, and we all wondered what choices we had left there: bad Indian food, inedible Uzbek food or no fast food. How we missed Pakistan and its array of delectable spicy food!
Last day of our tour, a trip to a few museums. A fourth century Quran on deer skin caught our attention. Then we moved on to more archaeological sites (yes, more statues of Amir Temur), and later shopping at a local market, which seemed more akin to Jodia bazaar in Karachi.
We ended up buying extra cheap Russian sweets. One colleague bought 40kg of sweets as they were barely Rs100 a kilogramme.
That is all there is to Uzbekistan; at the airport, we ended up spending hours at the airport filing up archaic forms claiming how much money we are taking out of Uzbekistan (dollars, that is.)
And to sum it, everyone was more elated going back to their dear country as they were coming to Uzbekistan - one hit wonder indeed!