There is nothing special about the airport in Tashkent. Airports – or what limited insight you have when you land in one terminal and get channeled up and down staircases and through hallways to the exit – all seem to look alike. A narrow corridor fanned out into five customs control booths. Since I had a seat at the front of the airplane, I was one of the first to reach the booths.  A long, hard look at all the visas in my grimy looking passport, a stamp and I was out in the luggage area. The exchange office, located right next to the custom booths was closed…

People began to file into the hall long before the luggage arrived, most of them natives, it seemed. The plane held about 150 people. I could count on both hands who looked like a visitor: Two older French couples, two younger German couples, one with child, the other one all over each other, perhaps on their honeymoon, a single business-man, and I. I decided to approach one of the French couples to ask them if they would share a taxi into town. They agreed: Claude is a retired math teacher and Julie, a retired doctor. For 21 days, they would be traveling all over Uzbekistan, including a five day mountain hike. I was impressed.

The second piece of luggage that rolled off the band was a huge suitcase, top open, with stuff oozing all over it. In the course of minutes, two more open bags rolled in. Now I got it! Much of the luggage I had seen checked in was completely taped up with handles carefully exposed. Other than that it looked mummified. These people expected their luggage to be “inspected” – unofficially that is – by the luggage handlers! Presumably, articles of interest would be missing never to be found again… Now I worried – was my luggage subject to the same fate? Thankfully, I had put two straps around it and it arrived untouched. Thanks, Ganesh.

The day was gray and rainy. And to spare you the details, an hour passed in the taxi with the French, cruising from one hotel to the next until all of us had found a place that was neither “finished” (out of business) or full. I was car-sick to my stomach. Too sick to haggle over the completely outrageous price the taxi driver now demanded (double of the originally quadrupled price for first time foreign visitors!). The French had gone out earlier, and now I got stuck with it. White in my face I could only sit down at the hotel lobby gasping for some water. The room price was 50% more than my guide book indicated, but I was too weak to protest that one either. Just give me that water and a bed and leave me alone!

An hour later, the world looked friendlier. The rain had subsided and given way to a few rays of sun. My stomach had settled. And I followed my rule to submit to local time no matter what it takes! The day here was just starting. I could not sleep it away. I had to get out. That’s what No-Doze is for. One pill does wonders for you in a situation like this. Guide book in hand, I decided it would be best to get a feel for town by walking it for as long as I could. Sam Buh, my hotel (what kind of a name is that anyways?!) is located in a quiet residential neighborhood with dirt roads. The sweet cherry tree in the yard was already loaded with red cherries. The streets were bumpy but clean. The town was green. Lots of yards, grass, shrubs. Lots of new construction, villas and smaller homes, new and old, all mixed in the same neighborhood. Trees lined even the larger four-lane avenues. There the apartment houses rose multiple stories Soviet-style, or East-German style, for that matter. I felt I had traveled back in time to Halle Neustadt, Dresden Prager Strasse, or just about any of the post-war sections of East Germany. It was the same run-down, uniform, but not poor feeling which had permeated East Germany that I felt here. Lots of police in uniform were parading the streets and flagging down un-expecting cars.

For six hours I walked. I passed a steel-beam covered bazaar, a Russian-Orthodox cathedral, a car manufacture, multi-storied apartment blocks, important looking bombastic Beaux-Arts style government buildings, rows of boutiques, mini markets, nondescript monuments, city parks, a concert hall, museums, European-looking pubs, street artists, cafes, buses, cars, people.

It’s a town. It’s a big town. It’s a town whose history got wiped out in a massive earthquake in 1966. It’s a town that got a 1970’s Soviet-era make over. And that’s what you see today.

I got a few looks, but nothing out of the ordinary. I got a handshake “welcome to my country” from Boris, a heavyset man in his thirties. I got a few smiles from women and I avoided looking at men directly. It’s a Muslim country. But you would not know judging by the very few women who wear hijab, the many young couples in the parks holding hands, or the many young women with high heels, deep-cut, sleeveless blouses, and tight stockings. I got stopped by a middle-aged woman with a row full of golden teeth while looking at the earthquake monument. She gave me an earful about how happy she was in Malaysia as a cleaning woman even though she is a nurse. Her heart is split – she repeatedly pointed to her breasts and made a gesture as if she wanted to rip her shirt in half – between Malaysia and Uzbekistan. Half of her friends leave for work and go to the States. Many others leave for Korea or Malaysia. Now she is a nanny and earns $100 per month. No more than that. And she is longing for Malaysia, where she was happy. I could not stop staring at her golden teeth… Was that her life-insurance, her savings, her nest egg?

Legions of orange-clad cleaners swept the streets with bristle brooms. Legions of blue-uniformed gardeners were pruning the parks; almost all of them women. And legions of policemen whistled people on the right path who would take a wrong step – on to the lawn, for example, or into an area that was off limits. Everything was so clean and orderly. Traffic, perhaps, was a bit crazier than at home. But it was nothing like I had seen in the Middle East. Independence happened in the 1990’s. But this still was the legacy of Soviet-style order.

I ate a delicious soljanka (soup) at a neighborhood garden restaurant and then went to bed.

Good night. I deserve it!