I had forgotten what it means to travel on limited time over the last two years, when I had a month or more to spend in each of the various countries I visited. I have less than two weeks in Uzbekistan, and only a half day left in Tashkent. I had to weigh my options: A worth-while museum or two or town. I opted for strolling more of the town. A taxi took me to the area of the Chorsu Bazaar, a huge covered area with stalls selling anything from nuts, spices and vegetables to slippers and shawls.

At the edge of the bazaar towers the 16th Century Kukeldash Madrassa. It is a good example of what independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s has done to Uzbekistan: Under the Soviets, this Islamic school was used as a warehouse; now it is reverted to housing 250 men studying Islam. The two-storied building is renovated beautifully with classrooms, study halls and dorms. There seemed to be mainly men, but I also saw a hall of women eating lunch by themselves. Are they students there, too? I doubt it. This is a school and not a place for visitors, but nobody bothered me as I walked around that courtyard, properly hijabed, taking photographs. A young man in one of the corners did the call to prayer just for himself, hands cupped in front of his mouth to enhance the sound. It was echoing through the newly planted garden as most others went about their business, or had gathered around lunch tables in various rooms.

Behind the buzzing bazaar there is a squat, four story round building with an exterior ramp spiraling up to a roof-top observation platform. From there you have nice views across town and the bazaar area. I took a picture of three young girls who were curiously looking and smiling at me. After my descent I looked back up to them and instead of minding my steps waved a goodbye. I shouldn’t have as I promptly fell down a staircase! I found out the hard way that falling down stairs head first means going down twice as deep as the ground keeps getting lower… My backpack flew over my head but I was able to catch myself with my hands before my face would have hit the ground. Autsch! But I could get up and walk, scratched up nonetheless. Thanks, Baishayaguru, for making this nothing more than a wake-up call to watch where I am going.

Between the bazaar and my next destination lies an old part of Tashkent which survived the 1966 earthquake mainly intact. It is a small residential neighborhood with winding alleys and single story homes. All you see is walls and the occasional door way. Behind that lie homes with rooms centered on the garden-court. If you are lucky, you can catch a glimpse through the occasionally left open door. It’s quiet here. No traffic. And it is a far cry from the Soviet-style avenues which I walked yesterday lined with monumental government buildings or residential high-rises. The most curious feature I found were yellow pipelines lining the road and arching U-shaped across intersections. These were gas pipes! Obviously installed much later than the building were built, they did not even attempt to hide the fact that they were an afterthought. I had never seen anything like this. And there was a humming sound in the air which I could not explain. I thought perhaps, it originated from these gas lines.

The neighborhood ends, opening up onto a huge square flanked on all sides by Islamic architecture. There is a madrassa to one side, faced by a mosque on the other. To one side there is a shrine faced opposite by a library and modern-looking Islamic Center, yet another mosque and a smaller shrine set back. The huge stone square is nicely set off by rolling, green gardens along the edges with newly planted trees. Brick minarets and blue-tiled domes, huge pishtaks (ornamental portals) and tiled niches make for an ever-interesting display of architectural forms changing and shifting as you walk along. This is the Khast-Imam Square, containing the largest place of worship in Uzbekistan and home to the mufti, the head of Islam of the country; the “pope” so to speak and St. Peter’s Square. Not all buildings were open to visitors and I explored as much as I could.

I finally found out where the humming sound had came from that I had heard throughout the neighborhood: There were kites flying all over the square operated by old and young which created sounds like giant insects as they were reined in or let up higher; really neat.

It was later in the day than I thought and I had to rush to find a taxi to make it to the airport. So, changing the topic, here is about money and taxis: With the Frenchies, I had waited around at the airport for a while yesterday, as they were told that the exchange office would open for business at 8 AM. It did. I wanted to exchange $100 and handed over one of my $100 notes. Not good enough! The clerk at the bank did not like that the bill had a crevice in the middle from being folded once. I could not believe it. I went through great length at home calling my bank in advance for new bank notes (based on good advice in my tour book) and had taken only new US $ bills along. This was a decent bill. Not brand new, but newer than 1994 and hardly used. With great annoyance at this rejection I surrendered five brand-new $20 notes which the clerk accepted. When she handed me about an inch of bank notes in exchange (it is ridiculous how many bills you get for $100!) I told her with a straight face, that these were not acceptable. They were not new, but worn. She looked at me in disbelief. I let her hang for about three seconds as she stood there, not knowing what to say. It’s a joke! It’s a joke, I repeated. But I left, my head shaking. Really, this was not funny. What if all or most of my bills were not acceptable, then what?!

Trash, smoke, honesty, treatment of women, and taxi drivers are some of the indicators I use to form a first opinion about a country. Uzbekistan had fared mid-range so far: The first thing I noted, stepping out of the airplane, was a smoke-filled airport – thumbs down. But walking through town yesterday and today confirmed that this was a spick and span clean country. Thumbs up. It is too early to tell about general honesty – I have not interacted enough or bought much. But the few taxi drivers I had to deal with so far, all cheated, quoting me ridiculous prices and the guilt-trip forcing me into accepting them or walking away (which I could not do in any of the cases due to time limitations). Thumbs down on that one. Women? So far so good. Women seem to be able to wear what they want, and seem to be walking and interacting freely. But courtesy? Three guys stood idly in a hotel lobby just now as I am dragging my obviously heavy luggage up the stairs. Not one will offer to help. That happened also in Tashkent. Hmmm… The jury is out on that one.

An uneventful flight in a propeller airplane brought me to Nukus tonight. It’s a god-forsaken place and I was promptly out of email touch – you have to bear with me on this irregularity – but there is an explanation why I am here.

It is only 10 PM, but I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. I still have stamps from Tashkent in my East German stamp collection. The city looks a lot better on my stamps than in your photos …
    Great column and I love your thoughts and strategy on forming a first opinion on a country.

  2. Good one with the bank teller! Watch your step out there, you do not want EMS on the way to you, not over there!! I am curious to find out why you are in Nukus.
    Stay safe, have fun-

  3. Interesting (and I think quite reliable) the indicators you use to form an opinion about a country. The only one I would add is “food”…can’t have a good country without good food…lol. And McDonalds doesn’t count.
    Not sure under which indicator I would put the “dragging your heavy luggage up the stairs while the men watch” situation: treatment of women or courtesy…or both. Any way you cut it, got to deduct some points for that.
    Hey…the only thing you really missed while on your journey was bidding on “The Scream”. It sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $119.9 million on Wednesday night. Well, maybe next time.
    Hope you had a great rest and are ready for your next adventure.