Sunday, March 9, 2014

Uzbekistan Part 1:

Hey everyone,

Thanks for all the responses from the last blog.  We're at 100 USD and counting, which means I need 159 more incidents by February 2015 for someone to tell George he is not Bulgarian, give him an English menu, or speak to him in English.  Please note that it must be people that he does not know, so that means you can recruit friends of friends to find George anywhere he happens to be and mention to him that he is not Bulgarian.  Eye rolling does count when you ask him to do Bulgarian things, such as go hiking in the Rhodopis or trying to make him wear a martenitza.

This blog starts my trip to Uzbekistan, a fascinating place I visited last summer to visit my best friend since I have known since the Peace Corps, Diplo-Matt.  Some may ask, why didn't you write this blog last summer????  Yeah, I know I'm lazy about writing about these things, and I should have written this long ago.  This blog covers the first three days of the trip from June 27-July 7, 2013.  Hopefully, it will give you a small idea of what Uzbekistan is like.

Background of Uzbekistan for the uninformed Americans and Europeans reading this blog:

I think it's totally worth the trip and hassle to go to Uzbekistan.  While it isn't a country well known in the Western world, there are great mountains to go hiking, amazing Silk road sights, and great people.  It has Samarkand, which is the was the heart of the Tamurlane during the 14th and 15th centuries, and has one of the first planetarium observatories.  It has the ancient city of Bukhara, a silk road city of trade, culture, and learning for many centuries.  There is Khiva and Itchan Kala, which has been preserved and an excellent site of Islamic architecture.  It was the last Silk Road city traders came to before crossing the immense deserts to Iran.  There are amazing silk rugs and tapestries which take years to make.  Depending on how authentic they are and the size, they can costs thousands of dollars to buy retail in Europe.

Like any trip, Amelie wanted to come to Uzbekistan with me.
Luckily, she didn't drink the rakiya.  
Just so you know, Uzbekistan is not the easiest place to get a visa to as a traveler, but it can be done.  You can if you're part of a tour group, or have a sponsor organization, usually a tour group or an embassy.  It is also not the nicest government to live under.  Uzbekibeki is the 6th most corrupt country in the world, run by an autocratic, dying president who has a fascinating daughter, who seems to be failing in an effort to succeed him as president, even though she graduated from Harvard.  Not only is she Harvard educated, she is a pop singer who even has a song with Gerald Depardieu.  How many Harvard graduates can say they're successful business people and a pop singer?   Gulnara Karimova can, that's who.

That being said, it is a country worth visiting, to see and to understand what it's like.  I am a news junkie, and the news and what a country is like are completely different.  You need to see Uzbekistan for yourself to understand and get a picture of what it's like.  I loved visiting Uzbekistan, had a great tour guide who took great care of me.  I would encourage people, especially any Tea Party people, to come and visit Uzbekibeki for the amazing sites, but also to appreciate every ounce of freedom you have.

Thursday: Istanbul Airport flight to Tashkent and surviving the carry-on luggage check:  

Turkish Airlines is one of the few airlines to fly to Tashkent.  Turkey will do business with Uzbekistan to make money, but three Turkish guys who got their visa at the Uzbek consulate the same day I did described doing business there as 'fucking crazy', and they said the madness of getting a visa was the easy part compared to actually doing business there.  Turkish airlines sometimes 'loses' luggage on the flight to Tashkent as it's more valuable to the ground control to transport other goods besides luggage sometimes, so I was told to pack clothes for 1-2 days just in case my luggage decided not to come with me.

Rather than going on Aeroflot or Uzbek airlines, I opted for Turkish Airlines and decent food, even though I would have to leave Tashkent at 3:00am the day of my return flight.  So after a 12 hour layover in the Istanbul airport, which included three hours of snoring away in three seats to scare people from taking my valuables, the real trip to Uzbekistan began with an additional security and baggage check by Turkish Airlines officials.  So why exactly was there an additional security check to Tashkent?  Pretty much, they created a special line to check the carry-on luggage of all Uzbeks flying to Tashkent, as well as the 'token' foreigners such as myself.  They rummaged through every single passenger's luggage to fine us if we were bringing extra alcohol, clothes, purses, cigarettes, or whatever else Uzbeks were bringing on the flight to Tashkent.

Being like the fourth person to be checked, Turkish airline officials thoroughly scoured over my backpack and manpurse, looking for something fishy that they could charge me 20-100 USD for as a fine.  To be honest, this scene reminded me of any Wizz Air flight, or some U.S. airlines baggage policies.  They would have done the same thing to shake down more money from Uzbek citizens, all in the interest of following company policy.One guy tried to say my backpack weighed too much because of the change of clothes, but I played the total American diva by telling him I made it on one flight from Sofia to Istanbul with the exact same stuff, and no one said anything.  Then, I gave them a silent smile Southerners use to pretty much silently say, "Suck it dude, I'm falling for your trick one bit."

With these spoken and unspoken words, I managed to pass through the unofficial security/baggage checkpoint, and then I was able to get a prime seat to watch the Turkish Airlines officials do their best work.  Sadly, some Uzbeks weren't quite as fortunate as I was getting past.  One poor Uzbek baba got shook down for about 50 USD for having about 3-4 extra carry-on bags beyond the one bag plus one personal item.  My guess is that her four bags of purses didn't exactly qualify as a personal item.  After lots of shouting and screaming in Turkish and Uzbek, she paid her fine.  Another group of four guys got stuck paying 30 USD for trying to take 12 bottles of alcohol between them instead of 8, but I guess they were better negotiators than the Uzbek baba in bright clothing.  After this happened to 4-5 other people, and finally they herded us onto the buses and boarded the flight to Tashkent.  There was a really nice Uzbek kid about 19 or 20 who was really excited I was going to be visiting his country.

Friday:  Arrival in Tashkent, Seeing Puke Green Uniforms Everywhere, First Uzbek Dinner, and Russian and Uzbeks abound

Arriving at the Tashkent airport is an interesting experience.  You are met at the gate immediately by Uzbek border guards, who make sure you get to the passport control.  Before going, I was warned by many blogs and people about the Uzbek airport experience.  Actually, the Tashkent airport experience was very tame compared to the Istanbul airport, which was the total opposite of what I was expecting.  After five minutes, I got through customs with no problems, and then filled out forms in English(as of June 2013) declaring what goods and the amount of cash I was carrying.

Tashkent is the capital city of Uzbekistan, with a population of 2.3 million.    Much like a, it is very sprawled out after a 1966 Earthquake destroyed much of the city.  To help encourage the sprawl, Uzbeks much prefer to live in a house rather than an apartment.  In addition, there are wide 6-8 lane roads that were built throughout the city as a result after the 1966 Earthquake, and almost nothing really remains of the old part of Tashkent, which is really sad because it has a really history as being one of the cities on the Silk Road.
Monument at the epicenter 1966 Earthquake, which destroyed most of what was left of the Old Town.  

The weirdest thing about Tashkent that morning going to Matt's house was there were policemen about 50-150 meters apart from each other on every major road, especially the ones President Karimov took his daily drive on.   Their outfits are a gay diva's worst nightmare, as they wear the uniforms are the most hideous shade of green possible.  Not green grass green, not forest green, but more what green peeps would look like if you puked them up.

After sleeping for about 4-5 hours, Matt had to do this thing called work, while I stayed home and enjoyed his awesome sound system and watched Boardwalk Empire.  There wasn't much else I could do, since I needed to officially register and wasn't allowed to leave Tashkent until I was registered.  Since this was Friday, it meant that I couldn't get the passport back until Monday, and essentially meant I was not to travel anywhere within the country.   Visitors must stay in hotels, but I escaped this law by staying with Matt, who is in his first post in the foreign service after somehow failing the oral portion of the foreign service exam 6,789 consecutive times.  To be honest, I don't know why they failed him that many times, because he's really good at his job.  I would have only failed him 3,456 times, but maybe the U.S. government knows something I don't about my best friend.

Friday evening was spent going to a great Uzbek restaurant I guess all foreigners are taken to for experiencing Uzbek food.  Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, the Islam Karimov preaches Uzbek family values with religious secularism.  So, alcohol is widely found at all restaurants, as this is something they learned and kept from the Russians when they were part of the Soviet Union.  Some of the salads were similar to ones you could find in the Balkans, but the meats and stews had influences from all over the place.  I Thanks to Reina and Bati Matthew, I ate extremely well, and managed to sustain my buddha belly that night.  Reina is a friend of one of our friend's wife, and was a really cool to hang out with.  She says she didn't understand English and only spoke Russian, but I swear she understood most of what we were talking about in English most of the time.the most sufficient manner possible.

Evenings in Tashkent were spent doing what would seem to be a theme of the trip.  With a daily high temperature between 40-45C, one of the nice things is to chill are night outside, when the temperatures get cooler.   So, a typical Tashkent evening was to chill with a bottle of wine, chat with Matt, his 'lady friend' Reina, or some other peeps who worked with Matt on the tapchan at his house.  Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is not know for it's wine, so all wine was imported from other places.  Wine prices shocked me completely, as my $3-6 Euro bottle of wine in Bulgaria cost triple or quadruple in Uzbekistan.

Saturday:  Going through a large Uzbek bazaar and buying serving pans to help out the U.S. Embassy, and why we should get invited to future Fourth of July parties in Sofia 

On Saturday, I got to go to one of the largest Uzbek markets, where you can pretty much find anything.  Pretty much, you name it, and this market it had it in terms of stuff for sale.  It reminded me a little bit of Springville auction in terms of what you could find, but 15-20 times larger.  There were every type of item available for purchase by people trying to make a living and make some extra money.  If I lived in Tashkent, I probably would have purchased 4-5 things that day, but since I had to fit them into a suitcase, I had to restrain my buying power and live through Matt buying things.  

However, my American dollars were came in very handy, and possibly saved the day for the U.S. Embassy official party.  Matt was also officially on a work trip to find some serving dishes for the upcoming Fourth of July party at the Embassy on Monday, but he did not have enough dollar to purchase said serving pans, it was Saturday, and no official bank was working.  So, I graciously gave Matt a $600 USD loan from my dollars so he could purchase said serving pans, as it seems to be the thing to do when you're in Uzbekistan, which you'll find out later.  Part of the reason is the only ATM is located in the U.S. Embassy.  President Karimov controls the economy and monetary policies, and the highest note for a bill is 1,000 Som.  However, there are 2,240 to one USD, so you have stacks of money to deal with when exchanging money(The black market rate is about 2,600-2,700 Som to a dollar).  What do you do when you need to pay in Som and the highest bill note is 1,000, and you the highest one should really be 20 or 50 thousand?  You carry a butt-load of money around with you at all times.  Part of the Uzbek experience is constantly counting out Som and you need to have a manpurse or a bag to keep your money in, as a wallet cannot fit 100,000 Som.  So, we went back, got my dollars, and I gave Matt over 1,000,000 Som in order for the U.S. Embassy to serve chili for the official Fourth of July party to buy serving tray at the store in the bazaar.  My reward was a BBQ, some good drinks, and an awesome pool to chill and after a hot day in Tashkent.  

Especially for the U.S. Embassy of Sofia staff:  If anyone from the Embassy in Sofia is reading this blog, helping your fellow embassy is totally why I should get invited to future official Fourth of July parties at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia.  Elana Resnick has left, and you need someone to be scandalous since she's left to live in the land of the free again.  And who better to do that than George and I.  George is great at ticking off diplomats, and I can be somewhat entertaining and smooth things over if he says something too outrageous.  You can also blame us for any embarrassing incidents, so the ambassador and your staff don't have to take the heat.  So whoever runs the guest invite for the 1,500-2,500 people you invite to the Sofia extravaganza, include George and I this year and I promise we'll not disappoint and make Elana proud. 

Sunday:  Chimgon while being fat and fabulous, great sights, and a horrible toilet
On Sunday morning, we got up at 5:30 AM to go hiking with this old Russian guy named Boris.  
Every Sunday, he takes people out for hikes in the Chimgon area, which is about 45-50 km from Tashkent.  This is a very narrow 10-15 km wide area of Uzbekistan, which borders Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  Boris is about 60, and his hiking style can best be described as a mountain goat.  There are no such things are trails in Chimgon.  One just chooses a path, and starts hiking.  This is what Boris does, as there was definitely no trail.  Your landmarks you use are the big lake, and the mountains surrounding you.  One just had to trust Boris knew where he was going, and hoped that he was going to take you on a path that was not too tough.     

This hike was not the toughest one I've done, but it definitely was tougher being fat and fabulous.  Yes, I looked like a old donkey trudging up a hill, but I made it up the mountain and really enjoyed the views.  
I was reminded a few times of how much weight my body has,
but also happy I had lost some of the weight.  Going uphill was tough, but I managed to beat the Russian mother and father who had taken their child hiking for the first time.  I considered that an accomplishment, but vowed to get myself back in shape once I got back from traveling that summer(Something I finally started doing in January when I could only barely fit into two pair of pants).  

Hiking around Chimgon was a great way to escape the city for a day, and get some fresh air in a beautiful place.  The views were amazing, so I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one.  This concludes part one of Uzbekistan, and I hope this inspires a few people to visit one place in the world we don't know much about.  

See those mountains?  That's Kyrgyzstan.  

 And see those mountains?  That's Kazakhstan.

  A cow chilling and wondering what we're doing hiking with no trail.
 View of the lake below, where people hang out for the today to escape the heat.  Closest thing to a beach you'll find in Uzbekistan, so if you want to cool off from 40-45 C temperatures, you come here.  The Aral Sea is hundreds of kilometers away, and isn't exactly beach material being an environmental disaster.

Colt chilling with the horses in the shade, wondering why we're hiking.  
The 'beach toilet' near the lake where we chilled for a bit before heading back to Tashkent.  Easily one of the worst toilets I have ever had to take a dump in.  I tried to hold it as long as I could and somehow hoped to find a bathroom somewhere.  However, I sucked it up and took a dump there like all the Uzbeks did.  I just held my breathed, squatted, did my business, and only had to breathe foul air once.  In hindsight, the digestive medicine George made me take would have come in really handy here, but I was stubborn and decided not to take it until January as part of a new me in 2014.