Tag Archives: Uzbekistan

Stalin’s last stand – Travels in Uzbekistan

Things have never quite returned to pushing the condemned from the top of minarets, but where Mohamed meets Marx, the Soviet regime of terror favoured by Stalin lives on.

The world is largely ignorant of this mumblistan, the seventh most corrupt country in the world, whose government holds so many thousands of innocents in jail under the auspices of the war on terror and whose cotton is boycotted by many western clothes retailers due to slave and child labour concerns.

But the country has extraordinary history. In 1405, within just 30 years, Timur, the country’s national hero, built an empire that stretched from India to Syria, centred on Samarkand, his sumptuous capital. The resplendent buildings of his reign have been restored and rebuilt.

Uzbekistan sounds like an interesting place to visit, no?

This video is split into two parts, due to upload size restrictions.

stalin’s last stand from Tim Way on Vimeo.

stalin’s last stand – part two from Tim Way on Vimeo.

khivan bugs

The feeling of a fly taking a leisurely meander across my cheek is one of the most infuriating I know. These ones are the non-biting type that like shit and hence I blame for my middle section feeling like one large cork that is being extracted in fifteen directions simultaneously from the bottle of Chateau Magrit that is my torso. Stimulating, yet totally devoid of pleasure.

They’re quick too, so there’s never the short-lived pleasure that is achieved with the successful swatting of the mosquito that’s diligently filling up with your haemoglobin. At least you win the skirmish with mosquitoes, flies win the war without getting even a knick.

If I wasn’t going on about flies, I’d be going on about hornets. The world’s largest hornets infest the restaurant across the square, mottled in the evening sun. I’d be there if one of Khiva’s endless torrent of summer weddings hadn’t taken over the place for the evening. Bride and groom looking dour and drawn after a day’s walking around the picture-perfect city under the 40+ degree sun. Still being teenagers, they have the stamina to last.

As it is, I’m sat under the essential shade of a birch tree. Uzbek pop music to accompany the wedding is pumping away at a volume that is disagreeably loud at 200 metres. There is a passing whiff of chicken shit and children have gathered around the spectacle of a man typing away on his laptop and words appearing on the screen. Never before have I seen word processing as a spectator sport.

I don’t necessarily object to chicken shit; it reminds me of holiday’s on my grandparent’s Newfoundland farm as a child. I’m the only person I know who feels this way, but on occasions like this – it is extremely useful.

When travelling, the difference is often the mundane, not the well known.

bridge over the oxus at urgench

Sat on Itamar’s pack, wedged between James’s unwashed thighs and Ramil’s never washed T-shirt and holding up my own seventy litre rucksack to promote the circulation of available air, I cross the Amu Darya at Urgench. We’re on our way to Khiva, where 150 years ago judgement, as an approximation for justice, was passed and the punishment involved pushing the condemned from the top of minarets on market day to a painful splatty death below. I’m ecstatic.

Our Daewoo Damas follows an even smaller Daewoo Tico, tea-cosy would have been more a more appropriate name, nipping left then right in an attempt to pass the dawdling piece of powered kitchen quilting. The driver uses the horn more as a keyboard when passing pedestrians, playing out a one-tone melody to ensure they don’t intersect his erratic path. One group of ladies is narrowly avoided as they struggle across the uneven surface in heels to join a dusty bride and groom having wedding photos taken a few metres on. Under her, now slightly off-white but dazzling pleated and frilled outfit, she’s wearing flip-flops.

The bridge is in fact a series of adjoined rusty floating hunks of iron, variously actual boats, square box sections of plate and actual sections of pontoon, held together with sturdy chains and the grace of God. Where the boats aren’t squared off at the bow and stern, the road zig-zags onto them from the side, before heading off to another section of the pontoon crossing. The whole set-up is reminiscent of a kilometre long game of Blockbusters, with rusty brown winning over muddy brown, just.

We pass the Tico, and cross a six-inch gap in the bridge with the murky silty river flowing some five or so metres below. Our next target is a Volga, best described as a Soviet Cadillac – complete with the sweeping bodywork curves, but eschewing the capitalist tail fins. It’s orange and carrying a precious cargo of £30 worth of watermelons, about two hundred of the large green fruit. Miraculously, none of them fall out as we jerk from pontoon to pontoon. Our driver takes his eye off the prize when avoiding an exceptionally large dent, and a Daewoo Matiz hustles by.

Two centuries ago, the Great Game between Britain and Russia was just kicking off as Muraviev and Moorcroft battled to reach the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva first. Then, the goal was as much to saturate the unpenetrated central Asian markets with each empire’s products as it was to retain or acquire control of India.

Now, the Asians are most definitely winning the new great game. Our taxi driver points to the crazy Matiz and communicates with us in Pigeon Russian. “Very good, Korea-Uzbekistan”. He points at a Lada passing in the opposite direction: “Russian – no good”, and asks me whether Ford is an American or British brand; we’ve only seen one on the whole journey. It’s a story mirrored in Turkmenistan, from where we crossed into Uzbekistan, except there (whilst talking to an LG employee) it was: “Hyundai, this is my favourite Korean company, Samsung is my second favourite, LG is third”. Joint venture foreign policy is the twenty first century annexation.

We reach the last link of iron and summit a 10 ft muddy mound, following a bus that, thanks to a clever and practised diagonal driving technique avoids grounding in almost cartoon style. Reaching the far bank, clothes and bodies are being washed in the still blisteringly hot late afternoon sun. Our driver hands over the official bridge toll of 500 som, about 15p. The new bridge is clearly being built, but whether the rusting pontoons sink before it’s finished is a matter of local debate. This is not the largest fee we are to face on the 40km dusty dual carriageway from the Amu Darya to Khiva. That tax goes to the smartly dressed policeman, in pressed green trousers and a square hat, who whistles and waves at us with a luminous orange stick further on. He takes the largest purple Uzbek note of 1000 som.

We stop for a few minutes just outside town to untangle bodies and bags with the intention of offloading some of them. Many other minibuses are doing the same, but the stallholders of the nearby water and snack mountains stand idly by. There’s no rush to sell the bag-blocked and bus-confined tourists a slightly overpriced but much appreciated bottle of tepid water. Sitting in silence, serving no-one and waiting seems to be of greater importance

It’s hot – between forty and fifty degrees outside; it has been every day since we left Europe’s last outpost of Dolce and Gabbana and wifi’d Baku two weeks or so ago. So much so that I now see having achieved any form of hydration at 7 p.m. as evidence a productive day. And I’ve got the enviable afflictions of mosquito bites in triple figures and bowels as loose as the Honduran constitution.

Pains aside, people here look far more Mongolian than Persian or Russian, and although we are a long way from the entrepreneurial streets of Bangkok, we’ve crossed the historic Oxus. Mighty and for centuries landscape defining, it has me excitedly following in the footsteps of many Great Gamers, and not that many others from lands afar.

I’m ecstatic, for we really are in central Asia now.