A Tashkent 'Homestay'

From Bukhara we travelled by overnight train to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's modern capital (the former USSR's fourth largest city). Our first stop was the Hadra Hotel, described by our guidebook as the "darkest hole in Central Asia" (also the cheapest option listed in the city). The manager at the hotel was perhaps the bitchiest woman in Central Asia. The stench of urine and excrement became stronger as we climbed towards the filthy room that she had to offer. Her asking price was high considering the state of the place, I attempted to negotiate a lower price, I wasn't particularly keen on spending a week at the hotel, but I was willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of our budget. She wouldn't budge on the price, when I mentioned the filth and stench she waved me out.

We were now in somewhat of a bind, of our list of "budget hotels", this was the only one that fell into our range. We had been determined to turn down our Tajik travel companions, Myriam and Mathieu's, offer of a pullout couch in their appartment, not wanting to impose, especially that they were preparing for their move back to France in the upcoming month. But Hotel Hadra traumatized us enough that we ended up on their doorstep early Sunday morning (after a wake up call). We had a long coffee-filled breakfast and got a tour of the appartment before the four of us left for Mathieu and Myriam's favourite spot in Tashkent, the giant Yangiobod flea market. Yann and I ploughed through Yangiobod's endless alleys of gadgets, clothing, furniture, nuts and bolts, pets and Soviet memorabilia. We ended up with a little contraption used to measure distances on a map, a Lenin coin and a t-shirt. Ramadan didn't seem to have affected local appetites, we sat elbow to elbow in a market eatery sharing palov, salads and sandwiches for lunch. We met up again for dinner together along with French friends of Myriam and Mathieu's at a big Uzbek restaurant complete with a dance show. The Texas cowboy routine seemed a great insight into Uzbek culture.

The next day, Yann and I made up our mind to skip travel through Kazakhstan. Despite having waited nearly a week for our Kazakh visas, after surveying other travellers it became clear that the country was expensive and full of hassles, including costly registrations and a frustrating border crossing with Uzbekistan. We were running out of time anyways and Kazakhstan would have only served as a transit to China. We booked a flight to Urumqi in Western China that morning, with the highly reputed Uzbekistan Airways.

We filled our remaining five days in Tashkent with museums and other tourist activities. Most dinners were shared with Myriam and Mathieu and filled with fresh produce from the huge Chorsu Market. We found homemade cheese at the market and flattered the vendor by returning two days in a row, the second day buying twice as much as the first. One of our favourite Central Asia activities has become visiting self-praising exhibits dedicated to the quasi-dictatorial corrupt governments and country leaders. Tashkent museums did not disappoint. At the National History Museum, most of the top floor is a self-congratulatory exhibit of President Karimov's many accomplishments. A highlight, the photo of him receiving the award for "Outstanding International Leader", presented to him by Henry Kissinger for his "outstanding contribution to the struggle against international terrorism". Relations have since cooled after the massacre of hundreds of innocents civilians in Andijan. The Amir Temur Museum featuring dozens of tacky tribute painting to the great warlord, not surprisingly doesn't mention some of his more tyrannical activities such as the stacking of his thousands of victims' skulls into pyramids. Oh well, as one particularly annoying traveller put it "Everybody needs a National hero". Or better yet, as President Karimov put it: "If somebody wants to understand who the Uzbeks are, if somebody wants to comprehend all the power, might, justice and unlimited abilities of the Uzbek people, their contribution to the global development, their belief in the future, you should recall the image of Amir Temur". Two evenings in a row, Yann and I went to shows at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. For the paltry sum of 3000sum each (2.5$), we got 10th row seats to a full length ballet, and the next night to the Tchaikovsky opera 'Evgeni Onegin' (we only made it through half of this Russian marathon). The National troupe, around since Soviet times, lives on, albeit not too healthily. The theatre wasn't more than half full, most in attendance were tour groups or Russians, the Uzbeks in the crowd were few and far between (and talking on their cell phones). The performers were mostly Uzbek and put on spirited performances, the most adorable were the orchestra members, who called me over to the pit to photograph them in their very casual uniforms. Two days before our scheduled departure, I was knocked out by a flu bug, Yann followed the next day. We slept all day and had to miss our last night's dinner planned with Myriam and Mathieu at their favourite Tashkent restaurant. Since our flight was at 6a.m., in theory we had to be at the airport by 3a.m. the next day. We drafted our sick selves up, along with generous Mathieu who escorted us to the empty streets to find a taxi (and negotiate us a good price). When we arrived at the airport we read that our flight had been pushed back two hours, which was agonizing only because of the potential sleep that we were missing. We divided our time between the uncomfortable metal benches and the second floor bathroom, in what must be one of the last airports to allow smoking.

When the Uzbekistan Airways counter finally opened, the passengers (most of whom had arrived two hours early) formed, in Uzbek style, a gigantic blob of pushing and shoving. Yann and I chose the most competent of the three staff members manning counters, he managed to process a single boarding pass in over an hour. Meanwhile we had to fight off the Uzbek passengers attempting non-stop to cut in front of us in line. The few foreigners were vigilantly holding our places, we allied ourselves with the French tour group to battle such unscrupulous behavior (I was simultaneously holding in diarrhea, quite a feat indeed). By the time all the bags were checked and boarding passes were printed, there was only about an hour left before departure time and now all the passengers formed a similarly giant swell at the customs gates. We were waved through with scary speed. Yann and I had spent a painstaking morning and a whopping 50USD getting ourselves registered in Tashkent and we didn't even get to show our stupid registration stubs to anyone. In Uzbekistan, tourists must be registered for every night they spend in the country. This is usually done automatically by hotels, who present you with a small stub stating the dates you stayed with them. We had no stub for the dates we spent with Myriam and Mathieu in Tashkent. Hotels are required to register their guests within three days of their arrival, Yann and I had already been in Tashkent for five days when we attempted to get a registration from a hotel. We finally found a hotel that would register us for the days they could and give us a fake registration stub for the missing days (for 50USD), but in the end it didn't even matter. As we waited to board the plane, we hoped the Uzbekistan Airways maintenance crews and pilots weren't as incompetent as everyone else we had dealt with at the airport.

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