Saturday, August 02, 2008

Uzbekistan: Powered by Plov (or “Making Armenia Look Easy”)

The Lonely Planet notes that “only the insane or deeply unfortunate” find themselves in this region in summer. With temperatures over 50C degrees (125F), we were on occasion certainly feeling unfortunate. With street names like “Nuk[e]us please” & “Fuqqit”, the residents of Tashkent seemed to agree. Despite this desert region, the government still sees fit to condemn the Aral Sea to oblivion by massive wastage of water on a grand scale, with huge fountains gushing forth across the country.

Our (very) warm welcome to Uzbekistan consisted of ludicrous airport bureaucracy that only post-Soviet nations can truly perfect. After a mob stormed the haphazardly scattered passport control booths (which of course duly closed as we were next in line), we then played conveyor roulette, as some of our flight’s bags came out on one unannounced conveyor, some on another, and yet still others on a trolley half-an-hour later. We then had to queue for another hour to fill in detailed customs declarations, to notify the authorities exactly what currencies and valuables we had in our possession.

We quickly learned that this was due to the impossibility of actually obtaining cash once in the country. Several unsuccessful ATM visits later (all out of cash- one of which ate James’ card), we swapped our last few USD for a stack of bills as high as your elbow. The almighty Uzbeki SOM’s largest bill is worth approx. $0.80, meaning we needed to carry a briefcase to carry the currency we needed just to buy lunch (that is, when we were able to find cash).

Just as fruitfully, our first day in the worlds most hot & demoralizing city- Tashkent, was spent educating the Kazak consulate that in fact we only needed a single entry visa to complete our travels, and that contrary to their understanding, their borders do not in fact bisect Uzbekistan en route to Kyrgyzstan (if you’ve ever seen a map of this part of the world, you’ll understand the confusion).

Finally, visas in hand, we headed to Samarkand, one of the great Silk Road cities.
Samarkand and Bukhara are names that evoke the romance of the Silk Road. Winding camel caravans, precious silk carpets, desert caravanserais, towering turquoise mosques and madrassas, and steaming piles of plov (the quintessential Uzbek dish of rice, mutton, and vegetables). They are also damn hot. Temperatures notwithstanding, we launched into this world of unending Tamerlane, turquoise, and of course plov with gusto. The plov powered us across Uzekistan, as we sampled each region's variety in an unending cascade of rice and mutton fat.

Several days later we could tell a mosque from a madrassa, a Hannuka from a caravanserai, seen how the Soviets restored (and added to) these vast monuments, and even saw a solar eclipse. These fertile oases, plucked from the surrounding desert and fed from waters that would otherwise feed the Aral Sea, were not exactly teeming with life (although James & I did our best to find it), but we were grateful for our own lives after noticing a large dent in the wing of our flight back to Tashkent.

Photos are here.

Worldguide is here.

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