Here's a little report about my recent trip to Uzbekistan.
Unfortunately after only speaking Russian for more than a month I had a few difficulties writing this in English. Actually I believe, I have to practise a bit. I apologize, but still hope you will enjoy this read.
Heidelberg, sept. 7th 2003
Home again - still I'm not really here yet. Sitting at my own kitchentable 2 hours after my arrival at Frankfurt Airport, eating my favorite meal which my mother had cooked for her prodigal daughter, I thought: 24 hours earlier I was having lunch in the city of Samarkand.
You could say this was my farewell memory: The 2nd floor of a typical Uzbek restaurant - open to all sides because they were grilling shashlik there (spits of meat), which always causes so much smoke that your eyes are burning - where we were sitting on tapchans, such big, wooden frames, where up to 10 people can sit cross-legged on pillows and have a meal from a narrow table. For us Europeans this meant that after some time our legs inevitably went to sleep. 4 weeks were not enough to learn the correct sitting technique. But somehow I know that this wasn't my last opportunity to sit on a tapchan and perfect it.
From Samarkand to Tashkent, where we would have to catch the plane at 5 am, it would take you 6 hours by bus. At least if your vehicle doesn't break down twice as it happened to our bus 50 km to Tashkent. Our drivers did their best to solve the problem while we sat down on the asphalt, which was still comfortably warm, whereas even in summer the nights in Uzbekistan can be quite cold. Correspondingly our clothes looked like when we got up. On the whole I can't remember being as dirty as I was after travelling along the Silk Road since I spent my days in the sandbox a long time ago.
At 1 am we arrived in Tashkent where we fortunately had enough time to get our things together (most of mine were at an Uzbek friend's), take a shower and wear something civilized, before we had to get ready to drive to the airport.
That's how I left Uzbekistan. I overslept the whole flight.
Now let me answer the question this digression brings up:
What have I been doing in Uzbekistan?
Well, the Fachhochschule Osnabrück und the University for Pediatrics in Tashkent have brought a summer school for German and Uzbek students into being and it has been taking place for the 2nd year in a row now in a camp in the village of Khumsan, 70 km from Tashkent. We were a group of 14 Germans who wanted to learn (or improve their) Russian, whereas the University of Tashkent sent both philologists and students from the medical institute that wanted to learn about health-management.
Khumsan lies in the mountains or to specify it: in a foothill of the Himalaya which is still 4000 meters high. The air was extremly fresh, especially in the morning, but while the sun was shining 35 degrees could be reached. And there was no rain (I missed it), but a very nice swimming pool filled with the most coldest water as it came directly from the inner mountain. Later some of the people there complained about us - perhaps we got a bit loud while playing water polo - and we were told to use the pool only between 1 and 3 pm, because that was the hottest time of the day and nobody else then wanted to come there. The pool wasn't ours but belonged to a rest home, where we went rather often because they had a disco up there. An Uzbek disco is something special if you're used to German ones. Everyone is cheerful and lively, not trying to appear cool. All ages are on the dancefloor, even the very little children run around. And nobody looks critically at what you're doing.
The camp of Khumsan consists of several small cottages, a canteen and rooms where lectures can be given. However most of the classes were held outside - sometimes on tapchans. The Germans were divided into beginners and 2 different classes of advanced students. I had come to Khumsan mainly to improve my oral skills which I had many opportunities to do - not only during the conversation lessons but also while talking to our Uzbek fellow students. While Uzbek is the official language, everyone still speaks Russian because Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union until it became independent in 1991. Many Russians are still living in Uzbekistan, especially in the capital, but most of them want to leave. Our teacher for example is about 60 to 70 years old and professor for German studies at the University of Tashkent. She refuses to move to St. Peterburg, where her daughters are living, because she was born in Tashkent and spent her whole life there. She was a bit strict and not everything went well during the 3 weeks of classes.
7 hours of lessons a day - grammar, conversation, lectures about Uzbekistan. It was a bit too much for my taste. I couldn't find the time to repeat the new vocabulary or to practise the grammar properly. What helped me most were the tandem classes which took place before the evening meal: German and Uzbek students met in twos and answered questions given on a paper about their countries and the differences between them, which was a good opportunity to practise free speach.
The meals in Khumsan were not really pleasant: Everyday we had soup and everything smacked of coriander. I think this was a pity, because later I learned that the Uzbek kitchen is very rich from tasty meals, but this stuff really was beyond Good and Evil. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange) paid 7 $ a day and person for food, but I believe some of the organisators kept most of the money for themselves, because somedays the lorry with the food didn't come to the camp and our poor cook didn't know what to give to us.
The weekends we spent in Tashkent in hired appartments in the inner city – but most of us were invited by Uzbek friends to stay at their place.
I believe, if you're living in Uzbekistan, Tashkent is the best place to be. The supply is much better than in other regions, there's the metro and the university and the city seemed very open-minded to me. I think, if you're European and change a little something about your appearance everyone will take you for a Russian. When we were walking through the city the Russians passing by always asked me what time it was, although all Uzbeks speak Russian either.
I've never been to the Orient before but when I first came to Tashkent I felt happy from the start. The city is loud and dirty, full of smells and unusual visual impressions. At one moment you believe that you're in the Soviet Union, then you could be in India or in Turkey or I don't know. The architecture is quite interesting - there are log cabins like in the German Democratic Republic, but decorated with patterns, pictures and ornaments. They are just beautiful and I never thought I would say so of log cabins. Most of the newer buildings which are often made of steel and mirrorglass are government ministries, hotels or western enterprises. But in the richer quarters there are also a lot of one-family-houses with gardens. And the whole city is full of trees, which is necessary to keep a bearable temperature (that would be about 40 degrees). If you come to Tashkent you should visit Amir Temur place (Tamerlan the Great), the Medresa Kukaldash the bazar of Chor Su and the metro of course. I wanted to take some pictures of the metro station Kosmonavtlar which was great to look at, but the police would not allow me to do so. They’re all a bit paranoic in Uzbekistan as far it concerns the national security.
I was told that the criminality rate was high in Tashkent, but nothing ever happened to us. Probably we were not in the right or the wrong quarters. And after all we spent our free time with children from middle-class families. With enough money you could lead a pleasant and carefree life in a city where lunch costs 85 cents. The only problem is that in Uzbekistan noone has enough money. Life is no picnic for the Uzbeks. For one there is the economical situation: A professor at the university e.g. earns 40 $ a month. Because of that many academica quit their jobs and start a career as seller on the bazar which brings more money. Oficially the unemployment rate is about 10 % - in reality it might be 30 to 40 %.
Which brings me to Uzbekistan’s other main problem: Uzbekistan is a totalitarian state. President Karimov was re-elected with 90% of the votes. The students in Khumsan had noticeable inhibitions to talk about politics. There were exceptions but after some time we got used to it – finally there were not only students in this camp but also lecturers, collaborators and you could never know who maybe was listening and hearing what he/she shouldn’t.
But when we were alone in a group where everybody knew each other well it appeared that they all had their own opinions about what to do to improve the situation in Uzbekistan.
BTW, I think I will introduce my closer friends with which I’ve been hanging around most of the time:
Nodira is as old as I am (we were the youngest ones). I stayed at her place when we came to Tashkent at the weekends. She studies International Relations in Tashkent with German as a foreign language. She did her Bachelor exam the day before she arrived in Khumsan and she passed it with 5, the best grade. She had to worry if she could get a scholarship for Master studies, because only 2 out of 10 can get it and she was afraid that the parents of some of her fellow students would bribe the comission. When she finally learned that she got a scholarship she almost cried with joy – otherwise she would have had to leave the university, because her parents cannot afford the fees of 700 $ a year, as they have 4 children. When I was at her place I spoke German with Nodira, English with her elder brother Ravshan, Russian with her father and her younger brother and sister – and they all spoke Uzbek with each other.
Igor is 25. He’s Russian and works as a doctor at the hospital in Tashkent, sometimes 70 hours a week. Besides from that he completely commits himself in cultural and educational policies, he collaborates in the students exchange and has confounded some kind of democratic youth organisation. But instead of to collapse as I would surely do if I had such a pensum, he’s exceedingly lively, always in a good mood and he also infects his fellows with his happiness. A source of anger for him is the few interest the Uzbeks have in policies especially the younger people. That people do not know their rights or what the constitution garants to them. That’s why they’re not able to question the policies of president Karimov.
One evening he held Hussan and Nodira a long monologue trying to convince them – I was delighted, as it was in Russian and I still understood almost everything. A feeling of success.
The more he emphasized that he’s not afraid to speak out loud what he thinks and does so, the better I can undertsnad his parents, who seem to be ill with fear for him – you find yourself in prison quickly if you say something against president Karimov.
The twins Hassan and Hussan are 23 years old and you can tell them apart only because Hussan has a little scarf on the right cheek bone. When in Uzbekistan twins are born, the elder one is always called Hassan und the younger one Hussan, as the grandsons of the prophet Mohammad. Hassan and Hussan are ascetic scholars, very quiet and self-restrained. They speak six languages: Uzbek, Russian, German, English, Arabic and Chinese. Not bad, is it?But their main subject is economics. The hope to get a scholarship to study a year or two in Germany.
Suchrob is 21. His subject is the same as Nodira’s, only his first foreign language was English. But his German is also very good. His mother is Uzbek, his father is descended from nomad people, which you can recognize when you look at Suchrob – his treats seem more “Asian” than the others’. He also is very interested in politics. The day before we left he held a lecture in English about Central Asia, the economic structures in each country and the political circumstances. He also writes for a newspaper and gave me one of his articles (about the eytraction of oil in Kazakhstan), but I still have to translate it – my Russian isn’t good enough.
So you can see, the Uzbeks sent their young elite, while on our side those who hadn’t planned anything else came. During the first days I thought we might stay with our own people most of the time, but in the end the two groups had totally mixed up. It was very nice to see this happen.
The last week of our trip we went on exkursion. The ancient Silk Road leads through Uzbekistan and there are a lot of sights to visit – actually much more than we finally managed to look at.
We took a plane for an inland flight to Chiva – a charming desert city mit 60.000 inhabitants. In the ancient the ancient part of the city you almost feel like moved to another time – perhaps 700 years ago. You enter the ancient city through one of 4 gates. We came from the western gate and stood almost immediately in front of the obviously unfinished minaret of Kaltar Minor. I don’t know why but this is by far my favorite building. Earlier on when I was reading my guide this unfinished cheroot among all these high and slender minarets remained in my memory – but only when I stood in front of it, it came to me as a shock how beautiful it actually is.
The people in Chiva were very nice – one reason might be that we bought half of the market: silk scarfs (some of them more than a hundred years old, which was why I had to hide them deep down in my backpack when we left the country), any kind of china, an abacus, bracelets whith small black and white stones to protect one from the evil eye. One also offered me a Qur’an from the beginning of the century for ca. 40 $ but I thought it to dangerous, as
you may not export goods which are older than 50 years and a heavy book is not as easy to hide as some scarfs are.
During the next days we visited Buchara and for one night we also stayed in the desert where we had 55 degrees in the afternoon and 12 degrees in the early morning. No problem. We slept in jurts and swam in a salt lake near our camp (it was amazing – a lake right there in the desert of Kyzylkum).
At the end of our journey we came to Samarkand, where there were by far the most sights, but then again I wasn’t that finished afterwards anywhere else we came. We din’t have much tome and when we had scours the most important things (the Reghistan place, the necropole of Shahi Zinda and the mausoleum of Tamerlan the Great), we felt very tired and hungry. But still it is dreamlikely beautiful – I can only give the advice to visit Samarkand but also to bring a little bit more time with you. I don’t remember if I took more pictures of whole buildings or of little details and ornaments.
In Samarkand and Buchara there are also two artistic slip-ups as far as it concerns the Qur’an’s ban to portray human beings and animals: the main portal of the Medresa of Nadir Divan-Beghi in Buchara shows birds and the Medresa of Shirdar shows tigers.
I must confess, I feel a bit “homesick”.
Nodira invited me for next march to visit her and her family when the Uzbeks have their spring feast Navruz. But unfortunately, this takes place on the 21st of march – and there are some nice little world figure skating championships in Dortmund, which I’d love to visit…
Her only question, when I would tell her this: “You’re that good at skating?!”
Well OK, folks: After you’ve been through this all, you’re allowed to go to bed, to the toilet, to grab something to eat/drink or from whatever you’ve been stopping yourself during the last 30 minutes. Sorry, but you just can’t give the abridged version of a trip to Uzbekistan.
Hope you liked my report -