Uzbekistan: Silk Road

I GOT into Tashkent at 4am in the morning. Had I woken up at that time, I would not have been at my best, so perhaps it was a blessing that I had not slept on a cramped economy flight via Turkey, after a 7am start in London.

One other flight from Moscow had just got in and it took nearly an hour for the bags to start arriving on the conveyor belt. Then it was 20min queue at customs while bags were checked, paperwork filled out for current currency, camera and computer. In duplicate, of course, with a solemn warning to make sure that I kept a (loose) copy in my passport to surrender on departure. One more thing to worry about in a strange land.

Then a rip-off taxi ride through deserted streets at 120kph to my hotel. No seat belts, of course. As the cliché goes: the most dangerous part of any flight is the car journey at either end. Tashkent lies on the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia and, while the scenery and difficulties remain the same, the dangers faced by travellers remain ever-present.

The worst thing about travelling can be the travelling. But, while an airport and the road to it can tell you many things about a country (I can assume Uzbekistan is bureaucratic but surprisingly modern) it doesn’t tell you everything. And maybe nothing of importance.

A few hours’ sleep and a good breakfast under my belt, I start walking around to get a better feel for the place.

I had forgotten just how Asian Uzbekistan is (my last trip was five years ago) but the mix of faces holds a strong seam of Mongolian features.

I am also reminded of the liking among young women in the former Soviet Bloc to dress in bling: they all look as if they are about to go to a party.

My hotel is in an area full of government buildings, museums and galleries, so there is a strong police presence: a policeman everywhere I turn (I’ve yet to see a policewoman). But they look bored, rather than threatening.

They certainly ignore me but everyone else is friendly and open, keen to show off what English they have (which is always better than my Uzbek or even Russian).

Walking back to my hotel, I see a team of workmen on a high-rise block under construction. Throwing bricks to each other, none are wearing the safety boots and hats you would see at home. No scaffolding, either.  A UK healthy & safety inspector would have a heart attack.

I think again about that taxi ride. It (and the construction workers) highlights how much responsibility for day to day life we have given over to government regulation. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is another matter.

But it is fascinating to come to a country in the former Soviet Union and be reminded of how much more freedom they have in such areas of life than we do in UK.

Such insights are the best thing about travelling.

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