Paka Shymkent, Salaam Tashkent

I have made the sensible decision to reduce my stay In Turkestan to only night, but visa considerations mean I now have to be in Shymkent (of which Lonely Planet opines ‘there is little here to interest the tourist’ – an almost criminal exaggeration) for three. The customary amble on day one is pleasant enough –  I stumble on the Museum of Soviet Repression which explains handily why Soviet history is so hard to find and why when I cheerily ask the waitress whether our GT conversation will be ‘Russkiy o Kazakh’ she puts her head down to hiss ‘Russkiy’ in my ear, but by 6pm and despite the balmy weather I have exhausted all options and retreat to my Airbnb to binge watch McMafia.

We get the message at the Museum of Soviet Repression


A monument to the 145,000 Southern Kakahs who died in the Second World War. Not mentioned: a significant number of others defected to the Germans.


Spring is trying hard to arrive in Shymkent


Sheer desperation on day 2 forces me into a tortuous 2 hour bus ride to Sayram in an effort to locate the area’s only Silk Road ruin that survived the Soviets, presumably because they too walked right past it. Still Shymkent serves its purpose,  I finish McMafia and am raring to get on the road again.

The 30 foot Silk Road minaret that the Soviets missed. According to LP one can ‘climb to the top to get a view of the mountains’. Omitted: on your hands and knees.


Downtown action in Sayram, ignored by the Soviets for all the right reasons.


The transition from Shymkent to Tashkent involves an international border awash in internet hysteria – the Kazakhs will scrutinize my passport for the correct number of stamps (I’m one short thanks to my lackadaisical military friend on the train from Russia) and documentation of registration (don’t have it, aim to play the dementia card) while the Uzbeks will comb my luggage for anything they deem offensive (they are apparently easily offended). Visions of internment in no-man’s land disturb my sleep, however the day starts off well: The NYP (nice young people) who have rented me the apartment convey me to the gladiator circus where the 2 hour shared taxi rides to the border are transacted and negotiate me a coveted front seat for the local price ($3). The road to the border is a swish 6 lane highway. We arrive tout de suite.

A straight shot to the border


Uzbekistan is a resolutely credit card and ATM free zone, and its currency (som) is closed so I will need to carry my whole 3 week Uzbeki budget as well as a buffer for entering Kyrgistan in the boondocks, in cash. I can’t top up dollars in Shymkent but the NYP reveal an ‘unofficial’ option for changing Kazakh Tenge to som at the border. I land up on the highway median where Macbeth’s witches with gold teeth huddle into the wind. Calculators are whipped out. Cash is stuffed into grocery bags (my hastily acquired Tenge will transform into about 1,800,000, the largest note is 10,000). Simultaneously, duplicate forms are being filled out in Russian declaring all cash, assets and strangely, medication (antibiotic, antidiarrheal and ibuprofen). Huddled into the wind myself, It is all very disorienting and ripe for a scam. Later, when I realize I am $20 short I console myself with the thought that they could have given me plain paper and in the moment I wouldn’t have noticed.

As calculated, in light of the massive bundles of who-knows-what being energetically ‘imported’ in both directions, the border officials have bigger fish to fry than me. They are in no mood to engage in GT conversations to confirm I am demented, and my reading material, luggage and medications are of no interest. Sadly, once safely in Uzbekistan I must tackle the gladiators on my own. My taxi driver is so irate I am only willing to pay 1½ times the going rate ($3) for the hour ride to Tashkent he refuses to take me further than the Metro station and I am reduced to collaring a random pedestrian to phone my B & B for directions. They send their 12 year old son who manfully shoulders my roly bag. All in all a very successful day.

Salaam Tashkent

 Jahongir B & B is in the old town, an area so residential that the predominant nocturnal noise is the sheep the neighbors evidently keep in their courtyard.


Jahongir B & B. There are definitely sheep behind one of those walls.


Another $25 bargain, especially now I’ve wheedled an extra pillow.

Mine hosts are an extremely traditional Uzbek family – all females headscarved even indoors (daughters up to their elbows in laundry or scrubbing the stairs) and no evidence of dad except for his singlets drying on the washing line. But mom is speaks fluent English and is eager to explain the new president’s goals to open Uzbekistan to the world (visa reform! ATMs! Credit cards! Faster internet! Massive ugly building projects!) while simultaneously trying to justify why her daughters will be just as well off getting married as going to university. Beneath the polished sweetness a spine of steel.


Muhammed and his sister Alazira. He wants to play for Real Madrid, and practices daily in the lane. She wants to be a doctor and only ever leaves the compound to go to school.

But LP is so wrong about Tashkent, its civic architecture is astounding! I emerge from the Metro to a city center in which glorious pre-Revolutionary and Soviet buildings have been deployed in extensive parkland packed to the gills with flowering trees.

The previous president’s vanity project with my photo-taking friends. Old folks don’t do selfies.


Pre-revolutionary home of one of the Romanovs.


Another glorious opera theatre


The story behind the negotiations behind this plaque would be worth hearing.


A Soviet favorite


Don’t expect a warm welcome at the Uzbekistan Hotel.


There has to be a Lada


The Russian second hand book market. Samizdat is out. Test prep and text books are in. Russian schools are still the pathway to higher education. Striver Uzbeks grit their teeth and suck it up.


No takers for the Soviet memorabilia still for sale.


On the run-up to Nowruz there is little traffic only decorous families wallowing in the opportunity to be out eating ice-cream in their winter clothes (it is 70° today, it will be 115°C in the summer).

Bad art for (almost) everyone.


Not overwhelmed with customers today


If only the megalomaniac previous president hadn’t cut down all the plane trees in Republic Square we could have checked out the chess players too. In the absence of shade they have taken themselves elsewhere.


Republic Square. At a time when it wasn’t cool a (luckily anonymous) dissident castrated the horse to protest cutting down the trees.


He cut them down so we could all see his building behind.

The chess players have moved elsewhere.


A 5-hour stroll takes it all in and then another execrable dinner of fatty shashlik and an inadvertent mayonnaise salad in the restaurant across the road. Uzbeki cuisine begins to take its toll. Off to Khiva on the night train tomorrow.

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