I travelled in Uzbekistan for 10 days as a tourist with my girlfriend. We arrived in the capital Tashkent, flew East to Nukus, visited Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand before returning to Tashkent for the flight home.
Uzbekistan as an independent nation is 19 years old and like any adolescent it is experiencing a certain amount of insecurity about its identity. The double land-locked country stretches from the soviet feeling capital Tashkent in the far East, to the more Islamized West and its great plains, steppes, deserts and cotton fields. Further north is the territory once occupied by the horse-men of Genghis Khan and to the south, the mythical cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. It is a land of Eastern promise in the mould of Turkey and yet like a child of mixed parentage – part Russian, part Persian, Turkish and Mongol – it has emerged perplexed and in search of role models. During my all too short stay, I tried to get a snapshot of this country which has been widely ignored by the Western world. I visited its mosques and madrases, met people who were refreshingly open and ready to share and spent literally hours bargaining with the notorious taxi mafia. I also visited an art gallery of Uzbek avant-guard artists in Nukus in the Republic of Karakalpakstan and got drunk on vodka with lunching Uzbek labourers. Some of the less life-affirming experiences were a close encounter with the law and navigating post- soviet bureaucracy.
In Uzbekistan it is nigh on impossible to ignore the power structures. The portrait of the omnipresent President Islam Karimov adorns the walls of hotels, banks, train stations and museums. He is a post-soviet identikit; big-boned, bear-like and built to last. A whole floor of the capital’s principal museum, History of the people of Uzbekistan is dedicated to his life and work. He can be seen trading firm handshakes with international statesmen of the ilk of Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac or handing out medals to bashful and beaming sporting heroes. He is always sensibly suited in the western style, his copper colour hair parted to the side . There is s certain iron-fistedness about him that makes him more soviet than the soviets. The pictures are often accompanied by benign quotes about the glistening future awaiting Uzbekistan or an evocation of its heroic roots by alluding to figures from the region’s ancient past, such as the 14th century conqueror Tamerlame or his astronomer grandson Ulug Beg. Sometimes it seems that they are nothing more than the idle and whimsical musings of the President himself on how the average Uzbek should lead his life. For a country that is just 19, he comes across – at least on the surface – as a goodly if somewhat overbearing father figure.
The human rights record as illustrated by the UN and Amnesty would however beg to differ, highlighting its silence over the mass killings in Andizhan in 2005, the use of torture by various security forces and reports that child labour persisted despite laws prohibiting it. The advice given by former British ambassador Craig Murray on the morality of visiting Uzbekistan is to “go, mix with ordinary people, tell them about other ways of life, avoid state owned establishments and official tours.” The UN does however applaud its abolishing of the death penalty in 2009 and the institution of the Habeas Corpus safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary state action. This can be seen as progress but the country’s use of child labour and its restrictive policies are all too evident. More than once we were served by waiters no more than 14 years of age and had our movements tracked in hotels. To our amazement, an ‘agent’ is assigned to make written notes on all the people staying at the hotel. There is also a heavy police presence across the capital city intensifying the feeling of being watched.
But changes are afoot and could come in the form of the President’s young and
attractive daughter Gulnara Karimova, who is seen as being groomed for the top job. Karimova, who is also known by her stage name Googoosha, is purported to be one the country’s richest women with her combined business interests. According to her website, she is currently the Uzbek ambassador to Spain and previously served as the representative at the UN. She holds a series of diplomas including a doctorate in political science at Tashkent University, a MA in regional studies at Harvard in the US and a diploma in jewelry design from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Again, according to her website, she is the owner of her own fashion label Guli, a painter, poet, photographer and is engaged in a whole host of social activities. It is not clear how her leadership would change the social fabric of the central Asian nation but she has come under heavy criticism for blithely ignoring the plight of the vast majority of her subjects, such as the millions who eke out a living in the country’s cotton fields. On paper, she has set up many face-saving activities to help the poor but her life could not be more different from the vast majority of Uzbek women. She has tried to ally herself with celebrity A-listers such as Sting who she personally invited at huge cost to perform in Uzbekistan and Portuguese footballing legend and pin-up Cristiano Ronaldo. This has alienated herself from vast swathes of the population and can only really ingratiate herself to the country’s elite in the more Russian feeling Tashkent
The capital feels s very different from the rest of the country. A number of cafes and restaurants have popped up over the years, including some up-market wine bars and clubs. But the general feel is that the partying is still very much behind closed doors and the grand tree-lined boulevards are often left soulless and empty after dark. The only area where people would congregate was in the official area dominated by hulking government buildings and huge soviet style sculptures, including the crying mother that is to be found in every major Uzbek city.
Otherwise it seemed that the celebrations were happening somewhere else and that public displays of affection were very much frowned upon. We later realised that most of the partying was indeed going on behind closed in the form of young couples taking their wedding vows.
Over the 10 days we spent there, we saw at least as many young men and women arm in arm as official photographers swarmed around to immortalize their special day. Although we crossed a good many, we were never received any official invitations but the booming Turkish disco-pop is still ringing in my ears.
Outside the capital the Russian influence quickly fades. Our next stop was Nukus just south of the Aral sea and home to one of the most remote art collections in the world.