September 8-9, 2016: Despite my preference for traveling on the ground, I have been through a fair number of airports in the last 16 years. Until I flew into Tashkent the clear winner of “worst airport ever” was Kathmandu, although Newark got a strong dishonorable mention. But there was no question that Tashkent was much, much worse. Fortunately, I had looked Tashkent up on sleepinginairports.net, and was forewarned. I also had the (intentional) advantage of arriving in daylight, with no other international flights providing competition. (The Uzbekistan Airlines flight was just fine. I seemed to be the only non-Asian, but my seat mate was friendly and the food was edible.) Still, the scrum of determined, shopping-bag-laden women fighting for position ahead of passport control was not my idea of fun, and nor was a long wait in the heat.
Duly admitted to Uzbekistan I now needed to claim my bag. After spending too long watching other people’s luggage emerge onto the carousel, it dawned on me that my one small bag was probably in the pile on the far side of the belt. Taking advantage of a temporary stoppage I climbed across the belt and was able to disinter my bag and head for customs. They found me uninteresting, although I still needed to put my checked and carry-on bags through an X-ray machine before escaping the building. It had taken me an hour, apparently three hours is not unusual. The head of MIR’s Tashkent office, plus the guide for my tour, Abdu, had come to meet me, although it didn’t look like they had expected me to emerge so quickly, as they were a couple of rows back in the crowd opposite the terminal. Being driven into town, instead of sorting out public transport, was a pleasant change, and I also appreciated that Abdu handled currency exchange for me (I was carrying an assortment of crisp USD, although since I don’t shop I really only needed the hundreds. My bank had had its usual difficulty in finding enough brand new bills.)
While Tashkent was probably founded in the first or second century BCE, and acquired its current name in the 11th century CE, it was effectively wiped out (like the other Central Asian oasis towns) by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. After a long recovery it fell to the Russians in 1865, and remained part of the USSR under the Communists. But another disaster occurred in 1966 when much of the town was leveled by an earthquake, leaving 300,000 people homeless. While the broad avenues (plenty of rooms for tanks) and ranked apartment buildings had a definite Soviet feel, the effect was softened, as in all Uzbekistan towns, by plenty of trees.
The tour hotel, the Shodlik Palace (eventually renamed by the group the Shoddy Palace), turned out to be in a food desert. Abdu volunteered to go out to dinner with me, but the first place we tried was empty as it was really a lunch place. A couple of streets further on he dropped me off at Bar Sylva, while he went next door for plov. I’m sorry if my rejection of plov seems unadventurous, but the fact that plov was Central Asia’s signature dish was, for me, one of the downsides of visiting. For those who don’t know, plov is basically white rice, cooked originally in mutton fat, although these days sometimes in oil, with mutton. White rice was on the list of “bad” carbs I was avoiding, and the mutton kebabs I had eaten in neighboring Xinjiang had ranged from barely acceptable to flat out inedible. I was sure I would wind up eating plov at some point, but meanwhile I was happy to dine on chicken and mushrooms.
The first group meeting was at lunchtime the next day, so I had the morning to myself. I set out, map in hand, in search of the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan. I crossed a nice canal, passed a serried rank of fountains, and than spotted a Romanov-style building I thought might be my target. Not so, originally the home of the exiled Grand Duke N. K. Romanov, it was now in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The security guard pointed out instead a Soviet era construction with plenty of steps and a stern facade. Sadly, I did not feel that the exhibits lived up to the description n Lonely Planet, aside from some nice 4-5th century BCE pieces, although this was partly due to the fact that the top floor was closed while the exhibition on the recently deceased President was revamped.
I retraced my steps, taking time to photograph the fountains and a statue of some attractive long-necked birds crowning the entrance to a formal walkway. I would meet the birds again in the afternoon, with the group, and learn that they were pelicans, an important symbol of good luck, decorating the entrance to Independence Square