November 12th, 2010
Nothing Can Prepare You For Uzbekistan, But the AsiaWheeling Bureau Can Help
We ate one last glorious breakfast, cooked by the expert hands of Ms Diane Heditsian and then packed up our dear Speed TRs, now newly adorned with brand spanking new Schwalbe Big Apples, a new Rido space age throwback saddle, and, in the case of Scott’s, new matching grips.
We planned to enter Uzbekistan positively blingin’. Marco Marco appeared back to check the apartment out. He seemed unfazed that we had spent the previous night turning the living room into a bike turning and repair center, and even introduced us to a friend of his who gave us a ride to the airport.
Scott and I arrived quite early at the terminal as to accommodate Diane’s flight, which was a couple hours before ours. We wiled away most of our time at a café in the Istanbul airport, at which, if clandestine enough, one can access the Wifi for free. The name of the place is “greenspace.” And for all you AsiaWheeling readers out there, take note: the password to the network is “istanbul.”
Just as we were getting ready to leave our seats at the café, we were approached by a fellow with the most glorious mustache, bright white, flowing and gigantic, who was headed to Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. When we asked him what he might be doing to there, he explained that he was a professional sheep counter, and that he was headed to Tajikistan to count sheep. More power to him, we thought, and with a few more compliments on his magnificent ‘stache, we headed off to find our gate.
And so, not knowing what to expect, we climbed onto Turkish Airways, and settled in for the three-hour flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We had been in touch with our Uzbek Bureau Chief, Shoney, but had not actually heard back from him as to whether we could stay at his place. So we’d book a room at the Hotel Malika, which was one of the few hotels in Tashkent with a website, and were hoping that we might be able to land in Tashkent at 1:00 am and just figure things out. They would most likely speak at least a little Russian, we had been told, so I was trusting that my rusty Russian skills might get just us by.
We also were crossing our fingers that there would be an ATM at the airport. We had read that Uzbekistan had very few Automatic Teller Machines. But we hoped that in Tashkent, with its growing banking sector, we might just be able to find some.
We were headed into the unknown, once again, and as I struggled to fill out the Uzbek entrance card, I realized we were entering a totally new world of rules. For the first time, we were being asked to declare all our currency. In fact, online we had read horror stories about people not properly doing so and having any currency in excess of what they declared upon entry being confiscated upon exit. Regardless, we had quite a bit of currency, 2-40 USD worth of currency from each of the countries we’d visited so far. And I struggled, as we soared somewhere above Iran, to tally all the amounts that we had left over. In the end, there was way too much data to populate the few lines given to us on the entry card, so I put together a little hand written auxiliary table, that for lack of a better name, we might refer to as Table 1, which I hoped would pass snuff.
As I did my best to munch the medium tasty Turkish Airlines food, I thought about my time in Russia. I was headed back to that world now. It was a place of mad bureaucracy, of leather, zippers, and bribes, a lawless world where money is king, the police are your enemy, and the line between normal women and prostitutes blurs. That was Russia, of course, and this was Uzbekistan.
What would be different? What would be the same? Would we make it through with all our belongings? Our sanity? Our innocence? Would the streets be wheelable? The bright sun and smiling people of Indonesia seemed so far away… I was starving, but it was hard to eat, and even harder to finish the beer that I’d ordered with my meal.
And then we landed, and we stood to file off the plane. We followed the crowd down a set of stairs and across the tarmac, where there were three doors, one marked VIP, one marked CIP, and the other with a label long rusted and fallen. Being neither VIP nor CIP, we headed toward the rusting and unlabeled door, along with the rest of our flight. We followed the group through vaguely green, and moderately filthy dry-walled hallways, getting in line at passport control behind a large and rowdy Uzbek soccer team. We slowly filed along, as I gawked at the television ads for siding and energy efficient windows that were playing in Russian on a couple of greasy CRT monitors to entertain the people waiting to be admitted to Uzbekistan.
A fellow cut in front of me. And then another. And then an old woman. This was part of Russian culture that had stuck. I was remembering how fierce I had had to become about cutters in line. I was still too polite to make any fuss, Scott too, so we just waited. Finally we were getting close when the fellow in front of me handed his passport over to the officials who opened it to find a wad of US dollars inside. They held the US dollars out to him and said something sternly, waving them in his face. I am pretty sure the language they were using was Russian, but mine was too rusty to understand any of it. The man in front of me was then escorted by a couple of the many armed guards that stood around the cluster of passport control booths toward a dark hallway. I hoped he was not about to be tortured or beaten up. He looked like a nice guy, cutting aside.
Then it was my turn. I handed my moon passport over, and looked at the man behind what seemed to be slightly green tinted glass. His workspace was very well lit, and I looked up to see a ceiling positively lined with fluorescent tubes, and no less than three security cameras. I thought about the guy on the other end of those cameras and snapped my head back down when I heard the passport control officer say something to me. “Простите, что?” I asked him to repeat. He grumbled, and scrutinized my visa, and then my face, comparing it to the passport photo. Then he stamped the thing in the same way that one might spit out a very sour berry, and threw my документы back at me. I gave him a quick спасибо and headed off into the luggage area, where Scott soon joined me.
“Wild,” he said. And I agreed.
Soon the bikes appeared on the conveyor, looking only slightly worse for the wear and we lugged them over to wait in line at customs. When our turn came, we were informed by the guards that the line we had been waiting in was the line for “sportsmen” (meaning the soccer team). We pointed at the bikes indicating that we were sportsmen, and though it elicited a few chuckles from the staff, we were forced to head over to the end of another line.
We did, and eventually got through. My customs form with the attached compendium of currencies (see Table 1) was scrutinized, stamped, torn off, and handed back to me, and we were in.
On the other side of the gate, a chiseled character with a pencil thin line of beard, wearing a black Babson College tee-shirt called out to us “AsiaWheeling!” It was Shoney! Thank goodness. This airport was significantly rawer than we’d expected and certainly did not have an ATM. Luckily, it looked like we were sleeping at his house after all.
Triumphant arrival music of notes from a Rawap emanated from within our minds:
He introduced himself and we all shook hands. He spoke English with a Boston frat boy accent, and chatted on about life in the States as we headed over to the parking lot. Then began a furious process of bargaining, as we went from cab to cab. Shoney would explode in Uzbek, which sounds somewhat like Turkish, and with many a frown and head shake, move from cabby to cabby playing them off each other to start a bidding war and lower the price of the ride back to his family’s place.
Finally someone hit Shoney’s reserve and we all piled into a cab, which was, of course, as all cabs in the Russosphere, really just a private car. As the cabby dodged drunkards wandering the streets in a stupor, and whipped like a maniac around giant roundabouts, running red lights, all the time chain-smoking and trying to convince Shoney to go in with him to rip us off on the cab fair, I looked out the window. It looked not unlike Russia: blocky, concrete, plenty of statues and giant public fountains. Frankly it felt good. I was beginning to get a certain positive feeling about Uzbekistan. We had no Uzbek sum (the local currency) yet, so Shoney was kind enough to pay for the ride, bless his heart.
When we arrived at his house, despite the fact that it was 3:00 am, his mother was awake and waiting for us, table set with a feast of fruit and breads. We stayed up for another couple hours, battling sleep, drinking cup after cup of tea (water was not an option) and doing our best to be cordial with Shoney’s family. They were overwhelmingly sweet and generous, and we felt completely undeserving of this sleepless hospitality.
When the sun finally started to peek over the horizon, we had enough of an excuse for us all to head off to bed, stomachs full of impossibly tasty Uzbek fruits and heads just spinning at the speed with which a page can turn here on AsiaWheeling.