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Uzbekistan – High Spirits ‘Do you know that places only yield up their secrets, their most profound mysteries, to those who are just passing through?’ Salman Rushdie
I already had an idea that people from the old Soviet bloc liked drinking vodka. But we’d only been in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, for about three hours, and we were already leathered. Even more confusingly, we’d left London at 10pm the night before and, with the time difference, had landed at about 9am. So even though it was now about midday in Tashkent, jet lag meant that for us it was actually 7am. In other words: far too early in the day to be getting pissed on shot after shot of straight vodka.
But it was in keeping with the last twelve hours. The night before, at Heathrow, we had been bribed by the man at the Uzbek Airways check-in desk. The well travelled Adam Gendle had for some inexplicable reason turned up with about 50kg of luggage, and went pale when the guy told us he’d have to charge us £200 in cash if we wanted to get on the plane with all our bags. Bribe paid, we went and had a pint before boarding the plane as gloomy night fell. I was feeling a little strange. I’d smashed my collarbone like a dropped box of eggs ten days before, so I was dosed up on Valium and other painkillers. They were mingling with the Guinness and making me feel a little weird. It also felt a little irresponsible, heading off on such a journey with my collarbone in two pieces and my shoulder and arm unusable. I wedged myself into the corner and fell asleep, trepidation mixed with expectation. What was this place going to be like?
Although the world today can seem smaller than ever, there are still huge swaths of the globe that remain cloaked in mystery. That’s why, when our Russian friend Nikolai Ivanov suggested we visit Uzbekistan to go snowboarding, James McPhail and myself found ourselves formulating another plan. Over the last five years, our passion had been travelling to as many obscure snowboarding destinations as possible. Our motivation was twofold. We liked finding uncrowded corners of the snowboarding world to explore, sure. But we also wanted to see as much of the world as we could. With such a large planet to explore, it seemed stupid to keep going back to Chamonix and Tignes each winter. So we started picking random, fun-sounding places with ski resorts and devising ways of getting out there. We went to Argentina the week after the peso was devalued and the middle classes were rioting in the streets, and to New York on the emotive day the USA invaded Iraq. We left Beirut two days before the Prime Minister was assassinated, and visited Iran as the UN inspected that country’s nuclear program. Not that, on each occasion, we had actually noticed these events taking place. We’d been too busy snowboarding, making new friends and being wide-eyed at the new situations we found ourselves in. It was only usually when we got home that we realised the travelling had given us unique perspectives on places and events normally only seen on TV. We wanted more. Uzbekistan, part of that shadowy region of Central Asian ‘Stan’ states, seemed like a good idea.
Nick was going to meet us at the airport in Tashkent. We were going to head to a resort somewhere in the mountains near Tashkent for about five days. And then we were going to go off for a few days to the ancient city of Samarkand – here I would indulge my passion for looking at ancient Islamic architecture while the others all got really bored - before heading back to Tashkent for the last night. On the plane, I’d been grappling with the reality of spending five days holed up at a ski resort, unable to go riding, while my friends were all off having fun in the snow. To take my mind off this, I picked up the AIR UZBEKISTAN magazine from the seat rack. It didn’t work – the headline on the front said ‘Heli Ski Uzbekistan’ and had lovely pictures of people shredding huge, empty fields of powder. I put the magazine down and tried to get some sleep. Below, the dark, unknown wastes of Central Asia sprawled in every direction. I was definitely feeling a bit strange.
Getting off a flight in a new place is the sharp end of the travelling experience. A year earlier, the scene upon our arrival at Moscow Domodedovo had been chaotic and had plunged us into the thick of a new culture. It had been so bone-shrinkingly cold that any task was basically a battle against freezing to death, and we’d paid our first bribe within about half an hour. But Tashkent Airport wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet and surprisingly warm. Deserted too. In fact, the only people in the car park were Nikolai and a driver who was smoking furiously. As we would soon realise, they all smoke furiously in Uzbekistan. Our glad reunion with Nikolai over, we piled into the van and drove off into Tashkent.
We were heading to the home of Andrey, one of Nikolai’s friends, where we were going to eat, have a shower and try to deal with the jetlag. What with that, the sunlight, the way our driver was overtaking, undertaking and generally frapping the rickety van all over the road, the remnants of the Valium and the Guinness, and the Babushka-like old women casually sweeping the fast lane of the motorway with huge brooms as cars flew past, three abreast, I was feeling that mixture of conspicuousness and nervousness I always feel when I arrive in a new place. Soon, we turned off a trunk road and plunged into what looked like a shantytown. It turned out to be Tashkent suburbia, all flat roofs, potholed roads and low-lying houses in every direction. Andrey’s house was in the middle of one of these nondescript streets. From the outside, it looked like a pretty small bungalow but it was actually huge and opened up onto a large courtyard in the centre which, it turns out, is how all traditional Uzbek houses are built. Across the courtyard, a further building housed an indoor swimming pool and sauna. Inside the main building, there was a riot of interior decoration going on. One room was entirely decorated in black and white diagonal stripes (carpet, bed clothes and wallpaper included), as if the desired effect was to induce an epileptic seizure. Knick-knacks jostled for space on crowded shelves, while fake Constables hung next to hooky Malevich prints on the wall. Ursine Andrey sat at the kitchen with his girlfriend Julia and their friend Regina. He was drinking beer. It was 11am.
Thickset, with icy, unreadable Slavic eyes, Andrey was initially pretty intimidating. What with the size of his impressive house and his very appearance, he was fulfilling more than a few Mafia stereotypes for our group, and it took Scott Nixon all of five minutes to nickname him ‘The Chief’, a name that would stick for the rest of the trip. I reckon Andrey’s delighted friends are still calling him The Chief six months later. But as we couldn’t speak Russian and they couldn’t speak English, that first hour was pretty strained. So tireless Nikolai began to translate for both sides, something he would do with infinite patience for the next ten days.
Something else that would be a feature of the next ten days was the incredible hospitality we were shown. Almost as soon as we’d sat down, Julia and Regina (it was always the women) began to offer us endless cups of tea and plates of food. Being British, our natural reaction was to shrink, cower and attempt to politely decline. But after five minutes of feebly batting away each offer of cake/tea/beer/chocolate, it became clear we might as well just get used to it. Personally, I was interested and slightly alarmed to note how quickly I got used to being waited on hand and foot by two women. That’s when we had our first taste of plov, the Uzbek national dish. It’s a kind of fried rice with meat and vegetables, and it’s pretty incredible. As we ate, we began to warm up a little – so The Chief pulled out a bottle of vodka to celebrate. We drank three quick shots to friendship and hospitality – little realising that this bottle was like the first spot of rain heralding a prolonged and torrential downpour.
Although The Chief and Julia could speak no English, Regina could. Regina was a Tatar from the city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in European Russia. Her ambition was to visit Europe, in particular Germany or Scotland. She knew the poetry of Robbie Burns (here James McPhail puffed out his proud Caledonian chest) and was fascinated by our freedom to travel. We asked her what she thought of us and she said, ‘You are very different. We do what we want from the heart. But you have rules’. I think she was referring to the amount of protesting I did when the vodka bottle was first cracked, or how we tried to stop her and Julia waiting on us. She was probably right though.
After an hour or so, The Chief started to reach for the vodka bottle again so to put it off till later (it was still only 1pm) we headed back out into Tashkent. The slightly decrepit feel of the city, the tumbledown parks, the crumbling apartment blocks and the rundown, crumbling avenues all reminded me of other parts of the old Soviet Union I had visited in the past: places like Kiev, Sochi and Moscow. And yet Kiev, for example, is 5000 kilometres from Tashkent and part of a different continent. But for the better part of a century they were part of the same nation. Once again, the sheer crazed ambition of that enterprise struck me. Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union at that time, mainly because the Soviets moved much of their industry east to the city to escape the Nazi onslaught during the Second World War.
We drove to the Museum of Timur the Great. The Sufi script on the walls was a reminder that this land was once part of a different empire. Amir Timur occupies a strange place in the greater Uzbek scheme. At the height of his power in the fourteenth century, the Timurid Empire extended from Turkey to India, making his rule something of a glory period for certain parts of Central Asia. Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called Tamburlaine about this. It’s easy to see why the nation of Uzbekistan decided to make him their official national hero when they attained independence in 1991, and now thousands of Timurs in different warrior-like poses stand where the statues of Lenin and Stalin once did. The only problem with this is that Timur was not actually an Uzbek. As ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray points out in his book ‘Murder in Samarkand’, ‘…he wasn’t an Uzbek, didn’t speak Uzbek and massacred large numbers of Uzbeks’. And yet they were everywhere we went, these statues. Why replace one tyrant with another, in the name of national identity? It says a lot about the place. Craig Murray’s book says a lot more, and is very worth reading. I wish I’d read it before we visited. Back at The Chief’s house, there were visitors – and an ominous three bottles of vodka lined up on the table.
As well as Andrey, Julia and Regina, the gregarious Rafik and his wife Olga had turned up. Our arrival in town seemed to be a social highlight and raffish Rafik greeted us with genuine warmth, even though he too could barely speak English. Olga was dolled right up, in the Dynasty-influenced style that used to be called ‘power dressing’ back in the eighties, complete with a fearsome cleavage decorated with a serpent necklace and severe shoulder pads. She smoked endless cigarettes and occasionally smiled indulgently at us. After a couple of rounds of vodka to get things moving, The Chief wanted to take us out on the town. So we piled into taxis and headed out into the city, driving for about half an hour. With the vodka coursing through our veins and the cab driver jumping red lights, the night took on a celluloid quality.
The restaurant was bizarre. It was basically a Harvester such as you’d find on the ringroad of any average-sized town in the UK, but was obviously the height of dining chic in Tashkent and was packed with wealthy, trendy locals. Michael Bolton blared from the stereo, and The Chief nodded his head in appreciation. Raffik got the vodka in straight away and ordered for us – huge platters of local sausages, plov, vegetables, Russian salads and massive tankards of beer. Within about five minutes everybody was rolling drunk. Raffik proved to be a brilliant conversationalist despite the fact that he couldn’t speak English. His technique was basically to dredge his memory for any English word he could think of, get the attention of the whole table and then enunciate the word as clearly as he could, before getting everyone to down another shot of vodka amid much cheering and backslapping. As he’d previously been in the army (he said he was in the Spetsnaz, which is like the Russian SAS, but I didn’t really believe him) much of it was military themed, and his favourite phrase was ‘Hon-our-able Brit-ish To-mmy!’ This went on for about an hour, and very enjoyable it was too – until things took a slightly sinister turn. Raffik, warmed up as he was, suddenly became very, very racist. So racist, in fact, that had he been a contestant on this year’s Big Brother, he would surely have been kicked out with young posh kid Emily in week one. It was a strange moment – as if the flash of a torch had just revealed a murmuring undercurrent of malevolence in the room. Scott Nixon – who Raffik had been calling ‘Scotty, Scotty’ all night like the new best friends they were – loudly voiced his disapproval and, as it can do when you’ve drunk four bottles of vodka between 11 people in about an hour, it all turned very sour, very quickly
. Raffik feigned ignorance, but Olga knew exactly what was going on and started shouting ‘My husband is a good man!’ at us. In the end, the night broke up, with Raffik being sent home in disgrace and (not for the last time on this trip) Nikolai smoothing things over between everybody. The unreadable Chief said nothing. He just poured more vodka.
The next day, we left our new friends at the Chief’s house and drove to Mount Chimgam. Here we got our first look at the true state of urban Uzbekistan and it didn’t look too clever. Low-lying factories, steel and concrete as the main building materials, old Soviet realist statues punctuating the drab and shabby streets – yes, we were definitely in the old Soviet Union. We passed Chirchiq, with it’s chemical factories, and followed the road as it wound it’s way into an area of mountains called, the driver informed us somewhat hopefully, the ‘Uzbek Switzerland’. We rounded a corner, and saw three huge pyramid-styled hotel buildings sitting forlornly on the shore of an absolutely enormous lake. We’d arrived. Chimgam
itself has always been a bolthole for rich Tashkent locals, and I read later that the Pyramids are owned by Gulnara Karimova, the President Islam Karimov’s extremely dodgy daughter, around whom rumours of corruption continuously swirl. Chimgam
was also where British master spy Lieutenant Colonel FM Bailey spent the winter holed up on a bee farm with a broken leg in 1919. The British had sent him to spy on the Russians, and he was on the run from the secret police disguised as a Rumanian prisoner of war. Eventually, he made it back to Tashkent, joined the ranks of the Russian secret service and was sent to the Uzbek town of Bukhkara to arrest himself. His book about this and his eventual escape from the country, Mission to Tashkent, is a classic.
And so, for the next five days, I was on my own. While they went riding each day, I attempted not to go mad in the hotel by staying in bed late, reading books, watching DVDs and going for long, solitary walks around the lake. The rest of them went snowboarding, and you can read about what that was like in the Johno’s sidebar. On the third night, Nikolai told us that the friend of his who ran the hotel wanted to have us round for dinner. By this stage we knew what this actually meant was that they would try and force us to drink a bottle of vodka each. Personally, I was pretty keen, seeing as I’d been confined to solitary for large parts of each day, but Johno and Gendle cried off. So myself, Jamesy and Scott went to check it out.
There was quite a scene unfolding on the top floor. For one thing, Nikolai’s mate turned out to be the man we’d nicknamed ‘Lovable Old Racist Raffik’. Raffik was very contrite. He opened his arms wide and, murmuring ‘Scotty, Scotty…’ gave Scott a theatrical bear hug. He then shook his finger and pointed at himself to the rest of us so we’d know he knew we thought he’d been bad. One minor round of social awkwardness expertly averted by Raffik, we looked at the four figures sitting around a table heaped with yet more platters of food and booze. Two corpulent, greasy middle-aged men with gold teeth (they’ve all got gold teeth in Uzbekistan) were sitting there with two young women on their laps, leering like gargoyles. The girls were obviously prostitutes. They were looking at us with a mixture of unabashed interest and something approaching amused contempt. ‘It’s because they have never met any Europeans before’, Nikolai explained. One of the girls said something in Russian before walking out of the room. ‘She says if she’s not going to be able to fuck anyone, she might as well leave’ explained Nikolai. She was 15.
Beyond the windows of the room, the vast hinterlands of the failed Soviet states dolly-zoomed away into the blackness, towards European borders that suddenly seemed further away than ever. The sudden glimpse of it was bleak. At that point, the first round of vodkas arrived, so we tipped our glasses back once again and tried to forget about it.
The next night, the lads came back to the hotel in a state of some excitement, saying that we’d all been invited to a local village for dinner later that night. So Adam, the receptionist from the hotel, fitted us all into his amazing old jalopy and drove us up the hill to Fahridin’s house. Fahridin was a Tajik and seemed to be somehow eking out a rural living with his family in the hills above the Pyramids. The house, like The Chief’s, was based around a central courtyard but there was no crazily decorated black and white room: just four plain walls and an outdoor shed rendered with straw and mud. Everything was extremely neat and tidy, and inside a spread was laid for us: apricot jam, tea, local almonds, pears and apples, great lumps of sugar and sticky baklava, a sweet made from almond walnuts and honey. Fahridin’s wife hovered around in the background but wasn’t allowed to join us – another reminder of the strict, patrician nature of the society, and that I personally had got used to the marginalisation of women in Uzbekistan far too easily for my own liking. Soon, two friends turned up. They were well turned out, with raffish haircuts and wearing white jeans with neat turn-ups, roll necks and denim jackets. They looked like ringers for Roy Keane and Noel Gallagher. To make us welcome, they explained, they were off to buy a live chicken from the local shop. What for? So they could slaughter it in our honour, of course. Half an hour later, the boys came back – with a chicken Gendle immediately nicknamed ‘Wayne’ and three bottles of vodka to wash him down with. Wayne looked a bit put out, so Noel grabbed him and took him outside. We all crowded round – after all, none of us had ever seen our dinner killed beforehand. I made a few notes:
- Noel put his boot on Wayne’s neck, pulling his head out so his neck stretched long. He then hacked his head off with a quick knife stroke. Wayne’s wings carried on flapping for about ten seconds afterwards. The head went on the wall.
- Next, they put him in a bowl and, using boiling water to loosen them, plucked his feathers. This took about twenty minutes.
- The giblets came out next, before they got Wayne on the chopping block and cut him up.
- Once Wayne was in small pieces, Roy got out a huge saltshaker and seasoned him. Then he went in a pot with carrots, potatoes and onions, while we went in the house to drink some vodka and find out more about Fahridin, Roy and Noel.
As far as we could work out, the village was called Maheda and there were about 1000 people living there. Fahridin had two sons and a daughter, the oldest of whom was 17. All well and good – until he casually mentioned that he was only 30. 30? With a 17 year old son? So how old were Noel and Roy? An incredible 23 and 27, it turned out. They were equally flabbergasted when we told them how old we were, and began to chat and laugh among themselves: the topic of conversation being, obviously, ‘This lot have obviously never done a proper day’s work in their pampered lives!’ In contrast, we learned, locals here have to join the army at 18 for two years, and the pressure is on to be married by the time you’re 18. And if you don’t manage to snag a wife, your social standing falls and pariah status beckons. Of course, the boys were all married, so we drank one of many toasts to their families. After this it gets a bit hazy. Again.
The next morning, we left the Pyramids and headed back to Tashkent to stop off for the afternoon with The Chief and friends, before heading on to Samarkand. Rather excitingly, we also had a couple of pretty fit Siberian hitchhikers with us. I only wish I could remember their names. That morning, there had been quite a scene in the lobby. A group of Russian and Slovakian skiers and snowboarders were all getting riotously drunk on vodka. It was about 9.30am. They’d been holed up at the hotel for the past week, waiting to go heliboarding. Bad weather had meant they only had one day – this day – to go up. Now Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, had decided to visit his nearby holiday dacha for the weekend, and all local airspace was closed for the rest of the week. As they’d all spent between 5 and 10 grand to sit in the hotel for a week, they were, to put it mildly, pissed off. I was amazed that somebody had managed to have a worse time than I had in that hotel. One guy was shouting ‘Fuck Uzbekistan!’ at the top of his voice, while the rest of them were getting more aggressive the more they drank. The Siberian girls were looking for a way out, so we said they could come to Samarkand with us. With everyone squeezed in, we headed back to Tashkent.
Back at The Chief’s house, a welcoming committee was in session and spirits were high. Lovable old racist Raffik was there with Olga, while Regina was ecstatically pleased to see us. Two more friends were also there (I didn’t catch their names either) and there was ominous talk of ‘preparing us’ for the journey – with, of course, four bottles of vodka and a feast in our honour. Thankfully, the booze was ameliorated by an absolutely incredible meal cooked for us by The Chief’s driver, a weed-smoking Tajik who had worked as a chef on a Black Sea cruise ship. In a charcoal-fired potboiler, he made a stew of fresh vegetables, mutton and beef and what with the boozy bonhomie, the company of our by-now old friends (The Chief and Julia had hugged us with tear stained cheeks) and the excitement we all felt at the start of our journey to Samarkand, I would say even now, six months later, that it was the best meal I have ever eaten. There have been better-tasting dishes and more spectacular locations, but none as memorable.
That night, after a six-hour drive, we arrived in Samarkand. The roads were like patchworks of bumps and potholes and the driver did 80 the whole way. But with my last Valium and the vodka extending to the end of my limbs, it was pretty bearable. Samarkand was brilliant, yet another historical, beautiful city that almost nobody in the west has heard of. For a brief period in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, it was the centre of Timur’s empire. Today, it personifies the dichotomous nature of Timur’s rule – utterly bloodthirsty, yet appealingly cultured. Yes, Timur roved his way around Central Asia massacring anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. But he also oversaw a period in which Samarkand became one of the world’s most important centres of learning and culture – and not many tyrants do that. Today, there are five main sites in the city, and I dragged our unlikely band of two Siberians, one Russian and five Brits kicking and screaming around all of them. The Registan, one of the most important and impressive examples of Islamic architecture in the world, a public square that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, described as ‘the noblest public square in the world’ was dismissed as ‘just another group of fucking boring looking buildings’ by one of the group, but I didn’t mind, even when I was outvoted and we went and sat in a tea shop for the rest of the afternoon. Luckily, I like both tea and old buildings. After the most riotous piss-up yet on our last night in Samarkand, which ended up with Scott Nixon vomiting in the fountain in the middle of the hotel’s courtyard, it was time to head back to Tashkent for the night.
We were to stay with The Chief and friends again and, match fit after ten days of drinking straight vodka, we were ready. But for once, The Chief was subdued. ‘Too much vodka’, said Nikolai, uttering the words we never thought we’d hear during our time in Uzbekistan. Instead, The Chief, Regina and Julia took us out to a local restaurant for a meal. Yes, we had a few vodkas and beers, but without the frenzy that had accompanied previous drinking bouts. Back at the house, we had one last farewell with the Siberian girls, who had to fly back home that night. They mentioned something about a resort in Siberia we should visit, and promised to email some pictures and the details. Jamesy and myself exchanged significant glances, but soon forgot as The Chief suddenly rallied and began pouring yet more drinks. I crawled off to bed while I still could.
The next morning it was still dark when I awoke and hurriedly grabbed my bags. To my amazement, The Chief, Regina and Julia were still sitting at the same place, drinking. Jamesy shook his head at me. ‘They’ve been there all night. They say they can’t go to bed until they seen us safely to the plane’. The Chief, by now looking like a man who has stumbled out of the jungle and discovered the war he’s been fighting finished twenty years ago, smiled weakly at me. The Chief’s driver, the man who made the favourite meal of my thirty years on this planet, led the way to the airport. Along the way, we stopped so they could show us their favourite churches and so we could pose for a few group shots. Dawn’s rosy fingers were gaining a hold on the horizon as we arrived at the airport departure terminal. Nobody really spoke. These people, who we had only met twelve days previously, had taken us into the depths of their lives and were genuinely upset that we were leaving. The Chief hugged us all tearfully and pressed small wooden figurines into our hands as we parted.
Still nobody said much. We turned and went into the terminal. It was time to leave.
Two weeks later, I checked my email and read the subject line ‘We Are In Siberia!’
Hello Matt! Sorry for keeping silence so long))). We were a little bit busy with work.
How are u doing? How is your hand? Hope all is ok and be careful......don't break your hands and legs)))
U can see information about sheregesh on this links http://my.opera.com/Minin/albums/show.dml?id=31181
and here some our pictures
Siberia in February 08? It sounded good. Now, what were their names again?
Last updated on 15 January 2008.