Central Asia Travel Diary

Today seemed like an unbroken extension of yesterday.  Having arrived at Dubai Airport (see yesterday's entry), we had two consecutive flights to take.  Our first flight was from Dubai to Tehran (Iran), where we had to connect to a second flight to Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

Both flights were actually very pleasant – as far as I can remember under the circumstances of a sleepness night.  The first flight from Dubai to Tehran lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, and was on an Emirates Airlines Airbus A330-200, registration A6-EAJ.  Although a short flight, there was still time for a great in-flight meal; Emirates does this extremely well.

When we arrived at Tehran's new Imam Khomeni Airport, we received a message over the public address system to contact the ground staff.  I gather it is quite unusual for people to use Tehran as a transfer point, and so a senior member of the airport staff had been appointed to take our tickets and passports while we waited in the 'sterile' area (in other words, we did not pass through Immigration) and obtain our boarding passes – which he did after a wait of 30 minutes or so.  By the time our flight was ready to board, the morning glow of an Iranian morning was starting to fill the sky, and the overwhelming tiredness began to dissipate.

Our flight from Tehran to Tashkent was on an Iran Air Fokker 100 (registration EP-CFL), a flight of 2 hours and 10 minutes.  As we descended into Tashkent over western Uzbekistan we could see the arid but irrigated farmlands that have been famously affected by the environmental disaster of the shrinking Aral Sea – a sad sight but a tantalising foretaste of environmental problems we hope to experience on the ground in the coming weeks.

Tashkent Airport was my dream of heaven, with rows of Soviet-era Tupolevs, Ilyushins and Antonovs.  Sadly, the immigration and customs formalities were also reminders of Soviet times, with the extensive and detailed 2-page customs form needing to be completed as two separate time-consuming originals.  An hour and a half after landing, we emerged to the city of Tashkent, tired from a sleepless night but nonetheless eager to experience the city.

I had been to Tashkent once before, and that was in 1991, just two weeks after the attempted coup by Communist hard-liners to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev.  To be honest, I expected more changes than I saw to have occurred during the previous 15 years.  Having been to Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania in recent years, I was very surprised to see how many Soviet-era cars were still plying the roads of Tashkent – Volgas, Ladas, Zhigulis and even Moskviches – beautiful in one sense, but a telling commentary on Uzbekistan's lack of economic progress and reform on the other.

We stayed in a small hotel called the Rovshan, located in an old part of Tashkent, fairly close to the airport in the southern part of the city.  After leaving our things at the hotel, we went out to change some money and see the city.  Our first stop was the bank, where my US$50 was transform into about 61,500 sum.  We spent a couple of hours driving around the city, most of which comprises Soviet-era housing blocks with distinctive Central Asian architectural adornments, on wide streets lined with beautiful green trees that provide abundant shade in the 42 degree temperatures we were experiencing.

Our first stop was at the evocative earthquake monument that commemorates the people's struggles in the face of the massive earthquake that levelled the city in 1966.  It is surely one of the more sensitive Soviet-era monuments and a stark reminder of human frailty in the face of natural forces.

We then proceeded to the old town, a small but lively area that survived the earthquake.  This area has narrow laneways that twist their way between single-storey adobe (mud brick) dwellings and which open up every so often to magnificent open plzas or roundabouts flanked by madrassas (koranic schools) or mosques.  After a downtown stop at a great area of contrasts (wide streets planned in the Soviet-era, with cars, trams and buses but also containing mosques and madrassas), we returned to the hotel for an early meal, followed by a late afternoon stroll in the vicinity of the hotel, past housing blocks and through a huge open-air food market, before getting an early night to try and catch up on some lost sleep.

Monday 3 July 2006

Dubai to Tashkent

Earthquake Monument, Tashkent
Lada and Mosque, Tashkent
Many people note my resemblance to Lenin