USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


Today has been quite a full and enjoyable day, as we spent the morning touring Tashkent and the afternoon driving to Samarkand.

I found it harder than usual to wake up this morning, perhaps because Uzbekistan is three hours ahead of Moscow time.  Another factor could have been the very late night last night.  Dinner was at 10:00pm, and the huge dining hall at the hotel was full of people, mainly chain smokers I would guess, and there was loud music playing as effervescent Uzbeks danced the night away energetically, one hand raised above their heads with the other hand gripping their glass of vodka.  I don’t think the Muslims here are very fundamentalist, at least in their habits!

A Jewish man who was hosting the table next to ours told us that he felt sorry for us as we had a smaller dinner than he and his guests had consumed, so he came over with a huge dish of food for us.  All we had to do in return was to drink a toast with vodka “to Uzbekistan!” and listen to his life story (translated through our delightful and ever-patient guide, Galina), about how he had wanted to study law, but was stifled by the Communists, so he has now started his own business, etc, etc, etc.  I only had a taste of the vodka, and the drop of it on my moustache made it feel as though it was sizzling and curling up.  How one acquires a taste for that “fire water” I do not want to know!

Our local guide this morning was a Russian (as opposed to Uzbek) named Vladimir, and I really enjoyed his dry sense of humour.  He took us first of all to the city’s theatre and his opening lines were something like “Here we see theatre performed.  It is terrible.  Ballet is also performed here.  It is even worse.  Still, we have this building, which as you can see, is a copy of traditional Muslim architecture.  Actually, it is a very bad copy; totally insensitive.  And over there you can see the fountain, shaped like a budding boll of cotton.  It is typical of our fountains, because as you can see, it is not working…”

He gave us a very perceptive view of the current state of affairs in Uzbekistan since it unilaterally declared its independence from the USSR just a few weeks ago (on 31st August).  He talked about the Communist party, which is very strong here in Uzbekistan, and has simply re-named itself the People’s Democratic Party, leaving all its existing structures intact.  Even the Communist logos, flags and statues still abound in the city, although Vladimir claimed that this is because Uzbeks are too peace-loving to do anything about them – “they are there, so what?”.

He also talked about the rapid rise of Islam as people seek an alternative belief system/ ideology to Communism, which he said was now largely discredited.  He expressed his fear that this might morph into a rise in Islamic fundamentalism, however.

Our city tour was divided into three parts.  First, we toured the new parts of the city, which occupy by far the largest area of Tashkent as most of the older buildings were destroyed in the big earthquake on 26th April 1966, together with the aftershocks that continued for a further two years. Miraculously, only 200 people were killed.  The “new” city of Tashkent is made up glass and concrete prefabricated high-rise blocks, with fountains that don’t work, and with some attempt at building with a Central Asian flavour.

Next, we visited the old city of Tashkent with its narrow winding laneways snaking their way between mud brick dwellings.  While visiting a mosque, we saw a wedding, and as we walked out after the wedding couple, the guests (who were all in a rented bus) spilled out and offered US ice creams to celebrate and vodka to toast the wedding.  Finally, we visited a museum of Uzbek folk arts and crafts and to the city’s produce market (or bazaar) before returning to the hotel for lunch.

This afternoon was spent driving from Tashkent to Samarkand, a distance of about 300 kilometres.  The driver was accompanied by his “wife” (we were told) who wore a tiny black leather miniskirt, lots of make-up and no ring – she was about 25 years younger than he was.  The driver seemed extremely eager to get to Samarkand as he drove at 120 kilometres per hour along roads that had a speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour.  According to the program I had negotiated, we were supposed to break the journey with a stop at an irrigated cotton farm and speak with the people there, but the driver decreed that we didn’t have enough time to do that.

Our drive from Tashkent to Samarkand cross a wide, flat plan known as the Hungry Steppe, so named because of the many famines that have traditionally affected the area.  The area is now almost all occupied by cotton farms – it is the USSR’s primary cotton producing area, and one of the world’s cotton growing regions.  Cultivation relies of large-scale irrigation, drawing water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea to such an extent that the Aral Sea is now shrinking.  As we drove across the Hungry Steppe, we could see that the cotton was ready for harvesting, and in some areas, the harvesting had already begun by hand (the best quality) and by machine (the rest).

Now that local people no longer have to follow central government edicts about growing cotton, many are switching some of their fields back to growing food.  Sometimes, though, this is having disastrous effects due to the chemicals – especially defoliants – which have been used on the cotton and are retained in the soil.

It is interesting to see how “news” spreads here.  Today, our guide heard that there had been an attempt on Gorbachev’s life.  However, there was nothing about it on the evening news tonight, not that this would mean much of course.

To our driver’s delight, we arrived in Samarkand several hours ahead of schedule, and our driver hurriedly helped us unload our luggage before breathlessly heading off with his “wife” to a different hotel, as he had apparently been able to arrange his own alternative accommodation away from where we were staying (the Hotel Samarkand).

Day 13

Tashkent to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, USSR


10 October 1991