So I guess this is the morning of my last day in Uzbekistan. Given the spare time I have (see the previous post on travelling slower with others) my thoughts naturally turn to reviewing what I think of this country that I am about to leave.Uzbekistan sells itself on its trade and military history and the monuments that testify to that: medressas, mosques, minarets, mosaics, museums and mausoleums. Almost all in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and almostly all painstakingly restored, or in the process.
And this is a smart thing to sell itself on. Because they are incredible. A feast for the eyes. If you are a details person, just one could entertain you for hours. So dense is the tilework that it is overwhelming. And just as you become inured to mosques in Turkey, to churches in western Europe or to Tim Hortons in Canada, so you start to think ‘okay, there is another amazing monument. tick’. And your eye gets caught by the odd one that isn’t quite tidied up yet, or by the ocassional piece of slapdash brickwork, or by the rubbish in the corners of the usually spotless courtyards.
In terms of particular towns, Khiva I found dead dull, filled with tourists (mostly local, some foreign), and infested with the parasites who feed on tour groups. A day is enough unless it is the first place you go or you are a restored monument freak. Bukhara was more interesting, because it had more like real life, and waching the sun go down on the Kalon minaret is something I could never get tired of. But the people were very money-oriented, to put it politely. Similarly our friendly camel-tour operators. There are other places to see the desert than this.
Samarkand is the highlight for sure. Nicer people, warmer atmosphere, incredible architecture (benefiting perhaps from the homogeneity that results from mostly being built first by Timurlane). I didn’t see the point of Tashkent at all, and being greeted by hordes of crooked police each day is not exactly guaranteed to make you love the place.
Despite the dire warnings of religious violence from various ministries of foreign affairs, and even from some locals, the Fergana valley proved to be friendlier than the rest of Uzbekistan (as demonstrated by the simplicity of finding an unofficial homestay). The people were more curious, if anything less apparently Muslim (single women would talk to me in the bus), and everything was much easier and much more laidback.
What affected me most about Uzbekistan, I think, was the negative energy of the people. This feels like a regressing country, not a developing one. The people who have the most right to be here are those who most strongly want to go somewhere else. If they have that opportunity, then their goals are very clear: leave as soon as possible. If they have no chance of leaving, they have a tired, tragic stocism that from my experience is characteristic of the post-Soviet Russians. Nowhere to go, and home is not great. I don’t think the government needs to put so much emphasis on visas, or worry too much about people overstaying.
Add to that the fact that other travellers do not like it much either (not that their opinion would drive mine, but it might cause me to reassess if I thought my opinions were entirely at variance with theirs), and on my usual scale of 1 to 10 I give Turkmenistan an 8 or even 9 (bizarre, otherworldy, fascinating) and Uzbekistan a 4 or 5 (I guess the Registan in Samarkand alone justifies the higher score).
So, will I come back? For Samarkand, yes. For visas or tickets and a spot of culture on the side, perhaps by necessity (the only good reason to go to Tashkent). For the desert, possibly, although Turkmenistan holds more appeal. The conclusion? Mostly likely in transit. And it took three weeks to learn that?