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september 10, 2003 -> The New Old Uzbekistan

For most of the two-hour flight, our aging Russian aircraft flew over desert-scapes: sand dunes, scrub-dotted plains, and salt pans. Only a ribbon of green along the Amu-Darya river hinted at human habitation. Two rows in front of us, Sanjar had his face pressed to the window. It was his first flight; the first time seeing Uzbekistan from the air. I only hoped that he did not share my pessimism as he looked down on his parched country.

Uzbekistan's golden age was long gone, and its people were still struggling with major economic, environmental and socio-cultural issues following the disintegration of the Soviet Union just over a decade ago. In Tashkent, we had been hassled by cops who couldn't seem to shake off Soviet-style paranoia and corruption. As in Kazakhstan, the Russians had encouraged large-scale irrigation projects to feed thirsty cotton crops. The Amu-Darya, a great river that originates in the Pamir Mountains, had been so abused along its length that the north-west of the country and the Aral Sea had quite literally been bled dry.

Standing on the rusted bow of the fishing trawler Karakalpakstan, I could not imagine the sea. The Aral had pulled back so far - and long enough ago that tall scrub had covered the old sea floor. A dozen other ships were within view, some nothing more than skeletons, black ribcages of tortured metal. They were the remains of the fishing fleet that had once been nearby Moynaq's prosperity. Uzbekistan had so little in the way of natural resources, but what it had had been squandered. The Soviet Union was no longer there to buy Uzbekistan's crops, and many skilled Russian laborers had already left, gutting the fragile economy of both external demand and labor. Now, the stylized cotton buds that adorned city entrance signs, fences and monuments were like the symbols of a fallen god.

While most Uzbeks were happy to be independent, few of the hoped-for benefits had emerged, and many felt significantly better-off during the Soviet period. I felt sorrow for Zina, a Russian-Uzbek living in Nukus, as she flipped through postcards she had bought during visits to other Soviet Republics. She described trips to the Ukraine and Belarus, and to sanitaria in the Caucausus. "I made more money then. It was much easier to travel in the USSR. You could afford to eat in restaurants, buy some things." Now she made very little as a teacher, and had no hope of returning to Russia. She was an apologist for Russians and the USSR, and never admitted to the environmental destruction they had wrought. "In the USSR, at least there was always a plan."

"When we were in the Soviet Union, we didn't know about our history," said the young Uzbek man whose name sounded exactly like Horseshit. "But after independence, we could discover our history."

This process of rediscovering, reinterpreting, and in some cases, fabricating the pre-Soviet past was in full swing across Central Asia. These newly independent countries needed heroes, scientists, poets and statesmen around which a sense of national identity could be crafted. Luckily, Uzbekistan actually had something to work with. Timur's grandson, Ulug Bek, was one of the giants of astronomy; Al-Beruni, a famous mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher; and Musa Al-Khorezm, a great scientist and mathematician. But Uzbekistan's new writers of history didn't let the facts get in the way of good propaganda - ironically following the example of the Soviets!

Nowhere was this revisionist approach to history more evident than with Amir Timur - known to the world as Tamerlane or Timur the Lame - the ruthless 14th century conqueror who controlled an empire that stretched from Turkey to India. Timur shared much in common with Genghis Khan - from whom he claimed ancestry - and Uzbekistan's rehabilitation of Timur as a sagacious Muslim statesman echoed the new cult of Genghis that had swept through post-Soviet Mongolia. After a visit to the Amir Timur museum in Tashkent, one would think Timur a kind of real-world King Arthur: brave, pious, just, a hero for the new Uzbekistan. But as the historian David Morgan writes:

"Tamerlane was an extremely destructive conqueror, far more wanton and cruel than Genghis Khan had ever been. Nor did his rule have the positive characteristics of his great predecessor. His main aim seems to have been to keep his Chaghatai tribal elite content with fighting and plunder - hence his repeated invasions of territories he had already conquered. He could not - unlike Genghis Khan - delegate authority; and he failed to arrange the succession satisfactorily. His descendants, the Timurids, continued to rule for a century after his death, and as great cultural patrons they made some amends for their forebear's appalling career."

Embellishment notwithstanding, the region has an amazing history. The land between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers has long been the focus on unwanted attention. At the heart of Asia, a litany of conquerors stomped through on their way somewhere else. The Mongols of Genghis Khan twice laid waste to its cities and decimated its population. The Russians and the British played what became known as the Great Game here in the 1800's - both countries eager to expand trade with Central Asia, and Britain concerned that an expansionist Russia could see the annexation of Central Asia as merely a stepping stone to British India. And it wasn't only outsiders that caused problems. The khans of the major cities were forever warring with each other. You don't need to be a history buff to enjoy the history of Central Asia, which is so full of mighty warriors, dashing spies, larger-than-life bad guys, espionage and double-crosses that it reads like a summer beach novel.

The thread of our journey in Uzbekistan ended - poetically - at a silk factory. Using traditional methods (stolen centuries ago from the Chinese), a mostly female workforce produced beautiful dresses, scarves and bolts of richly-patterned silk. In one room, two women sorted the cocoons according to quality. Next door, the lower-quality cocoons bobbed and tumbled as they unraveled in a vat of boiling water - each strand carefully fed by hand onto a large spinning bobbin. Ignoring the small electric motor that powered the bobbin, and the naked bulb shining wanly overhead, the process seemed ancient and magical. I found myself thinking back to the ancient and magical cities we had visited in Uzbekistan - founded, in part, by these cocoons - and I wondered when, if ever, true prosperity would return.


We visited Uzbekistan during the 'chilla' - an odd name for the hottest 40 days of the year. The temperature rose with each new destination on our roughly north-west journey from Tashkent to the Aral Sea, and peaked at 45 degrees Celcius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in Nukus. The heat was stultifying; we could only walk outside in the early morning and late afternoon - the rest of the time was spent indoors, sleeping or reading books.

During the five-hour taxi ride from Tashkent to Samarkand, we had our first experience of fulsome Uzbek hospitality. The other passenger, Muhammed, bought us, on separate occasions, ice cream bars, juicy melons, and lunch; later he invited us to his relative's wedding.

Uzbek hospitality can be smothering. We were invited to weddings, birthday parties, dinners and homestays. There is no such thing as one cup of tea. And a meal of plov (fried rice with meat and vegetables) can last for hours, with no polite way to exit early. Despite this culture of hospitality, Uzbekistan was also the country where we faced the brashest attempts to rip us off. Example: The going rate for shared taxis between Tashkent and Samarkand is around US$8 per person. But if you ask a taxi driver how much it will cost for two people, he will quickly answer US$50.

As with most of Central Asia, the most common dishes are plov, shashlyk, laghman, and samsas (meat or cheese-stuffed pastries). Served with a fresh non bread (same word as Indian 'naan') and a tomato and onion salad, the meals were satisfying, but quickly became tiresome. There are very few restaurants outside of Tashkent that serve anything but the standbys. One day in Nukus we had plov for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For travelers from the West, accustomed to variety in their diet, Central Asia is a struggle.