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Tashkent was completely unexpected. Where Dushanbe had been a surprise in terms of its modern buildings and infrastructure Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan is on another level. It’s a cross between Washington DC and, given the heat, New Delhi. But it's too flat to be Canberra.


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Around Tashkent


As some of our party would leave and others join, we had a free day to explore. So first stop was the metro and then on to the Chorsu markets at the centre of the old city.

The metro is impressive. Initially built by the Russians, dating back to the early 1970’s, it’s reminiscent of St Petersburg or Moscow but nowhere as deep as St Petersburg. Each station has its own decoration by a different artist in the Soviet style. But most are decorative works of art, rather than rich in the Communist symbolism, as one sees in Moscow and even at one station in Berlin. Nevertheless the stations are cathedral like; the escalators solid and convincing and the air-conditioned rolling stock chunky and practical – straight out of Russia - running on a wide five foot gauge. It’s apparently built to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. Compared to China, the trains, with a third live rail (825 V DC) are relatively slow (50km/h).  But they run every few minutes. There are currently three lines, with around 30 stations, and a fourth line under construction.


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The Tashkent Metro - until recently it was illegal to photograph in here and I still got some admonishing looks


All this modernism or perhaps post-modernism is due to the a devastating earthquake that in April 1966 effectively demolished the old capital destroying schools hospitals and other public buildings in addition to mud brick and poorly constructed dwellings leaving tens of thousands homeless.


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Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

Old Tashkent - built around the Chorsu markets -  whatever remained turned to rubble in 1966     


The city had just been in the International news, hosting a meeting to attempt to resolve differences between Pakistan and India. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev had been named General Secretary of the Communist Party (and thus Soviet Premier) in 1964 (after Khrushchev) but he lacked Khrushchev's power, a situation he was determined to correct. Brezhnev visited the devastation and made a motivational speech in ‘Kennedy style’, promising a new city, akin to Kennedy going to the Moon - not because it's easy. The reconstruction of Tashkent became a cause célèbre throughout the Soviet Union. To support the massive project experts and workers, including Komsomol youth, were rushed in from all four corners of the USSR.  

Within a decade much of the city we see today had risen from the rubble - and tunnelled beneath it.

As I've mentioned the main incentive for exploring the Metro on our first day was to go out to the Chorsu markets, located at the centre of the old, historic, city.  Chorsu means 'crossroads' or 'four streams' in ancient Persian. As we later discovered the Kukeldash Madrasah, built around 1570, and the recently built Khoja Akhrar Mosque are located nearby.  After the destruction in 1966 a huge new dome, with a diameter of 90 metres, was constructed, that for a time symbolised the new city's rise from the rubble.  Today the big dome is surrounded by much larger areas of flat roofed stalls and even some baby domes, dedicated to the sale of all manner of food, clothing and other goods, while the big dome itself is dedicated mainly to meat and dairy.


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Tashkent Markets today


On our tour we had come to expect relatively modest but comfortable hotels on the outskirts. But here we found ourselves in a grand high-rise building near the centre, with a suite of rooms, offering good views out over the city and a couple of TVs. It had once been accommodation for senior party members and international guests. But it’s seen better days. We would return here at the end of our tour so we experienced three such suites of different sizes. In the first, the power on the whole floor went out with a loud bang when our porter switched on the lights. The next had a similar problem when I turned on the electric kettle to make coffee. Various extension leads snaked around the room, under the carpet on one run, as most of the power outlets on the walls had failed. After a second attempt to restore power failed we were moved to a huge suite of around 100 m2, where the side panel of the bath clashed down onto the floor unexpectedly; the shower fixture was so high that it squirted over the curtain and a second air-conditioning unit stood disconnected. A non-working grandfather clock stood in the corner of the huge bedroom and there was a full size refrigerator in the spacious entrance foyer. On TV the English language channels were limited to Bloomberg and movies. On the plus side it was nice to have all that space and mirrors; the beds were good and the linen fresh; there was even a bar on the next floor with cocktails and good espresso coffee.


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Our Hotel and views from our windows


As I mentioned above rebuilding Tashkent was an initiative of Leonid Brezhnev.

In 1979 Brezhnev would mimic Kennedy again.  This time it did not turn out so well. Against Kremlin advice he mirrored Kennedy's disastrous decision to send troops to Vietnam by sending the Red Army into Afghanistan (that's on Uzbekistan's southern border) with equally disastrous results: over the next nine years 15 thousand Russian boys would sent home in coffins; Russia suffered international obloquy, even among previous allies; the eventual ignominious withdrawal destroyed confidence at home; and the economic consequences led to effective bankruptcy and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The primitive Afghan Mujahideen (meaning those who engage in jihad) would probably have suffered the same fate as they had against the British in the second Afghan war had it not been for Operation Cyclone. This was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.  It was developed with support from Pakistan; Saudi Arabia, Britain and even China. Operation Cyclone replaced single shot, sometimes flintlock, rifles with modern assault weapons; stinger anti-aircraft missiles and tens of thousands of mines. Just as important was covert training of the fighters in weapons use and guerrilla tactics. To provide much needed yet deniable additional support, a decision was taken to fund, train and arm the Saudi supported fundamentalist Taliban, formed with the assistance of the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI); on the grounds that they were the most committed to expelling the Russian 'atheists'. 

By the time the Russians withdrew in 1989 the US alone had spent over $20 billion with Saudi Arabia matching some of this dollar for dollar.  Yet the highly trained, armed and committed Taliban fundamentalists, including Usama Bin Laden who'd recruited fighters from around the world, were not about to stop after the defeat of Russia. In the closing days Bin Laden would create Al Qaeda (the base) to launch terrorist attacks in support of global jihad. His 9/11 attacks in New York lead directly to the present Afghanistan War and to worldwide terrorist attacks against the infidel, past and present.   Thus the Australian Government Smart Traveller travel advisory was again at amber (exercise a high degree of caution - particularly in respect of terrorism). Read More...

Our party had lost some members but grown to 14 when we piled on board the coach for the long trip to Samarkand. We’ve travelled on Chinese coaches elsewhere so the bus was not a surprise. But it was interesting that it was not locally built. Uzbekistan has the sort of trade policies that Donald Trump espouses. With the exception of a very small number of luxury (mainly German) imports, all cars are locally manufactured under the protection of massive import duties and General Motors has a virtual monopoly. Almost all are badged Chevrolet but sometimes one sees virtually the same car with a different GM badge.

Presumably because labour is cheap and the capacity to afford a car limited, the cars are relatively inexpensive and many Uzbeks seem to be able to afford one. As in Tajikistan there is an informal ‘hitchhiking’ business, in competition with the regular metered cabs, where some car owners will stop if you hold out your thumb.  Before you get in you must negotiate a price to take you where you want to go. Then, like UBER elsewhere, they use the GPS on their phone to find the route. It takes a bit of practice, particularly as they don’t speak English so you need to use your fingers for the price and to have the destination written down (same for the cabs).  But in a remote place it can be quicker than waiting for a random empty cab. You can’t call a cab except from a hotel, unless you have the local phone connection and speak Uzbek or Russian.

The basic cars, that you might get when ‘hitchhiking’, are manual (stick-shift) and generally lack sophisticated features found in Chevs (or Holdens or Opels) of the same vintage elsewhere. Petrol – again called petrol not gas – is less than half the price we pay. Given the pollution the traffic generates it’s possible many vehicles don’t have catalytic converters.  Driving is competitive and the road rules somewhat flexible.


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Leaving Tashkent for Samarkand:  typical apartments; ubiquitous irrigation; and wheat silos
Notice the service station:  'PETROL' in English and fuel prices at about half ours
Almost all the vehicles are by GM
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...


Tashkent to Samarkand is over 300 km a journey of around 5 hours. On the way we saw the outer suburbs of Tashkent, that looked relatively prosperous, before many miles of irrigated cotton, wheat and other crops and occasional field workers. Doing what? Our guide had told us about the Soviet plan that made Uzbekistan the largest cotton producer in the world, with unfortunate outcomes for the people of the Aral basin, for which we can blame the Russians.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker

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