I was nearly giddy as my taxi pulled up in front of the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent. After a month of homestays and shabby hotels in Tajikistan, I was staring at a real hotel again.
A hotel with a bright, shiny lobby and air conditioning.
A hotel with a concierge, 24 hour café and souvenir shop.
A hotel with electronic key cards, free wi-fi and real toilet paper.
Yes, I was in heaven.
Of course, everything is relative. As I ventured out of my hotel later that day to brave the heat and start exploring Tashkent, I couldn’t help but compare it to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. It was like night and day.
Tashkent felt like a capital city, with vast boulevards, landscaped parks and sparkling new buildings throughout the city center. And it had such basic amenities as supermarkets, stoplights, a subway system and Western clothing stores like Benetton and Mango.
No, I was definitely not in Tajikistan anymore.
While most Tajik women seemed to wear ankle-length dresses and covered their hair with scarves, women in Tashkent appeared much more Western – tank tops, short skirts, shorts and high heels were common. Foreigners were much more prevalent as well. I didn’t receive nearly the number of comments or stares that I did I Tajikistan. Indeed, I’m not sure I got any – I felt like I blended in surprisingly well.
As I walked around Tashkent, the sun beating down on me and temperatures soaring far above 100, several other things caught my eye.
For a city of nearly 2 million people, it was ridiculously quiet. I chalked it up to the high temperatures and assumed everyone must come out at night when it cools down a bit, but the first evening I went out to dinner, returning after dark, it was still pretty dead. Where was everyone?
There was a noticeable police presence – more so than any place I have visited since Moscow. Officers seemed to stand at every corner, at the entrance to every subway station and in front of just about any important looking building. Somehow I made it through ten days in the city interacting with them only once to ask for directions. Others I met were not so lucky. A Belgian couple looked at me in shock when I told them I had been walking around without my passport while waiting for my Kazakhstan visa; they had been stopped and asked for theirs every single time they rode the subway.
Certain things were shockingly expensive. Take cereal, for example. I ate a gluten free brand of cornflakes frequently while I was in Russia and Ukraine. The stores in Tashkent carried the same brand but at four times the price! I also made the mistake of buying a bunch of apples at a supermarket without checking the price. Apples had been fairly cheap most everywhere I have been so far, so I was shocked when my four apples rang up at about $13.
Street signs and building numbers were hard to come by. One day, I walked up and down a street for over twenty minutes without seeing a single sign telling me what street I was on. To make matters worse, many street names seemed to have changed in recent years because when I finally did spot a sign, it often did not correspond to anything on my map (which I got from the Uzbekistan Embassy and assumed would be accurate). Even when I found the right street, building numbers were almost non-existent. How does anyone ever figure out where they are going?
The most random thing I noticed was that there seems to be an unwritten rule that everyone must drive a white car. Seriously. I have never seen so many white cars in my life. Passing one parking lot, I would say 90% were white. I can only guess it as something to do with the summer heat and the likelihood that dark cars would be much more hot. Makes sense, right?
I admit I didn’t do much sightseeing in Tashkent.
I checked out the Chorsu Bazaar and some of the nearby mosques and madrassas. I walked through Alisher Navoi Park and visited the National History Museum. I spent one day hiking in the mountains outside of the city. I also went back and forth between my hotel and the Kazakhstan Embassy four times and spent a total of four hours standing in line outside of it, but I don’t think that really counts as sightseeing. Considering I was there for ten days, I really didn’t see or do that much.
I meant to do more – like have lunch at the Central Asian Plov Centre and visit the Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts. I meant to explore Tashkent’s Old Town area and check out the Seattle Peace Park. And I meant to go to the top of the TV Tower for a great view of the city.
But it just didn’t happen.
It was hot, I was tired, I had work to do, the list goes on. Ironically, if I only had three or four days in Tashkent, I probably would have seen a lot more. With ten days, I succumbed to the lure of procrastination until I found myself on my last day in town thinking, “oh wow, I need to try to see this.”
But I feel good about what I did see, I left with an overall good feeling about the city, and I was extremely productive in a non-tourist sense: I caught up on my work for Meet, Plan, Go!, scheduled a dozen new blog posts, cleaned out a good chunk of my inbox, and made plans for onward travel into Kazakhstan. And I enjoyed lounging in air conditioned bliss and watching BBC World News for hours at a time.
Overall, it was a good ten days.