Travelling through Uzbekistan with Soviet-era trains and food poisoning
By Daniel M. Craanen, class of 2013
Sweat runs down the sides of my face. I feel burning hot, ice cold, burning hot, ice cold. I’ve been sick for almost six days now and have lost almost twenty kilos. Internet research told me I should find a doctor if I’m not better after two days. At the same time, Karakalpakstan and Khorezm are not known for their quality medical facilities, and Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, is nineteen hours away by Soviet-era night train. The owner of my bed and breakfast has brought me green tea, round bread, and white rice in salted water. I also have a generous supply of ORS. I decide to sleep it off.
Khiva (image credit Daniel Craanen)
My first week in Uzbekistan, the first port of call of my six-month travels, started out rocky. However, having overcome Khiva’s culinary perils, the country soon opened up its doors. As part of a strategically located region, Uzbekistan’s Khanates once benefitted tremendously from the riches of the Silk Road. As such, the country’s cultural assets are unrivalled. They range from mountain villages hardly ever visited, to remnants of steppe nomad cultures, to ancient desert cities with towering blue-mosaicked minarets. Feeling somewhat shaky still, I set out to discover all these marvels. I enjoyed the local cuisine, consisting of plov, shashlik, more plov, and more shashlik. I bought a great souvenir for my girlfriend in the form of a fantastically fuzzy Khorezm hat. I met hospitable and friendly people, and learned about modes of transport in a former Soviet Republic.
The Registan, in Samarkand (image credit Daniel Craanen)
However, the culture and people were only part of the reason I set out to visit this little-known and often-eschewed central-Asian state. Equally, I wanted to learn more about its day-to-day workings as an authoritarian military state, rivalled in this region only by its neighbour Turkmenistan. Of this, I experienced plenty. Upon my arrival at Tashkent airport in the middle of the night, I found myself scrambling for the few English-language documents available, which I was required to fill in. Taking the Tashkent underground, I was routinely requested to provide my passport and, when provided, had to wait while officials carefully examined my visa. Moreover, I was stopped by military police at train stations, and when walking about the city.
Bukhara (image credit Daniel Craanen)
Yet, none of these encounters were particularly hostile or intimidating. As soon as officials at the airport noticed I was struggling, they brought extra forms and helped me fill them in. The officials at the underground seemed genuinely interested in why I had chosen Uzbekistan as my destination, and often preferred a casual chat to actively scrutinising my visa. Military police on the street asked me if I played basketball, and at an Urgench train station, allowed me to use their brand new smartphones to call my hotel, after my taxi had accidentally misjudged my arrival time. Prior to my visit, I had been warned that officials were likely to be corrupt and would almost certainly cause me trouble. Instead, my experiences with them were generally very positive.
Besides officials, I also found the people of Uzbekistan surprisingly positive and open about their country. Not once did I find people hesitant to share their views, and overall they seemed to support their lifelong president in his efforts to combat radical Islam and preserve stability and territorial integrity. During my conversations with people, they seemed rather open-minded and tolerant. They told me about life in Uzbekistan and their views, and prided themselves on being a tolerant people in a relatively unstable region. While Uzbekistan is over eighty percent Muslim, headscarves are rarely worn, and those who abstain from alcohol for religious reasons are happy to tolerate others who don’t and vice-versa. Moreover, they seemed genuinely interested in learning more about Western values, and where my explanations went against their beliefs, they respectfully distanced themselves.
The Aral Sea (image credit Daniel Craanen)
Uzbekistan is by no means a model country. It has allowed one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, has a worrying human rights record, and corruption is, statistically, sky-high. However, despite these problems, my experience in Uzbekistan has left me feeling these people need anything but a dose of Western-style ‘Freedom™’. Rather, I want to acknowledge how well Uzbekistan is managing in a volatile region, and I admit to leaving much more impressed than I thought I would while bedridden and miserable when I first arrived. I felt safe and welcome, and was treated with honesty and respect. The country’s centuries-old cultural heritage is incredible and often well-restored, and the public transport system, while sometimes a tad confusing and archaic, gets you where you need to go.
For more on Daniel’s travels, see his travel blog Grand Expedition Yak