Stan Number Two (See Number One HERE)
I was pretty jazzed about flying into Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways. Who gets to do that? The flight attendants were pleasant (and pretty), the safety video was not only well produced but fantastically cultural. The food was decent (and different). This concludes my review of Uzbekistan Airways. I’m mostly just pleased that I can now tell my (imaginary) grandchildren that their granddad once flew on Uzbekistan Airways. It just sounds cool. And it was.
My first impression of the country was how friendly the people were – at least the two ladies that checked me in to my hotel. They were super enthusiastic and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I don’t think it was my good looks and charm and chalked it up to good old Uzbek hospitality. They really were so nice to me. After check-in, it was off to bed. I’d have just one full day in Tashkent and I needed to be well-rested.
You Can Check Out Anytime You Like
After a hotel breakfast, I grabbed a Yandex (Central Asia’s Uber) and headed to the center. It was time to explore. Among the palaces, monuments and squares in the middle, I was attracted most to that ugly-beautiful Hotel Uzbekistan. I spent a good 15 minutes photographing it from the outside before venturing in. I was drawn to it. A pity I didn’t book a room there, but I try and stay at Marriotts for their points and perks. But certainly, there’s no better location than Hotel Uzbekistan, so if you’re not partial to any brand and don’t mind an old hotel with faint smells of mildew in the hallways, do it. This was a building straight out of the movies. A 1970 spy flick maybe?
You can book a room at Hotel Uzbekistan HERE.
After my unauthorized hotel tour, it was back on the streets to explore. I had a hard time catching the vibe of Tashkent. (See my Kyrgyzstan entry on my “vibe-checks.”) I didn’t dislike the town at all – it was certainly clean and good looking. Its city life just didn’t move me the way Bishkek did. Perhaps I was in the wrong place? There were few pedestrians and lots of cars driving down very wide streets with unmemorable buildings on each side. It all just felt a little sterile to me, but I absolutely could’ve been in the wrong part of town. I certainly don’t fault Tashkent – for I was the guy expecting to know a city in less than 48 hours. Sometimes that’s not possible.
I headed underground and was happy to see such a nice metro station. It wasn’t as elegant as the ones I’d recently enjoyed in Moscow, but nonetheless it was sexy. But the old subway cars were some of the loudest I’d ever heard, ear piercing really, like the track needed to be oiled. And inside, the car was packed – to the point of being uncomfortable. Not as bad as India, but not too far off. I was taken aback that I was the only one in the car wearing a mask. It left me so curious as to how the country was dealing with the pandemic. From the looks of the inside of this subway, Covid-19 didn’t even exist. I had to fight my way to the door to exit at my stop, clearly irritating the woman who I had to squeeze past. She gave me a dirty look. When I ascended I realized I’d traveled in the wrong direction. I was way off but couldn’t bear attempting another subway ride here. And unlike Moscow, unlimited ride cards did not exist. These are not complaints, just facts. I hailed a Yandex and was soon on my way to the Railroad Museum.
The railroad museum was cool. It was all outside and featured some ex-soviet behemoths. I strolled around for a few minutes to take a look at the inventory. The engines were especially huge. If you’d like to learn more about the trains housed here, check out THIS PAGE from comtourist.com. It’s very detailed, with specific names and models of each engine.
To recap, this trip included the three “Stans” that were open for visitors. The previous stop was Kyrgyzstan and I’d finish my Stan-scapade with Tajikistan tomorrow. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were closed. But were they? I kept reading conflicting info on Kazakhstan and when I asked a cabbie about the situation, he told me while he wasn’t allowed in as an Uzbek, that the border was open for me. I’m not sure if he knew what he was talking about or just wanted a fare, but 40 bucks and a twenty-minute drive was worth the risk. With a new country so close, I couldn’t not try. By 2PM, Alisher and I were off – leaving Tashkent for the border.
When we arrived, the road was sealed, but there was definitely a significant amount of foot traffic going back and forth, which elevated my expectations. Maybe I can cross? I said goodbye to Alisher for now and began the walk down a long corridor, eventually getting stamped out by Uzbek officers who wished me “good luck!” Wait, what?
After a few minutes in line at Kazakhstan immigration, it was finally my turn. The officer looked confused. He knew virtually no English, but the universal head shaking as he stared at his screen told me this wasn’t looking good. A few minutes later I was being walked over to meet the sergeant in charge. Head shaking commenced from him as well. Soon we were using Google Translate to communicate and with every “no” I received, I’d try a different angle at an attempt for a yes. These included statements in an effort to butter up the officials with phrases like, “It’s been my dream to visit Kazakhstan.” And well intentioned shots in the dark like, “May I please just enter for a quick meal, and then I’ll come right back?” Every try was met with a rejection and I soon thought it would be prudent to quit while I’m ahead – abort the mission before I became annoying. I certainly didn’t want to end up in the principal’s office, or worse, some sort of jail for breaking a law or threatening national security. I was a little defeated, but the experience was fun. Now I just hoped I could get back into Uzbekistan.
Luckily I possessed a multi-entry visa, and after a little conversation, the officer guarding the entrance back into Uzbekistan welcomed me back in. In fact, the officials on the Uzbek side were actually super friendly and we enjoyed a nice conversation. I’m even friends with one of the guys on Instagram now. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that Uzbek hospitality is really some of the best.
Back in Tashkent, I wrapped up the afternoon with an Uzbek sports massage, which was interesting to say the least. I needed to de-stress and loosen up after all that travel and the stresses of trying to infiltrate the closed Kazakhstan border.
No Plov for You!
For dinner, I was on a mission for plov. A very popular, historic Uzbek dish, plov is also referred to as “pilaf” or “palov.” It’s made up of long grain rice, tender chunks of lamb, onions, and carrots. Plov to Uzbeks is like pasta to Italians. One of my Russian friends insisted I enjoy plov while I was in the region, so tonight would be the night. Or so I thought.
The hotel told me they only served it on Thursday, but directed me to a restaurant down the block that featured the traditional dish on their menu. Thirty minutes later, I’d returned to the hotel in defeat. No place I visited was serving plov (I’d walked into three different restaurants to inquire.) I’d later learn it was a dish served by restaurants for lunch – an afternoon dish. I was way too late.
To my hotel‘s credit, their dinner was great. I enjoyed a brisket sandwich with the meat served in between garlic bread and a side of mashed potatoes. For dessert, it was my first time having Pavlova and I loved it. Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. It has a crisp crust with fruit and whipped cream inside. This one featured a berry compote along with light chocolate, inside. It was absolutely wonderful! And I’d never seen (or heard of) Mango Pepsi before so I tried that, too.
The next morning, it was off to Stan number three.
I realize Uzbekistan has a lot more to see than just its capital. I enjoyed my short time there and it’s a place I’d like to return to; to get out of the capital – maybe take a train to Samarkand and beyond. I should underscore how nice most of the people there were to me, in my short time here. And like Kyrgyzstan, the population was gorgeous…gazing into those beautiful, unique faces was one of the highlights of my stop here. The women were beautiful. Oh, and I’ll be back for plov!