As far as police states go, Uzbekistan (or “Babaistan,” as it is unaffectionately called by some among its minorities) is a relatively pleasant one – at least that’s what I think. The capital, Tashkent, is the metropolis of Central Asia and offers the best cultural and entertainment options within a 1,000-mile radius, perhaps only rivaled by Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital. If you get bored in the city, there are mountains an hour or so away near the Kyrgyzstan border for great nature excursions. The food is fatty and therefore delicious. Shashlik (shish kebab) and plov (Uzbek rice), the cornerstones of Uzbek cuisine, are conveniently available everywhere you go. Thanks to the country’s (unfortunately dwindling) minorities originating from Soviet times, there are loads of “ethnic dining” options as well, including Russian, Armenian, Georgian, Kazakh, Ukrainian and Korean (there is a surprisingly large community of North Koreans who are descendants of transplants during Soviet times). As with any post-Soviet country, vodka is abundant and cheap, and there are many popular (though sometimes tacky and/or dingy) nightclubs to choose from. The stereotype about beautiful women is also largely true, even though it comes with a dark side, which is Uzbekistan’s status as a leading exporter of prostitutes – a terrible result of the combination of beauty and poverty. Coming back to our topic of pleasant things, the country is among the richest in terms of history and culture. Tashkent was an important center in the Soviet Union and the capital of Russian Turkestan before that. In earlier times, the territory that is Uzbekistan today was home to the ancient Silk Road. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are world-famous for their architecture and historic monuments, and unlike many great cities of antiquity in the Near East, currently safe to visit. In short, if your destiny was to live in an authoritarian state, you could do worse than Uzbekistan.
Ok, so that was the “pleasant.” Now let’s talk about the “police state.” Like any authoritarian country, Uzbekistan has its fair share of ridiculous rules, regulations and practices. Here are few I have selected for your enjoyment:
- All school kids, and even university students and junior members of faculty (yes, faculty!) have to go and pick cotton for several weeks every year without pay. Since cotton is picked in the hot month of September, everyone sweats like pigs. The state only provides very basic accommodations and people have to bring their own food. Some successfully buy their way out with bribes, but most others aren’t so well-heeled, so they have no choice but to suffer. I expect a new music genre to be born out of this misery one day to rival the Blues.
- A few times a year there is a day when everyone must sweep in front of their house and other public spaces in the city they are assigned to. This practice is called “hashar.”
- Single women traveling abroad must sign a paper saying they will not engage in prostitution.
- Uzbek citizens must get an exit visa to go anywhere abroad. They hold the dubious honor of belonging to one of only two ex-Soviet countries that still have this practice in place (the other is Belarus). If you are a single woman in a certain age group, you cannot get an exit visa without signing the aforementioned letter.
- As if this is not a big enough pain in the behind, the application for an exit visa must also be signed and stamped by where you work or study, and of course you will be interviewed by your company or school about why you need this visa, where you will be going, why, etc.
- The President’s (supposedly) self-authored books on things as varied as the 2008 financial crisis and ethics & morality are part of the curriculum at public schools.
- The President’s portraits are on virtually every street, in case you might forget who is running the country. Interestingly, he does not appear in public very often and only a few citizens have ever seen him in person.
- Media always talks about how glorious Uzbekistan is, how much it is developing economically, etc. I guess no surprises there.
- You are supposed to always carry your passport with you. The police sometimes randomly check people’s passports, especially in metro stations (don’t ask me why). If you are a tourist you will probably be easily spotted. However, locals take their chances and do not walk around with their passports in their pockets all the time, and there is no such thing as a state ID, so every now and then an unfortunate citizen is taken to the police HQ for questioning.
- For all of Uzbekistan’s glory, Uzbek embassies and consulates do not do much for their citizens. If a citizen lives abroad and needs to renew their passport or exit visa (the latter must be done every two years), they would have to fly back to Uzbekistan and get it done there. I pity the (rare) Uzbek citizen who happens to live in New Zealand or Chile (especially if they have still not managed to obtain that country’s passport).
- You should avoid talking about politics and be careful what you say to strangers. Undercover police are all over the place and mosques are apparently one of their favorite hangouts (mostly to eavesdrop on any Muslim extremists that may organize themselves).
As a Turk, I was interested in visiting Uzbekistan because my ancient ancestors (at least the linguistic/cultural ones) originated in Central Asia. Turkey vs. Uzbekistan is like a lab experiment. Take Uzbeks, send them on horseback westward, mix them with some Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and Kurds over a thousand years, season with various Balkan and Caucasian peoples, wash away the Soviet/communist traces, and voilà, you have Turks! Turkish purists will probably get upset with what I just wrote, but according to several research reports I have come across over the years, the DNA of today’s Turks have much more in common with the other inhabitants of the Middle East, Caucasus, Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean than they do with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. I thought this was obvious enough by the looks of Turkish people today, but somehow pan-Turkists and nationalists still go on and on about our “brothers” in Central Asia. By the way, I implore any ultranationalist Turk with these romantic ideals to go to Central Asia, tell the locals that they are in fact “Turkish” and see what happens.
Anyway, first impressions at the Tashkent International Airport were ok (however, on the return, there was no elevator or escalator at the departures hall, so I had to pick up and haul my heavy luggage up two flights of stairs). My wife, who had arrived a few days before, greeted me outside of the terminal building because there is no meet and greet area inside (not for the general public anyway – apparently there is one for “VIP”s and travel company reps only). Next thing I know, she hails a random car off the street and we get in. As I found out at that moment, any car in Uzbekistan is a “taxi.” Official taxis are not available unless you phone them, and people always want to make some extra cash anyway, so the end result is that everyone’s running their own little illegal taxi business.
Illegal, but “tolerated” businesses abound in Uzbekistan. During the course of our weeklong stay, we paid a daily visit to a money exchange van to get soms, the local currency. There are no official money exchange bureaus and the only places where you can legally buy or sell currency are the banks, which offer horrible rates fixed by the government. As a result, a black market for global reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar has developed, and is run out of vans scattered around town. The other strange thing about money is that the denominations are so inadequate that just to run a day’s worth of errands you need to carry around a bag full of cash – literally. My wife carried our stacks of bills in her purse, but I am not sure how guys do it. When I first saw how much cash we got for our $100 I was excited, but then the joy subsided when we dumped half of it at the restaurant when we paid our bill.
There’s an inherent dodginess to the country that manifests itself in almost every aspect of daily life. One night we went to a highly recommended Russian restaurant. The décor was cute, staff were friendly, so we had every reason to believe it was going to be a great experience. We enjoyed the delicious appetizers (especially the salo) and were waiting for our mains when a waitress approached us and informed us that unfortunately the restaurant was “reserved for a private party and we had to leave.” We had to ask her to repeat herself because we could not believe what we were hearing. Why would they start serving us if it were really reserved, and kind of behavior is it to shoo away clients in the middle of their dinner? Conveniently for them, we were their only customers at that moment so they did not have to perform a mass evacuation. Not giving up so easily, we brought the manager into the conversation and tried to reason with her, asking her what the hell they thought they were doing (slightly more tactfully than that), but the whole thing felt like talking to a wall. Not that we even wanted to eat there anymore, but I suppose we were just trying to see if they would realize the ridiculousness of what they were doing. Since all they did was to keep repeating their little lie like a couple of trained parrots, we told them off (me in English and my wife in Russian) and left without paying for the appetizers and drinks. Our guess is that some rich mafia person decided at the last minute that they wanted to throw a party there and made them kick out anyone who was in. If you are wondering, the place is called “12 Стульев,” or “12 Chairs.” Avoid.
One of the things I enjoyed in Uzbekistan was food shopping. Supermarkets were full of Turkish goods, which made me feel like I was teleported to a Migros in Istanbul. All kinds of Turkish delicacies like “dil” cheese, sucuk, pastirma, olive oil, ice cream, jams, different varieties of baklava and other products were readily available, which suggested that Turkish expats in Tashkent probably did not get homesick very often. Apparently in previous years there were many Turkish businesses as well, but the administration shut most of them down and put many businessmen in jail because they were supposedly related to the “cemaat,” or ”hizmet” movement of the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and who is responsible for establishing hundreds of Islamic-themed schools around the world. The administration in Uzbekistan is trying to keep the Islamists at bay, so the crackdown against these businesses is not surprising, assuming there really is a confirmed link. Anyway, coming back to food shopping, if supermarkets are not your thing, you can always try one of the many open-air markets for a more “natural” experience. We went to the rather huge one in Yunusabad district and bought some stuff to take back home to the UAE with us. With babushkas selling honey in plastic jars, shaslik being grilled on hot charcoals and things as diverse as horse sausage, dried fruit and t-shirts being offered on the many wooden stalls, this place will easily keep you entertained for hours.
During our visit we managed to get out of Tashkent and drive to the mountains for a day. While probably not as majestic and picturesque as the Alps, they still do provide good opportunities for hiking, skiing and other outdoor activities. Being the nonathletic bums we are, we opted for having shaslik in a nice outdoors restaurant instead. Eating shaslik in the fresh mountain air is a heavenly experience. I also fondly remember having this great meat and vegetable soup called mashurda, which you must try if you ever get a chance.
In Uzbekistan I saw Turkey’s distant past, a little bit of its present, and worryingly, one of its possible futures. Our “follow the strongman” culture may indeed be a remnant of our Central Asian roots. I know I have said Uzbekistan is one of the better police states, but it is a police state nevertheless. If Turkey’s current trend towards consolidation of power at the top continues, it may become yet another “stan.” To quote Bukowski, that would be a case of “coming so far and having gone nowhere” for Turkey, and it would be a shame.