In The Heart of The 'Stans

The downside of living in Jacksonville is that it takes forever to get anywhere. Central Asia is no exception.

The first leg is to Newark. During the layover, I hang at the club. Dubya is giving his speech from the aircraft carrier deck tonight, preempting all channels. I am in the bar when he comes on. Hoots and catcalls, followed by everyone making a conspicuous display of ignoring Our President. I retreat to the big screen lounge. The audience which a few minutes early was reverentially silent during a Seinfeld rerun is now chattering away. I shush them. They shuffle out, probably to go fill out their pledge cards for the Clinton Library.

The next leg is to Amsterdam. The new in-flight entertainment system gives even the steerage pax a choice of movies. Some choice. "The Hours" proves unwatchable. "Daredevil" is about a blind lawyer who can't stand to see people he knows are guilty acquitted so he uses his superpowers to kill them later. (Guess that beats staying up all night writing appellate briefs.) The other offerings are not even worth mentioning.

I have about a 20 hour layover in Amsterdam, where I check into a very comfortable airport hotel. It is tulip season, so I travel to Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse. It's only open 2 months a year in the Spring. Operated by the bulb growers as a showcase, it has 7+ million bulbs planted on 80 landscaped acres. It's supposed to be one of the three most photographed places in the world (don't ask me how they come up with that statistic). Anyway, it is spectacular. The lousy weather -- overcast with intermittent showers -- keeps the crowds down.


The next leg is to Moscow. I have wasted $150 on a Russian transit visa because the airlines are under the erroneous impression that one is required. I know that is not true, but do not want to be denied boarding. The confusion arises because flights to destinations outside Russia but within the former Soviet Union leave from the "domestic" terminal on the other side of the airport. Anyway, it works as it supposed to: instead of going through immigration one goes to the transfer desk, where the transit passengers are driven to the other terminal. The transfer gal, inspecting my passport, remarks "Oh, I see you have a Russian visa. Would you like to visit Russia " Yes I do, but do not have time.

The flight on Aeroflot is pretty good. They use Boeings and Airbuses. The food and service beats KLM. In order "to conform to international standards," they have recently banned smoking on board. This new rule, of which we are continually reminded, is not popular with the Russians.

Uzbekistan is in the heart of the "stans," surrounded by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kygyrzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. (During the czarist era it was all considered "Turkestan.") Now independent, it is part of part of the CIS (successor to the USSR) but quite happy to no longer be a Russian colony. The commie trappings are all gone, and the streets have been renamed. In the center of every city and town the statues of Lenin have been replaced, many by ones of Navoi, a poet. Not that they are such a bunch of poetry lovers -- the other candidate was Tamerlane, but I suspect that is much easier to melt old Vladimir into a guy with a turban instead of one on horseback.

Cyrillic has been jettisoned in favor of our Latin alphabet. Although Russian is still widely understood. English is now taught in the schools. Signs are either in Cyrillic or "English," depending on vintage, but not both. Interestingly, the currency is still only in Cyrillic.

But that's all cosmetic. Like other "stans" that comprised soviet central Asia, very little has changed. Uzbekistan is still a one party totalitarian state run by the same corrupt thugs. There is very little economic freedom and even less in the political realm; the communist bosses simply renamed the party.

I've got plenty o' nothing

Speaking of parties, the European Development Bank, one of the international money wasting bureaucracies funded largely by the US taxpayers, has chosen Tashkent for its annual meeting beginning tomorrow. The red carpet has been rolled out for the 2500 attendees. The plane is full. I mix in with the bankers and breeze through passport control. At the exchange desk I get a brick of brand new 1000 sum notes -- the highest denomination printed -- worth $1 each. Lots of folks standing around being helpful. It is only at customs where I am discovered as an imposter. My luggage trolley is confiscated (for bankers only), and I am banished to tourist Siberia, where there are no services, only brusque officials. I miss out on the free hotel transfer offered to the bankers.

In the morning the group meets up. We are five: 2 Australians, a German, a Swiss, and me, plus Australian leader.

Our city tour follows. Tashkent is a big place. It was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union and is the hub of central Asia. It is also an ugly city -- mile after mile of hideous Soviet apartment blocks and gray concrete construction. Tashkent is an ancient city and was a stop on the silk road, but there is not much to see: some old mausoleums which also being visited by officials delegations accompanied by camera crews. There are lots of cops everywhere.

The history museum is closed. Our local guide quips: "Because the old history is no good and the new history has not yet been written.

A giant statue of Tamerlane sits on a spot that has been occupied by six different statues in the past 100 years, his most recent predecessors being Karl Marx and, before that, Stalin. He stands at the head of Broadway (formerly Karl Marx Street). Tashkent was the also home of the world's tallest Lenin statue, but, alas, no more.

Dinner is a pleasant introduction to the general price level: a lavish repast for six is $27, including tax and tip.

Monday morning we drive to Samarkand by public minibus. Rather than wait for enough passengers to arrive to fill all the available seats, we pay for the empty seats, greatly increasing our comfort (it's a five hour drive) at a cost of $4 each. The road runs through Kazakhstan, but the border is currently closed so we have to detour. The borders were arbitrarily drawn by Stalin, which mattered not in the days of the Soviet Empire. These days, it's a problem as roads and train lines run through neighboring not-always-friendly countries. Rather than deal with the issue through diplomacy, new, circuitous rail lines and roads are being built.

Samarkand was chosen as capital by Tamerlane, who claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan and who reconquered much of the same territory: all of central Asia; much of the middle east; almost to the gates of Moscow and Constantinople. His sack of Delhi provided much of the loot for his building program. Gigantic mosques and madrassahs (Islamic universities) dominate. Very photogenic -- it's all in good shape cuz it's all new. Earthquakes over the centuries have insured that everything which has not been restored or rebuilt is in ruins. Many of the structures were just recently reconstructed, and more are in process. It's all eyepopping. (You've probably seen pictures of the Registan.) The dynasty only lasted five generations, after which they repaired to India and became the Moguls.

From Samarkand we head out into the Kuzyl Kum desert for a night in a yurt camp. The afternoon entertainment is a camel ride to a ranch, where we arrive in time for the camel milking. the process requires three people: one to restrain the back legs, one to hold the bucket, and one to milk. No milking stool required -- it's all done at shoulder height. These are bactrians (two-humped Asian camels), which are much more comfortable than dromedaries (one-humped African camels); you just sit between the humps. I could have skipped the singing and dancing around the campfire later on, but it all comes with the territory. In the morning we skip the 4WD and return to town on camelback.

The Yurt Hotel
Saddled up

We continue on to Buchara, another stop on the Silk Road and one of the last of the central Asian khanates; it lasted until conquered by the Soviets in 1920. It was known as "holy Buchara," although a description of the times sounds exactly like life under the Taliban. (Keep in mind that the modern borders are just that, and for the millennia preceding vast tracts of the region, including modern Iran and Afghanistan, were all parts of various kingdoms and empires)


We have three nights in Buchara, a walled city filled with mosques and minarets. It's extremely photogenic and very tourist friendly with lots of cool stuff for sale. Some buy carpets; I buy hats.

Directly across from our hotel is the synagogue, the last remnant of an ancient and once large Jewish merchant community. (Why have the Jews left Because they CAN!) It's not much more than a simply decorated room. As photos on the wall attest, it is a mandatory stop for pandering American politicians (including that witch, Hillary). There must still be a fair amount of tourist traffic because the street urchins know a smattering of Hebrew.

It's May 9th, Victory Day in The Great Patriotic War, known in the west as World War II. The war memorial is covered in flowers, and everything is closed for the public holiday. Old men wear their medals. Having lost European Russia, it was from places like this that Stalin obtained the millions of conscripts to send to the front. Every family lost one or more members. No parades or military displays, just solemnity.

In the evening we take in a performance at the National Puppet Theater. Initially skeptical, I am won over. A combination of live actors and puppets interacting and swapping roles, a bit like "Roger Rabbit."

From here we head north. A day of driving brings us to another yurt camp, this one beneath the walls of an ancient desert fortress. I search diligently, but find no gold coins or artifacts, just pottery shards.

Our hosts are Karakalpaks. (The camel yurt hosts were Kazakhs.) We are in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, just across the river from Turkmenistan and near the border of Kazakhstan. (This used to be part of Kazakhstan until Stalin shifted the borders.)

Dinner is the best yet. Why To accommodate our western palates they have trimmed the fat. In central Asia they love animal fat, so your skewer normally consists of kabobs of fatty meat alternating with blobs of fat. Also, we are served beef, a pleasant change from sheep. There is not a great deal of variety in the national menu: fatty soup, fatty meat, rice, a few stewed vegetables. There is not much in way of fresh fruit or vegetables. The bread is OK when fresh.

In the morning we continue on past more ruined forts until we arrive at Nukus, a grim, unappealing, Soviet-looking city. It is the regional capital and the unlikely home to perhaps the world's greatest collection of Russian modern art. During the Stalinist era, the only acceptable style was social realism. (Think "heroic workers" statues and posters.) Modern art was censored or banned. The director of the Nukus Art Museum took advantage of this remote location to assemble a treasure trove of works from the 1920s and 1930 s, many acquired for pennies or from salvage. Now they are justifiably proud of their collection, which numbers in the tens of thousands.

Luckily they do not display it all. If you like modern art, it is good. Amazingly, some artists spent years studying and working in Paris but then came back to Stalinist rule. Artistic freedom came at a price: one guy was accused of "formalism" (he painted still lifes) and sent to the gulag; in Siberia he continued to paint miniatures using cigarette papers and burnt matches; his prison art is also on display.

A new museum has been built on the main square, and El Presidente is coming in two weeks for the formal opening. Workmen are finishing up and streets are being repaved. We get a pre-opening tour of the museum, which is also sans electricity since they are still working on the electrical system.

We are in a homestay not on the presidential route, the street is more potholes than paving. In the morning there is no running water -- the joke is that the water has been diverted to the fountains in the museum plaza. Our hosts speak no English, but are very nice. She is a lawyer for the army and he is a microbiologist. Nukus was home to a secret soviet germ warfare lab -- it is supposed to be closed now, but who really knows

We continue north to the Aral Sea, or at least where it used to be. Once the world's fourth largest inland sea, it has diminished by 70% and continues to shrink because the rivers feeding it have been diverted for irrigation. The only water that reaches the sea is saline, pesticide-laden runoff from the fields. Various international do-gooder organizations continue to "study" the problem, but their solutions do not include the obvious: stop diverting the water. (It ain't gonna happen.) Even worse, most the water taken is either lost or wasted. Formerly home to a large fishing industry, the sea is now completely dead.

The town of Moynak was a fishing port but is now 60 miles from the shoreline. The cannery is long closed and abandoned. Nobody works except in government jobs (a Democrat paradise). There is a museum of the vanished sea and fishery that displays exhortations such as "People, Save the Aral Sea!" (As if slogans will solve the problem.)


The point of this long trip is to visit the ships' cemetery, where hulks of fishing boats lie stranded in the desert. The really big ships were cut up for scrap and now exist only in photographs.

On to Khiva, a rival khanate to Buchara, and the most remote and intact city on the Silk Road. For centuries was a center of brigandry and the slave trade, which didn't end until the Bolsheviks put a stop to it in 1920 (by making everybody legal slaves).

Our hotel is kind of a spartan place, but has a great location -- within the walls and just steps from the center of the old city. Also staying here are a Japanese photo tour (tiny, wizened people hauling around enormous lenses and tripods) and a Bollywood film crew.

Although the city is old and looks great, the buildings are of comparatively recent vintage. Earthquakes and invasions have destroyed the city many times. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both came through. Khiva is primarily a museum city, but a few thousand residents still reside within the walls.

Tashkent was full of bankers. A number of them made it over to Samarkand. There were a few tour groups in Buchara, but hardly any here in Khiva. (Most stay in the modern city of Urgench, 20 miles away.)


They reallylike Americans in Uzbekistan. Most of the tour groups are, predictably, French (they sympathize with the politics and economics). Everywhere I go people ask "Francia " When I respond "Amerika," they break into broad smiles and give me the thumbs up. They are Muslim -- some more, some less -- but they all hated the Taliban, and are very grateful to the US for the recent invasion. No problems with Operation Iraqi Freedom either.

It's the end of the trip. Two weeks have gone by. We fly back to Tashkent. Sure beats driving. We arrive in time for me to visit the Defense Museum. I am disappointed that all the stuff celebrating the revolution and Russian conquest has been replaced by displays on Tamerlane and of the modern Uzbek military as a vital and integrated part of international cooperative efforts. The floor devoted to the Great Patriotic War is intact. What I like are the exhibits on the part the local boys played in the taking of Berlin. That was the Nazis worst nightmare: hordes of Asiatic troops sweeping across Germany. No other tourists in sight, just bored looking youth groups.

It's our last night, so I agree to the ballet. Can't argue with the price: 2nd row orchestra, $1.50. On the way there, walking down the main pedestrian mall, the Swiss guy and I get stopped by the police and taken to the substation. They don't speak English. My interrogation is limited to examining my passport and visa and asking "tourist and "Uzbekistan good The Swiss guy was foolish enough to respond in Russian, which resulted in a far more intensive questioning. In the end, they wave us off. Our leader tells us later that is the classic Tashkent shakedown (it doesn't happen elsewhere) to try to extort money. With me they must have decided not to mess with Americans or they just gave up tying to communicate. The Swiss guy had little money on him, so they struck out there too. Now that the bankers have gone, the cops are probably making up for lost time and revenue.

Ballet report: giant cast, lavish costumes, ornate sets, 40 piece orchestra. The offering was "Esmeralda." I don't think it could be performed in America because it portrays unfavorable ethnic stereotypes (gypsies stealing babies) and is insensitive to the plight of persons with congenital deformities (Quasimodo). I find the plot to be totally unbelievable -- everyone knows that hunchbacks can't dance worth beans. The music isn't too bad, and I endure the prancing about, figuring it is slightly more entertaining that driving across the desert in a minivan without aircon.

We finish our final, celebratory meal at 10 PM. No point in going to bed, cuz I gotta leave for the airport at 2 AM.

The flight back is fine. You know how airlines always serve dinner on international flights no matter how late the hour Well, at 4:30 AM the cart comes by and I am asked, "chicken or fish "

I was figuring on being back in Amsterdam in the morning, but it turns out that I misremembered. I have most of the day in Moscow, so I decide to eschew the sterile airport transfer and make use of my expensive visa. I join the scrum at the passport control counter. No problems, just slow. Doing it the Russian way (minivan to the metro), I am in Red Square for less than dollar. The problem is that I have no map or tourist information and have to rely on the my failing memory to find my way around.

The State History Museum was deemed too dull to visit my first time, and it was closed for renovations the second time. They have now revamped it and it is quite absorbing. The special exhibition is on the events of 1943 (next year's theme will probably be 1944). It was the turning point in the war, for sure, but it is presented as a year of unalloyed victory and triumph. There is good display of posters -- I would have bought a catalog if they had one.

The weather is cold and wet, not so conducive to walking around. I go to where I though the cosmonaut museum is, but I must have misremembered that too. Anyway, it's time to go back to the airport.

Amsterdam is also cold and wet. I have been awake all night plus there is a three hour time change, so by the time I get to the hotel I am ready for bed.

I had entertained thoughts of bicycling through the tulip fields, but scrub that. Instead, I undertake a whirlwind tour of the Randstad. First, back to Amsterdam: it is as I remembered. Escaping the filth and crowds, I move on to Haarlem: a decent looking square, but otherwise unimpressive. Heading south through the bulb fields, I see that the fields have been mowed and the flowers gone. Next, Delft: pretty, but mucked up by too much tourist stuff. In Delft I visit the Army Museum, which is excellent and evenhanded to a fault, e.g.
, equal space given to resistance and collaboration; a warts and all display on postwar decolonization, with a special exhibition Goodbye to New Guinea. Next stop, The Hague: some good sights but almost lost in the large modern city. Finally, Leiden: worth a look.

The last morning I spend in the hotel typing this trip report. Can't fall behind; leaving again in less than a month.

Trip date: May 2003