Saturday, August 16, 2008

Aug 14 - Welcome to Uzbekistan

The morning started out right. We ate the last of our bazaar purchases, along with a quarter melon of a different kind that the maid had found in another room, and gave to us.

By 9:30 am KT, we had engaged a taxi to the border (10 km), at Dostyk. We got to the border at 9:45. We discovered that we had to fill out a Kyrgyz customs declaration to leave. A tourbus full of Italians, with a Russian guide and an English guide, was already there. By 10:10 or so, we had gotten our customs declarations stamped and stamped, and stamped again, gotten our exit stamp from Kyrgyzstan, and walked to short trip to Uzbekistan customs. Along the way, one woman said to Mike: "Welcome to Uzbekistan." And what a welcome it was.

There were a preliminary line and then the line for the stamp. Neither line seemed to be moving. Both Carol and Mike were wearing their packs, and waiting in line. As the line at the customs office cleared a few people, a few were let through the preliminary line, and everyone crushed forward. Eventually, Carol was in the middle of a huge crowd, among taller people, with no space to move or breathe. Mike was by now 4 or 5 people behind, and just getting into the crush. This was now perhaps 1 and a half hours later.

We now understand what Temple Grandin was elucidating in her ground-breaking studies of animal treatment at slaughter houses. You simply cannot funnel a mob of people through a long narrow gate, only two yards wide.

Eventually, the Italians, having slowly gotten through the Kyrgyz customs, came up on this scene. Carol was already through, the beneficiary of other people in line who took pity on her, and asked the guards to wave this small woman with the backpack through the cordon, on to the real customs. The guides begged for special treatment for the 19 Italians on their tour. They were shuttled through on the side. The Kyrgyz and Uzbek standing in the gate area helped Mike jump the fence, and pretend to be an Italian also.

At the customs area, we had to fill in roughly the same forms as on the Kyrgyz side, but now on an Uzbek form, in duplicate. We begged the Italians for some forms, got them, and finally, close to 1 pm Uzbek time, which is one hour earlier than Kyrgyz time, we had our precious Uzbek admittance stamps in our passport.

We watched the Italian bus pull away, while we walked through the shared taxi guys calling for our business. We eventually got to a bus waiting to go to Andijon, in Uzbekistan, maybe 50 km from customs. The fare was only 1500 som ($1.15 apiece), and the bus was ready to go.

We were way in the back. Next to us were two younger teenagers, whom we had helped through the Uzbek customs line. The older wanted to try out his English, and Carol wanted to try out her Uzbek, and showed the two and their mother, sitting adjacent, the family photos.

Eventually, we traded information, and they invited us to visit them in Tashkent for a home cooked dinner of plov and a car tour.

We got to Andijon at apx 1:30 pm UzT. There was a hopping bazaar near near the bus station, but no place to check our packs. Left luggage seems to be a non-existent service in this part of the world. We walked a half km to the train station, to discover that the next train west was at 5 am the next morning.

We walked back to the bus station, gave up on Andijon, and took a packed bus to Fergana, the regional center of the valley. Our guidebook says that Fergana is the valley's least ancient and least Uzbek city. Andijon is the most Uzbek, and perhaps we will spend more time there on the return trip from Tashkent to Osh on Aug 26.

The buses to Fergana are marked in Cyrillic as "Phi A R F O N A." It took a while to realize that the F is a gamma, with an extra stroke, which makes it the guttural "gh." Thus Margilon, the neighboring town, is "M A R F I L O N." Anyway, the tickets on this bus were only 1000 som apiece (75 cents). We still had had nothing to eat and drink but our water and some raisins, since breakfast in Osh, KG.

The 1:40 ride to Fergana got us there at maybe 3:30 pm UzT. At this point we planned to spend the night in Fergana, go to the Margilon Silk Factory in the morning, and proceed onward to Tashkent the next day.

The hotel nearest to the bus station was the Ziyarat, described by Lonely Planet as "By the standard of barely renovated Soviet hotels, this one ranks right up there with the best of them (ie once you get past the filthy, 1960s-era flooring and peeling wallpaper, it starts to run out of glaring flaws.)" Lonely Planet was being waaaaayyyyy too generous. The reception desk informed us that it might be able to rent us room 315 if we promised to leave by 8 am. We looked at room 315, and decided to find another hotel.

We took a taxi to Asia Guest House, a Turkish run resort-complex, the polar opposite of the Ziyarat. Rooms there were about $40 US, and it would have been completely satisfactory, if only it was not already completely booked.

At this point, Mike went out to a bank in search of Uzbek currency, leaving Carol and the bags in the air-conditioned reception area.

She watched the Russian light heavyweight contender lose on points to his Chinese rival. The Russian channel showing the Olympics was technically advanced, and the advertisements a Capitalist's paradise. A country club crowd filled the hotel, Western-dressed and Yuppified.

Mike walked down the street in search of the Pacha Bank. 5 blocks down he finally found the bank and it was closed. Across the street were a couple of people, so in fragmentary Russian, he asked where he could exchange dollars for sum. He had 2 100 dollar bills in his pocket. One of the men wrote on a piece of paper that 100 dollar = 140,000 sum. We went inside the store, and Mike produced the 100 dollar bill. The store owner started running his bill counting machine, and soon he had a stack of 140 1000 sum notes. Mike counted them on the counter, and we had a deal. A woman walked up, and Mike came to understand that she was inquiring if I had another 100 dollar bill in addition to that first one. Mike changed just one, in part because this transaction produced no kvantsia (official exchange receipt).

Back to the hotel. It was now after 5 pm. We decided that Fergana was not going to be the place we were staying, and that we should go back to the bus station and take a bus to Margilon, a sister city to Fergana, about 20 minutes away. The first taxi wanted 2000 som, so we got out, and took a 6 bus several blocks to the station. (300 som for the two of us.)

We were at the edge of exhaustion, and when we saw a fried fish vendor, we picked up two fried fish, and polished them off. Also, we picked up some of the sweet cold drinks that are available from street vendors.

Thus refreshed, we got on a bus for Margilon, arriving at about 6 pm, in the center of town. Someone pointed across the square in the direction of a promised hotel, and we started walking.

Several hundred meters later, we were in front of a promising building. Out came a well dressed young man, talking on his cell phone. This man, Said, explained that the building was a catering hall, that his younger brother was getting married there that evening. He motioned us inside to sit at one of the dinner tables, and explained that he would help us find a hotel. But first we should have some tea and enjoy the refreshments. His father came up and welcomed us as family guests.

Several pots of tea, some melon, sweets, and a bowl of soup later, Said took us to a car outside. He and the driver drove to a hotel in the industrial area between Margilon and Fergana. That hotel was also full, so several phone calls later, they dropped us off at a private home, where the owners had agreed to put us up in the spare bedroom, and feed us breakfast for $30 US.

So that was our first day in Uzbekistan. It was the worst of times, but turned out in the end to be the best of times. We met the Uzbekistan of bureaucracy and the Uzbekistan of spontaneous friendship.

And so to sleep at just after 9 pm UzT (10 pm KT).

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