05 Sep UZBEKISTAN, A PRIENDLY AND QUIET LAND
May 27th 2018. It’s a couple of minutes past midnight when Kaja and I land at the airport in Tashkent. Half the passengers are watching the Champions League final between Real and Liverpool. Just as Bale scores his first bicycle
kick goal, the screen goes dark and it’s time to disembark. Much to our surprise, there are TV’s on every corner of the airport, each one broadcasting the Champion’s league finals live. While waiting to pick up our luggage amongst the crowds of passengers we manage to see the remainder of the final, we pick up our bags and head towards the exit. Fortunately we don’t get stopped at customs. I guess we looked normal amongst others (who are probably locals), carrying large numbers of boxes and packages as if they’re importing some goods into the country. We stop to exchange money (it is advised that you carry dollar bills with you, because it’s their favorite exchange currency), but realize we’ll be needing and additional suitcase just for the money, because the exchange rate for their currency SOM is 1:8000. For 200 $ we get 1.600.000 SOM in bills for 5000.
With our backpacks full of cash, we search for our arranged ride, which looked very shady. You don’t see old and decrepit cars driving on the streets of Slovenia. We somehow stuff all of our luggage inside and at about 2 in the morning start a 5 hour long drive toward Andijan. I soon find out the driver doesn’t speak a word of English and would like to talk to me in Russian. We’ve been travelling for 16 hours and would like to get some sleep. Kaja manages to fall asleep despite the uncomfortable back seats, but I can’t, because the driver keeps wanting to talk to me. Soon I realize that, for the sake of safety, I can’t really afford to fall asleep, because I notice the driver’s very sleepy. I start a real battle with myself, because my body needs sleep, but my mind keeps telling me that I have to make sure the driver stays awake. The road we’re on is long and bumpy and there isn’t much traffic. It reminds me of India, except that it’s a bit more peaceful. We keep our windows open, because it’s unbearably hot inside and there is no air-conditioning. The car is rattling, the brakes are screeching and with each pothole you can feel the car’s suspension. We drive up a hillside and I was very relieved that we managed to make it to the top, because at times it seemed the car barely made it uphill. After a four hour drive we finally descend into the valley. First he stops at the side of the road to buy himself a drink (you can see people sleeping at these kinds of stops and others sell basic necessities). After that we stop at a gas station, where the driver asks us to step out by the entrance, where they pour methane. After waiting for some time, Kaja, after seeing two similar white cars drive off with other people inside, starts to panic and becomes convinced the driver robbed us and drove on without us, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. I reassure her, saying that none of those cars was ours and after 5 minutes we see that I was right. We drive on, feeling much calmer. After a five hour drive, just before seven in the morning, we reach Andijan and a military checkpoint at the city entrance. The driver stops in the middle of the road as two soldiers check all of the documents and let us pass. After an additional half hour drive we finally reach our hotel Elegant.
Outside there’s a 35 °C heat and it feels like walking into a cauldron. The temperatures here vary. It could rain the next day and the temperatures drop to 20 °C and when the sun shines again, they rise to over 30 °C again. In the afternoon we take a walk through the city, where we find ourselves to be the main tourist attractions, eyes following our every move. It’s a daunting task at first to find a normal restaurant and store. When we finally make it, there’s a new challenge, the language barrier. Everyone speaks Russian, but only a rare few speak English. We somehow manage to order some rice and chicken and after that we find a store, where we buy some water and fruit and head back to our hotel. Later we have our first practice session in the club, where we find everything to be very well organized. Line judges, ball boys and girls, everything is well marked, there are enough practice courts… all in all, a great experience. Even safety is well taken care of, soldiers are stationed throughout the club and at all entrances. We quickly realize that the tournament is very important to the local community. Kids follow our every move and they can’t wait for you to change your old grip and give it to them. Tennis balls are an even bigger prize for them and they play with them until they go completely flat. They love sport and tennis and use a free court for play and fun and are a real joy to watch.
In the evening I go for a walk, to get a feel for the town and country. It’s very lively, people are outside and talking. There are plenty of amusement parks around and children hang out in the streets. It has a certain »Russian India« feel to it. Traffic is much less wild than in India, but the cars are in a similarly shabby state (no rickshaws, however). They honk their horns (much less here) and pay relatively close attention to traffic regulations. People seem friendly and, despite the fact that they are curious about you, are not intrusive and are ready to help. Their greetings are very interesting. They offer you their hand and then touch their heart with it, if the person is important to them. One day I visited a local gym, because the hotel and the club didn’t have one. It was called PRIDE. When I came in, I saw ten shirtless muscular men, who were staring at me in bewilderment. I gather enough courage to approach them. The first one shakes my hand and offers me a monthly pass for 100.000 soms. I explain that I would only like to use the gym for the day and he lets me through for 10.000 soms (1 €). Their way of exercising was interesting, as I was watching them train with such intensity. They gave it their all, they yelled, helped each other and danced to their music. The gym itself was very adequate and after an hour I said goodbye and didn’t return.
Everything is very cheap, compared to Europe. A 1,5 l bottle of water costs 30 cents, a hotdog 50 cents, a taxi is 50 cents (for a few kilometers), a kilo of bananas is 30 cents, a meal with chicken at a restaurant is 2 euros, a steak in a better restaurant 5 €, a room with a single bed with breakfast included is 30 dollars, a half-hour massage is 5 euros. What I found important was the feeling that nobody wanted to scam you or set an unreasonable price. They are very fair and charge you the same as they would a local and don’t try to bleed tourists dry. The internet in hotels is pretty solid, better at some places, worse at others. But they did have massage chairs in every floor of the first hotel and we could use them for free. They were great.
I have to admit that we did not try a lot of their local foods. In order to avoid potential stomach issues, we tried to preventatively eat classical foods, like pasta, rice, chicken, red meat and lettuce… All of these dishes can easily be found and taste great. Vegetables and chicken were especially tasty and I’ve had the best chicken steak in my life here. Juicy, tasty, tender and served with a side dish on a beautifully decorated plate.
Kaja reaches the final of the first tournament with relative ease, where she lost to a local girl Sharipova. Instead of a trophy they were given a cape and hat, both symbols of their country. Our everyday schedule is very similar at tournaments, we only adjust it based on when the match starts. During the tournament it was also the first week of Roland Gaross and we could watch it on TV, as they broadcast the matches on two channels in the hotel.
After a successful week we now had to move to another city and another club. Waiting for us was a taxi in very bad shape. Before this, a taxi came to pick us up from the hotel. He turned off the car for a moment and couldn’t get it to start again, so we had to call for another one. This time he brought us to our destination after an hour and a half. On the way we met a very tired looking car, moving half a house. Back home we rent a van, here they strap their belongings to the roof of the car.
The club at the site of the other tournament is similar, but this one has a restaurant as well. We took advantage of this every day and ate lunch at the club. The temperatures are still scorching hot. During the second tournament they had to cancel a few matches due to the heat, as one of the competitors collapsed on court during her match. The temperatures were over 40 °C. We made friends with a fellow competitor from Australia and her father and spent a lot of our free time together. Dinners in an Italian restaurant while watching tennis were a unique experience.
After some good matches Kaja lost a tight battle in the semi-final and the time came to return to Slovenia. We decide not to head out on Friday night, which turned out to be a fortunate decision, because a few hours later a severe storm hit, coming from the nearby mountains. Quite a few players headed back on that evening, taking taxis to the airport, and the only way there was through the mountains. The organizers notify us the next morning that the road through the mountains is closed because of an avalanche and that the other players are still stuck on the mountain and missed their flights. How dreadful. And how lucky for us that we decided not to leave then. But our problems don’t stop here, because at 1 pm the road is still closed. Our flight leaves in 12 hours and we still have a 5 to 6 hour drive to the airport. Fortunately they notify us at 3 pm that the road is open again. There are traffic jams and they advise us to leave early in order to get through. This time we are greeted by a brand new
Chevrolet and a friendly driver. We soon find out that this will be no ordinary drive to the airport, but more like a race. After barely dodging an accident a few times by driving 100 km/h on horrible roads, I try to explain to the driver that our flight leaves in 9 hours and that there is no rush, but it’s of no use. I suffer in the front seat and Kaja in the back. We reach the mountains and on the way back down we reach a line of vehicles a few kilometers long. At the end we see a horrible scene of trucks, covered in mud, after being caught in the avalanche the previous night. The damage is immense and there are a lot of truck drivers and workers along the road, trying to clear the damage, caused by the storm. The driver somehow manages to explain that unfortunately there were some casualties as well. We drive on and, despite a 45-minute wait in traffic, we reach the airport after a 4,5-hour drive, 2 hours faster than the other way around. So you can imagine the kind of driving we endured…
There were very few dogs on the streets. I’m not sure whether it’s because they simply don’t have them, they aren’t allowed to have them or if they just aren’t there. For instance, we’ve seen sheep on leashes J. There are cows, goats and sheep everywhere. We came across quite a few young shepherds with cows at the side of the road. There are meadows everywhere and fields, farmed by locals. Nature is stunning and nobody is in a rush. They live like we used to live in Slovenia some 35 years ago. They have a nice life. By boarding a plane to Istanbul, we leave the country that made a very positive impression on me. I’m not sure, whether I’ll ever return, but if I had to, I wouldn’t really mind.