Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Shymkent and Tashkent

Life in Almaty has finally settled back into something that approximates a regular routine. The routine, in fact, has a striking resemblance to my schedule back at KU. Once again there are lists of things to do posted all over my apartment, and large piles of reading materials in every room. Between intensive Kazakh lessons every day, working on the UNESCO report, grant writing, and working on the details of research presentations around Kazakhstan, there is not much free time. There’s quite a bit to get done before leaving Almaty for Shymkent in about 7 weeks time. Plus, next week I leave for a conference in the one place I have wanted to see for years—Turkmenistan. It should be absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to have pictures taken in front of every statue of Turkmenbashi that I can find. In the midst of all of the chaos, I am trying to carve out time to write about the recent trip to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There really are some great stories!

Sarah, Amelia, and I began our trip by taking the overnight bus from Almaty to Shymkent-in southern Kazakhstan. Of course, this being Kazakhstan, the bus broke down en route and had to have some remont (repairs). The highlight of the trip was when a fellow passenger yelled out for the bus to stop—he would get out and walk, because that would be faster. We planned on spending a day in Shymkent before taking a taxi across the border the following morning. There are several Fulbright Scholars working in Shymkent, so we arranged to meet up with them while in the city. Our first matter of business, though, was to find a hotel. Prices in Kazakhstan are pretty high, and it would have been easy to have spent a considerable amount on a hotel room. Fortunately, we were able to find a small, inexpensive hotel close to one of the major roads. The room was basic, to say the least. But at least there was a shower—or something that came close to approximating a shower. It wasn’t until we returned to the hotel for the night that we realized why the rates might be a little low. Apparently a sex club operates downstairs at night—somehow we missed the picture of the masked man wearing very little clothing that was sitting on the registration desk.

Shymkent was an interesting city to explore—much smaller than Almaty, with more Kazakh language heard on the street. We spent much of the day with one of the Fulbright Scholars and his son. It was great to be shown around the city—and to have a chance to catch up with Jerry (whom we met at orientation last summer). It was a good introduction to the city, and to give us an idea of what to expect when we move there in June.

The next morning, we left for Tashkent. We hired a taxi to take us to the border—and our driver kept asking us if we wanted to make ‘arrangements’ to get through customs rather quickly. By arrangements, he meant offering a bribe to the guards. The decision was surprisingly more difficult than one might think. We knew that the border was nothing more than a series of what could be best described as cattle chutes—and hundreds of people could be crowded into each one. Depending upon the crowds, we could expect to spend upwards of 4-5 hours crammed into a small space waiting to get through the border. The issue of safety had to be balanced against our opposition to contributing to such a corrupt system. When we arrived at the border, though, we agreed that we would just take our chances and cross the border on foot. We were lucky—it only took about 1 ½ hours to reach the other side.

Once we were in Uzbekistan, we hired a cab to take us to a hotel in Tashkent. The Lonely Planet guide has some great recommendations for hotels in Uzbekistan, and we went to a lovely B&B that was fairly inexpensive (about 18,000 som each—roughly $14/person. Of course, the 1000 som note is the largest there is, and rather hard to come by, so it was a rather large stack of bills). The guidebook mentioned that the owner liked to pour vodka rather liberally—but we thought that it would be too early in the day. After all, it was just about 1pm. Well, we were wrong. When we went into the office to pay, we were told to have a seat in the dining room. Then it was time for toasts to “international friendship and unity”. Before I realized what was happening, our host had filled my regular glass with beer. That was 14% alcohol!

Once we escaped from the hotel, we took the metro to the bazaar. Tashkent has the only metro (subway) in Central Asia—it was so nice to be on public transportation and not have to worry about being stuck in traffic! We went to the Chorsu Bazaar—the zipper on my purse had broken somewhere in the crush at the border, and I needed to buy a new purse. You know you have been in Central Asia too long when the choice of which purse to buy is obvious. There was a wide selection from which to choose, but only one that had a long fringe on the front and sparkling rhinestones along the sides. Why would you want anything a little more subdued??

We didn’t spend much time in Tashkent, though, since we would be returning in a few days for a conference on the Aral Sea. Next on the itinerary was the Silk Road city of Samarkand, followed by Bukhara. More on those soon!