Friday, April 29, 2011

You Can Have Any Colour You Want, As Long As It's A Daewoo

I had wanted to take the train back east from Khiva, and had my eye set on a particularly useful departure, but I had underestimated the popularity of trains here in Uzbekistan (or perhaps how much people detest the crappy roads). There are few buses and often the only other form of intercity transport is the shared taxi, not a means of getting round I particularly enjoy. It's not very efficient and taxi drivers are notoriously rapacious and will stop at nothing to squeeze every last penny out of you. From Urgench to Bukhara I knew the price shouldn't be more than 40,000 som (the Uzbek currency), which is the equivalent of $17 - a hefty sum for me (pun intended). Not only did the driver start off by quoting me twice that to begin with, but when I remonstrated with the other passengers they told me that they had been instructed not to tell me how much they themselves were paying. Nevertheless I managed to get the ride for 40,000, but it cost me unnecessary time and annoyance. It also reinforces my belief that taxi drivers are amongst the lowest and least scrupulous forms of human life.

Nevertheless we hit the road as I tried to make myself comfortable between my two burly, co-passengers on the back seat. If you spend any length of time on Uzbekistan's roads you will notice something strange: 99% of post-Soviet cars on the road are Daewoos (or Chevrolets, which are basically the same but with a different badge, as both are owned by GM), including dinky little one-litre engined minivans that form the mainstay of intracity transport. This is thanks to a joint-venture between the Korean company and the Uzbek government from the 90's; after the Korean company went belly-up the Uzbek plant became wholly state-owned and they have been making Daewoos and Chevvies under license ever since.

On the road back to Nukus from the Aral Sea, as well as the ubiquitous Daewoos, we saw long convoys of trucks with Bulgarian plates. They were coming from the Kazakh border and heaing east. When I asked Shimbek where they were headed, he said Afghanistan. And sure enough, here I am in Termiz on the Afghan border, and there is a steady stream of those lorries making their way for the border post, part of the extremely long supply lines of NATO. I chose perhaps the worst time to come to Termiz, but, as luck would have it, also the best.

I arrived in Termiz in the early evening and the town was packd with young people in gym kits. Apparently there was a national sporting jamboree on and no-one had told me. The knock-on effect was that every single hotel was fully booked for the next 4 days. Normally this wouldn't bother me and I would simply find a quiet corner to sleep rough, especially as the weather is mild at nights. But once again I would fall foul of the registration laws. It was getting late and I had walked round several hotels (full or not registered to accept foreigners) and couldn't be bothered with the charade. So I found myself a group of militsiya (policemen) and sat down in front of them, explaining my situation, and by so doing making it their problem. They suggested several hotels, but I told them that I had tried them already (even though I hadn't). They became perplexed. Their training obviously hadn't prepared them for this eventuality and they were having to use their initiative - unfamiliar ground indeed. In the end they picked on the youngest member of their group and it was decided that I should stay with him in his kvartier (lodgings) until I leave town, which I assured them would only be for a couple of days. In this way I felt like I got my own back, in a small way, against the registration system.

All credit to him though, Laziz, my host, showed no annoyance at having drawn the proverbial short straw and was friendly, welcoming, and above all curious about me. His lodgings were far from palatial, consisting as they did of a 5m x 2.5m concrete box with some carpets on the floor (stacked in several layers to indicate the location of the bed) and old, wooden boxes stacked at the back with, what I presumed were, his personal belongings. Surprisingly he had a decent collection of 5 pairs of smart, black shoes (4 pairs more than I own!).

Laziz, my host in Termiz. Though I've got t admit that physical fitness doesn't seem to be a prerequisite for the police service in Uzbekistan.

Although I admit seeing the gymnasts warming up outside the public sports hall was not unpleasant, I did have other reasons for visiting Termiz. Archaeologically speaking the region around the town is one of the richest in the world and just driving along the main road allows you to see ruins littering the fertile wheat fields that go back at least a thousand years. The city was once one of the major centres of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom and I wanted to see if there were similar surprising cultural combinations as I had found in Pakistan, where the national museum in Lahore does a fine line in antique Greek-style statues of Buddha. Unfortunately the "smoking gun" of Hellenistic culture in the region was not so obvious, though among the ruins along the banks of the Amu Darya there are stuppas and plenty of Greek coins have been found (just don't take any photos as it's a sensitive, and highly militarised, border area). Unfortunately none of the old town has survived in its present incarnation, which is a horribly impersonal Soviet town, where the long distances between locations and heat suck the energy out of the humble pedestrian. I'm looking forward to heading to the hills soon where the weather will hopefully be more pleasant.

P.S. I believe that I have come up with a way to save the Aral Sea. Drumroll please.....: It is a habit of most Uzbek men, and especially those (under)employed in the militsiya, to spit. A lot. All the time. I'm not passing judgement on the habit, however if every one of these men were to be given their own spittoon, the contents of which could be collected daily or weekly at central gathering stations, then I'm sure we'd have the sea back in no time

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