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Hostile environments, Part #1: Uzbekistan



Many guides are written about how to survive in hostile urban or rural environments; governments provide courses for their civil servants doing the same thing. They are full of anodyne practical advice about a broad range of subjects. We thought we would use a series of articles to describe actual hostile environments we have been in, and to draw lessons from real life experiences.


Uzbekistan must be one of the most inconvenient countries in the world for travel for any purpose other than a pre-arrranged set of guided tours around the tourist cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. If you enter Uzbekistan for business or diplomatic purposes, you are going to have a pretty rough time.


The inconveniences start before your 'plane lands. You are handed a form in which you must declare all your foreign currency, down to the last cent or penny. And the form is too small. And you are warned that if you make one mistake, you will be arrested at the airport. Corrections and crossings out are also not allowed. So you spend the entire 'plane journey trying to write in tiny script the exact amounts of money you have in different currencies (for business travellers, this is typically a lot because they routinely travel from one country to the next). And then, when you land at the airport, an official does indeed count it out in front of you - to the very last penny or cent. God help you if you have made the slightest error.


The next thing that will happen is that a driver in a car will be waiting for you, even if you did not know it in advance. That driver is in the KGB, and he will be driving you everywhere. So you had better get used to that.


What happened next to this author was that he was driven to the Tashkent branch of a state-owned hotel chain of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This was incredibly inconvenient. The staff are trained to say only specific things, irrespective of what you might say to or ask them. So you can forget personalised service. Needless to say you are watched everywhere in this hotel. The food was of North Korean, not Uzbek, standards. (To be fair to Uzbekistan, its native food can be quite good, when you can find it. We will come onto that.)


The next thing you find happening is that the KGB driver assigned to you insists on driving you around a collection of extremely boring museums, at which you are obliged to spend minimum periods of time studying the ghastly exhibits. This appears totally non-negotiable for any trip to Uzbekistan. Naturally you are followed round all the museums to ensure you are genuinely interested.


If you're starting to get the impression that Uzbekistan is an extremely weird country, then you are right. Your host will insist that all meals are eaten outdoors, to minimize the risk of bugging. You will have no choice of restaurants. Everything will be arranged for you. Do not dream of trying to go to a restaurant or other hospitality venue of your choice; that will not be happening unless you have an interesting in high-speed running (see below).


The next problem is that all business conversations are virtually impenetrable, because everyone will be speaking cryptically upon the assumption that the KGB is recording everything they are saying - which they are. Many meetings take place outside, for this reason: walking down the street, in the outdoor sections of restaurants, and even with someone who happens to be looking at the same piece of art as you in one of those unmentionable museums.


You won't have many chances to spend money - cash is partially treated as off limits for foreigners. The main problem is that the only place you will be allowed to change money will be in the money changing office of your North Korean hotel, at a rate some multiples out from the true market rate. Your Uzbek host may be able to achieve more sensible exchange rates for you, but don't count on it.


When you get some local money, you will realise why people have no wallets. EUR50 corresponds to a plastic bag full of dirty banknotes. Uzbek currency is like something out of the Great Inflation in Weimar Germany. For larger transactions, a wheelbarrow would be useful.


But don't worry; you won't get a chance to spend it. Your hotel will have one or more appalling Soviet-style restaurants, of the cavern kind with a thousand empty seats, a menu of twenty pages where everything is off and a single waitress filing her nails in the corner. You can pay for these establishments in US Dollars. Avoid these places and ask your KGB driver to take you to a decent local restaurant. This will cause great angst and consternation while they try to wire up a table for you in a hurry; and your KGB driver will wait outside while you eat. The food may actually be very good; and you can use the contents of your plastic bag to pay. Just remember to demand a table outside, whatever the weather.


Now the real skill comes in shaking your driver off. Go home at 21h00 and say you will see him next morning. Avoid the hotel bar, which will be a karaoke-laden mix of the children of the wealthy Tashkent political class; mysterious Russians drinking vodka by the gram; and KGB agents posing as prostitutes. None of this is any good. Instead slip outside when it is dark, pretending you are going for a cigarette or something innocuous, and run for it with all the power your legs can invest you with. There are few street lights in Tashkent, so if you sprint you will probably get away with it.


The first thing you will encounter is a line of taxis at the front of the hotel, none of which will take you anywhere you want to go but may take you to places you don't want to go. Burst through this barricade and just keep sprinting until you are in the middle of a huge long wide empty Tashkent street. Tashkent is a large planned city, so there are plenty of steets like this. At night there will be virtually no traffic. So just stand in the middle of the road with a few Dollar bills in your hand, yell 'taxi!' at any vehicle that comes past, and a car (usually in very bad condition and with a driver stinking of vodka) will stop.


There is very little information available about nightlife venues, but the words 'bar' or 'restoran' will probably ensure you are driven somewhere in exchange for a few dollars. The problem you will then encounter, however, is that you will enter a bar full of people in the KGB. The staff will look at you and then ask the KGB watchers whether to serve you. Sometimes you will be rewarded with a delicious beer; on other occasions you will sit at the bar or at a table for an hour or more with everyone studiously ignoring you. Eventually you will give up and walk out morosely, with your tail between your legs. And you will repeat the 'standing in the street' procedure in reverse to get back to your hotel.


Obviously you can forget about the prospect of doing any meaningful business in this country. It is closed. However Uzbekistan is mostly harmless, if just highly bizarre. The worst thing that can happen is likely that you are courteously driven to the airport and banned for life from returning.


Your departure will involve detailed calculations of how much money you have in your wallet compared to how much you had when you entered. Do you remember that's why you had to count it all? To let them count it all back on the way out. If you have excess Som (the name of the national currency), just throw it all away in the bin, burn it, or tear it up and flush it down the toilet. The last thing you want to be doing is to be explaining to Uzbek customs officials why you are leaving their country with their valuable local money.


The last sting in this author's tail was to find that his Uzbek Airlines flight to Europe had been diverted to Novosibirsk, the capital of western Siberia, with no onward connection. Thankfully he had both Russian visa and funds to purchase an onward ticket to Europe. The situation could have been very sticky otherwise. Avoid Uzbek Airlines.


Welcome to Uzbekistan, pearl of central Asia. However there are worse places in the region, as subsequent episodes in this series of essays will reveal.