After three abortive attempts, we managed to finally visit Uzbekistan, a country on my ‘must visit’ list
By General Ayaz
The first Impact Uzbekistan had on us was cleanliness and no congestion. Despite being a relatively poor country, it was spotlessly clean and maintained. Every street, road or corner was lit up with fancy colourful lights. Every street had its separate artistic design for lighting. It gave an impression of some celebration going on. On enquiry we were told that this is normal as there is surplus electricity in the country!
The people were colourfully dressed though in casual wear. Average height is between five foot six to five foot eight. Generally healthy, as in fit and athletic, up to the thirties. Middle age onwards they were generally stocky as in powerfully working bodies. Thereafter some tend to be fat but tough. Hardly any obese Uzbek was seen. Contentment was writ large in most faces which was a happy sign to observe these days.
Over 80% of schools are government owned. Education is totally free in these schools, and compulsory. The timings are nine to five in the evening with a 90 minutes break for lunch which is provided by the school but paid for by the parents. Children were seen going to or from school in perfect harmony and disciplined peace in twos and threes. There was no pushing or rushing seen at either time.
There was a school in front of our hotel Miran International in Tashkent wherefrom we could observe the children’s behavior. Everyone was fully in proper uniform and walked with a spring in their steps which was also a surprise! With all children busy in schools the whole day, mothers are free. So everyone is at work, which is good for the economy. In fact it was very noticeable that most shops, hotels and businesses were run and managed by women, with a few men doing small works!
We saw few public busses or transport in the cities (we visited Tashkent, Samarqand and Bukhara), everyone owns a car. All cars are medium to small: All local manufactured. THERE WERE NO MOTORCYCLES!! Which was a pleasant surprise as there appeared to be no sneaking on the roads and no noise pollution. Only a few “big”cars were seen on the road which were about our Corolla size. There was no congestion on the roads, no traffic light violations, no breaking lines and no apparent hurry, except when getting into the underground trains. They run on perfect timings.
One reason we found why there was no congestion or hurry was the population. Uzbekistan has an area larger than Baluchistan but a population of only 33million ie, just a little more than Karachi! With everyone working and trying to improve their living standard, there is no time for bearing children. That also is the secret of negative population growth in the entire west, particularly Europe.
One reason why there was so much peace in the country was that there were no ‘maulvis’ or ‘mullas’ free. There are many and beautiful mosques. They are generally full of devotees at all prayer times. The mullah is under strict control. The Friday Khutba is a set Government Issue piece. Any mullah deviating by even a word, goes to jail. Similarly there are many madrassas. But, a minimum age of enrollees in madrassas is 16 years. If a child goes to a madrassa under 16 years, he and the mullah go to jail.
The government believes that the child should be mature enough to be exposed to madrassa teaching; otherwise an innocent child can be easily twisted into a fanatic and extremist, with all the demonstrated negative behaviour. Very wise, I think.
This was my first trip to Uzbekistan, after three abortive attempts (!), so I was excited to view everything with a curious mind. The airport was so small that I hardly got time to take a few photographs. We found that English does not work there and we were like lost sheep being chaperone by our able guide, mentor and organizer, our good Maj Tariq and his charming mannered wife Bassar.
Though small, the airport was well laid out and organized by the Soviets, as, we later found, was the entire infrastructure of the country. Education system, medicare, communication system including roads and rail and underground, law and order and religious pragmatism were all set and established by the Soviets: A greater work of long term welfare that any of the modern dynamic, developed progressive, democratic states should aim for.
Reportedly Tashkent boasts of a culture over 3000 years old. However Tashkent has been on the road and in the way of many conquerors. Many times it has been destroyed, but like the Sphinx, has risen from its ashes to greater glory. The first ones to destroy Tashkent were the Muslim invaders, in the seventh century, who, in their zeal destroyed the entire city to rid it of idolatry!
It was rebuilt in the eighth century. It was razed again by Hilaku Khan, to be rebuilt by his successors. The new city was last built by the Soviets in 1980 onwards. It’s a beautiful city now boasting of excellent hotels, roadwork, tallest in Central Asia TV Tower (398 meters, I think), a fine network of schools and hospitals.
We stayed in Miran International Hotel, a five star facility, and five star it was. The accommodation was spacious and comfortable, the cuisine varied and delicious. The décor choices and service efficient despite the language problem. The first shock or scare was the price. An ordinary 500ml water bottle cost about 10,000 Som(local currency), so was a bottle of coke. Later we were gratified to find that there were about 78 Soms to a Pak Rupee.
Tashkent is full of beautiful mosques, mostly recently built. Miran (white marble) Mosque where we offered Zuhr and Asr prayer was built in 2016. It can cater for 24000 persons and is boasted to be the largest in Central Asia. Has a separate section for women. Has a magnificent garden and white marble fountains for ablutions.
Tourism was officially started in 2018 for which Uzbekistan prepared since its independence from the Soviets in 1992. They built many monuments depicting the struggle of the Uzbeks under various rulers. There is one called “Monument of Repression by Joseph Stalin”. It has a small but tall umbrella type canopy over a simple stone grave of an ‘unknown soldier’. But the stories of repression and responding courage of the Uzbeks are certainly very colourful.
Apparently, the most talked of ruler of Uzbekistan is Amir Taimur (Tamerlane), and many stories permeate their history. One goes like this: Taimur being the great emperor had a most beautiful wife. And she wanted to build a beautiful mosque. She found the best architect for the project (I think a Frenchman, not sure). As for payment he demanded that he be allowed to kiss the cheek of the Empress!
The construction took 5 years. The empress was so delicate that the kiss left a red spot on her cheek. When the Emperor came back from his battles and conquests, he noticed the red spot and enquired. Folk tale has it that when the emperor found out, he was so angry he had the architect cut to pieces!! Thereafter the Empress wrote a poem, which I could not record or now recall: Too bad, as it was very romantic.
The stay in Tashkent was a whirlwind tour. My camera expertise is poor and memory worse. It was very enjoyable and informative. The pleasure was multiplied by the excellent company we had in the entire group — all mature, witty and relaxed. As the oldest couple by a long sea-mile, we were given great consideration and regard by everyone, which was very gratifying, and eased our fatigue.
We left for Samarqand by Bullet train, which was a new experience by my wife and me. It gave us a good view of the country side. The land was fully cultivated all through the journey. Crops were low but bearing good fruit. The cotton plants were about one foot high but covered with flowered cotton. Uzbekistan exports a large quantity of cotton to as far as Bangladesh. But now the Government is setting up local industry for ginning for high end exports. The apple trees, for instance were only 6 to 10 feet high but full of red apples. Because of the dry weather, the growth of plants is stunted, but bear good value fruit.
All along the track there were villages that were standard three bedroom houses with a little open area for kitchen garden. They were all uniform in size, shape and colour. They are fully supplied with Electricity, gas, water etc and very comfortable. The cost is about 30,000 USDs. Houses are given to everyone on mortgage.
Samarqand, the launching place for most spearheads of Islamic advances and culture, was surprisingly small, compact and equally colourful. Samarqand boasts of an over 3000 years of history. Afrasiab is their main hero who appears to have done the maximum for the city. It houses many new structures supported by newer songs of history. Eloquence is the word that comes to mind when covering the general impression of this ancient / modern city. It has mausoleums and graves.
The pleasant surprise was the lack of ‘biddat’: No flags or ribbons or knotted strings. Structurally it was simple domes and graves. However to depict the importance of the great men, their achievements and sayings were etched on plaques along walls or outside. The one I liked best was “Your heart is for Allah, and you’re your hands are for work”.
This is also the mandatory requirement for joining the “Naqshbandi” faith. Everyone MUST have a trade for earning his livelihood, and not depend on donations or handouts. In Samarqand as in other cities, one could sense the pride amongst the people (and the guide!) of their great history. It was a pleasant observation for a relatively newly emancipated Muslim country.
Samarqand boasts of its very special naans which are supposed to last travelers for two to three days. We all just had to buy some before we boarded the bus to Bukhara. Thereafter we moved to Bukhara with visions of spiritual grandeur of the seat of Islamic thinking and Ahadees by Imam Bukhari. It was another cultural shock to find that the revered Imam Bukhari was born in Bukhara, and that is about it!
He spent most of his studying and learning years in Makkah and Madina, and on return settled in Samarqand for all his works and teachings for the productive years of his life. He died in Samarqand and is buried there. And Samarqand is very proud of its adopted son. Bukhara is a smallish town with the usual offerings of mosques and structures of gallantry.
We were taken to a Bojka “mountain”, (about four to five thousand feet!) with a chair lift. It was a scenic drive. But for us Pakistanis it was rather mundane as was the height of the mountain more like a hillock for us! The only interesting incident was when at the beginning of the hill road, we were stopped by the traffic police. There had been a bus topple over two days ago, so all busses and large vehicles were banned from the route. Sensible security measure, and was being applied strictly.
But they had not catered for our resourceful Maj Tariq, who phoned his staff to meet the head of Traffic Police, pay him a hundred UD dollars, and stay with him till we reached the Top and back! Took him only about half an hour to get us going having moved Heaven and Earth to do so. Wonderful man. Bless him.
On the way we were narrated many folk lores about the fascinating life of Uzbeks and neighbouring Kazakhs. One being that it was the Kazakh tradition of old, that if a Kazakh took a liking to any woman, he would come on his steed, just pick up the woman of choice and ride off home! It was all accepted as a manly tradition in local romance. In fact our affable guide told us that her MOTHER had in one such surge of womanly love, raided her father’s village and carried him off on her horse! Pennants flying, throats screaming, audience cheering! Some Woman’s Lib!!
The women of Uzbekistan are very fair, pretty, slim and smart in youth. In middle age they are stocky and strong. In old age they are mostly employed as cleaners. While there is little in the shape of public transport like busses, the taxi service is rather free and elusive. You can wave down any car going past, whether a taxi or private car. It will stop, and you have to negotiate the fare to your destination. Everyone uses his car as a taxi as a second source of income without feeling embarrassed!
We were told that temperatures can climb quite high. We were also told that this year (2019), summer temperature in Tashkent soared up to 65 degrees for four to five days!! But because of dry weather, it did not feel so bad. “We just survived on inside with the ACs”, said our guide.
On our return to Tashkent, we spent one day and night there. The Pakistani ambassador gave us a lovely briefing in his palatial house and wove romantic threads of his performances for the good of Pakistan. The tea was actually a high tea, so everyone was delighted —– some more than others. After the customary photo-op, we departed for the much awaited ‘bazar’ visit, supposed to be the jewel in our visit. The ladies were crazily eager to visit and spend time there.
In fact with his candid sense of humour, when some sophisticated ladies wanted to see some museum or monument etc, Maj. Tariq would announce that it could only be done at the cost of time in the bazaar!! But the bazaar, according to my wife and myself was a bit of a fiasco. Except for garments, mostly children, there was nothing much at offer. The much touted ‘famous dry fruit market’ was confined to one wayside make-shift shop run by an old woman! As a souvenir, I bought some black resins which were rather large and unusual in taste.
Some of our ladies – no names please took overly long at this lack luster shopping market to the chargin of many. Yes, we had a few impulsive shoppers who came straggling back to the bus carrying more bags than their limbs! Then of course all the way back there were exclamations of “Look what I got” with a lot of polite Ooohs and Aaahs from friendly friends. We drove straight to the airport, where we were given ample time by our Maj Tarq to readjust our packing’s ere we departed, all with satisfied smiles on our faces. We reached Lahore at about 0230 hours and went our ways to destinations.
At the Tashkent airport while we were going through immigration, my wife was wearing a fancy maroon Abaya and a scarf from Uzbekistan. So the lady at the immigration asked me “Are you Uzbek?” when I said I was from Pakistan, she looked at my wife and asked me “You get married from here?” My wife of course was tickled and proudly said no, she was from Pakistan!!! Thought I’d share my impressions with you folks. Just for old time sake. It was a lovely trip. It was a lovely group. One of the best. May Allah bless you all specially our good Maj Tariq, and better Bassar (No offence meant Tariq sahib!).