Letter From Uzbekistan

My first glimpse of the mammoth Hotel Tashkent came at night, after a 20-hour journey from the United States, a nine-hour time change and a bumpy ride from the airport. In that light, it didn't look so bad. The ornate mosaics of its two-story facade were supported by massive stone columns. From the outside, I could imagine I was about to encounter some mystery of the Orient here in Central Asia's largest city. Inside, unfortunately, I felt like I'd been thrust back into downtown Moscow, circa--take your pick--1966, or 1976, or 1986. (Designs didn't change much back in the USSR.)

I had come to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, as one of dozens of journalists sent here to wait for the fall of the strategic Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif, located about 40 miles south of the Uzbek border.

In many ways, Tashkent feels like a time warp. The lobby of the Hotel Tashkent is a forbidding warehouse of a room done in gray marble, with huge pastel-colored maps of Tashkent and Uzbekistan carved out of wood and bolted to the walls. The only furnishings are dusty potted palms somehow clinging to life in the gloom, and shabby '70's-style red velvet sofas and chairs scattered around the hall. I turned in my passport at the enormous marble reception desk and received my breakfast pass and receipt for the room. The babushka at reception assured me that the room was very nice, one of the best, and that I was lucky, because checking in so late at night meant there would be hot water.

I braced myself. My travels behind the Iron Curtain--including stints in Poland, East Germany and an eight-year spell in Romania and the former Yugoslavia--forced me to stay in too many communist hotels. Here I felt like I had found their prototype, but it was too late to try to find another place. I passed the policemen dozing at a desk in front of the elevators, and hoped that the creaking lift could make up to the 4th floor. There I found another policeman and the floor attendant. This time I traded in my receipt for the key. The door had been kicked in and repaired at some point in the distant past, but it at least opened, and more importantly, locked. The lights worked--a good sign.

The room, or rather the suite, was done up in the best Soviet chic of at least 20 years ago. The flowery yellow wallpaper was offset by the green, indoor-outdoor carpeting and the dusty brown sofa. There was a Korean TV, but no remote control, and the buttons on the set only allowed me to change the fuzzy channels down and lower the volume.

The bathroom did have water, even hot water as promised. No soap or toilet paper. I asked the floor lady. Toilet paper and shampoo appeared. She offered to change money too, at a pretty good rate. It was, it turned out, a full service kind of place. When she returned with the money, she offered me a prostitute too--leering, laughing, and making obscene gestures all at the same time. No thanks.

Late into that night the hallways resounded with the comings and goings of guests, or plainclothes police, it was not clear. There was a minibar, with nothing inside. There was a small teapot and two cups, and two glasses that looked as though they had not been washed for several months, or several guests. The windows opened, but, unfortunately, would not close.

When I woke up in the morning, there was no hot water. But the phone, remarkably enough, did work. I used it to call another hotel.

Sadly, most of the other state hotels in town are not much better--unless a visitor is intent on a Soviet nostalgia tour. That left a few cheaper private hotels and the massive Sheraton, which charges $140 a night (with the 50 percent journalist discount), $3 for a coke, and 60 cents for a local phone call. In a country where the minimum wage is about $3.50 a month and an average salary is around $30, those rates seemed high. I moved to one of the private hotels.

Once accommodations were squared away, Tashkent offered an unexpectedly varied cuisine for a Central Asian capital. Between the deportations of the Stalin era and Soviet incentives for immigration, the city has been left with a mosaic of peoples and cuisine. There's traditional Uzbek, Tajik, Krgyz, Chinese, Russian, Georgian, Indian, Pakistani, or Syrian.

There's another delicacy too. Unlike many other former communist countries, Tashkent is surprisingly free of stray dogs. That's because here the strays are kept well in check by the city's 200,000 ethnic Koreans, whose parents and grandparents were deported here from Siberia by Stalin in the 1930's. Koreans eat dog, and say that wild or stray dogs are the best for the pot, since they are stronger and more resistant to disease than pampered house pets. And in one of many cultural cross-pollinations in this country, Uzbeks and Russians in Tashkent have embraced that Korean traditional cold remedy--dog grease, rubbed on their throats and chests.

It's hard to eat anything but cheap in Tashkent, and the street markets are by far the cheapest. For those with a stomach that can handle lots of grease, a wholesome meal of lagman (noodle and meat soup), osh, (rice pilau) and shashlik (kebab) washed down with a pot of Uzbek tea, costs less than a dollar. Uzbeks advise those eating on the street to drink a lot of tea with their meal. That, swear the locals, cuts the grease and acts as a sort of antibacterial agent to kill any unwanted bugs in the food.

Taxis are cheap too--for obvious reasons. Virtually any driver with spare time on his hands can be flagged down, and most trips in town cost 50 cents or less. Unfortunately, those journeys can be longer than expected, as a remarkable number of drivers in Tashkent don't seem to know where anything is. Even those given detailed directions tend to take their passengers on long impromptu tours of the capital. Rides can also be reminiscent of a NASCAR race, as Tashkent drivers show little interest in speed limits or lane dividers. Despite the quality of driving, seatbelts are not seen as necessary. Most drivers prefer to use them to keep various parts of their aging Soviet cars attached. The best bet is the luxurious Volga, preferably the Mafia model, that comes complete with tinted windows and spoiler.

Even if I don't manage to snag one of those, I keep telling myself to enjoy Uzbekistan while it lasts. The next stop will probably be Mazar-e-Sharif--and that's likely to make the Hotel Tashkent look like a palace.

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