Postcard Flashback: Uzbekistan Through Other Eyes

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I served my first diplomatic tour in Uzbekistan starting in 2015. Many of my blog posts while there were focused on things other than Uzbekistan; although I wrote about narrow aspects of my life, and chronicled our trips around the country, the list of unwise subjects to publicly write about in that particular environment was lengthy.

In retrospect, there may have been more “content” I could have produced about the unique parts of Uzbekistan had I been there under different auspices. There is no question that the high-fraud consular work, security posture, and challenges of being a non-mother in a society where women derive their place chiefly from motherhood all negatively affected my perspective at times. I also was very focused on not drawing attention to my whereabouts and activities too, especially when my blog “mysteriously” became accessible only by VPN. Another American I know succeeded much better in explaining and appreciating what he and his wife experienced during their three years in Uzbekistan. Thirteen months almost to the day on from my departure, it has been an unexpected delight for me to see Uzbekistan again through their eyes.

Two friends of ours in Tashkent – another American couple, who worked at the international school and whom we knew socially – recently ended three years in Tashkent and have moved on to their next teaching adventure in Germany. While they were in Uzbekistan, they actually didn’t do a lot with their blog other than intermittently chronicling their own foreign travels. However, a few months ago, their own upcoming departure provoked reflection upon the time they’d spent in Uzbekistan, and they decided to create a blog series of 100 posts in 100 days.

When it started I remember thinking, How are they going to find 100 things in Uzbekistan to write about? But then I realized they’d done a 100 days feature before they left their previous home in Italy, so there was precedent. They’d also amassed a lot of content in three years traveling around Uzbekistan to sift through and decide what to share. Between his big picture historical perspective, her talent for Russian and music, and their joint adventurous spirits and willingness to build relationships with local people, I knew they had connected to Uzbekistan quite differently than I did.

Now, to be fair, they were driven nuts many times by many of the same things that drove us nuts. We’d discussed our attempted inoculations and uneven immunities over brunch and drinks more than once. And the first post in the series starts off:

So much to say. So little time. So much that can’t be said. One thing is for sure, the past three years have been quite a ride. Brutalist architecture, ancient silk road fortresses, the spectacular remnants of Timur’s empire – Uzbekistan has it all, and at the same time, doesn’t.

It made me laugh with its brevity, its punchy unvarnished truth. This is going to be good, I thought, Or really, really bad! (Bad as in, these weren’t diplomats, so police at their front door was a real worry for me.)

Turns out it was good, and I learned quite a bit. There are dozens of travel-related posts to mosques, museums, mausoleums, bazaars (including my favorite – Yangiobod), natural landmarks, and places off the beaten track – many I had visited, and a fair few I had not. These two definitely went well beyond the Samarkand-Khiva-Bukhara loop that most foreigners sling across before moving on to Almaty, Dushanbe, or Bishkek. There are so many posts worth reading in this series, I recommend just perusing their site and seeing what you find, especially if you have very niche Central Asia history interests.

I don’t have an overall favorite post, but there are several topics I want to draw attention to.

Some of the posts beautifully described Uzbek food, like these about plov and lag’mon (both of which I really miss!), manti, somsa, the influence of Korean food in the cuisine, and the enjoyment of tapchan sitting with a meal or tea. I also learned quite a bit about Uzbek wine in this post, although I have to say that most of what I ever tried did taste like outrageously expensive poison – I’m wondering if I didn’t try hard enough.

There was a post about Soviet Block apartments and a short history of brutalist architecture that I found fascinating. As many times as I’d admired the odd, bright murals on some Khrushchevkas around Tashkent (where east meets…further east?), I know little about the functionalism movement or about Soviet-era city planning. This post is a good primer on those topics and shows how some of Tashkent’s apartment buildings look today. I have a couple of coffee table books on Soviet architecture and bus stops, and as ugly as some of it is, I find the science-fiction appeal of brutalism irresistible.

There is a piece on the “friendship” bridge that joins Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and another on shopping in a local grocery store in Tashkent that I found charming.

Uzbek authorities recently lifted a ban on photography in Tashkent’s iconic metro system, a ban that unfortunately was in place during my time there. You can find some great photos of the different stations in open source material as well.

There is a detailed history of Orthodox Christianity in Tashkent with a piece on the Assumption Cathedral.

Here is a post for anyone who wondered why all the cars in Uzbekistan are white, or why so many Soviet Ladas are still on Tashkent roads.

And last but not least, a fascinating post about what has happened to the currency since we departed in June 2017: a great insight into how consumers function in a cash-based economy. For us it was about 3,800 soum to the dollar and the highest denomination of currency was the 5,000 note.

if you are interested in Sufism, Zoroastrianism, or ancient Silk Road history, I highly recommend you take a scroll through the rest of the posts. Many of them get into these topics with more granularity than I could really do justice to. What I have posted here is just a fraction of a series on a place the majority of the world knows little to nothing about, and the series does a great job of highlighting things to see outside of Uzbekistan’s main cities.

I appreciate the way this series helped me to see things about Uzbekistan both old and new in a more objective light, and gave me the opportunity to share it in place of what I lacked heart and space to write at the time. It truly is a fascinating and complicated part of the world.

Amir Temur Museum, Tashkent ~ 8/31/16

Happy reading!

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