During my first tour in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we only had one visitor – my mom. She came to visit in August 2016 and although I mentioned it twice (here and here) and shared a handful of photos before we then jetted off to Budapest and Moscow together, I never followed up with the promised travelogue about her visit. Since it’s been almost four years, some details have now faded, and there are hundreds of pictures that are hard to choose between. However, thanks to really good Facebook photo captions I made at the time, everything she went through to get there, and my ongoing belief that I could have done a better job showing more about Uzbekistan during my tour, I decided it was now or never to make this post.
I was super excited for my mom’s arrival and V and I ate dinner out after work to make it to the airport in time. I learned there had been a couple of issues en route and she would likely be late. However, none of us were expecting her to ultimately be delayed until 3:00 a.m.! Her flight from San Francisco had taken off late due to fog, causing her to miss her connection to Tashkent in Frankfurt. She was rerouted to Moscow, where the airline unfortunately re-booked her flight for the same time the following day.
Fortunately, she had a Russian visa because we were planning to visit Moscow a few weeks later; I’m not sure how it is now, but at least at that time, any American staying longer than 24 hours in Russia (including inside of the airport) required a visa. But my mom had no intention of staying overnight in Moscow, and endeavored mightily to get re-booked on the earliest possible flight to Tashkent (I wonder if her Russian “guest of diplomat” visa made her stand out from the rest of the frazzled passengers).
She thus arrived in Tashkent very tired… and without her luggage! I barged to the passport control area so she could see me while the embassy’s diplomatic expediter filled out her customs paperwork as a courtesy to me.
My mom kept a really good sense of humor throughout the following two days, where we attended a Korean lunch with my consular colleagues, a going-away party for one of my neighbors, and went shopping for a party at our house – all while using my toiletries and wearing my clothes, as I Dryel’d her travel outfit to wear again. Fortunately for her, at about midnight when our party was wrapping up and the ambassador and DCM had left, the expediter called and said he had her suitcase and would we like to come to our front gate to fetch it? Well, WOULD we and kind thanks, sir!
We also took my mom to Yangiobad, my favorite Tashkent bazaar full of Soviet-era memorabilia and pretty much everything else you could ever hope to find. It was also my mom’s first experience with a Turkish toilet, although the one pictured below is from Tashkent’s Japanese Garden and is considerably nicer than what she found at Yangiobad!
We also took a road trip that day up to the western Tien Shan mountains to eat at our favorite restaurant, Cinara’s, located about 60 miles northeast of Tashkent in Hojikent, followed by a partial loop around Charvak Reservoir. I have written about that part of the country previously, here and here. I cut our road trip a little bit shorter than normal because I didn’t want to get caught outside of Tashkent after dark with my mom due to road conditions. Safety first! There also wasn’t a reliable source of gas outside the city, although we always traveled out of town with a five-gallon jug of gas… just in case.
We also visited Khast Imom Square at the Hazrat Imam Complex, a place I wrote about shortly after I first arrived in Tashkent in 2015. I am so glad I had the chance to show this beautiful place to my mom. I’m not sure pictures do it justice; featuring sandalwood columns and dark green marble imported from India and Turkey respectively, Khast Imom is the largest mosque in the city, and the Muyi Muborak Library there purportedly contains the world’s oldest Koran.
For the first time I also visited the Amir Timur Museum, which overall was a beautiful place but kind of a strange tourist experience. There wasn’t a single other visitor in the museum, and a variety of proctors and security guards followed us around as if we were going to steal a golden sword or piece of art. At least they allowed me to pay a nominal fee and take photographs, which is much more than I could say for the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, which I visited with V and two colleagues the following year on our way to the Aral Sea. (Visitors to Central Asia know it comes with the territory and that it’s best to just appreciate what you can, while you can. There certainly are very beautiful things to see.)
It is hard to overstate the importance of Amir Timur’s legacy in Uzbekistan. The Turko-Mongol ruler from the 1300s known as “The Sword of Islam” laid epic waste to empires across the nomadic steppes of Central Asia and is believed to be buried, along with several of his descendants, in Uzbekistan.
We also spent some time around Tashkent – in cafés and restaurants, strolling in the Japanese Garden, checking out the Romanov Palace and Independence Square, and getting frisked with semi-frightening aggression by a female guard in the TV Tower. I was also a little peeved that while appreciating the WWII Memorial, which I’d never seen before, a guard asked us to leave before it closed. I implored him in my broken Russian to let us stay until closing with the other visitors and showed him my diplomatic accreditation card, but he just looked uncomfortable. We complied.
I don’t know how it is now, but at least while we were there, visitors to Uzbekistan were required to register with local police for every night of their visit, whether they are staying at a hotel, hostel, or private residence. Staying somewhere other than when you registered, even for one night, can incur hefty fines and questions upon departure. Some tourists have reported surveillance at hotels to determine whether or not a guest is really staying there.
The embassy kindly facilitated registration procedures for my mom as my guest (I had also needed to “sponsor” her visa), but that meant her passport was tied up for the first several days of only a short visit. We wanted to visit one of Uzbekistan’s other main cities, Samarkand (roughly 200 miles from Tashkent) on a day trip, but booking train tickets and traveling outside of the capital requires a passport. And for security, checkpoint, and infrastructure reasons, it wasn’t a trip we were prepared to make in our own vehicle, which takes at least 90 minutes longer each way than the fast train.
So when we did get my mom’s passport back, we went on an adventure to the chaotic Tashkent train station to buy train tickets. Suffice it to say it was an exercise in pushing and shoving and maintaining the patience of Job, but after a couple of hours and some begging we did manage. The next day was a federal holiday, but with my mom’s visit ending soon it was Samarkand on a holiday or nothing, so we headed off.
Upon arriving at Samarkand’s train station, V negotiated with a swarm of approaching taxi drivers. His mix of Russian and Serbian threw them for a loop as he avoided the usual foreigner penalties and successfully bargained down to the going rate of $20 USD for an all-day ride around town. V picked a burly ethnic Russian with a big gold cross around his neck named S – I guess it was the brotherhood of Slavs! We had already privately agreed that if he did a good job, of course we would pay him $25 USD for his time, plus lunch.
Our first stops were to the Amir Timur Mausoleum (sometimes called the Gur-i Amir) and the Registan, both of which I talked about in great detail in this previous post from September 2015, on my first trip with V there.
At the time of our visit, it only cost a couple of dollars to visit the Amir Timur Mausoleum; I think we received a diplomatic discount based on our accreditation cards because my mom paid slightly more. It was well worth the cost, though.
My mom was also impressed by our visit to Registan, one of Uzbekistan’s most famous and easily-recognized attractions. Composed of three main madrassas (or Islamic schools) named for Amir Timur’s descendants and dating back to as early as 1417, the blue of the domes and tiled mosaics are simply stunning. When visiting such a place, you are certain that you are very far from home – at least if you’re from California!
As we were getting ready to leave the Registan, we sensed some weird tension and an increased consolidation of guards in the main plaza. They started waving at people to leave. I was a little annoyed, but figured they had decided to shorten their hours due to the national holiday and we were done anyway. (Several days later, when Uzbek authorities announced that Uzbek President Karimov had actually died but did not disclose precisely when, I surmised that some of the security tension I saw during my mom’s visit could have been related to his illness and potential succession concerns.)
We made our way to lunch, and our awesome driver S managed to find an excellent restaurant that was open.
Our next destination was to the Shah-i-Zinda (“Living King”) complex, which I also previously wrote about after a trip with V. This complex was founded around the 11th century and named for Kusam ibn Abbas, who is said to have died in Samarkand and been named the city’s patron saint. He was also a cousin of the prophet Muhammad. In the following centuries, many of Amir Timur’s descendants were also laid to rest there. We had already been there at least once but it was a terrific thing for my mom to see. She also laughed when a group of young men recognized me and started pointing and waving. Had I interviewed one of them for a visa at some point? No earthly idea, but I was just glad they’d had a positive impression from whatever our interaction had been.
We gave S the extra money, caught our train back to Tashkent, and even rode the famous Tashkent metro, in which – at that time – photographs were not permitted. We also took my one and only trip in a gypsy cab (flagging down strangers for a ride is something embassy security folks don’t condone, and especially for someone as recognizable as I felt I was), crammed into the back of a tiny car sideways and laughing the whole way while V gave directions in the front seat. My mom asked me, “Is it safe?” before we busted up laughing again. Is anything ever, really, other than not living? Our teenage driver had utterly no idea who I was and that suited me just fine. We ended up back at our home tired and dirty, but happy.
One of the things that I appreciated most about my mom’s visit to Uzbekistan, even though there were logistical and bureaucratic aspects of it that were challenging, was the way her time there allowed her to understand more personally what V and I faced living there for two years. To see where we worked, and how we lived, and our familiar car and household belongings in such a faraway land. I think both of my parents always regretted that they hadn’t visited me earlier during my Peace Corps Volunteer service between 2002 and 2004; both had trips planned for the end of my service but instead, I was medically separated and had to return to the U.S. for care. They did not get the opportunity to see me at my site, or experience firsthand the beauty and hospitality of a country that I have talked about a million and a half times since.
It’s one thing to explain the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of a place to someone, and it’s quite another for them to journey there and experience it with you. From what I understand from many of my Foreign Service colleagues, family member willingness to make visits during overseas service is not as common as one would hope, and especially during hardship assignments. My mom certainly proved herself a trooper and came away with some beautiful memories of ancient Uzbekistan… and some wild stories about traffic, food, and law enforcement. I wish you all the visitors you can handle!
[And if you’d like to read more about Uzbekistan, I highly recommend a series from blogger friends of mine which I link to in this prior post.]