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Uzbekistan

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Uzbekistan is home to the the mystic towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, situated along the legendary Silk Road. However, Uzbekistan unfortunately is also host of one of the world's most tragical man-induced environmental disasters ever: the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea. If you want to read about our impressions of Uzbekistan in Dutch, then click here. If you don't want to read about Uzbekistan at all but just want a have a visual impression of the country, then go directly to the photo gallery.

We visited Uzbekistan after our journey through Kyrgyzstan in the autumn of 2003. Although Uzbekistan is situated next to Kyrgyzstan, the two countries differ quite a lot. In Uzbekistan, life is more settled, more oriented towards agriculture – you might even call the Uzbek society more “civilized” – if this wouldn’t do injustice to the Kyrgyz. 90 % of the Uzbeks are Islamic, which is quite visible – if only in the incredible extent of hospitality we encountered directly after our arrival in the country: on our first day in Uzbekistan, we were invited by one after another family for a cup of tea - which turned out to be a metaphor for having dinner. Unfortunately, due to these kind invitations, we instantaneously fell prey to severe diarrhoea (Minka) and a serious food poisoning (Wouter), respectively. But after a couple of really dreadful days in Samarqand we more or less recovered from this, owing to an antibiotics treatment. But anyway: don’t speak ill about the Uzbek hospitality!

Uzbekistan is quite an extensive country (about the size of Sweden), bordering on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a somewhat peculiar fashion (apparently according to a Soviet divide-and-conquer strategy). Just like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan tries to scramble up after the sudden independency. But whereas the Kyrgyz president Akaiev is fairly liberal (although not all Kyrgyz are that enthusiastic about him), president Karimov of Uzbekistan is a heavyweight of the old Communist Party that took over power in a somewhat undemocratic way. Hence, he is not very popular among the population, in part because of the harsh measures his government takes. The Uzbek government is facing great problems, such as the low income of the country (which, by the way, is somewhat wealthier than Kyrgyzstan). The Russians once planned to turn Uzbekistan into the cotton supplier of the Sovjet Union, and at this moment cotton is still the main product. But it is hard to survive on raw cotton alone, especially when neighbouring countries te sell it to are poor as well. Uzbekistan thus desperately tries to get some income, but at the same time it is afraid that foreign investors will run away with their products and therefore it blocks any investing initiative. Most land is still state property, and the government decides which products are grown –and by whom. This is unfortunately still mainly cotton, a plant which is not suited at all for the dry climate in Uzbekistan.

In religion as well, Karimov conducts a strict policy: since the government is quite concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, all too strong signs of religion are forbidden (like calling for prayer through a microphone) – although in general, Uzbeks are less stringent Islamic than, for instance, my neighbours in Utrecht.

As you may expect from this, most people don’t like their president – even though they might not say it aloud upon asking, they subtly hold down their thumbs.

It is harrowing to notice that many high-educated people, who are qualified lawyers or doctors, can do nothing but become a taxi driver, since they cannot live on the small salaries for lawyers or doctors. Even more harrowing to see is the way in which nature is abused and exhausted, without consideration of anything but short-term profit.

But for the rest, Uzbekistan really is a beautiful country – not so much regarding the landscape, which is dry and dusty for the most part; its beauty is in its people and in the magnificent old buildings and Silk Road cities. We visited the cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khiva, where dazzling mosques, medressas, and mausoleums can be admired, built far in the past, by megalomaniac, testosterone-overwhelmed dictators – but this doesn’t make them less impressing. Enormously.

Immensely high gates, covered with beautiful, detailed geometric patterns, gleaming turquoise domes... It was a hard time for our poor Canon EOS 300. And for us, of course, since we had to get up very early to record all these gorgeous sunrises among a proper background of domes and minarets.

While already at 6 o’ clock in the morning people in Uzbekistan are busy meticulously sweeping their steps, followed by thoroughly rinsing them with scarce water, they’re less skilful in keeping their toilets clean. Although I am not the tidiest person myself (those who know me well and have ever seen my washing-up, know this), I did not know how to manage those toilets. I even crouched next to a toilet building one time (upon which, of course, a police man came down). In general, it is a sort of cowshed with a couple of low concrete partitions, between which with some effort holes can be discovered that may have been white in the past. Next to these holes, turds of all ages are lying about, and pages from Russian books (which Uzbeks use to wipe their bottoms with) are fluttering around everywhere. Meanwhile, a feeble stream of water is continuously coming from the holes, to weak to flush anything, but not to slowly flood the whole place. And of course I respectfully wear Islam-proof wide pants and have only 2 hands. So at moments like those, I do long for a clean and shiny toilet with flower print toilet paper, a Dual Action Toilet Tablet and of course an anniversary calendar…


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