Uzbekistan, Getting There: October 1, 2014
We are in Uzbekistan. We arrived in Tashkent about 5:40 a.m. along with the passengers of six other international flights. We wanted to quickly clear immigration so, regrettably, I passed up the toilet with a long line of women waiting. Immigration was easy and fast with our new Uzbek Visas pasted into our passports. Once past immigration, it was a nightmare: no toilets, hundreds of sleep-deprived passengers waiting for their luggage, and the luggage cart gridlock created by Uzbeks importing TVs, appliances, and other huge bundles.
It took almost two hours to receive our baggage, complete the necessary documents on which we had to declare every cent of foreign currency (two copies, please), and pass through a second customs stop for a certificate because we had so much foreign currency. The Uzbek government wants to make sure that you leave with no more cash than you brought in. The cash declarations must be surrendered to Customs upon departure.
The US and Uzbekistan don't have much of a banking relationship, and, Uzbeks don't want to be paid in their own very devalued currency. This is why we brought a lot of US dollars to Uzbekistan. The official exchange rate is about 2,000 Sum to $1 USD. The unofficial exchange rate is 3,000 Sum to $1 USD. Most Uzbek citizens walk around with 1,000 Sum notes bundled in 10,000 stacks. Most prices are in USD because that is what merchants prefer to get. Uzbek currency has 200, 500, 1000, and 2000 notes. Uzbek coins are rare and not used as they have no value.
Finally, outside the airport and across the street from the terminal, we met our guide. Only ticketed passengers are allowed close to the terminal. All greeters, taxi drivers, friends and family must wait across the street. Recently, the airport has installed an espresso machine to help thaw those that will be waiting in the cold.
Azat, our guide, was very acquainted with the trauma experienced by incoming tourists. He immediately took us to our hotel and told us to go to sleep. Our tour of Tashkent officially and considerately began about 1pm. We were still a little dazed, but the afternoon tour was gentle. We visited the former Abdul Khasim Madrassah (religious school) that has been converted into The Meros Centre for Traditional Arts with studios for wood carvers, ceramicists, and miniaturists. We strolled around Independence Square; the Lenin statue (once the largest one in the world) was replaced in 1992 by a globe showing only the Independent Republic of Uzbekistan. A statue of "mother" holding a baby and looking very much like a statue of the Madonna and Child sits below the globe. The population of Uzbekistan is predominately muslim. Our guide said "mother" was the only figure that the population could agree on for a Lenin replacement. Tamerlane (Amir Timur) is the other symbol of the Independent Republic of Uzbekistan.
There seems to be no trace of the ancient Silk Road city in Tashkent. Tashkent is an ultra modern city with wide boulevards, expansive parks, and about three million residents.
With the "getting here" part of the trip a bad dream, we sunk back into our hotel bed with hopes that the rest of our vacation would be much easier.