After the oriental cities in Uzbekistan, Tashkent meant a big change. The capital of the central Asian country sports a majority of inhabitants of Russian descendence but also the architecture is very much influence by the Russian period.
To travel from Samarkand to Tashkent I again opted for the Sharq-Express and thus travel by train. The arguments for the train were straightfordward: the train leaves just after 11am and thus at a convenient time and it is just as fast as shared taxis. I took the marshrutka from the Registan to the train station only to wait quite some time for the train. Part of the waiting time was due to me being early, the other part due to 20 minutes delay the train had on this Wednesday.
There was however one big additional convenience over the last time I had taken the train: the heating was working this time. While I had to wear my heavy jacket on the way from Bukhara to Samarkand on the train, I didn’t need it this time. The other passengers, mostly traveling from Bukhara to Tashkent, were all comfortably installed and enjoyed a synchronized Bollywood movie.
After about 4 hours we reached our first stop Tashkent. In Tashkent I made my first experience with the police state of Uzbekistan. Not as bad as it used to be, I didn’t have to pass them any money, but the police are still omnipresent and not just as decoration. At each underpass and metro station, there is at least one uniformed person, who checks luggage and papers according to their mood. Right at the train station I had the honor of being checked for bombs in my backpack, my passport was thoroughly checked and I had to answer a few questions. The whole things was harmless and only cost time.
After a ride of six stations on the metro I reached the Chorsu Bazaar, from where I walked the remaining few hundred meters to the Gulnara B&B. I immediately was shown a room with en-suite bathroom, which was expensive compared to the other places I stayed at and not even negotiating helped. The price was not out of the world and apparently Tashkent is more expensive than the smaller cities in Uzbekistan and thus I took the room. The particularity in this room is the fact that it is located on the second floor, for which the water pressure is not sufficient. Thus I had to ask downstairs if I wanted to take a shower for them to switch on the water pump, otherwise there was only warm or actually almost boiling hot water.
The manager of the B&B immediately had some bad news for me. The following Thursday, December 8 is Constitution Day in Uzbekistan and thus all the offices are closed. He even told me that the people in Uzbekistan also take bridge days off, such that many places would be closed for the following four days. The Chinese embassy could be no exception at being closed. But as I had learned in Samarkand, every person in Uzbekistan is a business person and thus there was hope that he just wanted me to stay at his B&B for a few extra days.
Since there definitely was not much to do on a public holiday I decided to sleep in and still get all the papers together for the visa. I wanted to find out how long it takes to get from the B&B to the embassy, since I wanted to be at the front of the queue on Friday, which meant I had to be there around 8:30am. Additionally I am a very optimistic person and thought that for some reason they might still be open.
The wonder of the embassy being open unfortunately was too much hoped for, since the consular section of the embassy, where one can apply for visas, is only open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9am to 12am. Fortunately the security guard on duty spoke some English and he let me know that the embassy would be open the next day. Additionally a few papers attached to the fence in front of the embassy added to my hope of getting a visa without any hassles. They showed which parts of the application form has to be filled in and the necessary documents for foreigners applying for a tourist visa. Since I had everything on me, there was nothing I could do but start discovering the city of Tashkent.
After the oriental cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand one definitely has arrived in the former Soviet union in Tashkent. The modern city center is definitely Russian: the wide roads with spacious sidewalks, tree-lined streets and big colorful buildings. It is not the tall, ugly apartment buildings which describe Russian architecture, but usually one to three story buildings in different colors and lots of room, such that the single person almost gets lost in the big space. It is a very nice and welcoming cityscape where one feels nice and welcoming.
The first square I investigated was Amir Timur maydoni. Designed as a huge roundabout, Timur, who in the times under president Karimov became the national hero, on his horse decorates the center of the square. National pride overlooks the fact of how ruthless and brutal Timur extended his empire in the 14th century.
Heading West I reached the next big square, Mustaqillik maydoni, the Independence Square, a large park which is bordered by the senate building on one side and decorated with a Crying Mother statue. In every larger city the president had erected a statue of the Crying Mother to commemorate the victims of World War 2. It is interesting that all newer statues are labeled with a small sign indicating that the monument was built on the president’s initiative. It is him who has been presiding over this country since the revolution, a former communist, who installed a very effective police state. Compared to his equivalents in Turkmenistan at least he didn’t build any golden statues of himself.
Unfortunately I was not allowed to pass in front of the senate building, due to some festivities of Constitution Day and thus I had to turn away. On my further way I found a nice restaurant where I had lunch.
After being restrengthened I headed back to Amir Timur maydoni on a different route from where I headed North in the direction of the television tower. Right next to the tall tower there is a nice park where people were recording videos for a music video. I decided not to offer my services neither in front nor behind the camera.
To head back to the city center I wanted to use the metro again, but I had no idea where the next stop was. I asked some random person, who allowed me to practice my Russian. I thus learned that he is a coach for fencing and I was able to tell him a little bit about myself. He pointed me to the metro station where I happened to meet my to date favorite policeman in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately I did not measure the time he took to investigate my passport with the visa and all of my registration slips to possibly find a weak spot. One has to understand that once you enter Uzbekistan you are required to register with the OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration) within three days. Additionally one has to register in every place where one is staying for at least three nights. Whenever one is staying for three nights in a hotel, the hotel will perform the registration, but for people traveling by bicycle and staying in a tent the issue becomes more complicated. Fortunately I had an immaculate record of registration from the day of entry up to the present day, the visa was still valid and my passport was fine anyway. Eventually he thanked me for my cooperation and let me go without any further discussion. In such situation it is good to stay calm and let the fellow do his job.
At the guesthouse I met Hannah and Damien from England and Australia respectively. The two had been riding their bicycles for 122 days, which was the second stretch out of 3 or 4 of a greater trip leading them from London, where Hannah is from, to Brisbane, where Damien is from. The two have established their way of life, which consists of a few months of work followed by a few months of traveling. Their first stretch on the cycle tour had brought them from London to Bukarest in Romania, from where their second stretch brought them to Tashkent. They decided to interrupt their journey due to the weather, which has gotten quite cold for cycling and camping. They were currently returning on the quickest way via Moscow and Hong Kong to Brisbane. The most remarkable thing about the two is that they have gotten used to fundamentaly change their view about things, people or countries. For example Hanna was not very keen to travel through Iran when they set off, but afterwards was really fascinated by the people and their hospitality.
My focus clearly lay on Friday, the day I was supposed to get the Chinese visa. How would everything work out? Would I get the visa? For how many days would I get the visa?
I had asked in the guesthouse, whether it was possible to get breakfast at 7am, since I wanted to be at the embassy well before 9am. The manager said he would make it possible and he told the lady preparing the breakfast to be there just before 7am. Finally the lady and I ended up meeting at the door of the guesthouse, when I was leaving for the embassy, after I had waited for 20 minutes for the breakfast. I even had offered to skip breakfast completely but the manager had none of it.
The ride from the guesthouse to the Chinese embassy went so smoothly that I already arrived at 8:10am. I did not really rejoice knowing I had to wait for the embassy to open for about 50 minutes. Probably due to the bridge day, only 3 more applicants for visas showed up until the embassy finally opened at 9:20am. Being the first in the queue I could immediately hand over my application. Two minor corrections had to be made, before they finally accepted my application and told me to come back the same day at 5pm. I also was surprised that they only asked 80US$ for the visa, 40US$ for the visa itself and another 40US$ for the urgent handling. The payment almost failed, since the 100US$ bills I had gotten from the National Bank of Uzbekistan lacked a little bit of color around where they were folded. Fortunately my last bill passed their quality control and the whole application was on its way. I was just curious if there would be last minute problems…
Finally I had to spend the day waiting. Nothing better to do while waiting than drinking tea. The first tea was to warm up again after my feet had gotten quite cold. The second tea was due when I needed to go to a bathroom and I didn’t just want to walk into a café for using their bathroom. Ok, the cakes in the café also looked quite inviting, so there might have been another reason as well.
On Friday I intended to visit another two parks in Tashkent. The first one was the Seattle Peace Park. This is a small corner in the Bobur Park where all the surroundings of the flower beds are decorated by tiles painted by school children from Seattle and Tashkent in the eighties to demonstrate against the Cold War. I am really interested what happened to all the children involved in this action and what they think about it and the state of the world in general today.
The last park I visited in Tashkent was Navoi Park. I somehow missed a turn and got to see the Uzbek part of Tashkent while finding my way back to the park. One immediately realizes how the character of the city changes, with no more wide alleys, no more impressive buildings, but much livelier streets. In Navoi Park I became Uzbekistan’s least wanted by disturbing many couples who were hiding in the park. In almost every corner a couple was hiding and enjoying the little privacy they had, I had no way to walk for 50 meters without causing another couple to let go for a couple of minutes of each other.
When I finally had crossed Navoi Park, I even dared to use the metro with only a copy of my passport and visa. The policemen seemed to memorize the paper in front of him, this is how detailed he looked at every single line. Finally he was able to let go of it and I could use the metro to head back to Amir Timur maydoni. There I walked into the post office to mail a few postcards. However I have little hope that they will actually arrive, since the fellow grabbed the money and did not really seem enthusiastic to put any stamps on the postcards. At least he stamped them, so there is at least a tiny chance, that the postcards will arrive after all.
Just before 5pm, I arrived at the Chinese embassy, where I unceremoniously received my passport including a tourist visa for China with a validity of 60 days. One difference I noted to a Chinese tourist visa issued in Europe was that I had 4 months time to enter the country, whereas from Europe I had had to enter the country within 50 days. I was very happy to have gotten the visa for 60 days, which made me wonder whether I should have applied for 90 days. But apparently the extension of the visa poses no problem, thus I was happy with the 60 days and stopped worrying about the ifs and buts.
When picking up the visa, I met a hectic Russian lady who was traveling through Kazakhstan to Urumqi in China. When I told her about my plans, she wildly started calling people, since she had met somebody in Andijon who could provide me with a ride and so on. I noted all the phone numbers she gave me and eventually let her catch her bus to Kazakhstan.
The obtention of the Chinese visa was a reason for me to celebrate, which I did by finding a nice restaurant and eating and drinking whatever good things they had. Since a few weeks I finally had some fresh pommegrenade juice again, a little sour but still very good. Now I only had to flip the switch from visas to traveling and moving on again. Suddenly everything went quite quickly again.