Uncomfortable in Uzbekistan: A Good Place to Leave

Posted on July 15, 2012

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NOTE: This will be my last post about Central Asia. However, my travels for the summer aren’t done yet. I’ll continue to update this blog once or twice a week, I hope, as I first wander around the Inland Northwest and then drive the circumference of America.

I’ll have to begin this post with an apology. I know I’ve promised every day for the past week—to myself, to individuals, and to the collective Internet itself—to write some final posts on Uzbekistan and the close of our trip. And everyday I’ve failed. But I think I know why that is.

I’ve failed to write for the past two or three days because I’ve returned to my childhood home in Spokane, Washington. I’m sitting here in my little corner of the cool, tiled basement, snug amongst heaps of curios and papers that have somehow found their way here in the ebb and flow of my father’s constant redecorations and rearrangements of the house. And it’s too damn comfortable. I can never get any good or substantial writing done when I’m here because I’m usually too content to nest and hibernate in my little den.

A degree of discomfort (I suppose I’ve come to believe this slowly over the past few years, or at least it is a truth for me) is vital to productivity, especially as regards writing. After all, it’s only in perturbed waters that the detritus rises from the bottom and swirls into new constellations, drawing out something worth seeing from that which, when left stagnant, was dull and commonplace at its most benign, poisonous at its worst. And that’s the nice thing about travel, or at least travel done as I like it: it’s a delightfully productive discomfort (and perhaps that plays a part in the often annoying habit of other travelers I meet to exoticize foreign lands into promised lands).

But there is such a thing as too much discomfort. And that’s exactly, I suspect, why I had trouble writing while in Bukhara and Samarkand. I’ve not come fully to terms with these thoughts, so they are half-baked, but it seems to me that once discomfort becomes something less incidental, more externally imposed, systematic, and/or dire, it has a more corrosive effect on the mind, body and soul than the simple lethargy of comfort and habit. That discomfort becomes oppressive and paranoiac—conditions under which the most brilliant and resilient can thrive, but under which the rest of us just trundle about. And here’s where I get to tie it into Uzbekistan.

In my last post, I obliquely referred to our land border crossing into Uzbekistan, but it’s worth going into a bit more detail here to set things up. My bag on this trip was minimal—less than a week’s worth of clothing, a couple of cheap electronic gadgets and other odds and ends, and a few emergency medical supplies (which really only came in handy to patch up Dean in Kyrgyzstan). Among those medical supplies were some assorted pills to treat the usual traveler’s ailments.

Now, at the Uzbek border, you must fill out a form (with piss poor instructions) detailing everything of value you have on you. You must fill out this form two times, and they frown on using anything other than a black pen, and refuse to let you cross out and rewrite something, instead forcing you to fill out another form. The goal is to itemize the affects of the traveler so as to insure that they do not leave the nation with more wealth, especially in consumer goods or national currency, than they entered the country with. The effect is to bottleneck a wreck of sweating and irritable old women, squalling children, and nervous backpackers within sight of Uzbek soil.

One by one, a guard summons you into a big room with a little steel table, where they ask you to empty all the contents of your bag for their inspection. I, being the first of our party through the door and thus the sacrificial lamb, was asked to itemize and account for the provenance and purpose of every item in my bag, to show and explain almost every photo on my camera, and to listen to the guard rag on America and the stupidity of our passports as he inspected my visa. Then he found my medicines.

I’m not fluent in the languages of the region, but when a man with a gun picks up a packet of pills, points at you, and starts screaming “narco, narco, narco!” you learn where you stand real quick. Three times throughout the inspection, I was shouted down by the guard, who seemed intent on getting me to admit that I was trafficking drugs into Uzbekistan. Then another two times, I was shouted down with the intent of getting me to admit that I was a Wahabi Muslim subversive (it’s less ridiculous when you consider that, with a deep tan, I don’t look obviously Christian-American to Central Asians, many of whom were convinced I was an immigrant to America rather than native born).

This whole process was repeated in full three hours later when crossing the border between provinces, and echoed in miniature every time one tried to walk into a train station in the nation. It’s spirit was visible when the drivers we’d catch rides with would just slip a few thousand som into their registration papers, a pre-programmed bribe for the most corrupt military police I’ve yet encountered in my life. And the government feels it must remind you more benignly of that oppressive power, observation, and suspicion by forcing you to register (for a fee) with its operatives in every city you travel to within the nation.

I’ll say this much of Uzbekistan: it’s a beautiful place, and possibly one of the better endowed nations in the region with regards to those artifacts of history and faith that interest me as an individual. Walking down a street in Bukhara’s old town, you know that every building is awash in memory and power, but not in that static and preserved way we often encounter—in a vital and developing way as the historic continues to be occupied by men and women who imbibe its meaning, but imbue their own spirit and story to the place.

But it’s also clear that there’s a real attempt by the central government to control the way the story of the nation develops, not through a soft power like Nazarbayev’s in Kazakhstan, but through blunt and repetitive force of egoic vision. Take Samarkand, for instance, which a Swiss man dismissively described to me as “an assemblage of historical sites.” It’s an apt description—just a couple of years ago, the Uzbek government used a good chunk of its wealth to overhaul Central Asia’s city of myth, fable, history, and poetry. The façade of every major historical site was refurbished to fit the glitz image of what a Golden Era Samarkand was, while all the smaller artifacts of life around the Shah-i-Zinda or the Registan were bulldozed and replaced by clean concrete and pert trees lining a long boulevard. Blight walls were erected between the historical sites and the old town of Samarkand itself in the most literal manifestation of a mindset present in many nations with deep social woes but a heavy flow of tourism: funnel them to the sites, shield them from the nation itself, and take as much of their money as you can.

I’ve alluded enough to some of the actors and the motives involved in these practices above, but I suppose here’s as good a place as any to make some notes on Uzbekistan as a whole. If pushed to describe the nation very simply, I’d call it the closest thing to the Soviet Union still intact on the planet, but robbed of all the USSR’s unseen virtues and instead ironically gifted with all the worst eccentricities and abuses of the communist system. It’s ruled, as it ever was, by the megalomaniacal President Islam Karimov, who … well, perhaps the best way I can describe him is as such: in Tashkent, the capital, there was at one time, I am told, a pleasant central park area, lined with big poplars under which old men with chess boards and bushy beards would congregate in the summer shade. In the background was a statue of Amir Timur on his steed. A few years back, Karimov had the chess players evicted and the trees cut down as they did not gel with his vision of Uzbekistan, and he wanted those in the city center to have a better view of his iron and concrete monstrosity modern buildings. It’s not known whether he or another did this, but the “unsightly” genitals of Amir Timur’s horse were also removed around the same time.

To itemize a few more of Karimov and company’s post-Soviet eccentricities before I make all explicit: Karimov has used his power and personality to promote his daughter, Gulnara (aka Googoosha) as the nation’s top socialite and singer to the detriment of other artists in the nation. He has locked the value of the currency against the dollar, resulting in a vibrant black market trade at the fair rate; he also refuses to accept inflation and as such all bills are in inadequate denominations and few have been printed in the last decade. He fervently refuses to allow the diversification of crops in the nation, preferring to continue the Soviet-era monoculture of cotton and the usage of gang-pressed semi-slave labor and child labor to harvest that cotton as the crop itself slowly saps the life out of the non-supportive soils. He promotes the communist-era state-approved version of Islam, calling everything else in Islam an aberration of terrorist intentions and persecuting it wildly. We also have it on some good evidence that the Uzbek government’s preferred method of interrogation is to place its prisoners in giant vats of boiling water.

Now to drive it home painfully, Uzbekistan is a police state. For writing this, I have no doubt that I will not be allowed back into the country for some time, which is fine as I’d rather not return until the current regime has fizzled out in the muffled, long-drawn, and universally painful collapse that is imminent for it. But that’s just what it is—the Soviet era police state devoid of the wealth redistribution, affirmative action, educational initiatives, and some other programs that gave the Soviet regime some redeeming value in Central Asia. And it lacks even the courtesy to be subtle about its totalitarianism. The state is ubiquitous, intrusive, and belligerent in the daily life of the foreigner especially (Mike and I joked that we were staying in the Samarkand Panopticon), but of the everyday citizen in a way that is mundane, but grating and, I have no doubt, exhausting.

For a bit of color, I’ll admit that it was all the more grating for Mike and I as we’d begun to reach the end of our wits and patience for dealing with this sort of government by the time we hit Uzbekistan. We were at this point hot-potatoing some manner of illness and were both filthy and exhausted. Just as I’ve refrained from saying too much about the nicer aspects of the city because my photos on Facebook do a finer job, I’ll refer you to the picture of Mike in a Turkmen hat, smoking a cigarette and holding a beer, which sums up well our mental and physical state at that point.

Uzbekistan’s a fine case study in many things. It’s a good comparative study against Kazakhstan for the approaches to post-Soviet realities and cultural legacies. It’s a good comparative against the rest of the region as to how to build a state, an identity, a future. It’s almost as good as Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan for discussing personality cults and their attendant power. But what good is it to be a good study for a foreign observer such as me, when what’s to be observed is so damned depressing? No, no, I’ll be quite happy when Karimov is good and gone.

Uzbekistan was a good place to end our trip. It fits well with a curatorial bent in my itinerary planning to move us from nomadic to sedentary cultures, from the Mongolic to the Turco-Persianid, from lesser to greater degrees of colonial and Soviet skullduggery. It’s a capstone for the trip as far as the image and history of Central Asia is concerned and typically represented. But, in total, it was just a good place to leave.

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