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Phespirit goes to Uzbekistan
tour     May/June 2006

Central Asia is probably the least accessible developed region of any continent. The countries of central Asia are afflicted by a mixture of brutal totalitarian dictators, old fashioned Soviet-style bureaucracy, under-developed infrastructures, and - that great paranoia - the latent seeds of Islamic fundamentalism. All of these factors create both physical and mental barriers. Historically, however, this region was an empire on the crossroads of the great trade routes between Europe, Persia, India and China, and as a result it is now blessed with a legacy of some of the most beautiful and grandiose architecture found anywhere on the planet. Phespirit would not allow mental barriers to deny him the chance to see such treasures. If it was physically possible to go, he would go. So he went to Uzbekistan.

An Uzbekistan Airways flight took Phespirit from London Heathrow to the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, in a little over six hours. He arrived at three in the morning, passed through immigration control with a minimum of consternation, collected his bag and headed off to the sixteen-storey Hotel Uzbekistan at the heart of the city. Here he rested until midday, freshened up, changed some money, savoured a fine meal of fried white fish and was thus ready to face the outside world. The money changing ritual was as farcical as Phespirit had known to expect, given that the Uzbeks will only take U.S. dollars and then only if they are in absolute mint condition. Phespirit handed over four five-dollar bills to the two young women behind the change counter; three were rejected for not being crisp enough so Phespirit handed over a ten and a new fiver; the new fiver was still not up to standard so Phespirit found them an even crisper one. At last the pay off: at an exchange rate of 1230 Uzbek sum to the dollar, Phespirit received twenty-three 1000 sum notes (the largest Uzbek note) and three 200 sum notes. After all that fuss they'd still had the nerve to rob him of 1000 sum. Phespirit checked three times, appealed, and finally received his missing note, worth a meagre 45p in U.K. money but after all that rigmarole Phespirit would be damned if he'd let the blighters get away with as much as a penny.

After a look around Tashkent an Uzbekistan Airways internal flight took Phespirit to Urgench, from where he proceded directly to nearby Khiva by coach. The walled inner city of Khiva is one of the most wonderful places that Phespirit has ever visited. Despite the numerous restorations over many centuries it still evokes the heady atmosphere of a dusty oasis city on the Silk Road, utterly out of time with the modern age. How much is genuine and how much psychological, the outsider can never truly know, but tourism is still very much in its infancy. Phespirit dragged himself early out of bed to walk its near-deserted streets at daybreak, all alone and barely able to suppress a mask of awe and delight at the privilege of being in such a place.

From Khiva, Phespirit travelled by coach via Bukhara, Shakhrisabz and Samarkand back to Tashkent. The journey to Bukhara dragged on for over seven tedious hours. After an early crossing of the Amu Darya - the legendary River Oxus of classical times - the landscape settled down to mile after mile of near-featureless desert scrub, occasionally intruded upon by herds of goats, goatherds and their yurts.

The monuments of Bukhara are altogether grander than those of Khiva but a little more isolated from each other and scattered amongst modern buildings. One evening Phespirit slipped away from a show of folk music, dance and fashion at the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah to go walkabout as dusk turned to night. He made his way to the great Poi Kalon square, between Bukhara's most famous mosque and madrassah, where he joined in a football kickabout with some of the local boys. An unlikely moment, and all the more magical for it.

Long road hauls through a barren terrain are not much fun at the best of times but when overnight stomach trouble becomes a terrible affliction in the morning, the level of enjoyment recedes further. Phespirit suffered just such an affliction before starting out on the four and a half hour journey to Shakhrisabz. Mercifully he managed to contain himself but a fellow traveller from Yorkshire was forced to call the coach to an unscheduled stop and hobble off into the desert foliage. When he returned ten minutes later he had composed himself sufficiently to quote ruefully from Rupert Brooke: there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England .....

And so on to Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in Asia, the capital of a mongol empire, a name resonant with the great Silk Road and the gateway to the east. Its monuments echo those of Bukhara, but the Registan ensemble of Samarkand is (in Phespirit's opinion) the grandest spectacle anywhere in Uzbekistan. Phespirit explored each of the three madrassahs before paying a security guard 3000 sum to be allowed up the minaret on the right of the Ulug Beg Madrassah portal, the oldest of the trio. A short ascent lead to a balcony-level entrance to the minaret staircase. Phespirit spiralled up to the top, took some photographs, then came back down again. The interior of the balcony area had the delightful ambiance of a construction site. As Phespirit meandered around to take a few more photographs he stepped on an electrical cable - whereupon about two feet away there was a fizzing bang and a blue flash of electrical discharge. It was just as well Phespirit had recovered from his terrible affliction by that time.

Having survived the electrics of Samarkand, Phespirit completed his circuit back at Tashkent. He had one last mingle with the good folk of Uzbekistan, promenading along the Tashkent Broadway that is Sayilgokh, with its fortune-tellers, food stalls, bars, discos and circus sideshows. After a final relaxing evening at the Hotel Uzbekistan it was time to depart for England. Phespirit's first experience of central Asia had been a great personal milestone in his travels; hugely enjoyable.

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