Tashkent and Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan
For a country with so much outsider interest, home to what was once the largest, most advanced civilisation in the world, Uzbekistan seems oddly insular, with two contrasting narratives on its reputation. On one hand, this country is known for its Silk Road history, and with that comes the beautiful crafts of ceramics, fabrics and silk (obviously), both still produced to mastery in the Fergana Valley. There’s also the vast blue mosques that bring about massive tourism to the country’s west, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
On the other hand, this is the country that makes headlines for an autocratic leader who passed away just one month ago, a Harvard-educated corrupt businesswoman/popstar daughter who he put under house arrest (which she is still under) several years ago, the use of torture with rumoured tactics such as boiling opponents alive, massacreing over 500 peacefully protesting citizens in the Fergana Valley in 2005, and modern slavery in the form of forcing citizens young and old to work in cotton fields for next to nothing. Not so much in the headlines but in everyday reality is that the currency is inflating severely, with a black market exchange running twice as high as the bank rate, and the highest bill available (5000 som) still less than US$1 black market, causing everyone to carry and use giant stacks of money on a regular basis. Also, while not terribly intrusive, inconveniences abound — police checks, registering at every place you stay at as a foreigner, surveillance measures seemingly designed to project a sense of danger and government protection, like getting out of a share taxi outside of a gas station or crossing a bridge on foot or having to remove headphones in a car or draw down the curtains in a train when going through a tunnel. The first assumption upon visiting would be some sort of dystopia of fearful, unhappy citizens.
Hardly. Instead, it’s obvious when walking around that Uzbekistan is the second-richest Stan in Central Asia. People openly bring up the topic of so-far-only president Islam Karimov’s death and the tears they shed (well, everywhere but the Fergana Valley). And at least tangentially, people allude gratefully to the actions he’s taken to keep the country stable, fracturing hardline Islamic terrorism, and their newfound prosperity. I’m constantly being welcomed to Uzbekistan and asked how I like the country. The populace is quite educated, and it seems many more here speak English — good English! — than in the other Stans. And sure, while music and its accompanying videos are almostly universally in the form of singers standing in front of the country’s famous sites, looking around as if there for the first time, or singing about the sights in front of a backdrop of the flag, you get the sense that while probably state-controlled, it comes from a genuine sentiment. Whether or not they know of the wrongs, there is much they clearly feel is being done right, and they’re proud of their country.