If you want to make your mark in Uzbekistan, your name remembered amid such conquerors as Alexander the Great, Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, just leave your graffiti among the many thousand that already cover the walls of the Topchan hostel in the capital Tashkent. They say thanks in various ways for modest accommodation in a communal setting where you can find trekkers from neighboring mountainous Kyrgyzstan, Russians escaping military mobilization at home and others with no clear purpose other than enjoying themselves. A friendly Russian woman has “amoura” inscribed on her shirt, obviously a true globalist.
For a change in mood, try the Amelia hotel in the medieval city of Bukhara, where alleys meander who knows where? And rugs are on display as far as the eye can see. This hotel does not welcome contributions to its walls. They are already elaborately covered with remarkable, colorful patterns of design that reflect the artistry of the great buildings outside. Inside or out, you are treated to the beauty of Uzbekistan.
It’s a land of striking contrasts. The Soviets did their best to impose their doctrine on elements of Tashkent, the largest city in Central Asia and the fourth largest in the former Soviet Union. But somehow urban planning went awry and nature intervened. Tree-lined streets make it a pleasure to drive and large parks appear surprisingly often in a lovely, livable city. Nothing like spending part of a sunny afternoon with an affable Russian in his favorite beer garden.
Another aspect of life is furnished by the museum of the victims of repression in Tashkent. Photos, documents and personal belongings testify to the brutality that forms so much of the history of Uzbekistan from Tsarist tyranny to Stalin’s murderous purges. Uzbeks have had to live with the worst, perhaps sustained in part by the beauty surrounding them. Despite their trials, a resolute, basically cheerful people has emerged. Hardy males seem much at ease. Women, more subdued, may or may not be covered. Younger ones are more lively and occasionally can be seen in short skirts. Uzbekistan is Islamic, but of a relaxed nature. It’s not Iran. Uzbeks admire the great religious buildings among which they live, but also enjoy them. They’re part of everyday life.
Uzbekistan is authoritarian. One man rule is the norm, as demonstrated by long time ruler Islam Karimov, who enhanced the country while carefully containing it. Serious opposition is not allowed, and Uzbeks are careful about what they say, particularly about their country. Others like Russia and America are fair game. The Ukraine war is the main topic of conversation, inspired in part by the Russians who have come to Uzbekistan to avoid being put into the military. They seem to be influenced more by American media than by Putin’s explanations. One Russian even says he wouldn’t mind if U.S. forces came right up to the Russian border. That’s a stretch. He may not be aware of contemporary America and the role of the neocons in promoting a highly aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Like the Bolsheviks before them whom they admire, they would like to remake Russia in their own image if given the chance. Better keep a close watch on that border.
There’s probably no more fervent foe of Putin in Uzbekistan than Aziza, the doughty proprietor of the Antica B&B in Samarkand, famed for its breakfast delicacies served in a pleasant garden. Mention Russia, and she is aflame. She has decided that no one supportive of Putin will stay at her guest house, which has cost her some business. Russian occupation is down from 80% to 20% since it’s a matter of principle before profit. A featured guest is Pepe Escobar, who writes about efforts to revive the ancient Silk Route connecting the nations of Eurasia. An alert staffer discovered some praise of Putin in one of his pieces. “You’re no longer welcome here,” announced Aziza, as he protested he couldn’t survive without her breakfasts. At the time I left, the issue was unresolved.
Going further, imagine if President Putin, in search of a simple life, should ask for a room at Antica. It would be an epic encounter worthy of history books. Who would win?