A Trip to UZBEKISTAN

When the opportunity came to travel to Uzbekistan to look at the Energy market, I took it without hesitation. I thought I could also go to Kazakistan and Turkmenistan before heading back to Turkey. Since getting a business visa would take time with many formalities, I contacted Elma Tour in Istanbul at the recommendation of the Uzbekistan Embassy in Ankara and obtained a tourist visa in Istanbul within a week, although at a cost almost three times had I obtained in New York. I also made my hotel reservations through the Elma Tour Agent which works with the Uzbek tour, since I was going to a country for the first time which, I though, would still be functioning under the old Soviet system. My trip proved this to be the case.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, one of five Central Asian countries, proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics on August 31, 1991, less than 7 years ago. It is in the mist of political and economic change and has selected Turkey as a model in many aspects. In fact, Turkey was the first country to recognise Uzbekistan and travelling as a Turk proved its privileges, as I witnessed first hand. As of this writing, the Turkish Prime Minister is on an official visit to Uzbekistan, where he and a large delegation of Ministers, Parliamentarians and Businessmen have been warmly welcomed, followed by a trip to Krygystan.
Uzbekistan used to be a part of greater Turkistan before its break-up by the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. During the Russian rule, the area used to be referred to as Middle Asia plus Kazakhstan. The other countries are Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan. East Turkistan, which is under the Chinese control and referred to as Xinjiang was also a part of the old Turkistan. Most doubt the unification of all these Central Asian countries as a single country, Turkistan, even though there are efforts along that line. If the European Union becomes the United States of Europe, there is no reason why a United States of Central Asia can not established and even include Azerbaican and may be Turkey so Turks don’t need to worry about being left out of the European Union.

The Energy Sector
Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources and one of the top ten countries in natural gas production. One of my friends there reminded me what Lenin had once said that Communism would result from Soviet Power plus the electrification of the country. I can’t say much about the Soviet power or the fate of communism, but much has been achieved on the electrification of Uzbekistan. In fact there is a surplus of electrical energy, which is exported to Kazakistan. The Ministry of Energy has 37 power plants in operation with a total capacity of 11,200 MW, almost half of Turkey’s installed capacity although the population of Uzbekistan is only a third of Turkey, about 23 million. Per capita electricity consumption is 2662 Kwh, almost twice that of Turkey. Only 15 percent of the power generation is by coal and hydro, the rest by natural gas, which is abundant. The objective of the Government is to privatise the generation, transmission and the distribution of electricity, hence the reason for interest in foreign investors and developers, such as Edison Mission Energy.

From Istanbul to Taskent

The flight from Istanbul to Taskent was scheduled for 8:00 PM on Friday, April 3rd and the big jumbo jet A320, the pride of Turkish Airlines, left on time. The flight was pretty full and the Turkish music on the channels was excellent, which made the four hours flight enjoyable. We landed around 2:30 am in the morning and it didn’t take long to go through the customs, except we had to filll in two forms, declaring all the currency we had in our possession. They told us to keep the form and present it on exit. I did not realise until later that the pretty Russian customs agent had stamped the wrong date in my passport.

It was a relief to see my name on a board held by the company representative from Ekinciler who had come to pick me up. But, he said, we had to wait for the Uzbekistan flight from Istanbul which was bringing a package for the company, scheduled to land around 4:00 am. While waiting, I started to chat with others who were also waiting for the Uzbekistan flight. I met an Uzbek who spoke fluent Turkish. He had studied in Turkey, one of may be ten thousand who were sent to Turkey from the Central Asian Turkic Republics, and now was working for a Turkish Company in Taskent. I also met a Turkish entrepreneur who spoke fluent Uzbek. He had been in Taskent for almost 7 years, first as a teacher at the Turkish Lise and now as a manager at a Department Store owned by a Turkish Firm. He gave me his telephone numbers, which came in very handy later on.

The businessman that brought the package for the company finally came out around 5:30 am, and said that he needed a ride to go to his friends house. We all got into the car and dropped the businessman off first. He was from Arac, near Kastamonu, my father’s hometown. By the time we came to my hotel, it was almost 7:00 am. The lady at the registration desk, with a stern face and who spoke only Russian said that I had no reservations. I showed her the letter voucher indicating my reservation. Finally she said okay but I could stay only one night after paying half the rate for that day since the check out time was 12 noon. I had mentioned to the company man that I wanted to travel to Semarkant by train. He said he would go to the train station and pick up the ticket for me, and also get some Uzbek currency. Even though they had to drive 7 hours to where their textile factory was, the largest in Uzbekistan, they wanted to make sure that I had what I needed. Tey left to the train station and I went up to my small room in the huge hotel that looked ancient.

After an hour I was awaken by a knock on the door. It was the driver, an Uzbek with a pretty good command of Turkish. He told me that the immigration officer at the train station had confiscated my passport and we had to go there to get it back and hopefully buy the ticket at the train station, almost 18 kilometres from Taskent. I got dressed in a hurry and with the company representative we drove through Taskent’s wide avenues. Instead of going to the ticket office, we walked into an immigration office near the train station. A Russian immigration officer who did not speak Uzbek, which I found out later to be common, showed me to a chair in front of his desk. The driver in Uzbek and Turkish tried to tell me that the officer was trying to help me because there was a problem with my visa. I asked the officer what the problem was, first in English, than in Turkish. He shook his head and took my passport out of the drawer and showed me the entry date over the Uzbek visa. I couldn’t make out the date, I could barely see a 4, but the officer wrote on a piece of paper 22/01/98 and 04/04/98 , and pointed to 30 days . He tried to explain that I had over stayed my 30 days in Uzbekistan I showed him my ticket, which clearly showed 03/04/98 as the travel day from Istanbul to Taskent.

For over half an hour we tried to communicate with signs with the help of the driver. The company representative was staying away since he said he had some problems with his own passport. I was getting annoyed with not much sleep and at one point I banged on the desk, stating that I demanded my passport back and that I was going back to Istanbul and not to Semarkant. The officer kept putting my passport back in the drawer,

The driver trying to say that he was looking for some payment to correct the problem. Finally he gave me my passport and we drove to Uzbekistan Airlines office to purchase a ticket. After visiting 3 different windows, first to make reservation, than to make payment, and third to pick up the ticket, we were finished in about an hour. The cost of the ticket about $19.00, not bad, same as the train ticket the driver said. The driver also went to a nearby store to change some money for me, telling me that he could get about twice the official exchange rate. I gave him $100.00. He came back with two packs of Uzbek banknote, worth over 15,000 Sums. The smallest denomination was 1 Sum, the largest 100 Sum, but no coins. They dropped me off at the hotel and started their drive to the textile factory and I went back to sleep.

Taskent and the presence of Emir Timur

After about an hour’s sleep, I went to the hotel restaurant and had lunch, consisting of meat, potatoes, vegetables and salad, all mixed in one plate, and it tasted pretty good. The waitress, a pretty Uzbek, brought over the calculator, showing me the cost, only 280 sum, less than $1.50.

I was ready to tour the famous city of Taskent, which was leveled in 1968 after a major earthquake. 30,000 volunteers from all over Soviet Union they say rebuilt the city with wide boulevards, pedestrian walkways with trees, everywhere. It has the Central Asia’s only metro and I had a map with me, showing the two routes. The third line was under construction. The metro station was only two blocks away from the Hotel. As I was walking towards the station, I decided to ask someone where Hotel Uzbekistan was, according to my map, was located almost at the centre of the city and next to the big park with the statue of Karl Marx. I met Usman Kysupov Tumani who said that the Metro was two blocks away and inquired about my plans. When I told him that I was from Turkey, which he said he knew from my appearance, and that I wanted to see Taskent. He said that he was also going to spend some time visiting some museums and volunteered to show me around, after showing me his ID stating that he was a tax collector. He bought some tokens, plastic, which I found out later, was only 10 sums, less than 10 cents on official exchange rate, and we boarded the train at the Puskin station. Like all the metro stations, this one was beautiful with high ceilings and art works on the walls. Taskent is one of the largest ancient cities in Central Asia and capital of Uzbekistan. Along with Semarkand and Bukhara, it used to be on the famous Great Silk Road, which also went across Turkey along several routes. According to information from Uzbekistan web pages, the city dates back to 2nd century BC, known than as Chach. It was famous for its metal works, woven cotton and woollen clothes, ceramics, jewellery, gold and precious stones from Bizantium and China. It still has centres for the same arts and crafts works. Today, with a population of more than 2 million people, Taskent is the largest industrial centre in Central Asia that manufactures modern aircraft, cars and generates excess electricity, which they sell to nearby countries. Besdes being industrialised, it is also the centre of cultural and artistic life. Taskent has 20 museums and 9 theatres. On my first and return visit to Taskent, I visited several of them and spent some time at the Applied Arts Museum where I met just about all the museum attendants, all women. Some wanted to sell me stuff that they were creating while keeping watch, but all of them wanted to have their pictures taken when they saw me with my camera, which I did, with a promise to send copies to all of them.

We first went to visit the Museum of Emir Timur, a beautiful circular building with a dome, built only two years ago. It is covered with glazed tiles and there are huge murals inside the museum and large paintings. The place was full of visitors, including a group from Russia. In fact, I was told that Lenin had issued a decree for the restoration of the many historical buildings in Uzbekistan, which is still ongoing today.
We also went to the Museum of History, visited the Seattle Peace Park, built by Americans from Seattle – one of Taskent’s sister cities – and poet Alisher Navoi park where a newly wed couple had their pictures taken. Alisher Novoi is a national treasure

With his statues everywhere. We also walked along the Ataturk Boulevard the only street that I know named after one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and saw several Turkish restaurants, such as the Istanbul cafe.

From Taskent to Semarkant

Since Tuesday was the Religious Holiday of Feast of sacrifice, most Government workers took Monday off too, although across the country the official holiday is only one day. In Turkey, the 4 days holiday was extended to 9 days. Therefore, I decided to leave Taskent a day early and come back on Friday to meet with the officials from the Ministry of Energy. My flight to Semarkand was at 11:00 am. I took a taxi to the airport, which was under renovation and expansion, by a Yugoslavian contractor, and the taxi driver could not drive up to the departure gates. The flight to Semarkant on a small propeller plane took less than an hour. From the airport I took a cab to Hotel Semarkant , which was located centrally. This time I had no problems with check-in and I had a nice room on the 11th floor, overlooking the city.

Semarkant and the Famous Registan

People claim that Samarkand is the oldest city and cultural centre of the world. With a history of 25 centuries, it is the city of legends, captured by Alexander the Great, the Arab Haliphate, Cengiz Han and visited by Marco Polo and Omer Hayyam. In fact I finished reading a beautiful book called Semarkand by Amin Maalouf about Omer Hayyam’s days in that city and his life, in Semarkant. Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese writer living in France and has written several books, including the Tale of Eastern Cities.

I was told that the city of Semarkant had celebrated its 2500th anniversary of its founding last year, with signs everywhere as a proof of that. I could see the famous Mausoleum of Emir Timur (Timurlenk ) and the Registan with its three Madrases from the balcony of my hotel. It was a spectacular view even under the rain that was falling the day I visited the city and attended the morning bayram prayer at the Registan. Timur the Great gathered his army there and made Semarkand the capital of his empire, planning to turn the city into the capital of the world. Just as there is one God for all the people, there should be one ruler for the world was his motto when he went on to conquer the world, beating Yildirim Beyazit, the Ottoman Sultan at the famous Ankara battle in 1402. After close to 600 years, people still ask Turkish visitors, do you remember Yildirim Beyazit, as several people asked me also. I couldn’t resist buying a book on Timur Emir in Semarkand to learn more about the great leader of Uzbeks.

One of the best known symbols of Uzbekistan is the Registan Square, which became the official center of Semarkant under the rule of Timur the Great. The square is surrounded by magnificent buildings of Ulug Bek, Sher-Dor and the Tilly-Kari Madrases, or religious colleges. The interior and the exterior facades of the Madrases are decorated with ornaments of glazed brick, mosaic, and carved marble. Registan is where the ruler’s decrees were proclaimed, where justice was done, and trade was in full swing, as it is today.

I walked the short distance from the hotel to the Registan and toured the three Medreses. From there I walked to Emir Timur’s Mausoleum. The caretaker even took me below the ground to show me his real grave, which was among many other graves, since Timur had ordered the construction of the mausoleum for his grandson. Later on, mausoleums became the buryingvault for the whole dynasty of Timurids.

Towards the evening I again went to Registan. I was ushered into the courtyard of one of the Madrases where I was told an Uzbek show was about to begin. There were wooden platforms with pillows where people were sitting to watch the show. It started with a girl dressed in a boy’s attire, singing and dancing in the middle of the courtyard. This was followed by dances by groups in Uzbek costumes.

The following day, I visited the Ulug Bek observatory outside the city. Ulug Bek, the grandson of Timur the Great, ruled the country for 40 years. During his reign, Semarkant became one of the world’s great scientific centres.

From Semarkant to Buhara

For my trip from Semarkant to Buhara, I decided to take a bus. To go to the bus station, I took one of the small shared taxis, similar to the ones common in Turkey. The small mini cab was made locally by the Korean Daewoo car company and it was small. We ended up at the airport. I tried to explain to the Uzbek driver that I wanted to go to the Bus station, not the airport. He drove another half a block and drove inside the area where the buses were all lined up, but the driver asked for additional payment, which I gave, another 10 sum, about 5 cents.
There were several tourists waiting for the bus to Bukhara also. I met them later in Bukhara and also on the train to Taskent. One was from Switzerland, one from Mexico, one from Sweden and one from Taskent. Ialso met groups from Turkey and also from the States. It looks likeUzbekistan is becoming a tourist attraction.

Buhara, the city of Worshippers

Since I was anxious to see the famous city, I took a taxi cab to the hotel. Along the way the taxi driver told me what to see in the city and drove me directly to the famous Lyabi-khaus, to show me the Nasreddin Hoca monument, since he knew I was from Turkey. There is a large pool at thecentre with ancient trees and Madrases on two sides. Later on when I came to see the place myself, I sat on one of the large wooden benches almost the size of a double bed, which had cushions to sit on.

Bukhara means ” monastry ” in the Sanskrit word. It once was a large commercial centre on the Great Silk Road. The city has more than 140 architectural monuments, dating back to the Middle Ages. Since it is a small city, I managed to see the beautiful monuments and parks on foot. I started with the famous Kalian Minaret in the old city, soaring over 150 feet. The caretaker was kind enough to let me climb to the top of the minaret, (for a bargained fee) from where the legend says that condemned criminals were hurled to their death on certain days. I also toured the Kalyan Mosque next to the Minaret, which is still in use today.

The next place I visited was the infamous Bug Pit, where British Col. Charles Stoddart was thrown in as punishment when he had greeted the ruling Emir with salutation from the British Governor of India rather than from Queen Victoria. The filthy pit is in the complex known as the Zindan, or jail, where statues of prisoners line up the walls in two separate rooms. The Zindan is close to the huge complex known as the Ark, the former residence of the Ruler, now a museum.
Before the day was over, I wanted to get my train ticket to assure my return to Taskent for the meetings with the energy officials. The taxi driver told me that I should get it in advance. But before we went to the train station, he drove me to the Nakshabandi centre along the way. From 1318-1389, the great religious leader, Sheikh Bahautdin Nakshbandi, lived in Bukhara and started the sect, Nakshbandism, which spread to Iran, Afghanistan, India, Caucasus and to Turkey. In fact, I had read about the late Turgut Ozal’s visit to the centre, since he had openly proclaimed his belief in the Naksibendi sect. For my luck, the leader of the Sect happened to be there and we went inside the centre. First he took me in front of the Nakshibendi’s grave and prayed. Than we toured the mosque, which had one piece huge rug in the main section. Our Turkish Nakshibendi friends sent us the rug, said the Muftu. Than we toured the Museum where the pictures of Turgut Ozal was displayed. As I was saying good-by to the Muftu, the driver murmured behind me to give him some money. God, how much could I give to the leader of all the Naksibendi’s around the world, may be well over several million. The Muftu was talking about the renovation work at the centre that was in need of help. I gave him some and he was very pleased.

Visit to the Turkish Lise

I had read about the success of many Turkish Lise’s in many countries, including Uzbekistan. When I asked someone on the street where the Lise was, he told me that I should go by taxi. This gave me a chance to see various parts of the city. The two sides of the streets are lined with continuous walls, behind which the houses are located. Later on, I knocked on the door of a Bed and Breakfast and walked in, since the door was open. There was a beautiful courtyard with rooms on four sides. The owner of the place, an Uzbek who spoke perfect English, told me that he had purchased the place from a Jewish Uzbek who had migrated to Israel. He showed me the rooms, and the master bedroom, which had beautiful carpets and woodwork on the walls.

The Turkish Lise, co-educational, was located outside the city, in the middle of farms and small houses. The Turkish Principal was not there. The Assistant Principal, an Uzbek, showed me around the school. There were pictures of Ataturk and President Islam Karimov in the classrooms.

From Buhara to Taskent on the Train to Moscow

The train to Taskent was scheduled to leave around 7:10 pm and the train station was about 18 kilometres from Bukhara. The station was built far from Bukhara to prevent any damage to the monuments and building in the city. The railroad town was established for Russian immigrants, some still living there. The train station was an enormous building of white marbles, and was very clean. Except there were no bathrooms inside the station. They pointed to a desolate building outside the station. I have seen pretty bad bathrooms in different parts of Turkey, but this was the worst. Open stalls, dirty floors, and this was also a Moslem country, a religion that pays attention to cleanliness. Anyway, that is a different story.
I boarded the train early, after picking up some water and famous Uzbek bread, since the trip was going to be close to 12 hours. I found my compartment and hoping that no one else would be coming in, I closed the door. Just as the train started, a Chinese couple came in, said hello and sat across from me. I had already made my bed, one of four, and , since the lights in the compartment was so dim which meant that I was not going to be able to read, was ready to go to sleep. Than the train attendant knocked on the door, asked for out tickets. I took advantage of being a Turk and asked the conductor if there were any empty compartments, in Turkish. By than, the music was on, and the first song was in Turkish the famous ” He has a car… ” , but it was so loud and I could not find any controls to adjust the sound. The attendant came back, asked the Chinese couple to follow him and I traveled all the way to Semarkand alone, later on I saw the Chinese lady in a compartment with three other women and the Chinese man standing in the hallway.
The trip was long, at the time I climbed to the upper berth to get close to the light on the ceiling to read my book. This one was on the Kurdish uprising in 1938, Dersim Tertelesi, which was good reading, but all from the Kurdish point of view, with references to how the Turks had killed the Armenians and pushed the Greeks to the Mediterranean and now it was the Kurds turns. That too is another story which I don’t want to get into now.

Visit to the Turkish Girls Lise

As soon as I arrived at the Hotel Uzbekistan from the train station, I called the Turkish businessman whom I had met at the Airport on Saturday morning. He invited me to come to the department store that was only several blocks from the hotel.
The businessman picked me up at the hotel with his chauffeur driven, air conditioned car and we went to the only Girls school in Taskent established by Fethullah Hoca of Turkey. The principal of the school greeted us, and took us to the classroom where the Turkish Group from Denmark had already arrived.

We toured the school and visited the classrooms, chatting with the students who were busy on their computers. There were many posters, maps and pictures on the walls, including portraits of Ataturk and Uzbekistan President Islam Kerimov. In the hallway there was a portrait of Mehmet Akif Ersoy with two verses from the Turkish National Anthem, which he was the author of. There was also a Wall Bulletin Board in the hallway, similar to the Weekly Wall Newspapers that we used to have at Talas and Tarsus schools. On the bottom corner of the bulletin and next to a statement said “There are So Many Good People Around You” there was a hand written note that said “For Example Who”
From there we went into one of the classrooms where the students had gathered to present a mini concert for the visiting Danish-Turkish group. They were all dressed neatly, six of them in Uzbek national costumes. A girl in perfect Turkish welcomed us and they sang the Turkish and the Uzbek National Anthems. There were close to 40 students and they sang beautifully, especially the song, eski dostlar – the old friends. This was the highlight of our tour, and we took lots of pictures. The teacher asked us if we wanted to say anything to the students. The European champion boxer stated that some years ago he had fought against a Turkish boxer as a Danish, and he had cried all night. He said he had tears in his eyes, listening to the national anthems. Then I made a short speech stating that every year I go to my teacher daughter’s school to tell her fifth graders about the April 23rd children’s holiday in Turkey, but this year I was not going to be able to do it, but I was very happy to be among them and thanked them for singing Eski Dostlar.
The schools established and run by Fethullah Hoca seems to be controversial. The classes are taught in English, Turkish and local language. The schools are operating in many countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the United States, close to 200. Some claim that the schools are financed by the United States, although the administrators tell us that they are run by the donations given by Turkish Businessmen. The national Security Council in Turkey has started an investigation of these schools to assure that the curriculum is not biased toward religion. We did not see any girls wearing head scarves, but a recent article by the republican Deputy Mumtaz Soysal critized the school in Toronta for letting the students wear long dresses and white head scarves. Fethullah Hoca is a preacher who last year was in the states for an operation, but stayed over three months. He is the leader on a sect known as Nurcular, and I watched him preach on the TV, tears falling and speaking both in Turkish and Arabic. They say there are close to 200 different sects in Turkey with branches in foreign countries, including the US. In fact, they used to send me their magazine called Nur, which I used to keep but were discarded while I was in the hospital back in 1991… This is yet another story that I would like to learn more about later.

Other Cities and Other Places in Uzbekistan

I had planned to visit Hiva also, another historical town near the Turkmenistan border, which is said to have been founded by one of Prophet Noah’s grandsons. In fact, I had planned to go to Turkmenistan from Hiva, take a ferryboat across the Casbian Sea to Baku and see Azerbaican. I had to return to Taskent for the Friday meetings. Trip to Azerbaican has to wait for another time, may be combine with a trip to Iran, which I want to see, especially Isfahan, Koom and Kashan. Anyone wants to go with me? A month later
I completed the above almost a month after I came back from my trip to Uzbekistan, with more to be told. It was a wonderful trip, although incomplete with so much more to see. Other than the incident caused by the wrong date entered into my passport, I have excellent memories and tons of pictures, and it made me feel good to be a Turk, and I guess an American too, since the US is finally paying an attention to Central Asia, may be on the verge of another Great Game. I would recommend everyone to visit Uzbekistan and other countries of the Land of the Turks.

Yuksel Oktay