TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Even before Uzbekistan Airways Flight #304 from Tel Aviv came to a stop on the tarmac at Tashkent’s Islam Karimov International Airport, I knew this trip would be anything but routine.
The moment the wheels of our Boeing 757 hit concrete and began taxiing to the gate, dozens of passengers applauded, then abruptly stood up in the aisle to retrieve their overhead carry-ons — a glaring violation of international airline safety rules. But the Uzbek flight attendant strapped into her seat facing me didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
“What can I do?” she shrugged when I asked why she was letting this happen. “They never listen.”
Too exhausted to argue, I peered out at the rising sun. After all, the government agency that invited me to Uzbekistan had confirmed the trip less than 24 hours earlier.
The occasion for this junket: Cultural Heritage Week 2019, capped by the awkwardly titled “Third International Congress of World Scientific Society for Study, Preservation and Popularization of the Cultural Heritage of Uzbekistan.”
Eager to see — then write about — the country’s famous mosques, intricate tombs and Central Asia’s fabled Silk Road, I happily accepted the offer. But the last-minute invitation was, I soon realized, par for the course during my chaotic but ultimately rewarding seven days in this ex-Soviet republic.
Uzbekistan, as any geography nerd will proudly tell you, is the world’s only landlocked country — aside from European microstate Liechtenstein — that’s completely surrounded by other landlocked countries.
More trivia: In 2017, a team of Tashkent chefs prepared a plov weighing more than eight tons, earning Uzbekistan a place in the Guinness World Records as the largest rice-based meat dish of its kind ever created. Not too shabby for a nation of 34 million that already boasts the world’s largest gold mine (Muruntau), its deepest cave (Dark Star) and one of its oldest cities (Samarkand).
Less admirable is Uzbekistan’s longstanding reputation as one of the most repressive places on Earth. Thanks to sham elections in which he consistently received roughly 90% of the vote, President Islam Karimov — for whom Tashkent’s airport is named — managed to rule his California-size nation with an iron fist from the day of its birth on Sept. 1, 1991, until his death 25 years and one day later, on Sept. 2, 2016.
The Karimov dictatorship was marked by brazen acts of corruption, human rights abuses and forced labor that still resonate three years after his replacement by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister who won Uzbekistan’s December 2016 presidential election with 89% of the vote — a performance America’s Trump or Israel’s Netanyahu wouldn’t even dare dream about.
No room at the inn
Arriving at the five-star Wyndham Tashkent in a VIP airport minivan, I discovered that my hosts had not made a hotel reservation for me as promised, and that no rooms were available. After a protest on my part, the receptionist suggested that I enjoy breakfast while she sorted out the problem. At the coffee shop, a young woman played “Besame Mucho” on an old Russian upright piano; it was only 6:45 a.m., and already, the mood felt more Havana than Tashkent.
The long-winded title of the Third International Congress — itself an eerie throwback to Uzbekistan’s communist past — hinted at what would await us over the next several days. I soon received an agenda that filled eight single-spaced typewritten pages.
All 280 delegates from 41 countries got their name tags, too. My name was misspelled, but that was trivial; two of my Israeli colleagues were identified as coming from Azerbaijan and India.
The conference began with seven welcome speeches — six of them in Uzbek. Nobody offered the foreign journalists headsets for English interpretation, and finding one that actually worked took about 20 minutes. When I was finally settled into my seat in the auditorium, ready to take notes, a security officer politely informed me that all press people had to sit in the second-floor media gallery — which, I quickly discovered, was just out of range of the headsets.
As I wandered around, trying to figure out exactly where to position myself for the best reception, a reporter for the local Sevimli news channel cornered me for an impromptu TV interview, which aired that same evening.
The Third International Congress was among several high-profile meetings, museum exhibition openings and extravaganzas intentionally scheduled for the same week in Tashkent as well as three other cities that are key to Uzbekistan’s fame as the “crossroads of civilizations” — Bukhara, Termez and Samarkand.
Among the highlights of our time in Tashkent was a tour of Teleshayakh Mosque, and the adjacent library museum housing the Uthman Quran, written in early Kufic script and believed to date from the 8th or 9th century — making it the world’s oldest known such holy book. Within a few years, that Quran will be moved across the street to the massive Center of Islamic Civilization now being built; completion is set for 2022.
“We are a quite young country, but we have an ancient history,” said Aziz Abdukhakimov, the country’s deputy prime minister, in an interview. “For centuries, this land has been peaceful, and many religions and nations lived here in peace and prosperity. During the Soviet period, Uzbekistan was closed. But we are really proud of our history, and now our country is opening up to the world. Hospitality is in our DNA.”
A taxi to Afghanistan
Indeed it is. Their planning and organizational skills may come up short, but the Uzbeks really shine when it comes to throwing dazzling spectacles for foreign visitors. Every night, we were treated to folklore shows, music performances and food — lots of it — with meals revolving around plov, freshly baked bread, and delicious watermelons, tomatoes, pears and other local fruits and vegetables.
That Uzbek hospitality was also on full display when, after two days in Tashkent, our group traveled to Termez, the country’s hottest and southernmost city, on a one-hour chartered flight to see two spectacular archaeological sites: Kamtyrtepa, the ruins of a port city also known as Alexandria on the Oxus, and Fayaz-Tepa, an open-air Buddhist temple complex discovered in 1963 and painstakingly restored in 2006.
Upon landing, we were greeted to an emir’s welcome: no less than 80 girls dressed in local costume, shouting out “Asalam aleikum!” at synchronized intervals and passing out candy, and men in vests and long-sleeved white shirts playing the karnay, a long trumpet often seen at festivals and VIP events.
Our itinerary in Termez called for nearly an entire day of speeches and panels, so I joined a few other restless fellow delegates and together we snuck out of the convention hall — past a series of “minders” who begged us not to leave — to explore this town a stone’s throw from Afghanistan.
The streets of Termez are immaculately clean, at least what’s visible to the occasional tourist. Walking along Sanasaroya, a main boulevard lined with shops, cafes, banks and offices, it’s hard to believe that one of the most unstable countries on Earth sits barely five kilometers away, on the other side of the Amu Darya River.
My new friends — among them Ben, a British journalist, and Ona, an architect from Colombia — headed for the Afrodita bar, where we enjoyed ice-cold Tuborg beer and chips served by a waitress with heavy makeup named Rushana, all while sitting on an Afghan divan. As the afternoon wore on, we wandered into a mahala or poor neighborhood — the kind typically hidden from view by new construction — to see how Uzbeks actually live.
Ben suddenly asked if I wanted to see Afghanistan. Sure, I said, and we hopped into a local taxi driven by a 26-year-old man named Islam Karimov — no relation to the country’s late dictator. During the dusty, bumpy half-hour ride to the border, we passed impoverished villages and goats wandering along the roadside.
Finally, we came to the bridge linking Uzbekistan to its unstable neighbor to the south, where a sign in four languages made it clear that this was, in fact, the border — and three guards armed with Kalishnikovs made it equally clear that photos were prohibited (I took one anyway).
On the way back, Ben — who’s fluent in Russian thanks to his 20-plus years living in Moscow — engaged our driver in lively conversation. Islam noted that Uzbekistan’s 200-kilometer border fence is electrified, and that many a wild boar has met its demise after coming in contact with the barrier, which is designed to keep out drug traffickers and Taliban terrorists.
Ben asked Islam if he had ever been to the other side.
“Nyet,” he replied. “What for? Afghanistan is a poor country. We have everything we need here.”
The few Jews of Samarkand
Next stop on the agenda was Samarkand, home of Uzbekistan’s greatest architectural and religious treasures. Again, a red-carpet VIP welcome at the airport, again men playing karnays and girls handing out sweets — and again, arriving at our assigned lodging — the three-star Hotel Bek — in an airport minivan and being told no rooms were available.
This time, however, some of my fellow journalists revolted. An elderly Spanish couple from Madrid demanded to be put together in a double and got what they wanted. Bernhard, a rather heavy-set German travel writer, threw a mini-tantrum, frightening the clerk into giving him his own room.
This resulted in an awkward situation; the poor guy behind the desk pointed to me and another reporter and said, in broken English, “You. And you. Room 209.”
Fortunately for me, there were two separate beds. Unfortunately, my new roommate — the Tashkent correspondent for China’s Xinhua News Agency — didn’t speak a word of English. He was also, like most Uzbek men, a heavy smoker. When I returned later that evening after dinner, Room 209 stank from cigarettes.
The next morning, as six busloads of delegates prepared for a full day of seminars, some of us simply did not want to go. The Spanish couple went off on their own to explore Samarkand while Bernhard, the German, feigned sickness; our minders promptly sent an ambulance to check up on him.
I had other plans. Over dinner the evening before, Zoya Arshavsky, an archaeology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had said she needed a photographer to help document the recently restored 19th-century Gumbaz synagogue in Samarkand’s historic old city.
At precisely 9 a.m., Zoya — an Uzbek-speaking Jew who had immigrated to Israel many years earlier — and I set off to find the shul. After an hour of chasing down leads that went nowhere, we found ourselves on obscure Elizarov Street, where four little Tajik boys were playing in front of a heavy, elaborately carved wooden door indicating that here was the elusive synagogue.
Yosef Tilayev, the synagogue’s 64-year-old caretaker and president of the Jewish community of Samarkand, said the town today is home to 220 Jews, down from perhaps 50,000 in 1970. About 15 people regularly pray here, said the retired electrician, speaking fluent Hebrew.
“I can go to Israel anytime, but they need me to take care of the shul,” said Yosef, whose three children live in Or Yehuda, Holon and Yavne. “No young people are left anymore, and the old ones don’t want to leave Uzbekistan. They want to die here.”
Sharq Taronalari: The grand finale
When they do, they’ll join about 15,000 Bukharan Jews and Ashkenazim already buried at Samarkand’s sprawling Jewish cemetery. Most of the tombstones here are engraved in Cyrillic script; many bear portraits of the deceased, and a handful are even decorated with the hammer and sickle — a once-powerful symbol no longer seen much in this once-proud Soviet republic.
Curiously, the Jewish cemetery abuts a much larger Islamic one located next to the mysterious Shakhi Zinda necropolis, a complex of 11 mausoleums built during the 14th and 15th centuries where the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas, is said to be buried. I would not have even known of the cemetery’s existence if not for Radjab, a local driver who took me there.
Later that afternoon, with Radjab at the wheel, I joined Adam Smith Albion, the Florida-born director of the South East Asia Leadership Academy, his wife Irina and their son — as well as the nanny and a few other people — for lunch at a nondescript Tajik fish restaurant just outside town. The sazan or fresh local carp served that day was easily my best meal of the trip.
Capping off Cultural Heritage Week that evening was the grand opening of the XII International Sharq Taronalari Music Festival, held in Samarkand’s majestic Registan Square. One by one, girls in long white dresses and blue vests marched across the stage carrying aloft the names and flags of 80 participating countries, with Israel sandwiched between Iran and Italy.
Following the release of thousands of brightly colored helium balloons, fireworks and a speech by President Mirziyoyev, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay addressed the dignitaries.
“We are in one of the most important centers of world history, a place where some of the most powerful empires were born, a place that has been revered by all human cultures and faiths,” said Azoulay, a former French culture minister of Moroccan Jewish origin. “The name of Samarkand is enough to transport us all through the journey of time.”
Tiring of all the speeches, I left the festival early and walked about an hour through the cool evening air back to the Bek Hotel, eager to pack my suitcase for the pre-arranged 5:30 a.m. taxi ride to Samarkand airport and 6:30 a.m. flight back to Tashkent.
Alas, there was no cabbie the next morning as promised. And when I got to the airport on my own, the security guard requesting my passport made it obvious there was no flight to Tashkent either. So instead of a one-hour flight, I ended up taking a five-hour taxi ride from Samarkand to the capital, a 300-kilometer adventure along the M39 highway that cost all of 200,000 som (the equivalent of $21, or NIS 75).
Arriving just in time for an interview with Eddie Shapira, Israel’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, and then to Islam Karimov Airport for my flight to Tel Aviv, I learned that my hosts had upgraded me to business class; a rather nice consolation prize for all the earlier mishaps.
After a quiet, uneventful journey, our jet touched down at Ben-Gurion and everyone applauded — but this time, not a single passenger stood up to retrieve any overhead baggage until the plane came to a complete stop.
NOTE: This is the second of several articles to be published following the author’s Aug. 21-27 trip to Uzbekistan as part of an international press trip focusing on the country’s rich cultural heritage.