Massacres, torturing and general dictatoring are not the only things that Uzbekistan is famous for. Indeed, there are several towns and cities of some note that are crying are out to be seen by mankind - some for reasons of spectacular beauty and human achievement, others for spectacular squalour and human misadventure.
It was in a town of squalour and human misadventure that I found myself towards the end of my recent trip in Uzbekistan. When God created the world in 7 days, he meticulously crafted the towns of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva and blessed these lands with some of the most amazing architechture ever to spread the word of Allah and his Prophet. After his exertions in these Silk Road towns, God then let out an almighty fart in the town of Nukus (NCU; I am guessing that a.net will not display this airport code), and this stench still lingers to the present day which, when coupled with Soviet bureaucracy, creates quite possibly the most depressing town on Earth. It was certainly far worse than my previous holder of this honour, Decatur, Alabama. The 72 hours I spent in Nukus were hours lost and I can only hope God has been keeping tabs on how many hours I have saved up in order to redeem at the end of my life cycle to keep me going just a little bit longer.
Clearly, this was a town I was eager to escape from and, so it was, that I went to the local Aviakassa, HY's town office in order to get my ticket outta there and back to the capital, Tashkent.
From a distance, the HY town office looked somewhat like a Pizza Hut restaurant. A Pizza Hut would have been a much preferable option as a deep pan pepperoni pizza would have been far more challenging to the taste buds that typical Uzbek cuisine of sheep meat and lumps of fat served on a skewer. The location of the office was incredible bizarre. It was set on the edge of an unkept town square, flanked on the righthand side by a typical Soviet era block of flats. Nothing else whatsoever, although there was plenty of space available should Pizza Hut wish to make improvements to the living standards of Nukus residents and start a new restaurant here.
So, in I went to the office to be confronted by 12 cashier desks, all manned by busy members of staff playing solitaire. After a lady at desk 6 had clearly reached a dead end in her hand of solitaire she gave me a glare and beckoned me over. Predictably, she spoke no English (and I no Uzbek) so I wrote down my destination and date to which she wrote down the three flights I could choose from from which I chose the 2nd option, flight HY1004 at 1320. She then wrote down the total fare for this flight which would be 37205 Uzbek Sum (the equivalent of about $35). So far, so good. A bargain for a 2hr flight. Given that the highest value note that is circulated in Uzbekistan in 1000 sum ($1), it was often impractical to carry much more than $30 or else your pockets and wallet would be filled to bursting point with tattered old bank notes. Instead, I pulled out of my wallet a nice, crisp $50 bill which more than covered the cost of the ticket.
The cashier looked at me as if my $50 bill had a picture of Grant wearing Bermuda shorts and smoking a joint. She stabbed her pen at the piece of paper where she had written 37205 sum and barked "SUM" at me.
This was not an altogether unexpected sequence of events and, by chance, the ticket office also had a foreign exchange clerk at desk 8 to which I shuffled across. A young chap and a goth looking lady were both huddled over a game of solitaire which they surprisingly abandoned midway through to assist me.
"How much do you wish to change, sir?" said the young chap. I was astonished and delighted to be spoken to in perfect English.
"$20," I replied, as this amount would give me enough to combine with the amount of sum I already had to buy the ticket and a couple of days expenses too once in Tashkent.
"I'm sorry, we don't have any Sum," the young chap said which made somewhat of a mockery of his initial question.
I stood there, speechless for a second or two as I grasped the absurdity of the situation. Having hit a brick wall and ending up in far worse state than the said wall, I left the town office and instead ventured to the National Bank of Uzbekistan as they for sure would not be out of Sum.
After getting to the entrance of the bank, I was met by a guard holding a thuggish looking gun. He would have looked quite of place had he been guarding my local branch of Nat West but, in this dreary town of Nukus, he looked like a typical part of the scenery. I showed the guard my $20 bill and said "change to Sum" just as I had done in other Uzbek towns. The guard looked at me as if I had just remarked that his daughter was indeed an excellent lay. The guard shouted a few words at me which I could not translate but I did not need a GCSE in Uzbek to understand that I was not going to be able to change my $20 at the National Bank of Uzbekistan today.
Not to worry, I thought, as the previous evening I had walked past an exhange office based in the same building as an internet cafe.
I walked into the building and saw nothing other than shut doors and half completed DIY. A door opened and inside I saw some blank monitor screens and then a face as a guy looked at me. I showed him my $20 bill and did my typical tourist idiot routine. Eventually, this guy and I, whilst communicating in entirely different languages, came to the conclusion that the Asaka Bank was based behind another of the shut doors which, as they were all bolted, indicated that no currency exchange would be happening here and that I should get out of this building so they could carry on their trade in peace, away from stupid foreigners. As it happened, this internet cafe would have fallen foul of any Uzbek misrepresentation laws as their internet was not functioning and they were neither offering coffee, tea or coke to live up to the cafe side of the bargain.
I now only had one last option which was to return to my hotel and see if they could help me out. I went to the exchange bureau based inside the hotel and, eventually, I saw a woman crouching down on the floor. I walked over and showed her my $20 bill.
"Sum?" I asked
"No Sum! No Sum!" she said frantically, as if I had just removed my pants and was taking a dump on the floor of her little bureau.
I was now quite piddled off and it was looking quite likely that I would have to take a 6hr bus ride to the town of Urgench just to change $20 and catch a flight. I walked about in vain to see if anybody would change my $20 but with no success. A group of kids yelled the only English they knew at me of "hey mister!" I'm ashamed to say that their English vocabulary immediately doubled to include 2 brand new words beginning with F and O respictively.
I went back to the HY office to speak to the only person who I had been able to communicate with in English as I had decided that I would pay $50 for my ticket and allow the staff at the office to keep the change. I was certain that this generous offer would be much appreciated. The young chap at the HY ticket office definitely looked as if he liked the sound of my offer, but it just wasn't his jobsworth.
"Have you been to the National Bank?" asked the young chap, to which I relayed my story to him.
The young chap got up from behind his desk and walked over to make a phone call. The young chap wearing a white shirt, white jeans and white trainers. There's just something about men who wear all-white attire. In my eyes, they look rather seedy in a not too pleasant kind of way.
The young chap was having an indepth discussion on the phone, interrupted by orders from the lady he was sharing his desk with. Once he had put the received down, he went back to his desk and opened a safe which contained more Sum tham an arithmetic exam. I was flabberghasted. It seemed that my paltry $20 was not previously worth the effort to change. Nevertheless, I took two big handfulls of Uzbek Sum, shuffled back to desk 6 and was presented, at last, with a ticket from Nukus to Tashkent.
I was delighted.
I was hoping that the flight itself would be a much simpler experience than just buying the ticket, which it pretty much turned out to be.
17 May 2005
NCU - TAS
Load factor 46%; 22/48
So it was that I arrived at the airport good and early to avoid any chance of being bumped from my flight. As it happened, security personnel vastly outnumbered any passengers when I arrived at 1130. My backpack, which had loose straps flapping everywhere, was considered to awkward to put in the x-ray machine at the entrance to the airport and was simply passed through the other side with no inspection whatsoever whilst the guards looked in confusion at my MP3 player in my pocket and then laughed when I danced (somewhat in the style of Mr Bean) to indicate that this was harmless entertainment device as opposed to a devilish device to blow up the aircraft.
The departure area was also the arrivals area and there were 3 booths, all manned, for Information, Airport Administration and Currency Exchnange. I could not bring myself to try and exchange $10 with that lady. There was only one other man in the hall who had Disney style carrier bag that said 'Mikey Mik.'
I took out my mobile phone and took a few discrete shots of the terminal. One of the airport guards marched over to me and demanded "no photo!" I did my best to look all innocent and showed the guard that all I was doing was actually playing Noughts and Crosses. I looked at the guard angrily when he forbade me from using my phone at all.
The airport remained eerily quiet of passengers. Nukus receives very little traffic apart from its 3 daily flights to Tashkent and, according to Lonely Planet, weekly flights to SVO and Andijan where all the bloodshed has been taking place. The inbound flight from Tashkent arrived at about 1230 and a trickle of passengers wandered through the airport terminal and outside. There were still barely a handful of outbound passengers in the terminal.
An announcement was then made in (I assume) Uzbek and then Russian. I stayed seated, expecting the other passengers to begin making their way to check in but nobody moved a muscle. When in Rome, do as the Romans, I thought, so I too moved not a muscle. Eventually, a rather attractive lady from the informaton desk came towards me. Instead of giving me her phone number or address, she asked whether I was Tashkent. Despite my name being nothing like Tashkent, I caught the gist of what she was asking and, for the sake of convenience, replied that yes, I indeed am Tashkent. She then pointed over to the International Arrivals corridor which was where 'registration' was taking place for my flight. It was deserted. As soon as I moved over to the 'registration' desk, everyone else soon followed as it appeared that too were mystified as to where they would register for the Tashkent flight. I was given a plasticcy, hand written boarding pass (similar to some I have had from some FR outstations) for seat 5 and ordered through security where once again I had to explain through actions what my mysterious MP3 player was. In total, there were 4 desks where my baggage, passport and boarding pass were inspected and eventually I got through to the departure lounge which had a clear view of the apron and the one plane upon it, an Antonov 24b, UK-4659, of which there is no picture in the database. I put on my dumb tourist routine again and, through hand motions, asked a guard if I could take a picture of the spiffing Antonov that awaited. The guard reacted as if I had complimented his fine, pert buttocks and made it quite clear that no photography was permitted whatsoever.
Photo © Cence jojo
Photo © Rolf Wallner
As the doors of the departure lounge were opened and all passengers were escorted to the plane, I still had my great big backpack and several other passengers were also heaving inconceivably large pieces of baggage and other items, including a widescreen TV and crate of bananas. We dragged these up the aircraft steps and once onboard these were unceremoniously dumped at the back of the plane. Quite what would have happened had everybody brought their full baggage allowance, God only knows what would have happened.
Outside of the aircraft, underneath one the windows below the wing, there was a notice in Russian and translated into English as 'Chop here with crash axe' which I thought was quite a splendid translation.
Onboard, there were a few people in row 5 (my boarding pass never specified A, B, C, D, E or F) so I sat myself in 9F beside the window. There were also clearly some non-revvers onboard too. These included Ma and Pa Chicken and about 20 little chicks, and Billy the Goat. Even by non-revver standards, these passengers were treated harshly and forced to sit with everyone's baggage at the back of the plane, despite the abundance of empty seats.
Once settled down into my seat, one stewardess was responsible for the 22 passengers. And jolly pretty she was too despite her typically Russified bleach blonde hair. Alas, she did not have a name badge. She performed a terrific safety demonstration and advised in 3 languages that HY do not permit photography onboard. As there was a dressed policeman behind me in row 11 going about his daily routine of hindering democracy and obstructing freedom of movement, I decided not to flought this rule. The captain then made a brief announcement and said that we would reach an altitude of 6000m and that the flight would last 2hrs 10mins.
My one moment of rule breaking occurred when I stole the safety card from the plane and tucked it inside my book. This is about as rebellious as I was prepared to be.
The propellors then began to whirl around, the right one so feriouciously so that the engine covering shuddered quite violently. The right engine was then seeming shut down whilst an engineer banged it was then started up again and seemingly the captain was quite happy that it was safe to fly. The aircraft began taxiiing precisely at 1320 and was up in the air at 1324.
As the plane climbed, it was shaken about like a ragdoll in the sky. Almost scarily so. A mother, sitting with her young son in front of me, rested her head against the seat in front of her and went pale green. Her son thought take off was marvellous until he realised that I was far more interesting as he spent the rest of the flight staring at this strange foreigner.
Once the plane settled down, the stewardess then provided a service infinitely superior to that of FR as she walked down the ailse with a tray of about 30 glasses of drink. We had the option of sparkling water, orange juice and cola. I chose the orange juice as I did not fancy the cola incase it was the local Uzbek brand of Peps (sic) which is quite vomit inducing. Had their been the slightest amount of turbulence during the drinks service, those glasses would have almost certainly emptied themselves onto the nearest soul. The stewardess then went into the cockpit and never reappeared for the remaining 1hr 30 minutes.
Seating on the plane was quite pleasant, with a comfortable seat pitch indeed of about 34" although the seat coverings reminded me somewhat of my grandmother's curtains in the 1980's with 3 shades of brown flowers. Nice.
The plane continued over the vast nothingness of the Uzbek/Kazakh desert until it began its descent into Tashkent and landed at 1524. The landing itself was thankfully unspectacular and the plane taxied around Tashkent which had the usual assortments of great big ugly Ilyushins and Antonovs. No other carrier was represented except HY. All passengers, including Ma and Pa Chicken with family and Billy Goat, were led down the steps with any baggage and ordered into a waiting coach which took us to the airport gates and into the clutches of a huddle of taxi drivers.