President Karimov & Friends,
Timur is Back
Tashkent is a bit of an anomaly in this part of the world since it is a relatively green. Despite the grass, Tashkent means "City of Stone" and dates from around 900 years ago. As the perennial center of Russian rule in Central Asia, Tashkent has grew to 2.3 million people and was the fourth largest city in the former USSR after Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. This, and the honor of being the capital, also meant that Tashkent was much more developed than almost any other place in the country. There was supposedly an old town but it was hard to find. Tashkent is not Samarkand.
Most of the city had a Soviet look was rebuilt after an awful 1966 earthquake that left 300,000 homeless. The modern city was filled with concrete and bricks in various forms along with various forms of Soviet monumentalism. For the uninitiated, this architecture often means white buildings built in weird shapes crowned by tacky sculpted aluminum. While it was built to be impressive it usually looks frumpy, bizarre or both. After about 10-20 years, the result is a hideous but quirky combination of pseudo-modernism in an advanced state of decay -- despite not being very old.
Tashkent is a city full of parade grounds, parks, monuments, and some new buildings such as the glistening Timur Museum. The city was also curiously green despite its arid location because of thousands of sprinklers and fountains in the city center. The green grass made for a nice looking place but made me wonder about water use. It was not exactly in plentiful supply. Nevertheless, everything kept spritzing. The city with its short buildings and quiet roads felt more like a sprawling town than a city. But unlike everywhere else, things worked. The Internet cafes were functional. Nothing was falling apart too badly and people had BOTH hot and cold running water!
The center of town was marked by a statue of Timur who replaced one of Marx. Timur was located in a park near a pedestrian street called "Broadway" (what an original name). Broadway was full of cafes, street performers, restaurants, kiosks, walking people, and souvenir sellers. It felt a bit like Moscow's Arbat. This is also what the locals kept telling me. It seemed important to make this connection. Despite independence, the pull of Moscow as The Center never died, especially in the Euro population. Most Russians were hoping to move there.
Detail, Government Building,
The Uzbek government
center was a huge Soviet style square called Mustaqillik Maydoni. The nicest
part was a wall of fountains filled with frolicking people. The area beyond was
large empty square where grass grew lazily between the concrete sections. Around
the edge were long flat Soviet buildings where the USSR’s slogans were
conveniently replaced with Uzbekistan’s. I think I could almost see where they
removed "Uzbek SSR". There was a brick and green structure from the 1930’s and
the large black skyscraper with lots of aluminum and aging windows (I expected
them to start popping out soon). In the back of the square was a brass globe
where a big Uzbekistan covered much of the world's surface. Unlike the big Lenin
it replaced the globe glowed at night. The whole area had a “we just moved in
and set up a country” look that didn't quite look together. It was a
hand-me-down looking government.
Since the business of Tashkent was being the capital, this meant a higher propaganda level than in other places. Although Uzbekistan is run by the same Islam Karimov who ran it under communism, he’s kept up with the times by replacing Marx with Timur (aka Tamerlane). The change in status from Soviet Republic to independent country didn't seem to change much else. Karimov still ruled the country with an iron hand, but feelings about him were split between hostility, grudging acceptance and not paying attention. In general, the “Europeans” and any kind of businessmen were unhappy while the Uzbeks and Tajiks don't seem to care either way. Everyone said that opposing the president was asking for big trouble. Karimov ruthlessly cracks down on all opponents which either silences them -- or sends them running into the arms of the fanatics. Rebellion often wears a religious face. Anyway, Karimov is lucky his subjects are such nice people. They also lack decent alternatives – and scary Afghanistan is next door.
Karimov's newest project was new and heavily politicized Timur museum. The circular building had a huge blue Timurid style dome. The interior was massive and featured a huge chandelier and a huge portrait of Karimov and Timur together. Many of the displays made parallels between the two -- and both of them are quoted everywhere. There were wonderful models of Timurid buildings, such as the Registan in Samarkand. While politically valuable places roll in cash, other places live on shoestring budgets. The three-floor geology museum had a fabulous collection of minerals, dinosaurs and a massive 3-D map of Central Asia. In any other place, this museum would be a treasure. The museum’s director turned on the lights and gave me a tour until the electricity went out. I was the only visitor.
Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the article and photo collection. The entire article is available on request.