To travel to Uzbekistan is like entering a parallel universe where nothing is quite as you expect it to be.
Check it out: In Andijon in May 2005, where more than 500 demonstrators were killed by government forces, foreign journalists were criticised for being in Andijon during the protest and accused of organising it. In the parallel universe of the Uzbek government, it is not normal that journalists go where there is a story, to report on events. The trials that followed the massacre were reminiscent of the show trials in Stalin’s Soviet Union. It is a country where children’s New Year parties have been banned for fear of terrorist attacks and bushes and trees have been cut down in case they provide cover for snipers.
Uzbekistan lies at the heart of the Silk Road – the trade route that used to link east and west – however, in just 14 years the Uzbek authorities have managed to achieve what the Soviets could not do in 70 years by destroying the entrepreneurial spirit of the Uzbeks. The president, Islom Karimov, who likes to think of himself as an economist, brought this about with the introduction of 90% tariffs on imports, effectively destroying trade within the country.
Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Uzbek authorities have changed course many times and are now turning away from the West and back towards Russia. Initially the country followed the South Korean model of strong government and economic freedom but now it is following more of a North Korean model with tight government control in all areas and limited access to the outside world. Whilst President Karimov and his small circle of cronies have become richer and richer, the mass of the Uzbek people have sunk deeper and deeper into poverty.
Politics aside, Uzbekistan has a lot to offer the potential visitor – the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva with their outstanding architecture and bustling bazaars; a world-class collection of prohibited Soviet-era art in Nukus; the bleak desolation of the abandoned fishing fleet of Moynaq, left high and dry by the disappearance of the Aral Sea; crumbling forts in the deserts of Karkalpakstan; the towns of the Fergana valley, where traditional crafts such as silk production and pottery making are still practised; and skiing and snowboarding in the mountain resort of Chimgan. The Uzbek people are hospitable, with guests plied with ample helpings of plov (a rice and meat dish), shashlik (grilled meat on skewers), salads, green tea and vodka.
The Uzbek authorities’ ideal traveler is a rich octogenarian package tourist staying in five star hotels. However, it is possible to travel independently. The main tourist centres have a range of bed and breakfast accommodation to suit the backpacker on a tight budget. Travelling around Uzbekistan is cheap and relatively straightforward. Food and drink is also good value, a meal in a restaurant need not cost more than two or three dollars and vodka is around a dollar a bottle, as is imported Russian bee (Uzbek beer can be bought for 30 cents a bottle but I wouldn’t recommend it).
Following on from the Andijon massacre some people have suggested that Uzbekistan should be boycotted. The Uzbek authorities are taking an increasingly isolationist line, with foreign media organisations being forced out of the country and the Peace Corps being kicked out. A boycott would lead to this isolationism increasing – Uzbekistan needs people to go and visit so that Uzbeks can have access to alternative views and voices. Also, the fragile economy that has been built up around tourism needs to be supported, offering as it does one of the few ways of earning a living in the wrecked economy of Karimov’s Uzbekistan.