No, that’s a misnomer. Tashkent was, if anything, Uzbekistan’s first city, at least in the modern sense of the term. First one to be occupied by the Russians, first one to be reached by a railroad, first to host all those innumerable buildings and institutions – universities, hospitals, sports arenas, you get the idea – that are the mainstay of a modern civitas. But since it was the last stop in my tour of the country, and the chance of quoting a Colin Thubron novel too good to pass on, Tashkent shall remain – for me at least – The last city.
Tashkent shares a great deal of past with the other peripheral outposts of the old Soviet empire that I’ve visited before, at least in terms of architecture. A cataclysmic event – war, or in this case, earthquake – makes tabula rasa of whatever existed before. An enlightened, inspired architect with a vision is called in; the kind of guy who’s got a hammer & sickle in his pupils, much like Scrooge McDuck has the $ sign. Insert enormous boulevards with double lines of poplars on each side – wide enough for the inevitable May Victory parade – douse everything with a sprinkle of monuments to the Glorious Dead in granite and bronze, dig through a metro system jealously guarded by the dourest matrons you can find and bien, mesdames et messieurs, voilà une autre ville sovietique.
Not so quickly.
Tashkent has a few quirks, a few adaptations on the former-Soviet-now-free-market-major-city model. Let’s start, for instance, with Western decadence. Unlike other places – think at the motorcades of black Mercedes G55 AMGs that roam the streets of Moscow, the plethora of fast food joints of Kiev, or the hordes of new Land Cruises that parade through Almaty – all there is to show for the new consumerism are a few Mercs and Beemers, plus the heroic cyclist who, dressed in Lycra, has the guts to brave the city’s streets, daring to go where no cyclist has ever been before.
Then there are the Koreans. The neighbourhood where we’re staying in lies huddled around Mirobod Bazaar as if for need of extra warmth at night, and – through shops, restaurants and populace, if not for the omnipresent Chevrolets and Hyundais – has a decidedly Asian feel. Again, not quite your Soviet city.
The cultural rebranding of the Soviet heritage is as in full swing as it is elsewhere in Central Asia, but with markedly better results than in neighbouring countries. A central square, where once a giant head of Marx eyed everyone with much malignity (perhaps accusing each and every passer-by of having nicked the rest of his body) had gone, replaced with a rather more impressive statue of Amir Timur, Tamerlane for friends, on horseback. His right hand was raised in what I’m sure was meant to be an exhortation, but that to me looked remarkably similar to a Nazi salute, especially if seen from the side. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind and helped themselves to the wreath of flowers laid at his feet. Today, a girl called Umida took pride in informing us, was the big man’s birthday. We scurried away before I could confess that the idea of giving flowers to the warlord who flattened Baghdad as a past time seemed almost insulting to me.
Even Lenin had gone, his coat and waving arm replaced for a rather bling globe with an oversized Uzbekistan superimposed over it. Still, those yearning for those simpler times when ideologies still mattered only need to pay a visit to Hotel Uzbekistan, where service is as bad today as it was in the good old days of the Union.
Normally, cities like this would penetrate under my skin with considerable ease. I loved Yerevan, found deep satisfaction with Almaty and even Dushanbe, despite all its quirks, had on grown on me by the time I had to leave. Yet, nothing of this kind seemed to be happening with Tashkent. I sincerely wanted to grow fond of this city, of its metro smelling of damp, of its Smurfs-blue Orthodox cathedral, of its scenes of street life and of its frankly refreshing lack of big, corporate chains of clothing and food, but I felt constantly rebuffed. People looked at us as weirdos if we’d only ever attempted to greet them with a salaam alaykum on the street, as it was the norm in Samarkand and Bukhara; no one seemed to have time to stop and chat, but they somehow seemed to find a slot to to try and con us with scams that were almost heartwarming in their simplicity.
Cops patrolled ever street, every station and also appeared out of nowhere in city parks, ready to bar us from walking down a path that might’ve led to an old Soviet building, now hosting some unknown ministry and sporting some utterly unsightly decoration, symbol of the new regime. Tashkent, I reflected in our stuffy hotel whilst Russian guests argued over the Wi-Fi, was the epicentre of Uzbekistan’s big city attitude, the place where all the go-getters, all the wheelers and dealers of the nation congregated. And that, I guess, was what I didn’t like about it.