I took a wonderfully old-fashioned 18-hour train back from Khiva (or rather nearby Urgench) to Tashkent. Just after setting off I noticed our carriage attendant smashing a piece of wood at the end of the train with a huge wrench. I wondered if he might have gone a bit haywire and stayed well away but a few minutes later the explanation presented itself. He had been breaking it into kindling to feed into the carriage boiler. Very retro.
The train drew into Tashkent the next morning and I checked into the Gulnara guesthouse. I had stayed the night here when passing through Tashkent before and it was a lovely place with rooms set around a sunny courtyard. Tashkent was noticeably colder – barely 30°C – which made sitting outside quite pleasant.
Tashkent is one of those transit cities that everyone end up in but you’re not supposed to like. However I found it to be quite nice. It may lack in wondrous sights compared to Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand but it’s much more lively. If I was choosing an Uzbek city to live in I would go for Tashkent.
My one bugbear was the traffic. It’s not particularly heavy but seems even more pedestrian-hostile than the normally pedestrian-hostile Central Asian traffic. A green man means nothing when crossing the road but worse is the fact that if there is a car in sight as you cross they will do their best to mow you down. This may mean accelerating and swerving onto the wrong side of the road, horn blaring. I really don’t understand it and it makes walking quite unpleasant.
However long walks aren’t usually necessary because the metro, the only one in Central Asia until Almaty’s opened last December, is convenient and also interesting. Planning for it begun following an earthquake which destroyed most of Tashkent in the sixties and each of the ornate station follows a different theme. Unfortunately it is classified as a military installation (nuclear shelter) so taking photos is strictly prohibited.
After a couple of days in Tashkent it was time to take a flight to Latvia. My original plan had been to overland it back to Europe but I had problems getting an Iranian visa. The flight was cheap but the timing was about as bad as it gets. We left Tashkent at 02:50 and landed in Riga at 06:10 local time. I tried to catch some sleep on board but the seat was absurdly cramped and the turbulence near continuous. Still it wasn’t so bad and I checked straight into a nice hostel on arrival.
It’s going to take some getting used to being back in Europe. Everything’s very different. Transport runs to a schedule, there’s no black-market currency exchange, police tend to be honest, shops are well-stocked, the internet works and cars don’t swerve to hit pedestrians.