wandering amphibia

A visit to Tashkent, and why everyone drives a Chevrolet there

Now that the world has shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good time to go and reflect on some of the more interesting trips we’ve taken so we can look forward to future travel that will undoubtedly restart in some as-yet indeterminate amount of time. One of such trips was my visit to Uzbekistan – a trip that was actually planned a little bit last-minute because a trip to India coincided with a friend flying through Tashkent, where an (intentional) misalignment of schedules caused him a four-day transit, which was just enough time to visit the country. Our plan was: day 1 was travel from our respective origins, day 2 was Bukhara, day 3 was Samarkand, day 4 was back to Tashkent and then an ungodly late night departure back to Delhi.

After wrapping up at the office, I taxied over to Delhi Airport, and went to the checkin line of Uzbekistan Airways and found myself facing a half a dozen people, most of them women, with massively loaded baggage carts – all in the business line. I figured two things would happen: one, I’ll wait for an insanely long time for this 21st century version of the Silk Road caravan to load itself, and two, I sure as hell won’t get a window since one of these caravaneers will most likely take it. (and window seat was not optional for me here, because this was a 00:40 departure landing at 4am, so I most certainly needed to sleep) So I did what anyone in my position would do (except, obviously, the half a dozen people in question: dash to the economy line. The checkin process barely took a minute, I got my window seat and all was well – I went off to passport control. The show was about to begin.

Delhi in the evening is a complete nightmare. If you’re departing during the day, the passport lanes are often empty – but after something like 9pm, it loses any sense of normalcy because from around 10pm to 3am the bulk of long haul widebodies depart to various far-away destinations, which fills up the lines with all sorts of people.

I got in line behind a woman who I quickly identified to be Japanese. As I’m an introvert by personality, I spent a couple of minutes introverting on life, then found an excuse to say something to her and strike up a conversation. I actually really enjoy talking to the Japanese. I have rarely met a folk that is so ensconced in their language, to the point where you can watch them visibly process linguistic situations that are not “normal”. There’s a Russian joke about the lack of mental flexibility. A man, the joke goes, comes to a zoo. He looks at a giraffe … looks at him up … down … then ruefully shakes his head and goes “Nope. This can’t exist.” Then walks away, satisfied that he explained the occurrence away. Well, when you start talking to the Japanese in Japanese, precisely that mental process happens. In the case of this woman, I think I said something (in Japanese, of course) like “Oh, Delhi is always like this in the evening.” She looked at me, and began to reply something courteous (in English), then stopped, stared at me in complete and utter disbelief. This momentous pause is the stage of understanding where they click that it’s not their English that’s really good – the achievement of many years of diligent study, understanding what the foreigner said in English and being able to reply – but rather, the darn foreigner is speaking in Japanese, and pretty well, at that. That moment is truly priceless – after that a connection gets established, they become more chatty, etc etc etc, but it’s that one moment of realisation that they aren’t hearing English that they’re translating in their head – no, the work has been done for them already. It’s truly priceless to observe.

So anyway, we do the usual chit chat about where she is from and what she does and where I learned my Japanese, and she tells me she’s been living in India for 20 years (!! somehow). We talk some more, then she goes on to switch lines to go to the economy passport lane, as it’s actually moving faster. At this point I notice a guy behind me that was standing in line in the Uzbekistan business checkin. Young (late 20s I’d say), very outspoken, exudes an air of confidence. Just before the woman leaves, he joins into the conversation in fairly workable English. I ask him if he’s flying to Uzbekistan – he says yes – we talk a bit to establish origins and it turns out both of us speak Russian, so we switch to that and from here a chain of events begins that will make this trip most definitely one of the most unique voyages I’ve undertaken so far in my life.

As we approach customs we keep chatting; at customs, he talks to the customs officer; at security he talks to the security officer; I’m just observing the chattiness.  Once we’re past security he goes “OK. We need to get some stuff for the flight. The drinks they serve really aren’t that great.” So we head towards the duty free; he exudes an air of someone who’s going to buy stuff, so much so that a circle of at least five employees immediately forms around him, with carry bags and all that. He points to Johnny Black, some tequila bottles, and just randomly picks up about five bottles of various drinks. Drops $300 in cash, and we head off to the lounge.

At the lounge, we polish off a few pours of Chivas, he randomly chats up some Indian guys, then eventually we head off to the flight. We stop by a duty free shop where he attempts to negotiate a couple of dollars off of a box of chocolates, gets rejected (and amusingly, both him and the vendor find it funny, so they part almost friends), and we head off to the plane.