wandering amphibia

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

You see, we are aviation geeks. There is a strange pleasure in experiencing hardware from days gone by, and for people like us, what is (in many cases) dreary daily reality, is novelty, excitement and wide-eyed wonder. I remember reading a review about Alrosa Airlines in the armpit of Siberia, where some passenger was complaining that the An-24 plane that Alrosa was using on that route was at least 40 years old, was rickety and reminded the reviewer of her miserable childhood in…. well, the armpit of Siberia. All I could think at the time was, “damn, I really need to fly that plane before it falls apart mid-air and takes a small section of the taiga with it.” We are not normal people. You must remember that when reading most of the drivel that I write.

To the novelty at hand, then. In the early post-Soviet days, when the oligarchs were still schoolteachers (but actively stealing national heritage), when the Rostov-on-Don brigadas were just starting up, but when the corresponding presidents of every republic were… the exact same people who were there about twenty years prior (and who, in most cases except Gorbachev, would remain there for another twenty years), Ilyushin, the venerable aircraft maker, went and made something called the IL-114. It was a sort-of sucessor to the IL-14, which was a decently popular plane made in the great Soviet days (over a thousand were made) – it was reliable, popular and overall, a plane for the ages, before it sunk into oblivion like the rest of the sort-of great but rickety Soviet aircraft, to great chagrin of the … actually, I don’t know if there was real chagrin there. I think they just made new ones, and just ignored the previous failures.

Anyway, Ilyushin made the Il-114 to hark back to the Il-14, to remind us of the glory days. Except it didn’t quite have the international stature of the Il-14; it was more for routes like Tashkent to Bukhara, Samarkand and back – I’m being pretty specific here because for some unfathomable reason, pretty much the only customer they had for this plane was Uzbekistan Airways, and they bought the entire 20-plane run. They operated them for about 20 years, and then it occurred to them that a regional turboprop that only has a total installed base of 20 planes is a really dumb investment – a Bombardier or an ATR would’ve been a far smarter purchase (but then again, so too would a cheap C-Class instead of a goddamn Chevrolet Lacetti, but you’re not supposed to, so I suspect there was something similar here), so they decided to retire all of them in one fell swoop – and we just made it before said retirement. So that’s basically a very long-winded way of saying that one of the major reasons we went to Uzbekistan this way is to fly some decrepit Soviet airliners with weirdball folding seats. What else is new.

The airport was a brand-new achievement of Uzbek architecture and construction.

Inside it was more glass and marble.

Our flight was indicated on a huge NEC screen. It was weird to see Cyrillic mixed with Latin characters for the airline name. Then again, Uzbekistan was going through an identity crisis of converting from Cyrillic characters to Latin ones, because someone thought it was a good idea, despite there being a number of characters missing from the Latin alphabet which was remedied by adding squiggles, wiggles and various oddball accents onto existing letters. I think they were trying to rid themselves of their past. Good for them.

This is where we were going!

… and here afterwards:

Waiting hall. I must remind the readers that the common method of transport in Uzbekistan is by train; the plane is reserved for those who could buy something other than Chevrolet Lacettis but won’t, in solidarity with the common worker (and not to promote outside capitalist influences) – but are happy to support the nascent aviation industry. Tickets are certainly not cheap compared to the train – but considering we had the USDs exchanged at the black market rate, we paid something like $15 per ticket, which is comically cheap (but we must remember we are mingling with the local elite here).

While we were waiting, I was called to a security checkpoint. Turns out they scanned my suitcase and found the gift I was bringing to J. – a clock. The problem was that it wasn’t quite the average clock – it was a chronometre removed from a Su-27. There’s apparently a huge trade in these in Russia, and they’re literally authentic, uranium-powered (or at least, lit) chronos. I found it and thought it would be a neat thing to give, but I forgot where I was going to – a place where they freak out when you take photos of anything except yourself because you must be … I don’t even know what. A soul terrorist? There are tribes in Africa that believe when you take a picture of them, you take their soul away – so maybe they believe here that when you take a picture of, let’s say, a plane, you will steal its soul. Or maybe go and copy it and make shitty reproductions. Of a 20-year-old plane that literally nobody except some weird avgeeks give a crap about. Or something like that, you know? So anyway, seeing an object that looked like it came out of a jetfighter got them so excited that they made me go to the backroom and explain myself.

The guy asked me to remove the “ticking object” from my bag. I knew how this conversation was going to go, so I took the clock out and presented it to the guy. He looked excited to find illegal contraband, but he had some trouble figuring out what exactly it was, it just looked military so it’s got to be totally illegal. Right? I said it’s a clock. He looked disappointed, and asked me what sort of clock it is. I said it’s made to look exactly like the clock in a Su-27, it’s for people who like military stuff, and obviously it’s a Chinese copy, because where can you find an authentic clock from a Su-27……… right?!. He seemed convinced by that argument, so he smiled, let me stuff it back in, and pushed the suitcase through. (I made a point to immediately gift the stupid clock to J. immediately on arriving to Bukhara, because I no longer wanted to deal with this nonsensical paranoia).

Between this and that, we were called to the boarding gate, so I started snapping pictures, because I was so excited to be on a nearly defunct airliner … but my joy was cut short by some functionary of the Uzbek military forces who probably thought I would steal the soul of the airliner, so he started waving frantically and making scary faces for me to stop shooting. In a great display of teamwork, I distracted him with my huge camera and hungry eyes while J. fired away with his phone, so here’s his pic instead.

I figured their jurisdiction did not extend inside the plane, so I kept shooting pics inside.

Oh man, those bullet holes. What this plane must have seen! … no wait, it’s just paint peeling.

Off we goo……….. note the position of the engines compared to an ATR or a Dash: they are below the fuselage, so you see over the engines. Very odd.

Some people appeared to be genuinely interested in the content of the Uzbekistan Airways magazine. Note how weird Soviet planes were – the window shades go from bottom to top. Because you know, why use gravity? Socialism beat gravity with proletariat effort!!! (1% of me wonders if the designers knew that about a year into the life of the plane, they would be unable to guarantee that the shades would stay in place – they would likely slide under gravity – and since you want shades open on landing, they designed them to go bottom to top, so that when inevitably the retention mechanism fails, at least they’ll all slide into an open position. .. and now that I wrote that, I change that 1% number to 90% certainty, because Soviet design was very functional, utilitarian, and entirely non-reliant of the collaboration of the average folk, which means in this case, they function precisely as wanted without having to ask the public to collaborate).

Hardcore materials painted time and time again. It will outlive you, me, and the cockroaches after the inevitable nuclear apocalypse.

And yes!!!!!!!! The seats that fold the wrong way!!!!! That’s how you know you’re in a Soviet airliner.

More teamwork pictures. While I ran around flailing my hands and my camera around, J. surreptitiously took pictures of the surroundings.


The amazing baggage weighting scale in the terminal. Don’t smoke next to it! It can’t take anymore, after 70 years of standing in one place.

A short taxi ride later we were in our hotel.