Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Soviet Union, 1983, Part II

Part I here.

From Irkutsk we flew to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, with a brief stop in Alma Ata (i remember the landing in Tashkent as being my scariest ever, but apparently not that unusual for Aeroflot). Of course at that time both Uzbekistan and Khazakstan were Soviet republics. Tashkent was a strange place to me for many reasons. It did not have much of the character of a Central Asian city, in part because of the Soviet influence and in part because the city had been substantially destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1965. In some respects it was an attractive city, but it also had a third-world quality, with some open sewers and the most apparent poverty that i'd seen in the USSR. About the only activity I remember from Tashkent is shopping. I bought an Uzbekistani flag, and a gray felt hat, both of which i still have.

We traveled from Tashkent to Samarkand, one of the most historically rich cities in Central Asia, though i was woefully ignorant of it at the time. For me this was the most memorable part of the trip. Samarkand is famous as a Silk Road landmark and as the base of Tamerlane or Timur. We visited the famous Registan, the main square of the old city, the Bibi Khanum mosque, and i remember going to the observatory of the famous astronomer Ulugbek. The buildings all had a distinctive architecture, with domes and peaked arches and extensive blue- tile mosaics. The main buildings in the square also have oddly over-sized facades, or at least the front section of the buildings are oddly over-proportioned.

We also visited a park of sorts somewhere outside the city where we could see the high mountain ranges of western Tajikistan. They were massive, and they had the same allure as the ocean viewed from the coast. I didn't think about it at the time, but i was also just a couple hundred miles or so north of Afghanistan. In fact, the only time Uzbekistan has been prominent in the news since then is when it was used as a launching point for the US assault on the Taliban.

There was a bazaar in Samarkand, and it was the first real outdoor public market i had been to, trips to Mexico notwithstanding. I saw a beggar there, a man whose legs were shriveled and useless, and he sat on a wheeled platform. It was an unusual sight in the Soviet Union. Although most Soviet citizens suffered deprivation that was severe by the standards of the American middle class, the panhandlers and vagrants common in American cities were non-existent. For reasons i can't articulate, the image of that man on his platform sticks in my memory more than anything else i saw during the trip.

It might be because i had spent the last year in the desert, but i felt very comfortable in Samarkand. Even though it was without question the strangest place i had been in my life to that point, it did not feel foreign. I still remember sitting around with some of the other people in the group on the steps outside one of the buildings, having a fairly intellectual discussion by the standards of a 19 year-old and thinking that it seemed not just normal, but somehow familiar. That began a fascination with Central Asia that continues for me today.

Coming in Part III: Leningrad.

No comments: