I admit to being nonplussed by Tashkent.
You won’t hear me saying that much, I like most places I visit and usually I am pleasantly surprised by new cities. Tashkent, however, I found rather lacking in character, culture or that hospitable and welcoming feeling I felt elsewhere in Uzbekistan. To me it appeared to be a disappointing capital city that I was convinced I’d enjoy but in reality I couldn’t wait to move on to the rest of the country. Tashkent feels like the city that Uzbekistan has tried to rebuild to hide its history. The gaudy new buildings with neo-roman columns and tacky plastic chandeliers that are ubiquitous in Tashkent reminded me of a wedding hall in a lower income suburb of Istanbul.
Precious little evidence of Tashkent’s past remains from the pre-Soviet or Soviet times. I can’t blame them for the former, the city was devastated by an earthquake in the 1960s. But that doesn’t excuse the latter. Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan signs of the old days have been seemingly erased, I noticed that the hammer and sickles of the communist era have been chiselled off buildings.
Uzbekistan confusingly uses Roman Alphabet in a non-uniform way, interspersed with Turkish characters, alongside Cyrillic. There is a goal to phase out Cyrillic but as it is the only accurate way to write the Uzbek language one wonders how that will work in practice. The proposal for an alphabet conversion has changed three times, with the younger generation learning three different ways to write their language in the Roman alphabet. Many of the older generation seem to be more comfortable with Cyrillic. Signs are often written in both alphabets, with several different variations of the Romanised Uzbek words.
Soviet architectures is polarising, with critics either loving or hating it. In my experience its more the former than the latter , but I personally have a passion for brutalism. There’s something so other-worldly and avant garde about it. I appreciate its functionality and was pleased to see some of the other-worldly soviet buildings of the 60s and 70s remain: the UFO-like Circus building; the beautiful history Museum of Uzbekistan (formerly the Lenin Museum) where all traces of Russian influence have been struck from the displays. I wonder how the young Uzbeks are supposed to learn about their history, the influence Soviet occupation had on their culture and if they don’t get to see what really happened.
I was immediately drawn to Hotel Uzbekistan. It’s very central location and imposing 1970s brutalist exterior appealed to me and I just had to stay there. It looked very elegant from the outside. There’s no doubt that this was de rigeur in its day. This was the leading luxury hotel in Tashkent during the communist era and was the residence of choice for all the visiting international dignitaries. I was thrilled to discover the fact that little of the hotel’s interior or exterior had changed since it was built.
The Soviet Brutalist architecture of the 20th century is not just an architecture style but an extention of the socialist ideology: the state is strong and imposing, it will last forever like these buildings. Socialism is hardwearing, robust and available to all people – like the raw concrete that was used to build these edifices. Some of the buildings were clad in marble for grandeur, a luxury that the state decided befitted buildings for the people and that the workers state seemed to be able to afford.
This philosophy of architecture extend into the Hotel Uzbekistan’s interior. Although the outside and the lobby were particularly grand and rather well persevered, little thought was given to the rooms as they were not designed for the public. As they weren’t on show, they were less important. The bathrooms were very functional, right down to the plastic suction bathmat and the pink plastic soap dish. The carpet was roughly cut and clearly hadn’t been vacuumed since Brezhnev’s last visit. The room was neat and soberly appointed in maroon, ivory and a touch of gold.
I was fascinated by Hotel Uzbekistan’s extensive room service from the Hotel Uzbekistan’s signature restaurant, which served a variety Russian, Uzbek and international cuisine. After arriving to the hotel hungry and exhausted I wanted something easy, but this appeared to be a high risk menu with items such as the Shaherezade Salad (“pineapple, turkey, smoked meat, mayonnaise, lettuce, spices”) and Tongue In Mustard Sauce (“tongue, mustard, cream, mayonnaise, spices”) I was delighted with this vintage menu and settled on the most undescriptive item on the menu, simply listed as Sandwich. And a Shuba, the Russian beetroot and herring salad, a favourite of mine that tastes better than it sounds. The food was good, I was pleasantly surprised.
I left my empty tray outside the door as instructed and got to watch my leftover salad deteriorate over the next three days. I left the hotel before it left the hallway, each day a passerby added to the rubbish pile by throwing on a wrapper or an empty cola bottle.
A fellow guest in the neighbouring room assumed that there were several people occupying my room who were constantly ordering food. I explained that it was just me, and just the one tray left to rot in the hallway.
I experienced an unusual breakfast of curry and pancakes in the ballroom where I met a lovely fellow traveller, possibly the tallest man in the world. The towering, blue-eyed Lativan attracted a lot of attention in Tashkent.
There is indeed one beautiful Soviet living relic remains: The Tashkent Metro System. This alone is reason enough to stay overnight in the city. Hotel Uzbekistan was my hotel of choice because it was next to Amir Temur Station. My most enjoyable day in Tashkent was spent riding the metros, taking photos of every station. Each one is different and truly exquisite, a unique underground work of art with its own theme. I was amazed that so much thought was put into each one. Themes of the stations include cosmonauts, cotton (one of Uzbekistan’s largest industries) Alexander Pushkin and many other historical figures and places. For the cost of just 1400 som (you can ride to any station on the metro system, they were all such exquisite, untouched beauties that I couldn’t chose a favourite.
I wish that the Hotel Uzbekistan staff new a little more of the hotel’s history. I also regret leaving my bags with them after I’d checked out to have a last walk around the city: some little punk working at the concierge told me that they would keep by bags for 3 hours in exchange for a compulsory tip “of about $5” — an extortionate amount for Uzbekistan, I think I agreed to $2. When I had returned the bags were locked in a storage room and said punk in charge of the baggage shakedown operation for outgoing guests was absent. It took them 40 minutes to break in to the storage room to get my bags. I grabbed my bags stormed off, late for my train and they never got their money. Would I go back to Tashkent? Only in transit on my way to one of Uzbekistan’s more beautiful destinations.