Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Dellas Take Tashkent

I took the fast train back to Tashkent, and marveled at how smooth it could be even going upwards of 220 km/h (about 140mph).

I arrived back to a wet Tashkent, and descended below into the metro (The "Tashkent" Station). I had heard that the Tashkent Metro was splendid, and this is indeed the case. I had been told to expect a bit of a hassle by the security service when entering, and to try to walk straight past and into the metro.  I tried such business because they were dealing with someone else.  I put my token in and tried to walk through but a counter woman hit the block button and I got nailed in the knees with closing gates.  They called me back, and I just called on my natural defense mechanism, playing dumb (The "der" card).  But the security was fine, and not a bother.  They asked a few questions about where I was from, where i was going and what I was doing here.  They even wished me well on my trip.

Once in the metro, I saw what the fuss was about.  The Tashkent station was made of marble, with white and blue sculptures on the wall.  The area was light and open.  Unfortunately, because the Tashkent metro was conceived for a secondary purpose as an underground nuclear fallout shelter, no photos are allowed.  Pity, because the stations were so lovely.  The train itself, a blue wagon that harked back some years, was a bit old but comfortable.  Interestingly, there were no advertisements anywhere.  Not in the station, not on the train.  That was a refreshing change.  I went about 5 stations before I reached my destination, and was enthralled by the different stations I passed.  Each one was unique in its design, and all were beautiful.  Some had Soviet Art Deco lamps hanging down; others had art deco columns.  One particular fav was filled with scooped out cupolas on the ceiling that were embroidered in gilded baroque patterns.

I arrived to my stop at Chorsu Station ("The Bazaar") and walked out to find my guesthouse.  As I was walking up, there was a young man who wanted to practice his English with me.  We chatted a bit, he spoke a decent amount.  He also tried to help me find my way.  I was going to 40 Ozod Street, some 3 blocks from the train.  He told me he lived on 48 Ozod street, so I started following him.  Except it didn't remotely feel like I was going in the right direction compared to my map.  I kept asking (Ozod? Da, Ozod).  We walked about 20 minutes, until we got to an old Soviet apartment block.  I was sure it was wrong, but I at least went to check.  After some confusion, he took me back to an apartment building that was number 40.  I thanked him, but knew I had been accidentally led astray.  I consulted my map again, and figured out where I had veered off.  I trudged back out, and stopped at a kiosk to ask the name of the street I was on.  Ogul, not Ozod.   The fellow was very helpful in a very unhelpful fashion.  I grumbled my way back to the street I was on before he led me off course, and trudged my way another two blocks to find the right street as I had thought.

I found the guesthouse, and deposited my stuff before going to get a famished bite.  I had a bowl of langhman, an Uzbek spaghetti of an interesting consistency.  It came in a bowl of pepper and tomato soup with pieces of lamb and onions.  The warmth of the soup, along with some green tea, helped soothe my annoyance.  I returned to the hostel to have some Uzbek cognac with a group of Japanese backpackers, and a French fellow who supplied the cognac.

I got up early from the guesthouse, and made my way through the metro to the Hotel International.  I got to see a number more stops, and got to admire the uniqueness of each station.

The Hotel International used to be the Hotel Intercontinental.  Because of Uzbek business practices, there are all sorts of laws about joint business ownership with the government.  Apparently, the government had promised to do some renovations, but as the time was getting closer, it seemed unlikely.  Some shady stuff was circulating about, and one day the entire Intercontinental staff just quite en masse and the Intercontinental pulled its name.  So the hotel was renamed "The Hotel Incontinent."  It took 2 weeks for anyone to point out the issue over the new name, and finally it was changed to the Hotel International.

Anyway, I was met by the Embassy staff, and we went to get the Dellas from the airport.  I waited in the parking lot for the staff and expediters to ferry the Dellas through customs, and had a cup of coffee at a restaurant nearby.  The coffee was 3,000 som but because I wanted to take it to go, the fellow said it was 4,000 som.  I asked if that meant I got a bigger coffee.  No, he said.  I asked then why did it cost more.  He smiled and replied, "Because this is Uzbekistan."  I smiled back and forked over the extra 1k.

We snagged the Dellas and stopped for a quick cup of coffee as they shared in the van about the Pakistan leg and all the adventures in PK.  As you can imagine, it was intense.  They had been kept under lock-and-key in Lahore, so it was a bit tough.  Also, their motorcade had been in an accident while in Lahore.  But on the whole, they had loved Pakistan, and enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the Pakistanis.  As expected, it was nothing like they imagined, and nothing like the media images of Pakistan.

Since their flight came in a bit late, we had to take them directly to the Uspensky Music School.  At the Uspensky Music School, the music school kids opened with a few numbers of Uzbek music, and some jazz. We had been warned that jazz was still very much king in Central Asia, from years and years of cultural diplomacy promotion.  I even heard a story about a Cajun group named the Pine Leaf Boys, who visited Uzbekistan-- everyone liked their Cajun music but kept asking when they were going to play some jazz.  Let know one forget, jazz won the Cold War. The Dellas played their own set, and the music school kids loved it.  They did some collaborations, and then the Dellas were mobbed as rock stars for pictures and autographs.  One adorable little girl remarked to me: "Splendid, Super!"

After the program, we let them check in to the hotel, then went out for dinner at a nice cafe.  While they loved the food in Pakistan, they were quite happy for some Italian.

We returned to the hotel, and I thought it was going to be an early night.  Kimber the fiddler and I went to the bar for an expensive (by Uzbek standards) drink.  We planned to have a beer and call it a night.  As we were ordering, we got chatting with two Russian guys at the bar.  One asked my origin, and when I said "Jewish," he replied: "pity."  He then started talking about how the Jews caused World War I, to which I laughed and said that, yes I am Gavrillo Princip and I am part of the Black Hand.  We quickly left him be and went to the corner on our own.

As we were having a drink, the fellow came over again.  He asked if he could join, to which I said not really.  Maybe if you don't talk anti-Semitic garbage.  But he insisted, so I said fine if he was going to be nice and no politics. We got to chatting, and it turns out he was a Jew and nothing was what it seemed.  The more we got to chatting, the more this stranger got more interesting.  Like his knowledge on Southeast Asian languages.  We basically figured out he was probably KGB on holiday.  He had a lot of choice opinions on geopolitical affairs, and kept bringing us shots of vodka and beers.  The night stretched long and interesting, as some Marine-looking American fellows at the bar seemed to be paying a lot of attention to us as well.  The Tournament of Shadows Drinking Game had begun.  The night ended later and sloppier than expected, but most memorable.

The next day was only semi-painful.  The Dellas had a program at the Pop Circus Music School.  We were welcomed with a drum barrage, then the Dellas gave a performance followed by the music students reciprocating.  One girl with some serious pipes gave a rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," which was a bit impressive.  The music students also played Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb," which got the principal up and dancing with the Dellas.  It was a bit surreal.  Then they all collaborated together, it was all a lot of fun.

After the school performance, we went for lunch at the famous National Plov Centre, and introduced the girls to the Uzbek specialty.  Even with the grease on minimum, it was still a bit much for their Western tummies.  I enjoyed the plov, with lamb and chickpeas, raisins, yellow carrots, boiled eggs and boiled quail eggs.  I also tried the aforementioned Mr. Edvard sausage, which tasted a bit like gamey roast beef but wasn't bad.

After lunch, the Dellas met with their musical collaboration partner in Uzbekistan, Jassur & Sultan (Famous in UZ!).  Their collaboration was quite amazing and impressive.  Jassur had supplied them with some tracks to learn, and we hung out in their studios, watching the musicians sink up.  Some of the traditional Uzbek music combined with the bluegrass style was absolutely beautiful.  Fiddles and rubabs.

We had a oh-so-brief break before heading on to the Ambassador's residence for an evening music and fun at his residence.  Ambassador Kroll was quite nice, and gracious in hosting us.  We had a good time amid lots of music collaboration (and questions of how I landed such a lucky gig).  The ambassador got to pin US-UZ friendship flag pins on the Dellas, and gave us all fancy ambassadorial coins.  'Twas a fun nite out.

Today was a rest day.  After a slow morning, I led the Dellas through the immaculate Tashkent subway to the Chorsu Bazaar.  We met Greta the CAO, who took us through the shopping.  The girls got to shop at the bazaar, and had a good time in the spice dome, getting saffron and cumin, and tasting tart yogurt balls and salty pickles.  They also bought lots of silk, and I did a bit of negotiating.  The silk merchants were not the most fun to negotiate with.  One fellow got crabby at my requests for a better price, and simply said "No sale."  Since it wasn't for me, I was just bargaining for a Della, I laughed and backed away.

A quiet rest of the evening ensued.  Tomorrow, they are having their big concert at the Turkestan Palace in Tashkent. The Dellas are apparently the hottest ticket in town, and the show is well sold-out.

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