What has happened to Uzbekistan? Recent headlines note it is “one of the 12 happiest places in the world”. Lonely Planet lists it as one of the three “must see” destinations of 2018. Another notes it is “one of the ten safest places to travel”.
Fred recently traveled to Uzbekistan with a small Seattle/Tashkent Sister-City delegation celebrating the 45th anniversary of the oldest sister-city relationship between a Soviet and a U.S. city. He was flabbergasted.
Fred and Sharon have lived in and visited Uzbekistan since 1995. Although one of our favorite countries due to its wonderful people, amazing history and great
handicrafts, Uzbekistan had always been a Soviet-style dictatorship that clamped numerous restrictions on both tourists and its own people. This might have made it safe to travel, but it didn’t make it much fun to be an Uzbek.
Then the long-time dictator President Karimov died. In the 20 months since that momentous event, the new president, former Prime Minister Shavat Mirziyoyev, swept aside the old order. He sacked ministers, imprisoned senior officials for corruption and torture, and virtually removed the entire entrenched bureaucracy. He replaced the corrupt system of bureaucrats with modern, western-educated officials with backgrounds in business.
Mirziyoyev de-clawed the notorious KGB, sacked or imprisoned its senior officials and even changed its name. He held contests to change the old Soviet-style uniforms of various police forces. In a largely Moslem country plagued by a small fringe of radical islamists for decades, he has allowed moderate Islam to bloom. Now women can wear headscarves if they wish (although few do). The call to prayer is now allowed from mosques around the country.
Mirziyoyev has ended Soviet-era rules for registration of your place of residence and has encouraged domestic travel and tourism. The recent Independence Day celebrations took place in neighborhoods, rather than in a central, massive, hours-long show. The people enjoyed the day, rather than the officials, and the government gave a week-long 50 percent discount on all national transportation.
Even without that extra benefit, local travel is more affordable. A new bullet train shortens the former six-hour train trip from Tashkent to Samarkand. It now takes two hours (at 230 kilometers per hour) and costs $ 8.00. Within the next year or two, these new bullet trains will service the entire country.
Ironically, all this domestic tourism has made it more difficult for the exploding number of foreign tourists to grab seats on the bullet trains. Now foreign travelers can apply for e-visas and pick up the visa upon arrival. No more need to send your passport off to an embassy for the visa. Instead of the old frowning scrutiny of incoming visitors and luggage searches on the way out, the new expanded international terminal has a hugely increased staff of smiling immigration officials who welcome you to Uzbekistan and thank you for visiting when you depart.
The large numbers of foreign tourist groups were probably not aware of the huge significance of being encouraged, rather than arrested, for taking photos in Tashkent’s stunning multi-themed metro stations.
Yet another example of change is the new “tourist police!” Statuesque young men and women in green uniforms wander around tourist locations genuinely assisting tourists with language help and tips on what to see. They willingly pose for thousands of tourist photos.
A very personal example of this change for the better happened to our favorite handicraft market in the small town of Urgut. In the early 2000’s the dictator’s notorious daughter closed the old Urgut market. She and her cronies built a Chinese-style mall in place of the market and forced the handicraft sellers, who couldn’t afford to rent stalls, out into the muddy parking lot. In the last year, however, the government has now provided the local handicraft sellers with their own covered, rent-free kiosks alongside the mall. The only cost is for them to belong to the regional handicraft guild.
Mirziyoyev is also making good on his promises to mend broken ties with Uzbekistan’s neighbors. Fred had a chance to chat with 15 museum curators from different “-stans” who were happily attending a U.S.-government sponsored workshop run by the University of Chicago. The attendees said that this was the first time they had been in the same room since the Soviet Union broke up.
One of the Uzbek participants said that his life had improved more in the past 20 months than in the previous 20 years !!!