Fear and Foreboding in Tashkent

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Backpacking in Central Asia

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Soren Kierkegaard.  

Scattered dim lights twinkled over the flat, unremarkable cityscape as we landed in Tashkent.

My heart pounded. 

At the end of my long crawl to the diving board’s edge, it was time to jump.

Seeing the serpentine immigration line at the end of the long, grim terminal I breathed a pathetic sigh of relief, hoping to delay the inevitable. But the line moved quickly, and soon a surly Uzbek was gripping my passport in his thick, smooth hands.

He eyed me suspiciously, searching for signs of betrayal, and I began to fear I’d unwittingly done something wrong.

And I sort of had.

Two years ago Uzbekistan had kicked several U.S.-based NGOs out of the country, and the fact that I’d just quit my job at a USAID consulting company made me a target for deportation, maybe worse.

My mind raced. This was a huge mistake, just deport me on the next flight, I’m sorry, a swift thud, and he waved me through.

Free at last! And terrified!

Suspended in mid-air between the diving board and the dark water of an unfamiliar pool.

My eyes immediately darted left and right, searching for my catcher, “a man holding a sign with your name” as Gulnara described in an email. But no one around fit the description. I checked the lobby, I peeked out the doors to the pick-up area.

No man, no sign. 

A clock on the wall read 9:15 PM. He should be here by now. I squeezed my backpack tight.

I suppressed the wave of panic roiling inside me. Maybe he’s not allowed to approach the terminal, it happens. A hot wind hit me like the gust of an oven as I stepped through the automatic sliding doors into the night.

To my left, a mass of stocky men wearing doppas, slacks, and white shirts jostled by another entrance, shouting. I knew such crowds were common outside developing country airports but this felt different, menacing. Protestors barricading the airport!

Yet the few people around seemed oddly calm. Was this business as usual?

I tried to mimic their composure, waiting patiently, but fear got the best of me as I stared obsessively at the clock every 30 seconds. 9:37 PM. No man, no sign.

I approached a taxi, and negotiated the fare to my guesthouse in a mix of broken English and Russian. “Twenty dollar OK?” Defeated and desperate, I didn’t try to bargain.  Xarasho.

The embattled airport behind us, the taxi zigzagged through dark, dusty streets. There were almost no people out, save the occasional rag picker or huddle of old men sipping tea around a low table on the street.

The driver broke the silence.

“You have reservation? Yes? You sure? I know good hotel, very good hotel. I take you there.”

Just my luck. A swindler. In which one of these dark alleys is he planning to violently rob me if I don’t want to pay $80 a night at his brother’s wife’s uncle’s sleazy hotel? Will he punch me, or pull a knife, or a gun? Will he do it alone, or call some friends?

“Just take me to Gulnara Guesthouse, please. Next to Chorsu station.”

Xarasho.” He nodded with a sigh.

A single streetlamp lit up the entrance to #40 Ozod Street. “Ozod,” from the Persian word “Azad,” meaning “Free.” I savored the irony grimly.

Already past 10:00 PM, my unexpected chime of the bell alarmed the innkeeper’s wife Gulnara, but after some back-and-forth through the intercom, she let me in.

“How did you get here?” she asked, shocked. “My son is at the airport waiting for you!”

I explained that I never saw him, there was a kerfuffle at the arrivals lounge, I eventually gave up. Shaking her head, she called her son’s mobile and told him to return.

Gulnara Guesthouse Courtyard in Tashkent

Courtyard of Gulnara Guesthouse in Tashkent.

Suddenly composed, Gulnara invited me to take tea in the courtyard while she registered my stay. In Uzbekistan, tourists must register before the government their presence in every city visited. I handed her my passport, and collapsed into a plastic chair. Haggard and weary, I looked around the courtyard in a daze.

  • A cheerful tree in a sea of jointed stone bricks.
  • Overhead, broad-leafed vines along metal railings.
  • In the corner, a hefty motorcycle.
  • In front of me, a strange platform like a giant crib. I later learned this was a “tapchan” for taking tea.

Gulnara emerged smiling with my passport and a tray with green tea, a round loaf of bread, and cherry jam. “Please, take tea and rest. Then I’ll show you your room.” She retreated to a small room next to the stairs.

I devoured the bread as slowly as I could, trying to hide how starving I was. I washed it down with several cups of warm green tea, sweetened with sugar cubes.

Outside an engine rumbled to a halt, and a young man emerged from the tall wooden gate. Gulnara emerged to greet him.

“Why do you take taxi? I waiting for you!”

My appointed ride seemed genuinely annoyed yet concerned. Reeling with fatigue, I explained again the predicament. A wave of comprehension washed over his face. “Yes, famous politician arrived to Tashkent tonight, many people waiting to see him!”

This explained the kerfuffle, but not the absence of this young man, with the sign he now held crumpled under his arm, in the arrivals lounge. Too tired to care, I shrugged my shoulders and laughed, and the three of us chuckled together in relief.

Finally, I was free.

Gulnara showed me to a tiny room on the second floor.

I latched the tall narrow French doors, drew the curtains, and lay down for the first time in nearly 24 hours. As my head hit the lumpy pillow on the narrow, creaky bed, I dove into a deep, dreamless sleep. 

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”
Jack Kerouac

Facts were checked to ensure information posted is still relevant.

July 21, 2008.

Have you ever had a scary airport arrival? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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1 thought on “Fear and Foreboding in Tashkent”

  1. I recall a visit to El Salvador to visit my son. At the customs desk I was asked for the address of my final destination. Of course, I did not have that information. The customs officer was, fortunately for me, a young woman who could relate to my strong desire to see my son and she allowed me to pass through. I was so relieved and thankful that I wasn’t going to be spending time with the customs office rather than enjoying my visit with my son.

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