How did this nervous traveller land himself in Uzbekistan?

It’s a weird feeling, arriving at a foreign airport unable to speak the language or read any of the airport signs. Doubly so when the locals speak no English and you have none of the local currency to buy your way out of trouble. Kind of shit-scary but thrilling too for this nervous traveller.

I gathered from the ground staff that most passengers on my Uzbek Airways flight from London were travelling onwards to India. Potentially, I was the only person disembarking in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Unsurprising perhaps but I wondered – does everyone else know something I don’t?

I’d travelled a lot but this was a new type of destination.  A nation closed off from the outside world until 1991, 10 years earlier, when it emerged following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

Business Class was empty. Dwarfed by my throne-like, sheepskin-covered, seat I sat and waited. Looking around the cabin I reassured myself; this thing is airworthy. Right? 

I passed the time the way we all do – flicking through the in-flight magazine. The page layout and faded images reminded me of a 1970s knitting pattern. The text littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. I closed it again, silently hoping the Uzbek Air engineers were more diligent than the proofreaders in the marketing department.

In-flight food was surprisingly good. Basic, but all the better for it.  Not excessively processed. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Sure enough at Tashkent Airport, I disembarked alone. Puzzled eyes of the Indian passengers were all on me as I stepped out of the aircraft door, down the steps, and into this former republic of the Soviet Union.

Arriving at Tashkent Airport

The airport was bleak. Almost deserted. The official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek. Signs around the airport were in Cyrillic Script. Incomprehensible to me. I was waved through different parts of the airport by bored, unsmiling officials. Another clueless western visitor. They probably assumed I was connected to the US military in some way. Uzbekistan having had a long-standing agreement with the US to allow supplies to pass through, en route to Afghanistan. Not an assumption I was entirely comfortable with.

After collecting my suitcase, the only one on the carousel, I wandered towards what looked like the Arrivals area. There should be a driver here to meet me. I’d ruminated on what would happen if there’d been a mix-up over arrangements and he wasn’t there. I‘d be totally screwed. No language, no mobile phone (this was almost 20 years ago) and no cash. The currency of Uzbekistan, the S’om (or Soum), unavailable outside the country. A so-called exotic currency.

Why was I in Uzbekistan?

I was a project manager working on an Asian Development Bank-funded initiative to improve primary education in Uzbekistan. My short, 2-week, familiarisation visit was to see the ‘difficult’ operating environment first-hand.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

A besuited, expressionless man held a sign bearing my name. Staring straight at me, he acknowledged me with raised eyebrows and a half smile. Conversation unnecessary; I was the only disembarking passenger. He was confident I was his man. My enthusiastic greeting was not reciprocated. The eyebrowraise was, I suspect, the extent of his gregariousness.

He took my suitcase and led me out of the airport. The only westerner around. I felt conspicuous but incredibly relieved. Assuming this man was indeed my driver, not some kind of KGB-type agent, this nervous traveller was going to make it safely to his hotel.

To be continued…

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