We are in Tashkent and it is hot and sunny and, beyond our expectations, actually quite nice. The city is brimming with trees in full leaf, and despite the huge boulevards and large soviet-style buildings, it's a good place to hang out. There is no heavy traffic, and there's a good metro for getting across town. We arrive on Wednesday, and go along to the Kyrghyzstan embassy first thing on the Thursday. On their timetable of opening hours for Thursday it reads "Rest Day". We return on the Friday and wait nearly two hours for somebody to be bothered to open up. We are then asked for 300 dollars. This comes as a bit of a shock. Fortunately we work out that there is a variable pricing scheme and the official thinks we want "express" service. Not at that price we don't. In which case we can come back on Tuesday. They are closed on Monday for their "Constitution Day". Tough job, this embassy mularkey.
We need a bit of time to work out our real problem: how to get to Pakistan now that entering China looks unlikely. We seem to be heading into a cul-de-sac, with no way out. We would prefer not to fly if we don't have to, but apart from trekking from Tajikistan, across Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, and into Pakistan illegally, we seem to be short of sensible options. Now if we could just get a map of the Wakhan corridor.........The alternatives are a flight from Almaty to Karachi via Sharjah, or a flight from Tashkent to Lahore. Sounds simple, but we still have to obtain a Pakistan visa and a visa to return to Tashkent, if necessary. Each embassy in each country seems to have different criteria, and quite frankly it's a pain in the arse.
Kent means city in the turkic language, so it's a disappointment not to see a single moustache in the city. We feel like we have drifted into Russia by mistake, not deeper into Asia. There are definitely a few Russians hanging on here. I am reprimanded by the hotel cleaner for speaking Uzbek with her and not Russian. On the train from Samarkand we had a long conversation with an army major. A bunch of squaddies who were finishing their national service filled our carriage. The major sat next to us and ordered one of his charges to translate for us. Savar was a very nice young man who wants to study in England or the States when he finishes university in Tashkent. But it seems like a pipedream because he lacks the money for fees. We asked if life was better since independence, and the Major thought so, except for the standard of education. He seemed to know a lot about Europe - even when the Channel Tunnel opened - and of course knew all about English football. We were asked about Iran and the Major suggested it was a better country for having been "colonised by the British". And then he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "We were colonised by the Russians!". This is Great Game territory, where Russia vied with Britain for influence in the area in the 1800's. At one point Savar whispered " He doesn't like the United States, but don't say anything!". The Major had worked with British soldiers and later we were told by someone else that the US had trained soldiers in the desert here before going to Iraq. However, Uzbekistan's current 'best friend' appears to be Russia. The Great Game continues.
We keep meeting lovely French people - they certainly outnumber any other nationality of tourist here. On one evening we go to an 'opera ballet' with Yann, who we met outside the Kyrghyz embassy. The ticket costs one pound forty and it's fair to say we get value for money. The ballet is a bit of hop skip and jump in chiffon, and the singers get drowned out by the orchestra, but the music is good. However, none of us can decipher the title of the opera from the cyrillic. We think it's an Uzbek composition judging by the story and the costumes. We leave none the wiser. In the cafe afterwards we are approached by Anvar and Sacha. They're a bit drunk but friendly, and Anvar speaks enough English to start discussing French literature and English rock music. He looks like Johnny Depp on a bad night. The next evening we meet up with Yann again to eat. Whilst looking for a cheap place we are picked up by a bunch of ex-pat teachers who invite us to a party. It's in a large plush house and waiters bring us drinks in the hallway. There's a large buffet. Everyone is interested in what we are doing, and we are interested in the red wine and food. It's a pleasant evening but ends disappointingly early. The freeloaders are almost the last to leave. The next night Anvar finds us again. We are having a hectic social life all of a sudden. Anvar tells us he is a writer, photographer and musician in a punk rock band, but he works in a bookshop. I ask whether he did national service, and he tells us that he failed the psychiatric report. When asked by the psychiatrist what he thought of his Motherland he replied that the whole world is his Motherland and he loves everyone and he could never use a gun. If they gave him a gun he would kill everyone. A bit more of this talk and a quick flash of his tattoos and they soon marked him down as 'unfit'. We also discover that he keeps a pet rat called Seed. "Seed?" "Yes, after Seed Vicious." The rat and his brother are the only vegans in Uzbekistan apparently...................