Of mountains and metro systems

At the moment it is pouring with rain here almost constantly, and everyone keeps saying to me “Oh, it must feel just like home for you!” and I have to restrain myself from beating them over the head with precipitation charts for the UK, because we have had more rain over the past two weeks than London gets in a year, and no matter how bad it gets at home, I rarely actually have to paddle to work. Having said that, the sun has just this minute come out and it appears to be attempting a reasonable approximation of warmth. I am heading out to the hills for a second round of hiking tomorrow, so fingers crossed the weather holds.

Sadly these tend to vanish the instant they flower and end up in the markets. Oh well, at least we found one.

The mountains outside Tashkent really are beautiful – not as vast or evocative as the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges in nearby Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but to someone like me coming from such a terminally flat land as England, they are entirely satisfactory for my needs in that they are agreeably pointy and have snow on top, as everyone knows all proper mountains should. The foothills where we were hiking were green and gorgeous, and full of things which were about to turn into wild tulips (although apparently you have precious little chance of actually seeing said tulips, as locals harvest them as soon as they bloom and sell them in the towns). Still, there was a nice line in blossoming fruit trees, scenic donkeys and pretty (if somewhat brown) waterfalls, and our group (which was quite an odd bunch – the hiking club was set up by German diplomats, so the party contained two ambassadors, and of the rest only I and a few Austrian tourists had no connection to any embassy) was gregarious and not too speedy, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow. With any luck we might be able to find ourselves at least one tulip.

The name means "Great Silk Road". Some wishful thinking going on there.

From the sublime to the ridiculous (or possibly vice versa), I feel that I can’t leave it any longer before waxing lyrical about the joys of the Tashkent metro. This, and not the TV tower, is the real highlight of Tashkent, but sadly photos are very much forbidden (enforced by the slightly disconcerting number of police hanging around in every train and station) and for some reason no one seems to have thought that postcards of the public transport system might sell. I love it all, from its severely square blue trains with fake-leather seats which I am suspicious may actually be made out of cardboard to the clocks at each station which count down the time since the last train left, and don’t go above 9.59, but just stay frozen, refusing to admit to the possibility that such a well-regulated mass transit system could result in trains running more than ten minutes apart. Each ride costs 400 sum (about 20p) for which you obtain a blue plastic token which you solemnly insert in a ticket barrier with no actual gates, and descend down flights upon flights of polished marble stairs (which, as I have mentioned, are more likely than not to have been recently washed and thus thoroughly lethal unless you pay close attention), through huge metal blast gates (the stations were originally built to double as nuclear shelters, and the gates are clearly occasionally used, leaving you not entirely sure if you’re ever going to make it back out again) and onto the vast platform, inevitably about 15 or 20 m longer than it needs to be and with one, solitary bench, usually monopolized by somebody’s shopping.

This is OK though, because it gives you a chance to wander around and gawk at the décor which varies hugely in scale, lavishness and taste and comprehensively puts every single tube station entirely in the shade. My local is Kosmonavtlar, a gloomy, navy-blue temple to the heroes of the skies decorated with what was doubtless in 1978 super-futuristic crazy glasswork on the columns, and huge circular portraits of the Soviet cosmonauts plus, in a nod to a local celebrity, Ulug Bek, an astronomer grandson of Timur who ruled parts of Uzbekistan in the fifteenth century. Others stations sport scenes from the works of the authors they are commemorating (the Tashkent metro has a decidedly literary bent), or in case of failure of imagination, just compete to outdo each other in the sheer weirdness and extravagance of their lighting units. Until I learned their names, I distinguished the stops on the way to work by their different designs of chandelier. The trains themselves are somewhat rickety (although no more so than the best the Northern line has to offer) but never (touch wood touch wood) appear to break down or mysteriously pause for half an hour while “waiting for a vacant platform” or similar. My one criticism would be the unnecessary preponderance of exits that most stations have – interchange stations have two names and at least eight exits; consequently, a considerable proportion of my free time is spent waiting for people at the wrong metro entrance, but even this means that the odd miraculous occasion on which we both end up at the correct spot becomes that much more special. In short, I feel that London transport is wasting its time upgrading the track and refurbishing platforms to make the tubes run faster – clearly all a metro system needs to make it work is a generous sprinkling of chandeliers.

…and the fact that I’ve just written this much about the metro probably means I should get out more, so I’m going outside to make the most of the break in the weather and not think about transportation or phrasal verbs at all.

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