Being the best you can be


The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don't see it either.

The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don’t see it either. Photo: AFP

Hot news from Central Asia:  Ashgabat has officially been named the city with the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, thus earning it a place alongside Tajikistan (world’s tallest flagpole) and Uzbekistan (world’s largest light picture made using LEDs) in the annals of the World Records You Did Not Know Existed Until Now. Still, it is good to see that the chief urban planner of Turkmenistan is receiving recognition for his work: the president has just been named “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to honour his achievements.


Journey deep into the rainbow…

When I was living in Uzbekistan,the only English TV channel available was BBC World News. This was a little surprising given that BBC journalists had been banned from the country for several years at that point, but I was grateful for it. When watching Russian dubs of Mamma Mia palled (hard to believe, I know, but it happens), the BBC was my background noise of choice. Since they can’t use commercial advertising, the breaks between the updates on the antics of minor members of the royal family, studio audiences in Qatar arguing over US foreign policy, and interviews with African Union delegates which constitute most of BBC World’s output were filled with promotional shorts from the tourist boards of various countries. You know the kind: spectacular scenery/wildlife/ruins interspersed with shots of an attractive tourist couple being hugged by local children all improbably wearing national costume, learning traditional dances from nice young ladies in spiffy hats, and buying each other necklaces in the shiny new shopping malls, all set to an exciting soundtrack (cliché-filled narration optional) and finished off with a slogan of superb banality and/or incomprehensibility.

In the absence of any other TV, I became quite the connoisseur of these little promos. Back then, BBC World was dominated by Incredible India (I actually quite like this one) and Malaysia Truly Asia (snooooresville) with a sprinkling of South Africa: It’s Possible (the narration wins a prize for the most clichés packed into a minute, and believe me, the competition is stiff in this genre), all countries with well-funded tourist boards that could afford to get these commercials run multiple times a day. However, like all the best trainspotters, I was much more excited by the more elusive appearances from countries with slightly less generous marketing budgets; quite a few, now that I look back on it, came from the corner of the world I’m currently exploring.  Kosovo: The Young Europeans (not so much a tourism promo as a political statement), Montenegro: Wild Beauty (featuring a flying mermaid) and Croatia: The Mediterranean As It Once Was (what happens when a advertising company decides it can’t be bothered and just throws a bunch of random clips together) all showed up only once a month or so and were savoured accordingly. But how ever frequently they aired, they are all pretty similar. Mostly they are pretty uninspired. Sometimes they are hilarious (see above re: flying mermaids). Very rarely do they actually pique my interest in a particular country.

The one exception was one I only ever saw a couple of times, but it really stuck with me. It covers all the standard ground (scenery! ruins! dancing!) but you can tell that some genuine thought has gone into it (it even has a framing device!). There are some ill-advised costuming decisions (why is there even a caveman in the first place?), but also some really tasty-looking watermelon. There is a small child involved, but she somehow manages to avoid murderous levels of annoyance. They do not stint on the icons and archaeology. Congratulations, Macedonia, you have my attention.

All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that this evening I’m flying to Macedonia for a week and I cannot wait. If there aren’t lakeside ladies folding sheets on their heads (what?) I’m going to be terribly disappointed.

No place like home – oh wait.

Look, it's probably a metaphor, ok.

“Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined – how is it that this safe return brings such regret?”

BECAUSE, Peter Matthieson, your safe return involves a bunch of boring stuff like laundry and student loans and bank cards and having to work out what to do with that huge stash of (unexchangeable) Uzbek money the you cleverly hid in your toiletries bag and forgot about (note for any ladies travelling in Central Asia: tampons scare border guards, customs officials, policemen (but not Iranian policemen, sadly) and most other people who might conceivably dig through your belongings and thus it is good to conceal things in their vicinity; their strategic placement in the top of your bag also prevents many a search from going much further) and other things that make hanging out in embassy queues for hours on end seem posititively Bacchanalian.

I’ve been back for two weeks and in that time I have accomplished almost exactly nothing. As soon as I came home my body well and truly crashed, the combination of a gut parasite (a farewell gift from Uzbekistan, ever-thoughtful country that it is), summer cold and peculiarly persistent jet-lag knocking me flat for the best part of a week and leaving me feeling absolutely exhausted. The exhaustion has now given way to lethargy, which basically means extensive lying around reading Jasper Fforde novels and internetting and feeling bad about all of the things that I’m not doing. I miss the challenge and stimulation of travel (I never, ever thought I would think this, but I miss Russian) but apparently can’t bestir myself enough to find something to replace it.

Mainly I am bothered by how normal things feel. I am telling everyone how strange it is to be back, but the awful thing is that it isn’t at all. The past eighteen months are suddenly rolling up like a snap bracelet and it’s as though I never left, which has left me scared that I haven’t changed either, and what if everything I’ve done and seen has made no lasting impression? What if I’ve just let it drift past me? What if I’ve come back no different from when I left? Intellectually I know that this is silly and of course I’ve changed, but I think I had this idea that the person who came back would be confident and assertive and proactive and have her life sorted out immediately, and that hasn’t happened yet, and the fact that I am slotting so easily back into London and falling back into old, slothful habits is making me uneasy. I’m starting an MA in September (disaster response, global warming adaptation and flood management – fingers crossed it’ll be as good as it sounds) which should provide a catalyst to do new things and meet new people which is what I think I need right now. So I’ll hold off panicking until then, I think, but for the moment I am feeling discombobulated in the extreme, and my pleasure in being able to legitimately use that word is tempered by the fact that it is not an altogether pleasant state of mind to be in.

Goodness me, I can whinge with the best of them when I get going. Positives of being home include the happy fact that no one has tried to put jam or salt in my tea, which I have been drinking out of a mug instead of a tiny bowl. No one has tried to serve me vodka at breakfast, either. Decent wine and gin and tonic are all plentiful. There are restaurants offering eight different international cuisines witin ten minutes walk of my house, and the primary ingredient in none of the dishes is mutton fat.

At some point I will write about my long and fruitless quest in Tashkent airport to find the correct person to bribe in order to get my excess luggage onto my flight (you might think this would be a relatively simple matter in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but you would be wrong); the perils of bathing in holy springs along the Pamir highway; and why your next holiday should be in Georgia and/or Armenia (sneak preview: the wine has quite a lot to do with it. Also, pretty churches). But that all has to wait. It is 2.30 am, which means it is time to redecorate my bedroom.

Day 559

Fountains, flower-arranging and opera for a dollar: the Navoiy Opera House in Tashkent.

Tashkent this summer is all fountains and flowerbeds and sprinklers and slightly unfortunate new architecture, and I bought an old coke bottle of fresh mulberry juice from the bazaar and wandered through the parks and boulevards drinking it and thinking that the Peace Corps are right to do it for two years. I feel like I’m only beginning to get the hang of things here, that I’m balancing on the edge. And I’m going home tomorrow, and it’s not enough time.

Home from home

I genuinely missed the trams.

Crossing the border to Uzbekistan felt like coming home. I had a stupid grin on my face all the way to Tashkent, and I rode the metro to my hotel which stopped at all the most bizarrely-decorated stations (astronauts and chandeliers forever) and I bought samosas in the bazaar and when I walked into the hotel one of my best Tashkent friends was there fixing somebody’s bike, and all was right with the world.

Then I went to look for things and found out that the main Uzbekistan Airways booking office has moved the cafe with decent wifi (cafe. singular. Freaking Dushanbe has more wifi hotspots than Tashkent, which is at least three times the size) had closed and my UCell sim card, worth its weight in diamonds now tourists are forbidden to buy one at all, had been blocked and my taxi driver tried to grope me and I would’ve bought a flight ticket to leave this evening were it not for the fact that no one knows where the bloody ticket office has gone.

And then I bought a drink and received a single teabag and a piece of bubblegum as part of my change, which is possibly my favourite Uzbekistan quirk of all (I have wrangled thirteen-odd currencies in the past six months and the Uzbek sum is still the most inept I have to encounter; guys, your biggest bank note is now worth less than fifty cents, suck it up and print bigger ones already) and I’m reluctantly forced to admit that I still kind of love this stupid place.

I do really need to find that ticket office though.

A person of interest in Tajikistan

I spent this afternoon being interviewed by a magazine called “Women of Tajikistan” after being ambushed by a couple of journalists outside the Uzbek embassy. For some reason (possibly my expression of beatific joy – exiting a Central Asian embassy, visa in hand, often provokes this) I stood out as a Person Of Interest and so I spent two hours in the office of this publication (which must have a remarkably broad editorial scope if it is interested in the thoughts of random tourists) being quizzed over the weekly circulation of newspapers in the UK, the London public’s reaction to the burqa ban in France and what my message was to the Women of Tajikistan. The interview took place partially in Russian so heaven knows how it turned out; when a translator finally turned up (“Why are there no women like Margaret Thatcher in the British parliament at the moment?” was giving me difficulties, not just because of the language) we got sidetracked into an extensive argument over whether global warming exists so I’m not sure how much that helped. At the end of the interview, the journalist apologised profusely that editorial policy didn’t allow them to put foreigners on the front cover, otherwise I would, he assured me, be there like a shot (I have never, ever been so grateful for editorial policy). I still have zero idea as to what I did to excite so much interest, as foreign tourists aren’t exactly uncommon here – OK, so Paris Dushanbe ain’t, but it’s not Mogadishu either), but I am extremely pleased that Central Asia continues right to the end to be a Bit Odd.