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xEurasia Odyssey

Uzbekistan Impressions

UZBEKISTAN | Wednesday, 4 September 2013 | Views [1726] | Comments [1]

Friday Mosque dome

Friday Mosque dome


Uzbekistan Impressions:


 When we first arrived in Khiva, the restaurant had an MTV channel playing.  This seems to be a constant throughout Uzbekistan, one can’t eat without MTV. The episode/song that was playing was an interesting introduction to the country. It was done in a Bollywood style clip with 2 young people; she is a city girl who is shown trying on all sorts of modern sexy clothes to go out, the frames with her family show strife and tension as she wants to be modern and the parents are traditional.  He is a village boy from a loving traditional home with everyone supportive of his moving to the city.  When he gets off the bus, he sees men’s suits for the first time, goes into the store and comes out wearing a modern Western outfit. She is about to leave the house when her mother hands her a traditional outfit to wear.  The two meet in the street, she now in traditional attire, he in modern and they fall in love.


This excerpt shows how the country is still very much in a state of transition.  There is value in the traditional, pre-Soviet ways, while trying to become more Western in commercial ventures.  It is difficult to assess how a balance between the two will be attained as this is still very much a one-man ruled state.


There is a patina of democracy with officially eight parties eligible to participate in presidential elections, but the current President was the head of the Soviet republic and has been in power ever since, regardless of the seven interim elections.  Like in Turkmenistan, he holds the strings and decides what is good or bad for the country. The difference between the two is more in appearance than in actuality.  Uzbekistan appears and seems more free, but the censorship on movies, the adoration of the people that verges on hero worship, the check-points throughout the country, and the most well-equipped military in Central Asia point to a different reality.


The country does have issues with its neighbors, not the least of which is about water. The Uzbeks closed the border between Samarkand and Penjikent to protest one of the new dams the Tajiks are building (with Chinese help) that will inevitably limit the amount of water that flows in Uzbekistan.  The Kyrgyz are also building a dam (with Russian and Chinese help) that will do the same to the other major river in the desert country. Both of these neighboring countries were much better off during the Soviet period than Uzbekistan, and both are now much poorer.  They both want control of their own energy sources and as hydro power is the basis for most of it, they believe they need the dams. Uzbekistan sees the dams as a threat to its survival as without water, all the agriculture that the country is based on will disappear, and it doesn’t have oil or gas fields.


There are other potential threats from the neighboring countries as well, which is why the President has ordered check-points throughout the country and at the entrance to each major city. The President, and it seems, most of the population prefer a secular state.  Radical factions around Osh in Kyrgyzstan and throughout Tajikistan are on the rise, and he wants to make sure that Sharia Law does not come back to Uzbekistan. (Under the Khanates, it was Sharia Law) The brutal crack-downs on protesters in the Fergana Valley in the past decade were to stop this invasion, but from what we could tell, radical Islam is on the rise throughout the region.


On the other hand, the people seem to be doing fairly well.  They are not wealthy, but they are also not poverty stricken. People have housing in a traditional extended family style as well as more recent nuclear family dwellings, and enough to eat. Cell phones are ubiquitous as are t.v.s and cars. The monuments have now been almost completely restored and they bring in the tourists with their foreign currency, so maybe it was a good thing the President chose to spend the money on them first rather than on rebuilding schools.  The schools are now on the agenda for renewal, over twenty years after independence.


Educational system:


 The boys who qualified studied in the madrasah, but the girls were taught either by the Imam’s wife or the female owner of the school.  After the 16th C girls were allowed to be taught, but only by women. They learned different subjects than the boys, including Domestic Arts, debating, poetry and carding but not mathematics or the sciences. Dilshadibarno was a 19th C poetess and teacher.  Her mother-in-law started the school that she took over and made it a model for others.

In the madrasahs, the  boys studied in the downstairs rooms/cells while they slept in the upstairs.  There were generally 2-3 boys pr. cell.  70% of the madrasahs were closed after the Russian invasion and the rest in 1930 with Stalin.

 Today there are five madrasahs in UZ & they are very difficult to get into.  Besides religion they qualify as elite universities and a degree from any of them is considered equivalent to a good university degree.


 As of this year children start at 6 rather than 7.  The 6 day a week school day lasts from 8am-12pm. After primary school there is 3 years lyceum (which is just for those wanting to study a specific subject at a university institute) or college (which allows graduates to get a job or go on to university) then 4 years bachelors and 2 years masters degrees.  All students must pass an entrance exam to be admitted to university and only about 10% do go on.  At most 20% of those who apply are admitted and of those a small percent will get their tuition waived for four years if they are the top ranked applicants, otherwise the students/their parents must pay the tuition.  It is expected that parents pay everything for their children as the children give all their money to the parents. For example in Kamola’s year, there were 500 applicants to the Korean faculty, 40 were accepted and 14 received scholarships. If one is not admitted one can retake the exam once per year until age 35.

 Many people study Korean because there are a number of joint ventures with Korea and they must know the language to be hired and to go there.  If they live in Korea for a few years, they can earn enough money to buy a car or a house.  They often go for 5-10 years. Those who are over 30 still speak Russian fluently, but the younger generation is losing that and trying to learn English instead.

 President Kosimova wrote an article on “The Schools for Girls in Central Asia: the meaning of education and methodology” that states in K.E. Bendrikov’s “Essay about the public education of Turkestan” – ‘the girls were not taught writing in order not to make them keen for love letters…” He goes on to state that Prof. Dalimov rejected this statement but instead insisted that as the UZ nation has had numerous poetesses, they must have been taught to write.  The President’s essay leads to promoting education for girls because they should be taught because the schools “are an important place in the moral of spiritual behavioral education.” (Kamola’s translation).  Basically, as poetry was a sacred art, it was allowed and fostered along with the domestic arts.

The educational system in Uzbekistan mirrors that of the other Central Asian countries, with the exception of the madrasahs, which are far fewer than in the other countries and much more academically oriented. 


 Uzbekistan Muslims are Sunnis, but they believe in saints and holy men as a connection with the Divine. The Arabs Invasion brought Sunni Islam to the country, but it had a long-standing connection to Persia and the Zoroastrian religion.  The two merged to form a particular kind of Sunni, that still honors ‘saints.’  Their mausoleums are in each of the major cities and people will follow pre-Islamic rituals of walking around the tombs three times, then kneeling to kiss the feet side of the tomb.  As in India, money is also laid by the side of the tomb. One of the holy men so honored is Imam Simal Al Bukhari who knew the Koran by heart by the time was seven. He learned 260,000 hadjices and said that only 60,000 were from the Prophet Mohammad; the other 200,000 were not. The President of Turkey, Erdogan, asked for his body to be brought to Turkey, but the UZ president refused to part with it.

There are 12 styles of Arabic calligraphy, but only three are used in Central Asia: Kouf, Thoulthi and Nastalikh

Soviet Legacy:

 Uzbekistan had a harder time during the Soviet period than its neighbors did.  In the “Tashkent” photo gallery you can see graphs of the infant mortality rate and income rate for Uzbekis in comparison to other Soviet Republics.  The infant mortality rate was so high because of the pesticides that were used in cotton production.  The Cotton Issue is a story of both human failure and political destruction of the environment. 

 During the Soviet era, each of the 16 Republics had to supply Moscow with various products.  Uzbekistan was supposed to produce 5 million tons of cotton annually.  There are any number of versions about what happened next, but the bottom line is that somehow during Breshnev’s reign that quota was upped to 6 million tons, which was simply unattainable.  The government ordered the people to plant cotton in their yards rather than food.  Pesticides were sprayed everywhere to enhance the crop and fend of bugs.  The result was both massive starvation and serious health issues, including deformed babies, a dramatic rise in various cancers, and problems with the meat from the cattle and sheep who had eaten off of the sprayed fields. As the people couldn’t produce the 6 M tons, a scandal over the change was made public with 4,500 people involved; 3,612 were convicted of a crime. As there was no place in the prisons for them, they were sent to Soviet gulag or killed. Some made it back as either mental or physical cripples or both.  The families of those sentenced were ostracized within their own villages.  They also weren’t eligible for any government jobs, which made them unemployable, meaning they starved.

The Uzbeks have no lost love for the Soviet Era and have consciously tried to do everything to rebuild its Medieval – 19th C glory.  Statues of Timur have replaced those of Lenin and Soviet heroes.


 It is basically impossible to find an ATM that will allow U.S. Dollar withdrawals on a credit card, and yet much of the major exchanges are handled in U.S. dollars as a 1000 CYM (SOM, it’s spelled in different ways) is about 21.5 cents. They just recently released a 5000 CYM note, but we never saw one; the highest in use is a 1000 CYM note.  When paying your utility bill, you can a) use a bill card that is like a debit card, or 2) carry a suitcase full of 1000 CYM notes.  Cars and any larger items are valued in Dollars (or Euros) rather than in CYMs because the billions wouldn’t make any sense and no one would be able to pay for it in cash.  As there isn’t really a developed mortgage or loan system, one buys what one can pay for. We asked if there was any discussion about chopping off one or two of the Os, and it seems there was, but there isn’t any real will to make the change.


 Social services are available, but Uzbeks don’t like to use them as they want to be self-sufficient. Health care at the clinics is free, but like in Turkmenistan, everyone has to pay for hospital stays.  There is no health care insurance system.

 The government owns the land, farmers pay rent and then sell the cotton back to the government.  There is a set price for the produce. Cotton is still the leading export product.  It was not produced in the region prior to the Soviets.

The government censors movies, but Korean films are allowed as “the culture is similar.” Even Turkish films have now been stopped due to “political issues.”  Korea was one of the first countries to recognize Uzbekistan after independence and provided financial support. People prefer to go to Korea rather than Russia to earn money as it is better to live there. At any given time there are over 1 M Uzbeks working outside the country and sending money home.  There are about 30 M people in the country, making it by far the most populous of the Central Asian nations.

 Chugurma (men’s hats) distinguish profession and nationality.  White for wealthy people; brown and black for the middle class; lambs wool is reserved for leaders and the very rich. Many of the traditional crafts traders come from a long-family line of craftsmen for a particular product. Bargaining is expected with the traders in their stalls or in the bazaar (not in city shopping malls, though). Brown sheep’s wool men’s hats go for between $15-50 and the lambs’ wool coats for between $800-$1500, depending on quality as well as on one’s bargaining skill.  The signs on the skull caps, both for men and women, mean something.  Yellow, for example, means the person is married.

Since the 11th C, turquoise has been the symbol for peace, which is why most of the domes are turquoise.


Some local sayings and customs:

 -       It’s harmful to children’s health to do two sports at the same time, i.e. Tai Kwando & swimming


-       It’s harmful for children to swim in the pool in the morning after elderly couples have swum in it in the evening


-       Pools should be separate for families, men, women, and children


-       Men have a lot of responsibility; they have 5 main tasks:


o   take care of  his wife, mother, children, brother’s children, & uncles


-     Men earn the money; women spend it


-     The parents get all the money the children earn; the children (even adult children) are allowed to keep some spending money, but all major decisions are made by the parents, incl. cars, homes etc.


-      young men wait until they can purchase a place to live for the bride before getting married.  It is the responsibility of the boy’s family to provide the housing, the bride moves to the boy’s family, while hers may provide some of the furniture and household items.  Girls generally marry between 18-22; boys between 25-30.


-      It is definitely better to have boys than girls as the boys will take care of you in old age and the girls leave to live with their husband’s family.


-      The Prophet Mohammad says that there are more than 1000 saints alive today, but Allah only shows us a few.  We need to help and not hurt others because they could be a saint.  And the saints aren’t all Muslim.


-      80% of people take after their mother.


-      When marrying, the parents (who choose) take 7 generations of health into consideration to ensure a healthy family.  During pregnancy women read, write and do crafts so that the baby will learn through her.


-      Women are the neck; men are the head. (i.e., women turn the head)

 We were greeted very warmly by all the Uzbekis we met.  Everyone tried to make us feel welcomed and were generous with their help and advise.  Uzbekistan has amazing monuments and a very very rich history that the people gladly share.  Given the almost paranoia with security, it is a very safe place to travel. We did not come across any Americans while there, but there were fair number of Spanish, Italian and French tourists. As with anywhere, it helps to have a knowledgable guide.  We were very fortunate to have had Kahramon and Kamola with us to negotiate the paperwork as well as to explain the history of the sites we were seeing.


















Bukhara guidebook: Almeev, Robert. Bukhara in legends and fact of history. (The rest I can’t read if it is there as it’s in Russian.)


Khiva guidebook: Khiva: the city and the Legends. Tashkent:Davr Nasriyoti, 2012


Samarkand guidebook:


Shakhrisabz guidebook:


Tashkent guidebook: Tashkent: the City and the Legends. Tashkent:Davr Nasriyoti, 2012








Thank you for your kind words! I'm very glad to learn that someone is reading them:)

  Krista Sep 25, 2013 11:18 PM

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