...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 11, 2010



My journey through the Stans was coming to an end.  I said my goodbyes to Lara and the desk girls at the hotel in Samarkand. They assured me I had plenty of time to make the flight to Tashkent, and I had the correct time on the ticket.

Of course they had it wrong, again.  Instead of a short hour or so wait, I spent the next four hours waiting for a connecting flight.  That Moscow clock was wreaking its havoc yet again.

It was dark when my cab finally drew up to Tashkent's imposing Hotel Uzbekistan and I tumbled out with my solitary travel bag.  A man approached  asking if I was Mrs Robyn and why was I so late.

He didn’t even wait for a reply just herded me quickly to the desk where I was booked in, given room number and key and ushered up to the ninth floor.

A key woman took over assuring me she would be on duty all night should I need anything.   

Next morning I made a mild complaint about the noisy party in the next room to which she clucked her tongue and said ‘They are Egips and know no better.’

The foyer of the modern and impressive 14 story Uzbekistan Hotel was a hive of activity with guests mingling with locals in a constant surge of meet and greet. Money making entrepreneurs hovered about offering every scam known to man, including an artist in a corner complete with easel and sign advertising quick portraits for US$25 a pop.

A sign in the elevator even advertised Pizza flown in from Seattle at $US40. Though some one had scribbled "Who can afford" across it.

I approached the front desk and asked Intourist to confirm my Aeroflot flight to Singapore. She was on the phone for ages and then told me the flight didn’t leave until Saturday, two days away.

Impossible I replied, please check again.  She wasn’t pleased and for a few seconds we glared at each other before she picked up the phone again and began a shouting match with someone at the other end.

‘You must go yourself with this ticket to the airport.’  I was being given the flick.  ‘We cannot help you here.’

I figured I would need my passport and asked the receptionist.  She pointed to an office down a corridor.  Inside sat a man and again I asked for my passport.  He frowned, not understanding, and I repeated the question.

‘Speak Russian’ the request sounded like a command.


‘Is foolish come here and not speak Russian,’ he lectured.

‘Up to now it hasn't been a problem,’ I couldn't manage even a smile, ‘my passport please.’

I snatched it and slammed the door as I left.  In the frame of mind I was in now, pity help the airport people.  The taxi driver started to haggle and I curtly told him 25 roubles and cut the crap.  My anger cut through all language difficulties.  It was a fast silent drive.

At the Aeroflot office I soon discovered how fortunate I had been on  domestic flights around the country.  Now I was one person in a pathetic milling crowd, standing in long queues that never seemed to reach the windows.  I was the only westerner; the majority were young Africans, with a few Afghans and others who seemed to accept the intolerable wait as normal.

After what seemed like an age I finally reached the counter and a bored young woman glanced at my ticket and told me I was in the wrong queue.  Back to the tail end, and then after slow shuffling progress another woman looked at the ticket and said ‘You already have ticket, what you want here?’

Absolutely seething I went through the morning’s ritual and asked for confirmation of the flight.  She looked at the ticket again and said ‘You are booked on plane, okay.’

What time should I check in?


Why did I have the feeling she had pulled that time out of thin air?

It was getting close to the lunchtime rendezvous with Cari  set up back in Frunze when he kindly offered to look after those bulky art books.  I bargained another taxi ride back to the hotel, watching the streets of Tashkent flash by, an entire morning wasted at the airport.
Cari with the art books
Cari was waiting just inside the vestibule, how lovely to see a friendly familiar face. His eyes lit up as he saw me, ‘You are here; I was worried.’

 ‘Yesterday I phoned the hotel in Samarkand and they said they had never heard of you.’

I shrugged, shaking my head, so much for being one of the girls back in Samarkand...

Cari’s apartment wasn’t far from the hotel and he lunched there every day so the waiter knew him well and quickly settled us both at a table.  I told him of my encounter at the airport.

‘And you have confirmation,’‘ he asked.

‘Verbally’ I nodded, ‘there’s nothing in writing’.

‘My company has the same problem every time we send a man back to India.  It is always a big gamble.’

‘What should I do?’ I asked him between the cabbage with meatball soup, and lamb ragout.

‘You will do nothing, I will take your ticket to the airport and see some people I know while you go and see what you can of Tashkent’.


Tashkent was destroyed in an earthquake in 1966 and even though one of the former Unions oldest cities, originally founded over 2000 years before, the buildings I now passed in the central city were all contemporary or chocolate box classical.  Russian influence and money could be seen in every detail.  It had been the same with Frunze’s architecture.  
I followed the crowd down steps to one of the underground stations near the hotel.  A narrow pedestrian tunnel led into an elaborate marble cavern with giant size statues and murals of Soviet hero’s decorating the walls.
Railway station more suited to a museum

In the underground thoroughfare, linking the road above to the station below, young men sat at clumsy stalls selling music tapes and mildly pornographic magazines.  Later, in the park bordered by Leningrad Avenue, I saw a couple selling sex manuals and health diet books while across from them on a grass verge a young woman was unpacking a carton of shampoo.

On the corner of Leningrad and Proletarskaja I found the only private art and curio shop of my travels through Central Asia.  Every inch of wall space was covered with oil and water paintings, carpets, pottery and ceramics...a lovely shop to browse through.  While I was there a woman came off the street and took three old glass vases from a shopping bag, the owner appraised them and money changed hands.

In the same rambling building, it actually opened onto the park, I happened across two rooms where videos were being shown of incredibly old black and white American cartoons, Mickey Mouse before he became the cutesy hero of Walt Disney.  Three young men were handling ticket sales, their customers seated about 20 to a room on odd kitchen and dining chairs.
The atmosphere was pathetic; the viewers were in a 12 to 18 age bracket, dressed in clumsy ill matched clothing, hair closely shaved.  No one appeared to be enjoying the cartoons; they just sat glum and serious.  If I hadn't known better I would have guessed they were drugged patients in an outdated psychiatric ward.


I was due to meet Cari back at the hotel at 6 o'clock.  He was there on the dot with my daughters heavy and bulky art books bought in Frunze, under his arm.

‘I've spoken to a friend at the airport and she has faxed Moscow to confirm you are on the flight list.’

I started to thank him and he interrupted...’That doesn't mean a thing, she will send another fax to Moscow when your flight takes off.’

‘But why?’  I was puzzled, just how many confirmations did I need?

‘You have seen how corrupt life is here?’

I nodded, and he continued ‘Flights leaving Moscow are always full, people queue for days to get tickets.  Your flight will leave for Tashkent with one seat empty.  What Aeroflot employee will care that Robyn from Australia misses out on a seat when someone else will give him many roubles or even dollars as a bribe?’

Not for the first time I realised how naive I must seem.

‘For now we will enjoy the evening, nothing more can be done until your aircraft leaves Moscow.’

Cari had booked a table and ensured we would not share it with others.  He had also brought with him a bottle of Cognac and a liqueur to have with our coffee.

The waiter suggested we start with caviar, only pink was available, but an extremely generous serve.  There were various salads and cold meats on the table and the main course was beef stroganoff.  Cari suggested I try a lime tea and the waiter who knew this was a special occasion presented the piece de resistance...four cubes of sugar, the first I had seen since leaving Singapore.

Meanwhile the band had started playing and the huge dining room swung into party mood.  A table next to ours was celebrating a birthday and sent over glasses of vodka which of course custom dictated we down in one gulp.  I was swept onto the dance floor for some spirited dancing and was glad to return to Cari when the music stopped, my Russian partner suffered from an excess of body odour and a lack of deodorant.

A bunch of red roses and a bottle of champagne appeared, a gift from another table on hearing I was returning home that night. The music alternated between modern upbeat tunes like ‘Woman in Red’, to the soulful twang of the balalaika and the music of Russia.

 Upstairs in my room I still had some Australian souvenirs, kangaroo stick pins, a tiny furry koala and some key rings and this was the perfect time to give them away.


Meanwhile Cari had slipped out to telephone his airport contact who by now would have faxed Moscow to check that the plane had left with my name still on the passenger list.  It had.

I thanked Cari for all he had done, it was now approaching midnight; from here I would be able to manage alone.

‘But I'm coming with you to the airport,’ he said.

‘Cari,’ I protested, ‘the plane doesn't leave until 4 o'clock in the morning.’

‘And the next few hours are the most crucial,’ he told me. ‘There is absolutely no guarantee you'll actually board that plane.  In fact there's a good chance you'll be back here for breakfast.’

I couldn't believe what Cari what taking such pains to tell me.  Perhaps it would have been easier to just fly into and out of Moscow in the first place.  So we spent the next hour down in the foreign currency bar sipping coffee and cognac and getting on famously like the old friends we had become.

The time passed quickly, we talked about his family in Bangalow and his friends in Tashkent.  To his parents dismay he hadn’t yet married, but ‘there is a lady here that I am interested in.  Perhaps...’ he raised his shoulders and I gathered he was in no hurry to settle down.

Then it was time to leave for the airport, Cari had called for a taxi and we made the short trip to the airport through darkened streets.

 I was surprised to see the fare was only four roubles.  No wonder my various taxi drivers had been so solicitous, I had been lashing out with a small fortune.

I felt sad, the marvelous adventure was coming to an end...  or was it?


©Robyn Mortimer 2010

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