The air is still and dry. The ventilation is hostile to the eyes and nose, and the sterility of a modern airport shadows the natural light that is outside those closed windows. I try to remind myself that the moment is transitory and I look up to see white metal beams overhead, engineering reminiscent of the Victorian train stations in london, a marvel of construction that is Frankfurt Airport. “All passengers to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, please proceed to gate 3” not a phrase I would ever have thought of hearing in my lifetime! My project with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to Tajikistan will start in her neighbouring country of Uzbekistan where I will stay for 2 weeks to learn about how tuberculosis is treated in a Former Soviet Union (FSU) Country. I wonder when it will ever stop being called an FSU country, which it is still referred to, given that she gained independence in August 1991. I suppose some legacies will be difficult to forget.
I sit down in the aisle seat of 12D, generally a good place to sit I find on long journeys, as it allows for freedom when the time arises to go to relieve oneself. Barely 5 minutes into this proud thought of choosing a perfect seat, I get a taste of my first Central Asian encounter. A tall man appears in his sixties, strong around his shoulders, with blue eyes. He signals at the seat and says something in Russian suggesting, I assume, that he wants my seat. There is a politeness about him with his dug rays diverging from his eyes, an expectation that a man twice my age and taller should have. It’s odd but it feels odd but strangely normal a sentiment I am not sure I would always have in my citizen country.
The 6 hour journey proves to be a delight as I sit next to a German Interior Designer. I feel my obsession with blue eyes has just started, his emulate a small grey pebble in the waters of the Mediterranean with faint white rays like tentacles of a small sea animal. He is an interesting man, one who is also patient enough to listen to my endless concerns about the genocide of culture and language from the threat of greed. He brings me down to earth and although I think his (and my) discourse is a luxury of the man who is stable with money, I like his phrase of “there should be a play between modernism and tradition rather than the usual bilateral arguments of capitalism and socialism". He is right of course but the play (in my minuscule opinion) should have an equal status of power or it is an act of bullying into submission.
We fly past the border of northern Iran over the immense Caspian sea and enter the territory of Uzbekistan, which if you look on the inflight moving map, looks like a dinosaur with the head towards the west and the tail into the east. The rural land appears bare, with little light from the inhabitant houses until we arrive in Tashkent, a city which to all purposes is modern to my untrained eye.
The landing is safe and there is a grateful applause from the locals. Stepping off the plane, the smell of the air does not remind me of life ever known. Modernism in this side of the world is curious and reminds me that modern culture lags behind and it is here that I encounter my second taste of Central Asian culture: The order in the queue for customs is disorganized and when a woman surreptitiously passes me and the security guard (much to my amusement), there is a push from an old woman who signals to me to (I think) to do the same. It’s funny, and despite my usual insistence that I am not English, I find my britishness comes back to me and I remember my duties as an apparently good citizen, to respect the law. My German friend acknowledges my amusement.
I pass the final stages of customs without difficulty and into the freedom of Tashkent. It is raining but the air is warm, a feeling of the tropics. There are lots of taxis, but the insistence to take you to the best hotel is not aggressive. I explain that I am waiting for a driver from MSF. They stay with me and protect me from the rain with their umbrellas, an act which continues until the driver arrives. A communal cigarette seems to pass the time nicely and one of the taxi drivers offers to ring on his phone to find out where the driver is. He looks offended that I should give him money for an intuitive act of help and when the Alexey, the MSF driver arrives, he shakes my hand with tangible warmth and wishes me well.
Alexey is Russian who is wonderfully proud of living in Uzbekistan. His english is good and when he wants to emphasize a word or an idea, he will use his body as a source of energy to bring out an English accent which is the roll of an old engine, the character of which is original, old and full of soul. He explains to me that the food is good here and ‘ric’ (rice in Russian) is staple. I am excited as I also love rice (I return from my Britishness back to my Indian being) but disappoint him when I add that I am a vegetarian, prompting a face of worry of what will recur over time. I tell him I will be fine if I just eat the vegetables although I am not sure he believes me, looking at my scrawny body! This concern for the stranger is my third taste of this Central Asian Culture.
I am endeared my these first impressions and close my tired eyes to sleep and dream of eating rice.