We arrived in Samarkand and were taken to a very attractive restaurant in the Russian part of the city where we were served green tea, black tea or coffee (the tea cost only 1,000 som, but the coffee 12,000, even though it was instant), then we went to the station to catch the high-speed train to Tashkent. Security checks were necessary before we could access the platform.
The train was excellent and at times ran along the track at 225 kmph (at one point the speed reached 230 kmph). I doubt that the UK’s inadequate rail network (it is privatised) has a train as good as the Uzbek train made in Spain (furthermore, tickets on our dire trains cost considerably more per km than they cost in Uzbekistan). About half way to our destination we were served tea and a slice of cake. The snack was free.
Almost the whole way to Tashkent we travelled through quite fertile but flat countryside. Although the train occasionally encountered gently undulating fields, pasture and orchards, rolling hills existed in the distance and some hills rose high enough to qualify as mountains. Every so often we followed the course of a silt-filled river. There were times when we were reminded of the steppe in parts of Turkey, but we also crossed large tracts of land badly utilised during the Soviet era. There were therefore more brownfield sites than Uzbekistan’s population or industrial aspirations would seem to justify.
One town we passed through had a very large marshalling yard and locomotive depot, and nearby were silos to store grain. In some villages the houses had large plots of land enclosed within high mud walls. Sidings in another town stored diesel locomotives withdrawn from service and awaiting cannibalisation or scrap.
We occasionally sped past freight or passenger trains, but the latter were less frequent than the former. At Gulistan there were many derelict industrial buildings, a large dismantled marshalling yard and extensive patches of flat land where pools of stagnant water filled shallow depressions. The depressions had been dug by hand or mechanical diggers. There was also a new mosque with minarets atypically slim for Uzbekistan. The mosque looked as if it had been built with money from the Arab Middle East to a design that might be encountered in Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
We sped through Syrdarya, which lies just to the west of the mighty Syr Darya River. Not long after Syrdarya, the river enters Kazakhstan on its long journey to the north end of the depleted Aral Sea. Syrdarya was a mixture of abandoned or declining industry and houses with gardens. The railway provided local people with one of their better employment opportunities. Not long after leaving the town, the railway crossed the Syr Darya itself.
About twenty minutes later the train arrived in Tashkent and it was not long before we were driven to our base for the next two nights, the four-star Lotte Tashkent Palace, a very large, Soviet-era hotel presently owned by Koreans. The hotel had had a makeover in recent times bringing it up to contemporary international standards (this said, aspects of its Soviet origins are apparent, especially in the corridors, the wide hallways and the very large dining and function rooms).
We got into our room at about 8.30pm and a little later were eating a very pleasant evening meal in the hotel’s dining room. Although Hilary retired for an early night, I went out to get my bearings. Because the hotel is in part of the city developed by the Soviets, nearby are wide streets, parkland and lots of official buildings. This said, to the north-east of the hotel is an area of shops and apartment blocks with some life and atmosphere. What would otherwise be a rather sterile district has some redeeming qualities. On one street corner is a busy restaurant and cafe popular with the bright young things of Tashkent who have money to burn. It is here that customers eat burgers, drink brightly coloured cocktails and smoke nargiles. A sushi restaurant next door meets the needs of a more sedate and largely foreign client group.