Uzbek Surprise

By Cacahuate – Own work based on the blank world map, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Never in a million years did I imagine that I would visit Uzbekistan, a Soviet republic in Central Asia!

In August of 1979, I accompanied my graduate-student spouse on the 1979-80 USSR academic exchange sponsored by IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board). We participants began the exchange by taking a crash course in Russian while living in the Moscow State University dormitory. We met two exchangees who were heading to Toshkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in September, while we planned to study in Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia. We became such good friends that we vowed to visit each other at our exotic locations.

Sure enough, one couple received a travel visa to Tbilisi during Thanksgiving week. We cooked chicken (no turkey was available) and vegetables on our hot plate in our dormitory room and listened to the Voice of America broadcast on our short-wave radio. For the rest of Tbilisi, it was business as usual.

We promised our guests that we would visit them in mid-December, right before they would fly back to the United States. The bureaucrat at Inotdel (the Foreign Department) at Tbilisi State University rejected our request for visas. The American Embassy’s Cultural Affairs staff member had to intervene for the Inotdel bureaucrat to issue our visas. After flying to Toshkent, we planned to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, ancient and beautiful cities. At the Aeroflot ticket office, we were astonished that we could book only one leg of the trip at a time. We bought tickets to Toshkent with rubles (no credit cards were accepted). We were instructed to buy tickets to Samarkand at Toshkent airport.

The Toshkent flight’s departure time was midnight because the plane flew over the USSR’s largest space launch facility. Soviet officials were paranoid that passengers would take photos from the plane’s window. We took off three hours late. Upon landing, we bought our tickets to Samarkand at the airport. While riding in a taxi down the streets of Toshkent, we noticed that people in line crouched down instead of standing. We learned later that 60% of the residents belonged to a Turkic ethnic group, while the other 40% of the population was Russian. After resting at our friends’ apartment, we shopped at a pottery store and visited the Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan.

After our short flight to Samarkand a day later, we made sure to buy our tickets to Bukhara before leaving the airport. Samarkand was settled during the 8th century BCE and was on the Silk Road trade route between China, Persia and Europe. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE and was again conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in 1220.

We were awestruck when we entered the old city. Samarkand has one of the world’s best-preserved and beautiful buildings representing ancient Islamic architecture. In particular, the Registan Square was the heart of Samarkand during the Timurid Empire (the early 15th century). It features a mosque and Islamic madrassahs (Islamic schools) with blue domes and brightly colored tile work. In contrast, residents still live in low houses made of clay and mud brick.

Our flight to Bukhara was delayed until the next morning, so we had to stay overnight at the modern Hotel Samarkand.

Upon landing in Bukhara, we bought our one-way ticket back to Toshkent. Bukhara was an important stop on the Silk Road trade route and was a major medieval center for Islamic theology and culture. In the old city, we felt like we were walking through a world that existed 2,000 years ago. Men wore long robes and turbans, while women wore patterned narrow-leg pants, with a different patterned shirt, a different patterned blouse and a scarf with a fourth pattern. We were shocked to see some donkey-drawn carts in the unpaved streets. As we strolled past the pristine mosques and madrassahs, Uzbek children asked us for chewing gum (a habit of Russian and Georgian children). One child even asked me to check my purse for gum. Something very unusual stood out among the ancient buildings: a billboard advertising wedding insurance!

We returned to Bukhara airport only to learn that our plane to Toshkent would be delayed until the next morning due to fog in Toshkent (our friends later told us that there was no fog there). We were angry because Aeroflot did not cover the cost of hotels or meals in case of an overnight flight delay. Instead of heading to a hotel, we decided to sleep in the lobby of the special foreigners-only hall. Fortunately, we were the only foreigners there, so we locked the door for some privacy. The restroom facilities consisted of a pit latrine inside a small building outside of the terminal.

We were relieved when we finally landed in Toshkent the next morning. However, we saw a shocking surprise on the runway. There were approximately 30 military transport planes on the airfield with troops surrounding them. We were dumbstruck and wondered why there was so much military activity, but we were sure that it was the cause of our overnight flight delays.

We bought our one-way ticket to Tbilisi before leaving the airport. We enjoyed our visit with our friends and one of their Uzbek friends, who served as our guide. We spent a day viewing historic artifacts at Toshkent Museum. Unfortunately, many ancient buildings were destroyed in the 1965 earthquake. We then visited an Uzbek film studio, met several set design artists and received samples of their artwork. We saw the sets of an ancient city and films of cartoon characters. We brought home a priceless sketch of the film set of an ancient city.

Diane in 1979

On Christmas Eve, we learned from the Voice of America broadcast that Soviet armor and troops poured into Afghanistan (less than two hours away from Uzbekistan). Toshkent Airport was the staging area for this invasion. Soviet propagandists told their people that the Soviet Army had been “invited” into Afghanistan to put down insurgents.

I will never forget the beauty and culture of Uzbekistan…and the Soviet military presence on the Toshkent airport runway.

One of Diane’s companions on this journey played a key role in an earlier OLLI Connects memoir entitled It’s Never Too Late to Return a Book. You can link to that story for a deeper dive into Diane’s history of travel to Central Asia and her memories of the people and places that made those experiences so remarkable. — Editor

Diane Henrikson Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects. Diane was Co-chair of the Volunteer Management Committee from 2019 through early 2023.

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3 Replies to “Uzbek Surprise”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. What an adventure! Continuing on your history reference, Genghis Khan’s descendent Babur established the Mugal Empire in 1526 CE in India. The Baburnama translation of his biography is available via our local Library. Babur’s great grandson built the Taj Mahal.

  2. Diane, I love your stories. Glad I have heard so many from you in person. Since 911 travel has been so much more challenging. I remember flying Pan Am on a trip years ago and so many people thinking I was staff! So cool as I was rejected by all the airlines after I finished my BA because I was too short. Bob was on the list of new spies when he finished his Russian linguinst course at Syracuse U while in the USAF. We had our long hoped for St Petersburg Viking River Cruise delayed by covid and then the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Not sure that will be a trip that will come together while we are still physically able to travel. Travel is such an amazing adventure. Budapest and Prague being our favs, but we hope this next trip with Basel, Zurich and Milan to be fantastic.

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