Uzbekistan: On The Fast Track To Change

Uzbekistan: On The Fast Track To Change

About a year ago, in May 2019, Sven and I traveled through Uzbekistan on our way to Tajikistan. We had landed in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks earlier with a rather peculiar mission: moving my partner’s ski touring gear, which had been waiting for its rightful owner in a backpackers’ hostel in Bishkek for months. Ah! the joys of nomad logistics… As romantic as it may sound, I had not come to Central Asia to haul a pair of skis through 4 countries under the suffocating heat.

Uzbekistan was formerly notorious for its complicated border crossings and daunting visa procedures. Entering the Republic was something to be planned with a great dose of patience and little expectations. Once inside, there were rules to follow that made traveling independently quickly troublesome and expensive. Lodging options were limited to a handful of established tourists hotels. Meeting locals without a minder was next to impossible. Photography was closely monitored and forbidden in many places. And yet a bureaucratic twist lifted these restrictions merely two months prior to our arrival.

Cover Photograph | Young boy watching over his mother’s stock. 

The electric train crosses a series of small villages on its way out of the capital, Tashkent. Vendors come and go from one stop to the next, offering homemade snacks, drinks and the occasional trinkets.

The sudden opening of the country had brought a breath of fresh air that many seemed to take in gladly but carefully. Immigration officers traded their suspicious looks for curious smiles. Those who welcomed us at the border even indulged in a few trivial jokes about our age difference. They did not seem to notice the skis, but took interest in our climbing ropes. I focused on the visa casually stamped inside my passport to keep myself from giggling as Sven improvised an explanation in the little Russian he knows. A professional alpinist honeymooning with his young bride: a shortcut that pleased our hosts.

To witness the first steps of a historic transition is not something one gets to experience often, even in a lifetime of travels. I felt privileged, but what truly made this journey to Uzbekistan so appealing and memorable is that the feeling of novelty and discovery was utterly mutual.

train soviet Uzbekistan electric

Elektrika | The electric suburban train connecting Tashkent to the mountains is a fine piece of Soviet heritage. It is still very popular among locals who wish to escape the heat of the capital during the warmer months. Uzbekistan obtained independence on September 1st, 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR.

Left Photograph | Man leaving Bibi-Khanym Mosque after prayer time (Samarkand).

More than 80% of the population of Uzbekistan is Muslim, but it’s only recently that believers can practice their religion openly without fear of discrimination. Muslim clerics were persecuted under Stalin, as were their Christian counterparts throughout the Soviet Union. All the way to the collapse of the USSR, public expression of piety was strongly discouraged and could prove socially and professionally fatal. 

Observers from around the world expected the Republic’s independence to be followed by a sort of ‘Muslim Renaissance’. While the end of the Soviet period allowed a certain revival of Islam, most Uzbek citizens carried on with a secular life, adopting minor changes to their religious practice. 

Train Uzbekistan fisherman

Right Photograph | Fisherman riding home.

The train is packed and buzzing with life. Families, young couples and other content weekenders find their way home after a short escape to the countryside. The atmosphere changes as a group of Russian-speaking youths enters the wagon, talking big and loud as they kill the last of their drinks. Teenagers, there too, love to party far from their parents’ sight.

Uzbekistan is home to more than 700 000 ethnic Russians. They represent 2,3% of the country’s population who still identify primarily with Russia.

Uzbekistan Samarkand Bibi-Khanym mosque

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand | 

Following independence, President Islom Karimov utilized Islam to foster national sentiment. On the day of his inauguration as first president of independent Uzbekistan, Karimov presented himself with a Quran in one hand and the country’s new Constitution in the other.

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque was already undergoing restoration work at the time, but these efforts intensified significantly after that date. The search for “usable past” to fuel nationalist goals led to over a decade of “officially sponsored Timur-mania”, referring to the 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane. Citizens were encouraged to adopt Uzbek traditional clothes.

Meanwhile, some Muslim communities started establishing mosques and choosing their own imams without the government’s overview. This was perceived by president Islom Karimov as a threat to the central power and the country’s security. A vast campaign against ‘unofficial Islam’ was launched in 1994, following the ban of the Islamic Party in 1992. Mosques all around the Republic were demolished or converted into storage units.

Religious symbols such as beards and headscarves became signs of political partisanship. Those who wore them were branded as “Wahabis” by the Karimov government. Communities would be raided, men arrested and shaved forcibly. Women were encourage to wear the Uzbek traditional headwear (a scarf tied behind the neck) instead of the “Arab” headscarf (tied under the chin).

Uzbekistan Samarkand

Women passing a group of policemen in Samarkand. Behind them rests the late president in the mausoleum build in his honor. |

“This is the sacred and eternal place where the First President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the great statesman and politician, the respectable and honorable son of Uzbek people Islom Karimov rests.” Says the marble slab guarding the entrance to the memorial complex in Uzbek and English. Above the gates, wise words from the late president and from the Quran are written in Uzbek, English and Arabic.

Karimov was laid to rest in 2016, under a tombstone made of white onyx. The walls surrounding the tomb were decorated with precious stones and gilding (ornaments coated with gold). It is said that the best builders and craftsmen of the country were solicited for the construction. Necessary precious stones and other fine materials were imported from abroad.

Build inside the complex of the Hazrati mosque, one of Samarkand’s oldest religious buildings, the Islom Karimov memorial complex is meant to be visitor friendly. Benches were set throughout the great vaulted hall, the iwan, and an elevator, as well as a lift, were installed to accommodate visitors with disabilities.

Left Photograph | Family harvesting mulberries in Samarkand.

At this time of year, nearly every sidewalk in the city is sticky with crushed ripe fruits. The buckets shown below will later be taken to the edge of the market to be sold for a few Soms, the local currency, a modest addition to the family’s income.

More than half of the country’s population now lives in urban areas and this number grows steadily. Despite efforts to diversify the economy, opportunities remain thin for people without an education or connections.

Mulberries Samarkand Uzbekistan mother
Train Uzbekistan seller newspaper vendor

Right Photograph | Elderly woman selling used newspapers on a train  near Tashkent.

Left Photograph | Schoolgirls on their way home in Samarkand.

Uzbekistan has put significant efforts promoting education in the past decade. 100% of its population is now officially considered literate, which means that every person aged 15 or older can read and write, men and women alike. Children receive a total of 12 years of schooling in average. This number is the same for boys and girls. Universities are still mainly reserved to students from more affluent backgrounds.

Samarkand schoolgirls uzbekistan Bibi-Khanym mosque
Mulberries Samarkand Uzbekistan mother

Right Photograph | Mother and daughters holding the fruit of their harvest.  

Photographs © 2019 Marie-Raphaëlle LeBlond.  All rights reserved. 

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Marie-Claude Lagacé

    Thank you Marie-Raphaëlle très belles photos et texte inspirant!

    1. Marie-Raphaelle

      Merci Marie-Claude!! ‘Inspirer’, c’est un si beau cadeau à offrir aux autres. Tu me fais ainsi un immense compliment 🙂

  2. Alex Vignola

    Vraiment intéressant comme article Marie-Raphaelle!!! Bravo pour le beau travail dans un anglais impeccable et quo regorge de faits instructifs sur un pays si méconnu! 🙂

    1. Marie-Raphaelle

      Merci beaucoup Alex 🙂 Pour tes mots si généreux, mais surtout d’avoir pris le temps de me lire!

  3. Guillaume Leroux

    Cest inspirant. Beau reportage. Jaimerai voir plus de photos!

    1. Marie-Raphaelle

      Merci Guillaume, j’apprécie vraiment ton message! Il est très important pour Sven et moi de créer du contenu qui résonne pour nous et qui soit authentique, mais je dois admettre que c’est plus facile de continuer dans cette direction en sachant que nous ne sommes pas seuls dans notre délire! Pour ce qui est de voir plus de photos, puis-je suggérer Instagram ou Facebook? Nous y publions régulièrement des images qui n’apparaissent pas sur le site, peut-être que cela pourrait vous intéresser! (Insta: @freedomflux pour le site et @marie_raph_leblond pour mon compte personnel)

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