On the Silk Road
After planning through 2½ years and two false starts, the trip to photograph central Asia’s first rapid rail system in Tashkent, Uzbekistan finally happened. The pandemic halted global travel for about 18 months. The second attempt was derailed by Mr Putin’s war on Ukraine when transportation through Moscow had to be cancelled. Getting refunds for both plans proved to be quite arduous with Turkish Airlines issuing a worthless voucher that I was never able to use and reclaiming frequent flyer miles from Delta’s code share with Aeroflot.
My swimming buddies, Bill & Condit Lotz, again extended their offer to get me to Atlanta airport. Passing though security and dropping luggage which is not part of the normal routine was accomplished in only 40 minutes from curb to gate. The flight started with a bit of annoyance from some loud talkers in the row behind who were not accomplished travelers. They appeared to have imbibed with the spirits before leaving the ground. I knew there was a reason headphones were created.
Arrival in Frankfurt was something of a nightmare compared to the two trips earlier this year. The 20- minute waits through immigration for the previous trips were extended to nearly an hour with the arrival of passengers from two other flights converging at the same time. The connection to the high speed rail ICE service at Frankfurt airport was rather seamless. The train reached a speed over 300 km/hour (186 miles per hour) with a smooth ride. I was in Wuppertal within 90 minutes and one change of trains in Köln (Cologne). The return trip to Frankfurt was easier with no connection, but happened at the ungodly hour of 6:00 am.
Wuppertal is known for its Schwebebahn suspended overhead monorail system opened in 1901. Schweben in German means to levitate or float. The system has 20 stations straddled above the Wupper River for most of its course. The system offers diversity in design, unlike Toronto, and was closed for much of 2021 while system renovations and updates were in progress. The hotel provided a transit pass that was never shown or validated upon entering stations. Mask use was pretty high on public transportation and in the streets. Shooting was completed in one setting although, Kluse at night would have been satisfying.
Predicted rain on Thursday made one day necessary. I remained in the hotel working on photos all day. Food was extremely reasonable considering the dollar was nearly on parity with Euro. There was a savings of $ 60 on the hotel due to checking rates and later rebooking.
Passport control at Frankfurt airport provided more chaos than immigration entry. There were no expectations of Emirates for the flight to Dubai beyond a tasty meal. The cabin crew was extremely, friendly and provided excellent service. The B-777 aircraft was somewhat frayed from years of service. My only complaint is that folks just don’t get that this pandemic isn’t over with no respect for social distancing at airports. Few were wearing masks and most were crowding. The connecting 3½ hour flight to Tashkent on Fly Dubai included folks returning to Tashkent from a religious pilgrimage in Iran. The aircraft was the ill-fated Boeing 737 Max. The interior is well designed despite the poor reputation.
There was apprehension upon arrival in the middle of the night about gaining entry and then finding my way to train station from the airport. Getting the visa was a total hassle with their website down for months. The cab ride was only $5.00, but the wait for the train was 3 hours in a dark and deserted station. I nearly missed the train with no English announcements. Samarkand was a 2-hour ride on Uzbekistan’s high speed rail Afrosiyob duck bill platypus trains manufactured by Spaniards similar to their AVE trains. The trains only reached about 125 miles per hour with a bumpy ride. Seating was otherwise comfortable. Internet services in Uzbekistan aren't the greatest. The national train service website was quite unfriendly, which made securing tickets a hassle.
A guide was hired at the train station for a Samarkand city tour. Since he spoke no English, little knowledge of the city’s Silk Road history was absorbed beyond initial research. A good number of the tourist attractions were seen. I had an authentic Uzbek meal of Plov, consisting of rice, vegetables and beef, along with a salad. The city has a poor transportation infrastructure which meant little night crawling. I did go to the lightshow at the Registan, which is a former center of higher education. There was no disappointment with the colorful show that ended as a kaleidoscope on steroids.
The weather was most cooperative with temperatures between the upper 40s and upper 70s under slightly hazy skies. Food was rather inexpensive, costing about $12 per day. The lodgings were equally as inexpensive.
The Uzbeks are rather friendly people with few English speakers. The Millennials regard their elders with the maximum respect and tend to speak more English. I became lost on the way back from the lightshow getting out of the taxi before the hotel to capture some photo gems and three young Millennials made sure that I found the hotel. A seat was always immediately offered upon boarding the trains.
I was something of a celebrity considering people of African descent are an extreme rarity. So many people wanted to take selfies with me and practice English. I was most impressed with a family having two boys eight and ten years old. The younger told me he wanted to become a pilot and the older wanted to become a translator.
The Uzbek people are generally of Mongolian or Persian (Iran, Iraq) ancestry. It's rare to see pale skinned people, however there was an unusual number of young single Russian men and young families in both Samarkand and Tashkent. My guess is that they were avoiding conscription for the fight against Ukraine.
The Tashkent metro is a wonder that rivals the Moscow metro in its beauty and display of Islamic art and architectural designs. The system built 29 stations between 1977 and 2001, all underground. An additional two underground stations and 12 elevated stations were opened in 2020. The elevated stations will service a perimeter circle line with 53 proposed stations. Design of the elevated stations lacks the diversity of its forerunners.
Rollingstock consists of refurbished Soviet era wagons made by Metrowagenmash and 2020 deliveries of their current offering. Stations have some elevators and escalators, but not enough for full access of the disabled. The fare is only 13 cents per ride to anywhere in the system. This beats the $10 daily fare for Toronto’s public transportation.
Getting around is not that easy with the distance between stations. Although streets have names, signs bearing the names are nowhere to be found. The larger streets tend to be wide boulevards having three to four traffic lanes in each direction. They can generally be crossed by sparsely located crossings and underpasses. Driving is the complete third world experience where lane lines are ignored and most taxi cabs seemed to lack rear seat belts. Chevrolets are the car of choice since the Japanese and Korean manufacturers impose high tariffs on their vehicles, while Chevy Malibu is the luxury vehicle.
Visiting Uzbekistan was a unique experience and well worth the difficulties encountered to get there. The people, the food, the low expenses and especially the metro made the visit rewarding. I hope my videos and photos will inspire a journey. Just don't patronize the thugs at Turkish Airlines to get there, or anywhere!
For more information and other photographs on Wuppertal's Schwebebahn, visit Urbanrail,net https://www.urbanrail.net/eu/de/w/wuppertal.htm
For more information and other photographs on the Tashkent metro, visit Urbanrail,net