30 August 2005

Tashkent International Airport

summer 2001

In 1966 large parts of Tashkent were leveled in a massive earthquake. The flaking paintwork and chipped floor tiles of Tashkent International airport look about 30 years old, and the style is bland, monolithic Soviet 70's, which suggests the structure is post-quake. But as you ride the creaking 30 year old bus / cattle car across the tarmac to be confronted by the rusting, crumbling bare metal frame of this boxy soulless building you can easily imagine that the earthquake was last week. This place is only one example of this most pathetic Soviet legacy to newly independent Uzbekistan - huge, half finished and never ending construction projects, buildings that are so ugly no-one seems to really wants them to be completed. In most of the world there is a clear distinction between construction and demolition, but in Central Asia they have learned to sit on the fence. Finishing them won't make them any better, and then there would be all those extra costs to furnish and heat them. Welcome to Tashkent, and mind your head.

Throughout Central Asia, procedures at airports seem haphazard, ad-hoc, made up as the officials go along. It's as if they never put someone through customs before, never got people off a bus and onto a plane. Which of the 28 security officials will break away from the huddle in the corner to come over and ignore the x-ray machine? Will they ask for a customs declaration? Oops, can't, seem to be fresh out of those. Out on the tarmac, should the mob of redundant police smoke cigarettes to the left or right of the gangway? Ooh, what an innovative idea, let's check boarding passes! But that opens a whole host of other difficult choices and decisions; shall we rip them in half, giving the passenger a stub? Just collect them? What the hell, let's just let everybody on and see if there are enough seats for them. If not, the surly Russian stewardess can come and scream at the passengers until nobody gets off, and after all the only real problem is that the pilots have to squeeze extra close and personal past the standees as they board.

In Tashkent there's a fairly broad selection of cheap crap available to tourists. There are extremely low quality Chinese knock-offs of Disney stuffed animals, and suspiciously new looking Soviet-era badges and pins. The 8" bowie knives look like they are made in someone's basement on a rotary grinder, and I suppose they probably are. In lieu of jewels on the tin sheaths there are dabs of fluorescent ink from a highlighter. They would make a serious collector gag, but at about $1-$3 a pop they are one of the more popular souvenir items.

So we are passing through customs with these, and after two bags with big monster knives go through the x-ray without a hitch, we collect our luggage and wait for the third of us to pass through. Ooh, how exciting, he has seen a knife! "Have you got a knife in there?" he cunningly questions the third teacher. She is a sweet, harmless little 22 year old, wide-eyed and first time out of Kyrgyzstan. When he asks her she immediately says, yes, yes, it's just a souvenir. The customs guy takes it, sits there thinking to himself and holding it in his hands, as if no tourist has ever left Tashkent with one of these cheesy knives until today, indeed as if he himself has never seen a knife before. Perhaps he is pondering whether or not it counts as a weapon.

"Are there knives in there, too?" he asks, pointing to the two little carry on bags that we are holding, that he has just cleared through security. He must have been too busy sitting in glum indolence to watch the screen when our bags passed through.

Occasionally the security guards are in a more playful mood, at least in Bishkek: on the way here, when I looked at my bag in the x-ray screen, over his shoulder, the guard at the security check pointed to the dark spot in the center of my briefcase, and with a big smile told me it was a bomb. No, it's just the buckle, I said, and how we both laughed at his witticism.

Back in Tashkent, the other young teacher / potential terror threat takes her knife out and hands it to security. I figure he'll be happy discovering two, and I might need mine if the stewardess starts picking on me, so I stay mum.

"Let's just leave them," says the first teacher. After all, we are all a bit antsy because we haven't yet realized that the huge clock in the main hall is broken, and that we have an hour rather than 14 minutes before departure. What a perfect scam, I think to myself. The customs guys can collect these knives by the tonne and then sell them back to the tourist hawkers. Maybe there are really only a hundred of these knives in Tashkent, traveling in a closed loop from Tashkent International to the stalls on Broadway, into the hands of the tourists who complete the circle, instinctively delivering them like carrier pigeons back to their owners in airport security. Eventually they will count as antiques, so the staff will be able to take them from those tourists who have had the foresight to stow their treasures in their checked-in luggage, too.

But it's not to be. After much deliberation in consultation with his colleagues, he decides we need to put the knives into checked-in luggage. He's getting soft.

This was also an old dead text written a long time ago. Someday soon i will run out of old texts, and what will I do then?


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