Every step I took towards that tinted-glass door was a step out of that bureaucratic hell. I was already trying to put this episode behind me, when right by the exit, a man came up to me and asked me for my passport.I asked him: “Why do you want my passport?”
In response he asked me in Urdu, if I was from Pakistan?
I said: “Yes”.
And he told me in very fluent Urdu that he was the representative of the tour agency. I gave him my passport. Shuffling through the passport he moved towards the counter near the exit door. Placing my passport on the counter, he told me that I could now go.
The novelty had not ended as yet. I enquired: “What about my passport, and how can I go leaving my passport here?”
The tour operator responded: “You just go out and wait for me there. I need to wait for all passengers to come through. Then I will take you all to the hotel.”
I understood his action plan, but still leaving the passport and exiting seemed a little strange. Having already exhausted all my energies on the customs episode, I accepted the instructions and went out.
The exit door opened into another narrow corridor, where I could see some more passengers, who had arrived in this land of absurdity on the same flight. I came out and waited.
In the meanwhile I tried to look around to see if there really wasn’t any bank in or near the terminal building. The information about the bank proved to be correct. I came back near the arrival hall and continued waiting.
Some 45 minutes later the Urdu speaking tour operator came out of the building, and in a very business-like manner gathered everyone around. After making sure that everybody was present, he told us: “Follow me.”
All of the 7 passengers, who had the honour of using his company’s services, followed him out of the building and through the parking lot, until we reached a yellow van. This van had red stripes on the sides, and a siren on the roof.
The guy looked at me, and I could tell he had not grasped the humour of my comment about the vehicle with a siren.
We boarded the van. All the windows were covered with curtains. The tour operator sat in the front seat, and off we went to the hotel.
As we rolled out of the airport parking, I opened the curtain to take a look outside to see the historic city of Tashkent.
As soon as I moved the curtain, the driver said something to the tour operator guy. He turned around and asked: “Please close the curtains.”
I naturally asked: “Why?”
He said: “It is not allowed to open the curtains. So please close the curtains, and do not open them while we are on the road.”
Now that was something even weirder than buying a customs declaration form. In 1992 I was sure that the Soviet Union had collapsed, and that the iron-curtain had fallen. Anyway, I closed the curtain, but I couldn’t help asking myself the obvious question: “Why have I come here if it is not even allowed to look beyond a car window?”
I turned towards the same man, who had given me the 100 roubles, and assuming that he had been there before, asked him: “Is it against the law here to look through the car window? Why is he asking me to close the curtains?”
He signaled in negation, and with a very slight smile said: “In a normal vehicle it is ok. But this is an ambulance. They are using a state owned ambulance to take us to the hotel. Therefore, they don’t want anyone to see that they have passengers in the back. Hence , he is asking you to close the curtains.”
I was right. It was a state owned vehicle. The only difference was that it was not a protocol vehicle, but an ambulance. Now I had doubts in my mind if they were really taking us to the hotel. I thought that maybe they were taking us to some hospital for quarantine or something.
I again turned to the same person and asked him: “Are they taking us to some medical facility?”
He said: “No. They are taking us to the hotel. They are just using a state owned vehicle for their personal purposes.”
That was a relief. At least, we were not about to be subjected to gamma rays or poking fingers.
It was already dusk, and all that I could see through the front screen were the silhouettes of 4-5 floor tall buildings, and lights of very few cars on the road. Interestingly enough, the roads were very wide. The buildings were also set apart at fair distances. The city seemed very quiet and serene.
In some 30 minutes, we reached our destination. The ambulance door opened and we started alighting one by one. As I came out I saw a tall grey building in front of me. The building looked as it had not undergone any maintenance for many years. The path, leading from the ambulance to that building, was dark, and I was sure that the building in sight had nothing to do with the hotel that we were supposed to come to.
As I had made reservations in advance, I knew what I could expect. I had made reservation for three days at a three-star hotel. I had paid 70$ per day. So the building in front of me could not be a hotel, let alone a three-star hotel.
On the building, there were no sign boards or any other attributes that distinguish hotels from adjacent buildings, normally.
But, guess what. The tour operator asked us to take our bags and follow him into the same dark, tethered building, which could not be anything more than an excuse of a hotel.
We went in, and going up a short flight of stairs we came to a counter, which must had been the reception. An old woman was sat behind that counter.
The tour operator went right to the counter, talked to the old woman about something, and then came back to us and said: “Please, sit down. The manager is not here. We have to wait for him to come back.”
Now why did we have to wait for the manager? We already had the reservations and they were supposed to accommodate us right away. But, in a country where travellers’ cheques were frowned upon, everything was possible.
We settled down on the chairs, which looked more like the furniture from an old deserted railway station, rather than a hotel’s lobby settings.
The tour operator went back behind the counter and after exchanging some information with the old woman, went to the exit.
All the passengers were tired and anxiously awaited the manager.
In the meanwhile, I could see that all the corridors leading out of that reception area were dark. There was hardly anyone else in that building except for the people who had arrived with me in the ambulance.
The old woman behind the counter was deeply into watching TV. I was hungry, so I went up to the woman behind the counter and tried to ask her if there was any restaurant or cafe in the building.
Guess what, she did not understand me. Like everyone else she also did not like the language of the capitalist oppressors.
From time to time we, the passengers from Peshawar, talked to each other about the absurdity of the situation, and everyone seemed so cross. Each person had his own designs for the travel agent, who had sold him that agony, in Pakistan. But at the moment, we all waited for the hotel manager just like children wait for Santa Clause.
Then, some 45 minutes later, to our great surprise, the door opened and a medium height fat man started up the stairs towards the counter. Reaching the top step he just turned to the woman behind the counter and saying something, continued on his way into one of the three corridors leading away from the reception area.
The woman came out from behind the counter, and signalled all of us to follow her right behind the fat man. It turned out that the fat man was the holy manager, who we waited for so anxiously.
The manager already had our reservation slips in his hand. He went through them, and then taking one slip out and giving it to the old woman, he said something. Calling the name on that slip, he, with a pseudo smile on his face, instructed the passenger to follow the old woman.
And then he got down to real business. To keep things short I will tell you that the “hotel” manager declared plain and simple that he could accommodate only those passengers who had reservations for 7 or more days. Those of us who had reservations for less than 7 days, had to pay and extend our reservations to a period of at least 7 days.
Just like me everyone else had three day bookings. So the argument started and slowly the voices started getting louder and louder. I was outraged by such blatant extortion, but at the same time I knew that we needed to resolve the situation if we wanted to sleep.
After understanding that my fellow passengers were not very tactful, I shifted my position. I told the manager that I was ready to pay for four more days, but I had no cash money. I told him about the travellers’ cheques, and guess what? He agreed to hold on to the travellers’ cheques till the morning, when I could exchange them, and pay him in hard currency.
I gave him three 100$ cheques, and while others still argued, went out with the old woman to finally get to the Promised Land.
At the counter she took my passport and gave me a key. I was accompanied by someone from the housekeeping to the third floor. As we got to the room, my company left me. I unlocked the room, switched on the light, and my jaw dropped.
I was standing in a spacious room with two beds, both placed on either end of the room. There was a small table against the far wall by the window and two steel chairs with plywood seats. There was another door on my left, which most definitely opened into the bathroom.
The floor had no covering and some two feet away from me the floor told the story of last night’s over-drinking in that room. Last night’s guest in that room had consumed too much of alcohol, and to my regret that person could not handle alcohol. The story of last night had tomatoes and pieces of chicken in it.
I did not care about conducting a deep study of that alcoholic misfortune, so I just closed the door and went down to the reception. I tried in vain to explain to the all-important old woman that there was vomit on the floor in my room. Unable to get through to her, I signalled her to come with me. We went back up and I showed her the tragedy on the floor.
She was visually very perceptive, because she needed no more explanation. We came down and she gave me another key. The new room was no different from the first one, but at least it had no vomit in the welcome committee.
To be continued…