The new clean hotel room was as spacious as the other one, with the only difference that it did not have the floor with the chunks of vegetables, rejected by someone’s stomach.
Yes this was not a three-star hotel. There was nothing in that room, which even slightly resembled a hotel, but at least it had a bed, and that meant long awaited rest.
Before finally coming to peace with the available accommodation, I decided to check the bathroom to make sure that it was clean. As I opened the bathroom door I saw a bathtub to my left, a sink on the far wall and a toilet seat to the right of the door.
But what really captured my eyes, were the large diameter pipes and other plumbing, which ran unconcealed all along the walls of the hotel’s bathroom. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie, shot in an abandoned industrial unit.
Now that I had a place to sleep, I decided to just change my shoes and go out to find something to eat. As I had already noticed that the so-called hotel had no eatery, my only option was to go out and enjoy a meal, most preferably a local meal.
My desire to eat was very commendable, but my inability to exchange money was a lot more disturbing, because I did not think that anyone would sell me food in exchange for a promissory note. If I wanted to eat I needed to have some cash money.
I changed my footwear and went down to the hotel lobby. I had noticed a guy roaming in the corridors of the first floor. This guy was dressed in a shalwar-qameez, which made him a good candidate for being a Pakistani or Afghani.
The only cash money, which I had was Pakistani rupees, which I could not exchange in Tashkent. You might not know, but back in 1992 the only convertible currencies in that part of the world were US dollar, German Mark, Swiss Franc, French Franc, and Japanese Yen. Some exchange outlets did have a broader list of convertible currencies, but Pakistani currency was not on the menu.
In the hotel lobby, I luckily found the shalwar-qameez clad man. I went up to him, and interrupting his conversation with another guest, asked him if there was any exchange office nearby, where I could cash travellers’ cheques?
Looking at his watch he said: “It is already past 7. Everything is closed now. And more so I don’t think that you can exchange travellers’ cheques at any exchange office here.”
Now that was alarming. I could tell from his demeanour that he had not come there for the first time, and that he knew what he was talking about. So, I asked: “You mean that I cannot exchange travellers’ cheques in Tashkent at all?”
He shook his head in negation and said: “No you can exchange them, but only in one place. I meant that you cannot exchange them in this area.”
With a sigh of relief I further asked: “And where is that place, where I can cash travellers’ cheques?”
He responded: “There is an exchange office in Hotel Uzbekistan. This is the only place in town, where they accept such things like travellers’ cheques.”, and with that he asked me a counter question: “Who told you to come here with travellers’ cheques? The only thing you can use here is hard cash.”
I responded: “No one. I just brought travellers’ cheques, because I always travel without cash money. And believe me I had no idea, what kind of place I was heading to!”
I asked him his name and he told me that his name was Aftab, and that he was from Gujranwala.
It was good to know him, but the shrinking of my intestines, under the cruel influence of hunger, made me bypass the exchange of pleasantries. I just told him my name and asked him: “How far is this Hotel Uzbekistan? Is it at a walking distance?”
Aftab replied: “No it is quite far away. You can only go there by taxi.”
This proved to be the last very long and nasty nail in the coffin of my hopes of eating tonight. Because, for taking a taxi, I needed money and money was something which I did not have. So for the second time in one day I was faced with a dilemma: no money, no taxi; no taxi, no Hotel Uzbekistan; no Hotel Uzbekistan, no cash money; and back to square one.
My compatriot probably sensed some discomfort in my conversation, because he asked me: “Is everything ok? Maybe I can help you in something?”
That was the signal I was waiting for. I readily said: “Well in fact I do have a very big problem. Except for the travellers’ cheques, I have no cash money other than Pakistani Rupees, which I believe cannot be exchanged also?”
Aftab readily said: “No question about it. There is no place where you can exchange Pakistani Rupees here.”
I nodded in agreement, but readily asked: “Maybe you can help me!? I would very highly appreciate if you could take Pakistani Rupees and give me local currency.”
He asked: “How much do you want to exchange?”
I said: “Well I have some 1000Rs with me. I hope this would be enough for me to have dinner now?” (in 1992 1000Rs were equal to around 45US$)
He nodded positively and putting his hand in his pocket said: “Do you want to exchange right now?”
This question was like music to my ears. And mind you this was the first sound of music for me that day. I said: “Of course” and saying so I took my wallet out and gave him the Rupees that I had.
He took the money from me, and then counted a large number of bills and handed them over. He tried to explain the rate of exchange, but I had no interest in those details. I was glad that I had the money to take dinner, and that was the best thing.
The next thing I asked him was: “Can you write down the address of this place, because I don’t think they have any visiting cards here?”
Aftab readily got up, went to the reception, said something to the old woman and came back with a visiting card. This card was in Russian, and I had no way of telling what it said. But I could believe that it had the address of that place.
Thanking my benefactor, I headed out. As I came out for the first time, I paused in front of the hotel and once again tried to see if they had any sign on the rooftop or anywhere else. Well, there were no signs, but I took a good look at the building and the adjacent buildings to have an idea about where I had to return.
It was hard for me to decide, which way to go, because it was dark and I had no map. I just looked to my right, and I could understand that probably there were no signs of active life in that direction. Then I turned left and some 200-250 meters down the road I could see, what looked like a square. So I went to my left, in a hope to find some café or restaurant and to fill my nearly aching tummy.
On the way to the square I passed by, what looked like retail stores. Bringing the knowledge of Greek alphabet to use, I could read the words partially, but I did not have the faintest idea what they meant. On one of those buildings I did manage to read a complete word: “МАГАЗИН”.
My association of that word was with the English word “MAGAZINE”, so I thought to myself: “Huh, this is a bookstore. And it is closed, because it is way after seven now. But books are something that I do not need now: luckily!”
Contemplating the benefits of my knowledge of Greek, which helped me read a word in Russian, I made my way to the square.
In the square, I saw an outlet. It looked like a café. I went in and very soon I understood that the lovely looking girls behind the counter did not like the imperialists also. I came up to one of the girls, and asked her if I could order something to eat.
She looked at me and smiled only. Her smile made me think that probably I had said something wrong. So I rephrased my query, but the response was a broader smile. This time she added a few words to her smile, but unfortunately spoken Russian had nothing in common with Greek.
Then the second girl came up, and saying something, gestured with her hands. I interpreted her gestures as: “We are closed”. And guess what? She also had a broad smile on her face, listening to what I had to say to make sure that I had understood her gestures correctly.
It might had been a great thing to know that the place was closed, and that the lovely girls were about to be free, except for two factors: first of all I was so hungry that that the girls looked more like grilled chicks. Secondly I had only 45$ in my pocket, and how could you take out a girl, let alone three of them, with so little money in your pocket?
Soon enough, but unfortunately too late for me, I understood that I was wrong about a lot of things. For example, the word MAGAZIN in Russian did not mean a bookstore. And only the next morning I learnt that back then 45$ were more than enough in Tashkent to take a girl out, so that you could take her back in with you.
But what I needed at that very moment was not a sensual kiss, but a piece of pie, a plate of soup, or a platter of fried meat, and maybe all of that together. So in search for food I left the chicks right where they were, and went out. Coming out of that café, I had already understood that retail and food outlets closed at or before seven PM in that city.
Back on the road, I looked around to find darkness and closed doors in every direction. Then I saw a taxi right, and a light of hope just turned on. The idea was that I would take the taxi, ask the driver to take me to some restaurant or café in any other part of the city. That way I would eat and then take taxi again and return to the place, which I am forced to call a hotel.
I went to the taxi, bent over to get in-line with the open window and asked the driver if he spoke English. You can guess his response. Then I tried to tell him that I wanted to eat and wanted to go somewhere for the purpose. But looking at his face I could gather that he had understood that I wanted to eat, and being a taxi driver, probably he could understand that I needed a ride. But where was that I wanted to go, was something I could not explain.
The driver signalled me to get in. My first thought was to open the door and hop in. But then I thought that I had no idea where the driver would take me. I had very little money in my pocket and probably I had had enough of adventure for the day. So, suppressing my urge I just said thanks to the driver and turned away.
Now my only option was to roam around in the same neighbourhood and try my luck at finding some place, where I could buy food. For more than one hour I roamed around the area. The feeling you get in such situations, is like going on a blind date. In case of a blind date you always hope that the person you were meeting would be the one best for you. Similarly going around every corner I had the same feeling that that would be the road with an open food outlet, which I so craved for.
But my blind date ended just like most of the blind dates: me, myself and I. After more than one hour of unsuccessful roaming, I headed back to the place called hotel.
Back at the hotel I luckily found Aftab still sitting in the lobby. As soon as he saw me he asked: “Did you find anything?”
He smiled and said: “I told you. The town closes at seven.”
I said: “I have understood it the hard way, but I have no illusions now.”
Getting up from his seat, he said: “Wait. Let me see if I have anything edible in my room.”
With this he rushed down one of the dark corridors towards his room, and I sat down waiting for him.
Just as I had spread my legs and started to relax my feet, he came back, with a bottle of vodka in his hand, and with a broad smile, raising the bottle in his hand, said: “This is the only thing I have right now.”
I looked at the bottle, the two glasses in his other hand, and sitting up said: “At least I will not sleep on an empty stomach.”
We sat together for around an hour, drinking the fire-water and getting to know each other. It turned out that my companion had been living in Tashkent for many years. He used to study there, till the year before. Later he had decided to stay in Uzbekistan and to see if he could make use of the changing situation to set up a small business. It was during the given conversation that he told me the reality of that hotel.
It was no hotel. It was a student hostel, run and owned by the state. But lately due to the turmoil caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, and resulting independence of Uzbekistan, the hostel warden and his friends had decided to run a hotel type operation using state property to their benefit.
Finishing that bottle of vodka and hearing a lot of unheard of stories about socialist free market ideals, I decided to call it a day. Thanking Aftab for sharing his insights and the bottle of transparent communism with me, I got up and went to my hostel room, rented out for 70$ per night by opportunistic ex-communists.
Once in the room I took off my cloths, and went to sleep hungry, on my first night in the land of Al-Khwarizmi, unaware of all the variables that I had to tackle the next morning.
To be continued…