Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) Communist Russia 1967 Written by


Intourist had told me this was the Bolshoi ballet. In reality, it was a ballet variety show for Bolshoi tryouts. We could see the strain and twitching of muscles in the lifts -- even from the furthermost back row of the balcony. Once a dancer dropped his partner on the floor in a very ungraceful position. What a difference between those performances and the polished ones I later saw at the Bolshoi Theater in the Kremlin.

The next morning, I was ushered into a long black Intourist limousine and driven to MOCBA airport to catch a flight to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. While waiting three hours to board the plane, I chatted with some women who were American travel agents.

On the plane, I was seated next to a Mongolian- looking Russian who reeked of body odor, garlic and stale alcohol.

I stuck my nose in my Russian history book.

Five hours later I was up to the 14th century and landing in Tashkent, which is three times zones and 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) from Moscow.

With romantic historical visions in my head, I was keen to visit the fabled cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Those great ancient cities lay along the caravan route of The Great Silk Road that connected China with Europe many centuries ago. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. The people living there were Uzbeks, not Russians.

Upon arriving at the Tashkent airport, we were herded into the Intourist office, relieved of our passports and left there to rot for several hours. I passed the time chatting with a Yugoslav who had lived in Uruguay and now was an American travel agent.

The errant airport bus, the cause of our long wait, had been mysteriously lost and couldn't be located for several hours. At the hotel, we waited another three hours while the same bus returned to the airport to retrieve our luggage.

In the morning, I was taken on a city tour where I saw remnants of the massive April 1966 earthquake that had left central Tashkent uninhabitable. The severe earthquake, 7.5 on the Richter scale, destroyed thousands of buildings and left 300,000 people homeless. Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin flew to Tashkent the day after the earthquake and immediately sent builders from Moscow and other parts of the USSR to start tearing down cracked buildings and constructing new ones, mostly apartment buildings.

Now, just nineteen months later, Tashkent was a big new modern city. The powerful earthquake had demolished most of the ancient structures, with the exception of the beautiful Kukeldash Madrassa mosque built in 1417, and stripped Tashkent of its romantic historical charm. The city tour consisted mainly of one monument after another of the ubiquitous Marx and Lenin.

The most popular Russian perfume was Red Night. I was curious to know what it smelled like so the guide had the driver stop at a shop so I could sample some on my wrist. It was so sweet and heavy, I almost preferred the noxious effluvia that emanated from my Mongolian seat mate on the plane from Moscow.

On the flight to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, I was seated next to a young Soviet poet, Sergi Arschak. He couldn't speak a word of English, but by pointing to various phrases in my Berlitz book, we soon knew each other's life story. He showered me with compliments. Berlitz has something for every occasion.

Before we landed, Sergi Arschak gave me a volume of his poetry, in Russian, of course. He invited me out for the evening but lost me to the Intourist guide who led me to the special Intourist waiting room. I was then taken to my hotel and abandoned.

Undaunted, I struck out on my own. It was warm and sunny in Samarkand. As I wandered down the tree shaded boulevard, I was joined by an Uzbek dentist. He couldn't speak a word of English but we managed to have a lively discussion about miniskirts. I said there were none in Russia and he said there were but that I hadn't met the right people.

He walked me to the majestic Sher-Dor Madrassah mosque that dominates Reghistan Square in the heart of Samarkand. After showing me the exquisite mosque with its intricate mosaics, we shook hands and he disappeared.

The bazaar area was exotic: Old men with unique one-of-a-kind faces; young girls with a dozen long braids hanging down to their hips; colorful Uzbek costumes, velvet and satin smocks; caftans with high boots; old men in Turbans and long white beards. Samarkand is only 90 miles from Tibet, yet the people dressed and looked entirely different from Tibetans.

An Uzbek approached me in the bazaar and unleashed a tirade in Russian. I said, "Nyet" with a blank stare and shrugged my shoulders. He continued his tirade. I shook my head and said "Nyet" again. He touched my arm and I shrank away. He grabbed my upper arm, attempting to take me somewhere. I screamed, shook him loose and ran all the way back to Registan Square. There I joined two women from the American Embassy who drove me back to my hotel.

In the hotel restaurant, a waiter had just served me a plate of sweet black grapes and Persian melon when a man approached my table and introduced himself as the guide for a Mexican cultural delegation. He invited me to join his group at their table. Two of the men were elderly. The third, Hugo Gutierrez Vega, was a very attractive 33 year-old Director of the University of Mexico at Queretaro. The two older men were also University directors, but Ricardo Jose Zevada was the former Minister of Agriculture in Mexico.

Since we all had tickets for the ballet that evening, the five of us went together. It was a ballet for children and not interesting from an artistic viewpoint. We left early and during the walk back to the hotel, Hugo and the Uzbek guide discussed jazz. Hugo had a good knowledge of it, but the Uzbek was a walking jazz encyclopedia. "This one was old style, this too cool, this one getting commercial." His record collection was sent piece by piece from various friends in the West.

Hugo Gutierrez Vega, a famous Mexican poet, gave me a volume of his poetry, in Spanish, of course. It certainly was my day for poets! The only published poets I had ever met in my life and I met them on the same day.

The ancient city of Samarkand had several very old mosques and fortresses. The famous Ark Fortress, originally built in the 3rd century, had been the home of emirs. We saw an observatory built in 1420 and the mausoleum of Ismail Samanid, who ruled there a thousand years ago. The bazaar was fascinating. People in Samarkand were more colorful than people in Afghanistan -- which is less than 400 miles away.

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