A (mercifully) brief encounter in Uzbekistan

Don’t ever ask randy Central Asian hoteliers for help.

Shortly before midnight, the haggard Uzbek receptionist entered my room and sat on the opposite bed. It was a sticky night and I was in my underpants.

“You want massage?” she asked from behind her thick, pallid makeup. “I give good massage.”

I laughed, forcing down the urge to escape. “No, no, no,” I said, fidgeting on my rock-hard single mattress.

“You want sex?”

I was somewhere in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. I had no idea where my hotel was, or even its name. An airport taxi driver, having sweet-talked me into exchanging 150 US dollars into Uzbek Som at a black market rate of $1 to 2,000, had dropped me outside the hotel on the understanding that it would suit my derisory budget.

The large entrance room — it could not be called a “lobby” by even the most audacious marketer — was equipped with two fold-out tables, a central flight of stairs, and a giant wall clock ordered from a 1970s Argos catalogue, its hands lurching loudly into place with every tick.

A sacred registration slip

Five people worked around the tables; four of them female, the other a walnut-coloured man of around sixty-five who had clearly entered a state of thorough disillusionment with the hospitality industry.

His colleagues were hunched over several piles of ‘registration slips,’ the official government papers handed to foreign guests at every hotel in Uzbekistan. I had been warned that tourists like me could be fined for an incomplete collection. Paranoid Uzbek officials like to know where you’ve been, and when — the spirit of their Soviet forebears.

The old man looked over my wiry frame. I was dressed head-to-toe in technical travel clothing. “Stay how long?”

“One night,” I stammered.

Seizing a loose paper, he scribbled: 54. I counted out fifty-four 1,000 Som notes (the highest denomination in print), biting my tongue gently, until what seemed like a full minute of leafing through cash. Then I was led by a frumpy woman (who looked Russian) along a series of dank, windowless corridors clad with a coarse brown carpet which scuffed and echoed with each footstep. We came to a bend in the hallway and stopped at a worn-out beige door, number 22.

“Please,” she said, handing me a small key with a look of strange pride, before disappearing to her work.

The room was unattractive; there was dust on the radiators and furniture, and a veneer of scum lining the brim of the bathtub. Odd wet splodges swelled around the plug sockets on the yellow-stained walls. Everything in the room had clearly been used for many years without replacement or repair.

There was a knock on the door — it was the Russian. “Mistake,” she said. “This is deluxe room. Follow me.”

Silently she brought me to the end of another dimly-lit hallway, where I was shown my new room, a twin. As she left I pulled out a map of Tashkent: “Excuse me, I need some help.”

“I help you tonight,” she replied, flashing a sunken grin over her shoulder.

*

Four hours later, picking sleep from my eyes, I found myself squinting through the harsh glow at her smudged red lips, trying to form a coherent reply.

“Sex?” I mumbled. “Er… not tonight, thanks.”

“No?”

“Sorry.”

I reached for a bag of mobile phone-shaped biscuits bought from a nearby magaziny. This is clearly what she thought I had in mind when I had asked for “help.” I offered her a snack.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the biscuit, before hauling herself up from the bed and out into the hallway; returning, I assumed, to the more mundane fold of her registration slips.

Read the full story of my “eventful” fortnight in Uzbekistan: http://munichtohongkong.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/silk-road-dreams-and-nightmares.html