Saturday, April 11, 2015

Recollection - an unexpected stop in Uzbekistan, Central Asia

Readers who have been following my blog for a while know that I left Paris in the 1960s to travel to the USA and then stayed in San Francisco after I was married there.  I returned to Paris for a visit almost every year until my father passed away in 1974.  Then I journeyed home more often as my mother was stricken with Parkinson's disease.  I would go off-season, in the fall and spring and even, if I had some vacation time, during the winter holidays.  I would sometimes stop on my way to Paris or would go on a tangent to see some other cities, such as London, Amsterdam, or Brussels, etc.  I also took advantage of special French travel promotions for trips from Paris, such as Marrakesh, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.  I had a film camera and did not take many pictures - usually I would buy postcards.  Below is a photo I took of an island in Greece (could be Mykonos?) and the small aircraft that took me to another Greek Island, Chios.  The aircraft was so small that the pilot, who had entered through the back stairs, had to step over my knees to enter the cockpit - I was sitting in the first left-side front seat ...

In the fall of 1990 I had bought my ticket on Delta to visit my mother in Paris during the winter holidays.  Then I heard an ad from Delta, advertizing a special with Singapore Airlines as an "add-on" to a regular booked trip.  For about an extra $400 I could go round-trip from Paris to Singapore with two free stops.  I jumped at that, adding some vacation time and deciding that my stops would be Bangkok, Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia.  From Jakarta I booked an Indonesian airline flight to the island of Bali with a stop in Yogyakarta to visit the Buddhist Borobudur Temple.  (I took film photographs and will have posts on these stops in the future.)  From Singapore I took a one-day excursion to Johore Bahru, Malaysia, visiting a typical food market, an artist studio and the famous Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque - see my film pictures below.

I had reserved my return trip home for January 14, 1991, as I knew that the Gulf War - Desert Storm - would start on January 15 or thereabout.  My Singapore Airlines flight left late on the 14th so I still had a full day to tour the city.  It was very warm and humid - 95 degrees F or more (35 C.)  I remember that I had packed my coat for my arrival in Atlanta and was just wearing a white tee-shirt, white trousers and sneakers.  This was to be a non-stop 13 1/2 hour flight to Paris.  Then another 10 hours to fly from Paris to Atlanta.  We left on time, were given a snack and then the lights were deemed.  The plane was full - it was a Boeing Jumbo Jet, the 747 double deck aircraft with 500 + passengers.  (Below is a similar aircraft, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.)

After several hours most people were asleep.  The passengers were a mixture of tour groups, Japanese, French retirees, Italians, and other nationalities.  I woke up as the flight attendants were walking up and down the aisles very quickly, and noticed smoke in the air.  Just then a bell was heard and the captain spoke in English on the loudspeaker, saying that we had to get prepared for an emergency landing as there was a fire in the cargo.  He added that we were over mountains with no airport and that he would do his utmost to fly north a bit farther for a safe landing.  The man next to me woke up.  We looked at the map trying to find out where we were.  We figured out by flight time that we were over Afghanistan.  He introduced himself as an engineer from Aerospatiale (at the time a French state-owned aerospace manufacturer.)  The flight attendants were gone, people were getting very agitated, some started praying aloud, children were screaming, and we could see more smoke.  I felt funny really - not wanting to think that we may crash.  I translated for the French retirees around me, telling them what was happening, and then we waited.

The aircraft was going down; people started shouting for some reason.  The engineer next to me advised that I should take my pillow and place it around my head for protection.  He added that if and when we landed oxygen entering the aircraft could provoke an explosion and if so to start running ... but we landed, the engines were turned off.  Everything was black outside but we could see snow and some aircraft, far off in the distance.  Since I had taken some language course I realized that it was Russian.  The word "Аэрофлот" in Russian which means Aeroflot was painted on the parked aircraft.  Where were we?  Somewhere in the Soviet Union we guessed, but where?  After about 1/2 hour or so some vehicles with blue lights sped toward us.  We were told buses would be coming shortly.  They did and everyone deplaned.  Since I was wearing a short sleeve tee-shirt and it was cold I picked up a blanket from the aircraft to wrap around my shoulders.  It turned out that we were at the Tashkent airport in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. (300 miles from Afghanistan.)

We were brought into a large hall and told to wait for the airport manager who had been awaken.  It must have been around 2 or 3 am local time.  The manager arrived and spoke in English.  He told us that our aircraft could not fly out safely anymore and that we had to stay in Tashkent.  Customs Declaration Forms were given to us to fill as temporary visas and we had to give our passports.  I gave my French passport as it is safer to travel as a French citizen than a US one.  (Later we were told no US citizens had been on board ...) Below are pictures I took of us waiting at the airport and the airport itself.

 Buses took us to a huge hotel where I was paired with a young Japanese lady because she spoke Italian (and I do too) and we went to sleep.  Next morning we had breakfast in a large room, similar to an institution hall (dark bread and weak coffee or tea.)  The architecture was pure Soviet.  The staff was very friendly though.

The passengers were told to queue up to make a call home - "the waiting will be long" they said.  Some made arrangements to get away to other cities then on to Paris.  But I was flying to Atlanta.  I decided not to call home since it was still night time in Georgia.  I would try to call later.  Wearing my white outfit with my aircraft lavender blanket I decided to take a walk and look at the city.  It was quite cold.  There was a large park nearby so I walked there.  People passed me then stopped and stared - I certainly was not the type of person to see on a winter day in Tashkent! I found some old photos you can see below and a postcard - photo of hotel front door with some passengers, a large building close by, a postcard of a street near the hotel, and me in the park near a big sculpture.

Most people looked Asians to me, wearing heavy dark coats and fur hats.  I went back into the hotel to see if I could find a hat.  I found one at the gift shop, a nutria fur hat, bought it and went back outdoors.  Now I looked very eccentric with my white outfit, lavender blanket and black fur hat.  I still have the hat but don't wear it often as it is not cold enough in Georgia.  I just took its picture but it is difficult to see.  I checked on eBay and found the exact same hat - they are asking $140 for it! Mine was $40 I recall and thought it was outrageous.

I bought some postcards then but have misplaced them.  But below are some vintage postcards of Tashkent, and a 1980 view of my hotel lobby.  The top picture at the center is a sculpture called "Courage" commemorating the victims of the 1966 earthquake that destroyed 36,000 houses and left 300,000 homeless in Tashkent.  (Click on collage to enlarge.)

In the early evening I called my office (Georgia is 9 hours behind Tashkent.)  At first my boss refused the call when they said "call from the USSR" thinking it was a joke.  I told the operator to give out my name.  That time he answered and asked "what in the h*** are you doing there?"  I finally explained and asked him to call my husband in the evening, at home, to tell him not to worry; I just would arrive a couple of days late.  I was in Uzbekistan in January 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union happened on December 26, 1991.  See map below.

Uzbekistan has a long history.  People have settled there for centuries.  The Great Silk Road that connected Asia and Europe went through the historic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Shash (modern Tashkent.)  This contributed to the development of Central Asia.  When the Soviet power was proclaimed in 1917 Uzbekistan started a guerrilla war to stay independent but in 1924 the Red Army was victorious.  In 1924 the country became the Uzbek SSR, within the Soviet Union.  After the large earthquake of 1966 which destroyed the major part of the old city of Tashkent, the Soviet rebuilt it with USSR architects in the current style of the period.  The Republic of Uzbekistan was proclaimed as an independent state after the collapse of the USSR.  It became a member of the UN in 1992.  The distance from Singapore to Tashkent is 3,491.1 miles or 5618.4 kilometers.  The distance from Tashkent to Moscow, Russia is 1734 miles or 2790.6 km - which is more than Columbus, Ohio to Salt Lake City (1711 miles.)  The Tashkent population in 2012 was 2.3 million people.  Uzbekistan is well known for its craftsmen working with wood, cooper, jewelry, fabric and more. 

The passengers in the hotel were not looking very happy and some had already left on flights to Moscow.  I went to get a hot cup of tea and joined another passenger who was holding a cup.  He was also wearing a white suit and was from Australia.  He said that he had found out that there was a disco at the hotel that served better food than we had been given and asked if I wanted to join him to investigate.  Sure, I was ready for some dancing (I was happy to be alive.)  So we went to the disco, ate some interesting food and danced.  I forgot his name but he was a good dancer.  He took my photo - here it is below - still wearing my white Thai tee-shirt.

The next day an empty Singapore Airlines aircraft had arrived and I flew in it to Paris, then on Delta to Atlanta.  A year later, I told a foreign airport employee who was touring our plant in Georgia about my stop in Tashkent.  She replied that she remembered the incident well since the airline had flown her to Tashkent from her home in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to be a translator for the passengers stranded at the hotel (small world after all.)  All this happened a long time ago but I thought someday my grandchildren might find interesting to learn how their grandmother came to visit the USSR.  The photo below is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tashkent.  It was built in 1902-1905 and survived the 1966 earthquake.  At the top of this post I show this same cathedral after I worked on it with my new cell phone app.






49 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

How very lucky you were. My heart has always been in my mouth while flying, and these days I am even more anxious.
I loved reading this - and am sure that your grandchildren will be fascinated.

ELFI said...

TU ES UNE VRAIE VAGABONDE!
superbe photos... aussi du billet d'avant...merci!

The Solitary Walker said...

Wow — what a story! Love the hat and the tee-shirt pic.

biebkriebels said...

That is quite a story to tell indeed. An unexpected trip around the world. Glad the plane could land safely on an aeroport.

Tamara said...

What a great story and what fantastic memories you have of world travel and experiences. Things happen when we're travelling that sometimes mean we end up places we had never intended going. Serindipidous! Thank you for your informative post.

Jojo said...

What a fantastic adventure and what an exciting story to be able to share with your grandkids. Sounds like you had a great pilot on that flight. Love reading about your travels.

I just returned from my first, (and very fast) trip to Russia and loved it. The exchange rate and airfare prices are so good right now so it is a perfect time to visit.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I can't imagine the fear you all felt on that plane. You do, though, have a very interesting tale to tell.

DJan said...

I thought that first picture was a painting! Now I know what it is. You did a great job and I was spellbound the entire time I read this post, VB. What an adventure! You tell the story well, too. Wow! :-)

Mary said...

Goodness me, I didn't stop breathing until the end of your amazing story dear! Thankfully the plane didn't crash but an emergency landing is frightening enough - something I've not experience with all my flying, and hope I never do! These days travel is even more scary than ever though. I loved how you actually went sightseeing in your blanket, took so many photos, and then disco dancing - talk about the French joie de vivre, you certainly have it my dear!! Did they get your luggage off the plane safely?

Happy weekend - hope the pollen isn't as bad there as here, choking us today and very warm.
Hugs - Mary

David said...

Vagabonde, What an adventure! Not too many people from outside the USSR would even think about visiting Tashkent...and you managed to go there by accident. That's one of those lucky experiences we sometimes encounter as we move through life. The airplane part was scary enough but the result was nifty. I made an emergency landing once and twice I've been on planes that bounced all over the sky. Still, I've had many more close calls in autos... You've been to some very interesting places, that's for sure! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Susan McShannon-Monteith said...

Such a wonderful post full of visions brought to life through your memory.
We are so fortunate to be able to travel the world although in these times some places should be off the map.
Thank you for sharing your journey.
Susan x

rosaria williams said...

Wow! and Wow! What an adventure. You do have the right attitude though, go with the flow, enjoy life...
I've enjoyed seeing your pictures, very much.

Joyful said...

That is quite the story and quite the adventure. So glad you all landed safely. You managed to keep a great record of what happened yesterday n your detour. Sounds like you rally made the best if it.

Nadege said...

I love your story because it really turned into an adventure and to me, that is what traveling is all about, an adventure. I have the same hat you have. I bought it in Russia in the early 80's, mine made of rabbit fur. It is the warmest hat I own and it comes handy when I work on night shooting and the temperature goes down into the 40's in SoCal.

ツ ✽ ღ Nancy ღ ✽ ツ said...

(^‿^)✿

Bonjour chère Vagabonde !!!!!

MERCI de nous faire voyager autant ! C'est un SUPERBE partage !!!
J'adore !!!!!!

GROSSES BISES d'Asie

Bonne journée !!!! ✿ ✿ ✿

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Vagabonde - this sounds an amazing trip .. with some (as it happened) luck thrown in ..

Here's the link for the A-Z next year!
http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/p/what-is-blogging-from-to-z.html

The link usually goes up at the end of January ... hope this helps .. but for now I must get back to finishing writing some posts and some other work I've set myself!

Cheers Hilary

stardust said...

Oh, what an adventure! The odds are very low, probably much less than winning a lottery. I can imagine enough the fears the passengers experienced before landing in Uzbekistan but for the people who can think positively, all’s well that ends well. Thanks for sharing this rare story of yours.

Yoko

Arti said...

You sure can take things easy and enjoy life, VB. This is such an interesting story to tell your grandkids, and to us your blog visitors. Very unique photos and I'm just amazed how you had just walked around the foreign city with an airplane blanket wrapped around. One brave vagabonde you are.

Jeanne said...

What an amazing story about your air adventure. I should think that it must have been very frightening, and don't think that the bargain hat was quite enough compensation. Your photos and cards though are always so amazing ! Isn't it wonderful to have all of the postcards that you have. I also collect quite a few cards from places that I go.

sandy said...

well WOW - what a story - and how scarey to not know if you would land safely. I loved reading it all and seeing the photos. You are quite the traveler and sure sounds like a fascinating life.

HappinessSavouredHot (Julie Saint-Mleux) said...

Wow, and I thought I had been through a lot of adventures! The "stans" are definitely in my bucket list.

Vicki Lane said...

A wonderful story! You are quite a traveler and you know how to make the most of a situation. Brava!

valerietilsten59.blogspot.com said...

I am overwhelmed at your wonderful story Vagabonde.. what a fright it must have been.. and how great the pilot to have grounded you in Tashkent..
Your post is full of amazing photos . So interesting to read how you spent those days there..with your purple blanket.
You have travelled to some interesting places.
Lots for your grandchildren to read about.
great post..
val xxx

Nadezda said...

Hi, Vagabonde!
What an adventure that ended well. You were lucky. I translated your story to my family and we decided it was great that the plane could land successfully.
Nice fur hat!

Down by the sea said...

That must have been so frightening in the plane, but such an adventure in visiting a new country. I always enjoy reading your stories. Sarah x

Julie said...

I was on the edge of my seat in spots there. Fascinating read. And what I find most awesome is the photographs at your fingertips to illustrate your story.

I appreciate your efforts very much.

Shammickite said...

Well, what an adventure! And you tell the story so well. It must have been terrifying when the plane was going dow, and I'm so glad that you arrived safely. And you looked super cute wrapped in the lavender blanket. I wish you had a photo of the full ensemble, with the furry hat!
I'd love to visit that part of the world, but I think I could do without all the excitement.

EG CameraGirl said...

What an experience! And it truly is a small world, isn't it?

sweffling said...

What an intrepid person you are, truly a Vagabonde! And what an adventure: surely one for the family archives. Thanks very much for sharing. It makes me feel very un-adventurous!

Anna of the Mutton Years said...

I popped over from John's blog to say hi and found your absolutely riveting write up. An incredibly lucky outcome. What an adventure. I bet you've dined out on that a few times. Still smiling in the pic at the disco too. As you say you were happy to be alive.

Linda P. said...

You certainly had an unexpected detour and made the most of it! I think I would have wanted to take a walk also just to calm down after that emergency landing. It was a good opportunity to record the scene. Experiencing dangerous situations changes one's outlook on life.

Jeanie said...

This is terrific, VB. I can't imagine anyone better qualified emotionally and intellectually than you to have this experience happen and make the very best of it. I love the photos. (But I have to say, those moments in the air before landing had to be a little intense!)

Cergie said...

Tu aurais donc rencontré ton mari aux USA et écrit alors ton destin. Cela n’a pas dû être facile à admettre pour tes parents même si tu es souvent revenue les voir. Au fond lorsqu’on est de l’autre coté du monde, passer par un coté ou l’autre pour atteindre la France n’est pas un problème. Le fils de la cousine de mon mari est venu pour un congrès à Paris en 2010 et, à cause de l’éruption inopportune du volcan Eyjafjöll, a fait tout un périple pour rentrer à San Francisco via Toulouse en bus puis via Hong Kong en avion...
Quelles émotions vous avez subies ! Le feu ce n’est pas rien. Lorsqu’on a survécu à un tel péril, tout ce qui est donné ensuite est du bonus. J’imagine que tu as du savourer la vie jusqu’à la moindre bribe de bonheur !
Merci de ce récit si haletant !

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I am positive your grandchildren will love this amazing story. So do I. Thanks for sharing it and the interesting history.

Pat said...

You are a true vagabonde and travel with great panache. I love the fact that the blanket was a pretty colour and with the
black hat you must have made an arresting picture. I also think you have great courage.

Shell Sherree said...

Goodness me, Vagabonde, what an unexpected adventure ! I love that you saw it that way. It's fun that your disco companion was from Australia, like me. And he took a very lovely photo of you. A great story for you to have for your grandkids, that's for sure!

DeniseinVA said...

So many places and I enjoyed the photos and the narration very much. Thank you for sharing all your travels.

Al said...

After the safe landing, that would have been an amazing adventure! I've never been to that part of the world but I'd love to visit.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

This is a wonderful saga, happily ever after and all. What a trip you had!
I'm not such a great traveler. I'm happy to share your journey!!!
(ツ) from Cottage Country Ontario , ON, Canada!

Miss_Yves said...

fabuleux

Voilà de magnifiques souvenirs!

Glenda Beall said...

I love it when a misadventure turns out to be such fun. You remind me of my brother who never let problems upset him when we traveled. He made us laugh and see the humor in our situation. Like you, he would have gone dancing. I love that you had fun after the scary plane trip. Love your photos.

Carola Bartz said...

What a story, Vagabonde!! First I thought, oh lovely she's flying Singapore Airlines (it's my all time favorite airline), but then I actually started sweating when I read what happened. My goodness! Of course you were happy to be alive!!! I can't even imagine how you felt after the emergency landing - when did it actually sink in? It does make a great story - afterwards.
It must have been very interesting to have been in that part of the world when the entire Soviet Empire was falling apart. You got a glimpse into a very different world. And yes, I probably would have shown my German passport as well instead of my US passport...
What an adventure! And I'm glad that you're alive!!!

claude said...

Un vrai globetrotter.
Je repasse demain.
Bises

Perpetua said...

Gosh, what a story, Vagabonde! A very frightening experience, but at least you got to visit somewhere you would never otherwise have travelled to. I love your photos and the hat is very similar to one my husband brought home when he visited the USSR as a student in 1965.

Mae Travels said...

Such a wonderful experience -- but only after the fact! You tell your adventures so wonderfully.

claude said...

Quelle aventure en avion !
Le premier ne m'inspire pas trop confiance ; le second beaucoup plus, quoique nous ne sommes pas à l'abri d'une incident ou là en l'occurrence d'un incendie. Nous avons volé sur un jumbo pour aller en Guadeloupe et au bout d'une heure et demi de vol nous avons fait demi tour à Orly. Le service de sécurité nous attendait sur la bord de la piste au cas où. Nous avons attendu presque 5 heures dans une salle de transit, debout avec juste une boisson et des toilettes pour 500 passagers.
Deux amis blogueurs sont allés visiter l'Ouzbékistan. D'après leurs publications, le pays semble beau et très pittoresque.
Les bijoux sont magnifiques.
Ton teeshirt de Bangkok t'allait bien. Tu es une grande voyageuse.
En juin, je vais à Paris et normalement si tout va bien, nous allons à SLC l'année prochaine.
Bises

helen tilston said...

Hello...I found this story and your telling of it delightful and with a Daphne Du Maurier style of writing.
In light of the horrendous plane crash in the French Alps this must make you feel grateful to be safe and alive. Your grandchildren must feel you are brave.
Thanks for visiting my blog today and leaving a comment. I am your new follower
Helen

Friko said...

I find you an utterly fascinating kind of person. Only Vagabonde would take the opportunity to explore a strange city in her casual summer outfit in the middle of winter, after narrowly escaping death on an aircraft.

You are amazing! And probably also exhausting to a stick-in-the-mud stay at home person like me. You should record all your adventures, your grandchildren will love you for it.

Marja said...

Wow that's quite an adventure. You must have been relieved when the airplane hit the ground. Seems kind of cool to get an experience of the USSR. I have been in East Berlin before the wall fell. That was quite an experience as well.
Love the cathedral. It's like a fairy tale castle. I also love your pretty photo in the disco. You've got gorgeous hair.

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