Cocktails, sir? I'm afraid the only one I can mix is Molotov

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 1993, 12:00am

THE wicked old Soviet Union is dead. But travellers wondering what the old Evil Empire was like at the height of its boorishness, needn't despair. After all, there's still Uzbekistan.

Just four hours by Aeroflot jet from a booming Moscow which now boasts nightclubs, casinos, McDonald's and Pent-house magazines, Uzbekistan is 20 years behind the Russian capital, politically and socially.

Neither the openness of glasnost nor the common sense of perestroika have penetrated Uzbekistan.

First absorbed by Russia in 1865, Uzbekistan remained a fanatically loyal part of the Soviet Union until it became an independent republic in 1991.

I arrived in Tashkent (''City of Stone''), Uzbekistan's capital, a main transit point on the fabled Silk Road linking China with Persia, half expecting camel caravans, ancient bazaars and Middle Eastern mystery.

But the only camels I saw came with matches. Tashkent was indeed once a special place, but a massive earthquake in 1966 virtually levelled it and the Soviets rebuilt the town in their own image.

That's not all they built in their own image; for decades Uzbekistan reflected all the very worse aspects of the Soviet system. What's more, the woeful corruption, the amazing arrogance and utter intolerance of the people in power are all still on display, long after the Soviet system itself has rotted away.

Tashkent's largest park still flaunts a mammoth sculpture of Karl Marx (fierce red face in full beard) and you still have to leave your passport with the hotel desk clerk when you check into a Tashkent hotel, a practice no longer required anywhere else in the former USSR.

Uzbekistan is still ruled by a hard-line government. Its president, Islam Karimov, is the former leader of the republic's communist party. Last year he sagely changed his party's name to the Popular Democrats, but kept the same people in the same jobs.

It didn't take long to find out about the corruption. After being told by the Russian Embassy in Bangkok that my Russian visa was all I needed to visit Tashkent, I was charged a whopping US$100 for an Uzbekistan visa, with no receipt of course.

A middle-aged Tashkent taxi driver told me that he didn't understand the word democracy and neither did any of his friends.

The biggest hotel in Tashkent is the Uzbekistan Hotel. Built in the early 1970s, its 480 rooms of bleak concrete overlook Revolutionary Square. Lifts stop at midnight as does the water supply.

The dingy lobby is always awash with Turks, Russians, Afghans and Indians meeting oily local bureaucrats.

The hotel boasts two bars, a dank basement pub with glass doors chained shut most of the time, and a lobby bar where a Stalinesque lady bartender deigned to open only two hours per day. Trouble is, she never told you which two hours.

Ordering a gin and tonic one day, I was told that the cost was US$5, payable first.

After paying what amounts to a week's salary for a local, I was informed she had no ice, no lemons, and no mixer.

Behind her stood a giant refrigerator with a lock big enough to secure an aircraft carrier. ''What about in the refrigerator?'' I asked. ''Ez broke!'' she sneered.

Across the lobby a hard-currency shop sold mixer, which I had to buy (another US$1), and then bring it back over to the lobby bar and mix my own drink.

Telex charges at the hotel's ''business centre'' are HK$120 for ten words; a three-minute long distance phone call is HK$350.

The hotel's hard currency store sold Russian ''cham-paginsky'' for US$28 a bottle. Two blocks away, in a Russian store I bought the same bottle for 1,000 roubles, precisely US$1.

One of the dangers of staying at the Uzbekistan Hotel (aside from dying of thirst) was the difficulty of getting back in after venturing out; each time I returned I had to literally push my way past the large but brain-dead doorman who apparently believed his duty was to keep everyone from entering his hotel, even the guests.

Approaching the faded but elegant doorway of a Tashkent restaurant - purported to be the city's best specialising in Uzbekistan's excellent and spicy cuisine, I and two Russians found our way blocked by a nattily dressed doorman.

''Restaurant not open now,'' we were told. It was lunchtime.

''Do you serve Uzbek cuisine?'' we queried.

''What food do you want?'' he quickly countered.

''What food do you have?'' we parried.

''Tell us what you want,'' he volleyed, ''and we'll tell you if we have it!'' After still more debate - and a flash of foreign cash - we were grudgingly allowed to enter the restaurant where, to my astonishment, an excellent meal, with a good Georgian wine, was served for about HK$45 per person.

The Russians have kept Islamic influence down, but as they're retreating back to within the original borders of Russia, Is-lamic nationalism is making a comeback, and it is worrying people.

Tashkent and other large cities in the area have extensive settlements of ethnic Russians, who have lived here for generations. Ironically, many Russian families were originally exiled to Uzbekistan from Russia by the Soviet Government.

Though now they feel Uzbekistan is home, many are frightened for their future. Young Russians are leaving in droves and taking their skills with them.

However, travellers who tire of Tashkent's urban haughtiness will find a haven 30 kilometres northeast, in the sleepy but charming little town of Chirchik.

With a population of less than 50,000, Russians and Uzbeks seem to get along here. Three hundred metres higher than Tashkent, Chirchik is also cooler and greener.

Its morning market is a gourmet's delight, an agricultural bazaar where a thousand roubles (HK$8) buys you heaps of fresh strawberries, apples, cherries, apricots, plus farm-fresh onions, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes as well as an armful of roses to setthe table with.

In the distance shimmer the snow-crested Tien Shan mountains, the melting snows of which form the fast-flowing and frigidly cold Chirchik Canal, swimmable only on the hottest days and even then only by the bravest.

In Chirchik, the summer heat is mellow, not searing. And the air is sometimes so still you can hear bees buzzing in the clover.

In the velvet softness of evening old men play chequers under the shade of ancient trees while elderly babushkas gather to gossip as they have for ages, while their granddaughters chase giant lightning bugs along the canal.

The only thing to remember: bring your own gin.