Legendary street photographer Anzor Bukharsky has watched the historic sites of his beloved Uzbekistan deformed by endless facelifts and gaudy attempts to attract foreign tourists. Now he’s making a plea to his government -- to simply do less.
This photo is one of hundreds shot by Anzor Bukharsky capturing the drastic changes wrought to Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities, apparently in an attempt to "clean up" the historic areas and woo foreign visitors.
Bukharsky, who is known for his crisp and witty commentary on Uzbek life, says of tourism in his country: "Let's be frank. People come to Uzbekistan to see the medieval Central Asian architecture, so for now we can offer the world only bricks."
The problem, Bukharsky says, is that the state tourism agency, Uzbektourism, appears eager to mend things that aren't broken, then in some cases pull it all up and redo the mending once more.
Today, many historic centers in Uzbek cities have been stripped of their markets and the scruffy, charming corners where intrepid backpackers could once lose themselves.
According to the photographer, Uzbektourism "sees tourism through the eyes of an Uzbek and not a tourist," which, he says, "is their main misjudgment and problem.... Everything that is done by the department with the best of intentions is done to its own taste, which is often not the most elegant and, sometimes (I'm sorry to say it), even tacky."
"I want to scream: 'Gentlemen, stop! Let's take some time out. We all need to calm down'," Bukharsky says.
Along with the drastic remodeling of Uzbekistan's historic centers, Bukharsky has watched as gaudy displays apparently put on to appeal to tourists, such as this procession of musical Santas, have become increasingly common in his otherwise culturally conservative country.
According to Bukharsky, the massive energies directed at dubious restorations and festivals would be better directed toward things that foreign tourists actually complain to him about.
Bukharsky believes a toning down of the police presence would help with the image of Uzbekistan. Police, the photographer says, "are everywhere: In the market, in the subway, near monuments, on the street and public transport. They make up a quarter of all homo sapiens visible on the street, and on public holidays -- half."
The heavy police presence in Uzbekistan's tourist centers has "a quite predictable effect," Bukharsky says, as tourists begin to wonder how safe the country actually is.
"Smart people understand that the preponderance of the police on the streets is not even for tourists," he says. According to the photographer, "It is really a show for us locals. 'Well, OK, we understand. We are scared and obedient. Can we now slightly reduce the number of people in uniform, at least in the tourism sector?'"
Bukharsky also takes aim at unscrupulous taxi drivers who leave a sleazy first impression for arriving travelers.
"Uzbek taxi drivers deserve not only a separate chapter, you could write a whole book about them," he says. "Intrusive, greedy, and embittered, they wait in droves for visitors near airports, train stations, or hotels. Immediately at the exit they unceremoniously grab your hand -- 'Where are we going?' -- and try to seize suitcases to stuff into their trunks.... They are all in cahoots and there is an unspoken solidarity."
In case a conflict arises, Bukharsky says, "All the drivers instantly run away."
But mostly Bukharsky's ire is directed at the bureaucrats ordering nearly constant "rejuvenation" of historical sites that many complain make the venerable Uzbek cities feel like a Central Asian Disneyland.
"Fake storks in wicker nests, carts, camels, giant female figures in traditional dresses.... I think it would be most appropriate to collect all this crudity and install it in the homes of their creators," Bukharsky suggests.
"Unfortunately, a lot has been lost forever," the photographer says. "The famous Uzbek bazaars -- destroyed without any obvious reason in 2017-18 in Bukhara and Khiva -- and many historical buildings were permanently mutilated by tasteless restoration."
But Bukharsky remains hopeful some of the remaining spirit of Uzbekistan's ancient cities, which were "lost under the visual rubbish and cheap tinsel," can be salvaged. But first he implores his countrymen: "We must hit pause."
Written by Amos Chapple, based on an essay by Anzor Bukharsky.