Going from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan was striking: there was a huge improvement in infrastructure and economic development. Streets are clean, buildings structurally stable and even decorated (unlike Bishkek, Tashkent doesn’t seem to have Stalinesque apartment blocks!), roads form a continuous surface. There were less visible signs of poverty too.
Of course in this area, appearances can be deceiving. Uzbekistan is far richer, but over-reliance on outward signs is one of the biggest problems with how outsiders see poverty or lack thereof. For example: there were plenty of street beggars in Bishkek but I didn’t see any in Tashkent. But this is not necessarily because Tashkent is wealthier. The difference is likely to be in government control and social norms. Also, in Bishkek, most beggars seemed not to be Kyrgyz but minorities, refugees or possibly migrant workers. I have no idea to what extent the government of Tashkent controls its equivalent of “outsiders”. And of course, in the countryside things even out a lot more: as soon as we got to more touristy areas like Samarkand, there were ethnic Uzbeks (and/or Tajiks) begging.
Uzbekistan is a strange mixture of a market-based AND a Soviet-style planned economy. There are government companies which apparently even include some hotels. Travel guides warn about employees of such hotels having a Soviet-style “I don’t give a damn” attitude to customers — a feature of the USSR I remember pretty well even though I left at 7. I didn’t see such hotels but I got to experience both government enterprises and black markets.
It seemed a simple task: find a sleeping bag in Tashkent. However, most sporting stores did not have any, reminding me of Soviet-style goods deficits. I then struck it lucky in a government-owned, government-run department store, which sold high-end goods: decorations, clocks, carpets, furniture and so on. The prices were out of reach for most residents. Naturally, there were no sleeping bags but the department I was directed to (unrelated to sleeping bags of course) had a man who had a sleeping bag at home he was willing to sell me for $50. A few days later, finding nothing better, I bought it. This was a fascinating example of what a Soviet-style economy can look like: a black market in the most mundane of goods. This is a far cry from people of my parents’ generation struggling to obtain toilet paper in Moscow in the 80s — but there’s a similarity.
In the end, most trade is still done in the traditional Central Asian style. Even in Tashkent, bazaars are ubiquitous for everything under the sun. Western-style shopping centres exist but are a novelty. Plus a whole bunch of stores selling designer shirts doesn’t exactly cater to a general Tashkend demographic. Even a few metres away from the fancy shopping centre, there was the bustle of one of the bazaars, with fresh and homemade foods, semi-permanent shopfronts selling mobile phones or soft drink or candy, pensioners arriving jam-packed in vans (we counted about 16-20 at the border with Turkmenistan) — and where cash is king.