Friday, 14 September 2012

Day 167 – Entrance fees and carpet galleries. (Uzbekistan)

I am often chastised by fellow travellers for not “embracing the culture” or “accepting differences”, but there are some things that from time to time really frustrate, and even offend me, about other “cultures”. The main issue on my mind at the moment is the relentless quest for money from foreigners that seems to be something that all Asian countries that I’ve ever visited (Japan excepted) have in common. Just because I’m Western doesn’t mean I’m rich, and certainly doesn’t mean you should be taking advantage of me.
The Registon in Samarqand is one of the most beautiful and well maintained buildings I’ve ever visited. As non Uzbeks we were required to pay an entry fee of 13,300 Som (about $5) which in relation to Australia for example is a very low price, but in the context of where we are is a reasonably substantial amount of money. Paying the fee I don’t have a problem with. What I have a problem with is that once inside the grounds we’re not actually free to appreciate the buildings because of the incessant drone of stall holders hassling us to buy their overpriced and tacky souvenirs. Not only that but large sections of the site are not even visible because of the covering of rugs, shirts and fridge magnets.
On the other hand, the Registon was traditionally the centre of commerce and an economic hub, so are they not maintaining its historical integrity by continuing the tradition of it being a market place? Well if it is to remain as essentially a bazaar, then there should be no entrance fee. Is it a tourist site or a shopping centre? I don’t think it should be both.
The Registon is far from the only example of this disrespectful deviation from local history and culture. In Bukhara we visited one of, if not the oldest mosque on the Silk Road. It was one of the simplest and least restored of all the ancient buildings we’ve seen, which in itself held a certain charm. We were prepared to pay the inevitable entrance fee, which as it’s no longer a functioning mosque I have no issue with. When we arrived at the entrance though, we were greatly disappointed to find that the mosque has in fact been turned into a carpet “gallery”; every wall, pillar and piece of furniture covered in carpets that the lady who was also accepting the entrance fees was hoping to sell.
One thing I really despise is the notion of taking an each way bet with mosques and other such places of worship. The way I see it is that either it should be a mosque which anyone is free to use as a mosque, or it should be a tourist attraction where everyone is treated as a tourist. If it is a functioning mosque then enforcing a dress code, prohibiting photos and portraying an aura of respectful calm is appropriate. If it is a tourist site then taking photos and exploring the buildings should be acceptable. By trying to be both, neither is going to be satisfactorily achieved.
Dual pricing is something I continue to battle with in my own mind. The only conclusion I can come to is that it is appropriate in some instances and not in others. There is no doubt in my mind though that the examples I’m talking of here should not include dual pricing. In the case of a mosque, why should I be religiously discriminated against because of my background? What if I genuinely wanted to pray there, yet because I can’t speak Uzbek and look Western, I’m treated as a tourist. If dual pricing is to exist, it needs to at least be appropriate. I doubt taxes pay for the upkeep of any of these sites, which would be the only argument against. 
We visited the tombs of St Daniel (from Daniel and the Lion’s Den) and Job (from the Old Testament book of Job), and to each one we paid an entrance fee. Inside there were people praying and taking part in religious rituals. Did they pay an entrance fee? Or was it assumed that because they were Uzbek that they were there for religious purposes? There were also people set up on knee high tables and rugs, selling the usual array of hats, magnets and plates. Did they pay an entrance fee? Or do they just have an agreement with whoever charges the entrance fee? Maybe he takes a cut of the stall holders earnings.
It’s also very difficult to tell when the entrance fee is official or not as there seems to be no regulation or repercussions. The fact that the ticket price is often negotiable, and there is usually no ticket handed over in return for our money, raises alarm bells. But as there doesn’t seem to be any sort of body regulating it, we have no option but to either pay the price or leave the site. Imagine if someone just set up a desk at the front of a State Library in Australia or Europe and started demanding payment from everyone entering.

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