If my posts have seemed canned for the past week, or if you've noticed a lack of follow-ups on your comments, it's because I've been away for the past week in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Finding new Internet friends
I've just returned from a place that I didn't even know existed until just a few months ago, and I had an incredible time! Using internet chat to help learn and practice a new language is not only a great way to practice and improve your language skills — it's also a great way to make new friends and learn about other cultures.
In order to practice and improve my Russian language skills, I use the internet as a reality simulator — that is, as a way to have real conversations with real people, but at a pace slow enough to think about your conjugations or to look up a word you don't know. I have tried various resources toward that goal, but the most effective has been Mail.ru Agent, the chat program for Mail.ru.
If you're not in a hurry, you can just enter your details, and plenty of Russians will find you, looking for a chance to practice their English... all you have to do is ask that they help you with your Russian in return. Or, if you are in a hurry to get started, you can go actively looking for people with whom to chat. They're not hard to find.
In the past several months that I've been using chat programs to practice my Russian, I've been fortunate to make new friends in Russian cities including Vladivostok, Volgograd, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Yoskar-Ola, Irkutsk, and Rostov on Don; as well as Semey in Kazakstan, and Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. And already, in spite of only a few months learning Italian, I've already started making chat friends in Italy.
Making them into real friends
One thing that is particularly nice about this is that if you're doing it right, you really are making new friends! My Uzbeki chat friend was a fantastic tour guide, and an exceptional host. I was immediately introduced to her sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and friends, all of whom became my immediate friends in Tashkent and gave me an experience that I am quite sure I will never forget. In fact I really wish I had been able to stay longer, and I definitely expect to be back to visit them all again!
One additional aspect of this which is particularly useful is the fact that in your new friend, you also have someone who is used to working through your language difficulties and helping you in places where you stumble, rather than someone who tolerates you just long enough to get rid of you.
But moreover, you get a more authentic experience. Rather than flying in and then riding in taxis, eating in a hotel, and going on a package tour, I was able to walk in real neighborhoods and parks, ride in real cars, and eat dinner in a real home.
So how was Tashkent?
The Uzbek currency is Sum (soom), at a rate somewhere around 1500 sum per US dollar. The 1000 Sum note is the highest demonination available, so USD$100 got me two giant stacks, each with 80,000 Sum. To give you a clear idea of the exchange, a short taxi ride can be had for a few hundred. That's like $0.30. A delicious dinner for four at a rather nice restaurant was about 50,000 Sum. That's like $35. Even on the smallest of budgets, any westerner is a high-roller in Tashkent.
Although Russian is the primary language used in Tashkent, the official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, which is a Turkic language, and one of the reasons Turkish is on my list of world traveler languages.
Uzbek uses a Latin alphabet, while Russian uses a Cyrillic alphabet, and what you end up with is signage in both languages, and in both alphabets, without much of a system. While it's understandably common to see an exit sign that says both "CHIQISH" and "ВЫХОД", it starts to get strange when you see a sign that says "ЧИКИШ".
The food is delicious. Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan, and while we know it as "rice pilaf", this is nothing like any rice pilaf I've ever had... it was really good! My first dish also had horse meat in it, which was delicious! As a guest, I was not allowed to pay for anything. All food, drinks, restaurants, and cabs were covered by my friends. In spite of my repeated attempts to pay, my gracious hosts would not allow it.
Amazingly, litter doesn't exist. The streets and sidewalks are clean. Whether people are respectful of their environment, or of the Militsiya, I can't say, but the net result is rather pleasant, particularly if you're on foot. Even the subway was quite clean. Coming from Chicago, all of this was particularly interesting to me.
Getting around is easy. If you're on the sidewalk or standing near the road, dozens of cars will pull up and offer you a ride. You tell them where you are going and they will either pass or name a price. The prices are always cheap, but you can also bargain with them if you don't agree. Depending on the distance, you might pay a few hundred Sum or a couple thousand, but it's always less than even the shortest cab ride here in Chicago!
All in all, I loved it. I can't wait to go back and visit again... but I also can't wait to visit some of the other exciting, interesting, and unusual places where my chat friends live! Lots of people go to Moscow, but how many have been to Vladivostok or Novosibirsk?