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Scenes from Tashkent where Indian expat Mohan V. Mathew spent time on way to Dubai Image Credit:

The ban on flights from India to the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic caught many people by surprise. It meant staying back in India for longer than planned, rescheduling flights and hoping that things would get back to normal soon.

Some among those affected used a longer route to get back to their family and jobs - after quarantining for 15 days. It meant spending more money, taking a risk and staying in a completely new environment.

One among them, Mohan V. Mathew, narrates his journey from Kerala to Dubai via Tashkent.

Dubai: I travelled to India at the end of March to be with my ageing parents for four weeks, with a confirmed return ticket on April 27. As I was preparing to pack my bags, the UAE announced cancellation of flights from India from April 24 in the wake of the COVID-19 situation for a period of two weeks.

As soon as I got the news about the suspension of flights, I tried rescheduling my flight ticket to April 23 (as you need two days to do the formalities, including 48 hour PCR test), but no seats were available in any class, despite my Skywards Gold status for the past 11 years.

I rescheduled my booking for May 5, the next available date, only to know a few days prior to departure that the bookings stood cancelled again due to extension of the flight ban from India until May 15. That was just the beginning of multiple extensions of flight suspension.

I got to hear about many people returning to Dubai via Nepal, Bahrain and a few other places, but remained hopeful that direct flights would soon begin for people like me - UAE residents who took both doses of the vaccine. I was, therefore, prompt in rescheduling my tickets to the next available date as soon as the airlines informed me of each cancellation.

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However, with multiple extensions, I too started looking at options to return. By then even the chartered flight options were ruled out unless one booked a flight for oneself.

The strict lockdown imposed by the Kerala government meant that I could not even visit my ageing in-laws, though they were staying just 2km away. By the beginning of June, I got a feeling that the flight restrictions were likely to stay for a longer period. I approached a travels office nearby and explored chances to get back to my family in Dubai.

A few days later I was given an option to fly via Tashkent with full 15-day quarantine package, starting from Kochi on June 7 and reaching Dubai on June 23

- Mohan V Mathew

I had never stayed away from my family for this long.

A few days later I was given an option to fly via Tashkent with full 15-day quarantine package, starting from Kochi on June 7 and reaching Dubai on June 23. It took some time for me to figure out where Tashkent is, and to digest the fact that it was going to take 17 days for me to reach Dubai, one of the most connected places in the world. A regular flight would otherwise take me just 4 hours.

While continuing to hold a valid ticket, I agreed to pay in advance four times the cost to fly Uzbekistan airlines from Delhi to Dubai via Tashkent.

On June 7, I took the flight from Kochi, which is four hours away from my hometown, and landed in Delhi by around 10.30 pm, as scheduled. I stayed put in the airport for my next flight to Tashkent on the next morning.

While boarding I figured out the flight was full of people like me, from across India, hoping to reach Dubai and resume work. It was a short, good flight and we landed in Tashkent by around 10.30am local time.

- Mohan V Mathew

While boarding I figured out the flight was full of people like me, from across India, hoping to reach Dubai and resume work. It was a short, good flight and we landed in Tashkent by around 10.30am local time. A guide was waiting outside the airport to receive us, and a bus arranged to take us to the hotel.

We were on the road for a long time and finally got to check-in to our hotel rooms by 4.30pm, a good 28 hours after I left home.

Only a few days later did we realise that the hotel was just a few minutes away from the airport and the tour operator took us for a ride around the city because the hotel rooms were not ready.

Tashkent is a beautiful city with plenty of trees and clean roads. On our way to the hotel most of us noticed something unique about the city - almost all the vehicles on the road were of the same brand – Chevrolet.

There were big avenue trees on either side of the road and neatly maintained gardens in front of every house, with many fruit trees like cherries and mulberry.

Our rooms were neat, though the hotel itself did not have a star rating, unlike what the tour operator promised. We were served packets of “Indian food” every day and I was reminded of my school hostel days when we had to assemble at the cafeteria to collect our packet.

Not one person in the group liked the food, but being in a quarantine hotel we had no option but to eat what we got.

It was not easy being holed up in a hotel room with no English channels on TV to watch and a poor Wi-Fi connection. I tried to work during the day despite the connectivity being poor. I had a data plan from India, which I used to call my family and send WhatsApp messages.

In a few days, we realised the quarantine restrictions were not too strict. The city had recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and people were leading a normal life. I made friends with a few others and started going for morning and evening walks around the locality.

We tried out local food joints nearby and enjoyed the kababs much more than the “Indian food packets” served to us. We also relished all the fruits available locally – all of which cost us very little money.

India and Uzbekistan have historical connections, continuing even today. A road in Tashkent is named after Mahatma Gandhi and there is also a statue of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri died in Tashkent on January 11, 1966, a day after signing a peace treaty to end the 1965 India-Pakistan War.

Bollywood films are popular in the country, too.

As we counted the days to end our quarantine, we noticed batches of Indians reaching the city every other day. Soon most of the city hotels were fully occupied with Indians heading to various countries that have imposed a COVID travel ban.

Despite being a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the only currency that was accepted, apart from the Som, was the US dollar. ATMs accepted only VISA cards. I could not get US dollars before travelling and the dirhams I had with me were not accepted anywhere. Fortunately, I had a VISA card with me and was able to withdraw local currency from the ATM.

The local people were very cordial and helpful. Very often when we struggled to communicate to a vendor, someone volunteered to help us. Had it not been for a travel restriction like this, I would not have picked a place like this to travel, and would have missed out on travelling to a beautiful country.

I was happy to add Tashkent to the list of places I have visited.

We were anxious about the COVID-19 test results before flying out of Tashkent. Thankfully, everyone in our group tested negative, and we checked out on the morning of June 23 as scheduled.

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The route Mohan V Mathew took to reach Dubai from Kerala

The excitement and happiness was visible on everyone’s face as the Uzbekistan Airlines plane started its descent while approaching Dubai.

Over the past 10 years I had travelled out of Dubai 180 times for official purposes and returned with ease, thanks to the direct connectivity of Emirates airlines and the most efficient Dubai airport departure/arrival procedures. But the sense of achievement I experienced while landing in Dubai this time was out of this world.

I was elated to join my family after almost 3 months and suddenly felt that all the trouble was worth it. Moreover, I felt it was a wise decision to take this route as the travel restrictions are still in force.

More importantly I made some lasting friendships and some of us met again at home over lunch reminiscing about our Tashkent adventure.

- As told to Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor