I have compiled this from my travel notes, often omitting irrelevant details such as where I ate what, where I was sick with what, and so on, but adding some afterthoughts and hindsight.
This journey was totally improvised, reservations - except for flights - being a concept totally alien to me. Of course I did some homework beforehand, so as to know the must-sees. Valuable information sources were the Cadogan guide "Central Asia: The Practical Handbook" (UK, 1993, by Giles Whittell: excellent value), the Lonely Planet guide "USSR - A Travel Survival Kit" (Australia, 1991, by John Noble and John King: a great book, but it unfortunately came out as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and was thus aging badly), and the "Blue Guide to the USSR" (an excellent source of background knowledge). Descriptions are kept informative enough so that those who have been there should recognize the places, while those who would like to go there should be able to locate them. This report is not intended to be a crash course on Central Asian history.
By the way, I compiled an independent travel guide to Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan from available on-line information: .
This journey was on a shoestring budget, a mattress to crash on and a shower being all that is needed when constantly on the move. Round-trip flights, visas, inoculations, medicine, and souvenirs excluded, I had a daily maintenance ratio of about $12, covering accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, and entrance fees. This has to be relativized though, as Uzbekistan was significantly more "expensive" than Turkmenistan.
All views expressed here are mine, and you are the judge whether they are witty insights, total misunderstandings, or unspeakable truths.
Comments are welcome.
He turns out to be a representative of the DoGan car factory, which landed a deal to sell a thousand taxis to Uzbekistan. He spends half of his time is Tashkent and is quite knowledgeable about the place and about how to behave now. We are indeed "assaulted" by free-lance taxi-drivers who quote outrageous rates to drive us to the city. Since we are both heading to the Chilonzar suburb, I wisely shut up as he placates them in Turkish - which is quite mutually intelligible with Uzbek, both being of the Turkic language family - and expertly haggles one of them down to a still cut-throat $3 each, cash of course. That's why I only changed 1$ at the airport: this is a cash-only economy - dollars for foreigners - and for small expenses I will definitely get a better rate at the black market than the government-set 11 Sum to the dollar. The taxi-driver and his friend actually tell us that the police is cracking down on the black market now, and that few people would dare offer more than 12 or 13 Sum to the dollar. This seems to be a good sign for the Uzbek economy, as confidence in the Sum is increasing. In the days to come, however, I manage to exchange dollars at rates of 15 or 16, but never more.
So we cruise through the spacious, empty boulevards of Tashkent. The city was leveled by a major earthquake in 1966, and has since been reconstructed by legions of Soviet "volunteers." It is a splendid showcase of Soviet urban planning, and everything is so large that it seems to be able to easily cope with a tenfold population and traffic increase, even though it already was the USSR's fourth-largest city at 2.2 million people. It all looks like a maze to me, and a huuuge one at that, and I'm very impressed by the numerous trees that provide much-needed shadow in what should be called Uz-bake-istan in the summer. From a bird's view, Tashkent must look like a forest, with barely a building lurking through its canopy. We reach the Turk's residence first, and after getting me to my destination, the cabbie tries to rip me off by suddenly rising the price. Nice try, but I don't exactly come out of Sunday school.
So there I stand, with my backpack, at 6:30am, in a concrete maze of apartment blocks of some nondescript Soviet suburbia, going to meet somebody whom I don't even know. Indeed, as a preparation for this trip, I had been surfing the Internet in search for information about Uzbekistan from travelers who had been there, and from Uzbeks of course. A Russian-origins Uzbek, let's call him Andrei, who is currently studying in the USA, had helped me a lot and actually set me up to stay with his mother, let's call her Elena. I was really looking forward to this, not for the moneysaver, but for the experience and for the smooth integration until I was going to be able to move confidently by myself in this alien civilization.
It's of course still too early, so I settle onto some bench in front of her block. But Uzbeks are early risers (what with the weather!), and some man asks me, at about 7:15am, what I am doing there. "Oh," he says, "everybody is up, you sure may knock on her door."
Elena doesn't know I'm coming, but the mere mention of her son lights up her face and she waves me into her apartment. She speaks halting English, so conversation is feasible. As she serves me breakfast, her grand-daughter Sasha (the daughter of Andrei's sister Yulya) comes in to see who's there. Yulya herself comes shortly afterwards, and there I am, with an adorable trio of three generations of Russian-Uzbek women, who are going to host me, feed me, guide me, and pamper me for the next 48 hours, as if I was their own son, brother, and uncle! It was an unforgettable two days, and a lesson in hospitality and humility!
At 9am, Elena takes me on a first sight-seeing tour through Tashkent, the City of Stone. My first impressions of the capital become more precise now: a grid of huge boulevards, intersecting on large squares, provides access to numerous government buildings, theaters, museums, shopping areas, a multi-starred Intourist hotel, a 375m high radio-TV tower, well-shaded parks, and a variety of monuments to the just recently bygone era of socialist-heroic workers and peasants. Since independence in 1991, a host of statues and names are not politically correct any more, so they have been toppled/replaced or renamed: for instance, on former Revolution Square, instead of the Karl Marx statue there now is a statue of Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, the devastating successor of Kubilay Khan at the reigns of the Mongol empire. Timur is kind of a local hero for the Uzbeks, who are now searching their past for new icons. Other names are still acceptable, such as the Peoples' Friendship Square, where a monument commemorates an Uzbek couple, who, after World War II, adopted war orphans from 14 (19?) different Soviet republics. Everything is very clean, and an unbelievable number of non-stop sprinklers keeps everything green and fresh. This is possible due to the considerable draining of the Amu Darya river (the fabled Oxus), which of course goes at the expense of an ecological disaster somewhere else (the shrinking of the Aral Sea, in this case). The large streets are almost devoid of cars, except for the occasional bus or tram plying its way between the center and the suburbs. The few private cars, mostly Russian-built Ladas and Volgas, are quite slow, so those taxi-drivers with the new and fast DoGan cars from Turkey have a race-track of their own here. But they are not the only potentially fast ones: there also are the German luxury limousines of the local Mafia bosses, and the brand-new Opel Vectras of the Uzbek police. Interestingly, hitching cars in the cities seems common practice here, though at rates comparable (?) to those of taxis: this form of improvised car pooling reduces traffic and pollution, but is of course mostly a great means for car owners to actually afford their car, especially in these times of economic hardship. I must also mention the completely unexpected gem of Tashkent: its subway system. Designed to be a showcase of Soviet engineering, including earthquake resistance, it was built without regards to the cost, prestige being priceless. And indeed, it's spotless, efficient, cheap (for me, at $0.02 a ride), and practical in such a large city, not to mention the wonderful subway stations that are virtually like museum rooms.
The supposedly splendid Jewelry Museum and History Museum being unfortunately closed for the summer, Elena takes me to the Decorative and Applied Arts Museum ($0.10): it is set in the nice mansion of some Russian prince and features an interesting collection of Uzbek handicraft. Most things are typical for the Islamic world, but some items are uniquely Uzbek, such as the beautiful Suzanah stitch-work.
Afterwards, we return to the Chilonzar suburb, for a siesta (I had little sleep at night, and am fighting against a three-hour-jet-lag) and a late, but filling, lunch at Yulya's apartment a few blocks down the road from Elena's. And then off to the city again, but this time to the old town, or what's left of it since the earthquake. One of the few surviving old buildings is the Kukeldash Madrassa (a madrassa is a Qu'ranic school, and, in the past, often actually a university): it is under heavy-duty restoration, and insignificant anyway in comparison to the splendid madrassas that I will see in a few days, but we have a nice chat with the international crew of volunteer (?) workers from all over the Islamic world, and we may actually have a peek around. Then we enter a multi-floor department store: it's pretty pale compared to Western ones, with all these half-empty shelves and the dim light. Eventually, we stroll "home" again, to Yulya's place. Elena is tired and withdraws after dinner. My Russian being non-existent, and Yulya's English and Uzbek being very restricted, we however manage, with a lot of enthusiasm, to squeeze out a meaningful conversation, huddled over a dictionary. Some of her friends drop by, one of them, called Andrei, being fluent in English. So this is an excellent opportunity for a jump-start on Uzbek essentials that are in no guidebook yet.
The most interesting sight of the day is something I never expected to see outside movies or dreams: the streets are, believe it or not, littered with money! The explanation is that, by the end of today's working hours, the Sum coupon is totally phased out and the new Sum currency the sole legal tender. But of course nobody accepts coupons anymore, so the people who naively hoped getting rid of them by a last-minute shopping spree often express their disgust at the new economical phenomena by actually throwing their money away.
Today, Yulya prepares "mantI" for lunch, an Uzbek specialty not unlike the same-named Turkish one, except that the pieces are much bigger here and not dipped into a yogurt sauce (but maybe yogurt just wasn't available). At the end of the afternoon, Yulya and I graduate with high honors in dictionary-assisted sign-language.
For dinner, Elena and I go to visit Lena's parents, her son Andrei's in-laws. Getting there is quite an odyssey through suburbia, by means of buses, tramways, walking, and taxis. The warm hospitality of these people is again a very humbling experience, and I will always fondly remember how they shared what little they had. For dessert, we have a superb apple-pie. Back to Chilonzar, I again spend the rest of the evening chatting with Yulya and her friends.
I'm in for a five-hour-ride on a decent highway across fertile, irrigated land. "Chaykhanas" (tea-houses) border the road, and peasants sell their crops there. In Tashkent, they only sold as many tickets as there were seats, but, of course, once outside the terminal, the bus-driver starts free-lancing and picks up every single peasant and drops them, wherever they want. So the ride takes much longer than scheduled, and the bus gets very full. Murphy's Law has it that the passengers in the middle of the bus are always those who need to get off next. But it is all fun to me (maybe because I have a seat!), and nothing new or unexpected anyway. Eventually, we do reach Samarkand.
The bus-terminal is way out of town, so I hail a taxi to the suburban address Elena had given me. Once there, the cabbie tries to re-interpret the Sum-amount we had agreed upon as a dollar-amount: why do all the most obnoxious and greedy people of the world have to become taxi-drivers?
Ludmilla doesn't know that I am coming, because Elena hadn't succeeded in getting through to her friend on the phone. Moreover, Ludmilla only speaks Russian, but when she reads the introductory letter from Elena, she invites me in. Things are a bit awkward for a while, because of the linguistic barrier, and I feel like an intruder, but Ludmilla quickly warms up to her "imposed" task of hosting me. She serves me the mandatory "chay" (tea) and some food, and then takes me to the city proper for a quick primer on transportation and orientation.
At Hotel Samarkand, she asks an Intourist agent to translate a few things she wants to tell me. I do not wish, however, to "afford" any of the cut-throat-priced activities offered by the Intourist agent (otherwise I'd be staying with them, no?) and con- vey to Ludmilla that I'm not rich and would rather see things on my own. Indeed, during the taxi-ride from the bus-terminal to her apartment, and during the long tram-ride from there to downtown, I had seen the skyline of the blue-tiled domes of Samarkand's landmark mosques, mausolea, and madrassas, and I am eager to finally see these fabled monuments of the city of which Alexander the Great had said: "Everything I have heard about Samarkand is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined."
Ludmilla understands and takes me herself to the breathtaking Registan ensemble, definitely one the world's finest, but least-known, squares: three perfectly proportioned madrassas delimit three of its sides, and the intricate geometric mosaics covering every square-inch of their walls glimmer in the waning sun-light. It's absolutely awesome, and I need some time to take in the beauty and majesty of this ensemble. This is low-season in terms of tourism, and Samarkandians seem to take the square for granted, so I have it all "for myself."
On the Uzbek side, the food is definitely linked to Turkish cuisine ("mantI", "shashlik" or "kebap", "kOfte", ...), but I spotted a few Uzbek specialties: there is "plov" (an Uzbek variant of the omnipresent rice-"pilaf" in Asian countries), "laghman" (noodle and vegetable soup), the baked "samsa" sandwiches that you can get at every "chaykhana" or nearby, "kaymak" (a fantastic milk-based breakfast invented by the Uighur people, in present day's China), etc.
I then walk past the Chorsu and the museum, through the pedestrian Tashkentskaya shopping street, to the Bibi Khanym Mosque (early 15th century), which was commandeered by Timur's favorite wife while he was on a military campaign. Every building in Samarkand seems to come with a local legend or two, and this mosque has a particularly nice one. The architect became quite enamored of Bibi Khanym, and blackmailed her for a kiss, lest he wouldn't continue the construction. Of course, she wouldn't let him, but eventually conceded to a compromise: he could kiss her cheek through a pillow. But his kiss was so ardent that it burned her skin, despite the pillow. When Timur returned and saw the treacherous mark on his wife's cheek, he of course soon pinpointed the guilty one. But the architect fled onto one of the minarets of his mosque, ...and flew to Bukhara, or so they say! Anyway, the mosque was so huuuge that it soon collapsed under its own weight and because of several earthquakes: the $0.50 entrance fee is a waste, as you can see everything worthwhile from the outside.
On to the bazaar, a drab Soviet-style concrete affair, but tremendously enlivened by the riot of colors of the silk-dresses of the Uzbek and Tajik women, the smells of their fresh vegetables and fruits, the colored (!) "non" bread, the spices, the "chaykhanas" and restaurants, and the general bustle inside. This is a superb place for people-watching.
I have lunch across the street at the Shark Restaurant, and then walk out, past the Afrasiab archaeological dig (where pre-Timurid Samarkand lies), to the Ulug Bek Observatory (1429), or what's left of it. The cashier thinks I am Turkish, and "imposes" a guided tour on me ($1 total), not realizing that my frequent lacks of understanding are more due to my restricted Turkish than to the differences between Turkish and Uzbek. But he is very friendly, and very enthusiastic about "his" Ulug Bek's scientific achievements, so it is a lot of fun. A chart clearly shows that Ulug Bek's astronomical computations were by far the most precise of pre-optical astronomy: for the duration of the solar year, he was only off by 61 seconds. Ulug Bek, who succeeded to his grand-father Timur as Emir of Samarkand (his father preferring to live in Herat), must have been one of the most enlightened rulers this world has ever seen. Under his reign, Samarkand became one of the world centers of science. My favorite quotes of his attitude are "The acquisition of knowledge is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman" (seen on his madrassa in Bukhara) and "Where science starts, religion stops." But such declarations of progressiveness didn't go down well with his own son, a fundamentalist, who had him executed for that.
Back to the bazaar area by collective taxi, in which all the kids stare at me as if I were a space invader, I head out to the Shakh-i-Zinda ensemble. This is actually a narrow street lined by mausoleums of the Timurid dynasty (14-15th centuries) ($0.50 entrance), some of which feature dazzling blue ceramics and majolica tile-work.
But enough of visits for today. The rest of the afternoon, I laze over a teapot at a "chaykhana", and then return to the Registan to gaze again at its quiet perfection as the sunlight wanes.
A long trolley-bus later, I make it back to Ludmilla's apartment for dinner, "chay", a shave, and a shower.
I then set out, in a most extreme heat, on a tour to various monuments in the southern suburbs: the Ishrat Khana Mausoleum (1464) and Khodja Abdi Darun Mausoleum (also fifteenth century). The latter features a typical Central Asian composition, namely a pleasant square "khauz" (pool) with venerable old trees at its corners and surrounded by nice buildings: the mausoleum, a mosque with brightly painted wooden pillars outside, and a madrassa. While I linger in this shaded haven of peace, some Tajik students of the madrassa come out for a chat. Next, the Gur Emir (Timur's makeshift mausoleum: he died unexpectedly in 1405) turns out closed because of heavy-duty restoration: it seems to be the highest-priority restoration, judging from the impressive deployment of machines and manpower. So I can't visit Timur's legendary tomb, although I did try, in vain, to sneak past the workers. I then laze the remaining part of the afternoon at or nearby the unforgettable Registan. I daydream of Omar Khayyam, the Persian mathematician and poet (author of the "Rubayat") who lived here for a while.
Bus #7 takes me downtown, where astonished construction workers delight in giving me directions, in Uzbek, to the Varakshah Hotel. But then the big disappointment: non-CIS citizens are now charged a hefty $15 a night, nothing short of a 700% increase since the October'93 printing of my guidebook! After a brief round, it turns out that this still is the cheapest and sleaziest hotel in town, and they have the nerve to charge you nearly the equivalent of an average monthly salary! Trained in middleeastern ways, I do my best to haggle them down to a reasonable amount, such as the one paid by CIS citizens, but years of Soviet command economy (it's a Sputnik joint) make them about as cooperative and open-minded as prison doors. Since they have nothing else to do, I pull them aside to a restaurant table (where the bar-man offers me a soda), and teach them "Capitalism 100" on a paper napkin: concepts such as market economy, buyers' market in low season, and sellers' market in high season meet mostly unbelieving blank faces. So I prove, by a few elementary computations, that this system would bring them more money (using $5 in low-season and $20 in high season), but all I reap is "But Moscow says we have to charge you $15, any time of the year." "Forget Moscow," I nearly scream in despair, "you are independent!" The bar-man seems to have grasped though, and reduces his earlier offer of a bed in a private flat in the distant southern suburbs from $10 to $7. I accept, but then he can't get hold of the owner on the phone, and asks me to wait for an hour, which could be anything up to six hours, time being nonexistent in Central Asia. As I'm hungry and reeking of travel-grit, I lose my nerve and tell him "yarIn" (tomorrow) before reluctantly checking in for $15 at the hotel. The elevators don't work, the receptionist has trouble finding matching keys for the rooms, and after rejecting several rooms, I accept the one that seems least neglected: tired dusty furniture, curtains, and sheets; the wall-paper peels off when you just stare at it; the promised hot water never shows up; I can flush the toilet exactly once as it goes into infinity after the first usage; and I have to actually hold the plumbing with one hand while taking a much-needed, though cold, shower.
At 6pm, in a total state of fury, I set out north into the city proper. With every step, my anger evaporates a little bit more, as I walk through a time warp from a drab contemporary Soviet suburbia into an intact, inhabited, medieval city-core! I instantly fall in love with Bukhara, and it is indeed going to be the absolute highlight of my trip. Whereas Samarkand is exhibitionist in all its splendor, Bukhara has secret charm! I settle at the "chaykhana" of the sensationally beautiful Lyab-i-Khauz pool (1620), feast on "samsa" sandwiches, and happily chat with the gossipy old men. They look sort-of like dervishes, and I later learn that it was them who kept Islam alive in Uzbekistan. The pool is flanked by the Divanbegi Madrassa (1623), Divanbegi Khanaka (1620), and Kukeldash Madrassa (1569). The chaykhana is well-shaded, and has a small adjacent park with a statue of Khodja Nasreddin and his donkey: so add Bukhara to the long list of cities and countries who claim this semi-mythical wandering dervish to be their own.
Then Mr. Salvation comes: Mohammed is one of those newgeneration English-speaking hustlers who prey on innocent tourists for a quick carpet sale. In a good mood now, I treat him politely and tell him that I will go to Ashkhabad, where the socalled Bukhara rugs are actually made, so no need to try further. He understands and switches to mentioning T-shirts and other collectibles that can be admired, and bought!, at his father's shop (where else?). I tell him that I don't plan on buying anything as my budget is going to take a huge blow with these ridiculous price increases in hotels. He answers that there is a possibility of sleeping in a private house, just three minutes away, in the city center, for $10. Hmmm, I open my ears, but don't show too much interest yet, because I am wary of baits. Over the next hour or so, the discussion gets back several times to that offer, so I finally decide to have a look. And I land in heaven!
Mobinjon runs a pension (or B&B, although nobody seems to know the terminology for what they are doing) in the beautifully restored house of his grandmother. You'd walk past this house, but it's a gem inside: an inner courtyard with trees, the museum-like rooms with a traditional Uzbek decoration (I lack the words to describe the place, you have to see it to believe it), and a carpeted wooden "chaykhana" dais on a terrace, where his wife serves us "chay", while his young daughter, nicknamed Bibi Khanym, mills about. There also is a big, friendly dog, and dozens of domestic pigeons cooing on the roofs. I think it took me half a second to decide that I'd check in here the day after, the hotel of course wouldn't return my pre-paid $15. Mobinjon is a former 100msprint champion from Tajikistan (10.4" or so, in the 1960s), and obviously better-off. He speaks no English, but Uzbek (like all Tajiks in Bukhara, and unlike the Tajiks in Samarkand), so we can sort-of converse. He opened the place a few months ago to tourism, and it seems to be part of a chain: he will introduce me to the organizer, Raisa, one day, so that she set me up with the branch in Urgench. The $10 price is confirmed, and for an additional $4 I'd get breakfast and home-cooking dinner. Short of sleeping in the large city-parks on the outskirts, this is an offer I'm not likely to beat (although it still is shockingly expensive for local salary standards), so I promise him to be back tomorrow. On the way back to the hotel, I (have to) tip off Mohammed, who turns sour at what he considers a meager reward. Uzbeks yet have to wake up to the fact that not all foreigners are walking dollar-bags, and that a new breed of travelers is going to come to their country.
I told the Uzbek ambassador in Ankara that I was not willing to dance to the Intourist tune, and once he understood that I really meant it, he got me in touch with an Uzbek company that has a branch in istanbul. For a handy $15 "bribe," they "sold" me a business invitation, for which the ambassador eventually delivered me a tourist visa, but without the otherwise mandatory Intourist package tour (minimum three nights in Intourist hotels, at about $85 each), and hence absolute freedom to move around at my whim. See my Independent Travel Guide to Uzbekistan for further information about visa support.
For museums, accommodation, and domestic flights, the rip-off continues, though. Price-lists for these services have two columns, one for CIS citizens and one for non-CIS citizens. The former pay normal rates in local currency, while the latter have to shell out about 70 times as much, in cash dollars, for exactly the same things! This is all highly official, so you can't really fight it, except by not visiting museums, sleeping in the parks, and traveling overland only.
I'm afraid there is an ethics issue for tourists and travelers here as well: considering the huge benefit margin of Intourist, which even comes handily in cash dollars, what did the Soviet governments do with this money? I'm surprised that I have never seen the following connection made before: this money might actually have been used to pay for spies and moles in Western countries, as well as for Western technology!? So the "millionaires" who afforded package-tours in the USSR, for bragging rights and snob credit, maybe unwittingly prolonged the so-called Cold War, further delaying the long overdue collapse of the Soviet empire!
I then have a look around the bazaar, the old city walls (gone and going with the wind), and the Bolo Khauz Mosque (1712), which features the only other remaining "khauz" of Bukhara, besides the inimitable Lyab-i-Khauz, which embodies the very soul of Bukhara. All the other pools have been destroyed by the Soviets, which act single-handedly resulted in doubling the life expectation of Bukharans! Talking about worms and other vermin in stagnant water: I saw gory photos of quack doctors extracting long worms from holes at the ankles of human beings. The mosque features a nice porch (1917) with colorful wooden pillars with stalactites at their tops, a sensational ceiling and frieze, and an unattached minaret that rather looks like a clock-tower. Little boys play around, swim in, and jump into the pool all day long, just like at the other pool. Except that here there also is a working madrassa, and that other little boys with white skull-caps study on the balconies of their rooms, or at least they are supposed to study, because most of the time they longingly gaze at their friends playing outside.
At the Ark (16th century), the fortress-like emir's palace within the city-walls (Uzbek emirs seemed to fear their own people as much as their outside enemies), the ticket man thinks I'm Turkish, and with an exclamation of "ArkadaSIm!" (my friend) lets me pay the Uzbek price, rather than the tourist one. Luckily, because there isn't much worth the detour, except for the fine view over the Bukharan medieval skyline, which you can have for free by climbing onto the Ark from behind, where it has collapsed.
It is very, very hot by now, and I stroll back towards the center, on Registan street. This takes me to another of Bukhara's gems, the Poi Kalyan square with its "kosh" ensemble of the Kalyan Mosque (16th century) and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa (1536, the only one never closed by the Soviets). Not being a Muslim, I can't get into the latter, although I get a peek into the magnificent interior. But I can visit the former, an openair mosque, and gaze in awe at its imposing Kalyan Minaret (47m high, built in 1127), the only local building not razed by the invading Mongols, because its sheer size over-awed Jenghiz Khan in 1220.
The sweltering heat becomes oppressive, so I head for the "chaykhana" at the Lyab-i-Khauz, through the multi-domed bazaars of Taq-i-Zargaran (jewelers), Abdullah Khan (silk), Taq-i-Furushan (cap-makers), and Taq-i-Sarrafan (money-changers). These are mostly the ancient purposes of this bazaars, which are situated only at intersections, and they are not nearly as lively as you would expect them to be in this part of the world. Over tea and a lunch snack, I make friends with Vassili, a Russian ex-mathteacher from the south Ural who has been stranded in Bukhara for two weeks now, waiting for spare-parts for the merchandise train on which he now is a mechanic. He speaks halting German, so I can again actually converse meaningfully with somebody. Around 4pm, as the blazing sunlight somehow diminishes, we head back to the point where I interrupted my visit. In the string of bazaars, he asks for the "Russian" prices of the items I'm interested in, while we pretend not being together. But damn again Intourist and its big spenders: even for Vassili, the merchants are not willing to part with their trinkets for even remotely reasonable prices. Why should they, as in a day or so, somebody is going to happily pay them mega-bucks for $1 items and even think s/he got a deal. (Eventually, I bought most of my Uzbek souvenirs from the "Russian bazaar" in ...Ankara!, at a fraction of the Uzbek prices.) We then visit the "kosh" ensemble of the Abdulaziz Madrassa (1652) and Ulug Bek Madrassa (1417, the oldest in Central Asia), climb onto the back side of the Ark for another fine view over old Bukhara, and return to the center. We split up for today, but promise to meet again tomorrow.
For dinner, I eat my way through a mountain of "plov", with the united Mobinjon family, on the carpeted dais on the now cool terrace. The life of a "pasha".
Regarding the women now, there is a big difference in fashion between the locals and the immigrants. The latter wear plain western clothes, but Uzbek and Tajik women like to wear one-piece ankle-length silk dresses sporting an explosion of colors (some would say garish colors), with pajama-like trousers underneath. Together with their sensational average looks (imagine a combination of the best features of Turkish women and Chinese women: tall, proud, high cheekbones, slightly slanted eyes, etc.), they continuously make your day and actually bring the streets to life.
I have lunch at the Lyab-i-Khauz again ("tukhum laghman": egg, noodles, and meat-balls) and laze at the "chaykhana" the entire afternoon. I'm just busy doing nothing, chatting every now and then with the men, writing parts of this diary and some postcards, conversing with a Kazakh oil engineer, meditating on Bukhara having once been the Pillar of Islam, with, among others, the physician ibn-Sina (Avicenna) and the mathematician and encyclopedist al-Beruni studying here. Today's flocks of Intourist package-tourists must have cursed me for spoiling their idyllic photos of life at a Central Asian "chaykhana" with my Western presence.
In the late afternoon, I set out, on public transportation, to the Makhosa (the nickname for the last emirs' tacky summer palace). It takes me too long to get there, and the ticket vendor says he must close fifteen minutes after my arrival and yet charge me an unbecoming amount of money. Negotiation for restricted access to the gardens and exteriors for a mightily reduced fee is once again fruitless, because "Moscow says..." Fortunately, a friendly "yahudi" (Jewish) souvenir seller offers me a ride back to town.
Dinner in Mobinjon's family circle consists of an excellent "laghman", and Mobinjon even gets some home-made red wine so that we toast to Omar Khayyam. Unforgettable moments.
Western (soft-)drinks of course make it to Uzbekistan, but at prices that are even higher than in the West: they are imports after all. It was sad to see people lining up in huge queues (especially in Ashkhabad) in order to have a glass of Pepsi from a barrel: it wasn't expensive, at least for me, but I suspect the people didn't know they only got a heavily diluted version of Pepsi, hence the comparatively low price. Worse, people would spend considerable percentages of their salaries for a can or bottle of Cola. However, this irresistible temptation of Central Asians to have a piece of the (formerly despised?) West, and the ingrained reflex/need of Western visitors to go for these cold products, make all these people play bad tricks on their bodies: in the intense heat of an Uzbek summer, only hot drinks are easy on your heart and actually quench your thirst.
She picks me up shortly after lunch to give me a ride to the long-distance bus-station, but it turns out that no bus will leave for Urgench today, because there were not enough people willing to travel from Urgench to Bukhara the night before. "Expect the unexpected" is another motto here. So back to Mobinjon's palace for another 24 hours in delightful Bukhara. After a long siesta, I head out to see the Char Minar Madrassa (1807), one of the few remaining buildings inside town I haven't visited yet. It is somewhere in the maze of back-streets behind the Kukeldash Madrassa, and most people give me directions reaching about as far as the tips of their noses, but eventually I do reach this charming madrassa, or at least the gate with four minarets that is left of it.
I then make my daily pilgrimage to the magnetic Lyab-i-Khauz and its "chaykhana", and guess who's there, Vassili! His train had a leak yesterday, so he had to work on it all day long, he explains. One of our tea drinking partners of the day (you just sit down wherever there is space) turns out to be Arif Alimov, apparently a very famous opera singer (a native of Bukhara), and Vassili nearly drops off the dais for having the honor to meet him! We are having a good time together, actually conversing in a triangle: Vassili and Arif in Russian, Vassili and I in German, Arif and I in Turkish/Uzbek. Shortly before dusk, Arif asks us to come along with him towards the suburbs. Suddenly, he asks if somebody has a bottle, and Vassili hands him his water-bottle. Arif opens it, pours it out onto the street, and motions us to wait for him as he disappears into an apartment block. Minutes later, he returns with a shopping bag, takes us to a "samsa" vendor to buy half a dozen of these delicious spicy sandwiches, and we settle down on some bench in an empty city park. Seconds later, we toast to friendship on the red wine he just acquired! The wine is rather strong, and we turn quite tipsy over it. Omar Khayyam of course gets a toast as well. The whole scene, in its improbability, was one of the priceless moments of my life.
After dinner with the Mobinjon family, and even more house-wine, the discussion turns to the hard transition period from communism to capitalism. But I give them solace with the facts that Uzbekistan at least doesn't have a civil war (unlike many nearby countries) and that it has a lot of potential and infrastructure left, if only natural gas and tourism. Moreover, as a former athlete, he always was better off anyway, and he seems to have understood how to keep afloat by starting his pension.
Then we enter the desert proper, a reddish brown sandy expanse overgrown by small shrubs. Somewhere halfway, at dusk, we stop at a small roadside cafeteria. The little Kazakh boy on my side has purchased a plastic bag with mutton pieces, which he proceeds to eat on the bus. He especially seems to delight on the parts that most Western people would throw away, namely the greasy ones. The grease actually drips down his chin, and as he is sometimes reaching for balance with his now greasy fingers, I slightly edge away from him. Unbelievably, although everything looks the same to me, people always know where they have to get off, even as it turns dark. The bus-driver fails to see a sheep on the road, and with a loud bang knocks it out. Luckily no damage to the bus, as I'd hate to be stranded here, where so few cars pass.
The word was spread by my bench neighbors that I speak some Turkish, so when the corridor becomes empty of standing people and when my neighboring seat becomes vacant after the Kazakh boy left with his father in the middle of nowhere, some men come, one by one, to join me for a small chat. They are intrigued because I don't travel with Intourist, or at least in a group. And they all want to know the standard things such as my name, age, profession, salary ($500 a month seems to be about as far as their imagination goes, and must be an unbelievable amount of money for them, so there is no pressure to tell them my real salary), number of children (being single and childless seems inconceivable to them, and this admission of mine always results in great amusement), and so on, but also more bizarre things such as whether it is true that Christians are not circumcised. As it becomes dark and the procession of interviewers ebbs down, I can't read anymore, so I take out my walk-man. From then on, at least half the people on the bus travel with their heads turned 180 degrees, and stare at me with tennis-ball eyes. So I have to give a new series of audiences, because more men gather their courage to come to talk to me and they invariably eventually point at the walk-man because they want to listen to it. It's all a lot of fun.
Finally, at 11pm, we pull into Urgench, where Raisa's contacts Smetlana and Vakhat are very efficient. They whisk me and my backpack into Vakhat's Lada (he is an Uzbek Airways pilot, so sort-of better-off), and drive me to some flat in the suburbs: I guess that just one visitor ($10) per month gets them way beyond the break-even point in terms of renting that flat. Smetlana dishes up a huge dinner, and then they leave me alone for the night.
They give me a lift to the railway station, where I get onto a micro-bus "dolmuS" to Khiva (32km away). In the center of modern Khiva is the intact old Khiva, about a square kilometer encircled by high pise walls. It's a superb time capsule, and I get a first overview from the bastion to the left of the Ata Darvaza (West Gate): madrassas, mosques, minarets, tombs, mausolea, palaces, bazaars, caravanserais, hamams galore, but something is missing. Yes, there are no people! I'd be the last one to complain about the absence of tourists, but without the locals it looks too good to be true, almost like a stage set. The Soviets have moved most locals out of the old walls, so what is left is the obligatory old crone at every door to sell you dubious entrance tickets at scandalous prices, the restoration workers, and a few souvenir sellers. This sterile, utterly commercial openair museum has a lot to offer, though, making it well worth the detour, but not for a whole day. There is the unfinished colorful Kalta Minar(et) (which looks a lot like a nuclear tower, and would probably have been the highest minaret in the world if the architect hadn't died after building 26m high at a diameter of 14m) in front of the Muhammad Amin Khan Madrassa (both 1855, the only madrassa to function as a hotel, well, as an Intourist ripoff), the Kunya Ark citadel (12th century) with another gory Zindan (khan's jail), the Tash Khauli Palace (1838) with its stunning ceilings, the Djuma Mosque (1788, but with 10th century columns inside) and Islam Khodja Mosque (1910) with their colorful minarets, the Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum (1326) with its splendid interior courtyard, and another fifteen madrassas. Near the Bakhcha Darvaza (North Gate) is a well discovered by a son of Noah.
I have three interesting conversations during the day. At the reception court of the Ark, a young construction worker strikes up a discussion in fluent English. Aga is an English-language student earning his living by helping restore Khiva. And he is unbelievably knowledgeable about Luxembourg! As it happens, three backpackers from Luxembourg started a Silk Road trip from here to China a few weeks ago, hence doing the complementary part to my own project, only the Uzbek stretch being in common. This is the first time in my life that somebody outside Europe tells me I'm not the first Luxembourger s/he sees, let alone the fourth.
At the Islam Khodja Mosque, a cashier woman takes me across the street to "her" madrassa-museum, and treats me to "chay" and some broth with bread. Minutes later, she similarly "picks up" the only backpacker I was to meet during the entire trip. Kumiko is a Japanese girl on a journey similar to the one of my three countrymen, hence also traveling in the opposite direction to mine. She's grateful when I give her Mobinjon's address for Bukhara, because she doesn't like Intourist's rip-offs either. The old lady seems to be a matchmaker at heart, as she tries to set us up, seeing us easily converse in English and exchange travel hints.
Having seen all I wanted to visit by 3pm, but having until 6pm to be picked up in Urgench by Vakhat and company, I hang around in the shadow of the Kalta Minar, writing postcards and parts of this diary. A German-speaking guy joins me, and strikes up an initially friendly conversation. But then:
- Aaah, you are not staying at the Hotel Khiva [the madrassa] here!?
- No, I stay in Urgench.
- So you must be staying at the Intourist Hotel in Urgench?
- So where are you staying?
Not sensing the trouble, I say:
- With locals, in a pension.
Suddenly, things go fast. He whips out a card identifying him as an Intourist guide (OVIR?), pretends having certain police powers (this is the first time I see a tourist police cracking down on visitors, rather than protecting them against overzealous locals!), and asks to see my passport, lest he would have to arrest me and take me to the police station. Knowing what had happened to a friend in Bukhara the year before, I try to placate him first. Indeed, I am in deep trouble: in Tashkent and Samarkand, I had stayed for free with locals; for the night in Hotel Varakshah in Bukhara, the receptionist had simply pocketed the $15 cash and not declared me to the police; in Bukhara and Urgench, my pension hosts had not declared me either, because of my declaration of being on a shoestring budget. Imagining the huge fine that all this would incur, and not willing to endanger my various hosts, I have no choice but to pretend:
- I don't have my passport with me!
In fact, it's in a hidden spot of my day-pack, but I'm confident he wouldn't find it upon cursory search. He becomes quite irate, and repeats his request, adding an ominous:
- Hurry up, I have little patience.
- But it's in Urgench.
- Then let's get it from there.
Back on the path of truth, I declare:
- But I don't know where the pension is.
- What!? You don't know where you slept last night!?
Am I digging my grave now?
- Honestly. I arrived at 11pm, and my hosts picked me up at the bus-station and as we drove through the dark, I lost my sense of orientation.
There is a loophole in my reasoning, and I just pray he doesn't see it: obviously, in that case, my hosts must pick me up later today. In that case I would pretend having left my backpack at the left luggage of the railway station, and hope to lose him somewhere until we get there. Before he can think that far, I continue:
- But don't worry. Everything is regular, the pension is legal. Blah blah blah. (He doesn't seem to understand what a pension is.)
Unfortunately, he has not woken up yet to the fact that things are changing and that Intourist is losing its monopoly. Luckily, he hasn't seen my notebook yet, with all the compromising evidence and addresses. By now a plan has taken shape in my mind. Sending a prayer to Nevin hanIm, my Turkish teacher in Ankara, I switch from German to Turkish. I obviously catch him offbalance, and while he stares bewildered at me, I compose the highest praise of Uzbekistan, its culture, and its people, that I can dish up without blushing and without fighting for words within my limited vocabulary. It turns into a polite conversation again, and when I have him glowing with pride and obviously far from his recent purpose of arresting me, I decide to employ the crowning piece of my bluff. I look at the descending sun, take my camera out of my day-pack, get up, and shake his hand:
- The sunlight is perfect for pictures now. Nice talking to you...
I'm five paces away before he comes to his senses and reacts:
It's a friendly "hey," so no reason to run. I turn around and see him wink an eye at me:
- Seni gOrmedim! [I didn't see you!]
- SaGol. HoSCakal. [Thanks. Take care.]
Needless to say, I took the first "dolmuS" out of Khiva, lest he change his mind.
Back in Urgench, my hosts take me to Smetlana's mother's house, where we feast on a huge barbecue in the garden. I breathe deeply, and fully enjoy my last night in Uzbekistan, knowing that I escaped major hassle today by means of sheer bull-shitting. There is a daughter, but I don't know whose. In fact, I never figured out what relationships (friendship, marriage, mistress) bond the triangle of my hosts. Smetlana is her subservient self, like her mother. Gula just parades around and helps out with cooking and serving. Vakhat wants to get me into a vodka drinking contest, but I'd of course stand no chance against the seasoned drinker he probably is.
At the border, the Uzbeks make some fuss about my presence, and actually order me and my backpack out for an inspection. Their attitude, especially when snapping, with dollars in their eyes, at me "Are you American?", and their subsequent disappointment, make me feel that they are not just in for a chat, but rather want to play the petty bureaucrat game. Once again, my rudimentary Turkish comes in handy and over-awes them sufficiently to wave me through, before they have too close a look at my passport.
End-of-Part-I. This travelogue continues in Part II: Turkmenistan.