Central Asian travel diary -- Part 3
May 25, 2005
Travel diary to Xinjiang (Chinese
Turkistan) and Central Asia >>> See
Saturday April 9
I can't stress enough how decrepit Dushanbe Airport is. Everything
seems to be falling apart. It appears as though 70 years of Soviet
brotherhood has produced nothing for this nation except bastardize
language and impose on them the archaic Cyrillic Alphabet.
The flight to Khujand takes about 50 minutes. As
we land, the great Sir
Darya is on our right side. I now realize why the Tajik word for
is "darya". The river is huge.
As I collect my bag I'm again approached by people
taxi services. The operative words here are Tashkent and border,
Khujand is the gateway to Uzbekistan in the north.
I go with a guy named Mirza. He offers to take me
to the Uzbekistan
border for $40, which is a little too steep. He drives an old Volga
similar to the one Bush rode in with Putin on his recent visit
The road is full of potholes and Mirza skillfully
negotiates the car
around as he rants about his exploits with Russian women with impotent
husbands who sought him for sexual gratification and how he never
After about an hour we get to the border which consists
of a number of
kiosks on either side. The Uzbek Customs Agent takes special interest
my anti-diarrhea medicine and carefully looks the package over.
asks me to close my bags and murmurs "Welcome to Uzbekistan".
There is a line of taxis waiting to take you to
Tashkent, 60 miles
north of here. I go with the first one in the queue. Cars here
and the road is in much better condition. I attempt to speak Uzbek
the driver and say "Tashkent, yakh-shi mihmaan-khaana si." He
confused. I say " Tajiki gap mizanid?" He goes "Gap
hastam.". I learn that all drivers operating between here
Tashkent are Tajik. My driver's name is 'Yaavar'.
Yaavar isn't much of a talker, though. He's too
the strange noise his car is making. The only meaningful thing
out of his mouth during the whole trip is "dokhtare Tajik
gaayeedi?" To which I give a negative reply.
Uzbekistan seems to be a much more happening place
Everything about it is in better shape. Even the people look happier.
As we enter downtown Tashkent, Yaavar takes me to
a little hotel called
Arzu, located in a pretty side street. I notice that the Uzbekistan
Airways office is also nearby. The hotel offers nice rooms for
night including breakfast, which is a great deal. On top of that
accept credit cards.
After settling in and a quick shower I go out for
a stroll and a visit
to the nearby airline office. Uzbekistan Airways or 'Uzbek Haavaa
yollaari', as they call it, has a very modern and plush office
from the Grand Mir Hotel on Shota Rustaveli Street.
My flight from Urumqi back to Shanghai is on Thursday
and I need to get
there before then. There are two ways to get to Urumqi from Tashkent;
via Almaty, Kazakhstan or via Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It so happens
are no seats available for either route. So I guess I'm stuck here
a while. I also discover that there are no flights to Samarqand
now and Wednesday, so I book a flight to Bukhara for tomorrow at
AM, returning the same day at 6:30 PM. The price, $50 round trip.
Sunday April 10
The flight to Bukhara is aboard a Boeing 757, a far cry from the
Tajik airplanes. From Bukhara, it is scheduled to go to Moscow,
returning in the evening to take me back to Tashkent. The flight
takes about 45 minutes and I'm dozing the whole time.
My driver in Bukhara is Zaker. He is a 43 year old
Uzbek with a day job
as an aircraft mechanic with Uzbek Airways. But like most people
country, he works a second job to make ends meet. He agrees to
the city for $25. Like most Uzbeks in Bukhara, he speaks Tajik
It's 7:00 in the morning and Bukhara is still cold.
This dusty city
reminds me of Mashhad, only 300 miles away. Zaker drives me to
City Center which looks more and more like home. We go to Lab-i-Hauz,
recreational area with a large pool. We sit outside and order breakfast
from the nearby teahouse. The Uzbek word for egg is "tokhom".
is a statue here of Molla Nasreddin with his famous donkey. Zaker
him Khaajeh Nasreddin.
After breakfast we go to "Cheshmeh Ayyoob",
an edifice built over
an active spring supplying Bukhara with water. Legend has it that
biblical prophet Job first discovered this spring and that its
healing qualities. "How did Job find his way from Mesopotamia
Bukhara?" I wonder. Inside the building there is something
of an altar
with a metal vessel containing the holy water for pilgrims to drink.
Three Uzbek women are sitting there on a bench with
one of them leading
the other two in prayer. We sit across from them and quietly listen.
of the women rolls her eyes at me reminding me to put my hands
knees. I oblige.
From there we go to the Ismaeel Saamaani Mausoleum.
It is a well-kept
structure surrounded by a stone-paved courtyard. The lady caretaker
sweeping the dust from the stones. We go in and pay our respects
king to whom most of Central Asian have great affinity.
Zaker then takes me to "Menaar Kalaan" which
is a 30-meter high
minaret with an adjacent mosque. A group of school children are
visiting the site. We take the customary pictures and head back
Lab-i-hauz for lunch.
After lunch we go to the ancient citadel called
'the Ark'. It's
an impressive structure whose original construction is attributed
Peeshdaadi king, 'Siavash'. There is a charge to get in and
additional fees if you intend to take pictures. Zaker asks for
which he calls 'savaad'. A Tajik lady appears and offers her
services. She prefers to speak English and I don't mind. After
it's easier for me to understand and besides, it gives her a chance
practice her English.
The Ark has been rebuilt a number of times in the
past and in the early
20th century the Russians destroyed 70% of it as they defeated
Uzbek Amir of Bukhara and annexed this area to the Russian Empire.
most of it in ruins, the Ark is still a reminder of the glorious
this ancient city.
From the Ark, we went to the Amir's Summer Palace which has been
turned into a museum. The plush furnishings and the magnificent
chandeliers tell the story of the opulence of the Amir's way of
In the vast gardens of the palace, there is a large
pool with something like a lifeguard tower next to it. The guide
tells us that in hot
days, the Amir would order the young girls of Bukhara to go for
a dip in
the pool and he would climb the tower and watch the swimming beauties
from his vantage point, selecting his future wives and concubines.
It's now 2:30 and I'm tired of all the walking and
ask Zaker to take me to the airport for my 6:30 flight back to
Zaker instead invites me to go to his house for some tea and relaxation.
I accept. He lives near the airport in a housing complex built
the Soviet days. After independence, the government allowed the
to buy their apartments at a discounted price, which most of them
Zaker's apartment has two bedrooms and a living
room and a kitchen.
The bathroom (haajat-khaane) is outside in the courtyard. We sit
living room on the floor around a low, Uzbek style table. His wife,
traditional Uzbek dress, serves us green tea and sweets. She is
at a nearby hospital. In Uzbek, the word for nurse is 'hamsheereh'.
They have two sons, Sanjar and Jahangir and a daughter
whose name I
didn't get. Jahangir is in middle school and Sanjar is attending
college in Tashkent. Zaker showed me their photo album and home
At around 4:00, Zaker takes me to the airport and
we say goodbye. I
thank him for his hospitality.
Back in Tashkent at around 7:30. I grab a bite to
eat and go to the
hotel and crash.
Monday April 11
Today I wake up very late. The hotel breakfast room is already
so I go the lobby of the nearby Grand Mir Hotel and order some
sweets. Then I go to the Uzbek Air office across the street. There
still no seats available from Tashkent to Urumqi, so I decide to
my Urumqi-Shanghai ticket and take the Uzbek Air flight tomorrow
Tashkent, directly to Shanghai. Hopefully I can get a refund on
ticket in Shanghai.
The Tashkent-Shanghai ticket costs $550. The
lady ticket agent behind the counter asks "Are you sure you
want to pay this much?" As if I have a choice.
hire a cab to show me around the city. Delshaad, the Uzbek driver,
speaks no Tajik or English but he does a good job taking me to
interesting places. We go to the 'chaar soo' bazaar which is the
main shopping area of the city. I buy a few trinkets as souvenir.
there we go to an Islamic school called 'Kokaldaash'. It's a new
school built in the traditional 'Madrassa' style; with a beautifully
landscaped courtyard in the middle and two floors of rooms (hojreh)
around. I go inside one of the classrooms. There is no class in
but a student is studying there and there are Arabic words on the
blackboard. The students and faculty are all dressed in suits with
We then go to the 'Ali Sheer Navaayi' Park. There
is great statue
of this famous Uzbek poet in the middle of the intricately manicured
garden. We take a few pictures and take off.
Delshaad drops me off at the hotel. I go to a fast
food joint for
dinner, come back and start packing.
Tuesday April 12
I check out of the hotel and head to the airport. My flight is
My luggage weighs 24 kilograms. I'm 4 kilos over. The airport employee
asks for a $20 bribe in lieu of the $50 extra charge. I give it
In the plane, I'm seated next to a Turkish guy going to Shanghai
business. His name is Esmat. We discuss religion and politics.
He is the
type of person who says "No" in response to everything
you say and
then, sometimes, repeats what you had just said. He's an interesting
guy. He thinks he is European!
Part 3 Part
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