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Central Asian travel diary -- Part 3

 

May 25, 2005
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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 their 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 river is "darya". The river is huge.

As I collect my bag I'm again approached by people offering their taxi services. The operative words here are Tashkent and border, as 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 to Moscow.

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 disappointed them.

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 in my anti-diarrhea medicine and carefully looks the package over. He then 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 are newer and the road is in much better condition. I attempt to speak Uzbek with the driver and say "Tashkent, yakh-shi mihmaan-khaana si." He looks confused. I say " Tajiki gap mizanid?" He goes "Gap mizanam. Tajik hastam.". I learn that all drivers operating between here and Tashkent are Tajik. My driver's name is 'Yaavar'.

Yaavar isn't much of a talker, though. He's too preoccupied with the strange noise his car is making. The only meaningful thing coming 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 than Tajikistan. 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 $25 a night including breakfast, which is a great deal. On top of that they 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 across 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 there are no seats available for either route. So I guess I'm stuck here for a while. I also discover that there are no flights to Samarqand between now and Wednesday, so I book a flight to Bukhara for tomorrow at 6:00 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 old 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 in this country, he works a second job to make ends meet. He agrees to show me the city for $25. Like most Uzbeks in Bukhara, he speaks Tajik with an accent.

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 the old City Center which looks more and more like home. We go to Lab-i-Hauz, a recreational area with a large pool. We sit outside and order breakfast from the nearby teahouse. The Uzbek word for egg is "tokhom". There is a statue here of Molla Nasreddin with his famous donkey. Zaker calls 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 the biblical prophet Job first discovered this spring and that its water has healing qualities. "How did Job find his way from Mesopotamia to 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. One of the women rolls her eyes at me reminding me to put my hands on my 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 is sweeping the dust from the stones. We go in and pay our respects to this 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 also visiting the site. We take the customary pictures and head back to 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 to the Peeshdaadi king, 'Siavash'. There is a charge to get in and additional fees if you intend to take pictures. Zaker asks for a guide, which he calls 'savaad'. A Tajik lady appears and offers her services. She prefers to speak English and I don't mind. After all, it's easier for me to understand and besides, it gives her a chance to 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 the last Uzbek Amir of Bukhara and annexed this area to the Russian Empire. With most of it in ruins, the Ark is still a reminder of the glorious past of 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 life.

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 summer 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 sightseeing. I ask Zaker to take me to the airport for my 6:30 flight back to Tashkent. 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 during the Soviet days. After independence, the government allowed the tenants to buy their apartments at a discounted price, which most of them did.

Zaker's apartment has two bedrooms and a living room and a kitchen. The bathroom (haajat-khaane) is outside in the courtyard. We sit in his living room on the floor around a low, Uzbek style table. His wife, in traditional Uzbek dress, serves us green tea and sweets. She is a nurse 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 videos.

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 closed so I go the lobby of the nearby Grand Mir Hotel and order some tea and sweets. Then I go to the Uzbek Air office across the street. There are still no seats available from Tashkent to Urumqi, so I decide to forgo my Urumqi-Shanghai ticket and take the Uzbek Air flight tomorrow from Tashkent, directly to Shanghai. Hopefully I can get a refund on my other ticket in Shanghai.

The Tashkent-Shanghai ticket costs $550. The Russian lady ticket agent behind the counter asks "Are you sure you want to pay this much?" As if I have a choice.

I 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.

From 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) all around. I go inside one of the classrooms. There is no class in session but a student is studying there and there are Arabic words on the blackboard. The students and faculty are all dressed in suits with no ties.

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 at 9:30. 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 to him. In the plane, I'm seated next to a Turkish guy going to Shanghai for 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!
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