You don't want to sneeze funny in Turkmenistan because you'll probably be fined $582 and prohibited from returning to the country for thirty-five years. With this mindset hovering over the day, 5 year ban stamps blazing in passports, we tiptoe the bike towards Uzbekistan. Funny how hanging out in countries with repressive governments makes you feel simultaneously rebellious and just a little bit well-behaved. You think about how a lifetime under such regimes creates a population innately no different than ours, barring having been indoctrinated from an early age that police presence on every block is normal. And that a book written by the omniscient president is the Gospel Truth. And that you'd better not stray from the party line. We feel somehow cowed, as if we'd better be good, as the next country's border approaches.
Uzbekistan is 200 meters beyond the Land of the Red Stamp. We park the bike and cram into a small passageway along with a young woman, her 2 children and an old lady with a shopping bag full of round flat bread. We're busy behaving well when the old lady starts pantomiming some cross-cultural conversation. She is wondering why we don't have any kids. She is making unabashedly vivid gesticulations of what she thinks we should be doing more in order to get us some kids. Mom is cracking up, kids are cracking up, even the customs guy is cracking up. Eyes all a-twinkling, the old lady thrusts a round of bread into Erika's bag as she hobbles out the door. Toto, we have a feeling we're not in Turkmenistan any more.
The rest of customs takes about 20 minutes and is constituted of officials poking perfunctorily through the bike's side cases, primarily interested in checking out the pictures in the Central Asia book and trying on Dave's motorcycle jacket. They want their picture taken in front of the bike. Guess we can drop that "good behavior" thing now. Oleg, our guide in Turkmenistan, was cool; but it's great to be independent again. Riding off into the afternoon light, you can practically breathe in a sense of freedom. It's corny but we're just starting to realize how significant a lack of "freedom" really is and what it actually means to people in their day-to-day life. We can simply pick up and take off for another country, where feisty old ladies indicate proper conjugal behavior in front of border officials. The people of Turkmenistan are stuck back at home, passports always in hand, reading state-approved books and being fearful of speaking openly with tourists.
Uzbekistan is apparently the second largest producer of cotton in the world; cotton and corn fields spread out to the horizon. Homes are reminiscent of rustic Santa Fe adobes, with flat roofs and mud walls.
There is a vast sparkling river to cross, over a narrow lumpy bridge whose pedestrian traffic vastly outweighs that of motorized vehicles.
Eventually we reach the outskirts of Khiva, the first of 3 historical silk road cities to be visited on this trip. The old town walls are unusual with their rounded straight and pot-bellied citadels.
The main gates open over flat cobblestoned pathways, passing a few souvenir stands and just a few people. The Ichon-Qala, or old city, appears barely inhabited but is perfectly renovated and preserved.
Dinner is the hugest array of food in a long time: bread, tea, dried fruits and nuts, 4 kinds of salads, fresh fruit and melon, some delicious main course and some other stuff we can't remember any more. The restaurant is run by our guesthouse owner and well worth eating at for the next 3 nights. After dinner we head for the more upscale Hotel Khiva, a converted medressa (center of learning) where Oliver is staying. He's trying to get an early night's sleep, but we'd rather make him hang out on the balcony catching up on the Turkmenistan fiasco as kids from the street below send up giggles and chants of "Mister, Pen".
Sunday market is a visual treat. Sellers sprawl along the old city walls.
Everything is available: figs, fabrics, shoe soles, shashlyk, souvenirs, auto parts, plastics, benzine, backpacks, bananas.
This must be peak shopping time, so our pace is dictated by that of the throngs picking their way through creaking tables above and piled-up blankets below. Every inch of space is being used, from floor to ceiling.
Salespeople call out to passers by, their voices lost in the hubbub, or sit silently waiting for an interested customer to approach.
Inside the looming arcades is more elaborate merchandise. It's unlikely the original medressa's founders suspected their halls of study would some day house mannequins outfitted with wedding attire.
Much beautiful tilework embellishes the Kukhna Ark, which was built in the 12th Century as a palace for the khans (rulers) of the time. Dave enjoys gawking at the reconstructed jail and its grizzly drawings of 12th century state-of-the-art torture techniques. Erika prefers to sit on one of the throne-like wall niches, fancying herself Queen of the World.
Both of us like the great rooftop scenery.
Every step in Khiva reveals something historical. The once-crumbling old city was restored through a large Soviet renovation project around 35 years ago.
At a mausoleum/medressa with a small courtyard, you still have to pay a fee to enter even though the interior is closed off for a double wedding.
On the flip side, the wedding couples don't have a whole lot of control over who is wandering through their ceremony. You can spot the Western tourists a mile away. Isn't anyone embarassed about their personal attire in such a conservative place?
Outside the wedding, Erika strikes up a conversation with some young women with a cute new baby. It's encouraging to notice that despite the language barrier women here seem quite outgoing and easy to engage. They don't seem to take a passive role next to the men who control the interactions. It has been discouragingly challenging to interact with women in many countries.
Another medressa has been converted into a crafts center. Some young women and an older man are cooking fresh flat bread stamped with regionally characteristic flower patterns in a deep round kiln.
The master weaver is tinkering around at a loom in another room and offers to show Dave a trick or two. This skill will provide a good alternative to Dave's engineering career once he gets back to San Francisco.
Gotta get some money. That should be easy. Here we are at the bank. The bank has no money. The bank has no money? Second bank. Much fussing takes place. Big vault is unlocked. Largest bill available is worth 20 cents. There you go, 100 Euros in 20 cent bills. We think it's time for a new wallet.
At the Natural History Museum, many display rooms have been created from the small dark cells where students must have studied hundreds of years ago. The rooms are still exceptionally small and dark. The taxidermist probably did a fine job 20 years ago but there are no high-tech temperature controls at this funky little hole in the wall; the region's 110 degree summers and -20 winters haven't done a whole lot to keep these animals fresh and lively looking.
Some dried-up looking plants are stapled to the wall in the next room. Another cubicle unexpectedly and unexplainedly reveals a fetus in a jar. Kind of weird.
The neighboring museum consists primarily of hundreds of photos by an old town documentarian. We're taken by the hand and led through by a spry 12 year old with pretty good English who proceeds to explain in detail each and every shot. How do you extricate yourself from a young historian who also wants to sell you something when she's through? The kids here have clearly seen plenty of tourists and are pretty savvy in trying to charm them. Smaller kids chant, "photo, photo" and want to see the digital screen after the shot is taken. A few young people ask to have their picture taken then want a copy mailed to them as soon as possible. Erika isn't pulling out the camera quite so conspicuously at this point.
En route to Bukhara, the next historic city, the desert provides 8 hours of 105 degree heat. It's windy enough, however, to blow sand into our tea and pelmeni (dumpling) soup at a chaykhana lunch in the middle of nowhere. Out of nowhere a flock of German tourists tumble out of a tour bus for tea. Uzbekistan--or at least its famous silk road cities--is the most touristy place we've been since Dubrovnik.
It takes an hour and a half for our room to become ready at the next guesthouse. The hostess provides nuts and raisins with tea during our wait in the still-drenching 7:00 PM heat. At least the room is air conditioned. Erika has previously proclaimed vigorous opposition to air conditioning in principal, but this trip is causing some serious reconsideration of her views. Dinner later is shashlyk and beers with Oliver and two Irish women at Lyabi-Haus. This is a central pool built hundreds of years ago into a plaza now surrounded by outdoor cafes. It's touristy and kind of overpriced but pleasant as the night brings a slight drop in the heat.
Fatima, the bed & breakfast's hefty owner, starts our day with the largest breakfast ever to provide fuel for a walk through town. The streets are narrow, with homes walled side-by-side providing no peek into the imagined lush courtyards within. Occasional ancient tiled facades pop up between dry gray outside walls. The overall feeling is of age, dust, and renovation.
Where do people find their energy in the blistering heat? These guys have the right idea:
Since Dave now has a personal investment in all things hand-crafted, we take a tour of the dye works at a UNESCO-supported carpet weaving school and meet the some of the young women sitting for hours on end creating silk carpets for sale in the small shop.
The guide, an expert weaver and teacher herself, has been to an international crafts convention in Santa Fe and remarks that she was quite taken with the architectural similarities of Santa Fe to Uzbekistan!
One of the town's main attractions is its Ark, a very large imposing structure which is rather costly to enter. It's kind of frustrating to find many souvenirs and fabrics for sale within the walls but all the museums closed.
Indeed, souvenirs and general merchandise are for sale all around town. When the weather is this hot, and your whole town is a historic playground, there would be no point in keeping your products indoors. And what a view from the couch.
At the Ark, we meet Justin, who is riding an old car from London to Mongolia to raise money for Save the Children, Mongolia. He is also fresh from Turkmenistan, where he received a mere one-year ban for overstaying his visa by one day. We also run into Thiago, a Brazilian bicyclist whose trip began in Portugal. Thiago is covering 160 kilometers a DAY, which means at our leisurely stop-a-while-here-and-there pace, he is keeping apace with us on his bicycle!! For more on Thiago's travels, check out www.planetbybike.com.
Bukhara is many travellers' favorite Uzbek silk road city, but Erika can barely muster the energy to get herself to the Internet place. Dave happily washes the bike. Sunset seems like a better time to explore and brings the reward of a full moon-rise near the walls of the Ark.
Another long stretch of desert brings us to Samarkand, possibly the most famous of the Silk Road cities. It is also significantly larger than Khiva or Bukhara, with its impressive monuments surrounded by large avenues and Soviet-style buildings.
We continue to meet up for sightseeing and dinners with Oliver, who is taking public transportation along the same route (although he will be heading off next week for Kyrgyzstan.) At the next guesthouse, we have a pleasant rest on a classic "tea bed", a low-to-the ground structure akin to a king-sized bed frame on sawed-off legs. (it probably IS a king-sized bed frame on sawed-off legs.) Throughout Central Asia people take off their shoes and sip tea and sit a while. Sometimes the weather is warm and you can sleep on the teabed under the stars.
Samarkand's piece-de-resistance is its own Registan. It is the single most impressive structure we have seen, despite the irritating web of guards who are preventing us for some reason from going inside. A fair amount of construction is being done nearby but there seems to be something else going on as well.
Turns out the entire front courtyard has been commandeered as practice space for song and dance groups scheduled to perform at some upcoming public event. That's all good and fine, but you aren't allowed to get close enough to see anything. And what about the REGISTAN?? Oh, okay, we'll kill some time at the marketplace and hope we can get in tomorrow. Some people here are quietly pleased to have their picture taken
while others are perhaps not quite so sure.
There are plenty of other sights to see. The mausoleum of Timur, a.k.a. Tamarlane, holds the remains of this venerated 14th century warrior (hero or barbarian, depending what side of his army you were on.)
Timur's wife had a grand present built for him (the Bibi-Khanym Mosque) while he was off conquering people, but legend has it that the architect fell in love with her. This led to his subsequent execution and Timur's decree that women should henceforth wear veils to prevent other men from temptation. Many Uzbek women wear scarves over their hair but in the cities modern young women are mostly free of head coverings.
Sunday from 12:00 to 3:00 tourists will finally be allowed inside the Registan.
The tilework is stunning, though once again festooned with an array of souvenir shops. They are colorful and interesting in their own way but there is something uncomfortable about being solicited to buy products in an ancient monument once you've already paid your money to go inside for a presumably awestruck moment communing quietly with history. By the way, it would be a lot easier to take advantage of the souvenir opportunities (if we were buying souvenirs, which due to lack of room we're not) if we could only find some MONEY. We go to 2 more banks in Samarkand which state they have none before locating an amenable exchange office in some obscure place.
Our last night in Samarkand we eat variations on noodle soup with Oliver and head back to the Registan to see how it looks in the neon glow of its very own designer light bath. The stage has been cleared, and plenty of tourists are back around for one more chance at a close-up photo.
It's been a full week wandering through the mazes of old Uzbek streets and soaking in the atmosphere of some of the Silk Road's finest monuments. Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, will be a more modern place, lacking in eye-popping mosques and medressas but winning points for good restaurants and faster internet connections. And then there are those visas to chase after. Back through the desert and a string of dusty small towns. This meal stop consists of more bread, tea, and noodle soup. The family who runs the hole-in-the-wall is reserved initially but warms us up more than the soup by the end of what they insist will be a free lunch. Grandma is particularly thrilled by the opportunity to be a motorcycle (grand)mama.
Tashkent is all wide wide streets flanked by big broad trees, impressions of homogenous mid-sized soviet apartments peeping through the shade and concrete. It's pleasant enough, in a bland sort of way. Erika loves to walk everywhere but distances sprawl so vastly through the dull-ish scenery that it's hardly worth the effort.
To compensate, Tashkent hosts a gorgeous metro with each station ornamented more elaborately than the next. Don't try to take any photos, though, as the guards stationed everywhere can confiscate your camera. ("Lonely Planet" warns against photography inside the metro, and indeed we witness a heated exchange between a guard and a young man who has apparently taken a video). Everything is spotlessly clean. Everyone dresses nicely; there's no graffiti or litter; and you certainly can't imagine anyone taking a leak inside a subway tunnel. (Got that, Dave?)
We're supposed to meet up with Oliver for dinner at the Timur statue, but no Oliver; turns out we got the date wrong. Instead, we stroll near the circular park down a small strip known as "Broadway", where outdoor cafes sell plov (kind of like a greasy central Asian paella), kids play at small arcades, teenagers buy balloons, and dancing girls entertain from netted rooms adjacent to the restaurants.
Next day Erika feels sick but we need to go to the Pakistan Embassy for the 3rd try at obtaining a visa. In Turkey and Azerbaijan, our applications were declined on the basis that you are supposed to apply in your home country. But if we'd applied in our home country, the visa would have expired before our arrival in Pakistan! With bated breath and fingers crossed, we prepare to plead our case to the (hopefully) sympathetic Tashkent Pakistani official. Looks like it might work this time, for $120 each and a trip back to the Embassy on Wednesday....
We're kinda sad that it's Oliver's last night on our route, although happy that he'll have lots of good times continuing on to Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan before heading back to New York. We'll miss his vast historical knowledge, not to mention his sense of humor and general good company. One last dinner together and he'll be off in the morning. Howzit going now, Oliver?
The money search continues. Bank's not located where it's supposed to be located, so we go to a hotel referred as a likely place to change Euros. Hotel can't exchange Euros and says to go to another bank. Bank's tellers are busy counting money and barely look up from their piles to firmly state, "No". We give up and go do Internet. Next day there are two more banks to try, which don't change Euros to som either. Third bank: Your Money Is Too Old. Erika tries to change travellers checks but they are not on her customs declaration (the customs guy told her it wasn't necessary to declare travellers checks). We have to be at the Pakistan Embassy at 3:30, which according to the map is about 3 miles away on two direct roads. There isn't time to walk, so we ask EIGHT taxi drivers who are either unable to read the map or just don't feel like taking us to the embassy. Finally a guy in an auto repair shop says he'll drive us there. It isn't complicated. Talk to Embassy guy. Embassy guy: come back Thursday. Argh.
Very hungry, we meet a talkative young guy over a late lunch.
Moshrab attends the Islamic College in Tashkent, where some of his family lives; he also has family in Kazakhstan, which he feels is a freer country. He speaks openly about the tragic situation in Andijan last May when the government opened fire on protesters and killed minimally hundreds of people. (The situation caused international protest and request for further civil rights investigations by the United States among others. At the demand of the Uzbek government, the U.S. is currently pulling its military out of Uzbekistan). Moshrab feels that most people are too caught up with living their daily lives and getting food on the table to truly concern themselves with politics. Even the youth, he says, are hopeless and don't bother to try to protest because they'll just wind up in jail. Apparently all internet was shut down throughout the country for two weeks after the Andijan massacres. He feels his best hope is to get out of Uzbekistan to study and live elsewhere, and would like nothing better than to do just that.
The free Art Museum of Uzbekistan provides a temporary aesthetic escape from the discouraging stories of government restrictions. The museum is situated in a more landscaped part of downtown with some scenic fountains and gardens.
Once again it's time to embark on mind-numbingly fruitless attempts to exchange money. At Uzbek National Bank It's Too Late To Exchange Money. Two more fancy hotels unsurprisingly do not exchange Euros. All of a sudden the streets are totally empty and police line every corner. No one seems concerned or even particularly interested. It turns out the President will be passing through in his government cavalcade, a regular daily occurrence. The police presence is not as strong as in Turkmenistan, but it becomes more noticeable with each passing day. Police in the Metro. No photos in the museum. Someone tells us that motorcycles are actually illegal in central Tashkent as a suicide bomber used one to get to his destination. One time a cop asks to see Dave's passport, which feels more invasive than one might anticipate. This country is not so free either.
Friday is the Chinese Embassy, a relative miracle of ease and efficiency. Show up at 10:00, pay $80 each, come back at 5:00, pick up visa. This gives plenty of time for yet ANOTHER try at Uzbekistan National Bank. Two and a half hours of various windows and tellers and paperwork later, THE EUROS ARE FINALLY EXCHANGED. Although two of the Euro notes must be exchanged, for 5% commission, for NEWER Euro notes, before being exchanged for som, as they each have a very small tear on one edge. Never has it been so difficult to exchange money as here in Uzbekistan. (to be noted, however: apparently dollars would not have been quite so difficult to exchange, as long as they were in pristine condition.)
At a last-night splurge at the Dervish Art Cafe, we meet the former Ambassador to the Korean Embassy in Tashkent, now golf mogul/founder of the city's only Lakeside Golf Club.
It will be great to get out of town for a retreat into one of the few mountain landscapes in Uzbekistan, a few hours outside Tashkent. There's a pretty mountain town called Chimgan but no lodging to be found there. Another hotel lies ahead somewhere by the reservoir. Hills are dry and brown but the water is blue and the air at this higher elevation has a pleasant chill. What's this weird modern complex down there? Is this Uzbekistan? This could be anywhere. Is THAT where we're going to stay? Guess so.
The resort is a modern and pricey place with very comfortable rooms and a huge buffet dinner. Our dinner companions are a group of 5 young men who have won their weekend at the resort by entering some kind of cell phone lottery. Dave shoots some pool with them after and everything seems fine, until the middle of the night when both of our stomachs start rebelling. Dave is in something beyond normal discomfort.
In the morning Erika staggers downstairs to see if the desk clerks can arrange medical care. A nurse offers some pills or a shot without finding out much about what's going on. Dave would rather go back to Tashkent and get some real medical advice. Luckily it's only about 2 hours away, though quite a long 2 hours when you feel like crap. The helpful staff back at Hotel Orzu contact a medical service which makes house (or hotel) calls. The service arrives shortly and performs a remarkably thorough exam on Dave, including blood test and some kind of cardiogram. This time he does accept the ol' shot-in-the-butt, along with a written note to follow up at the "MDS" medical clinic the next day.
MDS clinic proves to be a remarkable experience of diagnostic skill and efficiency. Dave has had some stomach issues for years but has never gotten much in the way of diagnosis or treatment. In seven hours, with the help of a translator, Dave gets a sonogram, x-rays, and a rather gruesome (better not go into it here but it does provide a diognosis); he is also seen multiple times by 2 specialists (gastroenterologist and urologist). Turns out our Dave has an ulcer as well as a kidney stone which is in no imminent danger of causing harm. The entire bill, including the previous day's house call and 5 types of medicine, is under $100. Treatment for the kidney stone isn't a current option as he has to complete a 1 month course of antibiotics for the ulcer; but if the ulcer were not an issue, MDS could have scheduled laser treatment on the stone the next day for $300. Imagine how long it would have taken to receive all this medical care in the U.S., not to mention how much it would have cost.
(Incidentally, while talking to the nurse/translator, Erika discovers a few interesting facts about employment and salaries. Olga is an RN who has been at the clinic since it opened 8 years ago. She is employed six days a week, eleven hours a day. For her palty 264 hours of work a month, Olga rakes in an astonishing $120 a month. This is apparently a good salary for Uzbekistan. So Dave's bargain bill would have been a bit less affordable for a typical local citizen...)
Though Tashkent is kind of dull, it's not a bad place to rest up and recuperate. Erika's stomach is better by now, and both of us benefit from the mild non-greasy food options available at a string of little restaurants with English menus right near the hotel. A week passes quietly as Dave gets some strength back. We poke around more local markets
and discover Dave's relatives have set up a bookstore in the area:
Erika decides Dave has enough strength to come out and see the Uzbekistan's Independence Day festivities on September 1 (achieved from Russia as of 1991). Downtown, moderate numbers of well-dressed people are calmly strolling through Independence Square but there doesn't seem to be any particular event taking place.
Back at the hotel, TV proves that something WAS going on, at a DIFFERENT square. A large crowd at a darkened coliseum seems to be enjoying the military parades and national song and dance performances. Erika tries to tell herself that taking photos of the event on TV is just as good as being there.
Another week has passed, and Dave is feeling well enough to start thinking about the next country. Bidding a somewhat fond yet relieved good-bye to Tashkent, we set off to figure out which of the three border crossings is actually going to lead us into Tajikistan.
Posted by Erika Tunick at 11:15 AM