grey marble

October 1, 2009

Recapturing Uzbekistan

I am in Bokhara, having arrived from Termiz. It took a day to reach the latter city, poised as it is on the edge of Uzbekistan, and it took another day to get out. I hitched a ride with a fishmonger on the way down from Samarkand. When I entered the van, I thought it smelled of fish. My suspicions were confirmed when we stopped in a small town deep in the arid mountains. A cardboard fish sign hung before the door of a shop. The woman got out of the van and opened the back, pulling aside a plastic tarp to reveal a few large fish and buckets of small ones. We paused as the fish were unloaded and sold.

120 kilometers north of Termiz the road forked at a police checkpoint. The van was heading east; I was headed south. I paid for the part of the way I was taken and they left me with the police manning the station. I waited for a car accepting passengers.

Forty-five minutes later an empty tourist bus appeared. They were heading to the four-star Hotel Meridien in Termiz and agreed to take me and another passenger. We had the bus to ourselves as it gingerly made its way through the rest of the mountain roads before emerging onto the verdant plains, teeming with cotton.

While there, I saw one of the few Buddhist temple ruins remaining in the country, and peeked over the Amu Darya into Afghanistan from a gazebo at the Mausoleum of Al-Hakim al-Termizi. My driver had accompanied me to the mausoleum and I asked him if it was ok to take a photo. He peered over his shoulder and quickly nodded. That afternoon I ran into Khasan and Faisil, the two drivers of the van I rode in. Khasan introduced me to his wife and children while Faisil sat behind the wheel of a much nicer van than the one we rode in. I sat with Khasan's parents for a while under a tree by a vacant lot and then took my leave.

That night, as I ate shashlik in an outdoor eatery, a man approached me. He shook my hand and greeted me with great familiarity, but I didn't recognize him. He motioned for me to eat, but seemed disappointed when he left. An hour later, I rememebered him from the tourist bus. I felt terrible for not greeting him with greater warmth, and the emotion lingered with me as I finished dinner and walked back to my hotel.

The hotel I stayed in was a run-down affair. The door had no lock and the windows were broken and without latches. When I asked about a key to the room, the woman explained that there was no key, that she was always there in the lobby watching over the place. I looked at her girth and the television that was permanently tuned to a Russian film before her and understood.

Leaving Termiz I was stopped at a police checkpoint and called out of the share taxi (I had waited three hours in the parking lot for the taxi to reach critical mass; there were few people leaving Termiz, it appeared). The police officer checked my registration papers. The hotel in Samarkand had forgotten to include the date I left and it appeared that there were a few days unaccounted for. Termiz being a sensitive area, the officer wanted to know where I was those few days.

I tried to explain that I had spent four nights in Samarkand, but was having little luck. I pulled out my iPhone to check the date in order to better map out my schedule and he asked to see it. He wanted to hear some music. I showed him a Bjork video and he waved me on my way.

I arrived in Uzbekistan the night of the 21st, at 11:15. By the time I cleared customs and collected my bags it was the next day. In Urumqi I had walked from one terminal to another, through a parking lot, to make my connection. Even then, I had to wait for the terminal to open. In Tashkent, a driver met at the airport and drove me through the quiet streets of the capital to my guesthouse. There, Gulnara greeted me and showed me my room. She took my passport and bade me to rest. I would have breakfast in the morning.

The next morning I ate and ran errands, first to the train station to buy a ticket to Samarkand and then to the apartment of the travel agent who arranged me letter of invitation. Near the train station, I was stopped by the police in the metro. He asked to see my passport and asked where I was staying. I showed him and told him the name of my guesthouse. I had tried to take a photo of the ticket kiosks, just outside the metro. The policeman handed me back my documents and told me not to take photos. I apologized and he smiled.

I waked up the Sharat Rashidova, past the adminstration buildings of the Mustaqillik Maydoni, admiring the shaded broad yet not too broad avenues of the capital and the laid back atmosphere of a not-too populous city. Near the Panorama theater I stopped for lunch and then asked if there was a bus I could take to the Khast Imom, the official religious center of Uzbekistan. I was told it was close. Just street, street, street, and I was there. It wasn't quite so easy. I found it with the help of a few more individuals.

I toured the 16th century medressas and, with the help of a student at the Islamic Institute, found the small museum housing the 7th century Osman Quran, said to be the world's oldest. Inside the musuem, women recited the Quran in small alcoves amongst many other historical books and manuscripts.

Coming back from the Khast Imom, I wandered the back streets of the old city. I heard music and turned a corner to see two horn players and a man with a tambourine before an open door. One horn was as long as the man was tall and then again by half. A man told me they were welcoming a baby into the home. A black Mercedes crept down the narrow street, a videographer stood before it filming its approach. A man emerged with the baby; his wife carried roses. They entered, walking over a golden carpet while their mother threw flower petals. The musicians gathered in the courtyard of the house and began to play as a woman danced. A man noded to me, inviting me to enter, but I demurred.

Back on the main street, I paid a woman 200 sum to allow me to climb a circular staircase on the exterior of a round building to its roof. There I had views over the Chorsu bazaar and out to the Khast Imom. Schoolgirls hung out and tossed paper airplanes into the wind. One girl stood alone and I wondered about her until a man appeared and they stood close together. Walking down I saw more couples crouched in small alcoves.

In the bazaar I bought a mellon and brought it back to the house. I invited a group of Japanese tourists to join me. They brought beer and Japanese snacks. We chatted and ate on a raised platform, over a low table. One woman said the mellon was like a vegetable: not sweet. She told me of a man in the market who sold slices of the sweetest mellon you've tasted for 200 sum a slice. I resolved to find him the next morning.

I was up at six a.m. I showered and ate breakfast and then shouldered my pack. I was bound for Samarkand. I walked through the bazaar looking for the man with the mellon. Running out of time and about to despair, I caught sight of him in a corner of the area reserved for mellon sellers. I bought a slice and greedily ate the fruit. It was delicious. I wanted to linger but couldn't. I wanted another slice, but had not the time. If he understood Englsh I would have made him know that I would return in two weeks time to plant myself before him, eating slice after slice until I could eat no more. I ran to the metro to catch my train.

I rode to Samarkand facing the past. When I arrived, I took a bus to the center of town where the Registan and Dogbitskaya streets intersect and walked to my guesthose in the Old Jewish Quarter. En route, I walked past the Registan itself and the medressas that flanked the square. It was an awesome sight, but I was surprised to find it beside a major street, with a spate of modern buildings and shops along the other side.

I checked into my third floor room with its view of the Registan. I showered and changed and resolved to have a closer look. I walked over to the 15th and 16th century medressas and amired their restored facades. Inside, the small rooms have been given over to tourist shops. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking north up the pedestrian Tashkent, lined with shops that seem too large to house the limited stock on display. I peered into the massive Bibi-Khanym Mosque, its front gate restored to its 33m height, but the interior left partially in ruins, and then further north to the beautiful mausoleums of the Shah-i-Zinda, built around the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

That night, I was awoken when my bed was shaken by a tremor. I listened to the night for the sound of possible destruction, but all was quiet. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

The next morning I noticed that the minaret to the right of the Ulugbek medressa was slightly slanted. I'm sure it was before, but the tremor in the night made me especially aware. I walked over as dawn was breaking and made an offering to a guard to let me climb the minaret for its views of the Registan. A Swiss tourist told me it was amazing; the Italian woman before me was unimpressed. Still, it was amazing to be able to stand above the Registan and gaze down at it from above.

I spent the rest of my time touring other mosques and medressas in Samarkand, taking the time to visit the Afrosiab museum (with its one room of fragments of a beautiful ancient wall painting) for a glimpse into Samarkand's past and paying my respects to the Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel, walking around his 18m long sarcophagus three times. Further along the road I was awed at the remains of Ulugbek's Observatory, a giant curved track marks what's left of his 30m astrolab, built in the 1420s.

In Bokhara I have been wandering the dusty alleys and streets in search of the past. From the top of the Ark's battlements (Bukhara's oldest structure, being occupied from the 5th century until 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army), I looked down upon the square where English officers were once beheadded, casualties of the Great Game, and in other squares I've stared up at the exquisite 47m tall Kalon Minaret, its 14 different ornamental bands erected in 1127. The town has been preserved to a point at which it feels devoid of local life. Instead, tourists make the rounds, bargaining in the various bazaars and photographing the monuments. It makes me wonder how this area would have developed had the Soviets not become so involved in the Central Asia, but then I realized that that is also part of what makes these towns and cities interesting.

I wasn't sure what to expect of these ancient cities (having done no research before I left), but I had romantic notions in my mind. Their names alone are mystical. And by night, in the back streets and under the light of a waxing moon, their mystery is almost regained.

Posted by eugene at | Comments (2)


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