Samarkand, Uzbekistan | 18 September, 2006 | $10 USD
I looked back in time for the pose I wrote about Samarkand and was surprised to realize there isn’t one! How could I not tell you all about this historic place? Often times when there was something special I wanted to write about while I was on the road I would put it off until I had time to do the topic justice. All too often that meant I never posted.
This room opened up to an open air courtyard where most people in the hostel ate dinner family style. It was great for meeting new travelers and where I met my travel partner to Tajikistan. This was also where I ran out of sketchbook pages and you can see where I’ve started assembling a new book out of drawing paper I bought in Kyrgyzstan.
Bukhara, Uzbekistan | 14 September, 2006 | $25 USD
I arrived in Bukhara late after a long journey from Khiva involving four shared taxis and two buses (one of which broke down in the desert). Bukhara’s historic center is car-free so the taxi could only drop me off in the center. I promptly turned the wrong direction and got lost down a maze of narrow, crumbling alleyways. My bag was pretty heavy at this point and I was struggling to make it up any more stairs. Every low-cost hotel I could find was fully booked something I found to be true throughout Uzbekistan in September. I ended up at a nice hotel and collapsed. For $25 a night (hotels ask for payment in US dollars in Uzbekistan) it was more than my total daily budget but I had exhausted all of my options and after traveling all day was sweaty, covered in dust and hungry.
The hotel was so clean I felt horrible staying in my own room. Not only did it have air conditioning and a bathroom… the bathroom had glass shower doors! It was the nicest hotel I stayed in my entire 14-month trip and probably the most expensive as well. Breakfast was served outside in the courtyard with a beautiful tea service.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan | 7 September, 2006 | $15 USD
The owner tried to throw me out when I tried to bargain the price down but I managed to calm him down so I could recover from my pre-dawn flight from Kyrgyzstan. In the end I paid the overpriced amount and was promptly given a roommate! It turned out to be a woman I’d met at my hostel in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan a few weeks back but whom I got along splendidly with. Most people hate Tashkent because of the old cement communist architecture but that’s precisely why I loved it. At least the $15 included breakfast!
There’s a new Uzbek post up about Nukus and Moynaq backdated here. Where, you ask? I guess you’ll just have to read it to find out. Some little part of me really hopes that someone out there reading this is learning a little about geography.
Did someone say souvenirs? here you go, Korea, Mongolia, China and Kyrgyzstan.
And as if you couldn’t ask for more, the rest of my Uzbek photos are up in the Uzbekistan Gallery.
Getting to Bukhara was more straight forward than my trip to Khiva. The son of my hotel’s owner drew me a map to the bus station and I walked out of the city walls into the new city. Unfortunately, the bus wasn’t leaving for a few more hours so I decided to spend a few dollars more for a spot in a shared taxi. Walking back toward the taxi stands I ran into a middle-aged French couple looking for a taxi as well. They spoke to one man who agreed to take us, but there was a misunderstanding because he just drive us to a share taxi stand right back at the old city gates. We bargained with a few drivers and the French man, Claude, agreed to a price to Urgench where we could catch a taxi to Bukhara. But from my vantage point I saw that the French man was saying three and the driver was holding up five fingers. Once we were packed in the car I brought out a piece of paper and pen and asked the man to write the price down—he wrote 5000. I spent 800 on the way in with the locals so I knew that wasn’t right. If course the Claude was upset and wasn’t going to have any of it so we got our bags out of the trunk and looked for another taxi.
As soon was we were out of the car Claude stalked over to me, pointing his finger and saying “you made a mistake” in a thick French accent. I was confused and looked around, thinking that I left my bag in the car or dropped some money or something. But he went on to yell at me for asking the price in the car. I tried to explain that the guy never said 3,000 and that I saw that it was going to be a problem but Claude didn’t believe me. I just laughed, knowing I was right and said “whatever dude.” I left him negotiate with the next taxi and hid my grin when he asked to borrow my pen and paper.
In Urgench we were ushered into a minibus by a Japanese girl traveling alone. She said we just needed a few more passengers to leave and the price was great at 7,000 each instead of $15. The girl seemed to know what she was doing so I left the communications up to her but when I overheard them talking I realized that her English wasn’t very easy to understand, just like the French couple. Sometimes when this happens I try to butt in and “translate” because, like it or not, the American accent is one of the most recognized forms of English because of movies and TV. I don’t think that other people realize how hard their English is to understand. Some of you who know me might be laughing because many people in the US can’t understand me because I talk really fast and low. You wouldn’t recognize my travel accent at all because I slow to about 1/4 my normal speed and annunciate really well. Even Claude and his wife commented that I was one of the only Americans they can understand. The way I see it, I’m lucky other people are speaking to me in English since I don’t speak their language and I want to make it as easy as possible for them to communicate with me.
Anyway, the Japanese girl’s comments aside, I realized that we were waiting for more people. After an hour one of the other passengers called her friends to come along and we set off. Halfway through the trip I wished I had paid for a taxi because the bus went slow, had horrible shocks and was stopped by every police checkpoint while the Nexia taxis drove through. My usual bad luck held true when I realized that even at noon the sun was on my side of the van (how could that be?) and I was roasting the entire ride. The tourists all paid 1,000 com to make the bus take us to our hotels instead of the edge of town—a deal worked out by Claude and not a reasonable price at all. My first choice was full so I asked the driver to take me to a new address. He dropped me off on the other side of the tourist area and pointed in a direction. He seemed very confidant and quickly took off with the Japanese girl to her hotel. I soon realized that this was just a random spot he picked because my hotel was nowhere to be found.
Some taxi drivers pointed me in the right direction but I had no idea where I was going so I decided to walk into the main area which seemed to have many hotels. I asked for rooms at three hotels but they were either full or only had a room for one day. Then I decided to try to find a hotel recommended to me and set off down a little dirt street with the right name. No one I came across had heard of the hotel but they pointed me further on when I showed them the address. When it started to get dark and the houses stopped having addresses on the street I headed back toward town. At this point I was covered in sweat and my thighs were aching from walking up and down with 40 pounds on my back. Although the town was full of hotels I resorted to my guidebook to find some down the alleys which might not be full. I passed by Claude and his wife eating dinner and they recommended their hotel they found so I headed down the alley. Their hotel was full as was the next one. The third hotel down the alley had rooms but they were $30 a night. It was 8pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch. I was tired, hungry and fed up so I negotiated $25 with him and threw my bags down in search of food. The hotel room was a splurge but it’s really hard to find anything under $10-15 in Uzbekistan even if it’s not worth it. This room had wood floors, plenty of electric sockets and a shower with sliding doors that I could sleep in. I haven’t felt that much water pressure since I left home—the soap actually washed out of my hair!
My fancy $25 hotel room
I spoke to another B&B the same night who promised me a room the next day, but when I came in the morning they told me no one had checked out and I couldn’t stay. I took that as a sign that I was meant to stay at the nice hotel and settled in. The breakfasts were amazing and I soon realized that I was one of only 3-5 guests staying there while I sat outside in a decorated courtyard eating apple pancakes and drinking coffee (with milk!). The only drawback was that I was right near the entrance and if there were other guests I was woken up in the morning by their conversation. When I locked the heavy tumbler on my door to leave, the staff would be standing behind me with his hand out for the key as I turned around. I felt a certain lack of privacy because of the attentiveness of the staff. The cleaning woman even folded my pajamas and stacked my books on the bedside table for christ’s sake! I usually want my books in a certain place or pajamas not folded. Even if I really didn’t care if they were folded once someone folds them without my permission I definitely don’t want them folded. I had to mess up her attempt to organize my mess whenever I entered the room.
The best bathroom in Central Asia
Bukhara’s old town is architecturally preserved like Khiva, but with more life and character to it. Canals run through the city and stone pools are built around town, which used to supply the city with all of it’s water. The main gathering spot is a sunken courtyard with canals on either side and medressas facing each other at the ends. Ancient trees still stand, not surrounded by plastic chairs and eating platforms for the many tour groups that pass through. Following the canal down the street you come to an old stone bazaar building with a domed top, and four huge arches leading out. These bazaars are located at the junctions of roads and you can only imagine how lively the area was before it became one long souvenir stand. At this point I’ve come the realize just how touristy Uzbekistan is. The entire country is filled with tour buses carting around mostly French tourists. I can’t explain why there are so many French tourists here but the locals are learning French to better sell to the tourists and I was taken aback when I was first addressed as “Madame”. Most people still whispered “germania?” when I passed, thinking I’m German, but the French tourists actually addressed me in French, as if it is the universal language English is.
The next morning I decided to change some travelers checks and walked into the new town to find the main bank. The guard at the entrance demanded my passport and after scrutinizing my picture looked up and said “Arnold Schwarzinager!” The woman inside the bank tried to give me dollars but I asked for the local currency. When I asked to change $100 she smiled and said “Fifty, okay?” They probably didn’t have enough com to give me $100 worth.
I wanted to spend some time drawing my first full day in town so I set off to Char Minar, described as “a photogenic little building” and walked around the maze of dirt alleyways until I found it with the help of some locals. It was mostly peaceful, surrounded by houses and a few shops. Every once in a while a tour group would walk up, take some photos and leave. I sat around drawing the Arabic inscriptions before an old man invited me to see his house. His courtyard was covered with grapes and he climbed up a ladder to grab me a bunch. I took my grapes to the front of the building and sat in the shade to draw. The local kids scurried over to ask for pens or “bom boms”, which I think is candy. I laughed each time a kid asked for a pen because they would say “a pehnis?” which sounded like “penis.” Then when they asked for bom boms and it all sounded a little dirty.
One little girl brought me an tiny wooden box to sit on and she sat beside me watching me draw. Eventually I gave her a scrap of paper and a pencil and she began to draw as well. We sat there drawing as tour groups passed and locals walked by curiously. Another girl and her brother also hung around but they mostly seemed interested in “a pehnis” or stealing my chapstick. After my only pencil went missing they lied very well, pretending to look for it and shrugging their shoulders. When the two girls started whispering to each other, even though I don’t speak their language, I knew they were conspiring against me. A pencil isn’t expensive but I was annoyed because I don’t know how to say “pencil” in Russian and there aren’t pencil shops lining the streets of Uzbekistan. Buying a new pencil in a foreign country can be more difficult than you’d imagine.
The local kids drawing with me at Char Minar Mosque before stealing my pencil
Our drawings of Char Minar
I spent two more days walking around Bukhara, wandering around the old winding mud brick alleys and staring at the detailed tiles on the front of the countless medressas. The buildings were much more spectacular than Khiva and I was impressed by the system of canals and bazaars. What really impressed me the most was the details on the wooden ceilings often inside the courtyards. Colorful details with flower or geometric motifs alternated between ceiling panels, many with recessed star-shaped insets.
Detail work on the facade of a madressa
Keanu making an appearance
I ran into my Swiss friend again, who I’d met in Bishkek on two occasions and then stayed with in Tashkent. I suspected we’d cross paths again and it was good to have some company. She had found another Swiss traveler in Samarkand and the three of us managed to find a cheap Italian restaurant, which was welcome considering I’d been eating only shashlyk (meat on a skewer), plov (rice with carrots and meat) and lagman (noodle soup with meat) since Tashkent. Central Asian bread is great but the rest of the food is a bit oily, a bit meaty and really lacking seasoning.
Picture for mom
I was happy to find the two girls to hang around with for meals because the previous night I had been forced to eat with a very short French man who got creepier as the night wore on. I started out by myself and was looking forward to some time alone to finish my drawings. Some kids came by selling paintings and we looked at each other’s work. during the commotion the aforementioned short French man happened along and asked to sit down, I assumed to look at the kids’ paintings. I shrugged and went on with my conversation. Only, when the kids left the man stayed and before I could ask him to leave he was ordering dinner. I should have gone ahead and worked while he sat there and I tried to hint that I was working but he didn’t budge. His English was mediocre at best and I found it was when he stood up that I realized he was practically a midget. He was walking the same way and stuck up conversation again until I told him I was going to the shop and shook his hang good night. He had given me his hotel phone number earlier and actually said “I’ll be looking forward to your call.” I almost said “gross” out loud when I realized he actually thought I might be interested in a man 15 years older, a foot shorter who doesn’t speak my language. I flat out said that I was busy and wouldn’t be calling him and watched him walk off in another direction.
In the shop I was stalling, waiting to make sure the might-be-midget was gone when the drunk at the counter decided he wanted to buy me a beer. The shopkeeper was on my side and told the guy to calm down when I heard “careful” in a French accent beside me. It was the French man! I looked over thinking “yeah, careful of you, stalker” and turned my back until he couldn’t stall any more and left. The shopkeeper laughed a little, seeing that I was avoiding the guy and I headed back to my hotel in a roundabout way to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Sometimes it’s good to be alone and sometimes it’s good to have someone around just so you aren’t a freak magnet.
Drawing inside a Medressa
I saved The Ark, a fortress for the old ruler until my last day in town and was really disappointed. The price list started at over 4,000 for one person and decreased for bigger groups. I’ve never heard of attractions having bulk price discounts before. Luckily there was three of us (the Swiss girls, not the French freak) so we got in for a little over 3,000—still a high price for one attraction. Inside were displays on the historical significance of The Ark, a few costumes, a few books and a lot of souvenir shops. In Uzbekistan all of the government run monuments ahve souvenir shops inside so while you’re looking around you are constantly approached by woman putting shawls on your head and saying “pashmina, pashmina, only $10… acoodah?” Each town has different souvenirs but Bukhara seemed to have the most of any Uzbek town I visited. Large bedspreads with embroidered flowers called suzannes were common as well as ceramic plates painted with blue and green details. I didn’t buy either so the actual inside of The Ark was pretty boring to see. The majority of it is ruins which you can only see by bribing a guard to let you peer over a wall. I’m not much for bribing guards so I only saw a few exhibits and a lot of suzannes.
Bukhara was interesting to see, but for some reason these more tourist towns don’t feel comfortable and I’m usually happy to leave. Uzbekistan seems to be full of places I’m “checking off” as I make my way toward Samarkand and eventually Tajikistan.
Could it be? There’s new maps up! Okay, the Mongolian flag sucks and there’s no data for NW China or Kyrgyz but it’s something. If it makes you feel any better, I took a ton of souvenir and sketchbook photos for the relevent sections but haven’t gotten around to writing the code and resizing the images yet. It’s coming eventually.
I really have to remember in the future not to tell hotel owners I’m a graphic designer. Sometimes they actually know what it means and then they always ask to make then a logo/brochure/web page. Today when I got back from drawing at the mosque the owner of my hotel asked to see the drawing. She put two and two together and quickly rummaged through her desk to pull out her current marketing materials for me to review. She really wants a new identity system. Don’t we all!
The problem with not saying I’m a graphic designer is that I hate to lie. Partly I hate to lie because I think it’s stupid and people should know the truth. But really I just have a terrible short term memory and forget who I lied to, who I told I was Chinese when they asked me where I was from and how I’m going to keep it up.
Even though I may only stay in a town for a day or two people remember things you say. Every time I walk by the man I bought postcards from in Bukhara he yells out “hey, Chicago!” Peole in Uzbekistan also talk. In Nukus I was “talking” to some women selling dried fish and they seemed nice so when they asked where I was from I was honest. Five minutes later, when I was walking through the covered baazar, a woman comes running by yelling “Americanski, Americanski” at the top of her lungs. I hadn’t talked to this women but word had already trickled down.
I know this is going to shock you all… but there’s new photos up! I finally found a good internet connection in Bukhara and just spent three hours working on the site for you guys instead of siteseeing. I’ve gone on to post about Uzbekistan but am working on some stories about Kyrgyzstan for you as well. Check out the two new galleries (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) here.
It’s funny because when I was walking around for more than an hour looking for a hotel last night with 40 pounds on my back I was trying to figure out what was making my bag so heavy. When it comes down to it, my beloved 4lb iBook is the heaviest thing in my bag followed by my camera, my other camera and all of the assorted cords, plugs and adaptors. Every time someone tries to pick up my bag for me I try to warn them but they’re always a little shocked (that it’s so heavy and that I can carry it). In any case, all of those things are what make this site possible. There’s no way I would have time to sit down and write entries or organize images without my computer.
My iBook also helps me to feel a bit more connected to my other life back home. As a designer I actually really enjoy sitting down and drawing the maps for this site in Illustrator as much as sitting outside and drinking a beer or going to a tourist show. On that front I’ve started to feel a strange uneasyness lately and I’ve realized that it’s my body telling me it’s time for the fall TV season to start. I’m already going through withdrawl not knowing what’s going to happen on all of my shows. If course, I went through the same thing during Phase 1 and I’m sure my friends back home can keep me in the loop until I can catch up when I get back home.
Getting to Khiva should have been relatively straight forward—a bus to Urgench and then a 45 minute taxi ride to Khiva. I bought a seat on the local bus to Urgench in Nukus, knowing it might take a little more time than a taxi, but with more space. I was almost an hour early and had to wait with the other passengers inside the bus to reserve my seat. When I asked a man to take a photo of me and the other back seat passengers another man came bounding down the aisle from the front of the bus and literally sat on top of me and the man to my right to make space for himself. As you can see from the photos, I was the only one to be squeezed out because Uzbeks have an amazing ability to take up as much space as possible and not budge. The man grabbed my arm, held it up in the air and then kissed my forearm. I was not too happy with his concept of personal space but he wasn’t moving even though there were other seats toward the front.
Taking the local bus
Inappropriate hand placement on the local bus
Luckily, the bus broke down after only 30 minutes and the man next to me went outside to pretend to help. After sitting for another 30 minutes I saw our driver flag down a car and get a ride back to town so I knew it would be another hour at the very least. Soon an even more dilapidated bus pulled over and I somehow slung my heavy bag over my shoulder and ran to catch it before the other passengers filled it up. Most people decided to stay and wait the first bus out but I decided that saving $1.50 was not worth waiting for hours.This bus had a few bags of produce lined along the sides for seats and a group of brightly costumed women sleeping on the floor at the back. A 19 year-old guy next to me took me under his wing and used his limited English ability to promise we were heading to Khiva.
The second bus only went as far as the next town where we got off and waited by the side of the roundabout for a taxi. Two old gold-toothed ladies followed and soon my 19 year-old guide was carrying their bags as well as mine. Our first taxi was a Daewoo Tico—the smallest car in Uzbekistan. It already had a passenger in the front so we had to fit four people in the back of a car about the size of a Mini Cooper. Uzbek women are wider than you would think and with all of our hips we couldn’t even squeeze ourselves onto the bench. So, naturally, I spent the ride sitting on the woman in the middle’s lap. Ducking down, my head hit the ceiling and I felt each bump in the road.
The Tico wasn’t heading all the way to Urgench so we got out again, waited ten more minutes beside the road and found a slightly larger car to squeeze into the back seat. This time the boy sat a bit on my lap, which was slightly more comfortable than being in the middle of an Uzbek–Tico sandwich. We made it into Urgench and started toward the market. Although he wouldn’t let me carry my own bag, the boy gave in and let me carry one strap while he balanced the load with one of the babushka’s bags in the other hand. We walked through the market and had to ask at a few lots to find the shared taxis to Khiva. The boy was great—when the first bus broke down he told me that he would get me to Khiva and he did. Even with all of the taxi and bus changes I still made it to town earlier than I would have had the first bus never broke down, which demonstrates just how damn slow Uzbek buses are.
The taxi ride was uneventful and I got a front seat next to a bag of pig’s hoofs. The glove compartment opened up into my knees ten times before the driver gave up and took the bottle of vodka out so it could close properly. The vodka had been resting right on top of his Muslim skull cap. Despite all of my efforts I was was dropped off at the wrong gate to the old town and wandered around the mud walls until I found a tourist information office to point me toward my hotel. It was 7pm and I hurried to check in and eat before the free fashion show in one of the madressas. The town was just finishing up a two-day festival of free events for tourists which included a fashion show. Unfortunately, despite being billed as traditional costumes, the clothes were only influenced by Uzbek patterns and costumes and included no historic costumes. After the fashion finished we were presented with a brief show of traditional Uzbek singing and dance. One of the men was in his late teens or early 20′s and had an incredible ability to shake his shoulders. That seems to be a large part of the dancing and this man’s shoulders were almost mesmerizing.
I only planned on staying in Khiva for one full day because I had been told it is quite small and empty. That turned out to be true and I think one day was enough time to see all of the major buildings around town and get a feel for the way the city once operated. Although the old city is now protected it has lost any character it once had as a major slave trading outpost along the silk road. The 18th century city walls reach three to four stories and include four gateways. The interior buildings are made of the same mud brick material as the walls, and the entire place just feels… empty. Empty and khaki. There are some tiles remaining on the outside of the buildings including a heavily tiles turquoise minaret near the main gate and a lot more decoration inside the structures. Even so, the town is so tightly controlled that there are only a few souvenir sellers in the old town and only a handful seem to be allowed to display anything outside of their kiosks. Normally I would applaud this but because the town is protected the only thing allowed in is souvenirs, no old men with white beards selling watermelons or brightly dressed women carrying baskets of bread around. It’s just empty.
My first night in town I had planned a route through town based on the buildings I wanted to see. Starting closest to my hotel I tried to enter a handicrafts center only to be turned away because I didn’t have a ticket. The ticket to visit most of the city had to be bought at the main gate, which was at the end of my planned route. Throwing a tiny tantrum I stomped through town to get my ticket and rearrange my route. The ticket was about $8 and the woman at the gate accepted a ten dollar bill and gave me change in com. Despite the fact that it’s technically illegal to pay for goods in dollars in Uzbekistan everyone accepts dollars, including government institutions. Besides a few hotels, a few cafes and a lot of souvenir shops the city was totally empty. Every once in a while I would turn a corner to stumble upon a French tour group, but for the most part I felt totally alone. After French tour groups the next most common groups seemed to be Spanish and I found a few groups with guides to listen in on for free.
After leaving a Spanish group behind I wandered inside the palace to find more courtyards and stumbled upon an Uzbek couple passionately kissing. I went ahead taking pictures around them until they left so I could get a good photo of the elaborately painted ceiling. On the way out I peeked into another room of the main corridor and found them again, this time even more intertwined, and decided to leave before I saw more than I bargained for.
Megan inside the palace
Some of the more important buildings required an additional fee, like the Pahlavon Mohammed Mausoleum with it’s intricately designed tile work and old men praying in front of the money-littered tomb. I think the Juma Mosque was more impressive with it’s 218 carved wooden columns and uncharacteristically-flat roof. I paid a teenage girl 1000 com to be allowed to climb to the top of the tallest minaret in town for a good look over the city. My guidebook said that it afforded views of the surrounding desert but I could only see the modern city sprawling around the old khaki walls.
View from a minaret
After I finished visiting the buildings on my self-imposed “tour” I stopped by the main entrance to scout out a location for my cartwheel photo. I waited impatiently for tourist to walk by so I could enlist them in my cartwheel picture-taking but no one seemed to be in the area besides a few locals selling fur hats and embroidered suzannes. Ducking inside one of the cafes I found a young woman named Manzura who spoke good English and was more than willing to take my cartwheel photo. After staring at my example photo in disbelief she asked if Icould really do that and exclaimed that I must be very good at sports. The woman here participate in few physical activities so I suppose I seemed like an athlete to her. Afterward I stayed around the cafe and talked to her about our differences and similarities. She explained that most people have gold teeth to cover up crooked smiles and that the gold caps cost much less than white ones.
At twenty one years old she’s under a lot of pressure to get married and her family is worried since she’s already turned down her boyfriend’s first proposal. She explained that he broke up with her recently because of some gossip he had heard about her being “too Western” and she now refused to get back together with him because he believed the town gossip instead of her. To complicate matters her boss is her boyfriend’s father and a close family friend. I think she’s very brave to stand up to the traditional way of life and I hope that even if she does get married she will be able to use her English skills and university degree in tourism to start a rewarding career. While we were talking we were visited by one of her friends who is pregnant and trying to continue her work as a French tour guide. Unfortunately, once a baby is born an Uzbek woman has to look after it even if she is more educated and earns more money than her husband. Of course, once an Uzbek woman is married she’s as good as pregnant. I also think that abuse is common—I saw a man hit a woman in the face during my stay in Khiva and no one looked twice while I stood in amazement debating what to do about it.
Megan and Manzura
My hair has started to revolt
Khiva was interesting to see because it is so well-preserved but it really lacked the character I you would expect in a Central Asian trading post. It was my first taste of the many madressas, mosques, arks and minarets to come in Bukhara and Samarkand.
Karplakastan is a region in Northwest Uzbekistan which has had a really bad century. The entire region’s climate and economy has been greatly affected by The USSR’s draining of the Aral Sea in the 1960′s. What was once the world’s fourth largest lake has been drained to irrigate the cotton fields throughout Central Asia. Moynaq, formerly one of two major fishing ports on the sea, is now a desolate, dusty town 150 km from the sea with little employment and little hope.
I flew into Nukus, the region’s capital, two days ago to start my travels around Uzbekistan. Because I plan to enter Tajikistan near Samarkand I decided to start from the far end of the country and make my way back East overland. I checked in early and was given a handwritten cardboard boarding pass from a stack a few inches thick. When I requested a window seat the woman shrugged and motioned that she hands them out in the order they are in the stack. One enormous man checked in and I assumed he would be seated next to me, since that seems to be my luck on this trip. While I waited to board I watched passengers carry huge boxes or plastic bags of heavy-looking goods toward the check-in desk. As far as I could tell nothing was being weighed and in addition to the enormous man I figured that we would never make it off the ground. The guard working the x-ray machine made me feel a bit better about the flight when he actually wanted to look in my bag and questioned what some of my hand luggage was. This is the first time anyone has taken a second glance at my bag on this trip, which holds all of my electronics and delicate items during flights. This includes my laptop, iPod, hard drive, SLR, compact camera, extra lens and two disposable cameras. This bag should have been questioned a long time ago, especially in Uzbekistan.
The flight turned out fine once I figured out that there were no assigned seats, contrary to what my boarding pass said, and the stewardess took pity on me and made an Uzbek businessman give me the aisle seat. We were given one roll and packets of jam and cream cheese for our meal and I read the remaining articles in the in-flight magazine I hadn’t read on the way into the country, including one on Uzbekistan’s love for Bollywood films. We departed onto the runway as the sun set and waited for our bags to be loaded onto the only baggage conveyer in the airport. I was once of the first out and quickly found a driver willing to take me to my hotel for 1500 cym. My first choice turned out to be more expensive than I thought and only had a room for two nights. The way I figured, I would go to the museum the next day and take a taxi to Moynq the following day, returning that night before leaving for Khiva. I couldn’t do that if I could only stay for two nights so I jumped back in the taxi and told him to take me to another place down the road. We seemed to be going really far back toward the airport so I made him turn around and head to another big hotel in town. He decided to take me to another hotel I hadn’t heard of but they appeared to be full. Next we went by the largest hotel in town, but the parking lot was crowded with five massive tour buses. It was no surprise that it was full. He suggested a hotel which my guidebook described as “decrepit” and “run down” so I told him to head back to the original hotel— I would just have to change my plans around a bit.
There were a few issues I had to deal with. Although there is once public bus a day to Moynaq, it leaves at 9am from Nukus and returns from Moynaq at 3pm. That doesn’t give me enough time to take the bus for a day trip but gives me too much time if staying overnight. By all accounts Moynaq was described as “depressing” and “hostile” so I didn’t want to spend too much time there, but I did want to see it. The other option was a taxi, and I hadn’t met any other tourists to share the ride with. Incidentally, although my hotel was going to be full in two days, I was the only guest while I was there so I would have to pay the entire cost myself. I also had to keep the Nukus art museum in mind, which I thought was closed on Sundays. I decided that rushing through a depressing town was better than being stuck and adding even more days to my time in Uzbekistan. Besides the fact that Uzbekistan is much more expensive to travel in that Kyrgyzstan, I have to keep the Pamir weather in mind and need to travel through Tajikistan sooner rather than later.
I found a cafe open past eight for dinner and ordered a cucumber and tomato salad, fried dumplings, Fanta and bread. Apparently that was a lot and the customers in the front of the restaurant were trying to get back to watch me eat but the waitress wouldn’t let them. The bread was actually for desert back at my hotel where I had a jar of chocolate spread and a bottle of yellow mustard I had bought in Bishkek. That night I had my first run in with a tour group, before I realized that Uzbekistan is overflowing with tour groups, mainly French. Although the group wasn’t staying at my hotel they were eating there. I had passed on dinner there (more meat soup, ugh) and when I returned I saw the bus pull up and watched the passengers rush into the courtyard off my room. The last woman actually broke into a jog, which I laughed at until I saw how these groups operate. I walked into the courtyard less than a minute after the group and they were all already eating! I can’t imagine traveling in such a way where I literally get off a bus and step up to a waiting meal. No wonder my hotel’s manager was so stressed out. I took my bread and 1.5 liter bottle of cold Coke (Coke’s almost only sold in 1.5 liter containers in Uzbekistan!) to my room, knowing that the group would finish eating and leave as quickly as they arrived.
The landscape near Moynaq
Moynaq’s sign shows it’s fishing history
I set off early the next morning to find a taxi at the bazaar. My hotel offered one for $60 but I was able to bargain a nice new Daewoo Martiz for $40 round trip. The ride was pretty boring and I took a nap in the front seat, which reclined. The ride helped out with my new v-neck shaped tan tine. The road approaching Moynaq was elevated and I saw a few dust tornadoes beside the road. The town’s sign has a fish on it, sadly, and driving into town it seemed like everyone was just standing around the main drag staring off into space. The driver stopped the car and said “photo?” He obviously hadn’t driven to Moynaq before and thought I just wanted to come to town to take a photo. I drew a horrible picture of some boats in sand and he drove a little bit more and found a boat statue in the square. I tried to explain that there were many boats outside of town but he spoke no English and wasn’t keen on my pictoral representation of a boat graveyard.
We drove around a bit and he finally gave in and asked some woman for the boats. They seemed as confused as him and explained that the Aral Sea was 150km away. The driver was mad and told me he didn’t want to drive to the Aral Sea. I tried to get him to drive further but he turned back into town and refused to ask anyone under 30 for directions. I saw a school and told him to pull over and wait—there was no way I was paying $40 to drive to a town and not see the rotting boats. The schoolyard erupted into cheers of “hello, hello, hello” when I walked in. I asked for an English teacher and was pointed to another building where older kids hung out. A group of teenage girls talked to me and had basic English skills. Someone in these Central Asian countries taught everyone that the proper response to “thanks” is “not at all.” I think it sounds a bit silly and old-fashioned and I laugh a little every time someone says it to me.
The bell rang and I was worried that I wasn’t going to find any English speakers until the director came down the hall and introduced himself. He came outside with me and talked to my driver, explaining where I wanted to go. The instructions seemed extremely complicated for no reason and I realized that he was asking about about me and how much I paid. Looking at his watch, the director sighed and said that if he didn’t have a meeting he would take me to the boats and be my guide. Since I am only paying $40 and it’s so cheap he would only charge me maybe $20 for his services. I told him I just needed directions and the man went through another long speech in Russian. One of the problems may have been that the driver was speaking Russian and the locals don’t speak much Russian at all and some don’t even speak Uzbek, they have a local Karaplakastani language.
Megan and a rusty boat
A bit of rain water and salty mush—the great Aral Sea
We found the boats, which were two minutes from the main road at the old port. My driver slept while I walked around taking photos. The early afternoon isn’t the best time for photography but my only choice for nice lighting would have been to stay the night. Some of the lower ground was soft and had a crusty salt coating. I can’t imagine what it was like to have your entire town’s economy dried up in a few years, but it was quite a while ago now and I wonder why people stay. The environmental changes have wrecked havoc on more than the economy, the entire region, including Nukus, has higher rates of cancer not to mention other diseases.
We headed back to Nukus after an hour or so and I was happy to have a nice car for the ride. Along the way people were standing out in the blazing sun waiting for cars to pass and the driver motioned if it was okay to pick them up. I agreed since I had the front seat and figured that if he makes a little extra cash he won’t even think to complain about the price I was paying. The people getting on were so happy and thanking the driver and me that I decided it was good we picked them up, there’s not much traffic on that road. They were probably also happy not to be stuffed in the back of a Lada. We parted happily with a handshake back at the bazaar, which doesn’t happen often. I took a stroll through the stalls, buying a comca (samosa) and taking a few photos. In the fish aisle a woman posed with her fish far away, asking for her photo to be taken. This opened up discussion with her and her friends, who asked where I was from and if I was a journalist. A few minutes later in the covered bazaar a woman came running buy yelling “Americanski, Americanski” to which few people even reacted.
Many people in Uzbekistan carry either bread or empty bottles in old baby carriages, which I find pretty funny. They find it pretty funny when I take photos of them. I am also curious about the drink dispensers they have. All of these countries have stands on the street selling drinks out of a big container. I don’t taste them because they’re mixed with tap water and served in communal glasses. I saw new drink stands in Uzbekistan though, which hold syrup in a glass container that’s mixed with tap water with gas injected form a canister below the stand. Most people who drink bottled water here drink “sparkling” water with gas, which tastes like skunk to me.
A woman displays her dried fish at the Baazar
The syrup/gas/water drink stand
The next morning I packed my things and headed for the art museum, which is supposed to have one of the best art collections in the country. The hotel owner told me that I could stay longer because the group had cancelled but I had already changed my plans around. It was a nice hotel, decorated in traditional materials, but not worth the $15 for a room with no bathroom and no opening windows. Even with no opening windows I had to stay up for hours to kill the handful of mosquitoes that got in.
The museum had a students discount, which is only allowed for students under 25. I said I was 25, since I can probably pass for 20 in Central Asia. The only problem was that I didn’t realize my student ID has my birthday on it so I had to finally give in and pay the extra dollar for admission. Once again, math defeats me! The museum was worth it though, with plenty of jewelry, costumes, embroidery and even headdresses. The upper floors had painting, some of which I liked but most of it wasn’t anything special. Outside the museum was a statue of a man with a furry hat in a park with a ferris wheel and a few kid’s rides. Fall is wedding season and the square was swarming with bridal parties. Cars decorated with streamers and dolls tied to the hoods lined the street and groups walked down the sidewalk to the statue while being filmed by a videographer with a massive camera. So many bridal parties were doing the same thing that there was a line of people waiting to pose in front of the statue and then to ride the ferris wheel. All of the brides wore white dress and the men were in suits. They appeared to have a best man and bridesmaid dressed in their finest but the rest of the family was often in t-shirts and everyday clothes. After fifteen minutes of wedding watching I was satisfied with my brief visit to Karplakastan, flagged down a taxi to the bus station and bought a ticket on the next dilapidated bus South to Khiva.
Posing for wedding photos in front of a statue
The wedding party on a scary-sounding ferris wheel