Souvenir City

Posted by on Sep 16, 2006 in Uzbekistan | One Comment

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


Suzannes

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.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy
    September 25, 2006

    I know what it is like to be a woman traveling alone….I spent nine months in France and got so tired of frenchmen trying to pick me up…btw great pictures!