Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sister City

I'm back to hunkering down in a capital city for a few days with some couchsurfers and some friend I met in Bishkek, as well as enjoying some of the comforts that come with said cities (mainly food variety, bars and decent internet). Usually, when I'm in cities like this, I spend most of my time wandering aimlessly to see what I can see and get a feel for the place. Here in Tashkent, I thought I'd walk over to the "Seattle Peace Park" in Bobor Park.

Apparently, Seattle and Tashkent have been sister cities for quite a while. Back in '88, a bunch of kids from both countries created tiles to celebrate that connection and to call for peace between the Soviet Union and the US. Then, a bunch of Seattleites came out here to Tashkent to help build this park. Here are some of the photos:

The park. The tiles were all at foot level, some hidden on the inside of the treebeds

the mosaic globe (Soviets are big on mosaics)

This sculpture was done by the same guy who did the "Waiting for the Interurban" sculpture in Fremont
Research credit: Anna Kramer

closeup of the tiled wall

Some tiles were hidden in a drainage gully

"Hi Mom" - maybe his mom was Soviet?

I can't tell if the one on the left is some version of "rock, paper, scissors" or not

The personalized ones were my favorite

Especially the VERY personalized ones.
Someone please call this number and see if they remember making this tile...

wise words, little one

Some tiles were worse for the wear.

Who's "Sunbeam"?
Like a headbutt?
Woo Space Needle!

A decidedly less optimistic tile...

one of the more eloquent tiles

reppin' CBP!, is "horses" code for "peace"?

Thunderbird, thunderbird, thunderbird hooooo!

Stacey says it straight up

There were a couple for Led Zeppelin and the Doors tucked in there somewhere...
We do need more of that "Understanding Fish."
I hear it's delicious with a bit of dill and lemon.

God loves you, even if you are a godless commie...
God REALLY loves you
Woodinville, perhaps?
This little teddy lost his parachute

Peace Bear!

This is one of my favorites. It translates to "Dog of Peace!"

"Peace is good, War is not."

4 eva

Oh yeah, and I got a haircut:

Before: Scruffy McTerrorist, potentially...
After: all clean! complete with Uzbek hairstyle (on French-Irish hair) and blinding sunlight

Friday, October 26, 2012

A plov-tastic postscript

So I had planned not to post again for a while, but then a couple things happened immediately after my last post that I wanted to tell y'all about:

In an attempt to meet up with a Couchsurfer that I had spotty contact with, I took the short bus ride up to Margilon from Fergana. I had no way of contacting my potential host other than email, which he might not check for days, so I spent my afternoon wandering the town waiting for a phone call or darkness, whichever came first.

As luck would happen, darkness came first, so I started looking for a hotel. Uzbekistan has a similar policy to China in that tourists have to stay at certain hotels and register. It's questionable how often you have to register, but from what I've heard you should have at least a handful of registration slips when you try to leave the country. Unfortunately, the first hotel I checked out had lost their license and couldn't accept foreigners, they pointed me instead up the road to the other hotel in town. A couple of local kids who I had just met wanted to help me out, so they came with to show me the way.

The 2nd and 3rd from the left were my guides on the first night, the furthest right is Ahmed, my guide for day 2.

Once we got there, we were told that a single night at this hotel would cost me $55, at the cheapest. Wah wah. Being used to spending between $0 and $6 on accomodation for the past two months, I was shocked, and got ready to find myself a camping hole somewhere in suburban Uzbekistan.Not so fast. One of the boys (I can't pronounce his name and definitely won't try to spell it here) pulled out his phone, called his mom, and within minutes was guiding me back to his house to stay for the night.

During the walk, I took a mental step back and thought about this situation for a minute. What if two American 16-year-olds met some scruffy, cheap foreigner on the street who didn't speak any English, then called their mom and said, "can we bring him home?" I could think of a few outcomes, most of which would leave me homeless or arrested back stateside.

Luckily, this was Uzbekistan, and instead of a cold, lonely night in my bivy in a ditch somewhere, I was treated to a hot meal, some hilarious language-barrier-battling conversation (with help from four dictionaries and through three languages, plus gestures), a warm bed and an invitation to stay yet another night to get a tour of the town and to celebrate the beginnings of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha with them.

An unfortunately terrible quality family photo
Not only did I get all of that, but the next morning the local 17-year-old English teacher (one of the most ambitious little men I've ever met), Ahmed met me at 8am to begin our tour of Margilon. 12hrs later, he had whisked me back to Fergana to see the collection of English books at the library, donated by the US Embassy (I missed the ambassador by 2 weeks, but I got to sign my name just after his in the guestbook), one of the biggest markets in Central Asia,

The crowd, and some Uzbek boots hanging
An Uzbek bike shop

 his old English teacher in the midst of a class,
You could never get a class of American kids to look like this

a silk factory,
The cocoons are in the vat in the foreground, then the thread goes to the second lady, who coils it

Another mosque and mausoleum

Ahmed, me and Humayun in front of the mausoleum

and his own home,

The air filled with smoke as thousands of families began to cook plov at the same time
to celebrate the eve of Eid-al-Adha. The holiday itself is described by wikipedia as,

"an important 4-day religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to honor the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his young firstborn son Ishmael as an act of submission to God, and his son's acceptance of the sacrifice before God intervened to provide Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead."

In practice, they spend the morning of the holiday at the mosque in prayer, and the night before is kind of like a reverse Halloween, without the costumes. Everyone makes a huge steaming vat of plov, then they send the kids out with small plates full to take to all of the neighbors. The result is a street filled with happy kids (often sampling their deliveries on the way) and a table covered in at least 6 different family recipes of plov. As my friend, Joy, told me after my last post that when I get back, "plov! that's either gonna become your middle name or your favorite word!" I think she may be right. I could measure my current weekly plov intake by kilograms, easily.

Two varieties on the table

The family batch

Ok, that is all. I just wanted to pass on another example of the exceedingly generous hospitality of the Uzbeks, and some cultural awareness. I continue to be impressed. Until next time!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Family Matters

Khojand - Javohir's family

Filling the tank by 10L jugs on the way to Khojand. Tajikistan isn't big on "pumps" for gasoline

After a few days of life maintenance in Dushanbe, I hit the road once more. This time I was headed North, up to Khojand and Tajikistan's portion of the Fergana valley. This valley is the heart of agriculture in Central Asia, and the only arable land that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have. Back in the early USSR, Stalin carved it up in the crazy map shown below so that each of these new soviet republics would have enough population to exist, and at the same time, he divided the population of the fertile valley as a means of "management." The result today is a seemingly ridiculous region with few logical borders (rivers, ridgelines, straight lines, etc.) The result for me travels is another exploration of the effects of political borders on people in identical landscapes.

curly, swirly central Asia

In Khojand I had reached out to a few Couchsurfers for a place to stay. Usually I'll send a few requests and only one or two will get back to me, sometimes able to host, sometimes not. This time, ALL of the 6 people I contacted in Khojand got back to me offering places to stay or to meet up for coffee, another testament to Tajik hospitality. I decided to stay with the first one who responded, and that's how I met Javohir.

Left to right: (top) Moses, Jesus (bottom) me, Javohir

Javohir and I are the same age, but he got married at 20 and started having kids right away. The result is that now he's managing a house with the two young boys pictured above ("one wants to be an educated man, the other a gang member" he says) while I skip around the world on my own. His decision to start a family so early was based on a few factors. Number one: Tajik culture and his own family. When asked how he met his wife, he said, "through my mother. She told me, 'you are now engaged to this woman.' We had talked a few times before, but I didn't really know her." It's common for Tajiks, and central Asians in general, to get married fairly early and to start having kids right away. People tend to be shocked when they find out that I'm 26, unmarried and without any children, then they go on to tell me about their wives (sometimes multiple), and abundance of children (often working abroad).

Studying their letters. English was on the backside.

The second reason Javohir decided to have two kids early: Tajik law. All men in Tajikistan are required to serve in the military. Unlike our military, nobody seems to consider the Tajik military as an honorable or desirable career choice. One is likely to be sent far from home and ordered to carry out tasks not necessarily for the good of the nation, but more often for the good of the commanding officer (helping to build his house, for instance). Tajik men can put off this requirement by going to university right out of school, but they will still be required to serve one year after graduating. To avoid it altogether, they have to have at least two kids by the time they graduate university. This is what Javohir did.


Regardless of its origins, I found myself embedded in this family for three days and welcomed as "Uncle Shawn" immediately by the two young ones, Moses and Jesus. Over that weekend, I spent a bit of time exploring Khojand, but more time hanging out around the neighborhood with Javohir and the boys. Javohir is an ambitious, intelligent man who has hopes of coming to America, or at least getting his family out of Tajikistan, as soon as possible. He's also incredibly curious about America and world affairs, and we stayed up late into the night on several occasions to share perspectives. Here's some of what I learned:

1. He's a devout Muslim and views most of life through that lens. 
2. He was fairly convinced by "Farenheit 9/11" and wanted to know my perspective. 
3. He likes the US very much, but said, "many places very much do not like America," then listed places like Uzbekistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (where he used to work). 
4. In regards to the 9/11/12 attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, he said that, "Even though someone says terrible things about the prophet (peace be upon him), I think it is not OK for people to kill the ambassador, who didn't even know the man who made the video." 
5. He likes Enrique Iglesias and the Backstreet Boys, and wanted to know if either had performed in Seattle recently. I told him I didn't think so.
6. The new "market economy" system in Tajikistan (post USSR) has created great differences between rich ("most of them work in the 'chemist's shop', as we say") and poor. That being said, communism would not work if brought back to Tajikistan
Statue of Lenin moved from its place of prominence in the center of town  to the outskirts, joined by sheep.

I left Javohir and Khojand feeling a bit bewildered and enriched, with new friends (keep an eye out for them in the states in a year or two, they're in the green card lottery) and began my journey on to a new republic:


My first glimpse of the Uzbek border. Looks a lot like Tajikistan...

I'm proud to say that, unlike Mr. Cain, I can tell you who the president of this country is, as can nearly everyone around here. It helps that he's been president since the early nineties and has no plans of leaving until he dies (possibly soon, he's getting a bit old). His name is Islam Karimov, also known as "Papa" in Uzbekistan. He, like the Tajik president to the south and many other rulers, sees his countrymen as children, although he doesn't give them the privileges that he does to his own children (his daughter has held many political posts, owns a bunch of nightclubs, maybe some sports teams, and is a celebrity singer). Some Uzbeks embrace him, others find additional father figures:

Mohammad and papa Rumsfeld

Mohammad (sitting in the chair) in front of his Medrassa

Mohammad is one of these people. I met him in Kokand, the first major city in Uzbekistan. He was the curator of a shuttered Medrassa and Mosque in the center of town, shut down by Karimov in an attempt to clamp down on Islamic Extremism. Mohammad was happy to show me around the place, and once he found out I was American, he beamed and wouldn't let me pay for the tour. Instead, he told me to say hi to Donald Rumsfeld, "[very good man! He is like a father to me! He came to Tashkent and met with Karimov, many Uzbeks fighting in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld! Ohhhh, very good man. Hillary Clinton, she's ok. Donald Rumsfeld, like a father! Tell him privyet when you get to America!" So, Donald, just in case you're reading this, Mohammad in Kokand, Uzbekistan says hi. He's a fan.

Spontaneous family

Mohammad wasn't the only one to perk up when he found out I was American. Despite Javohir's warnings, it seems like almost every Uzbek I've met loves America and Americans. About an hour after meeting Mohammad, I was walking through town trying to find a cheap hotel. Along the way, I passed a group of middle-aged men hanging out on the street. They, like many others, hailed me with, 
"A-salaam aleikuum! Hello! Otkuda? (where are you from?)" 
"America" I said, and continued to walk
"ooohhhh, very good, state?"
"state Washington. Seattle"
"oohhhhhh! chai?" Said one, motioning towards the buildings nearby. I thought about it, I had nowhere to be, and I was a bit hungry.
"sure!" I said. Beaming, he led me to his home, a surprisingly large compound behind the high street walls. His wife seemed a bit surprised, but she went and got the food and drink ready, and we sat and tried to chat while watching some Russian news and skimming the other 600 channels on his satellite TV (mostly from Arab or muslim countries). Pretty soon I was not only fed and chai-ed, but they invited me to spend the night, gave me another meal, and a personal tour of the bazaar in the morning, where they kept a stall selling teapots and other household items. Unfortunately, all of my photos are on my other camera, and I can't get any of them here, so I'll just leave you with this: 

a tool-sharpener at work on the street with a saw

Family plov

Om nom nom. Now I think I actually know how it's made

I left the next morning once again feeling welcomed and thoroughly impressed with Uzbek hospitality (there were several other examples of it in those 24hrs that I don't have time to explain here). I was less impressed, however, with the Uzbek understanding of hitchhiking. In fact, they really have no understanding of it. On my way to Kokand, I got a ride from a bewildered man who agreed to driving me for free, then drove me about 10km before he realized what that meant and left me on the side of the road. Another car took me along to the next town, then bought me a taxi to Kokand before I could realize what he was doing. Fortunately, gas here is way cheaper than in Tajikistan, so the cost of the ride was only about 50 cents. Still, I felt bad.

The other downside is the roads are way too nice. After the dirt and rubble of Tajikistan, I wasn't expecting smooth tarmac and bright white paint. It sounds good at first, but really it just means that cars are having way too much fun driving and don't want to pull over to stop. Plus, with the developed sidewalks and multiple lanes, there isn't much of a place to pull over anyway. Despite all of this, I started walking out of Kokand, looking for a place to try to hail a ride.

After about an hour of walking, the driver of a small parked truck waved me over and asked where I was going. He offered to give me a ride a little ways out of town, so I hopped in. Once inside, he asked if I wanted to come to his place for food. Obviously, I agreed.

Soon I was down several km of backroads into a tiny town near Bagdad, Uzbekistan. Once again, I was welcomed like family, taught to make plov, fed twice and only kept marginally captive for several hours before they drove me back out of town and put me in a taxi to Bagdad, where I caught a bus to Fergana.

Jhon, me, other guy, Mazhbod, and Akhon
The bus ride wasn't the end of the Uzbek family hospitality, but I'll leave it there for now. I'm here in Fergana as I write and I'm looking forward to the next month exploring this new, seemingly rich and hospitible, Central Asian republic. Oh yeah, and eating lots of plov, I'm looking forward to that, too.