Saturday, November 10, 2012

Old stuff, new stuff, old friends, new friends

The past week or so has been a voyage through old and new in Uzbekistan. I've reached a point in my trip where I'm seeing "old" friends whom I met earlier in my trip, while simultaneously meeting new ones. In parallel, I've found that the rich historical landscape of Uzbekistan has a similar mixture of the old and new...

Old friends and New friends

In Bishkek, I stayed with a friend of the brother of a co-worker of my girlfriend, Anna. His name was Rashid (second from right, in the photo). While Rashid was teaching us how to make plov (my first lesson), he introduced me to two guys he'd met working for the UN in Tashkent who were on vacation: Vojta (pronounced voy-tah) from the Czech Republic, and Mario from Switzerland. We hit it off during their short stay in Bishkek and they offered their hospitality in Tashkent, when I arrived. Gotta love friends of friends of brothers of co-workers of girlfriends...
Flashback: Vojta and Mario are the two in the back, seen here at our plov-fest at Rashid's in Bishkek

So, in the name of friendship (and free places to stay), I got back in touch with Vojta as I approached Tashkent. Due to technical difficulties and timing problems, I didn't hear back from him until I was hours away from the city and had already connected with a Couchsurfer. No problem, I just got two hosts!

Vojta introduced me into the expat-world of Tashkent. Anyone who has lived in or spent much time in an international city knows that every international city has this type of worldworld. For many reasons, many expats (foreigners living abroad) tend to find and cling to each other, creating a little community. Kind of like Chinatown... The smaller the number of expats, the tighter the community. Tashkent's was quite tight. Within the first night I had met most of them between Vojta's flat (where I met Gordon and Lola, below), "The Irish Pub" (that's the real name. Prices were closer to European than Uzbek...), and a series of bars after that. Occupations ranged from UN Volunteer to English Teacher to English School Founder to International School Teacher to Head of UNICEF in Uzbekistan to Funemployed Husband of the Head of UNICEF (Gordon). After a couple nights out with these folks, I was left with a few new ideas about the world and a lot less cash in my pocket.

Blurry photo of Gordon (Canadian, left) and Lola (Uzbek, right) in Tashkent

On the other side of things were my Couchsurfing hosts: four Uzbek college students from Bukhara living in a 2-room flat in the old town. Three of the four spoke excellent English and we had many long conversations about Uzbekistan and the US (see the "questions" post for the majority of their questions about America). Through them, I met their friend Justin, another Bukharan who had been teaching English recently in Tashkent and had developed a british accent from rooming with a Londoner while studying in Japan. Justin, it turns out, was on his way to Samarkand and Bukhara that weekend, as well, and offered that we go together. Sounded good to me.
The boys at home. Same as American college students, just plov-ier and with shorter tables.

Rakhmed's English class. I was again the guest of honor

Rakhmed, Alisher and I (pre-shave)

Plus sides of traveling with a local:
1) language: I was able to sit back while Justin did most of the navigating, ordering and haggling. A nice respite when traveling alone.
2) discounts: Justin's connections got us close to 80% off at the hotels
3) local knowledge: Having grown up in Bukhara and spent his childhood giving amateur tours to foreigners, Justin knew the places to go and a lot of the history. How else would I have found myself playing backgammon in a smoky shisha bar with a bunch of Uzbeks?

Registan in Samarkand. Justin was really excited about this pose, he wouldn't take the photo without it

Down sides of traveling with a local:
1) they like to travel in style. Hitchhiking was the furthest from Justin's mind, as were cheap eats. Luckily, he picked up the bill more often than not (pushing me away when I tried to pay
2) discounts: 80% off of a ridiculously priced hotel is still a costly room. At least it came with a sauna.
3) local knowledge: in his overconfidence, he often told us things of questionable validity. This ranged from simply contradicting our guidebook (which could easily be mistaken, as well) to calling horse riding stirrups "handcuffs." and busts of any white man "Lenin"
4) time stress: Justin only had the weekend off from Tashkent, so we had a whirlwind 24-hour tour of Samarkand before jetting off to Bukhara, which he left after another 24 hours.

The bird-shaped scissors came with an explanation of Islamic circumcision traditions...
It was thus a blessing and a curse to be traveling with him, but overall I was quite thankful. Once in Bukhara, I had another old friend along for the ride with Justin ars our tourguide. Robert, the Irish cyclist from my adventures along the Afghan border, happened to be coming through Bukhara at the same time, so we teamed up again for a more urban adventure.

Feeling a bit shy about my new haircut, I decided to try some new styles with Rob

In a whirlwind day Justin brought us from one historic sight to another, stopping briefly for some delicious shashlik, a quick visit to the police station and a ferris wheel ride (see below)!

This is what happens when you try to drive a car without registration in Uzbekistan: The police personally drive it to the impound lot for you. Then, you call your friend the police chief and he lets you have it back.

Mother of all Shashlik in Bukhara. I'm pretty sure there was a whole chicken on this spit.

Old stuff and New Stuff

Both Samarkand and Bukhara, as with much of Uzbekistan, have a rich ancient history. This is the heart of the silk road and a piece of land that has been fought over by many would-be-world-conquerers in its day, including Alexander of Macedonia, Genghis Khan, various Persian and Turkik rulers, and more recently, Stalin. Unfortunately for people who are interested in seeing some of this history, each of these rulers wanted to make it his own. Genghis Khan was the most ruthless, and there is hardly anything from before 1200 that survived his onslaught.

On the rickety soviet ferris wheel in Bukhara. One of the soviet's additions. Rob's fear of heights and rickety things made it way more fun.
Most of the historical sights I've seen in the west are touched up, preserved, or sometimes memorialized. Here, however, they have no qualms with completely renovating and replacing ancient buildings with brand new ones that look basically the same. Thus, you may be looking at an "ancient minaret" that was actually built by the soviets in 1960.

The assimilation of old into new didn't stop with buildings, either. The persian rugs that traveled with caravans to markets in Venice are still being made here today, just with some different patterns:

Mickey Mouse with a scimitar on a camel would have definitely taken over the world
After a few days of reconnecting in Bukhara, seeing some sights, eating some plov and watching some English TV, it was time for Rob to leave again. He's headed down through Turkmenistan to Iran for a few months, and who knows where after that. He has a blog if you're interested ( you can see his version of our time in the Pamir there, too.

Rob ready for departure. Turkemenistan and Iran await!
Once Rob left, I was back on my own. Since this part of Uzbekistan is a little less populated than the Fergan valley, and there's really only one major road, I decided to try hitchhiking again. After trying to explain hitchhiking in Russian to a couple of cars ("like taxi, but no money. friend. give ride. or I walk."), I finally got a ride from a Belarusian trucker on his way from the Afghan border with a load of something related to the American military. He got excited when he found out I was American, but after about an hour of chatting in Russian, I think he started to realize that I only understood about 10% of what he was saying, so things got quiet. Maybe it was because I didn't laugh at his Alaska joke (I think it was a joke...)

Back to hitching. This is the road from Bukhara to Nukus
Whatever the reason, he dropped me off about 20km short of my hoped-for destination, in the dark, at a gas station. Having no idea whether or not there was a hotel that would take tourists in town, and not really wanting to wander around trying to find one, I decided for option two: forget about registration (the worst part of Uzbekistan) and either camp or get invited in for the night. After about 20min of walking down the dark road looking for a campsite, I happened upon a very jovial birthday boy and his party. Before I knew it, I was being fed fresh samsa, offered drinks (apparently "I don't drink" doesn't go over too well with alcoholic muslims. "Yeah, same here! Let's have a shot!") and a place to stay for the night. My goal was to stay relatively sober and convince Azim, the man on the left in the photo, that I really don't speak Uzbek and my Russian really is pretty shitty. He was convinced that I was fluent in both and was faking it.

New best friends at a birthday party in Tok'tul
The next day I managed to make it out of Tok'tul and south down to Khiva, another historic Uzbek city. This was the head of the Khivan khanate back in the day (Bukhara, Samarkand and Kokand also were khanates in that time, I'm pretty sure). Khiva, though, has a remarkably well-kept old city, complete with walls, minarets, a citadel (called an "ark") and tons of mosques, medrassas and mausoleums. 

old town Khiva at sunset. The big minaret on the left is younger than  the US Capitol building by several decades.
I had heard of Khiva before arriving and had imagined this ancient city. I wasn't quite disappointed upon arrival, but what was surprising is that "ancient" looks a lot older than it really is. Although parts of the city walls and the watchtower you can see on the right in the photo above date back to the 10th and 12th centuries, most of the rest of the city was built in the 1800s or later, and nearly all of it has been renovated in the last 100 years. Again, an odd mix of old and new that seems to characterize this part of the world.

Old and older: another rickety soviet ferris wheel (out of commission) beyond the Khivan walls

Khiva is also known as a "museum city". There is a new part of town, but the old town is where they send all of the tourists. Although there are still about 3000 people who live within the walls, the entire place is clearly geared towards tourism and little else. Every building is a hotel or museum, with a few cafes scattered here and there and plenty of souvenier stands lining the main roads. Surprisingly, the majority of the tourists seemed to be Uzbek, and about half of those were wedding parties. I must have seen at least 12 brides yesterday.
Old wall, new art. Just outside the old town
In one back room of one of the museums, I found a little exhibit on the history of public education. The building was a Russian school built in the early 1900s, so it was a fitting location. Unfortunately, the only things in English were captions to photographs or paintings, so I didn't get much information, but it seems like this was one of the first schools that wasn't a medrassa in the area. One of the photos was of a girl's class and one of a class of teachers, nearly all women. This was a refreshing relief after visiting dozens of old medrassas around Central Asia which catered only to men. Also refreshing was this:

Uzbek kids doing SCIENCE! c. 1914

One of the benefits of being in tourist central was nightly Uzbek movies shown on the wall of the Ark. During my first day, at least 5 people told me about the movie and that I should come back that night. I showed up right on time and there was a huge padlock on the door and nobody to be found. A few minutes later, some other tourists came by, but ultimately we all went home disappointed. The next day I came by 5 minutes early to find the padlock still firmly in place. While peering through the door, however, a young local guy came running, unlocked the door and set up the equipment. Clearly there isn't a lot of demand.

The movie was interesting from a cultural perspective,  but unfortunately it was Uzbek dubbed in Russian with English subtitles. This in itself wouldn't have been so bad, but the Russian dubbing was about 3 seconds late and the English subtitles started out about 5 seconds early. I was able to follow along for a bit, matching the remembered subtitles to the delayed images and trying to piece together some of the Russian, but by the end of the movie the subtitles were a full minute or two early and comprehension became impossible. Oh well, nice try, Khiva.

free Uzbek movie night in the citadel! Attendance: 4

Next step

I'm off west to try to see what's left of the Aral Sea before crossing my last Central Asian border into Kazakhstan! It will be nice to not have to worry about daily registration anymore, but it's only getting more expensive until I get to Africa...

And just for you food lovers out there, here are a couple photos of Khivan cuisine:

I do not highly recommend this dish. The meat and potatoes aren't bad, but that stuff around the edges is cold noodles with what tastes like a mix of mayo and sour cream. Clearly, a Khivan delicacy.

This, on the other hand, is a delicious, delicious Khivan meat pie. Also, it's half the price of the noodle mess.

US Election

Some of you have been asking about the reaction here to the US Election. The answer, for the most part, is "nothing." Most people here don't really seem to care, or know, about the election. The few people I've met who do know about it seem mildly pleased that Obama won (Neither I nor they have brought up gay marriage or legalized pot yet), mostly because he's a known quantity. Only one person before the election was surprised that I supported Obama, saying, "but aren't you bored of him? Don't you want someone new?" Surprising words coming from someone who has had the same president for over 20 years...

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