I met Alisher’s wife by inadvertently slamming the door on her. We were walking between train cars to the dining hall and I didn’t know she was following until Alisher came behind me and opened a door that had just slammed shut behind me—on a gorgeous, dark woman of about forty. Oh God! I apologized profusely and she flashed me a tired smile.
We sat down in a booth of the tungsten-bright dining car, Alisher next to me and his wife on the opposite side. She said she was tired, and that she had a headache. I offered her a tablet but she already had one, and was waiting for water to take it with. Alisher joked that when he told her that he had a friend they would meet on the train, she asked, “Oh, where is she going?”
“To us!” he replied, to what I imagine was her great annoyance. He’s been in the States for a week and she traveled to Tashkent to greet him. Does she really want some young American woman in tow? Good god. I’d have a headache too. My fondness for Alisher was quickly swept aside by an allegiance to his wife and regard for her proper treatment.
It was actually quite lucky, as I wanted to go to Gizhduvan with them, but was expected in Bukhara the previous day—taking the train put me back a day, a day I needed in Tashkent anyway. But my dear old, young friend Ulugbek was to meet me at the train in the morning, so there was no way I could go to Gizhduvan with them. Better to go to Bukhara, and then visit later in the week. When, I’d no idea, as I wanted to relax and soak up a bit of Bukhara, and was expected in Navoi and Samarkand for photo work before heading back to Tashkent for my flight to Almaty—in only 5 days.
I explained to Alisher that I could not join them in the morning as I was expected at the Zairov’s (he, of course, knew Ulugbek’s family), but would join them later in the week. He seemed slightly relieved by this, but didn’t mention it to his wife.
A waiter came by and served up three large chickens, a giant loaf of lepyeoshka, a vat of red sauce, beers, and a bottle of bright green apple soda.
“This is a little snack, Alisher?” I asked, before tearing into my chicken. The policemen-coupe episode had worked up my appetite. The dubious sanitary conditions of the dining car and what I could guess about the grossly unhygienic treatment of that chicken before it met my plate did not matter. All the echoes of my friends “Are you going to be more careful this time?” did not register because I knew that I simply would not. It’s not how I travel. The ignorant haughtiness of the bazaar incident was by now far behind me, erased by people so lovely as Alisher and his wife. If there are people on this planet kind enough to rescue me from a hot dog-devouring militsia man and feed me chicken (which few Uzbeks can afford these days) with a red sauce that perhaps met the fingers of ten diners before us, I am not going to offend them by turning up me nose. If I get sick, I get sick. And, knowing me, sooner or later, I probably will get sick.
Alisher grinned as I dug into the chicken and said, “Why yes indeed, a little snack.”
Alisher and I chugged our Toshkent beers and his wife washed down her tablet with the green apple soda. I told them how delighted I was to see them and that I didn’t want to sleep in that cabin with that man. No problem at all, of course. I’d stay with this wife and he’d sleep in my coupe.
When he got up to deal with some waiter issue, I told his wife that, with all due respect and appreciation, I could not possibly join them in Gizhduvan in the morning because my friend was meeting the train in Bukhara. And that I thought it better if she and Alisher had some time to relax a bit at home before hosting me. She looked delighted and appreciative and I felt a glimmer of love for her, knowing how miserable the situation must have felt.
When Alisher returned, she declared that I was a strikingly beautiful woman, just as I was thinking the same about her. Actually, I’d been mesmerized by her incredible presence through the entire dinner, which was quite out of place in the hot, smoky car full of drunken Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek men sucking down vodka and snacks. Alisher laughed and said, “She is beautiful—or she was. Now she is old.”
I glared at him and shook my head, “You are absolutely, very beautiful.”
With that, we left the car and made our way back to the coupes to sleep, the women in one cabin, and Alisher off with the militsia man. Alisher’s wife (whose name, you may have noticed, was too difficult to remember) helped me up to my top bunk by hoisting my ass up as I climbed. We giggled, said good night, and went to sleep.