Once off the train, I made my way back to the sixth wagon where Ulugbek awaited me. I looked for him, but he spotted me first. “Anechka!”
We hugged and made our way to the taxi stand, sizing one another up after the last four years. Oh, Ulugbek! This is such a strange and heartening friendship (no comments from the peanut gallery).
He was fifteen when we met, and would turn twenty in a few days. Good word, he’s known me almost a quarter of his life. We became friends when my tour groups stayed at Lyabi Haus, his parent’s guesthouse, in 2000. I made sure to book in there as early as possible, as Bukhara wasn’t the same for me anywhere else. I didn’t notice him at first, but a woman who worked at the hotel tired of practicing Russian with me and soon pushed me off onto Ulugbek. Indeed, I was much more interesting for him than for her.
He was learning English and when he wasn’t helping out with the guesthouse, he studied all the time. He was fun, but fairly serious, and had a protective streak that I appreciated. I loved his family as much as I did Ulugbek, and when the two tour days in Bukhara passed and it came time to leave Bukhara for Samarkand, I was always miserable. Every two weeks, by the clockwork of the tour schedule, I got sick and depressed in Samarkand, which only subsided when I returned to my friends in Tashkent.
Ulugbek appreciated me. His generous attention and sincerity made me awkwardly aware of how pathetic my boyfriend was. That with a fifteen-year-old I felt more alive than my boyfriend finally shocked me awake. The boyfriend was not what I wanted and, by god (or by Ulug), I finally realized, he was never going to become what I wanted. The better I knew him, in fact, the less I liked. Ulugbek didn’t know or care these details, but was well aware that Mario had nothing on him. Ulug moved right in on the girlfriend of a guy twice his age. How could I not adore such chutzpah?
What impressed me even more about Ulugbek is that he remained friends with me after his dramatic attempt to be more than friends failed (an excellent story not fit for print). He remained civilized and even kept in touch by email. We weathered another disaster when he studied in London and I grew so worried about him there that I contacted his parents. It took a year, but he forgave me that too. And now, here we were again in Bukhara.