Category Archives: insha’allah tour

uzbek independence day

It’s Uzbek Independence Day and I’m wondering how they are. It’s always a time of havoc there (09.01) and even more so this year. Hmmmmf.

This morning we went up into the tea-kettle tripod for a view of the city and up at the top there was another Cranberries tune playing (I think it was anyway). I’m not sure I’ve heard Britney Spears even once here. Is it possible?

We cross into Iran tomorrow.

Let’s pray that the Captain behaves himself.

guerillas in uz

Hi.

It’s Saturday night, the last of my tour with Maeve, Group of One. We had dinner with another tour group that is here in Tashkent and watching her in a group was weird and refreshing. Some of the steam that built up this tour was exhausted and part of my question, “In the end, I wonder how will I fit into the stories she tells (that annoy me so much)? ” was answered.

Emotions are running high at the moment. There are problems on the southern border here and I’m quite upset by them. In a nutshell, Uzbekistan has had a pretty stable time of it since independence. This is partly because the president, Islam Karimov, was also in charge during the Soviet period and, for better or worse, he has a strong hold on things.

This week a group of Tajik- and Afghan-trained Uzbek rebels, called Wuhabis by the Uzbeks, are infiltrating the southern border. They want the Ferghana Valley (the most fertile and populated part of Uzbekistan) as an independent Muslim state and Uzbeks support them in droves, only because of the repressive regime run by President Karimov. Over 100 Uzbeks and 60 Kyrgyz soldiers are dead and the Tajik guerillas are roaming about. Ferghana (home of Anwar, Victoria and the gownless evening strap if you recall) is now closed to everyone who isn’t registered there (i.e. doesn’t live there) as well as most roads other than the most heavily traveled tourist route from Khiva to Tashkent. The military is moving south at night, as not to upset anyone. Our tours to Ferghana are obviously off and we’re moving to what has ridiculously been termed as “Emergency Plan 3” or some such rot.

Tajikistan? It’s southeast of Uzbekistan and significantly smaller. Since independence from the USSR in 1991, Tajikistan has suffered from civil war between the current government and the more militant Islamic separatist groups. It’s somewhat war torn and life there, from what I can gather (I’ve only been through a bit three times on the train in the middle of the night), is much more difficult than in the other Central Asian republics. Particularly if you are a woman.

The Wuhabis are one of these guerilla groups. Actually, the Wuhabis are the name of a militant sect of Islam that originates in Saudi Arabia. The Uzbek government is against practicing Muslims, and they tend to call anyone who wears a beard or scarf and goes to the mosque a Wuhabi, which is not at all the case. More accurately, these miliants are called the I.M.U.—the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and what makes them so alarming is that they are quite similar to the Taliban of Afghanistan. And, like the Taliban, they are supported and funded by Osama Bin Laden.

“Oh God,” is the appropriate reaction here.

It’s been rumored by an unfortunately reliable source that the guerillas are moving into Uzbekistan now and hope to launch an all out offensive in the spring.

There are more than a few things I can’t get over. I can’t believe it’s so close and such a threat. I can’t believe that this country and these excellent people could be so close to war. Most bizarre to me is that there is no word of this in the west whatsoever. I don’t have great access to western media, but I’ll bet that the news is saturated with the Russian submarine crisis and not a word is said about Uzbekistan, a place that Putin has very good reason to pay close attention to and even protect. Even BBC world news, which seems to cover every conflict in every unknown country on the planet, hasn’t mentioned it. It’s a bit surreal.

Don’t worry about me though. I only have a week left in Uzbekistan (I know, just when it gets exiting); then I’m off to Iran.

Post tour update: I’m tired and a little dizzy. Without a doubt I could use a break. This trip was such a doozy I forgot all about computerland bliss and wrote freehand. All the characters and lifesavers running around Uzbekistan are beautiful beautiful and I have captured them in my barely decipherable script in no less than three different notebooks and heaven knows how many lists.

Not to mention Maeve the Group. If only I could figure out how to do this job without the tourists…

No rest. No, no no, no. I have to do the normal end of trip reports, then worry about the logistics (visas, itineraries, $$, chadors) of the next trip: Journey to Tehran. It begins Wednesday.

On Journey to Tehran I’ll take my group of two overland from Tashkent to Tehran. This involves leaving my beloved Uzbekistan, passing through Turkmenistan, then to Iran, where I’ll work until mid-October. I’m excited about this.

The group of two promises so much. They’re also booked on my following tour (with eight people!) so I’ll spend a month with them. John Jones arrives. At sixty-four he’s the spring chicken of the group. His roommate (thank heavens not me) is eighty-three year old Captain Clegg. Together, the three of us will make our way to Iran.

I don’t make this stuff up, not a thing. I’m tempted to attach the passenger list to prove it.

It reads:

Title: Cpt
Surname: Clegg
Birthdate: June 7, 1917

Really.

So, when do I come home? What am I doing then? Ahhh, questions I love. Questions that have begun to dance in my head because of the recent troubles with my current employer. These are too numerous to explain properly (though I’d love to) so I’ll summarize in three points. They sent me off on my last tour without money to run it. They also forgot to pre-book it. If you think this makes for a lot more work on my end, you are right. It’s incompetent and inexcusable-things are difficult enough on this end as it is. Speaking of which, today I received a revised itinerary for my next tour. It describes the transport booked from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to Mashad, Iran, a distance of at least 200 miles, quite simply: Walk.

So, I’ve considered quitting more than a few times, though never seriously. I want to get to Iran, so I’m hanging on. I’ll admit that my sorry lack of a home in NYC and the thought of looking for one right now makes a walk through the Turkmen desert with Captain Clegg not seem so bad.

Not even a camel for transport? A donkey? Don’t worry, we won’t walk. But it seems I have to figure out the transport. Not so fun. Oh well. There are worse jobs. More on that later, you can be sure.

victor’s femininst cause

I wrote most of this a few weeks ago but wasn’t able to send it.

Like it or not, I am a city girl. I love to travel and get out of town, but too long away from a metropolis and I freak out a little. Or too many times around Uzbekistan in a circle (eight now) and I freak out a little. I really must figure how many miles it’s been. I love to mile drop.

What I’m saying is that it’s oh-s0-good to be back in Tashkent. I’m at Hotel Tsorbi now using a computer in an air-conditioned office all to myself. The chair is even reasonably comfortable. It’s quiet! I’ve even been room-serviced a piping hot cup of Nescafé.

And all free of charge, thanks to Victor. He complained that I criticize him too much last night, as he pulled out a bracelet for me to inspect, a birthday gift he bought for some twenty-seven year old colleague. His generosity is boundless, really.

It is. I come here every night to use the office and I am more than welcome, even though I’m not staying at the hotel (I’m at Gulnara’s while off tour). Though I am tough on Victor, I do quite like him. He entertains me to no end.

I take him out to dinner once in awhile to thank him, though it’s a constant struggle to convince him I that will pay. He’s fond of Taj, the best Indian restaurant in town, which only wins him points with me.

At our last Taj meal, quite awhile ago, Victor came clean about the whole Natalya mail order bride debacle. This is also when he reassured me of his concern for women’s rights (you should have known I wasn’t going to let this go).

I must have been sitting there with a very skeptical look on my face because he said, exasperated, “Why don’t you believe I am sincere about this problem!”

Oh Victor, thank you for the beautiful entree!

“Victor, did you not tell Mario that you have four American girlfriends?” I asked.

“Yes.” Victor replied unabashedly, not quite getting the connection.

I was thrown. How to explain that in America, if you have a wife and children, it is not acceptable to have four girlfriends, American or otherwise? And that somehow this in itself is very obviously an insult to womankind? AND that if he wants to help women, he should start at home with his wife and daughter?

“Um, Victor,” I asked, “Is there any concept of male monogamy here in Uzbekistan?”

Victor took a drag on his Davidoff cigarette, furled his brow as if confused by the idiocy of the question, and said simply, “No.”

Okay, new tactic. And your wife. If she allowed to have other lovers?”

Another (perhaps creative?) pause. Then he leaned toward me and confided, Well, yes. But we have a special arrangement because she lived with the kids in Samarkand for a year before I brought them to Tashkent. She knows I have girlfriends. I don’t tell her everything only because I don’t want to hurt her, but she knows enough.”

And then, recalling my question, added, “And she is allowed other men.”

“Yes, you say that, but does she? And if she did, would you still approve?” I responded, knowing full well that he says ‘go ahead’ only because she doesn’t and won’t.

So I was wrong.

“Yes, she has. Once. But it wasn’t very good for her. It wasn’t a good experience,” he said, shaking his head sadly at the thought his little wife subjecting herself to a lesser man.

I laughed like a madwoman. Haven’t I heard this line from Victor before?

“Okay Victor, so if your wife had an affair and it was good for her, would you still approve?”

Victor laughed, only slightly embarrassed, and swiveled the subject back to Uzbeks, “But this is definitely not normal here in Uzbekistan. Wives here are not allowed other men.”

Okay, Victor. That I believe.

On the drive back to the hotel we passed Bar Emir, an ex-pat and mafia hangout with outrageous prices for the same mediocre food and drinks as any other western-style bar/restaurant.

“That’s my favorite place to get a coffee and sit,” Victor said, then quickly added, “Outside, outside I mean,” so that I wasn’t inclined to think that he went to watch the women stripping and pole dancing inside.

Of course he wouldn’t do that.

He will, however, call my male colleagues over to appreciate the pornographic ‘newsletters’ that he receives in his email every day. I try not to take being left out personally.

Shucks I’m hard on him.

View his rebuttal.

More very soon.

oyvind & gunda

Silk Caravan 220700 is over; Gunda and Oyvind leave for Oslo tonight. My next tour begins Wednesday but the group is already here. All one of her. Sigh.

I commend your decision to stay home and enjoy the beauty of indulgence in personal habit and fancy, the semblance of control. While you travel vicariously through me, I try like hell to routine, socialize, and drink a decent cup of coffee vicariously through you. Your email is very appreciated.

My last group provided a strange turn of events. If you recall, it was only the two Norwegians. On the first night at dinner, Oyvind announced sheepishly that, “We do not speak English well.”

They understood enough to enjoy the trip, but after 45 meals together trying to converse, we are all tired. Sitting at a dinner table in Khiva with a wife and husband chatting away in Norwegian is strangely lonely, I learned.

They grew weary of English about a week into the tour and, happily, darted off on their own quite a bit. This left me with some unexpected time on my hands. Delighted, I was, but also very frustrated.

It’s impossible to write long-hand. I tried and tried, because I have so much nonsense to catch up on and the stories multiply by the moment, only to stare down in confusion at the scratches and scribbles that would only be rewritten when I eventually typed it. Alas, the beauty of instant editing possible on a computer cannot be verbalized.

So I took notes and wished for a laptop. And read. And longed for Tashkent.

Now I am home (Tashkent, I mean) and seated uncomfortably but delightedly at a computer where it has come to my attention that although I have been here for four months, you may not know quite where Uzbekistan is. I won’t take this personally—I will lecture.

Uzbekistan is smack in the middle of the five Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, & Uzbekistan) which were, until 1991, part of the Soviet Union. This, if you have been wondering, is why everyone speaks Russian. And Uzbek. And Tajik. (Except the Russians, who usually only speak Russian for the same reason that Americans usually only speak English.)

Central Asia is just north of Afghanistan, south of Russia, east of Iran, and west of China. “Hmm. Bet that there are lots of spies and tanks and drugs and controversial US military men running around there,” you might think. You are right. But they don’t care about tourists or malcontent group leaders, so it’s somewhat irrelevant. [Note: this was written pre-9/11/01.]

Maeve, my new group, just came in for some travel advice.

“Sorry, Mae, the tour doesn’t start until Wednesday,” I explained.

Just kidding. I kept my mouth shut.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you again, but my friend is leaving Wednesday and she has this leftover,” she said as she thrust a bottle of Neslatte (a drink even more hideous, I will guess, than regular Nescafe) into my face, “Should we take it along with us?”

I have known Maeve for thirty minutes now and I know very well that she likes milk in her coffee, which is very seldom an option in Uzbekistan. Not that coffee is an option here—unless you consider Nescafe coffee.

“Um, yes, that seems like good idea,” I advised.

“Thanks. Then I will pack it in my bag!” and with that she was off. Have I mentioned that not only is Maeve my sole guest on the next tour, but that we will share a room? Very cozy.

The next day (Monday):

I slept outside on the homtakhta at Gulara’s last night because she is booked full of tourists. It’s high season again. You should know what a homtakhta is because I should have explained in the Gulnara and Nasibulla message. I’m sure I didn’t because I hate describing furniture. But because a homtakhta is an integral part of the Gulnara experience (and the Uzbek experience in general), I will do so now.

It’s like an outdoor daybed of sorts, usually made of wood, about two feet off the ground, with a small table in the middle (photo above). Every chaikhana (tea house) and Uzbek courtyard (many old-town homes have courtyards like Gulnara’s) has at least one. Uzbeks sit, usually Indian-style, at the low table and enjoy shashlik, p’lov, non, and tea. Lots of green tea. Tourists hate homtakhtas and insist on tables and chairs (also available); I think they are fabulously comfortable and want one at my house (not that I have a house, much less a courtyard).The fancier ones have canopies, also usually made of wood.

At night or at nap time, the table is moved aside and little mattresses come out. Gulnara stacked up about four of them last night (and two pillows), laid me down on them, and tied a mosquito net to the frame around me while Nasibulla sang, “Princess Annushka, Princess Annushka!” as he helped Gulnara out. Annushka is a Russian diminutive form of Anna, and Gulnara and Nasibulla call me nothing else. It’s very sweet.

Ooh, I slept well! And woke to a glorious breakfast of fresh bread, lepyoshka (bread), yogurt, and jam. Too many tourists around though.

ode to anwar

After waiting through a minor delay, when Valery’s colleague careened over a huge fender in the road and punctured the gas tank, I had a good idea of the new group. After Valery patched up the tank with some chewing gum and a stick, we continued over the mountain pass into the Ferghana Valley. It wasn’t a great way to begin the tour but they became acquainted with each other and the merciless Uzbek sun.

On our way into the valley, we stopped for tea at a Chaikhana (teahouse) on the side of the road. As we refreshed, a lovely young man came by and greeted us.

“Hello Dear Guests, I am Anwar, your guide to Ferghana Valley.”

He and I were extremely suspicious of one another at first. I don’t book a local guide for that day of the tour, and I wanted to know what he was doing there—and would I be expected to pay him. I suppose that he was suspicious of me only because I was so quizzical and unimpressed.

Not because Anwar Khairullin isn’t impressive. He works hard, dresses well (a real achievement when Ferghana City is home) and is delightfully charismatic.

He started coming around to me when we were at a potter’s home, about the third hour into his impromptu tour. I asked Rustam, the potter, why he and Anwar spoke to each other in Russian, rather than in Uzbek. Rustam explained that it’s because he is a Tatar and Uzbek is not his first language. Anwar overheard and seemed charmed that I’d bothered to attempt conversation with Rustam in my shockingly poor Russian. Since that moment, Anwar grew increasingly affectionate.

I warmed up to Anwar and his not-quite-fluent English skills about an hour later, when he told me how he taught himself English. He started in the tourist business as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He spoke no English, but taught himself by immersion, by spending months at a time having to communicate with tourists solely in English. I was impressed. That’s how I’m trying to learn Russian (without classes, I mean, not as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan) and it’s not easy. In fact, it is more difficult because I am expected to speak largely to Australian tourists in English. Much to my chagrin, total immersion via non-English speakers isn’t exactly an option. Not yet anyway.

So why was Anwar there? It was a business move. He works for the usually inept Uzbek tour company that my Australian tour company uses to book certain services—like our transport to Ferghana. More profitably, he works as a freelance guide. Knowing that his biggest competitor (& Mario’s favorite) works at the hotel where we stay, he met us en route to pitch his services for the next day. Clever; It worked.

And I have no regrets—he’s a great guide. He’s quite an entertainer and presents himself to the tourists as what he thinks a good Uzbek man should be. It’s quite entertaining for me because between his monologues, he talks to me gamely, and drops the facade.

He gives the tourists what they want: a good Muslim boy with offbeat explanations for Uzbek custom. At a local museum, when he pointed out the pounds of heavy, jangling jewelry that Uzbek women once wore, he described them as an ancient security system, “So that men could hear where their wives went.”

Robbie, my favorite tourist, muttered to her husband, “Hmmm. Seems more efficient than checking the odometer.”

Fabulous.

The tourists don’t hear that Anwar is not ethnically Uzbek. He, like Rustam, is a Tartar, and his closest ancestors migrated from Kazakhstan. Nor do the tourists hear that he is an atheist. Nor that men from the East, like him, make very good babies with women from the West, like me. He said this in Russian, so I had to consult his dictionary twice, screw my face up a few times, and wait until he pounded my knee and doubled over in laughter to be sure that he said what I thought he said.

What would his wife say about that? Yes, yes, of course he’s married, and they have a four-year old daughter. Anwar is thirty-two, though I first thought he was about twenty-eight. His wife would expect and accept the infidelity, but I doubt that a genetically diverse baby would be greeted with open arms. Men here are only allowed one wife, but many, many lovers. Monogamy is not practiced here, not by men.

Incredibly, I find Anwar’s direct approach refreshing because he’s fun and I like him. He’s up-front and he takes no for answer in good nature. Time spent with him is amazing. He behaves the way American men must have fifty years ago. The lines are incredible—references to the moon and the starts, the whole works. I just can’t believe that he thinks I’ll buy this stuff, but he earnestly does.

“I can’t find where your passport saying you are married or not,” Anwar commented after snooping through my passport on day one. Before I snatched his to snoop in turn (all Uzbeks have to carry passports locally so that they can be thoroughly harassed by the Militsia), he announced, “My passport says that I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish.”

His mother and sister live in Rego Park, Queens, in New York City, about a ten minute subway ride from my last apartment. Anwar has no desire to move to the US and seems extremely annoyed that his mother and sister have decided to emigrate.

“If I lived in New York, I would never have the chance to have such a beautiful woman in my car,” Anwar spewed.

“Sure you would. All the time. You’d be a cab driver,” I quipped back.

His point was correct though; he has a great job. In Uzbekistan, tour guides make hard currency. This makes them wealthy, by local standards. On a good day, Anwar can make four times the average Uzbek’s monthly income. He also gets to travel a bit, meet lots of interesting tourists, and come on to them. I wouldn’t move to New York either.

The clock is ticking. In less than two hours I will meet the two Norwegians and begin the next tour. I still have plenty to say about Anwar, Gulnara, and assorted others, but sadly, they will have to wait.

Today I changed dollars into cym with my favorite guy who tends the bootleg music kiosk outside of the government department store. He gave me 720 to the dollar, forty-five over the official rate!

On the way there, I had an interesting conversation about American politics with my Azerbaijani driver. The gist of it was that he quite liked Jimmy Carter and wasn’t it too bad about the way the Iran thing worked out. Funny, that’s the second time this week I’ve heard praise for Carter.

the mail-order bride

500 som note uzbek moneyThe 500 cym note is out on the street! This takes the largest Uzbek note up to a value of almost 75 cents (recall that it was the 200 cym note, worth about 30 cents). I don’t have any yet, but I saw one this morning on the seat of a taxi. It’s very pretty; much prettier than the new USD$5. I first saw one of these a few weeks ago, handed to me by an Australian woman in a hat maker’s house a few hours north of Ferghana (i.e. the middle of nowhere).

When I got home to Gulnara’s last night, Nasibulla was ironing all the sheets. It took him well over an hour, heh heh. I was impressed.

“Isn’t that Rufshan’s job?” I asked.

“Rufshan is resting” he replied. He’s actually resting up in the mountains, much too far away to iron the linens, lucky boy.

Somehow I doubt that Victor irons, concerned though he may be about the plight of women. A little background info on Victor: He’s thirty-eight, Russian, long- blond-haired, fluent in English and somewhat obsessed with America. The only time he can’t be reached by mobile is when he works out. Shopping and America seem to be his passions and he is as devastated by the recent western good price hikes as we guides are (if not more so).

He’s also amazingly efficient and generous, though I am impudent enough to question his motives. I’ve known him since April; if you’ll remember, he is the manager of Hotel Tsorbi in Tashkent. Admire the Soviet-issue wallpaper on the hotel’s office walls, where I wrote most of the bulks. Fancy Victor’s Levi’s outfit. Thanks to Mario, I had the same one. Victor had many but I wore mine almost everyday.

The first month after we met he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk to me if Mario wasn’t around. Rather, he’d just stare, gaumless. I wondered if he’d ever been forced to deal with western women before (my analysis of his behavior was quite off, though I still have no idea what the reasons for it actually were).

Slowly, slowly he accepted my presence and before I knew it, his life story came tumbling out.

“My grand-grand-grandfather was a very rich merchant on the Volga river. His son, my grand-grand-father, fled Russia (around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, though he neglects to include that bit of information) to Samarkand, where I lived most of my life.”

Victor had a life-shaping, somewhat mythological sort of argument with his father at age sixteen because he enjoyed “American ideas—I even followed the Voice of America. I was the only boy in my class with long hairs.” It didn’t go over well in his school for children of Communist Party members. This was back in, say, 1978, before Perestroika, when playing with American ideas was quite rebellious in the Soviet Union, even for a teenager.

So, Victor was sent off on his own to prove himself. And so he did. Although I’ve heard this story a few times now, I always expect some sort of tragic father-was-wisked-off-to-Siberia-to-pay-for-his-young-son’s-treason or father-died-before-they-could-happily-reunite ending sort of ending, but no. That’s where he ends this particular story each time: “And so I did.” I guess he figures the rest is obvious. He proved himself a man by somehow making a bunch of money. Everyone is happy and all is forgiven in marvelous Samarkand.

Victor moved to Tashkent a few years ago while working for a German company. His family (a wife and two kids) followed him a year later. “Things here are better for my wife. There are better cosmotological services for her here.”

I forget how the issue of women’s rights first came up, but I believe it was when Vic told me the plight of his twenty-six year old friend Nastya, enslaved in Montana.

“It was her dream, to go to America. I just wanted to help her.” So begins the explanation of his very bizarre part in making Nastya a mail order bride.

When Victor and Nastya found an interested American man via the internet, V wrote letters and emails to him pretending to be the nubile Nastya, who doesn’t speak much English. Then he paid for her plane ticket to meet the guy in St. Petersburg. Upon meeting her prospective husband there, she wasn’t too impressed but figured he wasn’t too bad and hell, it was her chance to make a dream come true. That was one year ago.

Now everyone is upset. And Victor can’t figure where it all went wrong.

He introduces the topic as if his friend is locked up and abused in some isolated mountain house in Montana. But when offered information on domestic violence centers and women’s shelters he admits that, “Well, it’s not physical abuse. But it’s mental abuse and at times very bad—she calls me crying. But they’ve moved to a city now, as she requested, and maybe things will get better.”

At first I was horrified for the girl, but after little probing into the matter, I am horrified by everyone involved. It seems that being “locked up” is partly a result of her inability to speak English—she has no one to talk to and nowhere to go—and partly because her new hubby expects her to stay and home and do housework all day.

“Yes, he said from the beginning that he wanted a traditional wife and that American women are very selfish and unmarriageable,” Victor explained, “but things are different for women in America! I thought she’d have an American life! She shouldn’t be expected to stay home all day and do housework! Men in America are different than men here!”

I pointed out the errors in V’s logic. Errors that I needn’t point out again here. (Need I?)

The story becomes more involved and bizarre. Nastya has a six-year old daughter (from a previous marriage) with her in Montana. On several occasions, Victor attempted to DHL Nastya birth control pills from Uzbekistan (mailing drugs abroad is a very complicated process, for obvious reasons) even though “They aren’t having sex because it just isn’t any good.” Although she finally received the pills and although the newlyweds aren’t having sex, Nastya is now pregnant.

You have guessed, I am sure, that this is American girlfriend #1. Victor likes to present her as his cousin, as he did to an American aid worker who stayed in the hotel recently. She is now back in the States trying to help poor Nastya out (and not far, it seems, from becoming Victor’s American girlfriend #5. Victor told me today that she is mailing him some copies of The New Yorker). Let’s not be silly. As Victor happily confirmed, Nastya is no innocent little cousin.

I think the other three girlfriends are Peace Corps workers; I haven’t the strength yet to ask. My only information about them is that they are “obsessed with these ideas of women’s rights.” This is obviously why Victor is so concerned about these ideas himself. But more on that another time.

If I ever purchase furniture again, I plan to buy a $8000, comfy, posture-perfect chair to undo some of the damage I have done in my travels; the Soviets really knew how to torture. Of course, six months later I will sell the chair off in a mad rush at a tenth of its value, only hours before departing to an obscure country in pursuit of more discomfort.

Note: Before posting bulks about Victor, I asked him to read through them to make sure that he wasn’t offended and didn’t mind them being posted. He wasn’t, but did have a few corrections.

Gulnara & Nasibulla

So I complain, do I? It keeps me sane and entertained, though the locals do an even better job of it. Yes, and even some of the tourists, but let’s talk about them another time.

I’m at Hotel Tsorbi now and Victor has already had a go at me. “So, did you get your work done yesterday? Wake anyone up?” He knows damn well I did. He claims that he’d promised use of the computer (and the couch) for the night because one of the 17 year old girls wanted to write her autobiography. Oh, that explains everything. And here I thought they were all made up on a Saturday night for less literary reasons.

When I have no tourists I do not stay at the illustrious, internet accessible Hotel Tsorbi, but at Gulnara’s Guesthouse in the old town.

Gulnara Karimova is possibly the best person in Uzbekistan, though her husband, Nasibulla (at left), is also quite worthy of note. They have a big house with a large, decadent, lush courtyard. It’s heavenly respite from grimy Tashkent. Gulnara is one of those angels who convince me that some women actually do enjoy housewifery. She’s up at dawn and in bed after midnight and seems to work every moment between. Rarely does she go out, other than to Chorsu bazaar down the road.

Each morning she makes a huge breakfast spread (breakfast is one of the four English words she knows) and is prepared at any moment to serve hot tea, fresh bread, homemade jam or whatever else I fancy. “Melon? Melon?” In addition to housing travelers, she and Nasibulla feed and entertain groups of up to 40 tourists with dinner and traditional Uzbek music and dancing. Yes, she does my laundry too, though she doesn’t like to iron (luckily Rufshan, her 19 year old son, does).

The other guides (all guys) call her old, but I doubt that she’s much over 55. She has a big, comfy, babushka look about her and she’s always, always smiling.

The guys love her as much as I do and no doubt wish she had daughters (the perfect Uzbek woman, she has only two sons).

One wall of the courtyard has a little window that opens (and shuts) onto her neighbor’s courtyard. Gulnara can stand there for hours talking to her friend through the window-it’s the most excellent sight. One day I took many, many photos of her there. I hate that I must wait until autumn to see them.

When I have time between tours, this is where I stay. One morning after I returned from a tour, Gulnara came to me after breakfast and handed me a small plastic package with something black inside. I thought, “Oh heavens it’s a bra; she’s upset I don’t wear a bra to breakfast.” But she looked more concerned than chastising, and began a very long, very fast explanation in Russian. The words I understood were ‘sorry,’ ‘flowers,’ ‘iron,’ ‘white,’ ‘hot,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘okay?’ (This was back in May; now I am sure I could understand at least ten of those words.) The gist of the matter quickly dawned on me. I reassured Gulnara that there was no problem and thanked her profusely.

The package held an extremely small silky pair of black underwear. A few weeks prior, she accidentally burned a hole in my white flowery unders with her iron and while I was on tour she found me a much sexier replacement. I still can’t get over it.

Later that day I went to Hotel Tsorbi because a new tour (the Tourist Nancy Nightmare Tour, actually) began that night. I’d left laundry there to be done and asked the manager (Victor) to see that it be placed in the room I’d not yet checked into. When I arrived, there was a note directing me to my laundry, which had been left in his office-my unders all neatly ironed, folded, and left waiting on the desk. Fabulous!

Updates: The black marketeers have learned they need a higher rate than the gov to get business. The black market rate is up to 700.

Tashkent Plaza has changed their prices to cym; Levi’s has not. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the jeans and start wearing make-up.

Next time: the story on Victor, his wife, his American girlfriends, and his concern for women’s liberation. “What can I do to help?”

Just got word on my next tour: only two clients, Oeyvind & Gunda. They’re Norwegian. The fun begins Saturday.

the gownless evening strap

Where are you? Are you listening to the Backstreet Boys? Hopefully not. Peaceful internet use is very, very difficult to come by here [Tashkent]. At the moment I’m in the back corner of a shopping center where an impromptu internet center has been set up. On Friday I was forced out by the oh-so-hip computer geeks’ ability to blast Pink Floyd from their Samsung Syncmaster computers. It didn’t quite drown out Alanis Morisette on the Muzak piping behind. Could I think? I’m lucky the ingrate slurping on his pen next to me is not drooling over porn, like the pervert to my right on Monday.

Two computers away, there is a freak Texan yelling at two Uzbeks who stare blankly at the computer screen with him as he leads a thrilling campus tour.

“This is the weight room. And this? This is our football field. It’s, like, much bigger than this now because we are improving the goal lines (keep in mind that American football is not followed here in Uzbekistan and must be about as interesting to the uninitiated as Bridge. Hey, wait a second, doesn’t a football field have to be a standard 100 yards?) It’s awesome man! This new building is where you can take classes on real estate and retail sales and I, like, walk from here to here, man, it takes about 10 minutes. Now let’s go to the big 12 sports page!” Unbelievable. Who on earth sent him here and why?

This morning I woke at six to sneak off to Hotel Tsorbi across town. The manager there (Victor. I might as well introduce him now) lets me use the internet as I wish. The only problem is that there is always someone who wants to use the machine, and so sooner than later, there’s someone whistling and tapping behind me, in wait of a turn.

This is why I was up at six. I reached the hotel at 8:30 and the Victor’s car was smack in front (why? Shouldn’t he be readying for church with his wife and kids?) The key was in the office door but when I knocked, no one answered. On the second try a girl answered, clearly fresh off the fold out bed. Her female friend glared from behind and Victor, thank heavens, was nowhere in sight. I said in Russian, “Excuse me, I want internet” and gave them 15 minutes to clear out. I felt keenly entitled only because I’d begged permission from Vic the night before.

So, like girls accustomed to being told what to do, they cleared out and I had two beautiful hours of peaceful internet use. Victor left me wondering, once again, exactly to what extent the Hotel is used as a brothel. I’m certain all hotels here are (recall my notes on prostitution a few months back), but I’d love to think otherwise. The waitress and the cook in the restaurant are on 48 hour shifts; two days on and two days off. The services offered clearly extend beyond beef stroganoff and a smile-but I don’t want to believe it. I’ve become quite fond of the staff in the past few months and hope like hell they aren’t subjected to the monsters that stay there (my tourists are the least of them).

Around noon, an office employee showed up and sulked around until I got off the internet and came here. Sigh. At least the Backstreet Boys are the only offenders at the moment; the Texan left.

The tourists.

My worst were crammed onto one horrible two-week tour. I hated them. I don’t know what the trick is; I can’t make people (the tourists) like me. I’ve stopped trying (you doubt I tried? I tried). Some groups just love me. And others? Don’t. I do nothing differently. Guess I have to chalk it up to a personality thing. Better yet, chalk it up to their lack of personality. Thankfully I’ve had only one bad group, but my stomach still gurgles at the thought of them.

Before leaving Tashkent, where the women on the streets wear no clothes, to take my group to Ferghana, the most conservative, Islamic part of Uzbekistan, I asked them to take note and please cover up. When we arrived in Ferghana, we were greeted by two guides: the charismatic Anwar (whom you will hear more about later) and his trainee Victoria. The woman was about 20 and she wore what my group called a gownless evening strap. Appropriate garb for guiding us around the Islamic Valley in midday? No. I was quite taken aback; in Ferghana, this just isn’t done. In Ferghana, women wear clothes.

Later, I commented to Tourist Marcy, wasn’t it quite funny to be met by a young, naked tart after my pleas for decency from the group?

Marcy stared at me and said in a most stern, offended tone, “I really see nothing AT ALL funny about the treatment of women in Uzbekistan.”

Um, okay Marcy. I’ll just keep my mouth shut. This sort of charmless discourse went on for two weeks. Two weeks without relief.

Environment update: Titanic is on the Muzak. This takes me back to Bangkok in ’98 when I spent a week alone in a hotel room, suffering from giardia. I talked to no one; my only company was CNN, the only TV station in English. A Larry King Live interview with Celine Dion aired every six hours and is pretty much permanently engraved in my memory. She’s a nice girl, that Celine. Pretty name, too.

I think I’d best go!