It was a fairly traumatic mistake to put Bukhara at the front of my trip. This town has always been my favorite, a place where I can relax and simply be. Maybe it’s my place that we travelers somehow look for when we head off once and again, the place I feel most alive and at peace. But these few days have felt more like visiting an old boyfriend, the perfect one who slipped away only because I didn’t recognize that his imperfections were my own and because I didn’t yet truly want what was offered. Was coming back even right? And if it’s so damn lovely, if it’s here and now, and I know, then what’s wrong? What is wrong is that I have to leave in three days. I feel as if I’d be perfectly content to nix the whole trip, sit here, and be. Sunday morning I arrived by train from Tashkent and as early as mid-Monday the thought of leaving Bukhara made me ill. My stomach rumbled.
I scheduled a fairly quick trip through Uzbekistan, before flying on to Kazakhstan. Even before I’d landed in UZ, I knew it wouldn’t be enough.
On the flight from New York, I was in the back of the plane all too near the line for the toilets. Mid-flight, standing a few seats down was an attractive middle-aged Tajik man who looked kind of familiar. At least, I hoped he did. I squinted at him and he smiled and squinted back at me. When he made it to my row, I asked him where he was from. He answered with requisite pride: “Bukhara.”
I explained, “Oh. You remind me of a ceramicist from Gizhduvan.” Gizhduvan is a town near Bukhara. I once took the tourists there.
At that, his face lit up and he grabbed my hand, “Yes, that is me!”
I’ve no idea how I recognized him after four years, but I did. I invited him to sit down and we chatted for a bit. He was returning from a festival in Santa Fe, which he quite loved. He said the city is much like Bukhara. I’m obviously going to have to get there, as I’ve never visited the American Southwest—ridiculous, as much as I love the desert.
For the remainder of the flight, Alisher took great care of me. He moved me to a middle aisle so I could spread out and sleep and gave me extra pillows and blankets. He also left me alone at times, which I quite appreciated. I do love my personal space, and we both needed a break from conversing in my miserable Russian. Before the flight was over he invited me to his home in Gizhduvan and said I should take the train to Bukhara with him the next night. I’d planned on taking a car the next day, but a train didn’t sound like a bad idea. I adore trains.
After we landed in Tashkent, he and his son waited for me amidst the taxi hawks outside the airport and made certain that Gulnara’s son Rufshan was there to retrieve me. I promised to call the next day, and Rufshan and I made our way to Gulnara’s.
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.
The Militsia guy stopped me because of my shoes. At least, he thought I was local because of my shoes. The anguish of carefully thought out shopping/packing plans came quickly to naught when my comfy new slip-on sneakers started to cut my feet open while breaking them in at home. By Tashkent, the wounds were too swollen to subject to the sneakers, so I had to wear heels about all day (like most of the women) or my flip-flops (like the remainder of them), purchased long ago for 99 cents on 103rd Street so that my toenails could dry after a pedicure. You know I picked the flip-flops.
I made my way through Chorsu bazaar on the way back to Gulnara’s to buy some first aid tape for my feet. The outside stalls are mostly clothes and stuff like calculators and rat poison. Most of the food is sold inside large domes where it’s slightly cooler, yet a few people were hawking perishables outside in the heat. A young girl handed me a skinned chicken and inquired, “Want chicken, girl?” In Russian, dyevoshka, which means girl, is used constantly as a greeting, to get one’s attention and so on, for females up to wrinkled prune face age. It is then replaced by babushka (grandma, stress on BA). I don’t find it sexist or annoying. It’s one of the many things I can’t apply my cultural rational to because it is simply something else. It is not ‘girl’ in the American sense. To take offense in another’s culture when none is intended is offensive. When I can’t accept or understand, I have learned to let go. It isn’t easy.
A few hours later Nasibulla would tell me that the economy in Tashkent is so bad that most only have the money for meat once a week, whereas it was afforded daily four years ago. Perhaps that’s why they were targeting me, the foreigner in Uzbek-fashioned footwear. I shuddered at the chicken, thinking thoughts better suited to my vegetarian friends, when a boy shoved a large shank of warm, greasy, fat-laden lamb in my face and informed more than asked: “Meat you NEED, girl.”
“Oh man, oh man I do not need that, will not eat that,” I noted to myself in a haughty tone, thoughts moving from my veggie pals to of all the illnesses I’d managed to pick up last time I was here. I bought a beer to take back and continued on home to ready for Bukhara.
Once at Gulnara’s, I called Alisher (the ceramist from the flight) and told him which wagon I’d be in on the train. Then I packed a small bag for Bukhara, showered, chatted with Gulnara and Nasibulla, patched up my bloody feet again, and rushed off to the train station with Nasibulla.
The train was already at the Tashkent station, so I left Nasibulla, looked for my wagon, climbed aboard and found my bed. I sat there in the heat taking pictures when an Uzbek guy of about 30 came into the coupe, settled in and began chatting. Hmm. With all of the high recommendations for the overnight train, not once did it occur to me, or was it suggested, that traveling alone might be a concern. This, I hoped, was evidence of my comfort level in Uzbekistan rather than of sheer idiocy. Yet there I was, alone in a sleeper with an Uzbek guy, an Uzbek guy, I’d soon learn, who was a policeman. This was less than reassuring. The Uzbeks have, for legitimate reasons, as much trust in their police as do the friends and family of Abner Louima. Where, I wondered, was Alisher? Would he and his son make the train?
As we rolled out of Tashkent, my new roommate kept talking to me, asking about my family, my age, my income. I tried to suss him out. He seemed a family man and sincere, but the restrictions placed on a family man in Uzbekistan are quite different than those in the States. And the unfortunate reputation of western women as fully and happily available could encourage him to believe that raping me in the wee hours of the morning might be to our mutual benefit. Should I somehow change to a sleeper with women? Hell. I sat, waited, and sussed his character some more as he opened two paper-packages with hot dogs inside and offered me one. I’d eaten at Gulnara’s and wasn’t about to take, but he wouldn’t eat in front of me unless I ate too. He just didn’t feel right, he explained. I just didn’t feel right, as I again politely refused (if one can, in fact, politely refuse food in this culture. I’ve yet to manage it, but he was the perfect guy to practice on).
If he doesn’t feel comfortable about eating when I do not, surely he will not feel comfortable about forcing sex on me. Correct? Things were looking up.
Hunger won over manners and, with an apology, he dug into the hotdog. As he ate, he decided he wanted the door closed and asked if that was okay. No, no, it was not okay. I think that we need the air from the hall, I explained, the thought of being locked alone in the sleeper with him most unpleasant. And my friend might be looking for me, I added. I was still hoping for Alisher, though it was over an hour into the trip and looking grim.
I shut my eyes for a rest while my bunkmate ate, but he kept talking to me, asking how old I am, how much I make a month, how many kids I had, where my husband was, how I liked Uzbekistan, etc. I’d finally decided he was harmless when he asked me to accompany him to the dining car to drink vodka. My eyes shot open and I glared at him, “No, no thanks.”
Gentlemanly Muslim men do not ask lone American women with whom they will sleep in a small room to drink vodka with them.
“How about beer?”
“No, no thanks. I don’t want beer.” This was a lie. I could have used a beer. I never got about to drinking the one I’d bought in the market earlier.
“Come on, let’s go drink. It will be fun.”
“Ummm. I don’t think so. I don’t sleep well after I drink. No thanks.”
He settled on getting us tea. Rather than let the terror settle in, I started to plot how I would switch cabins without offending him too greatly. I’d just shut my eyes to analyze the situation when I a booming “Annochka!” shook us both to attention. Alisher!
“Annochka, are you hungry? We are going to go for dinner in the dining car. Please come and join us!”
I jumped up and gave Alisher a kiss on each cheek. “Let’s go!” Alisher grabbed my bag, stashed it in his coupe a few wagons down, and we went on to the dining car for dinner.
(I later found this funny link with pics of Alisher and Hillary Clinton, on her visit to Ghizduvan.)