Tag Archives: tashkent

most alive and at peace

lyabi haus, bukhara

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.

tashkent since 9/11

Gulnara chatting with neighbor through courtyard wall

It was Friday night when I arrived, and the family was sitting down to dinner while minding a table of tourists across the courtyard. I joined them for melon and beer and we caught up on the last four years. Gulnara and Nasibulla are well, though tired. The tourist season is endless, mindless work. Gulnara often gets up at 2 a.m. to feed transiting tourists then Nasibulla drives them to the airport. Back to bed, then up again at 6 until bed at 12 or 1 a.m., and up again in the wee hours for the airport. After age 55 this must be extremely unpleasant. They appreciate their business and situation, because it’s wildly fortunate for Uzbekistan, but they seem heavy, cynical, and tired, and rightly so. Gulnara is fond of saying that she works like an American, incessantly and without pleasure. Their eldest son moved to the States with his family in 2001. Their daughter is in Tashkent raising her two boys on her own. And Rufshan, their youngest, graduated from University in Economics in May and can’t find a job. They don’t seem hopeful that he will, to put it mildly. The economy is bleak.

They’ve added on to the house. More rooms and many now have bathrooms, so no more schleps across the courtyard for a shower or toilet. It’s still Gulnara’s though, with the same Soviet-issue furniture, machine-made Bukharan rugs, and the wonderful courtyard with fig trees and traditional homtakhta, where we eat her homemade jam and fresh lepyoshka.

Gulnara supported Alisher’s idea of taking the night train to Bukhara instead of a car. It made sense, as I’d have all day Saturday to look around Tashkent instead of running immediately to the autostation for a taxi and eight hour ride through the heat to Bukhara, only to arrive at night and go to sleep.

On Saturday morning I visited with them some more, then took off for Chorsu Bazaar and the nearby metro station. Chorsu is where the suicide bombings occurred last March, steps away from Gulnara’s in the old town. It feels more or less the same, unlike the rest of Tashkent.

From Chorsu I took the metro to the train station, got my ticket without a hitch (about ten dollars for a coupe/sleeper) and made my way by metro to the city center.

tashkent trams 2000
tashkent trams 2000

By this point I was shocked by how much Tashkent has changed in four years. I thought perhaps that in 2000, I just didn’t notice how heavy it feels because I was so involved in my worries with the tourists and my own idiotic situation, but I wasn’t quite that self-absorbed. Tashkent is different. Heavier. There’s no one about. Buildings and streets look cleaner and fancier, but there is no one around using them, no one out in the street cafes, no one shopping. I asked why, and most gave me their honest opinion—it’s because no one wants to deal with the Militsia (police). And because no one has the money to go out. The situation is that much worse. In 2000, during the six months I was here I was never once asked for my passport while walking around. Today, my first, I was stopped in the metro. I admit that I kind of glared at the officer. It wasn’t intentional; it was a look that just sprang up because of the stories I hear. He stopped me and asked for my passport, and said “What? It’s not Uzbek? Where are you from?” He didn’t stop me as a foreigner but as a local. He took me into a small room and went through my bag, told me about his time working as a driver in L.A., made some more small talk and sent me off.

Tashkent feels like New York did just after 9/11. That’s really the only way to explain it, it’s that heavy. One day in Tashkent and I’m more than ready to shove off to Bukhara and see what’s happening there.

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.

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!

at home in the post-soviet nations

Uzbekistan reminded me of Lithuania, which is troublesome on humanitarian grounds (the Soviet Union managed to concretize what seems a quarter of the globe) but comforting emotionally. I felt at home in Soviet-flat studded Vilnius and that hinted at comfort here. Indeed, I settled in quickly. (Soviet-style flats in Kaunas, at right.)

In no less time things soured between Mario and me. He took to long periods of counting his numbers (minding the books) and wandering around Tashkent in search of new hotels, possible acquaintances, or some non-existent exotic Uzbek melon he’d heard a tourist telling stories about. I filled the time with Russian studies, photography, and counting numbers of my own, which drove Mario to pouting fits. Instead of confronting him directly, I drew up a calendar biding the days until he left for Pakistan and devised break-up scenarios to ease the dull, annoying pain. Outwardly, I indulged some pouting fits of my own. Meanwhile lovely Uzbek and Tajik men were edging in on my fantasies; their chivalry amused me and I ached for the attention.

Eventually I did confront Mario and he let my unhappiness roll off his back. It wasn’t a surprise when he announced an earlier departure for Pakistan, but it halted my scheming. I flapjacked one-eighty and felt intensely abandoned, as the orphaned sixteen year old sprang up to relive the pain of dad’s death just one more time. Is this all that drew me to him? It did seem to be Mario’s main attraction for me—his particular penchant for going away. I batted the girl down and forced myself back to logic, scratching the superfluous days off my countdown, relieved that the charade would be over soon.

how i ended up a tour guide in central asia and iran: an honest explanation

Your lynx-eyes, Asia,
spy on my discontent;
they lure into the light
my buried self,
something the silence spawned,
no more to be endured
than the noonday heat of Termez.
It is as if into my consciousness
all of pre-memory
Like molten lava pours,
As if I were drinking my own tears
From the cupped palms of a stranger’s hands.

Anna Akhmatova
Tashkent

I was twenty-seven and a photographer. I’d just finished shooting a guide book (below) which required over one hundred and fifty shoots in only six weeks.

Exhausted, I made deadline, packed up my Queens apartment, and took off for Tashkent to start work as a tour guide in Central Asia.

Unhappy with freelance work in New York, I wanted to build my travel photography portfolio, and what better way to do that than all-expense paid travel as a guide? There are better ways.

How an American woman lands a job in Uzbekistan with an Australian travel firm is quite simple. I’d worked in Lithuania and traveled extensively in the European ex-Soviet Union; I’d also traveled and photographed a good deal in India and Pakistan. These regions are perfect preparation for Central Asia.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the tourists, not even my inconsistent Australian boyfriend, Mario.

Mario got me the job, of course. We know that in our world a person does not get a job on merit alone. Mario worked as a guide and recommended me to his boss. He would meet my flight in Tashkent, and show me around. Luckily, we would not work much together, but might see each other every few months. He was to train me, and then take off for a tour into Pakistan. At that time on the plane, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that—or about him for that matter. I knew on a very deep, quiet level that I was still unwilling to heed, that our relationship had ended a year earlier, not long after it began. On a very loud and demanding level, I knew that I was tired of freelancing and the super-trendy city life I never went in for, which was too much a part of my photo assignments. Clearly, I wanted this Uzbekistan job. And so, after months apart, when Mario suggested we get back together, I shut down the quiet little voice and agreed.

It does sound obnoxious, but I wasn’t consciously so mercenary; I did want to love him and make the relationship work.

[This was written in retrospect in 2004, but is posted here in chronological order of events.]

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