Uzbekistan (4/20/01-5/01/01)

Ah, Uzbekistan. Who hasn't wanted to explore this well-known traveler's paradise? Oh, wait that's Thailand. Uzbekistan is the country I had never heard of before planning this trip. Don't know where it is? It's right next to Tajikistan and Kazakstan, of course.

We honestly had no idea of what to expect from this country; it turned out to be nothing short of wonderful. Our first impression was formed in the Bangkok airport where our flightmates were an amazing Uzbek facsimile of Vegas trailer trash returning home from incredible shopping sprees in Bangkok. I hadn't seen hair that big and jeans that tight for months! We were the only tourists on the flight (except for the entire Taipei soccer team). We knew we were headed for a different culture when the flight attendant told one of the soccer players to "go sit in your seat, NOW!"

At one point in the flight I opened the shade and was pleasantly surprised to find that we were flying smack dab over the Himalayas. The sight was absolutely breathtaking. At first I thought we must have been flying way too low to be so close to the mountains, but then I realized that we were still at 35,000 feet -it was just that the mountains were 25,000 plus feet tall! Snow covered majestic peaks filled my view out the window - one of my most memorable incredible sights of this trip.

Our preconceived notion of an ex-Soviet country being a bureaucratic nightmare was ruined by an absolutely smooth and uneventful passage through customs in Tashkent. We exchanged $40 for a few bricks of play money and then were happily greeted by our friend Arina and her niece Ksyusha. At this point Arina took charge and we quickly realized we we'd be getting nowhere without speaking Russian (and a little ball of uneasiness began forming in the pits of our stomachs - "My God, what are we going to do when Arina has to leave us to return to work?") They had already found us a cheap home to stay in and we got our first glimpse of life in Uzbekistan. We stayed with a older Russian women who kept our bellies full of Russian fare - fried fish, fresh veggies (food rule #1 broken), dried fruit (rule #2 gone), bread and tea. It was a good thing we liked it all because we got the same thing every meal and for in-between meal snacks.

We spent the first afternoon wandering around Tashkent. We had our first introduction to Uzbek food, which we love. Salat (tomato and cucumber salad - rule #1 very broken), lagman (fat noodle soup), plov (delicious rice with carrots, onions, currants, and mutton), lapeshka (fresh flat round sourdough bread that appears instantly upon sitting at any table anywhere), and my favorite, shashlik (skewers of spiced fatty ground lamb). A complete meal costs us around $0.50 and we were more then happy to eat Uzbek food from then on.

Tashkent is really a beautiful city, especially compared to the cities of the last six months. It's very clean and green with broad avenues, numerous parks, and new modern buildings. It had an almost European feel to it (albeit a blocky one). Everyone dresses up which helps flag us as foreigners. (As one travel agent said, looking at our sloppy travel clothes, "you look like. sporty types.") Even the little girls are dressed to the nines and walk with a wiggle. Weird.

The next day we left by bus for Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road City. The ride was beautiful (not to mention comfortable, smooth, and horn-free). The land was blanketed with fresh green grass dotted with fields of crimson poppies and golden mustard grass which destroyed my mental image of central Asia being one vast ugly desert. We were stopped at dozens of police checkpoints which was more in line with my expectations - no hassle for us though.

In the afternoon we toured Samarkand's famous Registan. I had seen pictures but in real life the place is absolutely amazing. The three enormous medressas (Islamic religious schools) are beautifully decorated with cobalt blue tile work and topped with wonderful turquoise domes. The buildings are reminiscent of the Taj Mahal but are far more colorful. One of the buildings flouts Islamic law by displaying tile mosaics of tigers and faces (the architect was Zoarastrian). It was easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the place when it was a trading bazaar 400 years ago. In the morning Arina and I climbed the minaret for early morning views over the city. The fairly dangerous climb up the much damaged minaret led me to believe that the minaret part of the tour was less than official, especially since our "additional fee" went straight to the night watchman who suggested the tour.

We spent the morning breaking every health rule in the book at the local farmers market trying all of the food (sweets, dried fruits, nuts, breads, etc.). We bought a 1-kg bag of the most delicious dried apricots for $1! The best part was meeting the incredibly friendly Uzbek people. The women are something else with their flashy smiles of gold teeth, penciled in monobrows (true, they're considered sexy), and super gaudy clashing clothes. The rest of the day was spent touring the other sights of Samarkand and pleading poverty to get discounted entrance rates (for we are but poor 33-year-old students). We visited the tomb of Mohammed's cousin; a very important sight since seven pilgrimages to this tomb is equal to one visit to Mecca. We visited incredible mosques, medressas and mausoleums all decorated with the stunning blue tile mosaics. The weirdest sight was Daniel's (some prophet guy) tomb. Folks believe that he continues to grow inch a year and so his sarcophagus is 18 meters long! The funny part is that he apparently doesn't get any wider, only taller.

From Samarkand we bused our way across vast ugly desert (hah, just as I thought) to another ancient Silk Road city, Bukhara. As we took a taxi into town, we watched in stunned silence as our driver spotted an oncoming funeral procession, swerved to the side of the road and jumped out in order to partake in the carrying the casket of his fellow Muslim for a few moments. Then he ran and jumped back in the taxi and we continued on as if nothing at all strange had happened.

Bukhara is an amazingly clean and well-restored city that oozes history. The sand colored city is full of beautifully blue-tiled medressas and mosques, mausoleums and minarets (including one that was used to throw criminals to their deaths). The highlight of our Bukhara visit was meeting Niema at the market who invited us to her home for lunch. We got to experience a traditional Uzbek meal in an Uzbek home with Uzbek people and a bottle of vodka consumed in the traditional Uzbek manner. Lucky for us there was only one bottle in the house.

After days of exploring Bukhara's picturesque old town, we began our journey to Kazakstan. Compared to the trains of India, the overnight train ride here is luxurious (despite the lack of much needed air conditioning). Things got a little awkward when Geoff got dragged into the compartment next door full of drunken Uzbek men where the phrase "assault by hospitality" was given new meaning. Vodka and mystery meat were forced upon him and when I went to check on him I was also dragged in. It was only by Arina's quick talking that we were saved ("If she drinks vodka she will be throwing up all night and he only drank to be polite, now let him go!").

Kazakstan (5/01/01-5/14/01)

Crossing the border into Kazakstan was a long and drawn out ordeal involving many long dark corridors and small offices of various officials repeatedly checking our passports and visas. We would have been hopelessly lost without Arina, but relatively speaking, I think it went rather smoothly - we got hit up for a bribe only once (that's when not speaking the language and playing dumb comes in really handy). Then, when we though we were finished, our mini-bus was stopped at a road block next to a shabby trailer with a hand-painted `Passport Control' sign. Some schmuck not in uniform demanded Geoff and mine passports. Inside the trailer they demanded "um.$43.and um fifty cents for fee! Yeah, that's it, give us $43.50." Arina told them where to put their registration fee, and we went on our way without any more hassles. How are we going to survive without her?

In Arina's hometown of Taraz we were greeted by her mother and grandmother and welcomed in to a table full of food (a recurring theme here). We also got our first introduction to a Russian banya, a sauna bath, which is a wonderful way to bathe. We ate, checked out the city, ate, rested, ate, paused and ate some more. Everyone here has taken very good care of us and the food just keeps coming. Word got out that we liked the incredibly sweet Napoleon cakes, and there were three in one day for our consumption!

One thing that has really stood out here is the incredible hospitality that we continuously received. Not only have Arina, her family, and her friend Larissa (who housed us) been knocking themselves out making sure we were well fed and comfortable at all times, but we have random people extending their welcome too. One woman on the street gave us bread, the food salesman on the train tried to give us free food, Niema invited us into her home, and our taxi driver invited us to his home for dinner because "we were the first live Americans that he had met". I've definitely learned a thing or two about being hospitable - here they take it to a whole new level.

On our way by train to Almaty, we got another lesson in how to deal with corrupt officials. Upon boarding the train, Geoff and I were given the last two bunks which left three people, including Arina, without a bunk. Apparently the conductor unofficially sold seats that were already sold so that he could pocket the extra money. Arina began raising a fuss, but the conductor failed to see why she thought standing for the next 12 hours was a problem. When the train began to leave the station and the conductor hadn't done anything to get the squatters out, Arina pulled the emergency stop cord for the train, bringing it to a screeching halt! Army men boarded the train and demanded a fine from Arina who proceeded to tell them where to put their fine. Finally the conductor saw the errors of his ways (that is, messing with the wrong gal) and he kicked the squatters out. Arina got her berth and the train went on its merry way. Boy, I admire that woman!

Our arrival in Almaty began with a surreal lunch to "Rock Me Amadeus" playing on the stereo as we admired the short skirts, tight pants and snug tops that are apparently the uniform here. For dinner we sampled a traditional Kazak dish of assorted horse meats. It was really quite delicious except the intestines full of pure congealed horse fat, which was absolutely foul. Arina found us a cheap apartment, and then she left us to return to work. And then we began to flounder. We had become totally dependent on Arina and her Russian.

Slowly we got used to communicating with hand signals again and began to relax. We had a few miscommunications here and there like being directed to a vacant building (ha, ha), ordering liver skewers (oops), and being the last two passengers on a tram turning in for the night (why is the conductor staring at us?), but we got by. Eventually we were making outings by public transportation. We visited the enormous skating rink and climbed the 839 steps (yes, I'm that anal) up the avalanche dam face for mediocre views of the mountains and great views of the impending storm. We took a local bus tour to Charyn Canyon, Kazakstan's proudly touted `Little Grand Canyon'; `Little' was an overstatement, but it was a beautiful canyon nonetheless. Our bus was full of drunk teenage boys and a smattering of annoyed families and it was a great cultural experience in that we got to see what Kazaks do with their weekends (that is nearly kill themselves on treacherous trails).

We also went on a tour to the Kolsoi lakes with our driver, guide Reiza and her son crammed into a rickety old cab along with our luggage, fuel and enough food to give an army heart disease. The five hour drive was beautiful (poppy fields, snow covered mountains, etc.), and we passed many a small Kazak village with their men in 3 piece suits and goofy hats on horseback rounding up livestock. The road quickly degenerated into something dangerous and atrocious, but we were amply rewarded upon our arrival with the beautiful turquoise alpine lake of Kolsoi. We arrived just in time for the storm to start and as we made the half-hour climb to the guesthouse we were pelted with chickpea sized hail. Ow! We spent our time there hiking, relaxing, and of course eating. It was a great getaway from the city.

A highlight of my Kazakstan visit was my visit to Arasan, the public baths in Almaty. I was totally lost in what to do and where to go but people were friendly and I slowly figured it out. The indoor baths are huge with locker room, bathing room, huge steam sauna (with an industrial sized boiler), dry sauna, and a large circular swimming pool. I assume the men's side, which Geoff opted out of investigating, was just as large. Things got interesting when I got yelled at for not wearing a hair cover in the pool. Of course I had no idea I was the one being lectured from across the room since I don't speak Russian. But it quickly became apparent to everyone that I didn't have a clue, and a nice old lady adopted me and found me a hair cover (which apparently can be anything from a hankie to a ski cap!). Now I was in the In crowd. The lady who found me a cap took pity on my helplessness and she offered to beat the crap out of me with her tree branches. Um.when in Kazakstan. I always say. It actually felt quite good (I scare myself). I let myself get talked into a massage (nice trick considering I don't speak the language) which turned out to be an aggressive form of Swedish massage performed on a heated marble slab. Finally, as I was washing up, another old lady was kind enough to remove the skin from my back with her scrubber (since I was so grossly unprepared to not have brought one). Beaten, scrubbed and thoroughly relaxed I left the public baths completely sold on the concept. I enjoyed it so much I made a point of going back before our flight out - this time equipped with a hair cover and scrubber.

Our last few days in Central Asia were spent back in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. We treated ourselves to some culture (albeit surreal and unintelligible) by attending the opera. We saw Masquerade, an Italian opera done in Russian with Uzbek performers (complete with gold teeth). We had the best seats in the gorgeous European style opera house for a whopping $1.25 - what a deal! Definitely a once in a lifetime experience - as was our whole visit to Central Asia.

On to Southeast Asia!

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Our favorite Uzbek product

Beautifully detailed tile work in the old silk road city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Gorgeous ceiling detail inside the Registan

Mosque detail inside the Registan

The Registan's medressas (Islamic schools), Samarkand

Geoff sports the ever-so-stylish Tajik wooly hat

Ulegbek's Medressa flouts Islamic rules against displaying life forms

Uzbek women in the Samarkand marketplace

Muslim funeral procession in traditional dress (yes, bathrobes)

Samarkand's signature blue tile work decorates a mausoleum

Prophet Daniel's 18 meter sarcophagus (Why so long? Because he grows a half inch a year even when dead, of course)

More fantastic Islamic tile work on a medressa in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara's old minaret was perfect for throwing criminals to their death

Traditional lunch in a typical Uzbek home

A 9th century tomb in Bukhara

Another beautifully and sacrilegiously tiled medressa

Overlooking Bukhara's ancient old town

The Chor Minor, Bukhara

Tempting Korean salads in the Taraz marketplace

What won't they translate into Russian

Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan

Let the good time roll (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Almaty's Russian Orthodox church

The hills are alive....

Camping out at Kolsoi lake, Kazakhstan

I'm sure he only gets it for the articles

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