27 October 2007

As told to Tintin

Imagine, if you will, showing up in the run-down parking lot of a third-world country's long-distance bus station at 6:30 in the morning, being trundled into the back of one of many waiting Russian-made cars (after much intense haggling, sometimes devolving into pushing and spitting), and being driven across two borders to a completely separate country, whose relations with members of the first are very strained.

Now, imagine doing it to ten hours of Russian techno music. It's amazing how boring a synthesized back-beat can be.

That was how we got from Bishkek to Tashkent, from one of the poorer Central Asian countries, through its richest, into its most cultural. In doing so, we crossed the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, effortlessly (though it is a bit telling that the customs declaration form has the word "Free" written diagonally across it, in big, bold, baby-blue letters and in three languages), spent a grand total of ten hours in Kazakhstan marvelling over their crazy language—so much for our double-entry visa—and were dropped off at the Kazakh-Uzbek border by our friendly Lada-driver.

Yes, it is a crazy language. In Kazakh, verbs not only have tense, aspect, and mood. They also have evidentiality. Meaning, you can't just say, "He wrote this." You have your choice of six different possibilities. "He wrote this, and I saw the result," or "He wrote this and someone else saw the results and told me about it," or "He wrote this and told me about it, but I probably didn't see it," or, most declarative, "He wrote this, and I saw him write it," and more, all by just changing the verb's ending. Don't ask me why.

We walked across the Kazakh-Uzbek border, into the waiting, loving arms of taxi touts and gipsy kids. We picked an older minibus driver with five other passengers in his car, told him where we wanted to go, and trusted him to get us there. Thirty minutes later, we were unceremoniously dumped by the side of a major road, with blustering assurances that we had arrived, about an hour's walk from our destination. And not a single other passenger said a thing about it. Welcome to Tashkent.

The former Soviet Union's fourth largest city (after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev), and the only Central Asian city with a functioning subway system, this was our introduction to Uzbekistan, and to its tricks. The most distressing of these was the levying of entrance fees at random gates throughout the city.

For example, the Kukeldash medressa. This is a Muslim school near where we were staying. After about 10 minutes inside its front door, we were approached by a man (who, as they all would for the next ten days, appeared frankly out of nowhere, in Russian-tailored suit and too-pointy shoes) pedantically calling himself the "Deputy Director of Foreign Relations". He was, I was informed, "in charge of meeting all foreign tourists to our medressa," from whom he would extract a 1000-sum entrance fee.

(Ask the old men whiling away the afternoon inside the medressa's courtyard who this guy was, and they'd smile a knowing, toothless smile. "He's just a guide.")

Of course, if you were Uzbek, the entrance fee was simply your nationality. To make matters worse, if you tried to find a sign anywhere dictating a particular entrace fee, you would be flummoxed. These signs didn't exist.

It took us about four hours to determine that entrance fees, like everything else in Central Asia, were eminently negotiable. What was most distressing about this particular scam, though (perpetrated at every site that could remotely be considered a monument, including looking at the one remaining wall of a Timurid palace in the middle of nowhere) was that you never knew who these ticket collectors were.

Which meant, you never knew where the money was actually going. Often, the touts were the souvenir sellers closest to the door. Sometimes they'd approach you from miles away. Sometimes they'd be kids. But they'd latch on to you like rabid dogs, ignoring any logic, until another—likely more docile—tourist walked in.

By the way, the Kukeldash medressa wasn't worth the 1000-sum entrance fee.

But mostly, Tashkent has been a city of fast internet, Nutella, and the world's oldest Koran (from only a few decades after Mohammed's death).

Now this! This is Central Asia. Samarkand is grandiose. It's magical. It's well-preserved and under-touristed. It dramatically lights its monuments up at night. It's walkable. It's steeped in history. And it was our favorite city in this entire region.

It was in Samarkand that we were most impressed by the cult of personality that has developed around Amir Timur (aka Timur the Great, aka Tamerlane). Born in Shakhrisabz, a small town 90 km south of the city, and buried just outside the guesthouse we stayed at, his name is everywhere. His museums are ubiquitous. And his statues of flowing concrete show no hint of the lameness in his right leg from which his name derives.

It was in his museum in Shakhrisabz, though, that we had one of those quintessential travel moments. This museum contains two rooms, with facsimilies of Timurid coins, glazed tiles, pottery, and (for some, inexplicable reason) Alexandrine relics. All the signs are in Uzbek, but a too-eager docent is more than happy to take you around the rooms, point out the coins, and explain them, for your benefit. In Uzbek. You aren't allowed to refuse her company.

After our ten-minute tour of poorly-lit historical replicas and dioramas worthy of Sister Viola Pratka's first-grade class, we were escorted to the front door, accompanied by the only English words to come out of our Virgil's mouth. "Five thousand." (This is nearly triple the price of admission to most monuments in Uzbekistan).

"Five thousand?! No. We'll give you 2000."

"Five thousand. Real price! Not me! Director! Bank! President Uzbekistan!"

We held our ground. She held hers, blustering on about how this price was actually set by President Karimov himself. Because he's got little better to do.

So, she locked us into the museum! Walked to the door, and bolted it shut! And, just like that, we became prisoners in a Central Asian country.

We pulled out our books, sat down on a bench, and made like we didn't really care. We had enough water to last us till she went home. The ruse worked: our detention didn't last more than about 10 minutes before we were released, on 2000-sum bail, back to our guesthouse.

This guesthouse was run by two unmarried sisters. They lavished breakfasts, fresh figs, and for-a-fee travel services on all their guests (we availed ourselves of laundry). But it struck us as strange that one of these matronly, overly-interested ladies remarked, one morning, that 80% of her tourists got some sort of GI malady during their stay there (we did). And that she had a special tea, brewed from quince leaves and branches, that worked wonders (it didn't). Hey...At least they had a tremendous view of the Great Man's mausoleum.

Speaking of our bail.... The Uzbek sum may actually be worth less than Monopoly money (OK. I looked it up. It's not. Monopoly money is worth about a third the value of the Uzbek sum). Currently, the US dollar trades at 1,282 Uzbek sum. Unfortunately, the National Mint hasn't printed new bills since 1999, and the largest they ever printed was 1000 sum. This means that the biggest bill in existence is worth seventy-eight cents.

Not that prices are commensurately cheaper. Budget guesthouses still cost between $15 and $20 US, per person. And nobody (not even banks) takes credit cards. Change $100 USD into sum, and you end up with a veritable brick of money. Here, for example, is 111,800 sum.

That's $87.20.

After the alopecia-inducing bus ride to Samarkand (Peggy's writing about that one), we swore off Central Asian buses and booked a train to Bukhara. Clean, comfortable, and fast. And, for three hours, the wheels tapped out the diambic rhythm of the first two words of La Marseillaise.

Allons enfants...allons enfants...allons enfants... We didn't realize how appropriate that would be.

Bukhara is, frankly, a suburb of Paris. Central Asia's holiest city, the birthplace of Avicenna, and the site of its oldest and most grandiose mosques, medressas, and minarets, has become a carnival of carpet sellers, hat hawkers, and the bus-loads of retired French tourists who love them. How many white-haired French men did we need to see with their necks bedangled by three different cameras and their heads covered with Kyrgyz felt hats of dubious quality?

This isn't something you expect when you book a trip like this. Uzbekistan—off the beaten track, desert-bound, and holy.

And completely cheapened. Bukhara is caricature. It is Central Asia, as told to Tintin.*

It was also the first place we were threatened with police action for deciding to go to another guesthouse than the one we'd originally booked.

Two days was all we could take. We booked it back here to Tashkent.

*Yes, yes. Tintin is Belgian. I know.

1 comment:

moshe said...

Mark and Peggy
NICE, thanks. We live "real life"already, and you are writing the greatest story of your life !

I saw on TV the building of the 3rd "MercyShip". oyu are going to live on an amazing ship.

Do you know when is your boarding time ?