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Published: December 5th 2015
My fondest memory of Uzbekistan
late night happen chance drinks with a couple of locals, Tashkent
A different breed of foreign visitor is found in Uzbekistan, following on the heels of English language menus. Olive uniformed soldiers guarding the capital’s metro stations, curious locals haggling in the bazaars, and youths wandering the back streets, practice their English, and enquire, “Touriste?” The alpinist satiated on Pamir and Tian Shan, the traveller weary of daylong journeys crammed inside a 4x4 with teasing glimpses of astounding landscape privy only to those with the strength and time to cycle, or the resources to afford private transport, are reduced to sight seeking, caffe latte consuming, photo snapping, gewgaw shopping 'touriste'. The wannabe explorers, centuries late and addicted to WIFI, sympathize with each other, ‘this is the cultural leg of the journey.’ On the plus side, bowels have found a sort of equilibrium, though it remains a risk to wager one’s business is strictly urinary. Regional techno serenades the near empty cafes that entice travellers with English language menus, quasi cappuccinos, and fresh juice, either cherry, peach or pomegranate; the apple, orange and grape juice of Central Asia.
Strenuous hikes, wild panoramas void of human encroachment, and quaint distant villages are exchanged for art galleries, fortresses, cafes, museums, and the ubiquitous
souvenir stalls. Entry ticket guards peddle hand knit booties by the legion. Like a desert horizon, the line blurs between ethnographer and consumer. Everywhere blue, green and ochre painted ceramic wares are displayed alongside floral engraved wooden knickknacks. Silk carpets and wool kilims are draped alluringly, cushion covers too and enough jewellery if tied end to end that would link every backwater and byway of the ancient silk route in brilliant braids. One museum blurs into the next, an endless parade of display cases, ancestors of the merchandise, at twenty percent discount if you pay cash.
In the more didactic exhibits, framed black and white photographs of national heroes stare back at the tourist. Illustrations of epic battles, placards of bygone dynasties, red, yellow and blue arrows crisscrossing the continent, the waxing and waning, warp and weft of civilization recall vaguely a high school History PPT. A millennium later a proud state leader and his social scientist army uncover, arrange and display what was all along the march towards Modernity. Bereft of English labels, the western tourist contemplates the turbans and telpeks, beards and chappans. Eavesdropping a thick Russian accented tour guide adds to the tourist’s confusion. Elsewhere
an overly zealous guide ruins a perfectly peaceful sunset. His Japanese centenarian guests are buoyed by his incessant commentary and cross-cultural genkiness.
In the midday heat, unherded western tourists peer at one another, perhaps for clues, or perhaps distraction. A couple hours into the museum visits, the ancient tile work and fanciful costumes, the intricate woodwork and authoritative renderings of past rulers meet blank tourist gazes. How does one respond to so much culture? Within the walled city of Khiva and its adobe maze of minarets and mausoleums, a cafe festooned with psychedelic suzane offers shade and respite from souvenir peddlers. Cleverly, the only shade in the streets is found beneath souvenir stall awnings. How many Uzbeks must be employed in handicrafts to have lined every shelf, every storefront; or, rather how many tourists have failed to pay a visit? The high season, September, only weeks away, will perhaps cleanse the city of its cultural surplus.
In Bukhara, a young doctor from Geneva, light hearted and amiable, reminds me how to enjoy traveling in places seemingly prescribed by guidebooks and limited to sightseeing and parading markets. I confess to him that I no longer enter any
of the sites. With each two or three dollars saved, I can upgrade accommodation or restaurant. I’ve no idea what tourists accomplish with their endless digital reels. Truly, today’s tourists are a far different species than our ancestors. Twenty years ago, my first trip abroad, analog film required rationing images. Tourists had a quota of memories. A handful of internet cafes appeared in major cities. Before WIFI, before smart phones, before kindles, a tourist might suffer a hand cramp, writing post cards or turning the pages of a novel.
Xavier and I rent a pair of mountain bikes, and after adjusting the seats, testing the breaks, oiling the chains and inflating the tubes, set off for the recommended sights in the surrounding villages. Naively, I have conjured images of half ruins surrounded by friendly farmland, technicolour postcards from the 1960s. I am greeted by yet another of President Karimov’s Soviet inspired interpretations of progress. In the past decade, entire neighbourhoods of charming winding lanes have been razed to accommodate expansive boulevards lined with souvenir shops and prohibitively designed public parks. Posters with black and white images of the former ruins stand before brand-new facades. Cashiers housed like bank
tellers in an old western charge the foreigner five times the local price to view artifacts devoid of meaning, stripped of context and labeled in Cyrillic. Locals dressed in pressed slacks and showy dresses wander the grounds in displays of solemn homage.
Xavier’s enthusiasm for exploration leads us into the city’s old Jewish quarter. Losing our way through ever-narrower alleys, we uncover less visited sights – a synagogue of sorts with magazine clippings about the Jews of Bukhara, a forgotten mausoleum with a caved in dome, and behold - a Soviet era hammam. The guidebooks and Karimov have yet to find their way down this one back alley. For a couple dollars each we enjoy a private sauna and a thirty-minute massage. While the middle-aged battle-axe kneads my muscles into supplication, I hear my companion leave our cabin. Later he recounts that he’d entered the room across the hall, slipped off his towel and joined the gentleman relaxing there blissfully. ‘Get out! Get out!’ he’d yelled. Xavier had never heard of a private sauna before.
The tourist equipped with iphone and wifi access can arrange accommodation on the fly, and bypass the guidebook’s recommended tourist haunts.
Couchsurf and airbnb connect travellers with entrepreneurial locals, some who are very curious to learn about other cultures or offer a less scripted version of contemporary Uzbek society. My last evening in Bukhara, I join Xavier and a local guy he’d met online. We discuss ethnicity, language, politics and tourism. Our new friend explains how things have changed, how progress has altered people’s values, how greed for profit has replaced communal ties.
My fondest memory in Uzbekistan occurred as we left the hammam. I was admiring an old Russian jeep, when the owner approached us. Xavier shared polite small talk. Then the man offered us a drive back to our hotel in his antique 4x4. Its ridged tires hummed along the smooth and narrow dirt alleys, small children pointing and laughing at my friend and I sitting in the back, the wind flowing through our hair, the sun setting behind a typecast Islamic skyline. I exaggerate. I am in fact balding and my fondest memory was in Tashkent, a happen chance encounter with the head cook at a popular barbecue stand in Chorsu Bazaar. Shortly before sunset I was his last customer. While cleaning up for the day,
and managing his employees, he spoke with me. He offered me beer, then something a little stronger. The customers dwindled until only a handful of locals, my host and I sat drinking and talking and laughing. Four of us continued into the early morning hours drinking local vodka, and eating local delicacies. I was not permitted to pay at all that evening. Though, I was evasive in response to D-----'s questions about my personal life, it was clear that we shared similar leanings. He is one of very few 'dates' I have not met online, and my fondest memory of Uzbek hospitality.
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