Tuesday, August 10, 2004
I recently talked about the information dirt-road here in Uzbekistan. Things have remained much the same over the past few days, with Internet access hard to come by. And, the curious obsession with getting only perfect US dollars has left me a little short on money. I have what should be plenty of money left provided I can change my last $100 bill. Because I have been worried about being able to get my money changed, I haven’t been looking too hard for internet access as it has become a luxury I’m not sure I can afford! I would find it funny if it weren’t for the fact that if I can’t change it, I will run out of money for sure. I usually like to pick up some old Soviet-era paraphernalia when I see it, but for now these are things I can’t afford. It's this sort of stuff that I'll keep in a drawer until I'm an old man and then I'll put them on my lapel to complete the 'crazy old man' look. One completely unsympathetic woman told me I could use the bill for a nice meal; as meals generally cost no more than a dollar or two my response to here wise-ass remark is not really suitable for writing here.
Samarkand was crawling with tourists, both independent and in groups. I wasn’t really expecting so many, mostly because Uzbekistan isn’t the easiest country to get to and getting a visa can be a bit of a hassle, particularly outside of the region. Samarkand is probably the worst for this, and the hassle because of the flood of tourists is particularly bad there. While the government here doesn’t do much to respect religion, I would have hoped that foreigners would show a little more care to how they act in what are still working religious buildings. I can’t imagine people visiting churches in Europe to dress so revealingly or smoke, or yell across to one another, so I don’t see why they do it here. Of course I have to admit that usually when there are lots of tourists it is for good reason. Uzbekistan has quite a few tourists, but deservedly so.
However, while one can’t blame the people for trying to eek out a meager living, the tactics employed, combined with the complete lack of regulations on where and when they can try to do business spoils the atmosphere in some places. Moreover, while in other countries, poorer countries, the prices are similarly inflated but the difference here seems to be that the people take foreigners for idiots with no idea as to what the real price should be. For example, in India, the first price for a widget might be five times the regular price, but all through the negotiations to arrive at the final price there is a tacit understanding by both parties that the other side knows what they’re thinking, and both sides see it as only a means to an end, the proper way of doing things. It’s all just part of a big game, full of jokes and laughter. Here, the process can often be completely hostile. If something is 1000% of the real price, attempts to have it lowered to something more reasonable are met with hostility and while this is by no means the rule, often there is little willingness to discuss the real price amicably. If in India and other places this process is a game as I called it, here it really is a fight.
All of that aside, people in the streets do tend to be quite nice, provided you have no reason to be dealing with them and they have no reason to be dealing with you. As soon as there is some real issue to deal with beyond exchanging simple pleasantries, a handshake and a smile, the atmosphere too often becomes poisoned. I hope this feeling I have is due mostly to the influence of the Soviets and because I’m getting ready to go home. Also, I would say it is quite natural to compare the attitude of the people to other people I’ve met on this trip and other people I’ve met seem to have done the same. While there are exceptions to every rule, the impressions people have of Uzbeks seem to be directly related to where people have been before, both on their current trip and others before. Those who have flown in recently seem to be most positive while those who have come overland from other places are less enthusiastic. One thing that seems to be widely agreed upon is that the people here tend to be quite glum and rarely seem to smile. I’ll blame the Soviets for that!
Despite my complaints of too many tourists, Samarkand turned out to be quite the place with massive mosques and madressas dotted around the city. There is little of the old city remaining, with most of the interesting sights in the middle of an otherwise modern city. I had always been told the Samarkand was similar to Esfahan in Iran; most of the big Islamic buildings are larger though less ornate, and there is nothing similar to Esfahan’s King’s Square (Emam Khomeini Square). The Registan, with three madressas facing in towards a central square of sorts is close, though while the buildings themselves are more massive, the overall size of it is less awe-inspiring.
From Samarkand I moved on to Bukhara, west about three and a half hours. On arrival I asked for a street that was close to a guesthouse that had been recommended. I didn’t realize that the street itself was named after a mosque about 14 kilometers outside the city. About half way there I realized where we were going and rather than getting out and turning back I continued and was thankful I did. It was later in the afternoon when I got there, so the light on the building and sunflowers around made it quite beautiful.
Bukhara, unlike Samarkand has a real old city at the core with a modern city on the outside. People still live in the centre city, amongst what seems like hundreds of old Islamic buildings. A handful of the buildings are quite spectacular but what is most amazing is just the number of them and the scale of them all. It seems like around each corner another old mosque or medressa hides. The larger and better preserved or restored ones have the typical tourist shops inside; the lesser ones remain empty or have people with small stands selling goods catering to local people. Of course much of the city has been restored, surprisingly much of during the Soviet era. The Bolsheviks did tear down lots of buildings in the 1920s, but later on the remaining ones seemed to have got some attention from the Soviets.
A number of times I’ve come across older men who can speak German because they had served in East Germany with the Red Army. Some Polish guys I met in Dushanbe were amazed to have found an old man who knew their country quite well, even some small towns. The other day in Bukhara this ancient looking guy called me over. He had this Buddha-like look to him, completely round and the whites of his eyes just barely visible. From his hand gestures I understood that he had fought in World War II and had been seriously injured. He pointed repeatedly to a bunch of places on his body and with his shirt unbuttoned in the heat, there was a massive crooked scar was visible on his torso. From what I could understand he was in Germany for nine years, presumably first during the war and later on stationed in the East.
I’m in Khiva now after taking a six-hour cramped minibus through the desert from Bukhara to a place called Urgench and from there a taxi here. It is about 30km from Urgench to Khiva and believe it or not, there is a trolleybus going the whole way though a bunch of farmland. So far Khiva seems much like Bukhara, though more artificial in many respects because there aren’t the same number of people who live right in the old city.
I arrived in Khiva late Monday and will get going early tomorrow (Wednesday) for the border with Turkmenistan. The first Canadian traveler I’ve met on this trip I met last night here.
From what I’ve heard, Ashgabat (the capital of Turkmenistan) is a very hot ten-hour ride through the desert from the border, and just getting there will take a few hours from here, so it will no doubt be a long, long day. I plan on taking a good look around in the craziness of Ashgabat Wednesday night and Thursday. The plan is to catch my flight home early Friday morning, stopping in Germany and then on to Canada. Generally speaking I don’t like to move so fast, with only two nights in Samarkand, one in Bukhara, two here and one in Ashgabat, but I wanted to get to see these places but also decided it was time to get home so I was forced to pick up the pace. Unfortunately I had to cut out a trip to the Aral Sea, or more accurately where the Aral Sea once was a day’s journey North-West of Khiva.
But, if I saw everything I would have no excuse to come back.
Turkmenistan isn’t exactly the epitome of a vibrant democracy with all the normal requisites such as freedom of speech or press. Internet access is hard to come by there and only for a ridiculously high price at the Sheraton in Ashgabat. I’ll be sure to look for access but don’t expect to be online again until I get out of Turkmenistan. There’s a $25 departure tax payable in Ashgabat and if I still have my tarnished $100 bill and they don’t take it there, look for me in a Turkmen jail on August 16th, the day after my visa expires.