Sunday, August 31, 2008

Aug 30 - Kochkor to Bishkek

We awoke at 6:30, but we knew that there was plenty of time before breakfast. Last night, Kuku had informed us that breakfast would be served at 8, as in 8:00 am KgTime exactly. With no shower to take, and no TV to watch, we pulled out the large package of handwipes that Amy had bequeathed us at the end of the eclipse tour. A dozen or more wipes later, we were reasonably non-repellent. We admired the pear tree full of fruit outside our window.

We packed our bags to prepare to go. Carol stepped out of the room at 7:55, but Mike made the mistake of still being inside at 8:02 and Kuku came to fetch him.

Breakfast was served outside, in a yurt erected in the courtyard. A group of 4 Singapore residents in their 20s had also spent the night. With their perfect English and lively conversation, they made excellent breakfast companions. They took photos of everybody and everything at breakfast, so that we know that we are not alone in wanting documentation of our meals. Kuku presided over the table, adding her few words of Russian, and pouring tea whenever a cup sat empty. Here, and at Song Kul, the tea is made in two pots. One consists of highly concentrated steeping tea, with an ingenious external strainer, attached to the end of the spout. The larger vessel contained hot water. 1 part tea to 3 parts hot water, for a perfect cup.

The breakfast was simple. Nan bread, fried eggs (the deep orange yellow of the yolks was proof that these were free range organic eggs produced on this street), and an array of chunky fruit preserves and honey. We contributed our remaining bread from our yurt lunch, which was sampled and appreciated by all.

At 9:15, we had our backpacks on and were walking to the center of town, where the buses and taxis assemble to go to Bishkek. Because of the difficulty of sharing Kuku's outhouse with the additional guests, by the time we got the center of town, we both desperately needed a bathroom. We were immediately surrounded by drivers who needed and wanted our business. Mike said in his best Russian: Toilet, afterwards Bishkek.

By the time Mike reemerged, a local Kyrgyz woman had spoken to Carol in French saying that the two of us would complete an already assembled taxi headed to Bishkek, and that the price was 500 sum, directly to our destination, for the two of us. We struck and loaded our belongings in the trunk. It was 10 am.

We had made a fortuitous choice. The vehicle was spacious (Volkswagon Passat GL, a common car in Kyrgyzstan) and the company was excellent. Carol could communicate in French with the Kyrgyz woman and the Belgian man, who was the fourth passenger. He turned out to be an employee of Ernst Young, who had traveled extensively around the world. He had just completed a two week horse trek in the mountains with a French group.

As we were leaving town, the driver pulled up to the gas station, and purchased 325 sum worth of benzin (diesel). Since he had been paid 1000 sum for the trip, we now have Froman's Fourth Rule of Travel. If the driver, on setting out, takes one third of the money he has been paid, and buys petrol, you have paid a fair price for the trip. In this case, one-third for the gas, one-third for the car, and one-third for the driver. Thus the driver would earn approximately $9 for this 3 hour trip. This is likely the only trip he would make that day, although if lucky he could assemble a return carload.

A little further outside town there were rows and rows of cemeteries along the roadside. Since they did not seem at all ancient, it is possible that mountain people from miles and miles around are buried in the valley. In this part of Kyrgyzstan, hammered sheet metal is used for the domes of mosques and the crescent toppings atop grave memorials, so everything glistened in the sunshine.

There was much interesting conversation during this taxi drive. The Kyrgyz conversation and the driver had a lively conversation about Kyrgyz politics and religion, some of which was translated into French. It seems that the driver had accepted the strictures of Ramadan (which was to begin Sep 1) four days early and planned to continue the fast for two weeks after the traditional ending. We discussed European politics with the Belgian passenger, who was amazed that we had any knowledge of the topic: he repeatedly exclaimed "You're not like other Americans." When we got to the question of how long Belgium would remain a single country, he got defensive and the conversation turned elsewhere.

At 1 pm we were only 30-40 km from Bishkek. In the middle of a busy area, our driver pulled off the road and stopped, because of a concern with his car. It was never quite clear what was wrong, although we suspect the car had overheated. (Old cars driven hard like his sometimes do that.) Anyway, after about a half hour, his concerns evaporated and we drove into town. As the driver had promised, we were dropped at our destination, Radison Guesthouse, a little after 1:30 pm. We had agreed on $50 a night. However, the room was small, and most of the other rooms were being rented for $35 (it appeared from a sneak peek at the rental sheet). So after some haggling, and being presented with a crisp clean $50 bill and two crisp clean $20 bills, the proprietor agreed to $40 for the second night. As they say, Money Talks, and B.... Walks.

In Bishkek we settled in, took the shower we had lacked for 2 days, and called Derek, our friend whom we had met in Bukhara. He agreed to meet us at 3 at the guesthouse. We discovered that our television clicker could go up to 100 channels, so we explored the possibilities, both Russian and Kyrgyz. Full disclosure: 100 channels, most of which are blue screens, and many of which are duplicates, amounts to about 5 - 7 channels. But still it was fun to exercise our long disused clicker fingers.

We left together, and walked around town. We went to a restaurant with a reputation for good central asian food. We looked for a topchan table, then just a table outside, and finally settled for seats inside, where we ordered a meal. Derek did the translating, pointing out a first page with all the additional charges - for bringing outside drinks, for bringing outside fruits, for smoking, and for occupying a topchan for more than one hour. However, service was so slow that it was hard to imagine anyone completing a meal and getting their bill in less than one hour.

After the meal, we sampled the outdoor fare. This time of year, vendors are selling summer grain and dairy drinks. For 6 sum (17 cents) we bought a small cup of shoro, a fermented millet beverage that tasted somewhat like, but not exactly like, pickle juice. Mike took a small sip, Carol took a smaller sip, and Derek finished it off. It has become his favorite hot weather beverage. They also had tan, a sharp yogurt drink which Carol found appealing. Alas, we missed out on kumus, the mare's milk drink that is a specialty of the Kyrgyz highlands.

Derek showed us all of the big name sights in Bishkek. It was now after 5 pm, and time for the State Historical Museum, which closes at 6. The ticket booth was already deserted and we walked right in. There are three floors of adoration for Mother Russia, especially Lenin's Communist Soviet Union. Statues of Lenin abound, with Lenin leading the proletariat on to a new dawn, etc. In every other country of the former Soviet Union (we believe) these statues have been torn down, but not here. On the top floor is the famous mural of Reagan riding a missile of death, (a la Dr. Strangelove), accompanied by the enemies of the state - the Church, the Russian royal family, "biznitzmen" old and new. A series of historical vignettes tracing Kyrgyzstan from pre-hominid times strongly suggests that religion is a folly remaining from ancient days. Hey, and there were also some nice felt rugs.

Such a museum exists nowhere else in the former Soviet Union, except maybe Byelorussia and Moldova (which we haven't visited). Derek explained that it costs money to take down and replace the symbols of the former U. S. S. R. Kazakhstan has plenty of oil, and plenty of money, and has done so. Uzbekistan has a little oil, a little money, and has devoted much of it to the new Uzbek mythos - introducing Uzbek as a replacement for Russian, and introducing Amir Timur as the great historical hero, etc. Lenin is basically gone from Uzbekistan.

On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan is poor, the West Virginia of the CIS. The city of Bishkek is green, filled with parks and young people. But the bus system of Bishkek is deteriorating. Whatever sewer system and garbage pickup formerly existed is deteriorating. Bishkek is, by reputation, dangerous at night. Nearly every window on the first two stories of apartment buildings has burglar bars.

Throughout the country, there are hardly any roads in top notch condition, and some, like Jalalabad to Naryn, or Osh to the Irkeshtam Pass, barely driveable. There is no money to de-Russify the country, and it remains the most Russian of all the former Soviet states. A couple of towering monuments to Soviet-Kyrgyz friendship dominating the downtown is the least of their problems.

We went into the Beta store, a downtown mainstay, where we found lots of Western exotic foods, like olive oil and peanut butter ($8 per pound). This is the premier ex-pat meeting place in town, and we hooked up with a university student from North Carolina, in Bishkek to study the role of government and religion in Kyrgyz society. We bought and tried some caviar flavored and shashlik flavored potato chips (nobygdil).

Derek left us at the internet about 7 pm. About 8:30 we went back to the hotel, watched some TV and went to bed.

Aug 29 - Song Kul to Kochkor (Rev)

Possibly the night before, possibly overnight in the cold, our camera died. It now takes exactly one picture, which appears to be a blue carpet of pixels. So no pictures of Song Kul, Bishkek, or Kazakhstan.

A yurt is a conical structure with a slightly domed roof, with a wooden (usually willow) frame and a felt cover. The roof is made of poles, cut to a point, bent on one side, with a center hole (tunduk) set in the middle. The national flag of Kyrgyzstan is decorated with a tunduk. One could look up at the complicated lattice work and perceive light through the variations of thickness of the felt. Buckminster Fuller was not all that original with his geodesic dome.

We awoke in daylight around 7 am to bleats, baas, barks, brays, and bird sounds. The sky had cleared. Our hosts' 70 year old father was standing by the lake with his binoculars, looking at the horses and wild fowl. The temperature was somewhere in the 5 - 10 C degree range.

Breakfast included hot bowls of cream of wheat (?), yogurt, nan bread, kaymak, saru mai (a granular butter), and varini (sour cherries in syrup) , along with tea. Thus fortified, we went outside where our extended host family and other locals had gathered. Grandfather led all in a brief prayer. Then on to the main event.

A large black sheep lay on its side, legs securely bound. One man slipped his hand into the sheep's mouth, steadying its head. The other, with a quick stroke of the knife, severed the sheep's esophagus and main arteries. With the head half removed, a large vessel was placed under the neck to gather the cascading blood. Eyes open, the sheep lay still. Two or three minutes later, the sheep was dead and still.

It was time to get to work. The ropes were untied, and a long shallow slit was made down either leg to the midline. With two people (one of them Carol) holding the legs wide, and two working from the midline with knives, the sheep was quickly skinned. (Mike watched almost none of this or the following.) The resident dogs, eyeing the blood pan, had to be shooed away repeatedly.

The two young (3-5 year old) children of our hosts, who had been watching quietly now brought over some plastic tubs. The sheep lying clean upon the skin was cut open. Various internal organs were harvested, some for food, some for the dogs. One man carried away the immense stomach, everted it, and washed out the silage. The women took the intestines and began cleaning out the chitterlings while a toddler stood solemnly at their sides.

The butchering took place amazingly swiftly, with joking and conversation. In less than an hour, it was complete, and meat was hanging in the cookhouse.

It was now 11 am. Carol and Mike took a one and a half hour walk down the lake shore. CBT has constructed several yurt camps for different travel groups (trekkers, horseriders, tourists, etc.) mixed in with the resident shepherd population. We had a conversation with a couple from Stuttgart who were tent campers, and who had walked 2 and a half days into Song Kul from the north over the passes. They had been solo trekking and camping for the better part of two weeks.

Back to the yurt at 1 pm, our lunch was ready. It was spectacular. We were served kattama, a flaky bread. Then we were each served a large bowl of kurdaq, a potato and mutton dish that contained liver, heart, lung, rib tips and mutton that probably came from our morning anatomy lesson. There was so much food that we got plastic baggies to hold the leftovers for our dinner meal.

At 2 pm, we were ready to drive back to Kochkor. Grandpa and one of the grandchildren came along. The trip over the pass and down to the valley took about 3 hours, with one break to cool off the car.

We were back in Kochkor, ready to go to our homestay for the night. The house we were taken to, the home of irrepressible Kuku and her taciturn husband Adamkalyi, is on the edge of town. Turkeys and calves roam the street, with a far view of snow capped mountains to the north. The house has at least three guest rooms, with pleasant beds. However, it has no running water, an outhouse on the far side of a large vegetable garden, and absolutely no way to shower.

Although we travel with backpacks, we are not true backpackers - those folks who go for a week or more without a change of clothes or a wash. We LIKE our en suite facilities, thank you very much. The idea of getting up in the middle of the night, getting dressed, and walking across the property to get to an outhouse was rather repelling.

After we got settled, it was close to 6 pm. We walked back to town. The CBT office was still open, so Aidai made a phone call for us reserving a hotel in Bishkek for the next night. We continued across town to get in some internet time. As we walked into the internet facility, it started to rain, the first rain we had seen on our trip since at least August 1, and perhaps before.

On the way back, we spotted a small discarded plastic tub. It is very to spot discarded objects in Kochkor since there appears to be no sewage facilities, or trash collection whatsoever. There is running water in spigots, so we washed our providential find, and smuggled it into our room. Voila, instant en suite.

Mike finished off the leftover kurdaq, and we went to bed, around 8:30 pm.

The tub was used several times during the night, and Mike disposed of the evidence and contents at 5:30 the next morning.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Aug 28 - Osh to Song Kul

In order to get to the airport by 7 am, we determined to wake up at 5 am. Without an alarm clock we woke several times to check the watch. At the first check, we realized that the lights would not come on because the hotel turns off the electricity from midnight to 8 am. So Carol found her flashlight, we determined that it was 1 in the morning, and Mike did some stargazing from the hotel window. (Because Osh, like most cities in this region, has very few street lights, and no sodium lights, the stargazing, even in the middle of the city, is quite good.)

At 4 and again at 5 the stargazing was great. At 5 we saw the last bats and heard the morning call to prayer. By 5:45 am, there was finally just barely enough light to collect the wash from the lines. So out Mike went.

Showering and packing by dawn light is not easy. However, by 6:55 we were on the street to get the taxi, and by 7:10 am we were at the airport.

The Osh Airport may be the smallest international airport from which we have ever flown. As we were waiting for our flight, we saw a crowd gathered around a truck with a large metal cage. On the bed of the truck were two men handing down luggage which had probably come in on an earlier flight. Who needs a baggage carousel?

We checked our baggage (limit 15 kg), and found out that our packs were 13.5 kg each (apx 30 lbs) so we were OK. We finally learned from the check-in receipt that our airline was AVIA Traffic Company.

As we waited for the flight, we pondered whether it was safer to fly on this flight, or ride12-15 hours on the road. The statistics are not good either way. On Aug 24 or 25, there was a flight from Bishkek to Iran that crashed 2 km from the Bishkek Airport, killing 60 of the 90 passengers on board (in all fairness, this was the first crash of the Kyrgyz national airlines, not our carrier). On the other hand, a bus recently crashed into another car near Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, killing 10 people. Nothing is safe about traveling in this part of the world, what with drivers going 160 kmh, and driving on the wrong side of the road, if the wrong side of the road is somewhat smoother.

Our airplane was a 50 seater, an AN-24. As we loaded, the stewardess walked the aisle with a cheap roll of baggies, tearing off one for each passenger if requested. After checking the contents of the seat-back pockets, Mike figured this was their version of the barf bag, and so he requested one for his friend who collects barf bags from all sorts of airlines. Of course, it had no logo, but it is the thought that counts.

The flight took off uneventfully at 8:15 am and landed uneventfully at the Bishkek Manas Airport. We waited at the door for the luggage 45 minutes. Apparently they couldn't unlock the baggage claim door, so finally they showed us where they had piled the baggage, and we claimed ours. It was now 10 am.

We ignored the taxi drivers who wanted $15-20 US (500-600 sum) to take us to town. We finally found the 380 bus, which, for 30 sum apiece, took us into town to the Osh Bazaar.

We didn't go into the bazaar. We were dropped at the side of the road in one of the most chaotic traffic situations we had seen on this trip. We were only about 2 km from the West (Long Distance) Bus Station, from which the shared taxis and buses depart. Finally, we caught a taxi (100 sum) with the assistance of an English speaking local, who told the driver our wishes.

First, the driver had to get out of this traffic jam. This took great driving skill and maneuvering, but was finally done. By this time, the taxi driver was caught up in our cause. When we reached the long distance bus station, he plunged between the aisles in search of a bus to Kochkor, the jumping off spot for outdoor adventure trips.

A bus going through Kochkor was just leaving. There was barely room for two people and their bags. As the unlucky final passengers, we took our places in the rear of the bus, with our backpacks inside against our knees. The fare was 300 sum apiece, at the high end of the guidebook's suggested price, but the bus was leaving immediately.

There is beautiful scenery between Bishkek and Kochkor, as the road climbs a river valley, and crosses a small mountain pass. We had no way to see out of any window, and no ventilation. We could sense that we were the odd people out in this bus, and there was no move to communicate with us or befriend us.

The bus stopped twice, first to take on a number of watermelons and two boxes of tomatoes. We had no idea where this extra baggage was going to fit, but somehow it did. We eventually realized that the bus was going past Kochkor to the mountain town of Chayek, where this fresh lowland produce would be a real treat.

The second stop was at a roadside service center, with a store and a saray which functioned as a restaurant. 30 minutes, and a fast meal later, the driver was ready to go. During our stop, Carol saw a woman approaching wearing a tee-shirt that said: "Hooray!! You Suck." She wonders to this day what the appropriate response to that message should be.

At 3 pm or so, we were left off at the Kochkor Bazaar, a small street market in a small town. Getting our bearings, we walked a block or so to the CBT office. (CBT = Community Based Tourism, the original ecotourism entity in Kyrgyzstan). Here we met Aidai Osmonalieva, the coordinator for the Kochkor district, and a model for everything that a coordinator should be. In a little less than an hour, we arranged a yurt stay in Song Kul (lake) for that evening, transportation there and back, and a guesthouse stay with a family in Kochkor the next evening, and all necessary meals for both sites.

For the record, the costs are as follows: B& B in Song Kul (300 x 2), Dinner in Song Kul (100 x 2), Lunch in Song Kul (120 x 2), Transport (200 km x 10sum/km = 2000), Driver's Time (200), and Driver's Food (145). (Our driver goes up with us, stays in another yurt, and drives us back the next day.) Total 3385 sum, or approximately $100 US.

At 4 pm we were off. Our driver, Seitek, is a history major in a university in Bishkek. Home for the summer, he makes some money driving for CBT. It was a pleasure to have a cautious driver, for once. As we started, he took 650 sum of the money and bought gas for the trip. (Gas in Kyrgyzstan is roughly 95 cents per liter, or about $3.70 US per gallon).

Our minimal Russian and Seitek's somewhat better English made conversation difficult, but we talked somewhat of the politics of the region's countries. At some point, Mike asked if people drank the water of the fast river we were following. Somewhat offended, Seitek replied that we must understand that local people lived in houses like our own, and were not subsistence dwellers. Mike had merely wanted to know how silty the water was, when he asked the question.

The first 50 km is on the main road south to Naryn and the Torugart Pass. The road is filled with dust covered Chinese trucks, going to and fro with their immense loads of cargo. After this, we turn off onto a reasonably flat, washboarded and rutted road. 25 km or so later, we crossed a river. At this point, our driver stopped to pour water on the car's radiator, and let it cool off. We enjoyed the opportunity to get out in green countryside, as four shepherds on horseback with their flocks of sheep came over. Mike shared half of the melon we had bought in Kochkor with the shepherds and Seitek. Wispy clouds became heavier and more frequent, the further we drove.

At this point, the road starts to climb at a 12 percent grade, eventually crossing a pass at 3300 meters (Kochkor is at 1800 meters). On the way up and then down to the lake, we saw a large number of yaks (topoz in kyrgyz). These big shaggy beasts with their curved horns are quite a sight.

As the road comes slowly down from the pass, you see the lake in the distance. After a while, the driver left what we had regarded as a road, and turned off onto a track. We followed the track, fording a stream, and after perhaps 10 km, came to our set of yurts.

It was after 7 pm, the sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and it was cold. We put on our sweaters, jackets, hats, and gloves, and set up in the yurt. Finally, about 8:15 pm, dinner was served by our hosts Rosa and Ishen. We had hot mutton shorba, mixed vegetable salad, bread, tea, and a cup each of variniki (sour cherries in heavy syrup).

So to bed at 9 pm on our pile of cloth mats, wrapped in layers of duvets, still fully dressed. The outhouse was 20 meters or so away, a cold and windy walk. Carol slept through the entire night, hat on her head. Mike got up once at 4 am to some of the best stargazing he has ever seen (even though the sky was one-third clouded over).

So in the time that a bus ride from Osh to Bishkek would have taken, we were established in our alpine lakeside home, at 3000 meters, by a beautiful lake.

This day was brought to you by the letter Y for yak and yurt.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Aug 27 - Andijon UZ to Osh KG

Carol woke up with daylight, showered quietly, and waited for Mike to wake up so she could wish him a happy 36th anniversary. The problem is the anniversary was yesterday. After what we went through while traveling, we can probably put up with anything in the future.

Routine breakfast in the Hotel Elita. Walked across the street to the Yangi (New) Bazaar. There we found a great assortment of fresh foods, and took some nice pictures of vendors. The women at the dairy stalls even posed for us, making finger horns behind each others' heads. Bought two splendid peaches, but passed on the pomegranites, which were too first-season to be really ripe. Also passed on some beautiful nectarines - you can only carry so much soft fruit. With great reluctance, we passed on the freshly made raspberry juice. It was too late in the trip to try a potentially risky beverage. But boy it looked good.

Checked out of the hotel. We were uncertain where to catch the bus to the border, and a kid at the hotel offered to walk us to the bus station. He actually walked us to the shared taxi stand, where one driver was sufficiently desperate to drive us the 40 or 50 km to the border for 1000 sum each, without waiting to get the other two passengers necessary to fill the cab. So for $1.50 we had luxury, a cab all our own. We left Andijon at 11 am Uz Time.

We got to the border, filled out the Uzbek forms in duplicate, got our stamps, walked through no man's land, used our last UZ squatter, got our Kyrgyz stamps, and were in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike on Aug 14, when the trip was a true nightmare, the whole process took only one hour. So at 1 pm KgTime (time zone change of one hour, remember), we hopped on a local bus to take us back to the Stary Gorod Hotel, where we had stayed before.

This time our old room was not available, so we splurged and stayed in the 1200 sum fancy suite. ($34 US) The proprietor was glad to see Mr. Santa Claus and wife again, and even offered to wash our clothes for free.

At about 2 pm, we walked around the corner, found a busy restaurant that sold only laghman and manti. We enjoyed a portion of each, with tea, bread, and two beers, and a glass of peach sharbat (juice). Total price 190 sum ($5.50). Mike changed the last 16600 of his UZ som for 400 KG som. (KG som are much closer to real money.)

We need to digress now. From Osh we wanted to get to Song Kul, a rural alpine lake in the center of the country. If you look at a map, the simplest way to get from Osh to Song Kul is (1) Osh to Jalalabad, (2) Jalalabad to Kazarman, (3) Kazarman to a road going north into Song Kul. This is totally unrealistic. Part 3 has to be replaced by Kazarman to Naryn, then Naryn to Song Kul. However, Osh to Jalalabad is on flat roads, has frequent service, and takes 2 hours. Jalalabad to Kazarman goes over a mountain pass, is barely worth being called a road; the Lonely Planet author noted that when he went over that road, his car died 27 times. The trip would take 4 - 5 hours, if you could fill a taxi. However, you might have to buy the whole taxi. The Kazarman to Naryn stretch is not quite so bad, but is still pretty dreadful. We scratched that option.

The alternative is to go from Osh to Bishkek, Bishkek to Kochkor, and Kochkor to Song Kul. The Osh to Bishkek taxis are easy to fill, and the road is not that super bad, but the trip takes 12 - 15 hours.

Sitting over lunch, we decided to fly from Osh to Bishkek.

We made it to the air ticketing office, which is one woman sitting at a 1970s airline reservation computer and handwriting tickets. She showed us a screen with 5 alternative flights from Osh to Bishkek, and masochists that we are, we picked the 8 am flight for the next morning. The cost is $75.50 USD per person, which we paid. After a few minutes, the woman wrote out our tickets, (and explained to us in Russian at least 5 times that we had to be at the airport at 7 am, and that we were limited to 15 kg each), and we were in possession of our tickets.

We were near the bazaar, so we spent two hours shopping for souvenirs, seeking out more outrageous shirts (such as Miokfy Mouse), and looking for some local clothing for Carol (no success). Either the dress and pants combination was too long, there were strange sewn-in rubber shoulder pads, and/or the material was something never made for contact with human skin and totally unwashable. This makes the pictures we have of these women wearing these outfits all the more amazing.

It was getting on toward 7 pm, and time for an extended internet session. After 9:30, Carol went back to the hotel. She discovered that the wash was hanging on the line outside still wet; the proprietor assured her that all would be dry by the morning. On the way back to the hotel, in lieu of the dinner we skipped, Mike bought two sticks of kabob for 75 som, waiting for them to be cooked. By the time he had eaten them (10:20 pm), the hotel gates were locked shut, and he had to wait several minutes for the night watchman to come to the gate, and let him in.

To bed for a very early start, figuring in morning time to fetch the wash.

We were beginning to feel the battle fatigue of a long vacation. Too many hours spent in transit. Too many new toilets, dirty toilets, and where-the-hell-is-it toilets. Too much guessing whether the hot water was on the left or the right, or whether the proprietor had to turn on the gas to warm up the hot water. Too little fiber in our diets. Too many times when we couldn't make ourselves understood, or understand what was happening.

And waaaaaay too many little kids parroting "Hello Hello" as we walked down the street or alley, and too many people dropping everything they were doing to stare at us.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aug 26 - Samarkand to Andijon

Our train from Samarkand was scheduled to leave at 11:05 am, and we were dressed and out for breakfast at 7.  We jokingly remarked that we had been greeted with "Konichiwa" during our travels.  They laughingly replied that they had had the same experience, and that nobody (ie, us included) realized that they were Malaysian.  Another delicious breakfast, this time with yogurt taking the place of french fries, and even two pieces of a Baklava-like cake.

Our hotel manager made a call to the Hotel Elita in Andijon and reserved us a room for 55000 sum.

There remained two landmarks we had failed to see in the previous two days.  First, Shah-i-Zindi.  This is a complex of mausolea built by Timur the Great and some of his successors for the various favorites of the ruler.  It also may include the grave of Qusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of Muhammed who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century - the man who inspired Hazrat Hizr to build the mosque.

It cost 2800 sum apiece to get in.  This site, reached by climbing steep steps, is stunningly beautiful.  Shinily restored mausoleums lie down an avenue that put the Buenos Aires mausolea to shame.  Some people say that the Karimov administration overly restored these tombs, but we disagree.

We left there at 9 am, for the 20 min walk to Registan.  As we got near, we weighed the utility of rushing through the three complexes of the Registan and rushing to the train station.  We figured that the Registan would still be there the next time we came back, and went to the hotel.

At 9:30 we walked out to the Registan bus stop, immediately caught a bus to the Train Station, and arrived about 10 am.  Of course, if we had waited til 10 am, the bus would have been delayed.  Murphy had a law about that.

We spent a few minutes walking into the nearby bazaar.  Then to the train station, where we filled our bottles of water, and took the underground tunnel to our platform.

Waiting for the same train was the luggage for a (21 person?) Japanese tour group.  The Japanese are the most sun-averse tourists we have seen on this trip.  Huge hats with ear flaps, long jackets, mufflers, and scarves  in the 40 degree heat.  The luggage was piled next to a large pole, which cast a long shadow.  So when the Japanese tourists started to show up, they arrayed themselves so as to stand in the shadow.  There they were, 12 tourists in a long line, all standing in the shade.  

The train came on time.  We got our seats, and spent an uneventful 3 and a half hours riding to Tashkent, and drinking water.  We arrived just before 3 pm.

In Tashkent, at the train station, we finally emptied the second of the two5 liter bottles into smaller bottles.  This time we would be hydrated.

There are no buses from Tashkent to Andijon.  Shared taxis leave from the Quylik Market, 5 or so kilometers away on the Fergana Road to the southeast.  We were able to find a direct bus from the train station to the market, and finally got there about 3:50 pm.   Added to the general confusion of a large market is the large staging area for busses on one corner, and across the busy street, the staging area for the shared taxis.

We approached saying "Andijon, Andijon."  We were mobbed.  Some wanted $100 USD (in your dreams).  Eventually, one said 50000 sum for the two of us.  Mike replied 40000 sum, and we settled on 45000 (less than $17 apiece for each of us for this 400+ km, 5 hr plus ride).  We piled our luggage into this fellow's Nexia, and waited for the other two necessary riders to fill the car.

A little about Nexias.  Daewoo has apparently cornered a good bit of the Uzbek market, with their locally produced cars.  The Nexia is one of the upscale cars produced by Daewoo, and is seemingly the car of choice for the long distance shared taxi driver.  Each of our three trips was in a Nexia.  Truth to be told, it is a snug fit for 5 people, with luggage.  However, it has enough power to go 100 mph, loaded.

Mike went off to get something to drink and an ice cream.  Before he could even get the ice cream, he was being waved back.  We were ready to go.

Apparently our driver had "sold" us to another car that already had two passengers, and was ready to go to Andijon.  The passenger in the back seat, a local student in Andijon, had agreed to pay this driver 17000 sum.  It seemed that the front seat passenger was a cohort of the driver.   We guess that this driver had paid our driver a small sum of money (say 5000 sum) to acquire his two passengers, and make the trip.  Our former driver thus gets money for not driving to Andijon.

This is not unheard of in the United States.  For years, there was a payment called a "yield spread premium," paid by mortgage lenders to mortgage brokers who had managed to find borrowers who were willing to make loans at 9%, when their credit would have justified a loan of 7%.  This increased the value of the loan, and the mortgage lender was willing to pay the mortgage broker a sum of money, called a YSP, for the right to acquire that loan.

Back to the trip.  We pulled out at 4:05 pm.  About 35 minutes down the road, the driver inquired if anyone was hungry, and pulled into a roadside restaurant, where we waited an hour while he and his front-seat friend had a leisurely two-course meal.

Thus refreshed, our driver set out at 5:40 pm.  By sunset, we were at the pass across the mountains separating the Tashkent Valley from the Fergana Valley.  We had two other longish stops on this road, for unexplained reasons.

Anyway, it was now dark, and we still had 200 km to go.  Our driver now ramped it up, and on one straight stretch of wide 2-lane or narrow 4-lane (it was hard to tell in the complete darkness), he hit 160 kmh (100 mph).  Nexia drivers in this country seem to like to air out their cars.

About 9:30 pm, nearing Andijon, our driver stopped on the side of the road, where there were a guy and two women.  He pulled out a pile of close to 500 1000 sum notes ($300-400??), and handed it to the guy, exchanged pleasantries, and drove on.

We arrived in Andijon at 9:40 pm, squashed, sweaty and exhausted.  The driver pulled up to the Hotel Elita, where Carol went in to see if we had a room.  Minutes passed.  The other passenger went in and came out reporting that there was a room, so Mike paid the driver.  The honest driver counted 46 bills, and in the darkness gave one back to Mike.

We were now in the hotel, and they were trying to figure out which room they had for us.  At least one of the staff remembered the conversation from the morning reservation call.  Furthermore, the 55000 was apparently a good price, since most of the rooms were going for 45000.  Anyway, at 10:15 pm, we had a room.  The beds were comfy, there was plenty of hot water, and the AC and TV worked.  

Hotel Elita thus appears to solve the Lonely Planet problem of where to stay in Andijon.  For years, Lonely Planet has recommended Hotel Andijon, and for years there have been reports that the Hotel Andijon was the worst hotel (1) of the reporter's trip, or (2) in the entire world.

To sleep.

Aug 25 - Samarkand

Up for a 7:30 breakfast - the breakfast atTimur the Great B & B are fantastic - crepes, eggs, some raspberry jam, french fries (delicious but maybe superfluous), apples, pears, watermelon, bread, tea.

We decided to go to the Hoja Ismail about 20 km north of town.  According to the guidebook, the bus leaves from Umar Bank. The guidebook map shows Umar Bank about 200 m "off the page".  So we walked past the Registan to the road going north to the Umar Bank.  The road runs through a nice residential/commercial neighborhood.  We passed another decommissioned mosque, stopped for a dill pickle, and were far from tourist Samarkand.  The walk was nice, but the 200 meters was more like 1.5 kilometers.

Anyway, Umar Bank turns out to be a busy intersection, as chaotic an intersection as we have seen in a while.  On the road leading north from the intersection is a branch of Umar Bank.  At 10:15 am the line to get in and do banking business was way out the door.  We needed to change some money, but this was not the right time.

We soon figured out that the 411 minibuses to Chelek left from here, but there were no buses going the extra 4 km off the road to Hoja Ismail.  A discussion ensued and the result was that we paid 1000 sum each(more than the usual fare, it appears) and the bus to Chelek would detour especially for us.

And so about 11 am we reached the mausoleum of Ismail al-Bukhari.  This Muslim scholar lived from 810-887.  He spent 25 years of his life collecting and codifying the sayings of Muhammed into the Sahih al-Bukhari, which for Sunni Muslims is the equivalent of the Mishnah.  This book (1) became the second most holy book for Sunnis, and (2) made Bukhara the center of Islamic scholarship for many hundreds of years.  Even though there hasn't been a lot of scholarship in Bukhara recently, for many good reasons Bukhara is a much more holy place than Jerusalem.

Apparently at some time Ismail al-Bukhari made the bad move of refusing to tutor the children of Bukhara's governor, and was forced into exile.  This mausoleum and shrine (2800 sum apiece) is spectacular, made of yellow marble and inlaid with majolica.  Maybe now Ismail al-Bukhari can rest in peace.

On the way back, an unmarked minibus offered us a ride back to Siob Bazaar for 1000 apiece.  Pretty soon, he had three more women, and we were off.  I don't think they paid what we paid, but no matter.  Transport is pretty informal in this part of the world, and so the driver stopped and picked up people going in his general direction, and filled up.

By 12:30 or so we were back at the bazaar bus stop, which is near but not at the bazaar.  We were heading for the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque, with its pink dome visible from the distance, and sitting way up on the hill.

But first we needed something to eat.   Under the road overpass was a ragtag collection of minibuses and big buses, all going to the nearby northeast towns.  Behind the buses were tables and cooking stands.  We were walking past a fellow scraping the small burnt spots off hundreds of freshly baked samsas.  Samsas are baked in tandur ovens, where they are slapped against the wall of the hot oven, and peeled off with a paddle when ready.  The samsa were being sold as fast as he could scrape them.  In perhaps a half an hour, the woman who seemed to be the chief samsa cook sold perhaps 200 samsa.  When we left, the gas fired tandur was being heated again, and potential customers asked when the next batch would be ready.

Carol wanted two and so as soon as we could get in line and sufficient clean plates were available, we had two hot samsa and a pot of tea (1000 sum).  Mike was attracted to another gentleman who had a huge pot of lagman and bowls of freshly pulled noodles, so he got a large bowl of lagman (1500 sum).  Carol then saw a different soup, called shorba, a clear broth with chickpeas, vegetables, and large chunks of tender lamb.  She got a small bowl of this, which came complete with a dish of chopped herbs (1000 sum).  By this time, even the plov seller could not tempt us.

The path led up some steps, along a road, and then right up a hill, near the Afrosiab ruins.  At  the top, we were all alone looking over the city, and walking along.  Only a donkey cart or two shared our space.  Eventually, we turned the corner and were at the Mosque.

Hazrat-Hizr was a folk prophet who was the impetus for the 8th century mosque at the Samarkand high spot.  Travelers on the silk road were lodged here.  The building lasted until destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.  Today's structure dates from 1854, and was only restored in the late 1990s.  For 3800 sum you get admission.  We negotiated a total of 4000 sum and got in.  Well worth it.  We even got a small tour in French, a cup of tea, and a chance to climb the minaret.  The domes are painted in a "see it from miles away" pink.  In the back were a couple of bricks painted in different test shades of pink.

With bad judgment, we ignored the Shah-i-Zinda complex about 500 meters away.  We walked back through the bazaar, and took a bus back toward the center of town.  Soon, we recognized the neighborhood, and got off.  We were back at Umar Bank intersection, and the line was shorter.  So we went in to try to sell $100 for sum.

Eventually, we were in the right line, and had the attention of the manager of the bank.  It turns out that we were the first people to try to exchange money that day, and they had to open a special window for us.  We have a knack for being the only tourists in a situation (remember the Internet Cafe in Kashgar that closed down rather than selling us another hour).

While this was all taking place, Mike had a fascinating conversation with this manager.  It turns out that most of the people there are depositors in their accounts.  

This bank has introduced both debit cards and credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) and is trying to get the local Uzbeks to use them.  They have a hard sell explaining why the depositor should open an account with a 3000 sum minimum ($2.25 US) in order to get a debit or credit card.  Possibly this is a chicken-and-egg problem because almost no merchants will accept debit or credit cards.

He also complained that the bank was trying to install modern banking software, but that the international software companies (he mentioned Oracle) are way too expensive, so they had to write their own, and it was not necessarily hooked up into all of the modern international networks.

The word he used was "transition:"  from communism to capitalism; from Russian to Uzbek; from cyrillic to latin alphabets; and from a cash economy to a credit economy, etc.

20-30 minutes later we had our 133200 sum, and our education.

It was now about 3:30 pm.  The next bus went downtown.  We got off, having passed several landmarks that we had seen the afternoon before, but we were on a different street, going in a different direction.  It took us 10 minutes or so to reestablish our bearings, but there we were, at the store selling 5 liter bottles of water, and at the internet cafe.

So we spent 2 hours or so at the internet, bought a second 5 liter bottle of water for good measure, and water and all, took a bus back to the hotel.

It was now after 6 pm, and we still had not fully explored our neighborhood around the hotel.  We had been told there was no synagogue in Samarkand, but surely there was an abandoned synagogue.  So at 6:30, we headed out, down dusty alleys asking for the synagogue.

The instruction was always go down this road a long way, then turn left (or sometimes right) and then turn again.  One informant told us that the synagogue was now a homom (bathhouse).  We passed the Legend Family Guest Hotel where (wonder of wonders) we saw our French friends from the Kashgar-Osh bus trip again and exchanged e-mail addresses.

A little time later, as the sun was setting, we finally found the synagogue.  The caretaker showed us around, speaking in Russian and Hebrew.  He showed us the conjoined Bukharan synagogue, Bet Yosef, and the Ashkenazi synagogue, Mulla Iskiyah, both in a small compound at
Badalov 5/1
Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

None of the internet sources we had checked had this address.  God knows what the addresses they have are, but it is a shame that two American tourists had to work so hard to find the functioning synagogues for an old community that still has 400 Jews.  (The same is true for Bukhara.  Lonely Planet shows two synagogues, but the internet has neither correct address, and but for the fact that our hotel was 30 meters away from one, we might have found neither.)

Back to the hotel in darkness.  A brief stop to pick up a makeshift meal at the minimart.  A half pound of halal salami, with enough for our trip the next day, and (yum yum) a liter bottle of tomato juice. (The tomato juice cost more than the salami.)

To bed at 9:30 or so.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Aug 24 - Samarkand

At 6:45 am, we walked out of our hotel (where, incidentally, a plaque commemmorates that a Jewish family lived here from 1909-1999), past the synagogue (where morning services were in full swing), across Lyabi-Haus (nothing stirring but the ducks), and up to the spot for catching the mashruta and taxis.

We had not purchased any bottled water the night before, with the hope of picking some up at the train station before leaving.

No mashrutas were in sight, so we took a taxi the 9 or so km (5000 sum) to the airport. We got there at 7:10 am. The train on the tracks was the overnight train from Tashkent to Bukhara, discharging its passengers, not our train. There was no water to buy, so we sat down and waited.

That train pulled away, and about 7:50 am the Bukara-Tashkent pulled in. We had seats 33 and 34 in car 8, a first class car. For 14400 sum ($10.80 US) apiece we had a comfortable seat and space for our backpacks between the seats. The train left exactly on time (8:05 am). An Uzbek movie could be watched on our seat-front television. The car was relatively empty until we reached Navoi, about 9 am. Then nearly every seat filled.

No still (without gas, as they say) water on the train, but Carol was able to purchase a 1 liter bottle of soda water (with gas, as they say) in the dining car.

We arrived at 10:50 am in Samarkand, walked out, caught an immediate bus into town (200 sum apiece), and got off at the Registan (more about this famous place later). Our hotel was not far away, and after a few minutes hesitation, while we got our bearings, we were at the Timur the Great B & B.

For our quoted price of $40 per night, everything looked great. Nice room, air conditoner works, beds comfortable, shower and toilet look nice. The hostess of the hotel served us a pot of tea (Mike's first liquid of the day) and bowls of peanuts, candied peanuts, and soynuts.

We unpacked, and then set out to explore. We were at the south side of the Old Jewish Town, so we wandered. Each of the alley streets in Samarkand has a small spillway in the center of the street, so you can better guess if the alley will continue or lead to a dead end, by following the water.

After a while, we passed a house with Hebrew on it. We stopped to take a picture. The lady of the house invited us in. She was a non-Jewish Uzbek who had worked for 5 years outside Tel Aviv, but then had visa problems, and returned. We communicated in pidgin Hebrew, Russian, Uzbek, and English. We sat on a tapchan (tea-bed) and shared family photos. She served us a pot of tea, delicious watermelon, and introduced us to some daughters and grandchildren. Only in Uzbekistan.

After a nice 30-45 minute visit, we were up and away. The alleys in the neighborhood emptied out into an area 1+ km north of the Registan (also 1+ km north of our hotel) called the Bibi-Khanym. Here are a wonderful madrassa, mausoleum, and mosque. The mausoleum finished just shortly before Timur's death in approximately 1400. The original mosque, one of the largest in the Islamic world, collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 and was rebuilt.

Unlike Khiva, all sites in Samarkand have their own price tag, with tourist-special ticket prices. Our task was to decide what to enter and what to view from the outside.

Here we soaked in the majestic gateways, peeked into the mausoleum, and left with wallets still zipped.

Just north of here was a major roadway. Across on a hill stood a mosque with a cemetery cascading down to its left. There were large tombstones with pictures like in Bukhara. Could this be a Jewish cemetery? We crossed the road and looked briefly. The cemetery stones looked like a cross section of the whole Samarkand demographic was buried there.

We were actually pretty hungry and thirsty by that point. We had passed a huge bazaar, the Siob Bazaar. We went back and walked through. At the other side, we smelled smoke, and found the shashliks cooking. Each was priced clearly. We ordered 4 sticks, and went upstairs to inside the chaikhana. They arrived with a pot of tea and a loaf of the local bread (which is glazed with an eggwash, and has a firmer crumb). We ordered what must have been the world's freshest salad - tomatoes, cucumbers, and green pepper were all cut up while we watched. The meal cost 7200 sum ($5.40 US) and revived our spirits.

We walked back through the market and passed the sweets section. We saw what looked like an iced and decorated white cake, and discovered that it was all made of halvah. We bought some halvah chunks from the lady in charge, who really wanted to sell us one of the cakes. We couldn't determine if this was something special for Uzbek Independence Day on Sep 1, or for the beginning of Ramadan on Sep 1, or an everyday sweet.

By the way, all the TV stations and many of the billboards say: Bayramingiz Mubarak Bo'lsun. In Uzbek we think this means "Have a Happy Holiday (or else)."

As we left the market, we bought a 1 liter bottle of soda (with gas) for Carol, and a 1.25 liter bottle of sweetened flavored tea for Mike.

Then out to the Registan. The Registan is the most prominent place of Samarkand. When you see any picture of this part of the world, it is likely to be one or three of the buildings of the Registan, three majestic madrassas. The guidebook says the admission price is 3700 sum, but we were astonished by the 6500 sum price, and chose to think about entering. We soaked up the atmosphere, took some photos, and came to the realization that the entrance portal of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medrassa, has been copied verbatim on a structure in Bukhara. The famous feline is also on the 200 sum bill. So what is original, what has been restored, and what has been co-opted is all a matter of judgment. We were also not up for visiting yet another madrassa turned into art and souvenir shops.

Across the street, to purchase the local map of Samarkand at a small map stand. Map in hand, we tried to walk into another old neighborhood, but got turned around, and exited the neighborhood, after seeing two decommissioned mosques, and coming out roughly where we went in.

In Uzbekistan, there are large numbers of decommissioned mosques. Our guess is that Stalin and his cronies closed a lot of these down, and they are now just boarded up and fenced in, waiting for a new day.

We came out not too far from the Rukhobod Mausoleum (1380), probably the oldest surviving monument in Smarkand. Next the Rukhobod Mosque, next door. Down the street was the Guri Amir Mausoleum, known for its fluted azure dome. This was Timur's final resting place, along with his son, Ulugbek, the astronomer. We walked around it. The building is fascinating, because it is engrafted on a much older khanaka (used by the sufis). Finally, we came to the Ak-Saray Mausoleum, which was being closed up, but was kept open just for us, the last customers. Here we finally paid some admissions for a look at a beautiful building, and a chance to walk underneath to see the stone mausoleum itself.

All of the sites we just described are active places of worship.

It was now past 5:30 pm, and we still had purchased no water. It is our practice to buy a 5 liter bottle every day. In this hot dry climate, two people need 8 - 10 liters a day, and without the large bottle to fill up your small bottles, you will dehydrate quickly.

We found ourselves walking west into the non-tourist part of Samarkand. Here, broad boulevards are lined with allees of tall trees in the Franco-Russian manner. Walking along, we saw a wedding party in process - (these pre-Ramadan days may be a time of many weddings) - the dressed up bride and groom are videographed as they walk into the picture studio. We also saw our first real jogger of the entire trip.

More wandering. By now, the need to find a 5 liter bottle of water was acute. We were dehydrated and grumpy. We walked through an extended linear park with theaters and stadiums, but nothing commercial. Finally, near another kilometer along, we found (1) water, (2) a bazaar, and (3) an internet cafe.

Waiting at a bus stop, and drinking water (finally) we were hailed by the first local, who immediately associated Atlanta with the Olympics. It turns out that this gent is a raconteur and a collector of color post cards of cities and sites from around the world. So we askour faithful readers and their friends all over the world to go out and buy a postcard from your locality, and send it to:

Roma Azimov
53 Orzu Mahmudova St, Room 2
Samarkand, Uzbekistan 140129

Having promised to send the postcard, when we got back to Atlanta, and lugging the newly purchased bottle, we passed the Laghman Center. This restaurant promised to specialize in laghman, and recalling the wonderful plov we had at the Plov Center in Tashkent, we decided to give it a try.

So two bowls of really good, vegetable laden, and really fatty laghman soup (and of course isn't laghman supposed to be fatty, just like first-class Jewish chicken soup) were enjoyed al fresco while watching R-rated local music videos projected on the wall. As promised the price was 4600 plus 10%.

It was now well past 8 pm, the sun had set, and the downtown streets were really dark. There might be mashrutas coming along, but they couldn't see us and we couldn't see where they were going. Thus when an English speaking guy in a car offered us a ride to our hotel, we accepted. Treating it like an informal taxi, we offered him a 1000 sum bill, and were back to the hotel. We had a small English tour to boot.

In fact, walking around Samarkand after dark without a flashlight is a dangerous enterprise. All of the midstreet and curbside drainage is very unpleasant to step into, unawares, and the street lighting is pretty spotty.

Back at the hotel, with no TV in our room, we were asleep well before 9 pm.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Aug 23 - Bukhara

Shabbat services began at 7 am, this time in the indoor sanctuary, with a true balcony for women. But we were not in a hurry, having already logged in more time in a synagogue this week than we usually did back in Atlanta. So, we dipped into the synagogue for shacharit between 7:30 and 8:15 am. We had to return to the hotel for breakfast, to straighten out our bill, and to receive the necessary OVIR stamp. Our Kiwi ladies were eating breakfast, and we saw their jar of Marmite, the national breakfast treat of New Zealand that accompanies them on all trips. We were not tempted.

When we got back to the synagogue a little after 8:45 am, they were already into the Torah reading. Here, the torah scroll is held upright in a case and an extra gabbai is on hand to keep things balanced.

Mike was offered the haftorah reading, which he chanted in his best impromptu Bukharan trope. In the blessing, in the best Sephardic tradition, they ritually announce our monetary contribution to the synagogue for this honor. We were publicly trapped. But it was OK. After all, we are willing to part with some money to help ensure the survival of this most unique form of Judaism. However, Mike totally blew the subsequent blessing for spouse and offspring, not mentioning their names when offered the opportunity to do so.

Services ended before 10 am. No kiddush here, no invitation for lunch. It was time to get back to being tourists, and to visiting those historic spots that make Bukhara a magnet for visitors.

First, we turned the corner between the hotel and the synagogue, and finally encountered the Jewish community center that we had missed so far. Not much use on Shabbat, however.

We headed toward the internet cafe for a little posting. On the way, we decided to negotiate over an 1995 Uzbek cookbook in three languages, Uzbek, Russian, and fractured English. Final price was 14000 sum. ($10.50 US) Now we know how to make 15 different regional variations of plov, if we can ever figure out the English.

Our standard internet place had connection problems, so after 5 minutes we gave up and moved on.

Our track was toward the 1807 Chor Minor, (4 minarets in Tajik) which sits in a maze of alleys a half km east of tourist central. Walking there, we decided to stop in the samsa place we had walked by several times already. This was the real deal, serving fresh hot flaky pastries filled with onions and minced lamb. 2 large samsa accompanied by a tomato sauce and some vinegar, served with a pot of tea, came to 1200 sum. (90 cents) Clearly we were back in just-folks territory.

Another few meters down the road, we noticed a tour bus parked on the side of the road, and some tourists walking out of the neighborhood. Like ants leading to the sweet crumbs, their path led us to Char Minor, which we then easily found.

We climbed to the rooftop base of the minarets, and got a nice view of the neighborhood.

It was time to patronize a real functional everyday internet cafe, so we kept walking to the east to the next major commercial intersection, where after a few questions, a friendly Uzbek guy walked a long block out of his way to show us the internet cafe, where we spent several hours. Here the price is 500 sum per hour, rather than 1000 sum per hour in tourist central.

Upon reading our e-mail, we found out that the hotel we had chosen in Samarkand had no vacancies. With the help of another internet user, we were able to phone for another B&B reservation for Sunday and Monday nights.

It was now 3 pm, and time for lunch/afternoon snack. Across the street was a grill shop, which served only grilled chicken. We unwittingly ordered one whole chicken, not one portion of chicken. This was the first real chicken meal for us in more than a month (not counting the chicken in the Chinese stir fries), and it was mighty tasty. We were the highlight of the afternoon for the patrons when a leg came off the plastic chair on which Mike was sitting, and he tumbled to the floor.

At 4 pm we walked west on a different neighborhood road toward the mosques and madrassas we had not yet seen. On this road, we were overtaken by a Swiss guy who turned out to have lived for several years in Dunwoody, a suburb of Atlanta. We saw him again an hour later, and spent a good time trading travel stories. He had just completed a two week tour of Tajikstan, and was ecstatic about the alpine lakes, mountain passes, and rural homestays. The ecotourism group of Tajikistan (META) had arranged his trip, but had done it in many incompetent ways. Unlike Uzbekistan, he encountered almost no other tourists there. The trip was a success for him and his three friends.

In this part of town, you walk through the unrestored Ulugbek Madrassa (1417) and the partially restored Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa (16th century), across the street from each other. In both you can see the subtle juxtaposition of tiles and painted wall, each with the same pattern. The story of when tiles were available, and from where must be very interesting. In Turkey, these types of tiles were imported from Delft, Holland. Perhaps the same was true here.

The Mir-i-Arab Madrassa is undergoing a complete refurbishment of tile work and decoration. It is gloriously colorful and maybe a bit too picture perfect.

Each of these buildings contains items for sale. It is an open question as to whether these historic spaces should be filled with museums, as in Khiva, or with commercial activity, as here, or left vacant. The last choice may be idealistic in this economically challenged part of the world. The goods of the silk road no longer can sustain a country, and Big Cotton was an ecological disaster. Oil resources are not evenly spread in this area, with Russia and Kazakhstan having most of them. Tourists are the cash crop here.

At the end of the day, we tried unsuccessfully to find the Maghoki-Attar Mosque, Central Asia's oldest mosque, at a site containing Zoroastrian and Buddhist ruins. It was at one time shared with the Jewish community to be used as a synagogue in the evening. Quite a story, but no luck.

Afternoon services were due to start at 5, but the two or three times we walked by the synagogue after 6, it was locked tight. And that is how we ended up finishing our time in Bukhara at the non-tourist internet cafe. It is now 10 pm, and we are, for the first time on our trip, caught up on posting!

Back to the hotel now, to pack up for an early Sunday train to Samarkand.

Aug 22 - Bukhara

Mike skipped services this morning, and slept in. Carol tried unsuccessfully to take a shower at 7:30 am and discovered that the hotel had no water pressure for our second floor - not a great discovery when you are covered in lather. (Mike waited until after breakfast when the pressure started to recover.)

We shared breakfast with two women from New Zealand who were traveling our route in reverse with a car and driver. They were sticking to a very full schedule, paying in USD for everything in China and Central Asia. It is nice that somebody else still uses US currency.

After breakfast, we went to the Internet Cafe for an hour of posting, and sat down next to Derek. When we all finished, we decided to travel together to see the B. Naqshband Mausoleum and the Emir's Summer Palace together. We left the cafe about 11:15 am.

Naqshband was a sufi mystic, highly revered in Uzbekistan, and Bukhara's unofficial patron saint. His mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for many. We traveled 13 km east to the village where the mausoleum. We shared the mashruta with a local family who spoke in Russian but said they were of German ethnicity. Like many other local people, they asked our ages very early in the conversation.

Shortly before reaching the mausoleum, we passed a local band singing and playing lustily as they walked down the road. This was a wedding party, we were told. Carol would have jumped off the bus to join them, if possible.

We got off the bus a little after noon, and joined the Friday crowds. The first destination was the mausoleum itself. It is traditional to complete three counterclockwise walks around the fragrant garden leading up to the mausoleum. We watched worshippers drink from holy water drawn from a pond near the mausoleum. Derek remarked that his Tajik friends told him to keep well away from contact with any kind of holy water; people were filling up and carting away large bottles of the stuff.

As we walked on toward the mosque, our mashruta friends presented Carol with an amulet they had purchased.

Derek is very knowledgeable about the various sects of Islam and the interactions between sufism and other branches, since that is an important part of what he is currently studying. He helped us understand the fluid role of sufism in Uzbek society - a part of every Uzbek's understanding of Islam, but not necessary a defining or controlling element of that character. He also told us that the women we have seen in Kyrgyzstan who cover their faces completely with a loosely woven brown scarf are of Pakistani origin. They have migrated to Kyrgyz cities because Kyrgyzstan has relatively free economic investment rules; the immigrant Pakistanis, who have the money, help the Kyrgyz open new businesses.

Around 1:30 pm, it was time to go across the street for a little lunch of laghman, salad, and tea. We relaxed and talked about Derek's studies and his Polish heritage. His tip: try the Trader Joe's pilsner.

By 2:45 we were on our way. The 130 mashruta went almost the whole way to the Summer Palace, and the driver decided to take us the last 2 km. It was out of his way, but he must have been feeling in a good mood. It was another example of the kindnesses we were receiving from Uzbek people.

The Emir's Summer Palace is an over-the-top kitschy example of what too much money can build. Gilt, mirrors, majolica to the max. Nowadays most of the rooms are filled with merchandise, of course. But still a nice time in the country.

Two buses took us back to the Ark, a huge complex in Bukhara, almost as recognizable a part of Bukhara, as the Registan is of Samarkand. We took no pictures because Mike sprung for 4000 for the 14 postcard shots of Bukhara, which of course includes the Ark. From there we walked through tourist territory back to the hotel.

It was now past 5 pm. Derek had to get ready for his 7 pm train trip to Tashkent. So we parted ways at the hotel.

At 6:30 pm, there were Friday night services at the synagogue. After some relaxation and a little more clothes washing, we walked over and attended the services. The highlight of the service for us was the vases of fresh mint that you stroke and smell to evoke the pleasure of Shabbat. Does this remind you of any previously mentioned Islamic customs? It felt like a counterpoint to the spices of Havdalah. (This practice is not unique to Bukhara - we saw the presence of mint and other fragrant plants at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Friday night.)

The lowlight of this service was an amazingly offkey rendition of L'Cha Dodi by three teenage boys - and no, this not some exotic Bukharan melody. Carol thought that the combination of their singing, accompanied by some tempo-challenged members of the congregation rivaled anything that an Uzbek Charles Ives could write. We have our own off key loud singers in our own congregation in Atlanta - for this we had to travel 7000 miles?

Services ended about 7:45. Unlike Jerusalem, we were not invited to anybody's dinner.

We spent some time posting to the internet, then back to the hotel and to bed at 10:30 or so.

Aug 21 - Bukhara

Mike bounded out of bed, without shower or change of clothes, for a 6 am Shacharit service. The service, complete with tea, lasted an incredible 1:40. The Bukharan ritual includes a long long introductory section of prayers (apx 40 minutes), and an expanded Tahanun, which includes a small Slichot service. From some points of view, the Bukharan ritual is pure Judaism, uncorrupted by the demands of the medieval popes, pogroms, and other influences. It is really quite interesting to see a prayer ritual so different from modern American prayer, but it could get really long really quickly. On the other hand, having a pot of tea in the morning and in the afternoon whenever one prays is something we could get used to very quickly.

Back to the hotel for a breakfast. Carol had attempted to shower, fighting a broken hot water faucet and low water pressure. So Mike opted for breakfast and then shower afterwards. At breakfast, who appeared but our Japanese taxi mate from the Kokand-Tashkent trip. He was about to visit Khiva and fly from Urgench to Tashkent to catch his trip ending flight from Tashkent the next day.

Our first goal was to visit the old Jewish Quarter, where we would find the other Synagogue, the Jewish Cemetery, and the Kukluk Bazaar, supposed to be held only on Thursdays. Once again, the old section of town presented walled off house fronts. It took imagination to think what lay within each broad metal or wood door. The maze of alleys did not always carry names, and there were numerous opportunities to be lost.

We chanced across a small Muslim ruin which contained turbes (another mausoleum). A mother and her small daughters prayed then drank from the fountain and refreshed themselves with the mint.

Pushing onward, we unexpectedly stumbled on the cemetery. This may be a very old cemetery, but the old gravestones have lost their detail, and the only ones really readable are the newer stones. There were striking basalt pillars at some graves with large lithographic pictures of the deceased on the stones. After a through viewing, we were pointed in the direction of the other synagogue, which is well hidden in the neighborhood.

Wandering, we came on a pre-school that was probably part of a Jewish program. One of the teachers walked us the final meters to the other synagogue. We got there and had a good look around, and learned that services were at 7 pm that night. The walls of the synagogue were decorated with bulletins from Bukharan synagogues in Queens, New York, as well as much Judaica. Once again, an open courtyard format, next to a closed main sanctuary.

Back to town center for lunch (discussed elsewhere). At some point while wandering, Mike opened the camera case pocket and discovered the missing SmartMedia card with the Chinese photos. We resolved to get everything copied onto DVD, as soon as feasible.

A little more wandering, a large dose of internet, and some down time before heading back to synagogue two.

At this hotel, our choice of channels included a sports network where everything Olympic and anything remotely Uzbek was featured. There were also two music video channels. Music videos here will feature a contemporary singer or instrumental group always backed by a folk dancer interpreting the music. Finally, there was a channel that ran short featurettes. This week they were serializing the movie, Gone With The Wind, dubbed into Uzbek. Whenever they could, they cut to the English when names were being pronounced, so the Uzbek Mammy would suddenly spout: "Miz Scarlett!" in that unmistakeable voice.

Off to the other synagogue a little after 6:30 pm, still not perfect in retracing our path. After the evening service, it was dark. We were afraid to go back on the alleys in total darkness, not from a personal safety issue, but because the streets were rough and rutted. So we headed out of the maze of small streets, hoping to follow two larger streets back to the hotel. That did not work, and we hailed a taxi. The driver seemed to take the longest possible route between points A and B, but we paid only 1000 sum, and he accepted it.

We were back at the central restaurant area, where we had the 12,000 sum two skewer and one beer meal, discussed elsewhere.

Back to the hotel, where they had fixed the hot water knob. Time for a large laundry Barf, hanging the clothes on a second story clothes line, hung over our central courtyard. The climate here is so dry that everything dried overnight, even though our heavy items were fairly wet when hung out.

That evening in the hotel, about 10 pm, we met Derek, an American exchange student, who was on vacation from his year studying political science in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We hit it off immediately, and stayed up talking about all kinds of experiences. Derek had been visiting with one of his professors, who was a Bukharan native, and so he was clear on the differences between native pricing and tourist pricing, as we have discussed elsewhere. In fact, he and his professor had paid 1000 sum apiece at a teahouse, where tourists were routinely charged 5000.

We told him of our Hotan 4 am experience, arriving without a hotel. He agreed that what happened to us in China could only happen in China. He stated that in Bishkek it would work as follows: (1) the police would examine our documents, and find some defect requiring a bribe; (2) the police and the taxi driver would decide what our exhorbitant taxi ride would cost and how they would split it; and (3) when we were dropped off on the side of the road, a pack of drunks would descend on us, and it would be all over.

He had one more day in Bukhara and was intending to see two out of town sights, that also interested us.

To bed after 11 pm.

How the French and Italians spoiled Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand

It was the lust for the products of the exotic Far East that gave rise to the Silk Road. The doges of Venice and the Frankish Kings desired the silk and spices of the East and were willing to pay well for these products. Things have not changed over the Millenia.

In Khiva, Bukhara, and (we are told) Samarkand, there now exist two kinds of pricing - one for the locals and one for the tourists. Indeed, in many shops, you can no longer follow the age old practice of bargaining. We can now add Froman's Third Law of Travel: Whenever the first quoted price is in euros instead of the local currency, the battle is already lost.

Why? We have seen that the busloads of French and Italians just pay whatever is demanded; consequently, many merchants no longer bargain. After all, why negotiate prices with the Brits and American backpackers who do not come in busloads, when the next busload of Frenchmen will just buy up everything at the quoted price?

Not all commercial transactions are equal. Of course, silk, carpets, art objects, or clothing, have intrinsic value. More disturbing is the lack of a level playing field for simple transactions. After all, what should be the price of a 60 cl bottle of beer or a 100 gram stick of grilled shashlik, or a bowl of Uzbek soup? Items that are immediately consumed should cost the same for all. In the non-tourist areas of Uzbekistan, for all purchasers, the beer sells for 700 sum or so, the shashlik is 700- 1000, and the soup might be as much as 1400, especially if it has a reasonable amount of meat.

Neither the tourist areas nor the non-tourist areas have menus of any kind, so you sit down to eat as a matter of faith. Hence it is a shock when two [large] skewers of shashlik and a 50 cl beer suddenly end up costing us 12,000 sum (4000 for each skewer, 3000 for the beer, and 10% service charge). It is even more of a shock when you suspect, as we learned from an American exchange student who was visiting a local, that the non-tourist price for that meal at that same restaurant at the same time is closer to 4000 sum.

We tried to get a handle on this. In tourist Bukhara at a chaikhana where Lonely Planet (publ. Aug 2007) said that mains ran 1200 sum, we sat down for lunch on Aug 21. We ordered two kinds of soup, a plate of plov, bread and tea. We asked the young waiter to tell us the cost for the meal would be. He was unable to do so. The manager came by, and told us 9900. We agreed, and subsequently decided to add a beet salad and a bowl of yogurt. The manager came by, and we swear said the price was now 12300. We said, OK.

The meal was delicious, and it was pleasant being surrounded by both locals and tourists enjoying a sparkling afternoon. We left the 12300 on the table and got up to leave. The manager came by and said: "No, it's 13200." We know our numbers.

For Carol the icing on the cake was being charged 200 sum to stand in line to use the bathroom in the restaurant where we had just paid 13200.

We have decided that the only way to deal with this unfair situation, other than just sucking up and paying, is to avoid obvious tourist restaurants and other shops, especially those patronized by the French and Italians. Alternatively, we may have to get our bill in writing and pay it on the spot, before eating. Does this make us Ugly Americans?

Note: Carol thinks Mike is obsessed with this money issue.

Aug 20 - Bukhara

As we walked the 88 meters up a narrow alley past 4 or 5 other hotels and guest houses to the Nasriddin Navruz, our reserved hotel, we passed one of the two active Synagogues in Bukhara. The door was open, women were cooking, and there was a lot of activity. We asked the time of Mincha and were told 7 pm. It was 6 pm, so we checked in, completely unpacked our bags, and settled in.

In Khiva, as we were leaving, Mike noticed that the upper back pocket of his backpack was unzipped. He had remembered placing the SmartMedia card with the 360 or so China photos in that pocket. The SmartMedia card was not there now. As we took inventory of all the items in our bags, we found no SmartMedia card.

At 6:45 we walked the 40 meters to the synagogue. The synagogue opens into a large open-air courtyard with two rooms on either side. This evening it would be open courtyard where things were happening. There were tables and benches set up around a central davening stand. There were large plates of fruit on the tables, and pots of tea. Also on the tables were paddle-like fans for each participant. Mike took a seat at one of the central tables, and Carol placed herself off the side, as she was supposed to do.

It turns out that this was a very important day for the Buxori Community. It was Azkarata (same Hebrew root as Zachor or Yizkor), Memory Day or Memorial Day, where special prayers are said for all the departed. We know of no such day in our practice of Judaism in the month of Av in the middle of Summer. Anyway, 1 and a half hours, many pots of tea, and lots of grapes, figs, peaches, nuts, and hard candies later, we had finished praying.

Carol thinks that individuals sponsored sections of the service in honor of their specific departed. There were kaddishes and el male rahamims during which individual men spoke. Carol heard the words America and Dollar a number of times.

Next to the women's table, there was a table for men who were less able to participate in the service. One was clearly simple and came to the women's table for assistance. The others were somewhat talkative and had to be shushed several times. But of course, they were part of the community. In all, there were about 30 men and teens, but only 2 other women and a young girl. (Other women were obviously participating, in preparing this wonderful meal.)

The prayers finished, it was time to bring out plates of fried fish and large fried bread puffs, along with bottles of vodka, soft drinks, and sparkling water. That was only the appetizer. After that, we washed our hands, had some bread, and then had a plate of tender stewed lamb served over fried potatoes. Afterwards, there were platters of watermelon and a soft white honeydew-like melon.

It was 9:30 or so, and time to go to bed.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Aug 19 - 20 Khiva

From the Urgench train station, we took a shared taxi to Khiva. The driver was very proud of his car. He was going upwards of 120 km per hour (over 75 mph) on 4 lane roads with people walking, people crossing the road, other slower cars. We arrived at the North Gate of Khiva just after 3 pm, and walked inside to find our hotel.

Khiva is a very old walled city. The Russians and the Uzbeks recognized that they had a city with a lot of old buildings in relatively good condition, and a wall in relatively good condition, and they cleared out a lot of the small houses and other buildings, renovated a lot of the other buildings, and created a museum city for the tourists. But like the old city of Jerusalem, it is also home to locals who have their own gardens, handicraft workshops, and a large bazaar.

The tourists come, and we came, because this is a unique city. It has mosques, medrassas, mausoleums, minarets, and buildings fit for emirs and khans, all in abundance. Beautifully carved wooden columns, each uniquely hewn, support high roofs, with wonderful decoration. There is elaborate tile work, both inside and out. Some of the structures are still revered shrines and places of pilgrimage.

There are also clumsy renovations, new fake buildings, poorly conceived museums in buildings that should be appreciated for themselves, and tourists tourists tourists. Where else in 40 C weather would there be a vendor trying to sell heavy Russian winter fur hats?

So the trick is to isolate what is great about Khiva from all that which is off putting.

We had reserved a room at the Meros Guest House. We really lucked out, because for $30 US we had an airy en suite room, with great views of the wall in one direction and the minarets in another. Suzanis (embroideries) and ceramics decorated the walls. After dark, we were able to climb on the roof, and do some stargazing in a beautifully clear dark sky, only subject to the rising nearly full moon.

Tourists are talked into getting a museum pass for 10000 sum, with photo privileges for another 5000 sum. So for 25000 sum ($19 US) we had all the museums we could eat. Many of the buildings were originally madrassas, which feature an inner courtyard ringed by small rooms, that once served as living spaces for the students. Thus a madrassa might have 10-20 rooms around a central courtyard, which may or may not be beautifully decorated. However, Khiva presents no plain madrassas. Nearly every one has a museum stuffed in it.

And what terrible museums they were. One museum had, for want of anything else to display, a glass case with a preserved two-headed baby. Another was a museum of Uzbek music, with pictures and bios of most of the great Uzbek artists of the past century, along with some of the lyrics they sang. Another sang the praises of the pre-Islamic faiths, such as Shamanism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, with a plaque indicating that President I. Karimov approved. In fact, President I. Karimov approves of much of this town, because many of the museums have his sayings emblasoned on them.

So we made our first foray through the sights. About 6 pm, after all of the museums closed, and as we had been advised, we walked outside the wall. We were trying to find some internet (by now closed) and to find a cheaper priced meal. We sat down at a place where the guidebook said mains were 1000 sum apiece. We ordered one soup, one kabob place, one samsa, one been, and one bottle of water. One again, the price mysteriously ballooned to 12500 sum. Dinner finished, we walked through the walled city in the other direction, found the real town, got 5 liters of water for only 1200 sum (less than $1 US) and went back toward our hotel. We thought we had missed sundown, but we hurried.

So just before sundown our first day, we climbed the wall and watched the sunset through the small carved embedded window notches. Picture perfect.

The next morning we took another 2 - 3 hours or so, and tried to see everything we had missed the night before. We managed to see all four gates of the city. We followed the wall through residential areas. At the southeast corner there was a site where people dumped and burned their household refuse. There we saw some crested, striped birds busily pecking through the trash. Two women, when asked for the name of the birds, said: qaldirgax (sp??).

Some of the buildings have an additional entrance fee, above the general museum pass. Carol opted to visit the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, a shrine whose interior is totally walled in elaborate tile designs. There were many reverent local visitors who kneeled inside and received blessings, while verses of Koran were chanted. There was a holy fountain and the worshippers lightly rubbed their hands through the garden of mint plants to fill their noses with the scent before departing.

[A few extra tidbits.

1. Khiva has a camel - Katie the photo-op camel. She is a single hump camel. She has her own garden, where she placidly chews on the leaves of proffered branches. The local visiting families go for the photos, not the foreign tourists.

2. In one of the two story madrassas, we climbed up the narrow stairs to get a good view of the stunning porticos. We motioned to a French tourist to follow. On her way up she banged her head and was bleeding profusely from her scalp. Suddenly, we two Americans and a Brit became an impromptu unit of doctors without borders. After 15 minutes, a happy ending, and off we all went.

3. Kids love to guess the identity of tourists. Following the usual demographics, "Bonjour" or "Hello" is most often shouted. We were quite amused to be greeted with "Konichiwa."]

By 11:30 am, we were ready to check out from the hotel. We checked out, walked to the North Gate, found a shared taxi to the Urgench bus station, and again found ourselves going at 120 kmh. Before we had left town, the driver was pulled over by the local police, for what reason we did not know. He grabbed the keys to the taxi in his right hand, along with 2 1000 sum notes, and went out to discuss the situation with the policeman. We do not know what was said, but shortly he was back in the taxi, with only the car keys in his right hand, and we were on our way.
Outside the bus station we pulled up at the waiting stand for shared taxis to Bukhara, around 12:10 pm. We negotiated the standard rate of 25000 sum per person, and waited for the taxi to fill with the other two necessary people to go.

We had time to grab a quick shashlik with tea, and then to visit the bathrooms, and get drinks to go. Carol regretted that there was no time to photograph the vintage Coke ads inside the restaurant.

By 12:45 we were on our way. The driver had a well built car, and was not afraid to push it. The road cuts east northeast to the town of Beruni, crossing the Amu Darya on a series of pontoon boats, loosely attached to make a sort of a bridge. From Beruni the road goes south and southeast to Bukhara. You can't go directly south from Urgench, because soon you would be in Turkmenistan, a no-no for visa and many other reasons.

Not long after we left Beruni, we also left the Amu Darya valley, and we were back in the Kyzylqum Desert. The road was occasionally well paved and smooth, but more often subject to washboard conditions, sand on the road, active construction, etc etc. Nevertheless our driver did his best to maintain 130 kmh, and he hit 155 kmh at one point.

Mike is 65 years old and has never traveled at over 150 kmh in a car. On these roads, we were lucky to be alive after this trip. We were following and then passing another car also doing the same speeds. It became sort of a game. Anyway, shortly after 6 pm we were in Bukhara, and, as negotiated, the driver let us off 88 meters from the hotel we had previously reserved through the SamBuh in Tashkent.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Aug 18-19 The Train to Urgench (Rev)

We left the hotel on foot about 6:15 pm. It is a 10 min walk to the tram, when loaded down with packs. The tram was there, as we crossed the street, and we arrived at the train station at 6:45 for the 7:15 departure.

We were in car 5 of the train, in compartment 1. It had been a long exhausting day and Carol wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and go to sleep. This was first class, for which we had paid 38800 sum apiece (apx $29 US). The soft sleeping compartment contained two lower beds and two upper beds. There were already two Uzbek matrons on one half of the compartment, and stuff everywhere on our side also. We threw our backpacks on to the upper bed on our side, and sat down to figure out how this would all work out.

(Mike) Froman's Second Rule of Travel now comes into play. The First Rule is that if you are negotiating prices, you write down the price before you engage the service. (Oh, how many times we have violated that rule.) The Second Rule is that if both sides to a transaction must resolve the situation, it will be resolved, and you need only wait.

In this situation, there was so much stuff in the compartment, that no-one was going to sleep unless some of it were removed. Not us, not the Uzbeks. Every inch, save the lower bed on our side was stuffed. The pull out dining pad was full of their food, and the area underneath was full of their carry-ons, making it impossible to sit near the window.

It turned out that you lifted the bottom seat to reveal space into which both of our backpacks fit. Our compartment mates showed us how to take our packs and store them under the seat. The upper bed was now mostly vacant, but still harbored two large baggage rolls.

Within the first hour, the conductor reached into our compartment and pulled down first one and then a second large burlap sack. After the seals were broken, we saw that these contained the linen for the whole car, which he then removed, to hand out. We now had linen, and some breathing room.

The second older woman turned out to be a friend or relative, traveling in another compartment. Our two mates for the journey were the alpha Uzbek woman and her slim teenage daughter. Several compartments were filled with friends and relatives in this section of car 5. Lots of pre-school-age children in this family group completed the picture.

The Uzbek mother and daughter showed us how to take the baggage rolls, open them up as bed rolls, take the linen, put it on the rolls, take the pillows, which had been somewhere in the compartment, and put on the pillow covers. The daughter in fact made our beds for us. We even had clean towels.

Suddenly, there was more space in the compartment, and all could bed down. By 8:45 or so, our compartment was dark, although there was much noise elsewhere on the train.

In an act of bravery, Carol opted for the upper berth.

We left the Samarkand-Bukhara line at 4 am and turned north. The sun rose at 6 am across the Uzbek desert. The Uzbek word for sand is qum, and this region is called the Kyzylqum Desert. Without water, there is nothing but sand and occasional scrub. Seeing a cow or a truck from the train window becomes exciting.

The posted schedule inside our car gave times and names for the scheduled stops. At a nothing town called Uchquruq (3 wells) we spent approximately 20 minutes around 9:30 am. The train stopped a number of times in the desert, including a spot that seemed to be called Nobygdil.

We had 8 hours of this daytime delight before getting to Urgench. During this time, we tried to make peace with our berthmates, and achieved a sort of glaznost, sharing apricots and cashews. Our feeble attempts at Russian and Uzbek did not get very far.

By 1 pm or so, we were in the Amu Darya valley. Suddenly, everything became green and fertile. Now there were villages, houses, and fields. At a pause in an intermediate station for ten minutes or so, we watched two women producing one loaf of nan after another from their tandur, deftly pulling out the baked loaves with a gloved hand.

The Amu Darya (darya means river) comes down from the Afghan-Tajik border, through Uzbekistan, into Turkmenistan, and then becomes the border between the two countries for a while before running firmly through Uzbekistan, and (1) emptying into the Aral Sea, or (2) drying up before emptying into the Aral Sea. Because of the intensive use of the Amu Darya all along its length, especially for the growing of cotton, this part of the world has become one of the great environmental disasters. The Aral Sea borders are now 50 -100 miles smaller than they were 100 years ago, and this great body of non-salty water is slowly disappearing.

The train arrived in Urgench about 2:20 pm.

Aug 18 - Tashkent

An extra day for us, since originally we had been intending to take the early train to Samarkand, and now we were taking the evening train to far-away Urgench.

In our previous travels there have been some cities we just couldn't "crack." In Thessaloniki, Greece, we spent the weekend in a town that empties of locals on non-workdays. In Canberry, Australia, there was simply no "there" there. That city is designed so that all commercial activity is hidden on side streets. Now we can add Tashkent to the list.

Perhaps it was an omen of our inabilility to truly understand Tashkent that we shared a tram with a well-dressed middle-class lady in her twenties who sported a shirt reading: "Shake, Rattle & Roll Your Mother Fuck." (Oh, the wonders of the English language as interpreted by non-English speakers.)

We tried to do two things: (1) see the Chorsu area, including the Old Town, the bazaar, and the site that contains the oldest Koran in the world; and (2) eat plov at the Central Asia Plov Center, getting there before noon.

We finally had realized that we were within walking distance of a Metro stop, it being only one LONG block past the Grand Mir. We got on the metro around 10:30 am, after undergoing a short stop by Uzbekistan's finest, who checked our passports and looked in our bags.

The Metro is all marble, chandoliers, and high ceilings. Part of it was designed as a nuclear shelter, and all of it was designed in the aftermath of the 1966 earthquake which had totally destroyed the city. It is still considered sensitive, and one does not dare take photos. The token is a plastic "zhyton," the fare is 300 sum, and we bought an extra token as a souvenir. These are probably the cheesiest tokens around.

Chorsu is 5 stops away. We got out, and took a quick look at the bazaar. It was time to get on to the Plov Center, hopefully by 11:30. We decided to take a bus across, rather than the Metro again. We were told to get the 91 bus. So we walked over to where the buses where, and caught the first 91 bus. We rode for less than 10 minutes to the end of the line. We got out, walked across the street to a beautiful mosque, looked in, took a few photos, and asked someone to show where we were, relative to the plov restaurant.

We were in fact well on the wrong side of town, having taken the 91 bus in the wrong direction. So we caught the next 91 bus, rode past Chorsu, past all of downtown that we had now seen so many times, and turned north. It was now 12:30 pm. We got our near our destination (we thought), and caught a taxi for the last 5 or so blocks to the restaurant. Better safe than sorry.

The Central Asia Plov Center turns out to be just another street-side restaurant with one specialty. We ordered 2 bowls of plov, a bread, and tea. This plov was expertly spiced and topped with a quail's egg and sliced hen's eggs, along with pieces of lamb. Delicious meal. It truly is some of the best plov anywhere.

The price of the bowl of plov was 2500. The bread appeared to be 500 and the tea was 200. Imagine our surprise when the total was 7600. The waitress brought us a "corrected" menu with new prices taped over the old. Well, the bread was really 600, the cover charge was 300 apiece, something else was 150 apiece, etc, etc, and on top of all was a 10% service charge. At least the bathroom was free. This was our first introduction to the World of For-You-Special Tourist Pricing, which is prevalent over much of Uzbekistan.

It was now close to 2 pm. We walked back the 5 or 6 blocks to the Metro and took it back to Chorsu. Our first endeavor was to walk through the bazaar, a larger multi-story version of Mirabod. There we ate two ripe, delicious pears, and drank much cold liquid (sparkling water and bottled lemon tea). While we were drinking, we noticed a box that held Halal chicken leg quarters. It had been processed and packaged in Pittsburg, TX, USA, by Pilgrim's Pride.

We left the bazaar, walking toward an older neighborhood. Private housing in this part of the world is all inwardly directed. Large metal doors face the street: inside is an open patio surrounded by the living areas. Walking through the old town is hot, dusty, and esthetically neutral. So we decided to get back to Chorsu and find the Khast Imom, the official religious center of Uzbekistan, containing the library with the Koran.

We got out of the older city in which we had been wandering, out to a main road, and walked back. As we got toward some Muslim buildings, we wandered in and around. Eventually, at 3:35 (the Koran library closed at 4), we arrived at a ziggurat shaped building, and were invited to climb to the top. So we walked in circles up to the top, and found . . . the top.

Across the street was a grand dome-topped building. We high-tailed it inside, only to discover Uzbekistan's newest shopping paradise, the Turkuaz Hypermarket. Here you find not Korans, but stores selling real western brand-name clothing, and a supermarket selling something that could almost pass for peanut butter. (The ability to purchase peanut butter outside the United States and Canada is our standard for detecting commercial incursion.) The Hypermarket is so modern, that . . . the only toilets inside are sitters, not squatters.

Anyway, it was cold inside from generous air-conditioning. The toilets were great. In the food area, Mike was called Santa Claus (again) by the sales clerks. We bought some water, and scored the rare 50 and 25 som notes, and a 100 som coin, in change.

We had not seen the Koran, from about 700 CE, but it was time to get back to the SamBuh Hotel, finish packing, and get to the train station.