(31) Penjikent, Tajikistan: A glimpse of what is to come

The trip from Tashkent was remarkably unremarkable. Taxi to the train station. Train left on time. First class actually had air conditioning this time. Buses through Samarkand to the minibus station. Minibus to the border (passing Tobi on his bike, agreeing to meet up in Penjikent). Cross the border. Minibus to Penjikent (I see mountains!!).

I suppose the remarkable thing was how unremarkable it was. I had heard rumours of horror stories of leaving Uzbekistan – confiscating money, searching every nook and cranny of your luggage – but all I got was a nice conversation with an Uzbek officer who had done an English degree back in 1984 and was eager to practice.

Unremarkable other than the diarrhea. I guess that was a bit of an annoyance. Thankfully it stays at bay when I’m not moving (ie sitting on the train) but when I have to walk (ie across the border) it acts up. Having had the privilege of using the toilet on both the Uzbek and Tajik sides of the border, I’d have to say the Tajik one is nicer, if only for having fewer flies. The kind of diarrhea I have sucks (I suppose diarrhea sucks in general though). I feel completely healthy, then BAM!, I have go to the washroom NOW OR ELSE! If this is anything like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I have a new appreciation for what life for those with it is like.

In Penjikent I settled into the guesthouse, convinced the local convenience store to take my Uzbek som for and hung out by the road so I could wave Tobi over. And I was no longer linguistically incompetent! Tajikistan has a language very similar to Farsi in Iran – 1,2,3 is Yak, Du, Se instead of Yek, Do, Se – so I could get by. Tajik e cam cam medonam – I speak a little bit of Tajik – is my new oft repeated phrase. It seems most people think that I might speak Russian (most travellers use it as it is common among all the Central Asia countries) so when I throw out some Tajik, they are pleasantly surprised. It just means I’ll be screwed again when/if I reach Kyrgyzstan, but I’m having fun for now.

I hung out by the road with a 15 year old boy who ran an ice cream machine. He treated me to an ice cream and turned on Snoop Dog when I asked if he liked any American music. Surprisingly (and I say this honestly) he didn’t like Enrique Iglesias.

I had asked the boy to be on the lookout for a tourist on a bike named Tobi, and to tell him to stop. This didn’t go so well, as when Tobi passed I was (once again) on the toilet, and apparently people asking you to stop is pretty common when you are a tourist on a bike. He passed by.

When I got out of the toilet, the boy was standing outside the guest house, frantically motioning to me that Tobi had passed and he didn’t stop! We tracked down Tobi soon enough.

Tobi and I took a wander through Penjikent. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a nondescript town. All through Uzbekistan, I only went to the main stops. It was nice to just wander down the main street, see people going at their usual lives which don’t involve selling trinkets to tourists.

Unfortunately, earlier in the day my camera lens (18-125mm) got locked in the 125mm position. I’m going to have to get this checked out in Dushanbe (hopefully), because it means that all my shots are going to be zoomed until then.

That evening at the guesthouse, I was chilly for the first time since Van, Turkey. I actually pulled out my microfleece. It was incredibly refreshing.

The next morning I headed out on my way to Dushanbe to meet my CouchSurfing host. I caught a shared taxi for the 5-6 hour drive. Once again I pulled out my limited Tajik with the driver. He shared pictures of his 3 children with me. One picture was of toddler twins, but he made a sleeping motion and it soon became clear that one of the twins had died. My heart sank.

The mountains heading out of Penjikent were spectacular. My first real mountains since Iran, and even then those mountains didn’t speak to me quite like these as they weren’t snow capped. I’m so happy to be in Tajikistan. The whole basis of this trip started with images of mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and I’m finally here.

I soon settled into a comfortable state of wonder. I felt like I had never left the mountains, and that this where I was always meant to be.

The road shifted between potholed dirt roads, potholed paved roads, and smooth paved roads. The most interesting part was the “Tunnel” I had heard so much about when talking with cyclists in Samarkand. It’s a 5km tunnel (though it seemed like longer as we were going about 10-20km/h) with no ventilation, no lighting, and little evidence of road maintenance. Perhaps some of it was paved at one point, but it is filled with ridges and holes, and almost a foot of water in parts. I can’t imaging cycling through it. The shared taxi, with barely functioning headlights, made it through unscathed.

As we neared Dushanbe, we got pulled over and it seems the driver had to pay a “fine” for some reson.

I tried to reach my CouchSurfing host. No response. No response. No response. Finally, he called back. Turns out he’s in Penjikent, and is heading to Dushanbe tomorrow morning. Grr. He says if he had known I could have stayed with him in Penjikent and driven with him to Dushanbe.

I guess plans aren’t really plans. Hotel it is.

(28) Buchara, Uzbekistan: Toilet talk

As it seems to be everywhere in Uzbekistan so far, getting from Khiva to Buchara was a pain in the ass. Probably the least so far, but still. I hauled all my stuff to the shared taxi/marshrutka stand, and am offered a taxi to Urgench. While this is where I want to get to, I don’t want a taxi on my own.

I had asked the guesthouse owner earlier in the morning what the Russian or Uzbek word for shared taxi was. He said there wasn’t one as most taxis are shared taxis. However, when I want a taxi, the drivers look at me with dollar signs and try to get me to pay for the full taxi. Grr.

But I do get a shared taxi, and get to the aftovagsal (bus station) where I should be able to get a shared taxi to Buchara, though once again the vultures pounce and assume I want a taxi to myself. I spot a minibus, and opt to wait for it fill the remainder of the 15 spaces rather than trying to explain, once again, that I want a shared taxi, and where is one please?

We leave before completely full, which is nice, but a man crams in beside me, resulting in four sitting across when only two are sitting in the next row back. He smells in need of sleeping off the drink. As soon as I determine we are, in fact, on our way and not picking up passengers at another location in town, I hop over the bench seat to the relatively spacious luxury of the next row. At the next stop, the couple that was originally beside me in the front row changes places so that the man is in between his woman and the drunk man. They seem to have the same idea I had. The drunk man ends up spending most of the trip nodding off, often splaying himself on the shoulder of the man in the middle. I pat myself on the back for changing seats.

It seems that Uzbekistan is one big dessert. Other than the cities I stop in, one or two oasis villages, and the odd truck stop, there is nothing. Sand, scrub, flatness. It’s hard to imagine the vibrant civilizations here that were fought over by multiple tyrants over the past few millennia. It’s dry and hot. I do spot at least one flock of sheep, but wonder what they eat or drink? I can’t see anything that would sustain them.

I wish I could say the journey was lovely, as I often enjoy the journey as much or more than the destination, but this is not the case. While seeing straight roads and flatness is notable for me, I’m satisfied after about an hour of it. I love mountains, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen one. And it’s bloody hot here. Consistently above 40, and more usually 45.

We get within 100km of Buchara, and stop at an isolated, half abandoned truck stop. A dilapidated shack, a leaning outhouse. Apparently we are out of gas. The country ran out of gasoline/diesel stores within the past week, and apparently individuals are also running low on their personal stashes that usually last them through times like this. I’m not sure where we are expecting to get more from.

So we wait. My Lonely Planet gets passed around. People point out the words and place names in Cyrillic with pride. I expect we’ll be waiting for longer than we actually do – only about half an hour before a car pulls up with a jerry can in the trunk. We eventually get to Buchara after 7 hours.

I end up at the same guest house that Katarina and Christina are booked into. The room is absolutely lovely. Amazing decor, lovely common spaces, and a clean, comfortable bed. I head out for dinner, and get ripped off but enjoy the venue around a fountain pool with hundreds of Uzbek tourists. Was originally excited to eat borsht (yay! vaguely vegetarian!) and then am pleasantly surprised with meatballs at the bottom.

The next morning I have a lovely breakfast at the guest house (french toast and crepes!) and head out to get a visa cash advance (its been a month and a half since I’ve had easy access to money) and pay Katarina back. I explore the town, but I’m getting pretty bored of mosques, madressas, and markets. Give me mountains! (Thankfully, Tajikistan is about a week away). I stopped at a crowded jewelry market, chatted it up with some local women, changed money with them, and went on to explore more of the city.

The only site I made an effort to really check out is an old prison. Apparently a few centuries ago an important British man came to do something in Buchara, but offended the locals, and was put in a pit prison. Then a while later another British man came to check in after the first man, and was also put in prison. Obviously the whole story wasn’t that important to me, but it was a well kept little prison.

On the way back to the centre of the old town, I explored little lanes and alleys lined with homes. At one point I fell into conversation with an extended family on one street corner, and I enjoyed some tea and soup with bread, we took lots of photos and I got their address to mail photos later. This is now the third time in the past three days. I’ve tried to explain each time that it will be a while – probably October or November before they get them. I hope they understood and don’t give up hope after a few weeks. I also hope that when I send them they actually get to their destinations. I’m not sure I have complete faith in the Uzbek postal system.

By this point, it’s hot, and it’s time for a siesta. Back at the guesthouse I fall in and out of sleep. And then, I start to feel ill.

I won’t go into complete details, but I spent the next 8 hours either sitting on, puking in, or sleeping in front of the toilet. Thank god I had my own room and it was wonderfully clean. Everything in my digestive system, plus probably another few litres of water from elsewhere, left my body. By midnight I was feeling alright. I had a huge craving for a cold orange, but knew this wasn’t going to happen. I gave up on the idea of getting on a train in the morning. I also had missed dinner with Katarina and her mother.

I felt much better the day after, but I spent it resting. Sleeping, watching Al Jazeera or France 24 in English, just laying there. Katarina came by with some yogurt, water and juice, and I got some bread and cheese from the guesthouse. Since I was staying an extra day, I would be able to catch the same train as the Germans and prepared myself for leaving early the next morning.

We had an early breakfast and caught a taxi for the train station, but for me, it wasn’t meant to be. No tickets left. Katarina and Christina had got their tickets two days previous, so we said goodbye. I tried to plead with the station attendants, but got nowhere. I’m pretty sure bribing might have worked, but didn’t know what was appropriate. 50 cents? $5? Surely not $20. I picked up a ticket for the next day and went back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel I was made to switch rooms. Apparently my room had already be cleaned, but I suspect they just wanted to give my a lower grade room so that they could rent out the nicer one. No price cut for the new room either. “All the same price,” I’m told. Lots of little lies – these weren’t the first. I wish the rooms weren’t so damn nice, otherwise I would have left because of the vibe I got off the manager.

I went out to explore one last bit of the city, feeling like I should take some advantage of my extra day here. More lanes, a Jewish cemetery. Overall Uzbekistan has failed to really impress me so far. Great accommodation options, I’ll give the country that much. But lots of dry scrub dessert. Old towns and architecture that do not compare to Iran.

One nice thing about staying an extra day was running into Marta, Kuba and Julica again. It always happens by chance – no plans are involved – but that’s just the way Uzbekistan seems to roll. We made plans for dinner, and I spent most of the rest of the day scoping out embassies in Tashkent and napping – I’m still not feeling perfect. At dinner I had about 3 bites plus a half shot of vodka, then retired.

And finally, I’ve decided my final route on this trip. Not the day to day route, but at least how I plan to get back to Canada. I’m not going to share how or when, but I’m very content with my decision. Just hope it all works out. You can still vote for how I should spend my birthday, but as my mom said in a recent email, I’m not likely to be swayed.