A truly International Women’s Day: an English poem from Uzbekistan

International Women’s Day (IWD) gets a bit of news in Canada, but it doesn’t rank up there in public holidays like many places in the world.

In my travels last year to West and Central Asia, I found that for many countries IWD ranks in the top 10 of big holidays, along with Nooruz (Persian/regional New Year) and Independence Days (from the Soviet Union).

On one of my van trips in Uzbekistan, I sat in the back row with a young man keen on practicing any and all English he knew. Here is my IWD gift from him to you (and our mothers)…

Mother, mother, mother
I love you very much.
I hope you’re very happy
On the 8th of March.

Van in Uzbekistan
Hot and sticky in the Uzbek desert

(30) Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Would you like to see my private minaret?

The shared taxi to Samakand was great until the point where we stopped for gas and one of the men wanted to show me something on his cell phone and it ended up being pictures of graphically naked women.

Arrived in Samarkand, dropped off at a local bus stop. Caught what I thought was a reasonable numbered local bus, and it got me vaguely into Samarkand. And then I walked a looong way to the guest house I planned to stay at. There were other, nicer, options, along the way but I was OK with seeing travellers at this point.

Got into the place, and saw….the Jorma and Aziza, the cycling couple I met in Mashhad (they hadn’t waited too long after her appendectomy!) and Tobias, too! Other characters included two Australian brothers who were motorbiking from South Africa to the farthest northeast in Russia they could get. And an older French man who like to talk about himself as though he is the only person in the world with intersesting travel stories, always had a better story than you about that place that you went, and if he hadn’t been there, it was because it was below him to visit such a place. Other than this man, there are quiet a few interesting travellers here. I’m impressed with all the bikers and cyclists.

I hang out with the Australian brothers during the day, exploring Samarkand. None of us are too bothered to go into paid sites. We circle the main site, the Registan. One of the guards at a side entrance encourages us to bribe him so that we can go up and see his special private minaret. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meaning to be sexually suggestive, but it was funny all the same.

We enjoy lunch near a large covered but open air market. We explore an interesting cemetery with great tile work.

I run into Julica and her mom. She mentioned a conversation she had with an Uzbek couchsurfing host she met. The topic of religion came up, and when Julica describe how she didn’t believe in God, the young woman was dumbfounded. She described how before she understood that there are different ways to believe in God (e.g. Islam vs. Judeo-Christian) but had never considered that there might not be a God. “I’m going to have to think about this,” the young woman had said.

At the guest house I came across a travel diary in the book exchange. There’s no name in it front. I took it with me to try to unite it with it’s owner at some point in the future.

I went out for late night food with Aziza and Jorma. Had the most interesting looking hotdog ever. Grated carrots and mayonnaise topping. Watched the Netherlands lose in the World Cup. Jorma was devastated. Stayed up late chatting with the Australian brothers.

In the few notes I did make about this segment of my trip, I made reference to how long my toenails are at this point. I had lost my swiss army knife in Mary, Turkmenistan, and I guess they were getting pretty long.

And then, it was back to Tashkent to get my things in prep for getting to Tajikistan.

(29) Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Paper pushers pushing my buttons

With ticket in hand, I actually got on a train in the morning to Tashkent. Marta and Kuba and two other travellers were in a different car, so I was on my own in first class.

First class on these trains is a fairly meaningless term. I suppose there is tonnes of leg room, which I was thankful for, but the barely functioning air conditioning meant that the windows were closed and the car sweated and fans themselves the entire 8 hours. A young man going to Tashkent for a university entrance English test so we chatted off and on through out the trip as we also each tried to nap through the heat. The usual questions came up, including the question of my religion. “Muslim”, he says as he points to himself. “Christian?” He points to me. I shake my head. He holds up two fingers, looks at them, and says, “Muslim, Christian” as if he’s run out of fingers and there are only two possible religions. He tries again, and remains confused. “No Christian. But you have God,” he says, more of a statement than a question. OK, sure, I have god. I feel I might blow your mind if I try to explain atheism.

The scenery was more desert. Dust. Scrub. Did catch a glimpse of mountains as we went through Samarkand, even one with some remnants of winter snow. I’m bypassing Samarkand so as to sort out a Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent first. I’ll catch Samarkand on my way through to Tajikistan. While Kyrgyzstan is not definitely in my plans yet, I still hope to get there. I’ve been reading the forums on Lonely Planet’s website, and will base my decisions on what fellow travellers are saying. Considering Kyrgyzstan was the main reason for this trip in the first place, I would be incredibly disappointed not to go.

Arriving in Tashkent I took the metro to near my intended hotel, and walked the rest of the way. I’ve been impressed with accommodation so far in Uzbekistan – definitely the nicest for the lowest prices – but this was more like a (low) standard hotel. Clean and the BBC; I suppose I couldn’t ask for much more.

My main goal for my first afternoon was to get rid of my lovely (grumble grumble) painting I’ve been carrying around since Mary. Uzbek post wasn’t necessarily reliable, but Tashkent did have a DHL, so if I didn’t mind forking out some money, there was a more secure option for my painting to get home.

Instead however, I ended up heading out with Yoko, the non-sick half of a Japanese couple, to get something to eat and check out the wifi that was apparently available at a nearby mall. Yoko and her husband, Hiro, have been biking around the world since 2008. From what I gather they started in Turkey, went south all the way to South Africa, flew over to Central (and South?) America, and most recently through China and now in Central Asia. A few years ago they also spent a working holiday in Canada, where it turns out they spent 4 months in Vernon, just less that an hour away from my hometown of Salmon Arm. The world just got smaller.

I had no success connecting to wifi, but borrowed Yoko’s iPod Touch to find out that I was likely not in luck for a quick Kyrgyz visa as I could have swore I had read online a few days before in Buchara. The embassy is closed Thursdays, and it takes two days, meaning I would apply Friday, and not be able to pick up until Monday.

(insert string of expletives here)

Back at the hotel I fell into a slumber until 11pm, got up and showered, and went back to sleep with my mosquito net as my only cover. I planned to get up early the next morning to try the Kyrgyz visa anyway.

But I was not in luck. Friday it would have to be. There’s nothing worse than be excited to leave something and start something new only to find stupid details claw you back to where to don’t want to be anymore. If only I hadn’t been sick. If only I had been able to get on the train the first time I wanted to. But then I wouldn’t have been able to run into some of the friends I have met along the way, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out in Samarkand, which is what I’ve decided to do.

So today, instead of hanging out at the Kyrgyz embassy, I went to the main bazaar in town, bought a lovely plate, took photos. With the help of many people, I tracked down the DHL office to enquire about sending my Turkmenistan painting home. It would cost over $100, which I’m OK with since I would prefer that it would actually arrive in Canada. But what I wasn’t expecting was the extra step of getting permission from the Ministry of Art and Culture or somethingorother. Which would cost another $20-$40 and unknown time. Even though I have a certificate from Turkmenistan, and I didn’t buy the damned thing here. The young man working there was very nice. He was originally from Tajikistan, but left during the civil war in the 90s. He points to a 3 inch scar above his left eye. “For my parents, this was the final straw,” he says.

I guess I’ll carry it to Tajikistan and try again their. I’m getting used to carrying it around anyway.

In the evening I meet up with Yoko and Hiro for dinner. Our server speaks no English but a series of chicken noises, chopping motions, and hand squeezing gestures, we wind up with the dinner we expected – a variety of kabobs and some salad. The temperature had become bearable.

Finally, the day to apply for my Kyrgyz visa comes. I arrive at 10:10. It’s still not open, and I’m 4th in the queue. I get my paperwork by 10:30, and rush to the bank to pay my visa fee. If all goes well, I should pay, and get back to the embassy by 11 so that I can drop off all my paperwork before they close between 11:30 and 2:30.

But of course it couldn’t be that easy. Step 1 at the bank – some unknown paperwork – was fine. But step 2, actually paying, was not. Step 2 only takes 2 minutes, but when you have two Korean business people trying to withdraw tens of thousands of US dollars and it takes an hour and a half, step 2 actual takes an hour and a half and two minutes. At least I was amused by the lack of personal space people have here. While the teller is handing over stacks of 100 dollar bills, an insistent old woman stands right between them, complaining about how long it’s taking (or so I assume). There are about 12 people waiting behind me, and eventually a guard tells most of them to go, as they will be closing for lunch soon after the Koreans are done. The 3 women working in the other nearby teller windows have been mostly chatting the last hour. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous paperwork and lack of service orientation. I suppose the bureaucracy provides jobs for a huge proportion of the population, but I’m over it.

I get back to the embassy at 12:30, and wait. I’m hungry, but I want to keep my place in line. Somehow, a woman that arrives after me gets to drop off her stuff first, but soon enough I, too, get to drop off my paperwork. Done.

I just have a small overnight bag with me – laptop, underwear, mosquito net, and toiletries – and head straight away on the metro to the bus station, where I quickly pick up a shared taxi to Tashkent. Get me out of here. I need a break from bureaucracy.

(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.

(26) Nukus, Uzbekistan: Can a girl get some f***ing transportation in here?

Nukus isn’t much of a destination. The two reasons (I’m aware of) that people come here is to 1) see the art museum and 2) take a trip out to the former shores of the Aral Sea. I planned to do both, and then leave as soon as possible.

After Julica and I arrived, we took a walking tour of the town to get our bearings and find out any options we had (for food, entertainment, other accommodation). The town was pitch black. Very few people on the streets, no street lights, and no discernible “downtown”. The extent of our evening included getting harassed by a drunk guy, passing by some sort of well-lit government building, walking through the very basic amusement park, and finally finding a place to eat dinner (where we randomly had 3 guys purporting themselves to be English teachers – we believed one of them). This town was definitely not meant to have tourism as its economic base.

Uzbekistan, like Turkmenistan, has annoying paperwork obsessions. In Uzbekistan, not all hotels can accept tourists. But tourists have to be registered while they are in Uzbekistan, and this happens at each hotel/guesthouse you stay at. After each stay, the hotel will give you a little slip of paper (perhaps even just a stamp on a post-it note) that you need to keep to show when you leave the country. (Update: mine were not checked when leaving into Tajikistan).

That night, I attempted to make a plan to leave while still seeing everything I wanted to. I would visit the museum in the morning, and then get a taxi out to Moynak (former fishing community, now a desert wasteland) which would then take me to my next destination, Khiva.

It was a great plan in theory.

The taxi option was ridiculously expensive, though somewhat legitimately. The country’s gas stations ran out of gas the week before, and drivers were slowly also running through private stashes.

So instead, in the morning I happened to meet Christina and Katarina – German mother and daughter – who were also interested in heading to Moynak. Katarina had spent the past 9 months in Uzbekistan, teaching German in Tashkent. She spoke a little Russian and Uzbek, and so I tagged along with them as we attempted to catch public transport out to Moynak (a 200 km trip).

Our first marshrutka (minivan) we thought was going to take us to the town halfway to Moynak. Turns out it was only taking us to the place where taxis hang out that are heading to the town halfway to Moynak. I watch Katarina closely as she bargains, trying to learn this skill which I have tried so long to get by with not knowing.

We get to Kunigrad, and spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to make the second half of the trip happen. A man adopts us at the bazaar, and it seems like he’s trying to find us our next marshrutka, but after a while it seems apparent that he just likes to walk around and repeat what we say. Finding a marshrutka in the end was half test of patience, half pure luck.

The drive out to Moynak was long, flat, and dry. And hot. When we arrive, the town is a lot larger than I expect. I have no idea how we are going to find the deserted boats that mark the old sea shore. The town was strange – all the buildings and streets were faced with one big wall. Like all the life and activity was taking place behind them, and the streets were left dead. I don’t know what sort of life exists here though. The industry has completely crashed since the drying of the sea. What remains?

We are in luck with finding the boats, as our marshrutka driver takes us right out to where the boats are. He goes even further by asking how much time we want, and tells us he will take us back to Kunigrad after. For the same reasonable price. Remarkable.

The boats and the sand are beautiful, but depressing. Surreal really. There are about seven large fishing boats, rusted from bow to keel (are those the proper boat part names?). The sand is hot, and littered with sea shells. All this 180km from the current sea shore. It’s utterly inconceivable that Moynak used to be a thriving fishing community, until the Soviets decided to divert most of its feeder rivers to irrigate cotton fields. What’s amazing is that they expected the sea to dry up. It’s not certain whether they expected the scale of environmental disaster that followed.

High above to boats, informative posters show the gradually shriking of the shoreline. A huge monument has been erected this year, with an image of 1960 and 2010 sea shapes respectively. As though they are celebrating 50 years of ecological catastrophe and depleted communities.

On our way back we stop briefly in the centre of Moynak to wait for any more passengers. A small child, maybe 18 months old, is placed in the middle seat on her own as if she’s just another passenger, waiting for the car to leave. She sits silently, barely noticing the three foreigners questioning her existence. When we leave and her mother still hasn’t shown up, I’m a bit concerned, but we pick up her mother a few hundred metres down the road. The young girl has just sat quietly the whole time.

Getting back to Nukus was a lot easier than leaving. We eventually arrive back into town, and walk through the bazaar, picking up some plums, cucumbers, and apples, and eventually making it back to the guesthouse. We have arrived too late to see the museum today, and my plans to get to Khiva tonight have been completely tossed out the window. I had expected to meet Julica’s mother, arriving by plane in the morning, but apparently there was a delay and Julica is just now fetching her.

The next morning, I went with Katarina and Christina to the art museum and it was well worth it. The founder of the museum basically was a collector of art during the Soviet times, when anything diverting from realist art could see the artist put in prison, or a psychiatric institution. Nukus is so completely in the middle of nowhere, that he was able to do all this collecting in relative peace. Only a fraction of art is on display at a time, and I enjoyed what was there. I also bought a small painting done by a local art student – a water colour of a nearby ruin for about $2.

From here, the three of us planned to find a taxi that could take us to some historical forts on the way to Khiva.

And this is where I started hating Uzbekistan.

Let me preface this by saying that in pretty much every country I have travelled to on this trip and all the others, if you arrive at a bus station or any other transportation hub and walk up to anyone and say your destination, you will be pointed in the direction of the bus/shared taxi/van/train etc. If there isn’t a direct way to get there, people will often suggest transit points. All this without knowing each others’ languages.

The main transportation hub in Khiva is around the bazaar. At first the three of us scope out a hire taxi area and try to arrange this private trip with the fort stops. We get nowhere. The prices we are quote are ridiculous even in the face of a gas shortage (especially as many taxis run on propane and are not effected). And the men seem drunk, and get increasingly aggressive with their speech, space, and finger pointing. After about 20 minutes, I decide to go on my own and bypass the forts. I’m just going to get a shared taxi to Khiva, or to one of the main transit points near Khiva.

In front of the bazaar there are hundreds of marshrutkas and taxis going various places. I ask a variety of people “Khiva?” and get nowhere. I ask the names of other nearby towns. Nothing. Eventually a man offers to help, and then it’s clear he want me to hire out his entire taxi. No thank you. He calls a friend who speaks English to help me, but the friend just keeps telling me that the man can drive me to Khiva for X dollars. I tell the friend I don’t want the full taxi, I’m looking for a shared taxi or bus or marshrutka, but again, I get nowhere.

At this point I decide to try my luck at the bus station outside of town. I ask for the bus station, and people start nodding “station, station” (“vogzal, vogzal”) and direct me to the correct city bus. When I arrive, it’s clear that I have been directed to the train station. When I ask the marshrutka drivers outside about getting to Khiva, they shake their heads. I go inside the train station. There’s a line. I’m hopeful. When I ask about Khiva, it seems like there is a train leaving later today, or tomorrow, or now. Eventually I find someone that speaks English, and it turns out that no, there is no train to Khiva. She tells me to go the bazaar.

I want to cry. I’ve been to the bazaar. I ask about the bus station, and how to get there. It’s about 10 minutes away she says. Outside, one of the marshrutka drivers wants to explain something, but obviously our languages are getting in the way. One of the passengers tells me she will show me how to get there.

We end up back at the bazaar, at which point she shows me to yet another marshrutka. This marshrutka leaves the bazaar and heads BACK to the train station, at which point it continues on to the bus station, which is close enough for me to have walked. The bus station has a few shared taxis, which of course each want me to hire out their entire car. But, hallelujah, there is a minibus going to one of the transit points. And it leaves in half an hour.

It took 3 hours of frustration, but I’m finally going to get out of Nukus. I realize that I don’t speak Uzbek or Russian, but Khiva and its nearby transit points are only a few hours away from Nukus. This is a very common route to go, and the only way to get anywhere east to the rest of Uzbekistan. There must have been shared taxis going. Whatever. Grrr.