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Trip 15 -- Central & East Asia

Part 1: Uzbek mosques, madrassahs, and mausolea, and what a difference Dushanbe makes
26 September 2013

They say that it was a disgruntled Chinese princess who smuggled silkworms into Turkestan and leaked the national secret, and when news reached Europe, the Silk Road was born. From about the first century BC to the 13th century, silk and other goods were carried west from China to Rome, and items such as gold, peaches, and ostriches were brought east. The route changed frequently based on the time of year and the tax policies of the countries to be crossed, but Central Asia -- now the "'stans," more or less -- was nearly always traversed, and other neighbouring countries joined the action. The Silk Road died out in favor of water routes, which had fewer middlemen to pay and fewer bandits to worry about.

Thus Uzbekistan, with its key position between today's Turkey and China, has been conquered from all directions: first by the Greeks, then at various times by Mongols, Turks, and Russians. Each brought its own religion, and Uzbekistan, the founding place of Zoroastrianism, has been Buddhist and Muslim with a smattering of Christianity and Judaism, and of course it was officially without religion under the Soviets. The language is similar to Turkish and was once written in Persian script, then in Cyrillic, and now in an alphabet much like English.

On the way to its capital, Tashkent, I had a half-day layover in Istanbul, and since I'd never been to the Asian side of the city, I took a ferry across the Bosphorus to Uskudar. As it's ever so slightly closer to Mecca than the European side, the Ottomans built many stone mosques here, some with wonderful blue tiles. I wound my way south to Kadikoy, another port with a produce market and a lively pedestrian zone full of restaurants and shops. I had a dinner of meze and a large pastry filled with rice, pine nuts, chicken, and spices and watched the bustle. 

On paper, it's an overnight flight from Istanbul to Tashkent, leaving five minutes before midnight and arriving at 6:30 in the morning. But the two-hour time difference and the mid-flight meal (I am not sure which meal it was intended to be, as it was something eggy and squishy, accompanied by cheese and a piece of noodle kugel) meant that not much sleep was to be had.

I emerged from the airport to ward off the taxi drivers, as I planned to take the bus into the city. My situation wasn't particularly in my favor, since the currency-exchange office was closed. I wanted just enough Uzbek sum to get into the city, where I'd be able to get about 30% more on the black market.

One woman carrying some of those large cards with passengers' names greeted me in English and introduced me to a taxi driver. She surprisingly offered me the correct fare of about $4.50 (foreigners are often charged much more for a taxi from the airport) and said he'd be able to change money for me. I said I'd love to take him up on the money-changing offer but that then I'd like to get on the bus.

"But the buses are not running yet," she said.

"Those green buses over there?" I asked.

"They're for tour groups."

Then why did they have route numbers on them? 

Eventually she relented, and she explained to the driver that I would just change money. He led me to his cab.

"How much do you want to change?"

"A hundred dollars. What rate can you give me?"

He typed in the rate on his phone: 2200. 

"I'll just change ten dollars, then. I think I can get a better rate in town."

"What do you think the street rate is?"

I typed "2800," a number I'd seen on a travel discussion board a couple of days earlier.

"No more," he said. "Police problem. The official rate is...." He typed the number 2130, which was correct. "Now the street rate is...." He again typed "2200."

While I'd heard there was a slight risk of changing money with an undercover cop, I doubted that the police had shut down the decades-old black market in two days.

"Still, I just want to change enough to get into the city. Ten dollars."

"I'm sorry, I can't change such little money. The minimum is one hundred." He dialed the number of the woman who had introduced us, and he gave me the phone.

"I'm sorry, sir, but he won't change so little. You will need to change more," she said.

"OK, thank you. I understand." I gave the driver back the phone.

"Will you change a hundred dollars?" he asked. "I can give you a little more." He typed in the number 2250. 

"Thank you very much, but I think I'll just wait for the exchange office to open," I said.

I started to get out of the cab. He asked, "So do you want to change ten dollars?"

And with that, I had my first fistful of Uzbek sum and got on the bus.

Tashkent must be the quietest capital city I've ever visited. It's the former Soviet Union's fourth-largest city, but it seems to lack the noise and crowds of Istanbul or even the suburb of Kadikoy. The subway was nearly empty, even though it should have been the morning rush hour. There was very little traffic. Even Chorsu Bazaar, a sprawling market area with rows of produce and tiny stalls selling footwear, clothes, and luggage, had a calmness to it and few enough people that I could wander leisurely without getting run over by a cartful of potatoes.

It didn't take long for a moneychanger to find me. He offered me 2600 sum to the dollar. I asked if he'd give 2800, and he wouldn't go that high, but he raised his offer to 2650. I accepted -- I could have shopped around, but I didn't want to be there very long; I wanted to go to the train station, buy tickets, and leave most of my belongings there so I could walk around all day.

Now here is a problem with Uzbek currency. In exchange for $100, I received 265,000 sum. But the largest bill is 1000 sum. That means I had to sit down at a cafe and count out 265 banknotes to ensure that I wasn't getting ripped off. Everywhere in Chorsu Bazaar I saw people carrying around bags full of cash, usually in bricks of 100, worth about $37 each -- one note (which usually gets ripped) wrapped around 99 others and then the lot secured with a rubber band. They're used to counting them much faster than I can. When I handed the lady at the train station 247 banknotes to pay for three train tickets (one of which was in "luxe" class, as it was the very last ticket available), she fed them into a machine to count them quickly. Then I realized I was already almost out of money.

Little remains of old Tashkent, due to the country's turbulent history and the razing of much Islamic architecture by the Russians. The city also suffered an earthquake in 1966 and terrorist car bombings in 1999. Most of the modern city is dominated by enormous parks and plazas with trees and fountains, and a river divides the city into western and eastern halves. It's pretty, but it's strangely quiet and there seems to be little reason to linger. I walked up to the Central Asian Plov Center to try the national dish -- you can see the root of the word "pilaf" in "plov" and its a wonderful sweet-savory mix of rice, lamb, carrots, and raisins. At the Plov Center I tried their special version with hard-boiled chicken eggs, smaller -- similar to quail -- eggs, and a special meat aphrodisiac called "kazy" -- I never found out what it was, exactly.

In the afternoon I visited the national history museum, where Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and Islamic artifacts are nonchalantly put side by side along with ancient tools and well-crafted household items -- the early inhabitants were particularly skilled at hunting and farming. Then I went back to Chorsu Bazaar to change another $200 -- might as well not have to do it again for a while if possible. A guy found me who was offering 2700 sum per dollar. I counted one of the five bricks of 100 banknotes and the odd 40 and decided to trust the rest.

A short walk up the road from Chorsu is what's left of old Tashkent: winding, narrow lanes flanked by mud houses. I followed one lane to the end and arrived at a humble of Islamic monuments, old and new: the modern mosque with 50-meter-high minarets, the beautiful blue 16th-century Barak Khan Madrassah (religious school), the similarly-aged mausoleum of 10th-century doctor and philosopher Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi, and a mosque and library containing what may be the world's oldest Koran, a giant book dating from before 655. The library also contained copies of the Koran translated into Portuguese, Korean, Hebrew, and other languages, and there was even one in Braille.

The whole complex of buildings was up on a hill in a park, and it was very pretty in the late afternoon. I sat and rested my tired feet, and I scattered my 540 new banknotes around my backpack in an attempt to divert attention during any police searches.

Ah, yes, the police. They seemed to outnumber pedestrians in Tashkent, and while they weren't scary, they were annoying. They searched my bag almost every time I got on the subway. In fairness, they searched Uzbeks' too, but they also asked to see my passport and would strike up conversations. Once I got searched by two different policemen as I entered a station. I got searched three times just bringing my bag to the left-luggage office at the train station.

It used to be worse, apparently. Not long ago, it was common for police to concoct excuses to extract "fines" from travelers. Uzbekistan has been plagued by corruption since independence in 1991, and its first and only president, Islam Karimov, has done much to suppress whoever the opposition of the day is, swinging dramatically between promoting Islam, as he did right after independence, and trying to temper it, as he did after the 1999 car bombings. Political reform is sorely needed, but Karimov points to turbulence in neighbouring countries as a reason to keep things as they are. In 2000, Karimov retained his post in a fixed election -- even his opponent voted for him -- and in 2007, he garnered an unconstitutional third term. It's interesting that most of Central Asia, given their way, would have stayed in the Soviet Union but was forced into independence after the Moscow coup in August 1991.

Uzbekistan has three major ancient cities: Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. On the overnight train to Urgench, near Khiva, I was in a compartment with three other men. They shared their bread, sausage, and homemade cabbage pastries with me, and I shared the cheese and cookies I'd bought at a supermarket near Chorsu. And after the two overnight flights and walking around all day, I went to sleep early.

I awoke at sunrise but remained in a half-sleep induced by the rhythm of the train's wheels and the resulting gentle bouncing. We were waltzing along a straightaway, but the third beat of the waltz had a little pickup to it, like a rumba. From time to time we'd go over a switch, and the regular meter would be shortened by a beat. Then we'd accelerate and go into a two-beat gallop or a fast 6/8 rhythm like a cash register spitting out tape. And once in a while the wheels would play "Away, away, my heart's on fire" from "The Pirates of Penzance." Maybe my next composition should have rhythms inspired by the sounds of the trains I've ridden.

One of my compartment-mates explained that the scruffy expanse we were traveling through was rich with gold and uranium deposits. The group seemed to be in that business -- they had scientific books about gold with them -- but shied away when I asked. They left me in the morning at Uchquduq, somewhere amidst the gold, and I had the compartment to myself for the remaining five hours.

Except in Tashkent, Uzbek train stations have a frustrating habit of being far from the cities they serve. Urgench is a proper city, but most travelers use it as a gateway to Khiva. I got off the train, walked for 15 minutes, and boarded an extremely crowded trolleybus for the hour ride to Khiva. (But goodness me, was the flimsy little ticket stub cute. It had the word "trolleybus" in Russian in a kind of wave pattern, with the upper horizontal line that forms part of the "y" in Russian connected to a depiction of an overhead electrical wire.)

Khiva is a cluster of mosques, madrassahs, and mausolea enclosed within the old city walls, which allow access via north, west, south, and east gates. Most of the important buildings lie along the east-west axis, with a few to the south and a mostly residential area to the north. Khiva was an important regional capital in the 16th century, and various rulers added to it until the Russians invaded in the late 1800s.

The hodgepodge of architecture and detail is striking. Many of the grand buildings have Central Asia's signature Persian-style pointed archways, surrounded by blue tile containing florid inscriptions. A few have glistening turquoise bulbous domes. But some are understated, such as the dark Friday Mosque, with more than 200 black-elm pillars placed at regular intervals. Some buildings have been repurposed as restaurants, hotels, or museums, such as the Orient Star hotel, which is connected to a giant, wide jade-colored minaret that looks like an oil tank. No two buildings look the same, but there's a soothing unity to the jumble.

I spent the night at the annex of the Mirzaboshi B&B, across from a four-towered madrassah in the northeast corner of the old city. The owner, Rashid, makes everyone feel special, and he took special care of me at dinner and even invited me to play chess with him. Breakfast wasn't for the carb-conscious -- the table was set with muffins, scones, soft pastry, and homemade apricot jam, and then they brought out fresh bread and crepes! When I checked out at noon with several hours to spare before leaving the city, Rashid showed me out back to his yurt, where he pointed to bedding on the floor and said I could rest during the afternoon if I needed to.

I took a shared taxi back to Urgench, and I discovered why there had been only one ticket left on the once-weekly run to Bukhara: It seemed the whole train had been bought out by French and German tour groups. I shared a two-bed compartment with one of the Germans. But his group had split up, and they must have found another spot with his companions, as he left me and I had that holy grail of travelers: a compartment to myself overnight.

As the last light glowed on the cotton fields, I locked the compartment and spread out the dinner I'd bought at Khiva's bazaar: sausage, smoked cheese, flat bread, and tiny peach-like fruit. I dozed off. I dreamed that I was on a roller coaster driven by a friend. Only I wasn't a passenger, I was the wheel assembly, and we weren't in an amusement park, we were going down a mountain. I had to hold my arms tight against my body and look closely at the ground to avoid the sharp rocks. But it wasn't scary; it was kind of fun, and I got the hang of gliding down the mountain just above the earth. Then the coaster screeched to a halt...

...Just as the train abruptly stopped in Uchquduq around midnight and the conductor rapped on my door to insert another passenger into the compartment. He worked for the railway, and he was going home to Navoiy (so I would be alone again for the last hour or so). A freight train passed, its wagons loaded with heaps of gold-laden rock.

"One wagon -- one hundred thousand dollars of gold," he said.

If you had asked me in 1850 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I might have said a lobby musician in a caravanserai in Bukhara. A convergence of several branches of the Silk Road, Bukhara was a cosmopolitan place, home to merchants and traders from Persia, China, India, and Russia, to name a few. It had more than a dozen caravanserais, stopping points where travelers (and their animals and merchandise) would spend the night on their way west or east.

But they might have been apt to linger, for Bukhara was a hedonistic place, with sordid "sexual enormities" and entertainment consisting of tooth extractions on the main square and beheadings onto a scalding tray, which would cause the heads to writhe for a few seconds. I'm sure I could have come up with suitable music to accompany the sight of criminals tossed from the 48-meter-high Kalon Minaret. There would have been plenty of nuisances to avoid, however, such as pop quizzes on Islamic law by the religious police (those who answered wrong were beaten) and dirty water (contaminated with a parasite that grew into a two-foot worm that needed to be burned off over several days).

Whereas Khiva's sights were all nestled together, Bukhara's were spread out across a walkable, living city. The old domed bazaars are still used for displaying wares -- now they're geared toward visitors, but weren't the Silk Road travelers also visitors? -- and locals and foreigners alike spend their nights chatting by the main square, with its pool flanked by towering madrassah portals and its 15th-century mulberry trees. Children walk to school in crisp white shirts, and families drink tea by the pond in the amusement park near the bazaar. The main road contains many of the important buildings -- the big mosques and madrassahs -- but at every turn there seemed to be a mosque or caravanserai worth exploring.

I arrived early on a Friday morning and checked into the Nasriddin Navruz guesthouse, where the owner welcomed me with slices of melon similar to honeydew and even asked if I wanted breakfast, although I hadn't spent the previous night there. The guesthouse was in a labyrinth of dusty streets that used to be the old Jewish quarter -- and still is, though the number of Jews has diminished. Since it was Friday, I went to the old synagogue, just down the street from where I was staying, to see what an Uzbek service was like.

The synagogue was pretty, with carpets up on the walls, but the service was held outside. The leader (I am not sure if he was a rabbi) started chanting, but two other people were loudly talking to each other over the prayer. It seemed they were discussing whether we had the requisite number of people to conduct a service. Eventually a few more came in, and all was right. Three people led the chanting, and if it hadn't been for the help of an Israeli tourist I'd have had no hope of following the service, as they handed out prayer books but never explained where they were beginning.

Farther down the street was a bar that had a sign simply saying "Burgers and Beer." That sounds about as American as it gets, but in fact it was the only place I passed that was patronized entirely by Uzbeks, so I went in. And I unwittingly discovered that Bukhara's legendary hedonism continues.

There were no empty booths, but two women around 30 -- Oksana, who had a mustache, and Sabina, who was missing an upper front tooth -- invited me to join them. Oksana asked my name. She tried to pronounce it.

"Saaaa...," she said.

I emphasized sticking out my tongue to make the "th" sound, but she still didn't get it. "Saaa...shaaa...."

"OK, Sasha," I said. "You can call me Sasha."

"I love you," she said, taking my hand and scratching my palm. "There's no one else like you here."

"That's not true," I said. "There are many people like me."

"I've seen them," Sabina said.

I had one watery beer. They offered me a cigarette, but I declined. At Oksana's request, I got us some snacks -- sticks of smoked cheese -- and refilled Oksana's beer, for the grand sum of almost $2.

"Where are you staying?" Sabina asked.

"I don't tell," I said. Especially if the answer is "a minute's walk down the street" and I'm talking to a pair of prostitutes.

I finished my beer and decided to leave. I went out to the main square and watched people dancing at the teahouse across the pond.

Sabina found me. "Oksana fell asleep at the bar," she said. We sat and talked. She lived in the nearby town of Sharq. She was married and had a son, but her husband had left her and she didn't know where he was. She linked her arm around mine, but I pulled away. She said she had no money, but she didn't dwell on it or ask me for any. We said good night -- Oksana apparently would spend the night at Burgers and Beer -- and I went back to my guesthouse.

Three hours from Bukhara by the new fast train -- and then ten minutes on a local bus, because the station is never in the city center -- is Samarkand, whose monuments are at once grander and more intimate than anything I saw in Khiva or Bukhara. If Khiva was a gentle mixture of cardamom and ginger, and Bukhara was a multi-course tasting menu of various individual seasonings, Samarkand was the whole spice cabinet thrown into a single stew, more than the sum of its indistinguishable parts. Here the grand buildings were clustered together, and each was an assault of color -- painted blue tile, glistening turquoise domes, glazed terra cotta, blue mosaics, giant white and blue calligraphic inscriptions in angular and cursive script, geometric patterns, and floral motifs.

The only problem was that each site had its own admission fee, whereas in Khiva one two-day ticket covered almost everything. It wasn't that I minded paying the fees, which were usually only about $3, but each time I sloughed off eight or nine bills from my stash, I knew I was getting ever closer to another meeting with a moneychanger. I stayed at a guesthouse near the main square with a large courtyard and a collection of birds. I'd wake up to one calling "Brrrr-ew! Brrrr-ew! Brrrr-ew" and another answering "Whick-whick! Whick-whick! Whick-whick!"

Samarkand owes its architecture primarily to two people. Tamerlane, the 14th-century "Conqueror of the World" -- or, less respectfully, "Timur the Lame," owing to some early arrow injuries -- made the city his capital and built a madrassah, caravanserai, and dervish hospice on the main square (only the madrassah survives). He also built a complex of mosques with a giant portal and, farther out from the center, a hillside pathway with ornate mausolea for his family members and close acquaintances. His grandson, Ulug Beg, was not a great ruler -- he lost much of the empire and was killed by his son -- but he was a consummate astronomer and mathematician who built an observatory on the outskirts of town and calculated with surprising accuracy the motions of the planets. His 15th-century quadrant is still there, built into the earth.

Apart from all this history, Samarkand is also a modern cosmopolitan city still rooted in tradition. Men in embroidered skullcaps still chat away on the narrow streets, women in multicolored, studded dresses sell 20 kinds of patterned bread in the bazaar, and the occasional donkey cart goes by. On the same narrow streets, cars dodge potholes and gutters, and on the western, Russian side of town, with its landscaped parks and broad streets, there's a smattering of churches, non-touristy restaurants, and underground nightclubs. (They still seem to lack, however, a simple place to get a drink before dinner.)

It was almost time to head to Tajikistan. A couple of years ago that was very easily done from Samarkand, but they recently closed the border due east. Now you have to go back up toward Tashkent or south and then east.

I chose the southern route, which meant I could stop off in Shakhrisabz on the way. Tamerlane was born there, and he built a palace there that was supposedly even grander than anything he constructed in Samarkand. Little of it remains, but the ruins manage to give an idea of its height and splendor. Farther south are an intact mosque and a mausoleum containing some of Tamerlane's family, one tombstone in which supposedly contains healing salts. Tamerlane's intended resting place is also there, down a rank staircase, but he's buried in a fittingly opulent mausoleum in Samarkand.

Beyond that, Shakhrisabz was a tranquil place to spend the day. There's a lively bazaar and an inviting teahouse on the main street, where one of the friendly tea drinkers invited me to join him. He and the others -- all men -- must have been in their sixties or seventies. The only woman was passing out the tea. She was dressed in vivid colors and had gold teeth, huge eyes, a confident attitude, and a perpetual half-smile -- she'd make the perfect Madame Thenardier.

My guidebook had a full-color picture of this teahouse with patrons from a few years ago. I showed it to my companion at the table, and he recognized some of the people. Soon the other patrons were passing around the book, looking for their friends. One person in the photograph was there that day. They've all been there for years, no doubt, but now they play cards instead of backgammon and chess.

It was getting late, and I wanted to cover some of the distance to Tajikistan. I walked toward the southern bus station and asked someone where it was. She said less than a kilometer farther. Twenty minutes later I asked someone else and got the same answer. Twenty minutes after that -- about four kilometers total -- I passed the sign denoting the city limit of Shakhrisabz, I was following a guy driving his goats, the traffic had disappeared, and the sun was setting over the fields. I walked back to where there had been a group of taxi drivers. They pointed to the bus station, which was hidden behind a row of trees, but it didn't matter because it was firmly shut for the day. One taxi driver said it was too late to find a shared taxi out of town, but early the next morning I could catch one to Guzar, an hour's drive south. From then I'd get a minibus for the four-and-a-half-hour drive east to Denau, near the border, and then another for an hour to the border itself. I'd have to walk across the border myself, and then I could find a Tajik shared taxi to the capital of Dushanbe.

I didn't mind spending the night in friendly Shakhrisabz, and I was lucky to get the last room in the only guesthouse. Actually, I was lucky to find the guesthouse at all. It was entered through an unassuming door next to the door of a travel agency that seemed to be boarded up, and it was only with the encouragement of people across the street that I knew it was all right to go in. I entered the courtyard and startled an old man in an embroidered skullcap. He took my hand and treated me as if I were family. The guesthouse provided a good plov dinner, and I went to sleep early. In the morning the old man walked me down the street to get the right minibus to the shared-taxi stand, told me how much the next stages of the journey would cost ("Six thousand. Sum!" he emphasized, as if I might mistakenly pay $6000), and hugged me before I left.

It was a day of dusty drives. Taking a shared taxi means sitting there until enough passengers show up to fill the car, or else paying for any remaining seats if you're in a hurry and want to go immediately. Fortunately I never had to wait long, but though I started early, the trip took most of the day. On the longest stage, from Guzar to Denau, I was crammed into a minibus with a family and their cargo, but they were very friendly (although the little boy had a propensity for spitting on his older sister), and the driver took extra care to get me into the right vehicle to the border.

I reached the border at around four in the afternoon. Crossing it involved walking through various checkpoints and filling out several forms, mainly to show the Uzbek officers that I was leaving with less money than I entered with. The border itself straddles cotton fields.

On the Tajik side, I ran out of luck. I waited about an hour to get to Dushanbe, and I have no idea whether the driver overcharged me. Travel costs do seem higher in Tajikistan, but the equivalent trip would have been around $2 in Uzbekistan and it was around $9 from the border to Dushanbe.

Dushanbe has a dearth of hotels and they're all overpriced. The driver took me to the most reasonable one he knew of, which was close to where we entered the city. It was called the Fahrang and it was behind the state circus, a couple of kilometers from the center.

It was a particularly vile and depressing place. I was shown up a Soviet-style wide staircase with a red carpet that had once been affixed to the floor with metal bars, but the bars had come undone and thus the carpet was loose, rendering stumbling likely. The room had a narrow bed and was large but bare. I'd share a bathroom with the person next door. There was no running water; flushing was accomplished by scooping out water from a bucket with an empty soda bottle and pouring it into the toilet. Several times.

This slice of heaven cost $12. It was late and I figured it would do for a night. I committed and promptly broke the lock trying to get the key out. They moved me to a different room, which had occasional running water in the sink only, not necessarily dependent on whether I had turned the faucet knobs. I had dinner at the diner across the street and looked forward to daylight -- and finding something better for my next night.

Dushanbe felt much more Russian, and much less quiet, than Tashkent, at least given my limited experience with the Uzbek capital. Dushanbe had people, traffic, lots of restaurants and supermarkets, bars offering "fresh beer," and storefronts at the bottom of large residential blocks. There were trolleybuses. I heard more Russian on the street. There were still lots of people in traditional Central Asian Muslim dress, but there were also many who weren't, and there were many expatriates and visiting businesspeople, which may have had something to do with the city's inflated hotel prices. Its blue-domed mosque couldn't compare with anything in Uzbekistan, but it did have a pretty minaret. The central park was bursting with red, orange, and yellow flowers.

The highlight of Dushanbe was the museum of Gurminj Zavkibekov, who died in 2003 after traveling around for years collecting musical instruments. Among them were a 300-year-old tambur (similar to a sitar), a gidjak (also similar, but with an outsized metal box for a sound board), a kind of seven-pipe wind instrument, and an odd-looking specimen that resembled a banjo but had two sets of crossing strings. Someone demonstrated a few of the instruments, and the friendly bunch in the courtyard offered me vodka. Maybe after dinner, I said.

The only reasonably priced hotel in the center of town seemed to be the Vakhsh, in a pink-with-white-frosting building overlooking a square with a fountain. The lobby was dark and the red carpet threadbare. Reception consisted of a tiny window on the left. The woman behind the window said that for 90 somoni -- about $19 -- I could share a room with one other person, or for 220 somoni ($46) I could have my own room. I asked to see the rooms and was shown up another slippery carpet to long hallways with tall doors.

I went back down to the receptionist. She said, "If you're looking for a cheaper hotel, there's one called the Fahrang...."

"I was there last night," I said. "It's not a good hotel."

"This is also not a good hotel," she said. "No wi-fi, no Internet. Expensive. Zero stars."

We both laughed. "If I pay for both beds in a double room, may I have it for 180?" I asked.

"OK," she said.

The floor attendant -- another job dating from the Soviet days -- promised me running water once the fountain sprang to life at seven. The fountain never came on, but the hotel water did.

And tomorrow I shall leave this Soviet relic behind, for Tajikistan's natural wonders beckon.

Go on to part 2: Tajik weddings, Uzbek silk, and Kyrgyz walnuts and waterfalls