Trip 15 -- Central & East Asia
Part 2: Tajik weddings, Uzbek silk, and Kyrgyz walnuts and waterfalls
5 October 2013
I wanted to hike in the valley of the Zerafshan River or the Yagnob River, or in the nearby Fann Mountains -- anywhere with a small village, tranquility, and pretty views. The Zerafshan Tourism Development Association publishes a hiking map of the area, which, according to my guidebook, was available from the Bactria Cultural Center at 15 Akademik Radjapov, close to the threadbare Vakhsh Hotel and next to where I had a surprisingly good Lebanese dinner on my second and last night in Dushanbe.
But the address didn't exist -- it went from 13 to 17. A man in a supermarket directed me to the Safina building on Dushanbe's main drag, where window washers directed me across the street to people who also knew nothing of it; someone at a bank sent me to a German language center, where a man said the new address was 12A Tursunzoda; after I barged in on someone's home at #12 he pointed me around the corner to the correct address, which was in fact the new home of the Bactria Cultural Center, but they no longer sell the map.
To go north from Dushanbe you have to take bus number 3 to the picturesque-sounding Cement Factory stand, where drivers yell out names of destinations and guide people into cars or minibuses. I let the guy who found me decide where I would go.
"Penjikent?" he asked.
"I thought it was too late," I said. I did want to go there eventually, but I had read that it took eight hours and didn't think they would drive the road after dark. It was almost noon.
"No, no," he said. "Come." He grabbed me by the hand and took me to the front seat of a car. He said the ride would cost 130 somoni, about $27. I'd read that in a minibus it should be 120 somoni, so an extra $2 to be in a car would be well worth it.
Within a few minutes, we were on our way -- our cautious, friendly driver, Okel, and I in front, and three in the back. We passed through a couple of toll gates as we made our way up into the mountains. We drove under a few short tunnels, which didn't go under anything but were there only to protect cars from falling rocks. "Now here's the tunnel," Okel said, pointing just ahead to the one tunnel that was the focus of the drive.
The Anzob Tunnel, a five-kilometer Iranian debacle that was never completed but opened anyway in 2007, shaving three hours off the old drive over the Anzob pass, might make a great video game, but unfortunately it's real. You enter the tunnel and at once everything is dim. There are a few meek lights, but they don't really light your way, so you put your own lights on and find they don't help you much either. But the pavement is good, and you've gotten used to the narrowness of the tunnel, so you proceed with confidence. Congratulations: You've completed level one.
Then all the lights go away, and the pavement gets a little rougher. You have to slow down a bit and dodge the vehicles coming the other way -- they were supposed to open two tunnel tubes but the second one never got finished -- but you're still making reasonable progress. There's some construction equipment in the way -- a ladder lying on its side, a sack of something -- but it's not too hard to get around. You've completed level two.
Then you get to level three, the longest and most treacherous stretch. The pavement goes away completely. You're driving over craters, and you can't tell how deep they are. Metal pipes stick out of the ground, the remnants of road fasteners that never got properly tied. Some of the craters are filled with water -- and the aforementioned sharp metal pipes. You have to move all the way to the left to avoid them -- but there's a truck coming at you! You hope the truck driver sees you and gives you time to pass the crater and get back over to the right.
Then someone's coming at you, and not because of the potholes. Something's blocking the southbound lane. Why, it's an enormous ventilation fan! But of course it isn't spinning. Has it ever?
You're only a kilometer away from daylight, but you're starting to kick up dust, and so are the vehicles coming at you. The potholes get worse. Something drips on your windshield and you give thanks it's not the wet season, for it could be raining in the tunnel and the puddles could be deeper. Just as you're about to lose sight due to the dust and haze, and wonder just how long it would take for carbon monoxide to do you in...you're through! In my case we scored well, getting through in 14 minutes -- sometimes it takes most of an hour.
We emerged near the town of Takfon, amidst coal mines. With more time I might have gotten off there and tried to find a ride east to Margeb and other villages in the Yagnob River valley, where a few hundred people still speak the old Sogdian language from before the Arabs invaded in the eighth century.
We passed Aini, an important crossroads of Tajikistan's main highways, and turned west along the bumpy road to Penjikent. They're working on it, but since the closure of the nearby border with Uzbekistan -- the one that would have saved me much detouring -- it hasn't been a priority. We'd hit a nice patch of south tarmac, and it would last for about 30 seconds; then it would deteriorate again to a bed of sharp rocks. It took three hours to go the 90 kilometers, including a brief stop for samosas overlooking a beautiful canyon.
Like Oksana, the prostitute in Bukhara, no one in the car dared stick out a tongue to pronounce the last sound in my name, so I was Sasha to them, too. Like many others I've met, they asked what I did for a living, how much money I made, how old I was, whether I was married, and why I wasn't. It would be unthinkable for someone to be in his late thirties and not be married in Tajikistan.
Shortly before Penjikent, we turned off the main road in order to deliver a couple of people to their homes out in the countryside. One asked if I wanted to stay at his place, with his wife and children (he couldn't have been much over 20). I would have loved to stay in a Tajik home, but although Tajiks are known for their hospitality, I couldn't tell how serious he was, and in any case we were still a fair distance from Penjikent and there were things in the city I wanted to see.
So the driver, Okel, and I ride the last few minutes together. He showed me to a hotel called the Dodo, run by a friend of his, and it was a surprisingly comfortable, well-equipped, and inexpensive place. For $21 (I bargained him down from $25) I had a large room with satellite TV that even had a couple of English channels, reliable wi-fi, 24-hour hot running water with enough pressure to irrigate a windowsill cactus, a shower nozzle conveniently placed immediately next to the hot-water heater so that I had to lean just a little to the right to avoid hitting my head on it, an unopened toothbrush (but no toilet paper -- I'm glad I stole the remainder from my room at the Vakhsh), and a horsefly that could outroar the Sturgis Rally.
Also at the hotel was a Swiss couple. They were a year into an 18-month trip around Asia. I recognized the man from outside the awful Fahrang hotel in Dushanbe. They had endured five nights at the Fahrang, God bless 'em, and had somehow even managed to wash their clothes in the intermittent trickle of water. They asked the man on duty at the Dodo where we could find dinner.
"There's nothing around here. You'll have to take a taxi," he said.
We were pretty close to the center of town and couldn't believe there was nowhere to walk to get a bite to eat. I looked in my guidebook. "What about the Dusti? It looks close."
"It's not open," he said. "You can just get in a taxi and say, 'Where's a good restaurant?' He will take you."
Instead we walked five minutes down the road and found a very inviting casual place with good salads, hearty soups, and refreshing kompot (fruit punch).
The Swiss couple left the next morning; I stayed another day so I could visit Penjikent's two sets of ruins. The hilltop citadel of ancient Penjikent thrived from about the fifth to the eighth centuries, until the Arabs burned it down. It was a fairly wealthy place, with high-quality production of ceramics and jewelry and beautiful wall paintings (which have been moved to museums for preservation). Many of the walls are still standing, as well as an inviting archway.
After lunch at the Dusti (apparently it is open only for lunch), I hired Okel to take me out to Sarazm, 15 kilometers away near the closed Uzbek border. Sarazm is the remains of a 5500-year-old settlement discovered in 1976, and it contains several dwelling areas, fire pits, and the grave of a wealthy woman, the "Princess of Sarazm." Around Sarazm are tobacco fields; Okel said there used to be wine vineyards, too, but they're no longer allowed.
Back in Penjikent proper, Okel took me to the Rudaki Museum, where I could see some of ancient Penjikent's wall paintings, some of the Princess of Sarazm's jewelry and other personal effects, and some oddities such as Penjikent's first power generator (dating from the 1940s) and gold-mining headgear.
"My friend's daughter is getting married tonight," Okel said. "Would you like to go to the wedding?" Of course!
I didn't see any ceremony, but the bride and groom proceeded down the outdoor stairs of a building to the sound of drums and two long cornets alternating series of blasts. She had on a tight-fitting white dress and he wore a blue suit. The other women had on long multicolored dresses and scarves, but that seems to be their everyday dress as well. All Tajik women seem to be dressed up whenever they're in public.
Then we drove a short distance to a restaurant. I was sat at a table with ten other men, but some of the tables were mixed-gender. There were plates of sliced sausage and cheese; salads with the same meat and cheese mixed with tomato, cucumber, and dill; lots of fresh non bread, like giant shuffleboard discs; watermelon, honeydew, and grapes; and bottles of water and RC cola. I watched one of the family members give a speech and when I looked back, they had added two bottles of vodka -- the venerable Leader brand. No, I'd not heard of it either. There were eleven of us but only four small vodka glasses, so any consumption of vodka had to be done as a shot so that the glasses could be reused by others.
Then they brought out lamb-meatball soup, followed by tiny individual servings of salty beef, potatoes, and onions. We didn't go hungry, though. Throughout the night a band and two singers entertained us with Tajik 6/8 rhythms on drums, guitar, and two keyboards. The dance floor was crowded with adults and children.
The only people who didn't seem to have a good time were the bride and groom. They shuffled into the restaurant and sat onstage with sullen expressions. They never moved except to stand for pictures. The bride occasionally bowed. I don't know if they ate. They didn't dance. After the beef was cleared, they shuffled out and the party ended. There was a white cake, but it never got cut.
In the morning I went to the shared-taxi stand to head back east, and there, lo and behold, was Okel, with one seat left in his car, ready to head up to Tajikistan's second city, Khujand. I got in. Just outside of Penjikent we stopped, and Okel and the other passengers ran into the fields.
"Come gather tomatoes!" Okel said. I joined them.
I rode with them to the Aini crossroads, where I wanted to get a ride east into the Zerafshan River valley. That seemed more feasible than trying to visit the Yagnobis, which would have entailed going back down to Takfon and hoping for a ride on the rough road to Margeb.
So, the Zerafshan village of Veshab it would be. "From Aini there are shared taxis to Veshab....The journey takes an hour," promised my guidebook. Well, four of us waited two and a half hours and finally convinced a driver to take us with him to Veshab. It took almost two hours up the gravel road. But it was gorgeous. We climbed steeply so that we were high above the river, with the mountains even higher above us; this was a very steep canyon. Clusters of short mountains with shriveled peaks like inner artichoke leaves presented themselves in the distance. Marbelized smooth rock in red, blue, brown, and white hues towered over us. We passed masses of small rocks tenuously hanging on above us; a rockslide could cut the villages off for days.
Then we climbed back down and were next to the gushing river, even following the riverbed for a spell. Then, just as abruptly, we were back up, winding along the road precariously over the steep mountainside.
Finally we got to Veshab, a town of a couple thousand perched high above the river at the junction of two mountains, topped by slender poplars. The Zerafshan Tourism Development Association -- the same people who produce that elusive map I never found in Dushanbe -- arrange homestays in the valley, but they never responded to my e-mail inquiry and never answered the phone. So I showed up hoping someone would take me in for the night.
It didn't take long. A friendly man at the teahouse on the main square said I could stay at his house about ten minutes' walk up the hill. He introduced me to his son Fyeruz, who walked me up the path and past his garden, with red, white, purple, and pink flowers and apple, peach, apricot, and pear trees. He laid out cushions for me and suggested I relax and have some tea. But what I really wanted to do was walk a bit. I asked if I could come back later so that I could enjoy the final hour of daylight.
The mountains gleamed with late-day glow and long shadows, and I climbed up a pathway and watched the evening rush hour: a procession of laden donkeys, men, women, and children, all heading back to Veshab for the night. The sun was cradled between two mountains at the west end of the valley, and then it started to disappear.
I walked back up to the house along the stream that seems to be the lifeblood of the village. Fyeruz had put out grapes, apples, dried apricots, bread, and locally made honey. Then came tea in a gilded blue teapot and teacups. At around six-thirty he brought out a plate of oily chicken and French fries. I ate by myself; he does occasionally have multiple guests, but not that night, and the family ate in the main house. At seven the power went out, and he brought out candles. There was nothing to do but listen to the rushing stream and the dogs chatting with each other across the village. Fyeruz showed me my bedroom, with blue and white walls, a red carpet, and a mattress on the floor. At eight the lights went back on again.
I took out the book I'd been reading, "The Places In Between," Rory Stewart's account of his 2002 walk from Herat to Kabul in Afghanistan. He follows the same path as the emperor Babur, an Uzbek-born fourth-generation descendant of Tamerlane, who built those grand monuments in Uzbekistan. Stewart walks from village to village and finds a place to stay each night. I couldn't help thinking my room at Fyeruz's place must have looked like much of Stewart's housing. Someone in Veshab had told me the village was very Afghan in its layout, with narrow lanes running up to houses entered through high brick or mud walls.
I woke up around six-thirty and walked for an hour and a half along the road to the next village. It was cool and quiet, with just the sound of the river below and the honking of the occasional donkey. For a while I saw no one and felt as if I owned the mountains, which were a caramel swirl in the early light. A rusty sign along the road showed three names with birth and death dates. They shared the same latter date of 2 March 2007. Fyeruz later confirmed my suspicion: that their car had plunged down the mountain. His father said it happens with some regularity.
On the way back I followed a path down to the river, where a mother and daughter were giggling away and taking pictures on the small bridge. Their donkey wandered off by himself, laden with timber. I walked back up to Veshab and one of Fyeruz's female relatives brought me breakfast: a kind of egg-and-potato scramble with enough oil to lubricate the Queen Mary. I was glad to be eating alone, because I could siphon off the oil with each bite and spit it onto my plate. The eggs were also cold, but I didn't blame her, because I had said I might have breakfast around nine, and here it was almost ten. I collected my things, paid her the going bed-and-meals rate of $15, and walked down the hill to the main square to try to find a ride back to Aini.
I waited in the teahouse along with a thousand flies and two deaf men. We communicated in Russian with our phones. One typed something into his and I responded by typing something into mine. They insisted that I have a picture with them. When I said I wasn't married, he typed "Razvod?"
I didn't know that word in Russian. I looked in my dictionary and laughed. "No, I'm not divorced," I gestured.
Two hours went by. Very few cars came through, and those that did were heading in the wrong direction or returning to the village. Above the square, a donkey brayed every half-hour or so, the village's version of a church clock.
I walked outside. To one side of the main square were apple trees bursting with fruit. I walked across the square to the market, which was crammed with sausages, buckets of dry pasta, giant bottles of cottonseed oil, shirts, batteries, color print film (when did they last sell any?), and other odds and ends, in an organized scheme understandable only by the people who ran the store. Outside the market I met Mahmud, who may be Veshab's only English speaker. He had learned it at the university in Dushanbe but then returned to his hometown of Veshab. Next year he plans to move to Volgograd, in Russia, to be with his uncle.
"And what are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm waiting for a car to go to Khujand, or at least to Aini," I said. "I've been waiting three hours. People go east, but nobody's going west."
"It's late," he explained. "People go to Aini in the early morning."
"I know. I saw them this morning, and then I went for a walk. I guess when I got back it was already too late."
"What do you think about Tajikistan?" he asked.
"It needs more trains and buses," I said dryly.
He didn't get the sarcasm. "Do you see the mountains? It would be impossible." Tajikistan is 93% mountainous.
"I know, I know," I said, smiling, trying to redeem myself. "It's a very beautiful country indeed. And the people are friendly."
"Really?" He didn't seem to agree with me on that.
"I think so. And here there's good weather, fresh air, and wonderful views."
"My classmates are getting married today. Do you want to come?" he asked.
"I don't know. In an hour or so."
Who gets married at two in the afternoon on a Monday? People whose lives are dictated by the sun, the seasons, and their animals rather than office hours and client appointments, I guess. Veshab had a school, a teahouse, and a market, but other than that nothing needed to run according to a set schedule. When I'd asked the market owner what time he opened in the morning, he'd said, "Oh, seven or eight."
"Thanks for the invitation," I said to Mahmud. "I'm going to wait another hour and see if I can find a ride. If not, I may see you there."
But I gave up after 20 minutes. If it was two hours back to Aini, and then three or four to Khujend, I wouldn't get there before dark anyway. I walked back up to Fyeruz's place. He wasn't there, but the female relative from the morning was. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't find a ride," I said. "May I stay another night?"
"I don't know," she said. "I have to ask my uncle."
I'd gotten Fyeruz's phone number just in case I got lost walking. I called and asked him if I could stay. "Sure, it's fine," he said. But he wasn't fully in charge. I left my bag for the afternoon but didn't settle in again, just in case there was a problem.
I could hear the drumming and singing in the distance. Someone showed me the way to the wedding. The whole village, it seemed, had turned out for the celebration. Everyone was welcome, even a shabbily dressed American.
Most people stood. I was invited to sit with a bunch of men on a rectangular bench with food. The men were all on one side of the party, the women on the other. Some of the boys climbed up near the tops of the apple trees, almost dangerously high, I thought, and watched from there. At least they had plenty to eat.
As we nibbled, someone kept refilling the gilded blue teapot. It seemed that having an attractive teapot was paramount in Tajikistan. Then someone poured from a white teapot and handed me the cup. But it wasn't tea; it was vodka, to be chased with a heavenly piece of sheep's fat.
To my right was a doctor. I asked what kind, but I didn't understand the answer other than "diagnostics." He had about three teeth -- many Tajiks over 60 seemed to have lost most of their teeth, but they usually replaced them with gold ones. He hadn't. He smoked non-filtered cigarettes -- "I've smoked the same kind for fifty-three years!" he boasted.
"Do Americans know about Tajikistan?" he asked.
"Yes," I lied. When I called my banks to tell them to expect charges from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, they all said, "So you're going to Pakistan?" But maybe I was just lucky to have had a certain tenth-grade history teacher in my hometown near Boston. The course was officially world history, but she spent half the year on the USSR and then a quarter on China -- we all assumed she must have been a communist at some point. She was wryly cynical and bragged about not owning a refrigerator; she just kept the milk between the screen and front doors. She told us this in the winter; we didn't ask what she did in July. Anyway, it was imperative that we know all the old Soviet republics and their capitals.
To my left was another man with three teeth. "Will you dance?" he asked, handing me another teacup with vodka.
"After the fifth glass of vodka," I said.
"That's your fourth."
"Really? I thought it was my third." I drank up. The vodka smelled like it could sanitize Penn Station's toilets and I didn't mind being credited with an extra shot.
He poured me a little more. "And here's your fifth!"
I joined him as promised. We were among a crowd all dancing and encouraging us. He had me dance over to the bride and groom. They stood. The bride bowed expressionlessly and the groom gave me a glance as if to say, "What are you doing here?" I nodded and put my right hand on my chest, which is a common Tajik getting. I felt awkward in front of them. As in Penjikent, the bride and groom spent the whole celebration behind a ceremonial table with flowers, sculpted honeydew and watermelon, and piles of bread. They never moved except to stand to acknowledge a toast or someone's presence.
Mahmud found me. "Do you have weddings like this?" he asked.
"Yes. People dance, there's lots of food and music, and everyone's happy. But in America the bride and groom would be dancing, too."
"Oh, no. Not here. Here it's like they're the king and queen. They sit there and receive people."
The party finished and the villagers scuttled back home through Veshab's alleyways. I went back to Fyeruz's place and was relieved to see the table set and the bedding back on the floor: I could stay another night. I walked up the road beside the stream to see where it went. Each step had a different smell: a donkey, a garden, a latrine (I soon learned where those were and inhaled in advance accordingly), cinnamon, a fire. I passed the last house and the road merged in with an upper gravel highway that led up steeply toward the mountains. After a half-hour or so I turned back and settled in for another dinner at Fyeruz's and an early slumber.
Fyeruz helped me find a ride to Aini at around seven the next morning, and I took two more shared taxis and ended up in Khujand. I checked in at the somehow endearing Ekhsan hotel, where I asked for a high floor and was sent to the ninth only to find out the elevators weren't working.
The dezhurnaya, or floor attendant, is a job left over from the Soviet days. In my experience the dezhurnaya usually sits there all day looking bored, and glaring at you for the slightest misstep, but my dezhurnaya was lively and even brought me amenities such as soap, a packet of shampoo, a towel, and enough toilet paper to mop up a snail's tear.
"It's a good room -- nice view!" she said. It was a great view over the fountain in front.
"Will the elevators be working tomorrow?"
"In an hour or two, even." I never saw one in operation.
"Look, there's running water!" she said, lifting the faucet handle. A tiny stream began to flow. She smirked. "A little."
"Is there hot water?"
"In the evening. And the TV works!" she exclaimed, gesturing at it triumphantly -- a bold claim that I'd have loved to put to the test if there had been a place to plug it in.
In the 1950s, Saidkhoja Urunkhojaev, the humble owner of a collective farm, built a replica of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace just outside Khujand and dedicated it to the people. It has well-maintained gardens and a stunning auditorium with hand-painted panels no two of which have the same pattern. It's also sort of a nostalgia museum of Soviet times, with dioramas of good times on the collective and quotes from Stalin proclaiming Tajiks a uniquely cultured race.
Khujand is vigorous and has a youthful spirit. Along the median park of Khujand's main street, I saw a group of students clapping along in rhythm and they asked me to sit so they could practice their English. They were journalism students who had just completed their training. They thrust a large camera in my face and had me explain my trip and who I was.
In Soviet times, Khujand was named Leninabad, but although the main street is still named after Lenin, other references mock: Central Asia's tallest Lenin statue is somewhat away from the center, and the first person I asked didn't know what I was talking about. The second person walked me through a residential area and then had his kids point me in the right direction. And there was poor Lenin, in the middle of an overgrown construction zone set back from the road. Compare that to esteemed ex-leader Ismoili Somoni, whose statue is fronted by lit fountains, or even a statue of a giant pigeon, easily visible from a bridge. And then there's the boxy Hotel Leninabad, apparently with no interior lighting, where, according to my guidebook, men can bribe the clerk $2 for access to women's rooms at night.
From Khujand, I headed to Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley via a series of minibuses and met a charming 70-year-old Uzbek-born resident of Tajikistan named Ismat Ullah who was headed my way. We crossed the border together.
"I have four passports," he said. "Two Russian, two Tajik. One is for international travel, one for internal travel."
"Why do you need a separate passport for internal travel?"
"That one has my address on it and other information. In case I check into a hospital."
"I see." So they were more like identity cards.
"And just between you and me, I have an Uzbek passport too. But don't tell the officers." I didn't ask why.
On the Uzbek side, there was no transportation as we exited the immigration building. There were cows, dogs, and a donkey.
"The minibuses don't come this far, because no one lives here."
"Except the animals," I said.
"See the donkey? The donkey has the longest penis," he said, indicating his arm's length. "And look at the pomegranate trees."
I would learn that fruit would grow along the roadside all over the Ferghana Valley: persimmons, grapes, apples, and pomegranates, to name a few.
"See way ahead there? There we can find a minibus. We have to walk a thousand steps. I've counted!" He'd done this tedious border crossing many times.
The Ferghana city of Kokand has a little bit of everything: a fort, a big mosque, a little mosque, and a few madrassahs. It also has a theatre and a poetry-and-arts museum dedicated to Khamza, who founded a theatre company in 1918. The museum contains a terribly out-of-tune piano and is also the site of the guide's English lessons; I talked with his students for a bit after he showed me around.
I could have stayed in Kokand, but I wanted to get a head start going east. I took two buses and arrived in the little town of Margilan, famous for its silk factory, just after dark. According to my guidebook, Margilan has one hotel, just off the main square.
"We no longer accept foreigners," I was told when I tried to check in. "There's another hotel, two kilometers down the road...."
"I don't want to go two kilometers. I'm very tired. Please."
"I can't," said the clerk.
The only other option in town was the B&B run by the director of the silk factory, but I didn't know where it was (neither did the hotel clerk). So I hurried to the factory itself in the hopes of finding someone there at this late hour.
The night watchman was just closing the gate, but he saw me.
"Come in, come in," he said.
"I'm sorry to arrive so late. Is it possible I could stay tonight?"
"Yes, yes, certainly. Sit down and have some tea and bread. And try these sweets." They were locally made, but they reminded me of very sugary Indian sweets.
We were in a small room next to the gate. A TV set, with a wrench replacing the channel knob, showed various patterns of static. People came and went. He opened and closed the gate several times as the workers went home. A couple of kids came in and practiced their English with me. Forty-five minutes went by. I expected to be introduced to the director, who would show me to a room, but it didn't happen. I was hungry and thought it might be difficult to find dinner if I waited much longer.
"Excuse me," I said to the night watchman. "Is it all right if I go get dinner, just at the main square, and come back in an hour or an hour and a half?"
"Sure. I'll be here all night."
There were only two or three dinner possibilities, and the only one with any patrons was a fast-food hangout for Margilan's youth. I had a shawarma sandwich and called it a night.
Back at the night watchman's kiosk, I waited again for the director. The watchman kept offering me tea. He had tuned into a faint signal on the TV set.
How could I politely say that I wanted to be shown my room so I could have some privacy and go to sleep?
"You are tired," said the watchman. "Do you want to stay here?" he asked, indicating the little bed inside his kiosk.
Wouldn't he be there all night, with the light on? "Are there any other places?" I asked.
"Yes, let me show you." He took some of the bedding from his own bed and led me outside to a covered, but still open, area with a few platforms. "Which one do you want?"
So there were no rooms. I'd be sleeping outdoors. I pointed to the bed farthest from the entryway to the covered area. "This one, please."
"Do you have a jacket?"
"Yes." It wasn't cold, but later on it would be just cold enough that having a sweater, in addition to the blanket he gave me, would be helpful. "Tualyet yest'?" Is there a toilet?
"Tualyet! V lyubom myeste tualyet," he said, taking me around the back of the covered area and gesturing toward the grass.
I laughed. He had said, "Wherever you want, there's a toilet," but the phrasing he used carried a connotation of "anyplace that tickles your fancy."
He left. I used the facilities, such as they were, and tried to get comfortable with half a set of bedding on the wooden platform. I did need the sweater, and I folded up the blanket around me. It was peaceful outside, but every rustle caught my attention. A cat climbed down from the roof. The guard dogs howled -- not at me, I hoped. I inhaled gnats and mosquitoes. It wasn't quite comfortable enough. The dogs howled at intervals all night, sometimes coming to drink from the pool in the middle of the covered area. But I did manage to sleep a fair bit.
The Yodgorlik silk factory, where I spent the night, may be the only place in the world that spins and weaves silk by hand, according to the old traditions. In the morning I got to see the mulberry tree, where it all begins. Silkworms eat the tree's leaves, then spin cocoons. People move the cocoons to the sun, where they dry out and the worms die. The cocoons are steamed, which allows the tiny silk thread to be siphoned off easily -- one cocoon produces a single strand about a kilometer long. These are woven together into a tighter strand of about 30 tiny strands, and then those strands themselves are woven together to create a (relatively) sturdy thicker strand. This is fairly brittle, but it softens when washed with soap and salt.
Dyes come from common items: acacia, onions, pomegranates, nuts, and indigo. Dyeing is a painstaking process: the lengths of silk not to be dyed are covered with a knotted kind of rope; then the silk is dyed but the area under the rope remains white. Then the rope is undone and redone around the dyed area, so that another color dye can be used. Each color requires a tedious process of tying and untying.
I couldn't tell if I was visiting a sweatshop, as I felt years ago at a carpet factory in China. But the people looked happy and my guide said they work a normal eight-hour day. His fiancee was one of the embroiderers, in fact. She looked to be about 14, but he said she was 19 and he was 20. They'll be married in two years. I only hope they get to dance at the wedding.
Before I left, I found the night watchman -- who becomes the cook by day -- and gave him $10 as thanks for his hospitality.
I made a quick stop in Andijan, site of the protests in 2005 in which hundreds were killed. It was the only place I didn't like, but I'm not sure I gave it a fair chance. The minibus let me off near an assortment of furniture shops and travel agencies. I walked up to the bazaar, which was especially colourful due to the Ferghana Valley's plethora of fresh fruit. I was supposedly in the center of town, but nothing I saw matched anything on the map in my guidebook. The taxi drivers seemed particularly persistent in wanting me to ride. I wanted one last Uzbek plov dish before heading into Kyrgyzstan, but the version I got, in a spartan place with the staff spitting on the ground, was cold, bland, and fatty.
And there were no supermarkets in Andijan -- nowhere to use up my last fistful of sum.
And so I took a minibus to Khojaabad and then another to Dustlik, where I crossed into Kyrgyzstan, the final "'stan" of the trip.
The city of Osh is Kyrgyzstan's oldest. It has a spectacular bazaar that spews across the river and uphill, with stores under tents or inside freight cars. Apparently there's some kind of organization to its layout, but it eluded me, and all I could think was that I wouldn't want a table of sheep's heads looking at me while I was trying on footwear.
I found a hotel at a main intersection. It didn't really have a lobby, but the entry foyer had good fortune staring me in the face in the form of a washing machine. I was on my last day of clothes -- and had been wearing them for some time, as I hadn't bothered to change when I woke up at the silk factory. At the border, I had changed just $20 into Kyrgyz som (which I couldn't find when I excited the minibus into town -- I kept pulling out wads and wads of Uzbek and Tajik notes, until the driver told me to just go ahead and not worry about it), although it turned out the rate at the border was, unusually, fair. The hotel room cost $17. The person in charge had no idea what I should pay for use of the washing machine, so I just offered her the whole $20 worth. It was enough for her, and she even took my clothes out and hung them in my room to dry when the cycle was finished.
I went to the bazaar and then up to Solomon's Throne, a steep, popular climb in the center of town. I had a just-after-sunset panorama of Osh and the surrounding mountains, and there was harmony of sight and sound as the mosques sang to each other across the city.
When I got back to the hotel, two hours later, the hotel receptionist couldn't get my room open. It had somehow locked itself from the inside, with all my clothes hanging in there. An hour of banging and bemusement ensured, after which she called a handyman of sorts, who finally got the door open.
Osh was dark and the scale on my guidebook's map must be off -- places that should have been a few minutes' walk away were in reality much father. I found a restaurant and was the only diner. As I neared the end of my meal, the waiter started urging me out. "It's almost eleven," he said.
I looked at my watch -- it said ten minutes to ten.
I hadn't realized that Kyrgyzstan is an hour ahead of Uzbekistan.
I cursed that mistake because I wanted to get to sleep (and wake up) reasonably early, but in the end I'd be happy with the extra daylight.
I did get out early, around eight, and shared a car to Jalalabad (no, not the one in Afghanistan) with three other people, including a 55-year-old woman named Giljis who refused to let there be any moments of silence. "For the next hour and a half, we are a family and this is our home," she said. That meant we should get to know each other.
I was tired and dozed off for a while, but I perked up when they started talking about food. The driver was talking about a dish his wife makes with fish, potatoes, greens, and oil.
"That's a very good fish," Giljis said.
"What is that fish called?" I asked.
They didn't know what it would be in English, but in Russian it's a small local fish known as "marinka."
Giljis had worked as a translator and could speak all the regional languages. "Kyrgyz people are friendly," she said. "Tajiks are...." She was speaking in Russian and I didn't know the adjective she used, but she clenched her fists to show that she considered Tajiks more assertive than the Kyrgyz. "They have to be, since they border Afghanistan," she said.
She tapped the man between us, who had been silent the whole trip. "Why don't you say something?" she asked. The man said nothing. She noticed the person in front had his eyes closed. "If you want to sleep, I can talk more quietly," she said. She wouldn't stop talking completely, of course.
We talked about my plans to go to the nearby walnut forests of Arslanbob and then head up to Lake Issyk-Kul and the nearby city of Karakol.
"You must try the berry wine in Karakol," she said. "And the nuts they have there, different from the walnuts in Arslanbob. But the people here are warmer. And do you know why?"
"Because here the sun shines."
"Doesn't the sun shine in Karakol?"
"Yes. But it's a different sun."
Giljis got out before the rest of us. One of the other passengers and I exchanged glances that said, "Wow, she's a handful!"
In Jalalabad, I could have waited for the bus to Bazar-Korgon and then the cramped, lumbering connecting bus to Arslanbob, but wanting to have as much hiking time as possible, I accepted the offer of a driver who would take me there in 90 minutes for $17. In Arslanbob I was met by a representative of the community-based-tourism agency, who put me into one of their homestays: a house near the center with sweeping views of the walnut forest. There were chickens running around, and the owner gave me a bag of walnuts as a souvenir.
Arslanbob has a "big waterfall" (80 meters) and a "small waterfall" (25 meters). I spent most of the afternoon hiking up to the big one. It was hot and the road was steep and rocky, but it was nonetheless a lovely walk, with donkeys, cows, streams, and kids wanting me to take their picture. After and hour and a half I crossed a river and could see the top of the waterfall way up the mountain.
The gentle incline ended and the path became a steep twisting slope strewn with loose rocks. I started up the path, then got nervous. I was already a fair height above the river and with mountains towering around me, I felt small and helpless. There was no one else around. I climbed back down.
I looked up the slope again. It didn't seem that steep. It was just the loose rocks that made it seem treacherous. I started up again and got a few twists farther than before. But each step required balletic precision of hands and feet -- absolute certainty that I was stable before I proceeded to the next step. It was very slow going.
I don't know how far I got -- probably a third to half of the way. With each step so tedious, I dreaded coming back down. Sometimes I felt secure and sometimes I'd make a move only to send a few loose rocks down the slope. And without anyone else in whose footsteps to follow, I had no idea how safe I really was.
Just a year ago I found myself in a similar precarious position, stuck for an hour high above a river in the Nagorno Karabagh region of Armenia. I'd had to dig out handholds and swing from root to root to cover a tiny bit of distance across loose gravel. I didn't want to tempt fate again. I'd be satisfied seeing the "big waterfall" from the bottom of the path. I worked my way down, had a picnic by the stream, and walked back into town. On the way I slipped on some loose gravel that was just part of the road -- if I was going to fall, that was the best place to do it.
As the day started to draw to a close, I walked out to view the red and white cliffs that look down on Arslanbob from the west, and then I walked out to the small waterfall, quite close to town and much easier to access. Its gentle spray felt good in the late-afternoon heat. I went back to my homestay and had dinner -- this was steak-and-potatoes country! -- as the last couple of rays of sunlight cast their spell on Arslanbob's walnut forest.
Go on to
part 3: Crossroads of the world