Our flight to Bhutan, like Bhutan itself, is small and quiet. The small Buddhist nation in the Himalayas is a favorite for many types of travelers, and the difficult nature of entering Bhutan alone makes it an attractive option for some. Americans, along with all other foreign nationals aside from Maldivians, Nepalese, and Indians, are required to visit Bhutan using a licensed tour operator, and must spend a minimum of $250 per night that they plan to stay. Bhutan has hundreds of registered tour agencies, so when I booked this tour, which includes visa, lodging, meals, water, guides, and activities, I was still a student so I was able to secure the most inexpensive possible tour with a group that offers student discounts. For my three-day, two-night tour, I paid around $600 including flights, while my dad had to pay around $1000. Once again, my UConn student card saves me money.
Only two state-owned airlines fly into the idyllic country of Bhutan, so as to limit the number of people who can enter the country. Bhutan, where the royal family proudly celebrates their “gross national happiness” figures above their gross national product, cherishes its nature and its land; with global warming affecting the mountainous, snow-capped country, the environment is important. Our small flight from Dhaka is nearly full, and it is said that flights into and out of the country sell out months in advance during peak season, for fear that running too many flights from Paro--the nation’s only international airport--will emit excessive carbon into the air and diminish the quality and cleanliness of Bhutan for everyone else. I am elated to have one of these prized spots.
Day 1: Beyond the Gates
We are traveling at the end of the off-season, so we were able to secure yet another deal on our tour package by traveling during the often-rainy month of August. We depart from Dhaka in the middle of a steady downpour, but Paro airport is nice, sunny, and serene. There are no other flights coming or going in the near future, so all of the passengers walk across the tarmac, taking pictures of the planes, Buddhist architecture, and the caldera-like mountains surrounding Paro airport.
Beyond customs, two Bhutanese men greet us: our guide and our driver. In true Bhutanese fashion, they seem happy to see us and introduce themselves. They also happen to be donning actual Bhutanese fashion, which consist of short robes for men. As part of our tour, we also get to wear similar dress once we return to the hotel in Thimphu, but first we visit some of Bhutan’s sacred Buddhist sights before we arrive in the capital 40 minutes away.
First we drive to capital Thimphu’s Memorial Stupa, taking care to walk around it three times in accordance with Buddhist tradition. Off to the side, we spin the prayer wheels amongst a group of elderly Bhutanese who spend their days chatting and socializing near the prayer wheels, practicing their religion as they prepare for the next life. Next, we visit the nation’s largest Buddha, overlooking the Thimphu valley. Inside, 12,000 smaller Buddhas sit in a hall, along with shrines and pictures of various religious figures. The royal family, largely admired and loved by their people, also has a few pictures set up in a corner. Calm seeps from every window and door below the monument, and guide Namgay explains the hierarchy of Bhutan’s devout monarchical government.
In the evening, we change into our robes and visit monastery Tashichho Dzong, where we get a crash course on Buddhism and how it plays a role in Bhutanese society. A mural displays the six worlds: those of the animals, humans, gods, demi-gods, restless spirits, and the world of Hell. Namgay explains how reincarnation allows for our spirits to live in other worlds after death, depending on how we live on earth. At the monastery, we see a local scout troop visiting, and sneak a peek at the Royal Palace nearby.
Day 2: Into the Tiger's Nest
Bhutan’s most picturesque site, which looms high over Paro, is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Built into the side of a cliff, a few hours’ hike takes the adventurous and the pious alike to some of the most spectacular views from the many mountainside temples enclosed in the monastery. But the trek is not easy.
Thin air and high altitude makes the climb to the Tiger’s nest a struggle, but the rewards are regular and impressive. We meet monks, tour guides, and tourists, most of whom come from India. In the off-season, we feel like we are the only westerners making the trek in this serene, remote Eastern wilderness. When we climb to 3150 meters above sea level, we can hardly breathe, but rain starts falling in a drizzle and I appreciate the relief.
At the top, we spend a few hours experiencing the temples and stupas in the monastery, and, just as we are about to descend, the rain subsides enough for us to begin our descent. Halfway down, we stop at a mountainside watering hole with a vegetarian buffet and fill our bellies with some of the most wholesome food I have ever had. When we arrive at the base, the monastery is shrouded in fog and we leave to soothe our joints in a Bhutanese hot stone bath.
In a Farmhouse Outside Paro
A local apple and vegetable farmer makes a few extra bucks hosting the occasional tour group for archery challenges, hot stone baths, and home-cooked dinners. Tonight, my dad and I are that tour group. After missing the target for fifteen straight minutes over hand-picked Paro apples, we climb into our respective tubs and soak for forty-five minutes, chatting about how we cannot believe we are here. Words cannot describe the mystical nature of this real-life Shangri-La. People are actually *happy* here, and it shows. Everyone we meet eagerly shares their homes, their food, their culture with us, and nobody seems to be in need. Namgay explains that the government supports the farmers of Bhutan by strongly limiting the taxes they pay. The idea that land is a part of life, and that the things that grow in it are one with us, seems critical to the Buddhist nation where so many are vegetarians.
That evening, we eat a farmhouse dinner where we are served simple, organic Bhutanese dishes like spinach, mixed greens, and pink Bhutanese rice. We eat well, and I am overwhelmed by the savory flavors in these natural, high-quality ingredients. We also sip butter tea, which is exactly what it sounds like; I find it to be the only upsetting part of the whole meal. After dinner, we return to Paro from where we are unfortunately scheduled to leave Bhutan in the morning. We sleep well in the only country with enough happiness to export it, and awake early to transfer to the airport.
To Nepal, via Everest
Paro airport is calm, filled mostly with Indians wrapping up their peaceful Himalayan holidays. In Nepal, we will be applying for visas on arrival so my dad goes to the ATM to withdraw Bhutanese dollars, which he then exchanges with the duty free cashier. I roll my eyes, hoping his hedging missteps don’t lose a bunch of our money like they did in Albania. We ask for seats on the right side of the plane, hoping to get a view of Mt. Everest on our westward flight to Kathmandu. The woman at check-in happily obliges. The Druk Air flight is short, and the heavy gray clouds dwarf the highest peak in the world before we turn off to land in Kathmandu.
If cows are sacred in Delhi, they appear a scourge on Dhaka. We have arrived via a near-empty flight from Kolkata into the capital of Bangladesh during Eid-al-Adha, the “Festival of Sacrifice.” No matter where we drive, walk, or tuk-tuk, cows are being slaughtered and skinned in the streets. The asphalt and drainage ditches alike run red, and at multiple points my father and I are wading through unavoidable streams of blood. Regardless, I am happy to be back in a Muslim country where people seem kind and pious, and where citizens strive for tidy, clean neighborhoods. The streets, aside from the streams of blood, are spotless and it is clear that Dhaka struggles much less with trash management than India’s mega-capital.
What’s more, in Delhi I had a target on my back for anyone looking for, well, anything. In the block outside my hostel, I was frequently bombarded with offers for tuk-tuk rides, prostitutes, and drugs. One particularly persistent drug dealer offered an incredibly well-rehearsed monologue, which I enclose here with minimal alterations if only to put his impressive salesmanship on display for aspiring drug dealers who want to learn how to not take a hint:
“Sir! Hello sir! How are you tonight? I am sorry sir. I realize that it is not typical in your country for someone to bother you on the street when you’re out walking. Forgive me. Where are you going? Are you shopping? Shopping is for ladies. Perhaps you are shopping for a lady? No? You are going back to your hotel? Where are you staying? Perhaps you’d like to party? You want a little hashish? It is the best you will find. Truly amazing. Really great for a party. You look like you enjoy the party. I tell you what, I will give you a free sample now, and tomorrow you come by and buy more, master? Yes? No I insist. Absolutely free of charge!”
(He fiddles in what looks like a baseball card wrapper; I gravitate away from him as I am looking for my hostel, which is virtually indistinguishable when I come from this direction. I say goodnight)
(He reaches his hand out for a shake, and without thinking I return it, only to find he has palmed me a few grams of lumpy hash, the rough consistency of drying cookie dough. Not wanting to get convicted of possession on a street where a bunch of cops have no doubt been watching this whole thing, I drop the hash and duck into the hostel.)
In Bangladesh, I will not be dealt drugs, as the sentence for drug offenses can be as serious as death. I have also found that in Muslim-majority countries citizens hold themselves to higher moral standards, and I am less likely to be scammed or harassed. In the night, my dad and I wander the streets trying to find a restaurant open on Eid al-Adha, and find little more than a rooftop Indian restaurant popular with businessmen. We order tandoori chicken and biryani, and admire the view of the Baitul Mukaram Mosque and National Stadium. After dinner, we admire the former’s giant green neon “allahu akbar" (“God is greater”) sign from the darkness of the street and head back to the hotel, stopping to watch a late-night street cricket match.
Dhaka for the Day
Rising early, an Uber brings us to Dhaka’s river port where ancient ferries and rowboats shuttle people and goods up and down the muddy brown Buriganga. In Dhaka, textiles and clothes are big business, but you probably knew that already, as a lot of your clothing, like mine, is likely made here. I hope to find a pair of cheap, off-brand shoes to last the rest of my wanderings after losing my last pair in Delhi, but all the shoe shops are closed for the festival of sacrifice, and so I am doomed to walk in sandals amidst the cow innards. We stop first at Ahsan Manzil, a pretty pink building housing a national museum, and move northward when we learn it doesn’t open for another couple hours.
Next, we stop by a captivating Armenian church from 1781, where a cheery caretaker shows us around the grounds, and we marvel at the gravestones written in Armenian in the middle of Bangladesh. The congregation isn’t spectacular, but it sits in a yard of its own in a city with mosques every few blocks. We even come across a mosque built into an overpass, but this centuries-old orthodox church remains despite the Muslim majority.
Before we return to the hotel for my dad’s siesta, we visit Lalbagh Fort, an unfinished Mughal fortress in a similar rose-tinted hue to Ahsan Manzil. There, it begins to rain so we hide in the museum where a group of kids in their early teens elect their friend with the best English skills to give us a tour. He is halfway the weapons exhibit, through pointing to things and saying “gun” and “sword” when the actual curator of the museum pushes him to the side and begins giving us his tour. Before we leave, Bangladeshi kids swarm around us to take selfies as if we are Academy Award-winning actors.
Eid al-Adha apparently means that bakeries are buzzing and pastries are flying out the door. We buy two of the prettiest pastries on the shelves, and quickly learn that Bangladesh knows their sweets. It has always been a theory of mine that certain things are best in Muslim countries, like desserts and “alcohol-free cocktails. As you are likely aware, Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol and so juices, sodas, and other mixed drinks are abundant. On my trip to Algeria a couple of months ago, I was treated to some of the best lemonades and cherry-lime juices, and I seriously considered giving up alcohol myself for such perfectly-crafted ‘mocktails.’
After pastries, we drop into a fast-food fried chicken joint and gorge on chicken and fries as if we were sentenced to death inside a KFC and this was our final meal. Did I mention that chicken is another thing Muslims make incredibly well? The Colonel could almost certainly take a lesson as the chicken sandwiches here are juicy, flaky, and crispy and have absolutely no asphalt in them, as the hamburgers almost certainly do. We leave the place full and without regret. During this slaughter of cows and goats, chickens are off the chopping block so this week my conscience remains clean.
That afternoon, we visit a Hindu Mandir, where a cow is being guarded by four camo-clad men with shotguns as if to suggest Eid-celebrators are lurking just over the wall to ring in the holiday with a sacred Hindu steak. Perhaps the community is fearful, or perhaps several days of seeing God chopped, skinned, and bled into the streets disheartens the Hindus of the city, because dozens and dozens of them brush off the rain to watch the maximum-security cow chomp away at the grass.
Dhaka Pub Crawl
An early dinner makes my dad restless, and we scour the net for nightlife in Dhaka. Alcohol is not prohibited in the country, but it can be rather expensive leaving Bangladeshi bars few and far between. I locate one “Nightingale Bar” on Google Maps and we catch a tuk-tuk there as the rain pours outside (and a little bit inside, too). At the bar, we receive salutes from each of the four armed guards in front,and are welcomed upstairs into the smoky, poorly-lit lounge where no one’s faces can be discerned, except those of the Bollywood actors on a small flat screen in the corner. Beers cost 3 or 4 dollars, and are served warm in the 10-ounce can. It doesn’t take long to finish our drinks and move on from the creepy haunted speakeasy vibe.
In Bangladesh, it becomes clear that only the men go out to drink in bars, as the next bar is also dubbed a “gentleman’s club.” The energy there is less tense, as there are no armed guards, and a band sings Bengali songs in the front for the crowd’s pleasure. If they are pleased, though, they don’t show it. We have another drink here, next to an older man with a fanny pack and a much younger phone-fiddling woman, and witness local music with all the singers’ incomprehensible warblings.
In the morning we catch a cab to the airport, but admiring the buses as we pass. The likely decades-old vehicles have been fixed so many times that they no longer have rear lights, and instead have taped pieces of metal paneling that make it look as if they never had lights at all. The buses of Bangladesh were born into the world like us: unable to see anything behind us, with nothing but hope for what lies ahead, and--of course--incapable of communicating to those close to us that we are about to make a left turn, a right turn, or throw a temper tantrum at any given moment. When these troubled chariots back up from a parking space, often a young teenager will hop out of the front then stand near the rear wheel, slamming his hand on the fender in a particular pattern of the driver should continue backing up, and banging another pattern if the driver is about to hit something. No rear lights, brake lights, or turn signals, but the city hums along fine.
I awake in bed, where I have spent roughly 16 of the last 24 hours of my own volition, and begin reading the graffiti on the dormitory walls. Of all the hostels I have visited that were basically prisons, this is the most prison-like. A light coat of primer hardly conceals creepy doodles of Mickey Mouse, ambiguous pleas for a feminist revolution in Spanish, and the tags of assorted German street artists. It is eight am, and most of the people in this oddly-pleasant, air-conditioned jail cell are still asleep. I head to the bathroom, and afterward declare I will no longer use it. I have no idea how to use the infamous water hose, which this part of the world employs in lieu of toilet paper, so I will go to the bathroom in some fancy hotel lobby, rather than suffer in my hostel’s bathroom and likely catch a host of fecal-borne diseases. Before I leave, I conceal my water bottle behind a curtain, for fear that someone will mistakenly use it and subject me to four days’ sentence in bed. In such close proximity to others, one must maintain a personal space, even if that space is only 16.9 ounces behind cheap linen drapes.
I spend that afternoon visiting Delhi’s Red Fort and Jamma Masjid, where three separate people try to scam me in the space of ten minutes. This, coupled with the heat, keeps me from straying too far from my safe hostel. As the four days pass, I mostly remain in bed, tapping keys, napping, and pouring myself into Duolingo the way some people throw themselves into horseracing, gambling, or methamphetamines. One day, I spend four hours switching between studying Spanish and Portuguese to the point that the two languages become one Iberian tongue that I cannot speak but can hear distinctly from a mile away, uttered from people, tuk-tuk tires, and rumbling air conditioners. I visit the same restaurant every night, because it has a water cooler out front that the chefs use for cooking. I am determined, despite a week-long sentence in the dirtiest city I have ever seen in my life, to avoid sickness. Especially the world-renowned “Delhi Belly.”
Reunited, and I Feel So Ill
I awake on my fourth day in Delhi, well before the alarm I set to the time my dad is supposed to fly in from Abu Dhabi. I am coughing, heaving, and aching like I have the flu, and I pop into the street to buy some Pulpy Orange, a beverage produced by Minute Maid that tasteless like if Tang had orange pulp added to it. It is the only readily-available beverage with a significant source of vitamin C, so I buy that and a bottle of water to soothe me. It does nothing.
My dad texts me regarding his descent into Delhi airport, and I meet him in Connaught Place for breakfast. I take him to Haldiram’s, a South Indian fast food chain with a menu of safe, hygienic, and delicious breakfast options. We are to check into a hotel for the next two nights before moving on, and I am ready to collapse while my dad wants to see Delhi. The hostel where I had been staying plans on closing for the next couple of days, unbeknownst to me, and so when I return to pick up my things the front door is locked and nobody is around. I knock for a few minutes until one of the nearby shopkeepers reaches out to the owner, who eventually emerges from a side entrance, apologizing and letting me inside to pick up my bag and lock, which has been forcibly removed from the cabinet and still contains a piece of metal used to keep the cabinet closed. In all the confusion I leave my shoes at the hostel, never to be returned. The next few days I will spend solely walking in sandals.
At the new hostel, I fall asleep as my dad does his sightseeing tour of Delhi by tuk-tuk. As I nap, I go through phases of hot and cold, and before long I am wearing my sweatshirt, jeans, and socks to try burning up whatever pathogen wreaks havoc inside me, which I am sure is malaria or dengue fever after a nervous scouring of the almighty Google. I am angry that I am getting sick now, as I had passed four days in bed where I could have fallen ill more conveniently. After a dinner at a hygienic local place near the Paharganj main bazaar, where I have been eating almost every night, I go back to bed with the hope of feeling better in the morning. My dad has paid 3,000 rupees for train tickets to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and neither one of us wants to waste this money or our remaining time in India.
We wake early in the morning, and despite my sickness hardly alleviating at all I elect to press on and join my father to the Taj Mahal. I am certain, however, that the experience will cause me nothing but pain and I only join my father because I am concerned for his safety, and because I fully reserve the right to say “I told you so.” The main reasons I travel anywhere is for the people, and for the food. Monuments rarely interest me no matter how I try to understand them as accomplishments borne of human toil and the desire to build great things.
The train ride to Agra is, fortunately, air conditioned and the two of us have a sleeper car to ourselves. When we arrive, we brush off tuk-tuk drivers, searching instead for a restaurant. Few appear to be open. We come to a small neighborhood with only an ice cream stand open, and we let a driver approach us there--after a scoop of black currant—and take us to a rather pricey restaurant where he certainly received a small commission of our bill. Business as usual, I suppose.
After our meal, we get to the front gate of the Taj Mahal, after first walking to the incorrect one, and find even more scams, like illegitimate tour guides and exorbitant exchange rates. When we enter, my body is aching so I tell my father to make his rounds, taking pictures and seeing the various Taj Mahal exhibits, while I relax in the shade, on a bench. We follow the same route together when he returns, and then make our way to the exit to find cash and a cold drink.
The tuk-tuk drivers are in full force, swarming in every possible direction, calling to us for a fare. We have no money, but they refuse to accept that. We are followed all the way to the ATM, then we duck into a restaurant for a soda so as to wait out the escalating auto-rickshaw riot. When we emerge, we ask a driver, who is half asleep in the shade, if he will take us to the station for 150 rupees, and he obliges. At the station we slip through security and onto the platform, which has a samosa stand, bench space, and a single cow wandering around searching for the exit. He gets no assistance, but several passersby give him kisses. Our train arrives an hour late.
Express to Delhi
Aboard the express to Delhi, we are placed in a cabin with a young man who is just about to end his 30-hour train journey to Delhi with us. A university student, Viswanath is required to take his exams in the capital, which either means booking an expensive flight months in advance, or taking the train. He comes from a middle-class family, so taking the train is the only feasible option. He studies computers, a growing industry in India. Once he gets his degree, he hopes to land a job in the major tech hub of Bangalore, closer to his home in Andhra Pradesh. I get his number and friend him on LinkedIn. In a week I will message him and he will tell me that his exam was rescheduled, and so he had to travel the 30 hours back home, only to come back to Delhi on another train in September. I wish him the best of luck, whenever he finally gets to take his exam.
We also meet Vamsi, another man on the Delhi express, a paisano of Viswanath’s from Andhra Pradesh. Officially supposed to be sitting in coach, he is too chatty and social to stay where he is assigned. Not to mention, coach does not have air conditioning, so I cannot blame him for sneaking into the half-empty luxury car for some cool air after over a day of traveling halfway across India. Much of his family is in coach, including his grandmother who needs surgery in Delhi and has to make this terribly long trip, rife with delays, for her operation.
Inevitably, my MSNBC-junkie father stirs the pot by asking our new friends’ opinions about India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and a playful game of “whose head-of-state is more corrupt” ensues. Vamsi begins ranting about the state of education in his country, my dad parries with talk of who-knows-what, and as the volume increases I regret not buying popcorn before boarding the train. As someone who has, more than once, been silenced by dissenting parties after yelling my opinions on public transportation, I know what is coming.
Vamsi begins praising American education, and the fact that it is offered to all. In his country, a good education only comes with money and he believes Mr. Modi is to blame. As he is ranting, a well-groomed, light-skinned Delhiite from across the aisle makes a thousand “tsh-tsh-tsh” sounds, flailing his arms to get Vamsi’s attention. I try to stifle my laughter as now-yelling Vamsi rants, oblivious to the Delhi Man.
What happens next is fascinating. As the man across the aisle gets Vamsi’s attention, he begins scolding him, in Hindi, about respecting Modi and his leadership. If you do not know about the politics of Indian language and culture, allow me first to give you a small crash course--which I hope is not in anyway misguided by my outsider-ness--on this matter. Modi, the current PM, speaks Hindi, and comes from the largely Hindi-speaking North-Central part of the country. He can also speak the northern Indian language of Gujarati, and English which has become the lingua franca of India. This has come to be since the country literally has nearly a thousand indigenous languages, and while Modi can speak English, he prefers not to use it. Hindi and English are the only official languages of India, and so it is not uncommon to find people who can speak one of the two, but only have a high-school-foreign-language-level understanding of the other. Now back to our two main characters.
Vamsi is a native Telugu speaker, and can manage English incredibly well. In his part of south India, Telugu is widely spoken. However, a college education and the use of English to communicate with people who speak other Indian languages (most commonly Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, and Banjara) has given him impressive English ability. That said, his Hindi ability is lacking as a South Indian, and while he can understand someone speaking to him in Hindi, he cannot speak it himself. The man across the aisle, similarly, can understand English, but struggles to speak it well.
In short, what we have are two people who can understand one another, but must communicate using two separate languages at once. As a linguaphile, I sit wide-eyed in rapt stillness. The reader should note that I do not speak Hindi, but that the language colloquially uses so many loan words from English that I can tell exactly what is going on in this argument at every major twist and turn. The man across the aisle disagrees with Vamsi, and implores him to shut up and respect his prime minister. Vamsi retreats, arguing he was only discussing the issues of education in the country and that the only reason corruption came up was because my father brought up Donald Trump. The man across the aisle does not see this as grounds to let Vamsi off the hook.
My short time in India has demonstrated many beautiful parts of that country, and much of that beauty stems from that nation’s diversity. As the world’s largest democracy, facilitated by speakers of hundreds of different languages spread across a billion people, challenges are inevitable. In any democracy, the minority often gets left behind, and India is a country of thousands of different ethnic, religious, lingual, and so many other potential minorities. Perhaps what I see is an oversimplification of the issue, but my time on the train back to Delhi revealed a minority being left behind, and a group of Modi supporters refusing to believe this is the case.
It is late in the evening when we arrive at New Delhi station. It is late, and though I have not grown tired of Indian food, we have an early-morning flight and would rather grab some fast food at McDonald’s and turn in early. In Delhi, where cattle wander the streets safely in the Hindu-majority city, McDonald’s does not serve cheeseburgers. Instead, they serve a variety of vegetarian sandwiches composed of paneer, corn, and potatoes, along with chicken McNuggets. I order the corn-and-cheese Maharaja Mac, the local iteration of the Big Mac, and I am in heaven. I have made two claims regarding Indian food in my life:
In the morning, we begin the trek back to the airport. We must first board the metro, then catch a bus to the domestic terminal, as we are first to fly to Kolkata then to Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the airport, I am asked for the credit card I used to book my flights, a procedure that I have never undergone at an airport. Unfortunately, the card number I used to purchase the ticket had been compromised back in Slovenia, and the card has been long-shredded. As a result, I have to offer another deposit which, up until the publication of this piece, has still yet to be returned to me. Who could have predicted that the biggest scam I would face would be in the airport, at the hand of a legitimate airline? If you come to lovely, beautiful, delicious India as a Westerner, leave the pearls at home and find something cheaper to clutch—like a stress ball—when everything goes wrong and you are shocked by the very Indianity of it all.
I take the bus, despite the scoffing of my fellow tourists, to the Almaty airport and feel relieved to be travelling on my own again. I can do things as cheaply or expensively as I wish, and can be alone with my thoughts. I fear that I am reaching new levels of introversion by dropping myself into strange land after strange land with no contacts, but 80+ countries--I believe--officially makes me a “seasoned” traveller. I spend the rest of my Kazakhstani tenge on a weird deli burrito-thing before I begin my travels to India.
An hour and a half in the air, four hours in the Tashkent Airport (crowded with towel-cloth-clad Mongolians on Hajj en route to Jeddah), and another three hours in-flight sets me down in Delhi a little after 2 am. It is still very late, and not yet early, so I take the shuttle to the Delhi airport city bus hub, then take it back to where I started when I realize there’s no bus going my way. Regardless, I have nowhere to go and no way to get there. The metro isn’t running yet, and cab drivers annoy me the minute I step outside into the early morning Indian humidity. I hide in the KFC and drink Pepsi by the swamp cooler while I wait for nothing.
I long for a bed, I long to sleep, I long for permanent air-conditioning and lifelong protection from mosquitoes. I also long to find oneness with the Indian subcontinent, which has fascinated me since my first childhood bite of a potato samosa with tamarind chutney. Despite my endless love for all foods Indian, I know this will be a difficult week, the first half of which I am to spend alone, killing time until my dad meets me as he flies from New York. Among country counters and globetrotters alike, India gets mixed reviews. The cities are supposed to be among the dirtiest in the world, and the scammers and manipulators are supposed to be the most prevalent in this country of a billion people where most struggle to survive.
Finally the metro opens, and as I buy my ticket a cab driver counts aloud every bill I pull from my pocket to place in the machine. In our thirty-second interaction, he tells me the metro is down, his cab will be cheaper, and that the machine will not give change. None of this is true. Talking to him, or rather being talked at by him, takes me from exhausted to completely enervated, and I feel as if I will collapse on the train then wake up missing my phone, laptop, and a piece of my liver. Despite my fears, I am never pick-pocketed, only subjected to con after con as if my skin is a sign that I just won the lottery and will throw my wallet at anyone who asks me where I am from, where I am going, or if I need a cab. What I need is space, but it’s hard to get that in a place like Delhi.
The surprisingly modern and safe Delhi metro conveys me in air-conditioned bliss to my destination at Shivaji Stadium, walking distance from Connaught Place and my hostel in the Paharganj neighborhood. When I arrive, I do not want to get off. Though the sun hasn’t even extended above the horizon, the air is hot, humid, and endlessly insufferable. My face constantly looks as if someone threw a water balloon at me and sweat drips into my collar for hours, offering little relief. My first stop is a visit to Bangla Sahib, a gurdwara near the station where Sikhs come in the mornings to pray. The gurdwara also has a “langar” (which translates to “kitchen” in Punjabi) where a free vegetarian meal is served to the community each morning, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or caste. Each morning, this gurdwara serves prashad, a ball of dough made of flour, butter, and sugar and--after visiting the temple--I stop by to try this sacred meal as my first in India. Though I feel strange as the only white person in the hall, wearing an improvised head covering and shorts in the holy temple, no one looks at me twice and the volunteer in charge of serving the prashad hand-rolls a ball for me with a smile. Feeding the hungry as a mandatory part of religious doctrine? That’s something I can get behind.
A tuk-tuk driver follows me for ten minutes on the streets near the hall, trying to get me to accept a ride. My rapid loss of fluids only makes me more stubborn, and ultimately he leaves me alone (I can only assume) because I look like a wax sculpture that has just been placed in a bonfire and pulled out after a couple of minutes of bubbling and melting. Connaught Place is quiet this early in the morning, so I jump between hotel lobbies, restaurants, and convenience stores to avoid the heat before check-in time. When I finally arrive at the hostel after being awake all night, I collapse on my dormitory bed and sleep clear to the next morning.
Consider the Line-Cutter
As we are about to cross into the Fifth Stan, locals are shoving our group through the overcrowded customs and border patrol building like I am the last little bit of toothpaste left in the tube. The English (who I am told are known for their ability to queue) aren’t having any of it. While no one likes to be pushed, I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. I have been lucky to experience largely civilized post-war, third-world-style queuing in my life as an American, but those years spent waiting in perfect order have given me plenty of time to ponder the queue in more abstract and theoretical terms. the following is me musing about lines. Feel free to skip it.
I will try to keep this brief, but first we must consider the facts as they are seen in the world that I, and likely also you, inhabit. The queue derives from a sense of fairness because, as we wait in line to obtain a good or service, the simple logic of “first come, first serve” reveals that forming a line makes the most sense. If you got here first, the logic follows that you should be closer to the place you are trying to reach. So, not only do those most deserving get helped first, assuming of course that we can measure how much one deserves something by how early they show up to obtain it, but the administrators of the line also know who to help next in line, accelerating the entire process. In this way, the queue is not just best for those who show up early, but it is better for everyone. Commies and Capitalists alike agree: queuing keeps the masses in order.
None of this is likely new to you. In fact, maybe it is such old news that you haven’t even thought about the logic I outlined in the previous paragraph because it seems so second-nature, and so obvious. Let’s go back to the time we all first started thinking about The Queue as more than a way of maintaining order at Starbucks. As painful as it may be, let’s go back to the grade school cafeteria with the long lines, the disappointing food, and the ‘tough kids on the block’ who muscled their ways to be the 'tough kids on line' to get the last chocolate milk. If your school was anything like mine, justice largely prevailed and—even in self-centered youth—your peers could justly navigate a line without too much cutting in line. Sometimes, however, the hall monitors were busy and you would witness someone “cutting” everyone else. You may recall there were two types of cutting. The more traditional, and generally more egregious, form—known simply as “cutting”—was when someone jumps in line randomly in front of someone else. The second type, known as “back-cutting,” takes place when someone finds an accomplice in line, befriends them, and uses the guise of friendship to distract those behind them (“the bystanders”) from the obvious cutting maneuver. The cutter slips in behind the accomplice (thus “back-cutting”) and gets to pretend he is too distracted with catching up with his friend to notice all the people who will now get their food a minute later because of this injustice.
Now, why does any of this matter? I have many fears about how I come off as I write travel literature encompassing all of the UN-represented world, and foremost is that my opinions seem too reductive, prejudiced, or racist. Central to the heart of travel literature is comparison. We travel to see how we are all different, and we travel to see how we are all the same. Much of the world, I have come to learn, queues the way we do in the West. But many don’t. Lines are often an ideal that cannot be executed well in practice, or they appear to be a generally accepted part of life, but are almost consistently violated. Not only does this whole idea not fit into my we-are-all-the-same narrative, but it also doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes I have been told and told not to believe. Asians, to summarize dozens of boring management textbooks I pretended to read in college, are supposed to believe in the collective over the self. The greatest flaws of our economic and political systems are that the individual values itself above the group, and yet I feel more valued in the cold, heartless capitalism of the United States than in the crazy queues of Asia. The stereotype of Asians being passive can also be debunked from my experience, unless you consider being systematically decked by a dozen angry Kazakhs to be a demonstration of passivity.
Here’s the thing: wandering the world shows you a lot of things you don’t want to see. I am reminded of a definition recited by one of my high school teachers. She explained that a documentary is “something you are not supposed to see.” If you subscribe to this notion, as I do, then I seek nothing more, I can seek nothing more, than to be a documentarian in my writing. I cannot control what I see, and I should not filter what I write. But I implore you not to take my negativity as criticism, or worse, as condemnation of a given place, people, or culture. That is reductive. By telling my experiences, and some of my thoughts surrounding them, I only seek to convey a truth, specifically the truth of how I am feeling at the time of writing.
In India, line-cutters seem to appear in every line. They are inevitable, appear so regularly, many argue, due to the nation’s poverty. Cost of living regularly ranks among the lowest in the world, and so it is not inconceivable that people living in places where resources are scarce are more likely to resort to unethical methods to get what they want or need.
With all due respect, the many queues of Asia can be ruthless anarchic hellholes that make an introverted person striving to live beyond pushoverdom shake with anxiety. In this way, travel has made me grow a lot as a person. I feel I don’t let myself get jostled around, both literally and figuratively, as much as I used to. There is a line cutter, a bystander, a victim, and back-cutting accomplice in all of us. What are we to do about it except stand up when we can and keep ourselves from becoming the line cutters? Back in Kazakhstan, when I make space in front of me, for the girl standing behind me getting jostled by a local, he gets upset and pokes me in the back. And not in a friendly Facebook way. The girl behind me was a part of our group, and almost certainly arrived before the man, and yet he still felt he was the one being wronged by letting the young American woman cut me.
Where is the logic? Where is the order?
The cold truth? Somewhere with development, money, and additional border guards. When I am poked, I have no choice but to turn the other cheek, if only to avoid getting my eye taken out. Kazakhstan is still beautiful to me, and you should still go there.
Almaty features some of the most impressive Soviet architecture in Central Asia. The most impressive monument, depicting Soviet soldiers emerging from a stone like an angry Mount Rushmore, commemorates those who gave their lives in WWII. The Soviet Union, which encompassed Kazakhstan, lost 27 million soldiers and civilians in that conflict, which is greater than the current population of Australia. The serene monument in Almaty pays solemn respect to those lost.
Adjacent to this memorial, we visit Almaty’s most impressive building: Ascension Cathedral. Inside, the sunlight bathes in colored light from the stained glass windows. This doesn’t even compare to the outside, which is decorated like a gingerbread house. Out front, children chase pigeons and vendors sell popcorn. Aside from Boryspil, Ukraine, this has to be the happiest place in the former USSR.
Almaty: Separate Ways
On our final night together, our group basks in the inevitable indecision that comes when 16 adults have all of their decisions taken care of them for two weeks, and then are released into the wild. For fifteen minutes, we discuss potential spots for dinner, and only agree that there must be beer, and there must be things on the menu other than shish kebabs. I pick the closest, nicest restaurant on Google Maps and implore everyone to accompany me there so that we don’t spend all night in the lobby. The entire walk I feel the immense dread of making a decision for a group. Why would I choose a restaurant from another former Soviet country, and a Central Asian one at that? Of course they won’t speak English, and I am almost certain their most popular dishes will be kebabs.
When we arrive to the Georgian restaurant, only a couple of blocks from the hotel, it is clear we are the only party that night, and likely the largest English-speaking party ever to visit that restaurant. Thankfully they have beer (though only one type), a few food options other than kebabs, and two whole English menus (with outdated prices). The waitress even speaks a couple of words of English! I take my role as translator in stride, knowing this would be the last opportunity to practice Russian for awhile.
Last Day of Camp
Like the last day of camp, when all your new camp buddies slowly start getting picked up by their parents, the good people I had come to know began catching flights out of town. Our tour guide, whom I had toasted the night before and offered our group’s tip, becomes a fixture in the lobby and attached restaurant, and we say hello to him on our ways into and out of the hotel as we would a much-respected doorman who had seen it all. I had not added any extra nights at the end of the tour, and my 6 pm departure flight the day after means I am to spend a night bedless unless I book something quick.
Nena, who booked an extra night, mentions that she has an extra bed and kindly offers it to me. I am ecstatic, as this means I won’t have to scramble for a last-minute booking, and can live one more day in the supreme luxury of a 3-star hotel, before largely committing to the South Asian hostel life for the next few weeks. I express my gratitude, but Nena won’t have any of it. She explains she is only repaying me for my translation in the Ashgabat airport, and for my messenger services in the Uzbek desert that kept her from missing even more of the tour than she already did. When she leaves early that last morning, I awake to the sound of her packing and we say goodbye, bidding one another safe travels until we meet again.
The last day, I meet with the two young American ESL teachers and we venture together to Kok Tobe, a sort of mountaintop theme park with exquisite views of Almaty. The three of us watch the sunset as we descend the cable car, then part at their hotel before I join our guide and a couple of other remaining travelers for dinner. We visit an American-themed diner/ pub and I happily gorge myself on terrible food that I miss so much, despite only being away from the States for two weeks. I know for sure why the food is so good, and it isn’t the grease. At least not entirely. It’s that I don’t know when I’ll be home next. I’ve had to answer the question quite a bit as I have gotten to know these fellow travelers: when will I go home next? It concerns me that, despite all of the other hardcore globetrotter, I am the only one with no return date. Each time, I say I don’t know when I’ll be back, joking that I’m not sure if I’ll be back. I don’t know if that question has an answer. There’s a lot of world left, and I long for the day when I can count on my fingers and toes the countries I have yet to visit. One thing is for sure: getting to that point is going to be awesome.
A half-day’s drive across the Kyrgyz border takes us, exhausted, to Osh, where we are to sleep the night and leave early the next morning for a full day’s drive to Bishkek. When we arrive, we stock up on snacks for the following day and stop at a pizza restaurant for a quick bite. My car, which has been designated the “quiet car,” is to consist of the Norwegian couple, the mild-mannered Ukrainienne, and a young woman from Missouri who greatly values solitude and long drives in a way that only someone who spent some time in rural America can. The other car populates itself with the loud talkers who are happier when they are pestering each other for sixteen hours straight, as if the human need for connection is worth that much.
The woman from Missouri and I buy wine, cheese, and olives, planning to pass the time in first class fashion, taking pictures, occasionally chatting, and ripping chunks of goat cheese off a wheel as we roll onward to Bishkek.
For fifteen hours we pass the day photographing countless yurts, crystal-blue lakes, and tiny rest stops selling homemade hooch. We also drink a bottle of sweet red wine, and I eat more “lobster-flavored” potato chips than I care to admit. The government of Kyrgyzstan only consist of one party, and the countryside does little to strip off this mask of peace and unity. Our guide regularly speaks against the government and corruption, which he believes has greatly obstructed the progress of his nation. It should be noted, however, that while journalists occasionally “disappear” in Kyrgyzstan, internet access remains largely unrestricted and everyday people tend not to face persecution for voicing anti-governmental opinions. While countries like Turkmenistan, for instance, take on more authoritarian roles, Kyrgyzstan is typically dubbed a “hybrid regime.” In practice, this distinction makes the Kyrgyz people much more tolerant and politically-minded than one might expect.
Arrival in Bishkek: The Return of Nena
The nation is blessed with some of the best scenery in Central Asia, the bulk of which Nena misses by taking the Fergana Valley route from Samarkand, but it also being visa-free, she can enter as long as she has a valid passport. We meet up with her in Bishkek, the first and only city we are to stay for multiple nights, allowing us to recharge before the last leg of our trip. We spend one day in the city, a charming hotspot of culture with numerous coffee shops and bars, then spend the next day hiking to a waterfall in the mountains outside Bishkek.
In early August, the mountains are covered with lush greenery and the occasional vibrant flowers in purple and blue. Hiking is exhausting, especially since I never climb this high, or for that matter climb at all. There are intermittent drizzles, which help cool my exhausted self, and at the waterfall I bask in the mist before turning around and descending the mountain to the parking lot. At this site, the Kyrgyz President keeps a summer home where he often meets foreign leaders, including Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. The presidential cottage’s close proximity to the public hiking trails makes it so that viewing the cottage is easy. Our guide assures us that they close the park if anything too important is occuring at the house.
Capt. Nena Plots Her Own Course to Tajikistan
From Termiz, the group takes a charter bus to the Tajik border, boarding another charter on the other side bound for Dushanbe. Most of the group does that, anyway. Nena, who applied for her Tajik e-visa a few days prior using some sketchy website as opposed to applying for one on the official government website, is once again waiting at the hotel at the last Stan, waiting. Online, she paid $120. The rest of us paid $50, and we actually received visas. I only tell this story because the majority of Americans go their entire lives without applying for a visa, and so hopefully I can offer a bit of insight in this short cautionary anecdote.
First of all: governments issue visas, not corporations. Sometimes, however, the process for paying for a visa to a country may be farmed out to a separate entity for simplicity's sake, usually for a small additional fee like a credit card fee, usually no more than one or two dollars. This is especially true for e-visas (“electronic visas”), which are visas you apply for and obtain online, usually in your email.
Second: when applying for a visa, it is critical you find the official website for obtaining an e-visa. Usually a quick Google search will take you to Tripadvisor, Reddit, or Yahoo! Answers forums where users discuss the e-visa process and provide the best links. This is vital, as you have now learned from Nena’s example, because there are many illegitimate, shady, and downright predatory visa websites that pay their way to the top of Google search results.
Many of the websites that appear on Google, with names like “VisaHQ” and “iVisa” aren’t necessarily fraudulent, but they generally create more trouble than they are worth. Such companies claim that they offer more insight into the various e-visa and visa-processes associated with the hundred of sovereign nations that issue them, and thus collect an additional fee to ensure your application is checked prior to applying. While this may seem like a helpful service, often their websites provide out-of-date application information, lose applications, or take so much time that you receive your visa late, if at all.
Of course, Nena has no visa, and no leads on when one will arrive, so once again we leave her alone with the contact info of a local travel agency, where she is to make arrangements to either meet us in north Tajikistan, or else when we arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in a few days’ time.
Before arriving in the city proper, we visit Hisor fortress in the outskirts of Dushanbe. Once again, we practically have the entire site to ourselves, but this time it is because there are at least two or three weddings taking place just outside the fort. Who would want to see some dumb fortress when a trombone trio is blowing ancient Tajiki jazz over the sounds of a hundred people stomping on thousand-year-old cobblestone streets. When the guide attempts to corral us and take us to the fort museum. We never make it. A few of our group are dancing, others are taking photos with some of the bridesmaids. I am trying to ask a little Tajik boy with a “Feminist Badass” t-shirt if I can take a photo of and/ or with him. He shakes his head 'no,' and we board the bus.
The city of Dushanbe offers many more cultural delights. As we stroll around the impressive city center, with its large square structures and minimal tourist traffic, we catch tiny hammers and sickles on the edges of these imposing government buildings. In front of a fountain, two local teenage girls ask to take pictures of us all, and we happily oblige. In the presidential gardens, one of our group asks our guide, a tiny older man with a good sense of humor, where the bathrooms are. The guide informs him he can make water behind any of the bushes, as there aren’t any public toilets nearby. We resume strolling through the well-maintained park, only to hear yelling in Tajik after hardly thirty seconds’ journey. A man in military uniform is chewing out the kid in our group who, presumably, had just been urinating on the Federal Flower Patches of Tajikistan. Our local guide quickly jumps in and begins apologizing profusely, flashing his tour guide card. The entire group is staring at the drama unfolding and, I think it is safe to assume given all the circumstances, that the urinator is likely peeing his pants in fear. After only a few minutes, however, the guard walks away as if nothing had happened. Apparently, tourists can get away with quite a bit in Tajikistan. Our guide explains that the rise of the Taliban from the south to the north in Afghanistan has made many Tajik officials concerned for their secular government’s future. As a result, they are trying to increase safety and welcome tourists to establish closer ties with the west. This manifests itself by tourist vehicles never getting speeding tickets, simplifying visa application processes, and, apparently, letting Welsh kids urinate on national monuments.
In the afternoon, we visit a national museum which provides ample information about the country’s history. We view a massive stone reclining Buddha, which is somehow installed in the museum’s small second floor. That night, we eat another dinner of kebabs, rice soup, and warm, sugary white wine before retiring to the hotel lobby for some civilized drinks.
Khujand and Its Environs
We awake early the following morning, determined to make it to Khujand in Northern Tajikistan. We wind through the mountains and stop for lunch at a hotel and restaurant that serves incredibly greasy fried chicken tiny threads from the chicken’s feathers buried in the oily fat. That afternoon, we visit the Khujand bazaar, a system of alleys, buildings, and street stalls selling everything under the sun. Before leaving Khujand, we visit an abandoned park with Batman-themed bumper cars and the nation’s tallest statue of Vladimir Lenin, hidden among the tall grasses.
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Of the 5 'Stans to which I am to travel on this tour, two are visa free for Americans, two require online or electronic visas (E-Visas), and one requires an actual in-passport visa sticker. Turkmenistan, much to the inconvenience of our friend Nena, requires the sticker visa, running her $99 in addition to the $50 she already paid for her visa at home. To make matters worse, Nena applied for the other two E-Visas under her same outdated passport, which was to prove difficult for her crossing into Uzbekistan. By the time we are ready to leave the hotel, from which we will stop at the Dashoguz bazaar for snacks and souvenirs on the way to the border checkpoint, Nena has still not received her new and improved E-Visa, which can often take up to 3 days to be issued. Our tour guide is not happy, but for the greater good we press on and elect to leave Nena behind, arranging transportation for her to and from the border for when she receives the visa in her email.
Khiva (Or: Spanish Uzbekistan)
The border crossing goes smoothly, as it seems tourists are given special treatment on both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sides, frustrating more than a couple locals. In the afternoon, we have lunch of rice soup, naan, eggplants salads, and meat at a tea shop and take a tour of the historic 1500-year-old city. Various mosques with sparkling blue arabesques adorn the city’s walled old town; I get a kick out of all the street vendors calling to us “Señor” or “Señorita!” due to the large number of Spanish tourists that visit the town. For this, reasons are unclear. Why would the Spanish fly to a random part of desert with arguably much less impressive Muslim architecture than Spain? My guess is that, for them, Islamic architecture feels like home, but the Spanish burden themselves with the first-world belief that the Arab world is too dangerous. So, they compromise by coming to the non-Arab Muslim world, where it is safer.
Obviously, I do not believe this to be true, as some of my favorite places are in the Arab world, but many of my friends and family have expressed apprehension in visiting the Muslim and/ or Arab worlds, for fear of not being welcome, or being subject to some sort of attacks. Such ideas are preposterous. There is violence in the Judeo-Christian, Muslim, secular, and Eastern religious communities, and there is peace in them, too. Frankly, I find Khiva to be pretty, but pretty boring, too. The last, and most fascinating, tour stop is the Juma (from the Arabic for “Friday”) Mosque, which feels like an Indiana Jones set. The only light that enters the dark stone sanctuary is from a whole in the ceiling, and floating dust and dirt turns the rays of light to yellow laser beams. Needless to say, none of the amateur photographers can get a good shot, but simply walking amongst the 200+ hand-carved pillars and getting lost in their design is satisfying enough. That is until I get so lost that I am forgotten by the tour group.
Svitlana, who asks me to take a picture of her near one of the pillars, so kindly offers to also take a photo of me. The whole ordeal takes only a few minutes, but by the time she gets a satisfying picture that captures my essence (which can only described as “dusty old Indiana Jones Mosque”), the thirteen or so others have left us behind. Upon looking left, right, and straight outside the front gate, they are nowhere to be found.
*Cue sequence of running through bazaars and ancient brick buildings to find everyone else*
Somehow, after ten minutes of searching, we become one with the tour just as it is ending, and we return to the hotel for an afternoon siesta. At dinner, one of the couples on our tour gets engaged and we all applaud, happy to eat their cake and wish them well.
99 Text Balloons
The following day we spend roughly eight hours on the road, stopping regularly for bathroom breaks and lunch at a ”choykhana”, or tea shop. As I settle down for a kebab and a cup of instant coffee—which is somehow starting to grow on me—my phone starts buzzing erratically in my pocket. We are in the middle of the desert, and somehow I was receiving text from Nena, trapped in the Uzbek-Turkmen border hundreds of miles away. Because we both have the same cellphone plan, which allows for roaming, cell phone use, and texting in nearly all countries, she was able to get into Uzbekistan’s network and send me texts, asking where her ride was. Everyone else was offline, so I relayed to the guide that Nena had crossed the border alone, despite being told to await instruction at the hotel, when she received her visa.
“Kak zhal,” our Russian-speaking guide said. “What a shame.”
For the next hour and a half, our local guide phones back and forth with the driver, and I keep in contact with Nena as she stays out of the sun, under a tree. We will never know what happened, what took the driver so long, to find Nena. Perhaps he had not arrived yet when he said he was parked and waiting. Perhaps Nena concealed herself too well under the shade of a tree. All I know is that this is the second time I have had to personally intervene in this tiny Filipina’s frivolous border crossing etiquette, and I fear my ability to help is growing less and less effective as the countries roll under foot. There are three Stans left: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Who knows what other problems could arise. When she meets us that night at the hotel, both the guide and I ask Nena if she has applied for her Tajikistan visa, which she will need in 4 days time. She assures us she has, and we have no reason not to trust her. As I go to sleep, she goes out for drinks with the tour’s many thirty-somethings. We all had a nice evening on a rooftop bar, going out after to take pictures of the city’s largest minaret, which Bukhara lights up at night with dozens of floodlights, but the day’s zigzagging across the Uzbek desert has made me grow weary.
Today, we take a half-day tour of Bukhara in the morning, experiencing the large historic district with more mosques, mausoleums and so forth. We also stop by a blacksmith (if that is still the correct nomenclature) who specializes in knife- and sword-making. He has a couple gimmicks, one of which is that he cuts an index card like butter with one of his knives. When no one expresses interest in buying one, he dares each of the men to hold his extremely heavy hammer. My childhood Runescape username being Gorloth the Thin-Wristed, this challenge causes my entire lower arm immense duress.
For lunch, we settle down for an enormous platter of “plov”, like Iranian pilaf, with saffron rice, carrots, raisins, nuts and butter. After lunch we drive out to Samarkand, home and final resting place of Tamerlaine the Great, known locally as “Timur.”
Samarkand, the Great
For most tourists to Uzbekistan, and I assure you there are others, Samarkand is the most fascinating of the various ancient cities in the obscure Central Asian country. Tamerlaine the Great-related things are everywhere, and the whole city seems designed to maximize tourism revenue and enhance the 'Uzbekistan experience.' Dozens of coffee shops hide up steep, centuries-old brick staircases, encased in stunning green and blue tiled arabesques. For the Islamic historian and wannabe Indiana Jones alike, Samarkand satisfies.
Among the must-sees of Samarkand, we visit the grave of Tamerlaine (at least what’s left of him), an observatory used by 15th century astronomer Ulugh Beg, and the impressive Registan square. In the afternoon, we visit an interactive museum funded by the government to try to revive the ancient art of Uzbek paper making. There, curators break down tree fibers, mix with water and oil, press the pulp into a paper shade, and dry the leftovers to form scrolls, calendars, and other souvenirs.
In the evening, our guide goads our exhausted selves into a dark theater where another tour group, composed entirely of South Korean senior citizens, is napping in the first three rows. When the ‘traditional dance performance’ starts, the women in our group nod off while the men sit erect as the women in bright yellow, purple, and green costumes twirl around the stage like pirouetting ballerinas. Only they are not ballerinas. They are meant to show us the moves of millenia-old Uzbek dancing tradition, but after the papermaking museum we are wary that such complex choreography outlived books. But hey, maybe Uzbekistan got Kindles and Nooks but somehow missed Dance Dance Revolution and the Harlem Shake. Anything’s possible.
Hangover on the Orient Express
A day of sunstroked tourism saps the group’s energy, but none can fall asleep quite yet since our hotel for the night is en route from Tashkent to Samarkand, and running late. Though everyone else dreads the idea of sleeping on a train, I have found that I sleep best riding the rails and am eager to share the experience with new friends. After a brief stop in a liquor store, wherein I buy what I can only gather is a cheap honey vodka and RC Cola for a 4-dollar cocktail party-in-motion, our guide escorts us to the train station where our bags are scanned for our train journey 150 miles south to the city of Termiz, just shy of the Afghan border.
Our Uzbek travel company liaison arranges for us to spend the next few hours in the otherwise-vacant first class lounge, where tea is served and liquor is sipped as the group swarms the available outlets to charge phones before the long trip. When the train arrives at the station, I hardly have a shot left of honey vodka, despite an hour’s harping on its awful, undrinkable flavor. As an aspiring drifter and hobo-romantic the train’s bedspreads are clean, the cabins are spacious, and the constant savanna breeze from the open window offers more relief from the stuffiness of rail travel than any air conditioner. My bunkmates largely disagree with this last bit, and suffer all night while I snore soundly, secreting honey-vodka vapors until the sun rises over Tajikistan in the east.
Termiz, of Endearment
Our guide has a long day planned for us, and few are as ready as I to take it on. After several days in Uzbekistan, Termiz hardly seems to offer anything new, aside from a picturesque indoor bazaar where the children ask to take photos with you, and the millenia-old remnants of the Kara-Tepe Buddhist Monastery twenty minutes outside of town, by the river that forms the natural Uzbek-Afghan border. In fact, the monastery is so close that the Uzbekistan government takes our passports before visiting a nearby mosque complex, perhaps to monitor if we try to cross the border, or collect any suspicious packages.
Aside from seeing the alcove where there once sat an ancient shrine of Buddha, exploring the sites of the monastery’s original stupas, and seeing Afghanistan for what almost no one can see it as anymore—a serene tract of vast, beautiful shrubland that stretches past the horizon—intrepid tourists are welcomed to a completely unique experience of life on the front lines of the opium trade. Afghanistan is the world’s largest grower of poppies, that is to say the ones that can be made into heroin and not the not-habit-forming type preferred by Dorothy in the land of Oz. Over 90% of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, and most of it leaves the country through land borders, like this one with Uzbekistan, so in this desert we are not alone. A quarter of a mile from each side of the ancient Buddhist monastery, along the river, armed snipers sit perched atop guard towers, eyes on the horizon looking for any sign of movement.
The sands of Kara-Tepe monastery tell the story of the area like rings on a tree. As in any historical site, there are water bottles, chip bags, and forgotten scarves. These coexist with the bullets and bullet casings, dropped by someone starting or ending their shift at border security, as well as the landmines that are said to be placed off the paths, deep into the desert, to catch drug mules at night. Impossibly, however, the most abundant artifacts that can be found in the sands of Kara-Tepe are the actual artifacts of that monastery. As I walk, shards of ancient ceramic get caught in the soles of my sneakers, and the guide points to several refrigerator-sized mounds of the same material where visitors have started collecting materials for use in museums, or else our of fear that everything will be lost again under the shifting sands, or shifting political climates.
Ashgabat: The City That Never Wakes
Turkmenistan’s capital city, almost entirely constructed of marble, sits largely empty. It is a husk of a city, yet a beautiful one, constructed to be the public image of the nation. As our group tours many of Ashgabat’s most popular attractions, it was not unusual for us to be the only tourists at any given site. The city’s Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque, built by the 'secular government' to demonstrate their 'commitment to freedom of religion,' felt especially eerie as we were accompanied only by a handful of armed guards and our tour guide, in a building constructed to fit 10,000 people. The Mosque, much to the dismay of many Muslims, also contains quotations of the Ruhnama on the ceiling. This is the book was written by the nation's former dictator and provides its own spiritual lessons dictating how citizens should behave. It was meant to be a guide for all Turkmen, and so the quotations are displayed in the mosque as if they are watching over the praying Muslims, telling them to think of nation over religion. Historically, new government employees, as well as those sitting for their drier's license exams, were quizzed on the book. Since the death of the nation's dictator, much of Ruhnama culture has disintegrated.
Of all the stops we make this morning and early afternoon, we only come across two private citizens of Turkmenistan: one is another tour guide, privately taking one tourist around a statue of a national hero, and the other was an Imam at a smaller mosque in the city center of Ashgabat. Incredibly welcoming, he chats loudly in Russian to Svitlana and I, to the point where he drowns out our tour guide’s voice, much to my amusement. ‘Perhaps he rarely sees tourists,’ I think, ‘and is just really grateful for someone to talk to.’ When we leave, he says a prayer and bids us safe travels.
Thankfully, our guide, also named Anton, takes everything in stride. While he tells us many fascinating things about Turkmenistan, I am much more intrigued by what he wouldn’t say about his country, and what he says about other countries. He quite literally wears his love for other cultures on his sleeve, as he dons a “USA” shirt with a giant bald eagle on it for the duration of his time with us, as well as a New Jersey Devils baseball cap to keep the harsh Central Asian sun out of his eyes. He has traveled to the United States twice, once to take part in an international crafts fair in New Mexico, and once to visit New York City, and he peppers his tour with thesaurus-borne words I have never heard a native English speaker use in real life, let alone someone from the remote deserts of Central Asia, like “squelch” and “circumlocution.”
Throughout our morning in Ashgabat, Anton is happy to answer our questions, but draws the line when we asked about politics. He wouldn’t even tell us Turkmenistan’s system of government, not to mention weigh in on any of the controversial parts of Turkmen life. The entire day, the group finds it difficult to separate fact from fiction as every person we encounter seems amiable and happy, but the places we are allowed to go are limited. For lunch, we visit a restaurant that looks inside like any craft beer bar in Brooklyn and Berkeley, but with kebabs on the menu instead of grass-fed beef burgers, and stewed eggplants and tomatoes instead of Caesar salad.
In late afternoon, Slavik—the same Slavik who brought Nena and I to the hotel that morning—pulls up with two friends, each with their own larger-than-life SUVs. We drive for several hours north to the Darvaza Gas Crater, known to many as “The Gates to Hell.”
Burning in Hell
If the sun is broiling Ashgabat at 109 degrees, the desert is surely worse. In fact, when we stop by a roadside shop to purchase drinks for our camping expedition to hell, the air is so hot that we may as well be inhaling steam. Anton, that is to say our driver not our guide, thankfully keeps the air-conditioning running. But what we really need is a refreshing river, perhaps a Styx or a Lethe, to dip into and forget the hellishly hot martian landscape of central Turkmenistan. Instead, we arrive at the Darvaza Gas Crater, where an natural gas fire has been burning for nearly fifty years, earning the site the well-deserved nickname of “The Gates of Hell.”
Though the sun sets over the starkly magnificent dunes and rock formations, waves of flame-scorched wind ripple over the sands surrounding the crater. The unpredictable winds make standing near the man-made sinkhole for a prolonged period of time challenging; most of us only approach long enough to take a few pictures then seek refuge back at camp. In the evening, a quarter-mile from the crater, we sip mordant 10-cent shots of local vodka on a large rug comprised of several bed rolls and yoga mats. The tour company provides grilled vegetables, kebabs, and naan, which differs greatly from the Indian bread of the same name. In the central Asian region, naan comes larger than a frisbee, thick as a brick, and pressed with the baker’s unique stamp. The daily bread of Turkmens is considered incredibly important, and those who bake it are treated with utmost respect.
Sleep mostly graces those entranced by moonshine, as the desert cools to a suitable seventy-five degrees for the night. I do not even unpack my sleeping bag, and instead use it as a pillow; I awake with my neck tense from craning over such a large pillow. A morning buffet of packaged croissants, slivers of kielbasa, juice, and coffee are provided until the heat trickles in and the desert becomes unbearable once more. Everything is coated in dust, and the only person who seems fine with that is the young woman on our tour who went to Burning Man last year. The guide and drivers break camp, turn on their air conditioned vehicles, and we pull out of nowhere onto the sandy roads that lead north.
Four 4-by-4 vehicles form our convoy, and driver Anton is determined to be the first. The two American English teachers in my car begin to look ill around the second or third time we fishtail on the sand, but the driver looks as if he has been waiting all week to take a spin out here. Though we start in last place, it is only a few minutes before Anton turns off the main road, pushing the accelerator all the way to the floorboard to pull in front. I am having a ball, so I decide not to translate the complaints of my fellow passengers to the driver, but instead let him know he’s the “nachalnik”--or “boss”--when he takes the lead. The dirt road turns to patchy asphalt after a half hour, and the boss begins swerving to avoid the road’s numerous potholes and violent ruptures is the pavement. He does not slow down.
Eventually, we slam into a pothole at full force. The tire pops, but the vehicle’s suspension makes it so we hardly feel a thing. We are only on the roadside for about fifteen minutes, as that is all it takes for Anton and the other drivers to lift the vehicle, replace the tire and stow away the old one. They are professionals, even if they do not all drive like it. A few minutes’ journey in the pleasant AC brings us to a gas station, where gasoline is nearly cheaper than water, and then a few minutes later we are stopped at a rest stop where the specialty is “fitçi,” a meat pie smothered in cotton oil and served as hot as the Gate of Hell itself. When it cools, however, the savory flavor is perfect, and reminds me of my French Canadian grandmother’s Christmas pork pie. We drink coffee, the water and caffeine easing our harsh hangovers which come courtesy of cheap Turkmen hooch and coarse desert dehydration. The numberless grains of sand have been inundating our nostrils since we left Ashgabat, and none among us--man, woman, or child—goes unseen picking sawdust-like mucus from deep in our noses. No one says anything. All are culpable; all go unprosecuted.
Kunya-Urgench to Dashoguz
Near the town of Kunya-Urgench sits a minaret dating back to the 11th century, towering high over the desert landscape, a mausoleum, and a mosque. The area is registered as a UNESCO world heritage site, as it was also the location of the ancient town of Urgench. In the mausoleum, we struggle to pay attention to the guide’s history lesson, as our presence is incredibly distracting to many of the fellow tourists. Clearly, we “westerners,” if one can use such an inane distinction without offending anyone, were a rare sight; most of the Turkmen and Turk-women in the mausoleum ask us for photos, and we happily oblige. It is not every day that a crowd of Central Asian women in gorgeous scarves and dresses come up to little old me and ask for a photo. If my face is red in the photo, it’s not just from the sunburn.
The forty-minute, mostly-outdoor, excursion at Kunya-Urgench evaporates virtually every drop of water from our pores, like steam from the holes at the bottom of an iron, and when we arrive at the gift shop all sixteen of us rush to the refrigerator and buy nearly all of the store’s bottled water. The ride to that night’s hotel runs less than half an hour, and when we get there our guide tells us we are encouraged, though not necessarily forbidden, to leave the hotel’s property. We have the afternoon at leisure, and the remoteness of the hotel makes it so that there is no real reason to leave. There is a pool, a restaurant, a cafe, and a “dukan,” or general store. The hotel lobby is fairly upscale, with marble floors and walls, though we quickly realize we are the only group staying there, aside from a few seemingly independent businessmen who are likely affiliated with the ever-successful natural gas industry.
At 8:01 pm, nearly the entire group of 16, save one person, invades the hotel restaurant and sits down at the only table large enough to accommodate it. For ten minutes, all are so enamored with their new friendships that no one realizes there is no waiter, no chef, and no maitre d’hotel in the entire restaurant, not to mention there are no other customers eating or waiting to order. Eventually, the group pressures me into walking into the kitchen, inquiring as to whether the restaurant is open and acquiring the menus. There is one person who appears to be working in the kitchen, and she is arguing with someone else, a man who I distinctly recall was stationed at the reception desk a few hours before. To make a long story short (which is one of the many purposes of this blog; believe me it is best for both of us if I keep this all brief), we walk out of the restaurant a hair before 11 pm, after that one unlucky woman took all of our orders, made all of our dishes, and served all of our drinks by herself. Turkmenistan is a land of mystery. Turkmenistan is a land of miracles.
After hours of bumping the extensive Turkish Airlines in-flight music catalog, I arrive in Istanbul Airport where I head to the bathroom for a haircut, to keep busy during my 3-hour layover. Some of the men in the bathroom look at me funny, but others take my abandonment of the status quo as evidence they can do whatever they want. In the breast-high sink, I see people clip toenails, wash feet, and drink. When I emerge, I feel my hair and beard are much neater, as I have hardly trimmed either since my return to Connecticut, and when I meet long-haired James at this terminal he compliments my handiwork. We board.
Another several hours of seatback stereo songs, ranging from Nena to The Moody Blues to Kendrick Lamar, drops me in the hot, dark Central Asian desert a few minutes after 2 am. James applied for his visa in London, so we part ways at the visa-on-arrival desk and I wait for over an hour as my fellow underprepared fools chat back and forth, trying to find people who are on the same tour as they.
Only one person on that line is with my tour, a Filipino- American woman from Los Angeles who implores me to wait for her. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Nena, after the German pop-star and cornerstone of the Turkish Airlines music library most reknowned for her antiwar protest song “99 Luftballons.” I agree to wait for Nena, as I did not book a hotel room in Ashgabat that night and frankly had no where else to go. Besides, she waits in line only three people behind me, which promises to only grow my waiting time by 15 or so minutes. I sit comfortably in the airport seating, and watch as Nena approaches the friendly-but-firm visa agent, clad in a uniform suitable for a captain or admiral in some small seafaring nation’s navy. I am fiddling with my phone, which gets no reception, as Turkmenistan is well-known for limiting communication to the outside world. In a few minutes, Nena comes up to me, and informs me her visa is not valid, and that the man will not issue a new one.
As I used to do when I worked as a passport agent, I interrogate the tiny Filipina, who has a son older than I, for about five minutes until I understood her situation completely. I have never appeared at some foreign airport, let alone in a country often said to be as enigmatic and secretive as North Korea, without the necessary documents to enter. In fact, I occasionally have nightmares to this effect. Nena seems quite calm. Buying another ticket to the next stop, somewhere in Uzbekistan, seems like a reasonable option that she entertains readily. To enter Turkmenistan, one must have a valid visa, or else a letter of invitation that shows the guest is allowed into the country. Nena had purchased her visa ahead of time, but has since renewed her passport, making the old visa (linked to the old passport) invalid. To make matters worse, her passport number on the letter of invitation still reads as the defunct one, and so the visa issuer cannot confirm if she is the same person printed on the letter which specifies name, passport number, and nationality.
Nena and I return to the visa-on-arrival desk, now vacated. Nena previously expressed that she struggled to understand the Russian-speaking guard’s advice, and she looked surprised when I happily volunteered as not only her passport specialist but her translator as well. The man simply explained that he would consult his boss, who could come by in forty-five minutes and hopefully assist. Despite her regular pleas for me to go to the hotel and get some sleep, I told her I would not leave her side. My kindness originated partially from the fact that I am a kind person, but I mostly wished to stay with her because the vacated airport seats were likely more comfortable than sleeping in the hotel lobby, where a receptionist would surely be eyeing me through every toss and turn.
I did not get the chance to sleep, however, because Nena and my introductions, chats about travel, and generic babble that always emerges between two countrymen who meet in a foreign land, last until the boss enters through the booth’s back door. Neither of us notice, but after about half an hour, a small woman in a hijaab sits down at the payment booth, placed directly to the right of the visa booth, and reaches through the hole in the glass to rap a few times on the drywall, beckoning us forward. She takes a quick glance at Nena’s passport, letter of invitation, and invalid visa, and agrees to issue a new visa for $99, the same price I was charged. My new sidekick agrees, relieved she will not be missing the first of five ‘Stans.
A too-cheery-for-3:30-a.m. immigration control officer, clearly bored and realizing we are the only arrivals in the whole terminal, eagerly asks me where I am from, where I am going, and where I learned Russian, as we exchange pleasantries in Russo-English. His only job is to give us stamps, but the hold up bother neither me nor Nena, who also has nowhere to go but the hotel lobby. On the other end of immigration and customs, an ethnically Russian Turkmen name Slavik, who seems he is about to fall asleep standing up, holds up the sign for the tour company. We greet each other, and he leads us outside to his pristine white SUV outside. The truck is raised so high over the ground that Nena has trouble climbing inside.
Even in the wee small hours of the morning, Ashgabat is hot and getting hotter. The forecast predicts a high of 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the early afternoon, so I am grateful Slavik’s air conditioning functions properly. Thankfully, I exchanged a few dollars at the airport, and Nena and I each tip our nearly-unconscious driver a few Manats before stepping into the hotel lobby.
On the couch, a Ukrainian woman in her thirties, named Svitlana, browses her cell phone until we introduce ourselves and sit down in the adjacent armchairs. Just as I expected, the receptionist stares from across the lobby, tolerating our existence but almost certainly wishing we weren’t cramping the style of what was otherwise a loose and casual nightshift crew. Nearly five hours remain until meeting the rest of our group near the couches, so I walked into the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant after inviting my two new friends for a coffee. Nena sleeps, but Svitlana stays awake with me until the restaurant begins serving their breakfast buffet. 'Lana teaches me Russian and asks what I liked most about my trip to non-Chernobyl Ukraine. When I tel her I loved the people and food of Ukraine, she lights up, tired of hearing how her nation’s biggest disaster has become internationally recognized as the only valid reason to visit her country. After gallons of all-you-can-drink coffee, we are getting along fine.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.