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 To make matters worse, Nena applied for the other two E-Visas under her same outdated passport, which was to prove difficult for her crossing into Uzbekistan.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.
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.