I got bed bugs in Bukhara. I think that’s what they were, anyway, but after a quick online image search brought up pictures of people whose faces had been gnawed off, I was too squeamish to find out exactly what had left patches of itchy bites all over my body. Nobody in Kazakhstan had warned me about the possibility of being eaten alive by tiny blood-sucking insects, but they were sure that many other terrible things would befall me in Uzbekistan, the treacherous land south of the border…
1. Get bribed by corrupt officials and wrung for all I’m worth.
At the border crossing, two officials waved me into a small booth with mirrored windows (heartening) and asked me if I was carrying psychotropic drugs. To their disappointment, I only had Tums and fifty bucks. “Throw it all out on the table!” said small-hatted goon #2, making a sweeping gesture to indicate I should turn my pockets inside out. Big hat goon #1 intervened, however, and I happily kept all my money.
2. Be arrested on trumped-up charges by paranoid policemen.
Uzbekistan is a police state, which sounds intimidating, but actually has a hilarious manifestation: apparently, half of all employable men are policemen (a rather ingenious way of eliminating street crime). Policemen were ubiquitous, and so numerous at important historical sites that it seemed like clusters of them might break into choreographed song and dance numbers. Besides that, they were shockingly friendly and polite. The one time we were asked to show our documents, in the Metro, the officer smiled and bowed. It’s common practice even for locals to ask directions from cops.
Clearly they’ve been well schooled on the importance of not messing with tourists, because Johnny and I got out of one almost certain disaster totally unscathed. It’s a strange fact that in Uzbekistan the official value of som is about twice that of the black market, to the point where even tour agencies recommend exchanging money in a back alley. One evening, Johnny and I chanced on a drunk guy perched on a curb croaking “dollar!” and followed him to his tiny store. We had about 200 dollars to exchange, and because of the low value of som against dollars and the low denominations of som, we began to fill our backpack up with huge wads of cash. At one point, the drunk guy got his figures mixed up, and a cop walked in to the store behind us just as Johnny was patting his backpack and explaining, “I HAVE FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND IN HERE RIGHT NOW!”. How we managed to not get bribed beyond belief, I have no idea. I doubt it had anything to do with drunk-o shrugging innocently and whining to the cop “come on, mister, it’s a holiday!”.
3. Stumble on pockmarked streets and fall into large steaming manhole of filth a la Katharine Duckett.
Oftentimes, one image in my mind epitomizes an entire concept for me. For example, when I think of the trash piles I see daily in my village in Kazakhstan, I think about a family of turkeys I once saw picking at dirty diapers someone had deposited behind the bazaar.
Uzbek people in Kazakhstan had told me that Tashkent was free of litter, but I skeptically chalked it up to romantic notions of homeland. How happy I was to be proven wrong! Immediately over the border the change was apparent. Streets – even their gutters – were clean. Trashpickers, weeders, and whitewashers were everywhere. It wasn’t just the capital, either; all along the rural roads there were beautiful plantings and well-tended orchards, all free of litter. Once, in front of the Amir Temur mausoleum in Samarkand, I saw a man chatting to his friend while polishing his shoes with a bit of paper. After he’d finished, he walked several meters to the right and deposited the paper in a trash can. KZPCVs, keep your pants on.
Believe it or not, there were numerous documented sightings of lawnmowers. And at Ulughbek’s observatory, I saw a man lovingly cutting the grass with scissors.
4. Be shocked by rude, uncultured, greedy people and their barren country of despair.
There are many things that Kazakhstan should improve upon, but the system of gypsy cabs has always seemed perfect to me. For a small fee, random people will shuttle you most anywhere. The convenience and logic of it is hard to beat. But Uzbekistan managed to one-up its northern neighbor yet again in this respect. First, the cars themselves are better. At some point, the Korean car manufacturer Daewoo opened a factory in Uzbekistan and flooded the market with cute, cheap, European-style cars. Don’t doubt my love for CCCP clunkers: I still squeal when I see Volgas, and I’ve got it bad for an eggplant Lada. But it was very nice, for once, to hitch a ride in something that had been inspected in the last decade. Even better, drivers almost always stopped in multiple. There would invariably be a patient queue of white Daewoos waiting to take us to our destination.
People were very polite and friendly. And as for the natural and architectural beauty, the photos speak for themselves. I took about 600. I wish I could have beamed Sari Goodfriend over for a week – I felt hopeless to capture the imposing doorways and arches without distorting them.
There’s one thing you’ve got to read about, but only if you won’t judge me: I got a full-body massage by an Uzbek man while lying buck naked on a marble slab inside a hammom. At first when the guy told me to take off my robe I told him I’d rather wait for the friendly female masseuse that was sure to arrive. When he disabused me of that expectation, I figured I had two choices: abandon ship, sacrificing pride and money, or just take a deep breath and drop trou (or in this case, sheet).
You know how in real estate location is everything? In nudity, context is everything. Yes, I was alone in a dark steamy chamber with a strange (and let’s face it, he wasn’t bad looking) man. Yes, he was rubbing my naked, soapy body with his capable manly hands. But it was unmistakable that he viewed my body as a series of knots to be unwound, respectfully and diligently, and he paused only occasionally to ask if I was okay. The massage itself defies description. The man did things to my joints that I didn’t know could be done. At one point, he pushed his fist up the length of my spine and cracked several vertebrae like gunfire. I left feeling like a rag doll.