Crazy Travel in the Stans
On the late-night Turkish Air flight out of Istanbul to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the coach cabin is rollicking. Around me, a handful of German tourists, a soccer team, Uzbek locals and others are partying. My travel partner and I have been seated separately and the twenty-something Tashkent couple next to me keep the flight attendants busy ordering more of everything — rolls, butter, coke, orange juice. The flight attendants have given us each a small bottle of white wine (and additional bottles if you ask) and by midnight the aisle is completely jammed — the bathroom line extends more than halfway down the cabin (Homeland security laws don’t apply, I learn, for Turkish flights over the Black Sea), passengers wandering around chatting up apparent friends and strangers like we’re in a tavern, squeezing past drink carts and jostling me, the toilet constantly flushing.
Suddenly, the guy next to me stands up to use the bathroom, knocking everything into my lap. Is this everyone’s first flight? Every single passenger except for me has used the bathroom, I think, as the plane lurches and the seat belt light bleeps on but no one sits. Can’t you flight attendants please get this place under control? The plane drops like a roller coaster and I squeeze my eyes shut. Will this flight ever end? I have the urge to push my call button, but the flight attendants are nowhere — either scared of the passengers or having a good time in the first class cabin, which is sealed off by a curtain.
From the seat in front of me my travel partner hands me an official Uzbekistan customs form, which reminds me I need to count my cash. Cash is important in Uzbekistan because they don’t often take credit cards. Upon entry, the government requires you list all the money you have down to the smallest coin in every currency, and when you leave they make sure you aren’t taking out more money than you came in with. He tells me how much money he brought, I realize, with dread, that we’re over the limit.
“Well, that’s a problem,” he says.
“I didn’t know you were bringing so much,” I say, my stomach tightening. “I brought my own.”
We are about to land in an authoritarian regime that has been recently snubbed by the U.S. for its human rights violations. We are joining a group, whose members from various countries do international business, to network and explore Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan because we’re fascinated by the ancient Silk Road history—Genghis Khan and his ilk, and Uzbekistan’s treasure troves of ceramic mosques and minarets, which the Soviets used as granaries and storage units during their occupation. Suddenly my only thought is that I don’t want to go to jail here. North Korea can invent a reason to detain you, and here in another dictatorship under strongman leader Islam Karimov, often called “ruthless,” I’m breaking the law from the get go.
That’s it! “I’m turning myself in,” I say. I will hand my 742 dollars and 36 cents and seven Euros to the first guard I see — I understand they like bribes here anyway. But maybe the guard will make an example of me. My other thought is to leave the money in the seat pocket in front of me—but that could be found out when they clean the plane and look at the seat assignments — or I can give it to the guy on my left, who doesn’t speak English, and might turn me in. A disaster.
The captain announces, first in Russian, that we are making our descent.
“Can you give it to me in a folder?” my travel partner whispers.
A folder? Like a manila folder? I’m hardly equipped with office supplies. But I’m shocked. He’s going to sneak it in? I don’t like that idea, either, but it’s really really brave and I’m impressed.
I try to hand him the money wadded up under a sweater. “Don’t be so obvious!” he whispers. “That guy next to you is watching. Can’t you go in the bathroom and do it?”
The line for the bathroom is still baffling in its length.
I knew my travel partner was rebellious (at the Shanghai World’s Fair he asked our guide to show us the Axis of Evil Pavilions and refused to watch the required infomercial about the People’s Republic of China) — but this is a side of him I’ve never seen. We cruise through customs, past the stoic guards, without being frisked. In the car on the way to our hotel, I ask him for my money back.
At 2 a.m. we are being driven through the absolutely empty and dark streets of Tashkent, where old Soviet government buildings loom. This feels like — and is — a police state, where I don’t hear about too many people taking vacations. There is no problem coming, but I’m thinking that like North Korea, it’s the getting out that might be the problem.
Back in Istanbul I had speculated at dinner one night about what Tashkent would be like. “How would you compare it to a city I’ve been to?” I asked him, who visited here in 1996.
The Australian man eating alone at the next table interrupts. “Tashkent’s a hole,” he said.
I don’t agree. The Tashkent hotel is better than I expected with a Karaoke bar, decent coffee, a funky rooftop band that plays Pink Floyd, and a welcome fruit basket in the rooms with tempting bright grapes, though we’ve been warned not to eat the fruit unless we peel it ourselves. The water here is problematic. In the early 60’s the Soviets diverted the rivers that fed the Aral Sea to grow cotton, drying up the sea and requiring the use of massive quantities of pesticides and fertilizer, which created severe health problems.
The next morning when we set out (this time there are some vehicles on the road — mostly small, white nondescript cars), we see that the parks are manicured like Disneyland, but you’re not allowed to step on the grass. There’s no sign to this effect but there is no one in the parks, and later a guide confirms this.
We visit the Osman Koran at the Khast Imam Complex. Sitting on the floor in front of the glassed in manuscript, we’re told it’s the oldest Koran, carbon dated between 595 CD and 855 CD, which puts Uzbekistan’s Muslim history before Soviet atheism into perspective. The Uzbeks have erected a building for it. After the lecture, the thirtyish historian and Arabist, who is traveling with us, tells us that there’s no way it can be the oldest based on historical events. Still, it is very old — and impressive. There’s often conflict with the government here over restoration and Islamic culture. Uzbekistan is officially a secular country, with more than 95% of its population Muslim. President Karimov, who rose to power as the Communist party leader in the then Soviet Uzbekistan, is said to use the danger of Islamic militancy to contain religious freedom. The U.S. State Department calls Uzbekistan an authoritarian state with limited civil rights, its violations including arbitrary arrests and torture.
It could have been our route around town but I haven’t seen many stores. The president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, has stakes in many businesses. We were told she fell out of favor with her father after some alleged questionable business dealings surrounding several money laundering operations and is now under house arrest.
We visit the old Soviet subway, which is cleaned six times a day and hung with ornate chandeliers. An elderly Russian woman pushes a broom through our group, gliding along the polished floor as if we’re not there. It is a beautiful subway, like a grand, dimly lit ballroom. It’s spotless and nearly empty. When our group of 15 board a train car, I hear a guy not with us ask, “What’s going on?” I’m betting the subway doesn’t get a lot of groups. Taking photos in here is a crime that will get you sent to jail. It’s considered a military operation — for use as a bomb shelter —and the locals are very proud of it, talking up its beauty and power to withstand nuclear attacks. I’m worried because my travel partner has a trigger finger on his camera and I hope he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) snap a photo. Cameras watch from the high corners. The walls have ears.
The next day we fly to Nukus to the see the Nukus Museum of Art, founded by the painter, Igor Savitsky, who devoted his life to saving thousands of Russian avant-garde works that were banned by Stalin and through the 1960’s, the artists thrown in the Gulag or murdered. Stalin allowed only pro-Soviet art often featuring vibrant, hardworking factory workers. This museum is a window to a hidden chapter in history. It’s unbelievable that these treasures, such as The Bull oil painting, are here in such a remote location. The Bull, by Vladimir Lysenko, who spent 10 years in prison as a dissident, was considered decadent and degenerate by Soviet inspectors,who came to the museum and called The Bull anti-Soviet, the eyes like barrels of a gun, the painting a future vision of a threat. Savitsky took the painting down and promptly put it back up after the inspectors left.
After leaving the museum we drive in a van to the walled city of Khiva, which is 500 miles through the desert from Tashkent. It’s the most remote location I’ve ever been to, and I no longer feel that I’m being watched. In fact, I have no bars on my cellphone whatsoever, which is disconcerting in other ways. Bathrooms are scarce and coffee is non-existent at our hotel. I’m not very excited about the yogurt, which is sour. But the bread is fantastic—they have these delicious flat round loafs with unique etchings that make them look like big sand dollars. I’m living on these. Giant sheep hats and warm clothes are for sale by the locals — when the sun goes down it’s very cold. I would not want to be here in the winter. A guide tells us that the water here is “lethal.” This is after I take a shower and didn’t think about keeping my mouth closed.
The next day in the city of Bukhara, a famous Silk Road capital, several people in our group are feeling sick as we explore the massive, sand-colored Ark fortress. Bukhara, 2500 years old, is a charming city with a lively feel to it. Narrow streets open up to newly restored dazzling blue mosques, minarets popping up unexpectedly. In the Naqshbandi Shrine, the imam, who speaks to us about Sufism, sums it up when he says that this city is very ancient and also very new.
By the time we land in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s most famous city, my temperature has skyrocketed to 103 and I’m so dizzy I feel like I’m walking on the moon. I do not want to check into a hospital here and I’ve been looking at the fastest routes to London — 12 hours minimum if they let me on a plane. A Kazakh doctor gives me Russian pills that she says to chew for faster effect (it’s like chewing aspirin, but I don’t care). After drinking a pot of tea that tastes like dirt my fever has dropped to 101 but my stomach is majorly messed up. Still, I have to see Samarkand, especially Shah-i-Zinda, who some call the “2nd Mecca.”
I head to Shah-i-Zinda with a guide and a driver from the hotel (our hotel is excellent—they have been sending soup, bread, tea, and sodas to my room the last 24 hours at a total cost when I check out of $11).
Stepping through the first arch at the ancient necropolis, I feel suddenly peaceful, the blue of the tiled mausoleums mesmerizing. The exotic city views of minarets beyond its vast cemetery with tombstones facing Mecca is worth venturing out for even sick and always a long way from a bathroom. The guide tells me that if you’re Muslim and can’t make it to Mecca you have to come here three times and hike the steep steps— but if you happen to miscount the steps you have to come back more times. My guide has gotten a little chattier—I ask her how life changed for her after Uzbekistan got its independence in 1991 but she answers with tourism statistics—people are careful what they say here. We did hear from a guy who grew up in Bukhara that before independence they were told that the mosaic mosques and buildings were unimportant — kitschy, even. He was surprised when the tourists came — what they wanted to see, and the souvenirs they wanted to buy were not the things he thought they’d be interested in.
The ladies at the Shahi-Zinda are dressed formally in heavy, exotic gowns even though it’s 100 degrees outside — they tell me that they bought their crushed velvet fabric in Dubai. We learn that wearing cotton means you’re poor. Bright colors mean you have a rich husband and everyone likes to wear turquoise and blue to match the lakes and sky. The ladies are curious about us, and want to take our photos posing with us — “How old are you?” they ask. “Do you use Botox?” Our guide is suddenly stern. “Don’t tell them!”
The next day when we land in Astana, Kazakhstan, I’m still feverish — driving into the capital city I feel like I’m seeing an oasis. By the looks of our high-rise hotel and the 10- floor high neon twin screens across the street playing what might have been food commercials but looked oddly erotic, the place seems to offer all the modern amenities. In the comfy hotel room, the Wi-Fi works and there’s no sign above the sink directing you to brush your teeth with bottled water. Kazakhstan has the most oil and valuable minerals of the Stans, but under another strongman leader, Nursultan Nazarabayv, I hadn’t expected such a drastic difference from Uzbekistan. I haven’t eaten much lately except for bread and the PowerBars and M&M’s I brought in my suitcase, so I’m thrilled to see the room service menu in this country, which appears a major step up from the Third World. The first few days in Uzbekistan we’d eaten lamb (a staple), which might have done me in. Still suspicious of the meat, I scan the menu looking for something mild and vegetarian, my eyes landing on the item: Cold Horse Meat Platter. For the next day, I continue to eat out of my suitcase.
Astana, a brand new city, was established in 1998, Like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan established its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and but it feels a lot like China with its exotic skyscrapers and showy technology, and also a bit like Las Vegas without all the people—Kazakhstan has one of the lowest population densities in the world.
At Nazarbayev University, the students want to meet us. We talk to a friendly 23-year old student who shows us eight very clever apps he’d just written in two months (he’d even done the artwork) — he is also running his own company. The university focuses on tech — there are lots of tech start-ups here and people seem super motivated.
In our van, the young guide wearing a short skirt with tights and heels (they are all young and are all dressed like this), who is taking a group of us around the city, cannot stress enough the severe cold and high winds in Astana, which is totally flat and is the second coldest capital on the planet, regularly down to -31 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. She says it’s hard to get people to stay in this country, but those who do still have fun. “People go to dance clubs in their winter shoes,” she says. She catches herself and admits that “they” have told her to be “distant, to stay “official,” and “don’t talk too much.”
“Big, ugly building,” she says of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation Pyramid, which is listed as a stop on our tour. “Not much to see.” We laugh as we drive by without stopping. It’s nice to know that people will speak their mind here — much less so in Uzbekistan. This city has a random mix of wild, futuristic buildings. The Bayterek tower represents an egg on top of a tree, but it could be an olive pitter. A building shaped like a bike helmet houses a skating rinks and indoor cycling stadium — useful since it gets too cold for Kazakhstan’s world-class team to ride outside.
Our guide explains that foreigners are buying up their land, that there’s no water in the western part of the country, and the president lives in Turkey. She tells us that life after independence when the Soviets left was actually much harder — not much food, no jobs, the nineties like a decade of post-war.
My travel partner asks our guide what Kazakhstan thinks of the movie, “Borat,” which purportedly takes place in Kazakhstan, but was actually filmed in Romania — we’d heard that the country was offended. But our guide tells us that the country now loves Borat — tourism has skyrocketed! Everyone knows about Kazakhstan now — the movie put them on the map.
We tell our guide we will be attending a “bird show” at the New National Museum of Kazakhstan.
“Sounds weird,” she says.
Indeed, the bird show is strange, but spectacular. A giant, shimmering golden eagle the size of small plane hangs overhead. Suddenly it comes to life, flapping its wings — a video starts on a big screen, the on-screen eagle flying in sync with the robotic eagle through the gorgeous mountains of Kazakhstan. This show somehow reminds me of the Shanghai World’s Fair infomercial (that I watched) about the happy Chinese citizens celebrating in the fields, all with stunningly perfect white teeth.
Our guide enters the museum and we tell her that we’re watching the bird show. She looks up at the flapping bird. “Jesus!” she says. Christians are a small minority here. Maybe she learned this from the tourists.
That night there is a diner for the prime minister. On the second floor of the banquet hall we stop in front of an astonishing nearly life-sized painting, apparently of Nazarabyev’s inauguration in 2006. Standing in the middle of the room on a red carpet President Nazarbayev is wearing a medal on a ribbon around his neck. All around him, men are standing and applauding. To his left are a group of Western leaders, including George W. Bush and Tony Blair (someone in our group thinks he’s Richard Gere). On Nazarbayev’s right are all the former Soviet bloc leaders — oddly, German Chancellor Schroder is on the right side — since Germany had been split, Nazrabayev shows off his loyalties. Makes sense, as Kazakhstan is firmly in the Russian camp. But in the painting, only Putin isn’t clapping.
My travel partner comments that the painting looks like it was Photoshopped with different heads on the bodies before it was painted. I look around to see whether any official is offended, but our hosts are busy leading us to another room, where they show us a model of Astana the size of a swimming pool. Suddenly the lights go out and everyone falls silent, drinks in hand. A terrorist attack? Or are they going to pull a Bel Canto and take us as hostages? More likely, a power failure. These are frequent. The lights go back on. The drinking resumes.
Later at the dinner — a festive affair of copious delicacies and dance groups and singers in elaborate costumes — a fortyish, bearded man drops into conversation that he has three wives (currently) and is in the process of acquiring a 4th (like a horse, I think). I have horses in my head. The touted cold horse meat platter on the center of the table seems a throwback — way back, like Game of Thrones medieval. Fortunately, hovering white-gloved waiters continually refill our shot glasses of vodka like wine. It’s a good thing because you wouldn’t want to drink the wine for two reasons. First, the “chardonnay” I’ve seen in this country is as clear as water (I mistook it as the water) and syrupy sweet. Second, your dinner companions will push down your hand if you try to toast with wine and point to your always-full vodka shot. Toasting with wine almost seems an embarrassment — you’ll be the child at the table with a Shirley Temple.
Next we fly to the city of Almaty, which is a real town, grown up organically since the Middle Ages. The gardens do not look planned the way they look in Tashkent, and you’re allowed to sit on the grass. Across from our hotel, enormous ski jumps are perched on the side of a hill, enchanting mountains in the distance. From our room we can hear the engines of the luxurious cars revving up and down the main street. At the mall next door they have all the fancy brands— Prada, Gucci, D &G. I walk into Saks and walked right back out—there is no reason to be here. It’s exactly the same in San Francisco.
At a luncheon with some Kazak wives, the ladies are dressed for a fashion show in the middle of the day. Every woman I’ve met in Kazakhstan is well-educated and no one mentions the occasional multiple wives situation, heavy on my mind. I feel like there are still many layers to this place to unravel. The women seem surprised that we were just in Uzbekistan—one of them says that they rarely go to that closed society because they make it hard for the Kazaks to travel there (the countries don’t seem on the friendliest terms)—Kazakhstan has done away with visa requirements for many countries, encouraging travel to their country.
A group of Kazakhs invites us to join them for dinner for 200 people on the last night. When I sit down a woman explains that her husband doesn’t speak English well and moves him away from us, across the table. A lady tells me I need to drink more vodka and that I’m not out dancing enough. When I explain that I’m not feeling so hot, she doesn’t comprehend or pretends not to. In fact, when my travel partner tries to tell them why I’m not eating more to the delightful couple at his left, they giggle. “No, she really is sick,” He says. And they laugh louder. English here might not be as fluent as I first thought.
The Kazakhs know how to give a part—a lively band and bikini clad dancers. Before dinner is even served they beckon us to get out on the dance floor and do the “Michael Jackson Moon Walk.” Everywhere people are slamming vodka shots and smoking cigarettes or hookah—when the hookah gets to me, I inhale the watermelon tobacco to be polite—the taste isn’t bad but the burn in my lungs makes me flinch. My recoiling face is captured on an iPhone.
A very kind man from Moscow sitting to my right has been trying to cure my fever with a special Russian remedy — he spends several minutes pinching pepper and salt into my vodka shot glass and stirring it with a knife, explaining how he’d been a translator for Gorbachev and Yeltsin and was a card-carrying communist. Before I can respond, a waiter leans in, serving me a slice of horse meat. I thank him, and make a show of slicing off a sliver when the Kazaks are watching. They know that we don’t eat horses in America and I think they like to shock us. I take a tiny bite and nod, smiling. It tastes like beef, but odder — maybe like camel.
Everyone is talking in Russian or Kazakh and I understand nothing. But then the vodka shots are raised and I now know to raise my peppered vodka and gulp. It tastes like a bloody Mary without the Mary. Everyone cheers. The vodka has a zing, cutting the fog in my head. Somehow I think this remedy is going to work and my fever will break by morning. I won’t ask for the recipe. I think it’s OK that I leave not understanding all the mysteries here.