After a sleepless jetlagged night, I headed on to the train station. I caught the high speed rail, a smoother and faster train than anything America could offer. Not only is America's rail infrastructure second rate, it is second to Uzbekistan.
Under a dapple-grey sky, we glided past small cities and villages, past bucolic pastoral fields and king cotton. Uzbekistan has an interesting relationship with its cotton crop, one that includes forced labor picking for (almost) all students and sometimes their faculty. I chatted with two 16-year olds on their way to Samarkand for an international judo competition. One of the teens was in charge of the whole Asian judo federation’s IT program. I also chatted with a doctor-turned-pharmaceutical rep, who mentioned that the pay as a doc in Uz was abysmal and he made more money selling pharma. The sun burned orange in the distance, under an iron-grey sky.
Fields gave way to cliffs and mountain, and I plugged in the headphones to listen to Russian folk music as I read about the fascinating history of the region.
I arrived some 2.5 hours later to the Silk road legend of Samarkand, and caught the local bus through town. I chatted with a few locals on the bus in broken conversations. One fellow spoke English well, and was being friendly but some tattooed numbers on his finger made me worry if he was being too friendly. He was fine, and perhaps the jetlagged nerves were wearing thinner than usual. We crossed through town and I ended up in a market. I trudged up the market and through the pedestrian pass, past stunning turquoise domed mosques with azure scripted calligraphy. I overshot the guest house, and some locals pointed me back the right way. They pointed to my red scarf, and pointed to a red door in the distance- I love charade conversations.
I found the Bohadir B&B, and immediately knew I was in the right place. An ornately carved spiraling wooden door welcomed me. The proprietor took me in and showed me the rooms. Whereas I thought there were dorms, there were none, as he explained that was only in the summer. My two options were a single for $12 and a single for $15. I immediately took the cheaper, cavernous room under the stairs.
He welcomed me into the courtyard with drying grape vineyards in the middle of the area. He sat me down on a cushioned bed-couch, and brought me a pot of tea and a plate of watermelon, sesame-covered cookies and candied apricots swimming in sugar syrup. The candied apricots were divine. I sipped the tea, pouring the sugar syrup into my saucer and munched the sugared fruit and snacks.
I decided to see the more expensive room. It was a bit more open and airy, so I decided to splurge the extra $3. I think I made the right choice, as the room is warm and comfortable, with beautiful carpets on the floor. I took a nap to ward off the jetlag that kept me up all night.
After the nap, I walked back out past the giant turquoise domes, and stopped to take pictures of an old man in blue robes with a white wispy beard in the backdrop of the marble walls. I gave him some backsheesh for his visage.
I wandered into the market passed ladies selling soft agora and found a lunch spot. I entered the restaurant and a women who spoke English well helped me pick out some shihlyk (kebabs). She led me out to a wood-framed bed with quilts on it that passed as dining tables in the outdoor sun. I took off my shoes and plopped down cross-legged amid the other eaters. Women in colorful shawls picked at plates of bread, meats and salads.
Lila the waitress brought me a pot of tea and a half-moon bread with a crispy indent and topped with black seeds, Soon thereafter came a plate of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and sliced onions, dusted in dill. Then the piece de resistance, the shishlyk on flat skewer spears. One kebab was ground lamb glistening with a fine sheen of meat juice; the other with meat chunks layered in white fat. I picked at the shishlik, breaking it with bread pieces, stabbing the salad mix and covering with a pinch of salt. It was delicious.
After the meal, I sat cross-legged in the sun, listening to the afternoon banter in a language unknown and dipping my bread into the green tea, happy as I possibly could be.
I left the restaurant and wandered around the huge open-air market, stopping to take pictures of gold-tooth grins and playfully flirting with the spice matrons. I picked up pinches of saffron, cumin and paprika (Yes Mom, for you). After wandering through the mounds of colored spices, and piles of pickles and persimmons and pomegranates, I made my way to the aforementioned turquoise mosque, better known as the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
The Bibi Khanym mosque, built by Tamerlane for his Chinese wife, was magnificent. I wandered around the courtyards, admiring the stellar calligraphy on the azure mosaics and the half cupola mosque space. The slowly setting sun lit up the tiles and calligraphy in a golden hue.
After the mosque, I crossed the street to the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum, a similarly turquoise-domed structure. A tour guide who was leading around an Uzbek tour group flirted with me, then offered to let me climb to the top of the mausoleum for a little backsheesh, How could I say no. So I got to climb to the room for a great view across the city and of the mosque across the way. Eventually, I came back down to view the mausoleum. The mausoleum was beautiful, with intricate inlaid blue lattice windows with gilded tops, and blue-and-white drawings of peacocks.
I wandered back to my guesthouse and later down for dinner. In the dining room, there were two other fellows sitting there as well. Just as I walked in the lights went off. We laughed and started chatting as the fireplace gave us our only modicum of light. In a few minutes the lights came back on and we had a proper introduction. As I got to chatting with the two fellows, I quickly realized that those you find backpacking on the silk road are of a different variety.
Mark was Canadian, by way of England. The grey-haired, blued eyed traveler had been trekking in Pakistan, and was on his way to Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Burma. He had been doing some serious camping along the way.
Also an Englishman, Charlie—sporting a shaggy beard that turned a baby face grizzled, had been on the road for 2.5 years. He had biked (!) his way from jolly ol’. He had been to some 35 or so countries on the road, and was biking back to England by way of Capetown. Yes, over then down then up. Charlie was just about to reach the overall mileage to have biked around the distance of the world.
As you can imagine, we had ample fodder to chat about the world we knew. Dinner came, which was a rich and savory lamb soup with potatoes and carrots and meat. I added in bread balls pulled from the warm giant half bagel without a hole. I sprung for the first round, because it isn’t often I find fellow wayfarers who make my travel proclivities seem provincial. We sipped beer in teacups as the lights intermittently went on and off. Charlie had a couple of remarkable stories, such as being thrown into a game of bukhizi, the Central Asian game played of rugby played on horseback with a goat carcass. He got talked into playing, and then almost mauled when someone tossed him the goat. Luckily, he was an adept rider, having ridden horseback across the Mongolian steppes (the one time in his journey not on the bike)
Later in the evening, we were joined by Yuri¸ a Japanese fellow who had been traveling for about a year, and Lorena, a French girl who was bouncing around the ‘stans. It would seem that Central Asia is a long way from the gringo trail, and those who traverse it are an upper level of backpacker.