Bukhara, Uzbekistan


Uzbekistan is country number 10 since I started my big trip. It is all beginning to fit together - I am loving seeing in what ways food, language, architecture, religion and religious practice are common between them, and also what is not shared from place to place.

But I am often left wondering who influenced whom, and especially where particular common words actually came from. I am deciding that not knowing Russian is actually not such a major drawback in this region - it might have been, but the route I have taken to get to Uzbekistan has meant that to communicate, I can now draw on scant Turkish and Persian/Farsi in particular (Arabic is not so useful in Central Asia, I think few use it even for prayer, unlike in Iran). For example, here in Bukhara, the spoken language is Tajik, which is very similar to Persian, although people do also speak Uzbek and Russian and understand Turkmen. Last night I played a game of bingo in Tajik!! It cost 25 Som (c.800 Som to the dollar on the 'free' market) for a round, and I was just about able to keep up as the numbers were shouted out in the steaming, warm little room. I didn't win, and decided one round was enough!

Yesterday morning I stuck my head through a door into a courtyard of an old house as there was a cute little dog sitting on a big double bed-type piece of furniture and I wanted to photograph it. A girl came out, then her brother. They beckoned me in, and I met their mother, who ushered me in for some tea (green, drunk from small bowls). Khossia and her children proceeded to invite me for dinner and to stay with them!! I refused for yesterday as I had already arranged to have dinner at the AMAZING restored 16th century bed and breakfast I was staying at, but Fardows and his brother Farhod accompanied me round the sights of Bukhara yesterday afternoon and I am with them today and tonight as well. Conveniently, the information centre where I am using a Windows 3 computer with a sticky keyboard and a DOS email system to write this is next door to their house!!




Bukhara is a quiet and stately large town (doesn't feel like a city) full of historical buildings and people selling fine needlework, silk, scissors that look like birds, and puppets (Uzbekistan seems well aware of the tourist opportunity, and is very familiar with western volunteers of various sorts). I have resisted the many many handicraft stalls in all the old medresehs and khans, but this morning I treated myself (in the modern daily food clothes and car parts bazaar) to a gorgeous cream woollen (mohair?) shawl for about two dollars, having seen all the women here wearing them and realising that it will keep me warm in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan over the next few weeks. I've got only 15 day visa for Uzbekistan, and there are lots more beautiful and 'historical' places to go to - especially Khiva, Timur(lane)'s cities of Samarkand and Shakrisabz, Tashkent and the Ferghana valley. From there across the border to Osh and just a few days in stunning Kyrgyzstan, then onto Kazakstan, where I hope to get a bit of skiing in before a 36 hour journey to Urumqi in north western China!!



Travel Difficulties

Not that not knowing Russian hasn't created a couple of funny/tricky situations, as often there are Russian women behind counters in hotels, offices etc. In Mary (pronounced 'murih', but Mary Byrne I was thinking of you) in Turkmenistan the other day I tried to phone ahead to the B&B in Bukhara from the public telephone office. I did not understand a word that the person who answered was saying and had forgotten how vital body language and gesticulations are!!! Many of you in emails have said 'go on Helen I am sure there are many more dodgy things you are not saying on your website'. Honestly there really haven't been, to date, though the next few weeks corrupt officials may be the biggest nuisance I've come across yet. Fingers crossed on that front as beyond my bribe coming in to Turkmenistan it has been fine so far..... What else? well, language problems sometimes make things difficult, but not insurmountable; in December I worried a lot about going in and out of Israel and! not getting any telltale stamps to prevent my trip to Iran or future journeys back to see friends in Syria, but survived that fine; and now I've got policemen and guards hassling me, as well as at least supposedly increased risk of theft to worry about - but all good uses of adrenaline!! Of course I have to take some care of my personal safety: that was probably threatened most in Iran - not from dodgy characters, but from choking pollution and APPALLING driving (I heard a pedestrian go WHAM and saw him fly across the road after he was hit, Tehran has to have some of the heaviest traffic in the world too), and what felt very like a near crash on our first - and subsequently only - internal flight. But frankly my experience has led me to believe that the countries I've been to are great places for women to travel alone simply because people are so respectful and so hospitable.




Turkmenistan is a country where a dollar goes a very very long way and the women dress amazingly. Those mid-eighties purple and pine-green chunky woolen cardigans have found their rightful home there and every woman with any cred has one. They are placed over long velvet dresses - bright pink, indigo, lime green - and supplemented with brightly coloured headscarves, folded and tied a multitude of ways, gold jewellery with crimson stones, and many many gold teeth!!! A five-day transit visa only gave me the chance to see Ashgabat, the new (earthquake victim) capital city, and the scarce remnants of ancient Merv (next to Mary), which was razed entirely by the Mongols in c.1220 - estimated death toll of about a million people!!!! But it was enough time to allow me to meet some lovely people on the trains and in the railway stations - including some of the supposedly dreaded customs guards, of whom one had a degree in Russian philology (and was very good-looking - actually I'd ! say Central Asians are my type!). The sun shone clear and bright in not too cold but fresh air every day. Actually (sorry to gloat) I've probably only had about 4 days of rain (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Shiraz and Mashhad) and one of snow (Tehran), and none of clouds for about three months so all this vitamin D has got to be good. Talking of snow, the Persian word for it is BARF - which is, I assume, the reason a soap powder in Turkmensitan is so-called, but it was a bit off-putting reading it on adverts everywhere!




I spent 30 days in Iran, so was very glad that the amazing B&B here in Bukhara had satellite TV so I could find out about the election results. Thanks to Nika, my only new 'western' friend from this entire trip, who I met on my very first morning in Istanbul, I got to know the lovely family of her Tehrani boyfriend Hadi. As a friend of Nika's, by proxy they treated me, and Chantal when she came out to join me for two weeks, like princesses. Not sure if any of you have seen the Iran election footage but in it you may have noticed that many Iranian women have fairly loose hejab - lots of hair showing under coloured scarves and only-just-knee-length coats over jeans. I meanwhile had been encouraged by outsiders of all nationalities, I thought it wise myself, to err on the conservative side, so I turned up in Tehran with a floor length black coat, black scarf and hair net, bought in Jordan - none-too-trendy as you can imagine. In retrospect I am glad my hejab was so good, but it was funny being out in a pizza restaurant in a shopping centre and realizing mine was better than EVERYONE'S there except Marzieh's (Hadi's sister)! Many Iranian women of all ages also choose themselves to wear a full and strict hejab (including Marzieh and Maryam, who I stayed with while I was in Tehran), but the young are invariably sophisticated underneath!!! Maryam and Marzieh introduced me to the alluring world of FAKE EYELASHES, DYED EYEBROWS and facial hair removal using a cotton thread which they call 'SPORT FOR THE FACE'!!!!! I had never realised I had such a huge pair of sideburns!!!!! But their kindness was not just in exposing my so undeveloped beautycare (honestly girls I definitely recommend the lashes), but letting me experience 'real life' for middle-class Tehrani women. Maryam and Abbas' baby girl turned one while we were in Iran so Chantal and I came back to Tehran for her all-women-and-children 120-strong party, complete with a re-enactment of religious fable. Huge amounts of sobbing, dancing, clapping and eating. I also went to a 'sofreh' - a special celebration giving thanks to God after a particular prayer has been granted: lots more crying singing and eating..... as well as to a real 'ya-ya' style get-together of Maryam and Marzieh's mother's friends.

I think it is the chance that Maryam and her mother gave me to get to know and LOVE Iranian home cooking that I will be most grateful for. Even diminutive Chantal was having third helpings, usually voluntarily!!!!! My favourite dish was 'albalu polo' - chicken and sour cherries with rice - but there were many many more that I loved.......

When I wasn't busy enjoying Tehrani social life there was some sightseeing - and Iran has some incredible cities. In my opinion Esfahan's largest mosque ranks up with the Taj Mahal. Bam has an an incredible abandoned mud city; and the Zoro-astrian sites in Yazd were fascinating.

Anyway on that note there's a beautiful building I want to see this evening as I am leaving Bukhara early for Khiva tomorrow, and this place is closing, so I'm off, without telling more about the Iranian loveliness we encountered everywhere Chantal and I travelled, nor the funny use of western brand names on things (trademark lawyers could have a field day.....) Thanks again for all the messages - they are great to receive when I do get the chance to check e-mail, as they keep me happy and not homesick. So keep sending them! If you want to write a real letter, send it to Helen FLYNN, Poste Restante, Central Post Office, BEIJING, China!!! Hopefully it will reach me. I'll be in Beijing by March 27th (still got to get my Chinese visa...), and will send my next news, and my proper address there, in early April, once into my Mandarin course.

The tiles on this page are from the vaulted eivan of the Imam Reza mosque, in Kerman. |Click here to view the original photo|