We travel not for trafficking alone,
by hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
(James Elroy Flecker, 1913)
The Christmas holidays are a time of the year to calm down, to find some time to yourself and to reflect on the achievements, as well as ups-and-downs of the past year. At our Christmas dinner, Susi asked us about what we all embraced, regret and appreciated about 2012. My answer was that most of 2012 was extremely boring and uneventful, as almost 9 months were spent on writing my thesis, studying for my final exam and getting ready for my next adventure abroad. However, as unspectacular the first two-thirds of the year may have been, it was the end of an important phase of my life, and even though I worked the past 5 years towards it, it ended so unbelievably abruptly. The next day, I was pretty much already in a completely different world called Uzbekistan where everything that mattered to me suddenly was of no importance anymore. The past three months made up for most of 2012, regarding its intensity, excitement, new encounters and muse. The experience here is difficult to put into words on a number of levels, and I am sure that I will find it challenging to share the things I have seen with those who haven’t. I do know, however, that I have changed and that I see the world with different, more critical but, at the same time, more appreciative eyes now. The encounters I have made here, may they have been of an Uzbek or international nature, showed me the world’s spirituality, the pure magic of small things and moments and the importance of rituals with the people you love.
Well, as peaceful as the Christmas holidays have been for the most part, this is still Uzbekistan, and we were reminded of it when we were planning our trip to Samarkand. Ulli and I discussed how much money we would need for the trip and quickly realized that we did not have enough dollars. The story is this: Regular bank cards do not work here, so you have to get US dollars out of the VISA ATMS usually found at hotels in order to then exchange them into Uzbek sum at the black market. You could get sums out of the ATMs as well but only at the official exchange rate which is up to 30% below the black market value. The problem is, the VISA ATMs are not always filled. The rule of thumb is to get your money in the first week of the month to make sure that you do find an ATM that has enough dollar notes dispensed. I had about 100$ left, which meant I needed to get at least 300$ out so that I could pay for the trip as well as the rent. However, Uzbekistan really didn't like us that day:
|A very frustrated Kristina (with the TV Tower in the background)|
On January 2nd, we went to 4 different hotels to see if their VISA ATMs had any dollars, and, guess what: they didn’t. Not only was frustration reigning supreme but we were also genuinely scared that they wouldn’t refill the ATMs at all and that we would be left with absolutely no money. We decided to risk it and still went on the trip, exchanged everything we had into Uz sum and left the house to leave for the train station. Travelling by train in Uzbekistan is a bit like flying, as you have to be at the train station 30-45 minutes before departure because they insist on checking your tickets 3 times and scan your luggage repeatedly. Uzbek trains, however, are quite comfy, so Kathi and Ulli were reading while I was knitting away (my new hobby) in a carriage full of curious Uzbeks watching us.
We arrived in Samarqand at midnight where one of my students named Alisher and his brother-in-law picked us up to bring us to their apartment. The reason why we stayed at his and not in a hostel is a bit of a long story but it had to do with our unorganized way of planning our trip, so that in our desperation of not having any other place to stay at I pleaded with Alisher if it was possible to stay at his sister’s place for two nights. As hospitable as Uzbeks are (most of the time, anyway), Alisher agreed but apologized in advance for not being able to offer us “better possibilities”. We weren’t quite sure what he was referring to but quickly understood what he meant when we entered the apartment. Ulli and I were aware that Tashkent is a bubble and that the government tries everything to keep the capital happy in order to avoid any social upheavals, protests or revolts. We were also aware that Uzbekistan has a bit of problem when it comes to access to water. And we were aware that, as a result, electricity may be affected. You may know all of these things, but in reality, you have no idea what it means to live under such circumstances. In Alisher’s apartment, we were right in the middle of it. There was no furniture in the apartment, and the life of the people living there (Alisher’s sister, his brother-in-law and the sister of the brother-in-law) took place on the apartment’s floors. There was no proper kitchen, no fridge. No sofa, no chairs. They had running water for 6 hours of the day, which was from 6-9am and 6-9pm. During these times, they bottled up the water as well as filled the bathtub for later use. No sink. And, in case you haven’t thought about this just yet, there was no water for the toilet either. Alisher laughed at me when I went to the toilet and looked a bit clueless when I came out because I had no idea how to flush it. He gave me a bucket of water and explained to me that I would just have to use that water to flush, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Alisher also explained the bucket system to us: Red bucket for clean water, blue bucket for dirty water and sauce pan for hot water. During these two nights we stayed there, washing almost became something like a nuisance. Obviously taking a shower wasn’t possible, so Katzenwäsche it was, but even that becomes difficult when you don’t have a bathtub (because that was filled with water). If you think this is funny, let me tell you one thing: It’s not. This is how these people and probably the majority of Uzbek people live day by day.
Alisher’s family was so lovely and since we couldn’t talk to each other, smiles was our only way of communicating that everything was okay. Also, Alisher’s sister had the two cutest kids in the world who were always around us wanting to play and even joined me when I was planning our day of sightseeing:
And, on our second day, they even made Samarqand plov for us (plov and bread is different in every region) for dinner:
Our second day in Samarqand was filled with standard touristy sightseeing together with Alisher and Marifat, another student of mine who lives in the area.
We went to see the Amir Temur monument…
…the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum
|Amir Timur, his two sons and two grandsons are buried here|
the Registan (consisting of Ulugbek Medressa, Sher Dor Medressa and Tilla-Kari Medressa)…
|Alisher and I on Registan Square|
Shah-i-Zinda ("Tomb of the living king")
|Shah-I-Zinda is an avenue of mausoleums surrounded by a cemetry|
Bibi Khanym Mosque
As you can see, it was cold, very cold, but thanks to our two very lovely tour guides (Alisher and Marifat) we learned a lot about the places’ history and importance for Uzbekistan. However, putting this down in this blog would take too long (I have a few more posts to write within the next couple of days..) If you’re interested, these places are famous and you can look them up in the travel guide or encyclopedia of your choice :-) Or give me a (skype) call :)
Samarkand as a city itself didn’t impress me as much as the individual sights, which mainly had to do with the fact that these sights aren’t really integrated into people’s lives but even geographically separate. While this may have to with Samarkand’s history, because most of the old town was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 18th century, it affected the impression Ulli, Kathi and I got of the city of being a bit sterile.
In a mood for more Uzbek adventures and on the traces of Uzbekistan’s history, we got ready for our next stop: Bukhara!