Friday, April 22, 2011

Sitting Down. Getting Picked Up.

Sometimes you have to travel far and go through great efforts to make rewarding contacts or rewarding experiences. On the other hand sometimes you have to just stop and sit down. I left Bukhara bound for Navoi, a town some 100km to the north, where I had booked a berth on the twice weekly Tashkent to Urgench train*. But along the way I stopped off at the town of Gijduvan, known for its shashlik, large market and medieval madrassa. When I arrived at the latter with my heavy rucksack the quiet, shady courtyard seemed like the ideal place to sit down, rest and catch up with my diary writing which I had neglected of late. I didn't get much writing done though. First the guard came over to inspect my thoroughly suspicious behaviour: "where are you from? what's your name? what are you doing? year of birth (here, rather than ask you how old you are, they ask you for your birth year)? how many children do you have? why aren't you married? The final question automatically follows the one before it and is asked with a mixture of inredulity, amazement and pity - 30 is already well past the best before date as far as Uzbekistanis are concerned. Next came the caretaker with exactly the same questions. Then the lady selling souvenirs, the odd-job boy, and finally the imam. Even local visitors would crowd round me, curious to know what this strange foreigner was doing in their madrassa with his oversized bag and his book of cabalistic scribblings. Come lunchtime I had only managed to write a couple of entries and was feeling rather peckish when right on queue souvenir-lady came over and motioned for me to a small chamber where the others were sat around a low table each with a bowl of mutton stew and several loaves of round bread broken up in the middle. There was an empty place set aside for me. And so the next few hours were spent idly chatting away with my new "temporary family" trying to make ourselves understood, and usually managing after a somewhat convoluted manner.

Hanging with the madrassa boys. Lamb stew, bread and green tea. Mmmmm!

There are few hard and fast rules whilst travelling though, as another experience a few days later reminded me. I had made my way out to the extensive Mizdakhan cemetery, whih has been in continual use since the 4th century, in Karakalpakstan close to the Turkmenistan border. I arrived in the early evening to get some good light for my photos and was still carrying my rucksack as I had not had time to find and check into a hotel. I was also toying with the idea of roughing it and spending the night at the cemetery. This is a bit of a grey area in Uzbek law as it's not totally forbidden, however foreigners need to show registration for the days they spend in the country (a legacy of KGB paranoia from the good ole days, a mentality that has not left, and if anything only grown stronger, but more on that later). Theoretically registration is only inecessary if you stay in a single place for three days or more, however this is not generally known and especially not by border officials, who are the only people who matter in this case. My first priority, however, was to stash my rucksack, get my camera out and spend the last hour of sunlight pottering about and feeding my photographic illusions of grandeur. I had just found a suitable mausoleum, unburdened myself, rested for a bit, and begun to excavate the depths of my rucksack for my camera (the Sod's Law of travelling: "No matter what it is you are looking for withing your bag it is invariably at the bottom.") when I heard footsteps outside. Sure enough, three of Uzbekistan's finest hove into view. And so followed a thorough interrogation of who I was, where I was from, what I was doing. My papers were meticulously scrutinised; in triplicate. I was queried several times about exact dates of entry and exit of countries, where I had stayed, names of hotels and other sundry details that were noted in a tatty, school notebook. The contents of my rucksack were scrutinised by three pairs of eyes and my date paste (no, not Rohypnol, but my stash of mashed dates, which I consider to be the best travelling food around: healthy, nutritious, tasty, it never goes off or spills) caused a considerable raising of eyebrows, looking, as it does, like Afghanistan's greatest export. The whole process took about an hour, just enough time for the sun to set and a hazy dusk to set in. And so I was escorted back to town by one of the policemen who insisted on seeing me booked into a hotel. I decided to get a small amount of revenge by trudging round all the hotels, with my chaperone in tow, trying to get a better deal. When my partner wasn't on the phone to his wife explaining why he wasn't home yet I tried asking innocent questions such as "why do foreigners need to register?" or "why does this hotel charge double for foreigners?" before returning to the first hotel where, with a heavy heart, I signed in for $15 a night, which is by far the most I have paid for accommodation so far on this trip (by at least 50%), though at least breakfast was included. Hopefully the little, one-hour excursion will dissuade the policeman from bothering foreigners in future.

The guard from the madrassa wasn't sure whether he was allowed to let me take a picture of him.

*One of the main travelling lessons I have learnt is that whenever possible, especially in developing countries, take the train rather than the bus. It's more comfortable, there's the possibility of interacting with the locals, the views are better and a good night's sleep is generally guaranteed.

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