Central Uzbekistan

Bukhara is pretty hip, as far as 4000 year-old khanates-turned-tourist meccas go. Not only are the famous blue-domed brick medressas and mosques superbly impressive, but the town is fun, to bout. With outdoor cafes that attract a mostly local crowd, winding alley-streets too narrow for cars, and a three hundred year-old swimming pool in the center where only local boys between the ages of 6 and 15 swim, it has the feeling of a sleepy Mediterranean town, too far from everywhere else to be polluted by the rest of the world's problems.

While walking a backstreet around sunset, I came across a group of kids playing a game I had never seen before that was something between bocce and cricket and kick-the-can. 'Tourist! Tourist!' they declared, with huge toothy smiles, as if I were a basketball celebrity. They all said, in turn 'Watz your name?', which I think must have been the only thing they knew how to say in English. Around the corner, I met a man who immediately said 'Guesti' and pointed towards the entrance to his house. I entered, and found myself in a gorgeous, arbored courtyard. Before I had said a word, children brought out cushions the size of suitcases, and I was motioned to sit on a sort of massive outdoor bedframe, with carpets laid out on top of boards where springs might have been otherwise. In the center of this object, a table setting was brought out, mostly by the middle-aged man's mother, who I later found out was Arab, and 82. A bit taken aback by all the hospitality, I sheepishly sat down cross-legged next to the center setting, placing the cushion against an endboard to make a backrest. I then proceeded to be presented with tea, yogurt, fresh grapes, bread, wine, rice pilaf, tomato and cucumber salad, potato soup, and melon. Unfortunately, I had just eaten. Nonetheless, I devoured what I could of the delicacies laid out before me, and chatted with my exceedingly friendly host. Soon, three of his six grown brothers showed up and joined in the impromptu feast for the evening. It was fantastic - lots of laughter, story-telling, eating, and, as usual, toasting and vodka drinking.

I have come to be used to this sort of open generosity, but was still a bit surprised the next night, when, after a grueling five hour bus ride over totally barren, dusty desert, I was invited in to spend the night at an absolute stranger's house, and treated like a king.

Shakrisabz is a very small town, not even on the maps most tourist agencies give to their customers. It's big enough to have a hotel, but only one, and it jut so happened that this hotel is run by Uzbektourism, this country's branch of the infamous Soviet overpriced, bureaucratic nightmare known as Intourist (which everybody who wanted to visit the Soviet Union had to go through), and therefore wanted the horrendous sum of $35 for a night in the crummy place. Remember, this is in a country where I regularly eat out for ten cents, and it costs a dollar for a ten hour bus ride. Like any sensible person confronted with such an absurd proposition, I declined. Therefore, I was in a new town I wanted to explore,exhausted from a long busride, and without a room.

It was late in the afternoon. I asked a few friendly-looking babushkas if they knew of anywhere I could go, but none of them did. A painting crew at work overheard me, and one of the guys said his family had a room. I stuck around while they finished up, and the fellows seemed pretty friendly to each other, which I took as a good sign. So, I took the guy up on his offer, and walked across town with him and one of the other painters. I was, admittedly, a bit nervous. What if he wanted a lot of money for the room, or if something worse happened? I would be left 90 km from Samarkand, where I knew I could find a hotel, but unsure of the prospects of transportation. With these things running through my mind, I cautiously followed the two men into another typical Uzbek courtyard home.

There were a few sheep, a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, a bathhouse, and house that served as the winter living quarters for all, and the summer living quarters for some. An old man sat on another one of the bed-table-floor-platform apparati in the center of the courtyard with a baby boy along side him, under an apricot tree, and the women of the family soon brought out heaps of food. Immediately, all my worries were displaced, and I filled myself with a delicious meal (including the first beef I'd had since Moscow), under the stars. Desert was melon and grapes, both from the family's garden. I fell asleep as soon as the dinner dishes were cleared, alongside three of my hosts, without a care in the world. In the morning, I sat up, and tea and breakfast were placed before me. I told one of the painters (they turned out to be brothers-in-law) that I wanted to pay somebody for the 'room', but he said only 'Ne nada', which translates as 'You mustn't'.

After breakfast, and an exchange of addresses (I was also asked to write something on the back of a recent wedding photo of two of my hosts), I walked around the city. Kamahn, who originally invited me to the house, gave me company. We visited thirteenth-century mosques and assorted ruins, including a palace entrance gate that once supported the largest arch in Central Asia (38 m high, 12 m wide). Quite a place.

Now I'm back in Tashkent, which is a very big, well-laid out and cosmopolitan city. There's even a fantastic metro system. Tomorrow, Els (a fellow volunteer English teacher, from Belgium) and I start the three or four day journey east to Bishkek, through the Ferghana Valley. I'm sure I'll have a new story or two to tell when I get there.

Dispatch from Afield

Hello All - I write to you today from the shores of Issyk-Kul, where I have been teaching English to about ten young Kyrgyz children for the past week and a half. We've also gone on a number of excursions, and I want to describe yesterday's.

I woke up earlier than usual, at about seven-thirty. It took us a few minutes to get the kids up, and everybody on the same page. My Kyrgyzstan coordinator's husband has a friend who spends every summer living with his family in a yurt up in the mountains (as apparently many Kyrgyz do). This fellow, named Aselbek, invited us all to his yurt for a day. We were twenty, including everybvody's distant friends and relatives, and crammed into three cars (miraculously). Half an hour away, the car I was in ran out of gas. Luckily, one of the other cars in the convoy soon noticed our absence, and came back to siphon us out some of theirs. Oddly, the car still refused to start, and after a bit of fiddling the expert mechanics who were driving narrowed down the problem to the distributor rotor, and after a little bit of contact cleaning, we were on our merry way again.

Eventually, we stopped on a narrow dusty street, and the adults (five, including three foreign English teachers, of whom I was one) were ushered into a home. We sat down at a table, which was then set. A black-and-white Tv in the corner broadcast a Russian soap opera, while our elegantly-dressed Kyrgyz hosts brought out fresh jam and thick cream, tea, sugar, spoons, and two bread varieties. One was very common, of the sort I'd grown used to at the yurt I'd been staying at thus far. The other was new - little doughy bits, the size of packing peanuts, that had been deep fried. Very tasty. After a few bites,. we were told to get up and leave. I crammed a few more in, but was hurried along. It had taken longer to set the table (and turn off the TV) than we were given to eat! Hospitality is a tradition and a point of honor in this country, and even a quick taste was delightful.

We then were shown a truck, and motioned to climb aboard. By not speaking the language, I often have to place my trust in the hands of others. I don't mean in terms of safety - that is always my own concern, and has never been an issue thus far. I mean that I had no idea where I was going, or how I would get there. That became the responsibility of my hosts, and I obliged by entering the vehicle. It was a large flatbed truck, with wooden railings all around. the bed was covered in gorgeous Oriental carpets, and I took me sandals off on the back ledge, as if entering a home. We all crammed in, along with bushels on tomatoes and cucumbers, a half-dozen liters of vodka, and a live lamb (later to be slaughtered in our honor).

The truck rolled along rather slowly through town, until we went through a gate that marked the beginning of a recreational zone. The dirt road twisted and turned through a mountain valley, along a swift chalky blue river, whose color bespoke its glacial origins. Our truck went at quite a clip, except when the driver had to shift. Judging by the sound, there wasn't any clutch left, and a sharp grinding sound preceded each hill climb, of which there were many. We careened along in this manner, past yurts advertising kimiz, which is a sort of aged mare's milk drink, and shashleek (mutton kabobs), sharing the road with bareback horseriders and open wagons. Then we stopped, abruptly, next to a clear spring. We were told that we should disembark, if we like, and pray to the spring-god. I got off the truck, took a few pictures, and was offered vodka and cucumbers next to the cold spring water. Obliging, I made a toast to our hosts and the day, their hospitality, and our collective wishes of world peace. I'd already learned through experience that toasts are very much a part of the drinking here. Oftentimes, the toasts become so elaborate and lengthy that a dinner's conversation is dominated by them. Vodka, of course, is drunk in the true Russian fashion, of large shot-glasses drunk in a single gulp. Several times my travel-companions or I have asked not to have vodka. Our requests have typically been met with disdain and offense.

After a few minutes dining next to the stream, we boarded the truck again, and climbed another couple of hundred feet skywards, through open valleys and sharp canyons. After forty minutes or so, we came to a stop, in a flat valley, with alpine forests on one side and a steep upwards cliff on the other. The valley was split by the blue river we had followed on the drive up, and a massive hawk greeted us upon arrival. The valley also contained a mucky alpine lake, which I at first had hoped to swim in. Upon investigation, I found the bottom unfavorable. I estimated the site to be at about ten thousand and five hundred feet, continuing that Issyk-Kul itself is 7800 feet above sea level.

I set out exploring the area, taken in at once by the grandeour of the scenery, the majesty of its inhabitants, and the grace of their horses. A few minutes after our arrival, I was ushered into the host's yurt for tea and break, and more vodka. Outside, I took a few pictures, and then went for a solo expedition towards the swift river. I descended a small embankment, and began to strip down to my bathing suit. I was about to investigate the mountain water, when I looked back towards the yurt and saw a small patch of red moving towards me. It raised its arm, and I walked towards the person, soon identifying him as young Maceli, out for a walk alone. His face beamed at me, and we signaled me to come towards him. Maceli is probably my favorite student here. At eight years old, we is younger than the rest, and speaks no Russian (only Kyrgyz). When we first arrived, he was very bashful, and hardly responded to our greetings. After a few days, he opened up, and proved to be a dedicated and intelligent student. Yesterday morning, we joined me for a dip in heart-stopping water. We exchanged no words, but bonded through smiles and laughs nonetheless. On the way back to the yurt, we found a few feathers, and pretended to be American Indians, running along the open plateau. I've seen a great curiosity here towards American Indians, which attests to the anthropological idea that, when the people that crossed the landbridge from Siberia to Alaska, part of the population opted to stay behind in Mongolia, only to forced out by conquerers shortly after. As the notion goes, these people headed west and became modern-day Kazaks and Kyrgyz.

Regardless, I had quite a dip with Maceli, followed by more tea, vodka, vegetables, and lamb-liver. Then I rode a horse for a while, only to again be invited into the yurt for a late lunch of roast lamb and pasta, accompanied by apple wine and vodka. I thought that this was the lamb that we had brought up to be slaughtered, but later on I was corrected. We ate the lamb, which had been boiled and was served in large fatty chunks. I felt like an ancient Greek soldier, feasting after a victorious battle.

After stuffing myself silly all day, we again boarded the truck for an icy drive back to town, and arrived at Issyk-Kul late that night. Along the way, the Kyrgyz students sang songs and practiced English. I will certainly be sorry to leave these delightful hosts, and eager students.

Dispatch from Kyrgyzstan

Not very many Americans are fortunate enough to take the 3700 km train from Moscow to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In fact, in early July, I was the only one aboard. I had hoped to spend the 78 hours catching up on my reading and writing, but instead spent nearly all my time visiting and conversing with Kazaks, Russians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and assorted travelers.

The Kazanskay Station in Moscow is the endpoint for the Trans-Caspian railway, which sealed the Russian conquest of Central Asia (Turkestan) in the late 19th Century. Tsarist Russia and Britain struggled over the vast region in a spy story so epic and mysterious that today it is known simply as The Great Game.

I boarded the train at eleven in the evening. My ticket had turned out to be authentic, and I hadn't been asked for the customs declaration form I never received upon my arrival in Moscow. I'd been fearful of anything having to do even remotely with the legendary Russian bureaucracy, since experiencing frustrations beyond comprehension at the consulate in New York's Upper East side. Eighty Russian citizens bustled outside a 13 foot tall wooden door, that would inextricably open once every hour or so for several seconds, during which time a few babushkas would push their way inside. Then it would be slammed shut, and securely locked from the inside, without a word of explanation. Luckily, everything went smoothly as I embarked on the train ride, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I found my place. The second class sleeper seats are actually lateral bunk beds – four to a lockable compartment. The wagon that I rode in (number eleven of 16) was at least thirty years old, and perhaps a great deal more. The age of infrastructure in the entire post-Soviet region is anybody's guess. New things fall apart, while other mechanisms are carefully preserved for generations.

After tactfully greeting the three strangers with whom I'd be sharing the ride, I explored the train and struck up a conversation with an Uzbek man. Even before speaking, my nationality was detected. He offered me a cigarette, in goodwill. "Mnoga rabotaet ve Americeh?' As he spoke, the man made the motion of hammering nails. I declined the smoke, but told him that yes, there was a lot of work in America. I warned that things are also very expensive. He said that he had been thinking about going to New York to work for a year or two, but was worried about the problems of getting a visa. I also met his brother, who was equally soft-spoken and friendly. We spent the evening rolling through the southern Moscow suburbs, crossing highways, passing aging power plants, and talking about a land 5000 miles west.

I woke up early the next morning, as the sun was beginning to rise. Unlike the usual feeling people have when awakening in foreign environs, I had a burst of excitement within, as if I was once again a child about to enjoy a new Maine summer day without a single responsibility. I peered out the window of the speeding train to a landscape not unlike that of the summer days long ago. Evergreen forest was broken up by meadows of waist-high grass, and things looked familiar. I hopped out of my upper bunk, and was delighted to discover a spigot marked "Voda dlya pyatya', which translates as "Water for drinking'. Unfortunately, upon turning the tap, nothing came out. Next to this I found the ubiquitous Russian samovar, which is a coal-fired water heater. Russians drink as much tea as the British. Settling for hot water, I filled my bottle.

Three days later, rolling through the dry steppes, I would have traded my shoes for a glass of cold, clear water. None was to be found, even at the many station stops. The closest thing was salty seltzer. Instead, I choose warm Aryan (a yogurt drink, like kefir), 20 cent ice cream snacks, or fresh Uzbek melons. In Kazakhstan, the vendors who had been riding the train between stations since Moscow also sold camel-hair sweaters, fish from the Aral Sea (or what is left of it), horsemeat sausage, freshwater crawfish by the dozen, Russian skin-magazines, and Chinese audio equipment, advertised by Farsi, Russian, French, English, or Kyrgyz music.

I shared many moments with an exquisitely hospitable Uzbek family of four. The father had befriended me while I studied a Cyrillic station schedule, and from then on had not let me pass their open compartment without entering for tea. I was always served before they took any for themselves. At eleven o'clock on the second night out, I was graciously invited in for a bit of three-day old fried chicken, and stepped out humbled, in the truest sense of the word. My host Ruslan spoke limited English, which he had learned 25 years earlier while completing a six-year military medical school. He had later become a General in the Army, and in Soviet days had afforded to take his family to Samarkand to visit his sister every year. Now he took the trip by train, for the first time in four years.

I met a young ethnic Russian woman who studied economics at a tiny university in Samara, Russia, who was travelling home to Turkestan, Kazakhstan with her father and younger sister. The three shared a vacant bunk in my cabin one night, switching off every few hours. Katya told me, in clearly limited English, that "Russians are bad'. I asked her to explain herself, and she looked up a word in my dictionary, pointing to "detest'. They "detest', she said. In response to my blank expression of incomprehension, she looked up another word – "worst'. I thought she was saying that life was difficult since the collapse of the Soviet State, as Ruslan had implied. "Nyet', she said, as if offended that I thought she would want to return to quasi-Communism. "Life is difficult, because Russian people hate each other.' As the train approached the Kyrgyz border, I could see bold mountains rising out of the plains. I began a conversation with a spry 87 year –old, who turned out to be a retired reporter of Tartar ethnicity. He was ecstatic when I told him that I wanted to be a reporter someday, and repeatedly invited me to visit in Bishkek, where he wanted to give me documents and articles to publish in America. His parents had both been killed in the October Revolution of 1917, and he was raised in an orphanage. It is his face that I think of now when I recall the journey I've made, and the promise I've made to him. He must have quite a story, and even if I am able to tell it to the world properly, there are millions more in Russia and Central Asia – a land of shaken politics, aging infrastructure, wildly spectacular sights, corruption to fear, and humbling hospitality.

In Tashkent

I was awoken this morning at 6.30, by a man who offered to give me a half inch stack of worn paper bills for a dollar. I wasn't sure exactly which currency he was selling. I was on a bus, and was traveling to Uzbekistan, which would be my third country in ten hours. Yet, the bus was stopped.

Thirst. Even before I sat up and looked out the window to the dusty dawn, I craved water.

The last thing I remembered of the night before was shifting from cramped seat to cramped seat, trying to find a way to rest of the rest of the ten hour trip from Bishkek to Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Somewhere in Kazakhstan, I recalled stopping and helping an eight year-old unload several hundred pounds of bagged potatoes from the back of the ramshackled bus. We slung, dragged, pushed and hefted a dozen of these awkward parcels from one side of the aisle to the other, where a door was open to a crowd of people below, who, in bucket-brigade rotation passed the 'kartoshki' along. After sitting awake for six or seven hours previously, my body was sluggish and I strained to lift each bag. In my unrested daze, at one point I let the bag down a little too swiftly, only to realize - amidst cries of 'Oshtarozhnya!' (Be careful) - that the person I had passed it to was as young as my fellow unloader.

When the bags were out of the bus, a flat bench at the very back of the interior revealed itself. I acted quickly, and claimed it for myself as a resting spot. Along with my daypack (to which I had moved all valuables before stowing my framepack beneath the bus), I settled into place, only to find the width of the platform a good three inches too narrow to support my body and one arm, let alone both. I let the left one dangle, and made an honest attempt to sleep. Since we had been delayed by a flat at the Kazakh border, we were already way behind schedule. My estimate for time was about three am, but I really wasn't sure. There might have been a time change between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but I really wasn't sure about that, either. I just wanted to sleep. Unfortunately, the ride was less stable then a ship at sea in a gale, what with the bumps in the road and lack of shocks. I was nearly tossed out of my bunk less than a minute after lying down in it. Still, I persevered - I had no other options. The seats were all out of the question - they were too short for my body, and I had no place to put my head. I would have leaned it against the window, except, in the first seat I was in, the broken glass that once formed a window was held in place only by packing tape, and this billowed a faint breath each time the bus bounced over a hole. In the next seat I took, the broken glass was held firmly in place by some sort of a metal plug in the epicenter of the fracture. I thought it would be safe to lean my head here, but at the first bump, I was reminded of the lack of shocks and poor shape of the road by a solid bump on the head. So, I found myself on the bench in the back. Only, here, I wasn't much better off. I wondered how everybody else aboard was able to sleep, until I found myself tired enough to return to the padded passenger seats, curl up in a ball between two, with my head on my backpack, and catch a z or two.

And now I was awake. With a start, I emerged from my dreamless slumber, blinked, looked around, and blinked again. My eyes were still dry. And, I wasn't sure which 'Stan I was in. I knew I had crossed into Kazakhstan the night before, but didn't remember crossing out again. The bus said 'Tashkent' on the front, clear as day, and Tashkent was the capital of Uzbekistan. And yet, as I foreigner (the only one on the bus), I would surely have been asked to show my documents at a border. I decided that I was still in Kazakhstan. So why was this man offering to exchange money? Perhaps I was near the border, I thought, and took out my worn collection of Kyrgyz, Kazak and American money, not quite sure which I should trade. I wanted to have some Uzbek currency, because I was in bad need of a bit of water. The Kyrgyz 'som' had to go.

The driver, who had put forth a Herculean effort in switching bus tires the night before, stepped aboard and motioned me to leave the bus. I collected my things, and did as was requested. Outside, I was immediately surrounded by at least a dozen men yelling 'Taxi! Taxi!' I was used to this from travelling in the past, and simply ignored them as I picked up my frame pack - which was still in one piece - and made a beeline to the nearest wall. On the way there, my smaller day pack burst its zipper, and I reached an arm around the front to protect my camera and books from falling to the brown, dusty street.

Upon reaching my concrete destination, I defended my worldly possessions by putting myself between the bustling crowd and the wall. I had to fix my bag. This had happened before, and I at first tried to zip past the broken part swiftly, hoping the damn thing would zip. No luck. Zeroing in on the culprits, I patiently picked and bend the tiny pieces - squinting through dry dusty contact lenses - until the pack was brought back into service. I tied a strap across the body of the bag, for extra security in case the zipper decided to quit again.

And I looked around. I was, clearly, in The East. I had come west to get here from Kyrgyzstan, but had arrived in a land that brought forth images of silk and silver and Islam and the Orient. I hefted my frame pack on my back, and my day pack on my front, made a path through the taxi drivers, and walked towards a blue mosaic archway which could only be one thing: the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Ahead lay the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and all the wonders of a new, Old World.

Not in China

I'm just treading water in Bishkek now, waiting for a flight into Red China. I tried to cross over a mountain pass into Kashgaria (Xinjiang Province, China), but succeeded only in meeting a group of subordinate Chinese guards who refused to let me pass. My visa was in order, but the pass (as it turns out) is only passable for Chinese and Kyrgyz citizens, or foreigners like ourselves if we employ a Chinese tour agency to provide outrageously overpriced transportation.

I knew that there was a good chance I would be turned back at the border before setting out, but was determined to try to make it over. My guidebook states that it is impossible, but it is riddled with mistakes, and I wanted to prove them wrong.

I first attempted to board a Chinese sleeper bus in Bishkek, but they wouldn't let me through the door. Knowing that I didn't have time to spare if I wanted to make my plane out of Shanghai, I immediately took a series of taxis, cars and trucks as far as Tash Rabat, where there is an ancient Caravanaserai (something like a truck-stop on the Silk Road), which is 600 k from Bishkek, on mostly dirt roads. There, the car I had hitched in turned off to take the other passengers to the historic ruins, and I was left to my own devices, in an absolutely magnificent valley steppe, at about 3500 m elevation. I was too far from the border pass to walk (90 k), and there didn't seem to be much in the way of automobile traffic. I took a seat on my backpack, snapped a few pictures, and ate what was left of my snacks (about a half a kilo of delicious sesame halvahr). Nothing happened. I could see a few yurts in the distance, and knew that if I had too, I could certainly stay with the occupants that evening. But wait! A cloud of dust was speeding towards me, and I reckoned that the odds were in my favor that a car was in front of it. Sure enough, a Russian-made Neva soon appeared, long before I could hear it. Having seen Kyrgyz people hitchhike, I wasted no time making the requisite sign (I now know how to hitchhike in three different languages). The car didn't stop. The dust settled, and I took up my book (The Idiot, of all things). And there I was, miles from nowhere, in a pristinely empty place.

Soon, I had company from one of the nearby yurts. Although nobody in Kyrgyzstan lives in these sheep felt structures in the subzero alpine winters (as they did before Stalinist collectivization), a significant portion of the population moves from a town to Jialow (or 'pasture') in the summer months to herd sheep, horses, and occasionally goats. The economy is so atrocious here that I'm sure the population would be in much more dire shape if the predominant culture hadn't retained strong pastoral traditions. Now everybody has enough food to eat (and fermented mare's milk to drink), even if they can't afford much else.

My visitor was about 4 years old, and sat upon a very large, strong and majestic chestnut stallion. His hat was aqua-green, and read 'Boss'. He stopped, and we shook hands (after I spoke the universal Muslim greeting of 'Salam Al-Eykhim', which also happens to be the most direct Kyrgyz translation of 'Hello'). He asked if I had a camera, which of course I did. He was very photogenic, waving his arm to me as he galloped away.

After another half hour or so, another figure appeared on the horizon. Before long, it separated into two distinct shapes, each on a four-legged animal. As the party drew nearer, I identified one of the four-legged creatures as a donkey. The other was a horse, and their riders were father and son. They stopped, and the father asked me if I wanted komus. To my affirmative reply, he yelled up to his wife, who soon brought me some of this delightfully un-tasty drink. It's made from horse milk, left out in the sun for a week or two in a sheep or goat-gut bag. I eagerly drank down a glass or two of the stuff, not wanting to disappoint my hosts. The taste grows on one after awhile - something like gouda cheese, with a slightly alcoholic tinge. I also took out my photos from Maine, and described them as best as I could in Russian to the family. They liked the postcard of four whales sounding the most, I think. The woman went back to the yurt, and the father and son rode away to collect water from the nearly stream. I sat back down on my backpack, and tossed pebbles at a hole a few meters away.

Another car or two passed me by, and the duo reappeared. The tiny donkey was carrying all the water (in old metal milk jugs), and the boy rode behind his father on the mare, whipping the butt of his former ride. The father steered the magnificent animal towards me, and said 'Piosh Chai!' to me. I, of course, obliged and followed them up to their yurt to drink hot black tea. Also, I happily devoured bread with thick sweet cream or butter, and had my first chance to drink fresh horse milk. It's very sweet, and quite delicate. The father of the family signaled a warning to me that I might fart a lot after drinking it, but I didn't have any trouble. I was overjoyed to meet everybody in the yurt, including a babushka, three sons, and two young daughters. The central couple of the family were very sweet to one another. He kept introducing his wife as being only twenty years old, like me, while their eldest son was 19. I showed my pictures to everybody again, and stayed for awhile. The man didn't want me to leave until I drank ten cups of chai, but I had to surrender after seven. As I left the yurt, I could see a truck barreling towards me from the distance, and ran down to the road as fast as my legs could carry me and two large backpacks.

An hour later, I was at the border town of Torugart, which has a customs building, and about 30 Kyrgyz equivalents to mobile homes. These are old train wagons that were converted for use on the roads, and eventually ended up as houses (and, in this case, hotels). The town was not the prettiest I'd seen, but there was a gorgeous salt lake nearby, and massive snow-capped peaks in every direction. It was noticeably colder than anywhere else I'd been in the region, and I soon realized that I became short of breath very easily. The altitude of the town is 3780 meters, which works out to something over 12,000 feet.

In the morning, there was a very thick frost, and I went for a long walk through the alpine steppe as the town woke up. I went back to my hotel, drank chai, and ate a very hard, bagel-like bread from Xinjiang. I spent the morning (successfully) attempting the Kyrgyz border guards to stamp my passport. I saw a half dozen or so of the tour agencies with European or American tourists (they all look the same, anyway) going through the customs and immigration procedures, and everybody offered to help me pass, but we soon found out that it was a bit more involved than simply offering me a lift and penciling my name to the bottom of a list. Each one of the tour agencies meets a Chinese counterpart on the other side of the pass, with a faxed copy of the list of tourists (who have each paid $100-$400 dollars for the privilege). Yet, I was determined to try to make it alone, and told the guards this. They eventually gave me the all-important stamp, and I boarded a supposedly 'locals-only' bus.

At the crest of the pass, a miniature Arch de Triumphe spanned the road, with Chinese characters across the top. As the bus passed under the arch, I thought I was home-free, and soaked up the vistas of Kashgar and the Taklamatan Desert as we rolled down the dirt road into China.

My fun stopped at the first of two Chinese border posts, where I was not allowed to pass. The story isn't really all that exciting. I got out of the bus with all of the other passengers, and somebody took my passport. I went through a metal scanner, but then was separated from everybody else. My passport had been taken into another building, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I looked from one guard to another, but each one refused to acknowledge me with any sort of eye contact. It was all very surreal. A few of the younger guards (I swear that they looked about 14, thanks to their lack of facial hair) made some attempt to communicate with me in English, but surprisingly none of them spoke a word of Russian. All of them were ethnically 'Han', which is virtually synonymous with 'Chinese' in America. Until a recent mass migration of Hans into the region, in the wake of a few minor separatist movements in the province, Xinjiang was nearly entirely ethnically Uyghur. Analogies could be made between the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and the Buddhist Tibetan population. Both regions were acquired within the past 60 years or so, and both populations have distinct religions which the Communist Party doesn't support. Uyghurs are moderately Muslim, and speak a Turkic language (like Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmeni).

Regardless, I was turned back, by a young guard who yelled 'Go home!' to me, in a steady crescendo, as I tried to ask what I could do if I wanted to get to Kashgar. At one point, I pointed to the characters for 'Help me' in my Chinese phrase book, while saying 'Kashgar', and he abruptly stopped his repetitive command to say nicely 'I can't help you', as he placed his hand on my arm. Then he went back to yelling 'Go home!!'. My bus had left, but the guards found a truck driver who agreed to take me back. As I was (rather disappointedly) packing my things, the guards suddenly became very friendly. They asked the basic questions everybody learns in first-year English, like 'What's your name?', and 'How are you today?'. One even said 'Welcome to China!'. I was speechless, and crawled into the front of the waiting truck. The driver introduced himself as Muhammad, from Dagestan (next to Chechnya, in the Russian Caucauses), and was very merry compared to the Chinese boarder guards.

And away we went, barreling along in an old Kamaz brand Soviet truck, listening to heart-thumping Dagestani music, up the road I had just passed, and under an arch that this time read 'CCCP'. I couldn't help to think that I was back in a land of freedom, as I approached the easy-going Kyrgyz border agents. When I told them about the frustrations I had experienced on the other side of the border, they were happy to tell me that I was now back in a democracy. While I'm not sure that I would agree with that, I felt quite a bit more comfortable after I was legally in a country again.

Uzbekistan Today

Some people only have fifteen minutes of fame. I got a full five hours, even if my audience were only the forty people who happened to be on the same bus with me. Somewhere between Shakrisabz and Samarkand, it was discovered that I was an American. Not only this, but I soon developed a reputation as being an American who was willing to answer questions. First, they were simple, and rather uninteresting: 'How much do cars cost in the United States? How about TVs?' I've often been asked about money while abroad, and am always uneasy discussing such things. This isn't because I'm worried that I might be robbed when Uzbeks discover how much more money the average American has than them, but simply because I can't imagine that anybody would feel good hearing about a life that they can't afford. But the money questions continued for awhile - I was even asked how much my father makes a month, and how much my trip this summer will cost. I answered all of these, although might have padded the truth by understating a few sums.

Soon, the questions became more interesting. My seatmate and I had spoken earlier on the ride a bit about religion, but soon I was shouting across the aisles that, in America, many people don't claim to have any religion whatsoever. Nobody could believe this. 'Impossible!' they declared. 'No religion?' The man next to me, named Zoyodila, spoke limited English, and acted as a translator. 'The man in the red shirt over there wants to know if it's a problem in America if you want to make six or eight children.' Later, the same man asked how many wives men were allowed to have in America. I've met men in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan who have two wives, and it wasn't long ago that local Khans and Emirs had harems of forty or fifty young women and girls. When I replied 'Only one!', another man questioned my answer, and mentioned an American movie that he saw, where a man had two. The misconceptions people had about life in America ran the full gamut. Upon hearing that I study in Oregon, the eyes of the man next to me went wide. 'Oregon?! I thought it was very dangerous there!' Ironically, at this point in the trip I was only two hundred and fifty miles away from the Afghan border, and even closer to the Khojent region of Tajikistan, which has become a major production zone for opium since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent loss of jobs.

I was a little bit uneasy at the beginning of the trip, when a grown man a few rows ahead of me literally stared at me for a good minute and a half, as if I were a purple monkey. Later, however, I knew everything was okay when he asked a few straightforward questions. He even requested that I write an inscription in a novel he was reading. He asked me to write the name of a specific Uzbek school in English (I don't know why), as well as my name and mailing address, plus, oddly, 'something that I would like to say to the Uzbek people.' I wrote that I hope that the people of the Republic of Uzbekistan are all happy, healthy, and prosperous in the coming years, or something to that effect, and signed my name as neatly as I could on a poorly paved road, in a twenty year-old Hungarian bus. He seemed very happy about it.

The bus trip became a rollercoaster of emotion for me. While many of the questions were fun and humorous to answer, other topics weren't so pleasant. We stopped to eat at a roadside restaurant, and I complained a bit about the price (having gotten used to bargaining everywhere). The waiter shot back with 'You have everything! What do you know about life?' I was reminded of this fact when I returned to the bus and the ensuing conversation. Zoyodila talked quite openly about his life, saying that if he doesn't marry his girlfriend soon, her parents will have her marry somebody else. He wants to marry her now, but cannot before finding decent work. He would go to America or Europe if he could find work there, but doesn't know where to look. This is a man who was clearly very intelligent, having earned advanced degrees in both accounting and mechanical engineering, had worked with the UN as a project assistant in his home town, and had even taught himself basic English and computer skills on the side. If he can't find work, I don't know who here could.

All five Central Asian 'Stans' (and, I assume, the other fourteen post-Soviet Republic other than Russia) had economies based on providing goods for the Soviet Union as a whole during the majority of last century, and can't come close to meeting the needs of their own population today. Without 'Mother Russia' buying up everything, each country's economy has shattered in the shadow of Russia's. Every economy was highly specialized, from what I can tell in a few short weeks spent here. For example, most of Uzbekistan's fertile land was commandeered for cotton production (at great expense, and detriment to regional water flow). During Soviet times, the tiny country provided the Soviet Union with 25% of its raw cotton needs. Today, with exposure to international competition, many of the fields lay barren, and the small amount of cotton that is grown is shipped to neighboring China instead of being processed here. The country has to take out loans and rely on foreign aid to buy such stables as wheat and rice, even though the soil is among the planet's finest.

Samarkand has been inhabited for 40,000 years. Uzbekistan is a country with profoundly complex and rich set of cultural heritages, yet many people in America have no idea about any of it. This is partly because the Soviet Union did everything it could to divorce the Uzbek people from their seemingly provincial ways. As the bus rolled into Tashkent, my thoughts were not on the gorgeous fourteenth-century ruins of Timurid Architecture that I saw in my week traveling to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Shakrisabz. Instead, I was thinking about the people on the bus, the land I was in, and the future of a young country trying to find its place in the world.