When I was a young child, my mother travelled to Uzbekistan.
It was one of those heavily subsidised trips which Soviet citizens could book through their work, as a way to encourage them to explore other parts of the vast country. My mother is anything but a keen traveller – years can go by before she crosses an international border – but even she instantly embraced an opportunity to visit a place as remote and unique as Uzbekistan.
When she returned, carrying kilos of nuts and fruit – there were hardly any real luggage restrictions in those days – I was captivated by the single photograph she had brought back. No-one had their own camera back then, and the image was a slightly overexposed group shot taken by an invited photographer. The many participants of the excursion were nearly blocking the background, but I remember seeing buildings of unearthly beauty behind them. I would learn many years later that the site was Registan Square in Samarkand – indisputably the single best-recognised image of Uzbekistan.
But my mother’s stories fascinated me even more. She would tell of enough melons to build a small mountain and fresh plov straight off the fire stove that we could never hope to recreate in our residential block kitchen. She told of not having enough cash to afford a melon once, only to receive one as a gift the next moment. And, over and over again, she would tell in a voice full of amazement about handing over some cash to a group of locals who had offered to cook for her. She regretted parting with the cash immediately and wondered if giving money to strangers was wise – but the party soon returned. Having bought fresh ingredients at the market, they set up a fire in the backyard of the dorm where my mother was staying and fulfilled their promise – giving her memories to last a lifetime.
And, twenty-five years later, it was my turn to turn experiences into memories.
UZBEKISTAN, MY FIRST SOJOURN TO CENTRAL ASIA
I travelled to Uzbekistan in 2012, at the time when its overwhelming popularity was only starting to take off. Despite my reputation of an experienced traveller, back then I wouldn’t call myself well-travelled at all. I didn’t know how many countries I had been to and wasn’t interested in counting them. I hadn’t yet been to Iran, Turkmenistan, Bhutan or even Japan. In fact, besides Greenland and Svalbard, I hadn’t visited a single part of the world genuinely considered remote. And there were entire regions where I had not yet set foot at all, including South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.
All this meant that, six years ago, Uzbekistan easily became the most exotic trip I had ever taken. I was left speechless visiting the beautifully restored Silk Road cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, my first ever experience of this kind. Besides the world-class art museum and access to the former Aral Sea port of Muynak, I found the outlying city of Nukus special for its sheer remoteness alone. And Tashkent was just itself: a superbly bustling capital city where the bulk of the country’s important decisions were being made.
What made my trip to Uzbekistan really unforgettable were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the people. I crossed paths with several strangers in Uzbekistan who offered me unreserved kindness while expecting absolutely nothing in return.
And, years later, four people in particular linger in my memory.
SANOAT FROM SAMARKAND
I met Sanoat on an unusually hot October day in Samarkand. Having done hours of sightseeing in the morning, by lunchtime I was feeling burnt out and overheated. My train to Bukhara wasn’t leaving until the next day; I am not proud of saying this, but I was getting a little bored. Samarkand may be the face of Uzbekistan on the travel scene, but the historic part of the city doesn’t actually take that long to explore – especially compared to entire restored walled cities of Bukhara or Khiva.
I considered picking up a melon on the way to the hotel and cutting it up in my room. But, finding myself on a small unpaved side street not far from the architectural wonders of Samarkand, I wasn’t sure which way to go. On my right, narrow steps led underground; the unmistakeable scent confirmed that it was a bakery. Thinking that someone inside might be able to point me in the right direction, I carefully descended the stairs.
The inside of the tiny bakery was quite full. Seeing fresh flatbread piled up in front of me, I couldn’t resist and bought a loaf, too. The lady to my right – my Sanoat – turned to me, smiling as she asked where I was from.
‘Riga!’ She was soon exclaiming. ‘Come, be my guest.’
I followed Sanoat through a maze of narrow streets lined with simple single-storey houses. Even then, at the time when I hadn’t travelled nearly as much as I would do later, my best travel experiences involved spending time with locals. I am not a big fan of museums – especially indoor ones – but I thrive in places where I can observe local people. Markets, parks and busy public squares are my favourite spots in any city. Being invited to a local person’s home is a privilege I have rarely turned down.
We reached a small cul-de-sac and stopped: in front was Sanoat’s modest home. The entrance door led to a small kitchen and on to a larger carpet-lined living room. Sleeping mats were propped against the wall and dishes were piled up on the floor. As is common in traditional homes in Uzbekistan, the room hardly had any other furniture.
In the kitchen, Sanoat sat me down by a shaky wooden table and heated up leftovers of home-made lamb stew. A soft smile never seemed to leave her lips as she stood by the oven, stirring the meal. From time to time she would glance at me through her glasses and, meeting her eyes, I felt that her smile grew even larger, spreading across her face all the way to the edges of her colourful headwear. For a moment, I felt like the person in front of me wasn’t a stranger I’d just met on the street. It was more like visiting my grandmother – an experience which, having never really known, I imagined in the softest possible colours.
After lunch Sanoat cut up a watermelon and we sat at the table together, exchanging occasional words. Like many residents of Samarkand, Sanoat was an ethnic Tajik and knew Russian, if spoke it a little slowly for the lack of use. I noticed that she was limping and had stitches on her swollen right foot; seeing the question in my eyes, Sanoat smiled and said it was nothing. She then dug out a plastic bag from a corner of her resourceful kitchen and, filling it with dried fruit and nuts, handed it to me, “for the road”.
It was time to go. Passing by sheep munching on watermelon crusts in a small backyard adjacent to the house, Sanoat led me through streets I could never hope to navigate on my own. She pointed to a larger road, from where, she said, it was easy to find my way back to central Samarkand. We said our goodbyes, and Sanoat wrote down her phone number on a piece of paper I fished out of my backpack.
As I walked away, I cast a quick look back, almost terrified that I might find my kind host gone. But Sanoat hadn’t moved. Meeting my look, she smiled and waved.
‘Anya!’ I can still remember her farewell words to me. ‘Call me sometime!’
AKA FAIZULLO FROM BUKHARA
After spending my first morning in Bukhara sightseeing, I caught a taxi to Sitorai Mohi-Hosa. Located 6km north of Bukhara, Sitorai Mohi-Hosa was once the summer palace of Mohammed Alim Khan, the last emir of the Emirate of Bukhara. I don’t normally visit many architectural monuments, but it was an easy enough addition to my itinerary.
My driver introduced himself as Aka Faizullo (“aka” in its various permutations being a respectful title in much of Central Asia). Aged 63 and widowed several years ago, Aka Faizullo had since remarried. Thirty years his junior, his wife was, as he put carefully, “very fat”, had not married young and was left with no choice other than a retired widower. In addition to several adult children from his late wife, Aka Faizullo had a 3-year-old son from this recent marriage and was enjoying his newfound fatherhood. Smiling, he told me that his little boy refused to leave the kindergarten with anyone other than him.
Fascinated, I listened in: my companion’s story was frankly far more interesting than my own. Unfortunately, Sitorai Mohi-Hosa is not far from central Bukhara and we were soon nearly reaching our destination. I walked inside the summer palace, leaving Aka Faizullo waiting behind.
Bukhara was superb: this is one of my favourite sights in the old city, the Kalyan Mosque and Minaret
Imagine my utter surprise when I emerged, 40 minutes later, to find no sight of my elderly driver or his vehicle. I searched in vain around the busy parking area, asking other drivers if they had seen mine. They only shrugged phlegmatically: the consensus was that Aka Faizullo had found a better offer and drove away with another passenger – ditching me in the process.
Given that I hadn’t paid my driver anything yet, this scenario seemed strange. Perhaps he had estimated that I would take longer and picked up a quick job? I waited a little and, not seeing my companion return, caught a passing marshrutka back to town. Getting between Bukhara and Sitorai Mohi-Hosa is actually straightforward by public transport, but I had earlier succumbed to Aka Faizullo’s humble suggestions to drive me. I wondered what had happened to him and felt a little disappointed that, after telling me his life story, my companion might simply have abandoned me for a more lucrative deal.
Hours later I had finished exploring several other sights in Bukhara and, by then fairly tired, was making my way back to the hotel. Suddenly a car passing by in the other direction came screeching to a halt, reversed and caught up with me. A very worried looking Aka Faizullo got out and hurried towards me.
It turned out that the poor man’s turn in the petrol queue came when I was in the summer palace. Petrol being scarce in Uzbekistan, the queues to buy it are long and supplies are sporadic, forcing car owners to abandon everything for a chance to stock up on gas. Aka Faizullo had left a message for me with another driver – whom I had likely missed earlier – and, finding me gone on his return, searched in despair to apologise. He had spent three hours driving around where he thought he might find me, over and over again. It was definitely not something I expected from a near stranger. I felt harrowing remorse for jumping to the simplest – and wrong – conclusion earlier.
Perhaps not satisfied that he had done enough, Aka Faizullo insisted on picking me up the next morning and helping me arrange a shared taxi to Urgench. Before saying goodbye, I slipped a crumpled note in his wrinkly hand, a belated thank you for his honesty.
Visibly surprised to see it, the elderly man put his hand to his heart, the corners of his lips tilting upwards in a faint but distinct smile.
RASHID FROM MUYNAK
One of the reasons I travelled to Nukus was to see Muynak, formerly a glorious Aral Sea port and now reduced to a sleepy village tucked into the corner of a stretching desert. Having seen better days, Muynak was at the time served by a single minibus a day from Nukus, the nearest large enough city. Initially sceptical but finding the vehicle duly starting its engine at the advertised location in Nukus, I wondered if Muynak really was as difficult to reach as I had imagined.
But my trip was not off to a good start. The passengers were abruptly ordered off the bus, which then swiftly disappeared at the end of the street. Through all the commotion and furious discussions – mainly taking place in Uzbek – I finally found someone who spoke enough Russian to explain what was going on.
It turned out that our bus was needed for the major annual undertaking in Uzbekistan that is the harvesting of the cotton. Cotton dominates Uzbekistan’s exports and is an important source of hard currency – which means that, during the few weeks of early autumn, students get pulled off lectures, state employees from bank clerks to doctors abandon their posts – and humble municipal buses akin mine get rerouted.
Rolling my eyes in disbelief, I decided to persevere with the original plan. Figuring that I could catch a shared ride to the small settlement of Kungirot about half-way to Muynak – and worry about the other half later – I joined two older ladies in a crammed old car. Khalifa and Tamara spoke very little Russian – something I had already understood was normal in Karakalpakstan – but our mutual interest in each other kept the conversation flowing during the entire 1.5-hour journey. The ladies assured me that I would have no problems finding a ride on to Muynak.
‘Just ask for Rashid,’ one of them said cryptically before we parted ways in Kungirot.
And, amazingly, my first inquiry on “Rashid” at the crowded market area of Kungirot yielded a positive response. A stocky middle-aged man with a shaved head, Rashid made for a somewhat menacing figure even from a distance. Moderately scared, I almost tiptoed towards him and the cranky old minibus he was leaning against, obviously his vehicle of choice. In a trembling voice, I inquired whether he was going to Muynak any time soon. Looking me up and down, Rashid grumbled something along the affirmative lines and turned in the other direction.
I had put so much effort into getting this close that no grumpy driver was going to deter me. It was already almost midday, and I was determined to get to Muynak that day. Deciding that Rashid was my only option, I wandered about for an hour and, seeing the minibus slowly fill up, found a seat at the back – as far away as possible from the less-than-friendly driver.
During our ride, Rashid slowly started acknowledging my presence. Not without curiosity, he threw some questions to me in the back and, hearing I was a tourist from Riga, suddenly seemed satisfied. As we got closer to Muynak and some passengers got off, he motioned me to sit next to him in the front. My legs had by then gone almost numb – the minibus was stuffed to the brim with people and their possessions – and I gladly accepted the offer.
By the time we reached Muynak, Rashid had warmed up enough to offer to show me the humble sights of his home village. We drove up to the “shore” – indeed a misnomer as no water was anywhere in sight. All the way towards the horizon lay a desert patchily covered in green prickly bushes.
‘You know, thirty years ago you couldn’t sleep at night sometimes,’ Rashid said into space, as if not addressing me at all. ‘The sound of the surf was that loud.’
The ground plunged from where we were standing, and a staircase had been installed to descend to the former seabed. At the end of the stairs, several rusted carcases of fishing vessels were laid to rest on what is morbidly known as Muynak’s ship “cemetery”. Suddenly catching a glimpse of the ground beneath my feet, I spotted multiple small seashells – another reminder of the horrific environmental disaster the results of which we were witnessing.
Continuing along the mostly unpaved roads of Muynak, we stopped by one of the identical whitewashed houses in a quiet side street – Rashid’s home. He had earlier knocked on the building’s front window to pass on a quick message that he was coming back with a guest.
The rest of Rashid’s family – wife and five children, the youngest of which was only a few days old – had already eaten, and the two of us shared a meal together. Despite Rashid’s somewhat grumpy manner, including with the members of his own family, he gave an impression of a soft heart.
Before we parted, Rashid shook my hand.
‘Remember,’ he said, ‘there are good people in this world’.
NORBEK FROM TASHKENT
My acquaintance with Norbek was perhaps the greatest turn of fate on my entire trip – if not all of my travels. A middle-aged businessman, Norbek was staying in the same hotel in Nukus as I, and we got talking one morning at breakfast. Hearing I was heading to Muynak that day and flying to Tashkent the following evening, Norbek got visibly worried that I was undertaking all of this on my own. Failing to dissuade me from visiting Muynak, he offered to pick me up from the airport in Tashkent – his flight was a day earlier than mine – to take me to the hotel.
Normally I try to be extremely careful when strange men offer to meet me anywhere, in particular when that involves getting into their cars. But, having experienced plenty of kindness in Uzbekistan already and seeing that Norbek was genuinely concerned about my lack of company, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and agreed.
Landing late in Tashkent the next day, I was prepared not to find Norbek at the airport. Numerous doubts had by then creeped into my mind. The offer to meet me may have come purely out of politeness. Perhaps I should have graciously declined the request in the first place? Was I putting a gentleman in an uncomfortable position? I knew I could catch a taxi without any help and was feeling uneasy to inconvenience someone kind enough to offer assistance.
But, after an active day of sightseeing in Nukus, I could not help feeling relieved to see Norbek’s face in the arrivals crowd. He had kept his promise.
Approaching my hotel, I suddenly felt like something was amiss. All windows of the building were dark, which was unusual for 11pm. Getting closer, I noticed a barricade tape across the entrance.
My knock on the door, still within reach, was eventually answered by an alarmed looking caretaker. He only had a few words of explanation to offer. In a surreal development, the hotel had been cordoned off by police just hours before, all guests moved out and all bookings cancelled.
Shocked, I looked helplessly at Norbek. It was 11pm, my hotel was shut, I didn’t know other hotels in the area and had by then exceeded my self-imposed level of comfort alone with a stranger. Various theories emerged in my mind, including if the whole story had been some sort of a setup. But the address was clearly correct? I wasn’t sure what to say.
‘Please don’t hurt me,’ Was the first thing that came to my mind. ‘I am an only child.’
Norbek put a hand to heart. ‘For God’s sake, Anna,’ He said, calmly. ‘Let me take you to my daughter’s house.’
As I was furiously updating my then boyfriend (and now husband) about these unexpected developments over the phone, Norbek and I continued through Tashkent’s dark, empty streets. We reached a leafy neighbourhood and stopped in front of a massive house surrounded by a high fence. It was dark inside; tiptoeing towards the steps leading up, Norbek motioned me to follow him.
We reached a room with a car-shaped bed and toys scattered on the floor – which, Norbek told me in a whisper, belonged to one of his grandchildren. The child was now sleeping in his brother’s room next door, and the car-shaped bed had been prepared for me. I certainly had never slept in one before!
My awakening in these new surroundings the next morning was surreal. It took me a while to remember last night’s events and where I was. Walking downstairs, I was greeted by a woman around my age and a teenager who introduced themselves as Samira and Temur, Norbek’s children. Samira’s two young boys had already woken up and were shyly eyeing me from the breakfast table.
My attention turned to the house. I can honestly say that I had never stayed in a house this big before. It had multiple levels and countless rooms, including an enormous home cinema and a gym in the basement. My parents’ humble flat where I spent my younger years would probably fit into Samira’s living room alone. I was absolutely overwhelmed by this understated but obvious wealth.
Against my expectations, Samira and Temur seemed wonderfully down-to-earth. Over a lazy breakfast, we discussed everything from music preferences to human rights issues in Uzbekistan. Norbek arrived and it was decided that the men would take me on a tour of Tashkent before my flight later that afternoon.
Originally from Samarkand, Norbek was convinced that the best plov in Uzbekistan came from there. We drove to the family’s favourite restaurant for plov before stopping at a local food market. I bought kilos of local honey and dried fruit, but, similarly to my mother’s experience decades before, was not allowed to pay for anything. It was a parting gift from my kind hosts.
After many invitations to revisit Uzbekistan soon – and many promises to return from my side – I finally waved goodbye to Norbek and Temur at the airport. It seemed to be the common theme of this whole trip in Uzbekistan: waving goodbye to people who had gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.
Six years on, I fondly remember the four individuals described above. Some of them even continue to be a part of my life. In an amusing turn of fate, I found out recently that Temur went to university with an Uzbek colleague of mine, who randomly recognised him on one of my photos. What a small world we live in!
I have kept my promise to Sanoat and exchanged many a text message with her over the years. A few months ago, she finally got a free messaging app, and we now send each other photos and talk much more easily than before.
So many things, big and small, have changed since my first and so far only visit to Uzbekistan. Laughing on the phone the last time we spoke, Sanoat told me that I could never find her house in Samarkand now – not that I ever could, of course – as a new road has cut right through her street, forever altering the neighbourhood. Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan of many years, has been buried not far away from Sanoat’s house. She has sold the sheep I saw devouring watermelons in her sunlit backyard the day we met. And her grandchildren count has now more than doubled to seven – the number she had to think about and count out loud when I asked.
Six years ago, four people of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities had one thing in common: they shared unmatched hospitality towards a complete stranger, expecting nothing in return – just like my mother had many times narrated to me.
And, many years later, it is my turn to carry forward my mother’s memories.