We stocked up, finished our drinks and looked around for a bin. Two really old guys sitting outside the shop gestured for us to just drop it onto the dusty ground. After refusing, the boy running the shop offered to take them from us, walked 20m and promptly chucked them in the ditch beside the road. That’s how garbage is taken care of in Uzbekistan.
The reason now escapes me, but Nick wanted to arrive in Samarkand that night, likely our last city in Uzbekistan, and I really didn’t feel motivated to cover the distance. So we agreed to split up and meet the following day. I’m still not really sure what he got up to that day, but I had some adventure.
As Nick cycled over the horizon, I trundled along, still with food poisoning (day 8). The scenery by now was the most exotic I had seen in weeks, as the crumbs from the mammoth mountains of nearby Tajikistan were rolling onto the desert. There wasn’t too much traffic and the road surface improved from what looked like bomb craters to something approaching smooth, and so I could cover distance a little more easily. Still tired though, I took some shelter from the midday heat under a spindly tree near a village, and gobbled down some more plain pasta. The leaves of the tree were rather thinned out and sunlight was glittering over random parts of my body as I lay on the dust, using a pannier bag as a pillow. I fell asleep, and when I woke, a man approached me, who was in all likelihood the only person walking past that day. I was quite happy to talk to him, because unlike many here, he made an effort to bridge the language barrier to understand what I was saying. He pointed at my ukulele and I played a couple of songs for him, probably to his disappointment from my lack of skill. Even so, this ukulele allows me to cradle what is left of my musical spirit on the road.
Before leaving, I asked him if there was somewhere nearby where I could get something to eat, and have a proper nap, like a Chaihana. He knew a place and so we walked together down the road, me pushing my bicycle between us and him looking less out of place in the hot sun. It’s actually quite amazing how far a few words and gestures can take you. As we scuffed our feet, he was surprised that I was so old (29) and still not married and without children. I must be such a failure to a typical Uzbek.
The place he took me to was far from special, a big old building, but at least I could sleep inside. Despite the huge vibrant sign outside plastered with all kinds of brilliant food, the menu was thin. The guy running the place took me into the kitchen in the back so he could better show me what he had: Manti (meat dumplings), Shashlik (skewers of meat, owing to their Turkish history) or soup (which had chunks of meat in). I opted for the soup. Then fell asleep again.
It was mid-afternoon and pretty hot. I felt like I woke up in a different place. The inside was the same except it was now completely empty and someone had moved the freezer, which was full of ice-lollies, in front of the door so nobody could come in. But peering out the window, what was once an empty car park was rammed with cars. People were everywhere, well-dressed, men, women, kids, chattering away. A big group had surrounded my bicycle, possibly wondering why it was here, and to whom it belonged, pointing at the chain then at the pannier bags. Still a bit groggy, I clambered around the freezer to be greeted by several curious people. They looked me up and down, shook my hand and told me “Velcome to Uzbekistan”, in a slightly Russian twang, as if I’d just arrived. Many people were going up the winding outdoor staircase, and I hadn’t noticed that there was some serious techno coming from that direction. What was going on? More people were still arriving, and a friendly man said I should go upstairs to take photos. I didn’t want to feel like I was intruding, but another man took me by the hand and guided me through people up the stairs.
The place was huge, and packed full. It was a sort of grand hall, with a high, fancy ceiling and a stage to one side. There was a red carpeted section of floor, tens of tables adorned with all kinds of food and drink, neatly decorated and surrounded in some manner, either seated or dancing, with about 500 people. I was taken through a mob of dancers, mainly women in floral dresses, singing and clapping, and sat down at the end of one of many long tables, all men with Muslim topis on. I realised at this point that all the tables on the left were of men only, and the right of women only. Arrangements were made to ensure I was well accommodated, as I was purposefully introduced to the man next to me who could understand a few words of English. There were all kinds of food: watermelon, grapes, yoghurt, beef, chicken, roast potatoes. Because of my late arrival to the table, a few men said some words of prayer and then we had to make a typical Uzbek gesture which resembles washing your face. All this was done to the soundtrack of Uzbek electronic-dance music and chanting women. I was of course getting some funny looks, being obviously foreign, but I was made to feel welcome too, with plenty of smiles. Then came the vodka. Despite my insistent refusal, a large shot glass was placed in front of me full, we cheersed, and down it went. It’s customary to drink it all in one. Plates of food appeared in front of me, gathered from the vast table assortment. “Eat, eat,” everyone ushered me. And the vodka magically reappeared in my glass after every shot. Everyone was pretty tipsy.
It was hard not to notice the film crew too. One guy was enthusiastically filming all the celebration on a camera raised on a huge boom stand double the size of an elephant, swinging it around in technical miracle much like you would expect at a high-profile concert. It felt a party more fitting for the night. There was a woman dancing around the tables, who was dressed somewhat more flamboyantly than the rest, and had a huge stack of 1,000Som notes in her right hand, twisting the bills fancifully whilst she danced. Even though the quantity of notes was huge, the total value couldn’t have been more than $5 given that a single note is equivalent to about $0.12. Eventually she worked her way round to our table, and the man next to me discretely passed me a bill underneath to give her. I found the whole thing rather odd, but by now the quantity of vodka had exceeded sensible limits anyway, so I didn’t care. This type of Islam is so different from the others I know. When the Russians invaded they must have spilt vodka all over the Koran.
It came to a point where I thought I should ask who the bride of this wedding was. And through gestures alone I managed to get across “Ring, women, where?” And the man next to me quickly said “No no no no,” and gestured a tiny little penis being chopped by his finger scissors. Some kind of circumcision party? Well there was no time for more chitchat. In that moment, I was dragged unexpectedly from my seat onto a small stage. I was making a speech. The music was cut and just a murmur and clangour of cutlery remained. I was standing in front of 500 people, with a microphone in my hand, still wondering where I really was, and there was a huge camera in my face.
“Can you speak Rashan?” someone asked quietly.
“Nope,” I replied. “Can you translate?”
Then there was a really long silence. All I could think about was the peculiar situation I was now faced with. Thankfully, I was just about drunk enough not to care. And finally, whilst trying not to look surprised I said…
It was the anticlimax of the day. The lads found this incredibly hilarious, and I was reintroduced to my table with a hard slap on the back and a lot of laughter. In hindsight a couple of Asalam Alukums and a rachmat here and there would have been enough to appease the audience. I could have even spoken about the pros and cons of hydraulic disk brakes, or an orgy featuring Santa Clause, and they still would have clapped and cheered. Nobody would have known any better. Never mind. I’ll always get to redeem myself the next time I’m in a remote Uzbek village and invited to a penis party.
I still think of that day fondly. I take comfort that even though I’m probably on a video somewhere making a silent speech that I’ll probably never see any of them again. Maybe I was the talk on social media for a day.
As I went to sleep that night on a lovely plane of desert sand, I laughed, imagining myself working up a crowd to frivolous chants of “Uz-be-ki-stan! Uz-be-ki-stan…” fist-pumping the air. But alas.
I discovered that the colourful randomness of travelling is only amplified by choosing to cover ground on a bicycle. That’s the beauty of this way. It takes you to little-known places where other travellers don’t venture. And even though Nick and I rode the same path, we both surely had quite a different tale to tell. All our journeys are unique, no matter if you are following in someone else’s tracks only a few hours apart. I can’t wait for the next day I make my grand speech to a hall full of strangers.