Six Days in Bukhara
The babushka looks at me with derision this morning. That’s nothing new. She looks at me with derision every morning, up and down, lingering on my shoes, sending me a discreet message. Or so I imagine. What? Are holey kung fu shoes not ‘in fashion’ this morning? Are they not the ‘next big thing?’ Cut me some slack. I’ll make up for it a little later. That’s when I’ll flash the big bad hiking boots for public consumption. That always wows ‘em down at the marketplace, where souls go for social intercourse, and basic ground provisions.
The babushka seems dissatisfied with her place in life, as if she thought the revolution would bring instant wealth, as if you could just add water, beat lightly, then allow to settle. She probably berates her moosh every day, for what he fails to provide. I’ve never seen her smile. She probably never wanted the hotel on this side of town, anyway; location location location, remember? She certainly didn’t want to list the place on a hostel-booking site, I’ll bet. Doesn’t the moosh know that hostels only bring in the lowliest of backpackers? She imagined there’d be elegant foreigners, sharing their lives of wealth and fame! What a crock!
This place is nice enough to be a good deal for a backpacker, but not nice enough to bring in the tour buses. Maybe they should take credit cards. Everybody wants top dollar, but nobody wants to take credit cards, and this in a nation without ATM’s. Do the math. But the WiFi works most of the time, even in my room, so I see an opportunity to catch up on some work. I’ve even got air conditioning AND a hot tub bath; this could seriously destroy my street cred. I’ll have Hell to pay if the babushka catches me pocketing a hard-boiled egg, though; and Hell just raised its rates, I think.
The irony, of course, is that while I refer to her as the ‘old lady’, she is, in fact, probably young enough to be my daughter. She’s just trying to be ‘adult’, whatever that means. Now the patriarch of the hostel in Tashkent was old, doddering around half-way hunch-backed, with a hang-dog look, and full of mock seriousness. He wiped the table with the expertness of a squeegee engineer on the exit ramp of I-10. Actually he’s a former Soviet soldier and university professor, full of info on Uzbek history. “Too old now,” he says when asked why he’s not still there. He’s five years younger than I am; good laugh there.
The trip down here from Samarkand was typical commie BS, runaround from the makeshift bus terminal there to the makeshift terminal here. The problem of everyone taking ‘shared taxis’ is that an efficient bus system never really develops. Somehow taking a taxi drive of half a day just seems weird to me, though I’ve done it before from Damascus to Amman, Jordan. Serious tourists are recommended to take the train here. Then the Russian taxi driver doesn’t know where my hotel is, so just drops me off on the edge of old town.
It took me two hours to find the hotel, way on the back side of old town, ironically one of the few places where a taxi actually could go, so I revoke my forgiveness earlier granted when I assumed he couldn’t enter the warren-like old town rookery. At least it IS a real old town, though, not just a generic designation like Samarkand. This is a qualitative difference, like a combination of Taos pueblo and the souk in Tangier, or God forbid, old Sana’a, Yemen. You could get lost in there.
When I found the market, though, seems I scored with this place, since it’s equidistant to the tourist central hangouts and the market, a good mile between the two, maybe more. After a couple days of tourist sights, the market becomes my main destination. It’s funny how one of the travel guides and their ‘local experts’ deride the commercialism of Samarkand vis a vis Bukhara, when the latter is actually more the tourist rip-off, gouging and overcharging, easy to do when prices aren’t marked, prices double what they’d be in the market. The tourist places have good coffee here, but at prices higher than anywhere in Europe, except maybe Zurich. I’ll practice Russian in the market. The tourist people just ignore my bad Russian and answer me in bad English.
After several days I even find a market in the old town, too, but it’s totally different, and maybe a direct link to the past, what with its more crafty orientation, furniture section and carpet department and even a handmade jewelry department, which seems to be the exclusive domain of women. That’ll cut out the middle-man, I guess. I sense a conspiracy. Where’s the Taliban when you need them? Nothing else is handmade, except in the tourist shops. The huge carpets are obviously machine-made and furniture looks like generic Third World modern. Everyone is spitting in this market. Oh, I get it! This is the Chinese side of town…
The tourist scene is okay, though, a pretty mellow scene around a central pool, that is pretty lively at night, with restaurants and music and people hanging out. The shops are interesting, too, with a lot more crafts than Samarkand, and carpets everywhere, including some antiques. I would be interested if I didn’t have to carry them away with me. There is even quite a bit of tie-dye ikat weaving, and something called suzani. Now the culture vulture in me imagines some French lady named Suzanne coming through a generation or two ago and starting a whole new ‘tradition’. It’d be interesting to know. The locals are friendly here, too, if a bit more jaded than in Samarkand. The Russian presence seems more obvious here.
It’s hard to know what to speak here, though. I’d almost given up on Russian, but seems it has more currency in the market than the tourist areas, and ethnic Russians are even anxious to chat you up there. So when a lady engaged me in a Russian language session I decided to give it my best shot. Considering I’ve only studied two weeks, I guess I did okay. If I got it right: it seems she’s thirty-eight, I’m fifty-nine, and she wants to have my babies. One will be male and a lawyer. The other will be female and marry a doctor. He can take care of me when I’m old, and the lawyer can handle the visa problems I’ll be having soon. Or something like that. I’m sure I’m mashing up some details, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it? I’ll send her an e-mail and make sure she knows we’re just friends. Wait a minute. There’s a knock on the door. Next stop Khiva…