Khiva Caveats, part II: Partially-Nude Semi-Transparent Thinly-Veiled Over-Priced Lunch
Besides the over-commercialization of Khiva, then there’s the problem of food. I’ve mostly been avoiding sit-down restaurant food in Uzbekistan, 1) because it looks pretty fatty, meaty and starchy, so not impressive; 2) it’s pretty much the same everywhere, with little variation, again not impressive; you’ve basically got variations on the theme of fat, meat and starch: somsa, manti, piroshki, palov, shashlik, shwarma. There are a couple soups that I haven’t tried, but who eats soup in this heat? And complaint 3) my main beef (pun) about Uzbekistan: dual-pricing, i.e. overcharging of foreigners. Over-charging is an old travelers’ complaint, of course, and is not limited to any one country or region of the world.
Some travelers are even oblivious to over-charging, or don’t care, or even hyper-correct for it politically,
figuring the over-exploited natives are justified in it. The locals’ attitude is often, ‘this is only a little money, and you’ve got a lot of money, so what’s the dif?’ (Yes, they really say that; I know enuf Russian and I know the drill). Still, it’s annoying, and leaves a bad taste, making the perpetrators look like sore losers with a chip on their shoulders. We prefer chips off the old block. I won’t even mention that it’s illegal in my home country and immoral anywhere else IMHO. They don’t know me.
I even make some allowance for Communist countries, in which citizens receive benefits in lieu of cash, and I should not expect those same benefits. Last I checked, though, the list of Communist countries is few and far between. In fact ex-communist countries are some of the most brutally capitalistic in the world, e.g. Russia, with the greatest percentage of billionaires in the world in its short twenty years of capitalist experimentation. Still, I’ve found Russians here to be very nice people, and that’s the best a tourist can do, really, is learn Russian language and try to pass as one.
Passing for Tajik or Uzbek would be almost impossible, of course, but Russian can be done; I feel it already. It’s not easy, but it can be done. That’s the best defense against abuse. You can protest if you feel you’re being overcharged, but there’s not much you can do when menus are few and prices are seldom listed. Best bet is to find a place that’s fair, and stick with them. It should also be noted that restaurants here are simply not cheap, either, though market-area ones should be.
Still, there’s another problem, related to the previous one of pricing—taxi drivers. I tended to avoid them scrupulously, in favor of mass transportation, until this month. But they can hardly be avoided here, since it’s the major form of cross-country transportation. The trip over from Bukhara to Khiva was fairly straightforward, by central Asian standards, but to me there’s just something bizarre about riding in a taxi for six hours through a desert. It sounds to me like somebody’s got too much spare change—or gasoline. Still, for thirty bucks, how can I complain? And I probably overpaid…
Thirty bucks in the US would get you a Greyhound from LA to Vegas, or maybe to Ensenada, Mexico, but it
wouldn’t get you to San Fran. Still it’s a runaround, and I don’t really like it. Cab prices are negotiable, and that’s a disadvantage to a traveler. I like fixed schedules, prices, and stations. Once in Urgench, then I have to do the whole thing again to Bukhara itself. Whatever thrill you may get from thinking, “Wow, man, I’m crossing a desert in a taxi!” for me is easily overshadowed by the thought that there really should be a better way. And there is.
So the first thing I do in Khiva, after finding my hostel, is find the train ticketing office. I love trains, and I don’t want to miss this opportunity, especially since a taxi ride all the way back to Tashkent would be (almost) unthinkable, with so many stages and hassles. The train to Tashkent on the 19th is full, but the 17th is available, so I’ll go to Samarkand, an easy shot to Tashkent, since my hostel there isn’t available until the 20th. That’ll give me a couple days in Samarkand, so cool, another stint with the Fur Cat (see previous).
So I take the train back to Samarkand, and it runs strictly on schedule, I’m here to tell you. It’s hard for me to sleep, but that’s nothing new. And you still have to deal with taxis on both ends of the trip, since nothing is centralized here. Still it feels good to be back in Samarkand—at first—where women dress like queens, and prices are more often marked. I’ll spend a couple days here, then back to Tashkent, Frankfurt, and LA.
For some reason, Samarkand doesn’t feel so much like home as it did before. Furkat brags about me being his best customer to all the other guests, and the mosques, minarets and madrassahs are here in the same proportions as elsewhere, but still it feels alien now, less natural. All the people eating ice cream and sunflower seeds seem corny. I could use some real street food… at night, not in the morning when I’m stuffed with breakfast anyway. I notice the over-charging here now, too, or maybe it’s getting worse every day. Then there are the money-changers. Don’t get me started on them. They’re worse than taxi drivers; short-changed me twice, in fact. Just keep them out of the temples. You know what happened last time.
Somehow I manage not to let it bother me…too much. There are too many nice things to appreciate, like the total physical safety, not something to ignore, and no Islamic fundamentalism. There are more he-jobs here than hijabs, more parkas than burqas. Then there’s the beauty of it all. This must be the wedding capital of Uzbekestan, or maybe all of Central Asia. But they seem silly now. I think people are getting married just for the parties! Why don’t they just open night-clubs? Bukhara at least had a couple of beer joints, and I can appreciate that, even if I didn’t go. If/when I come back, I’ll spend more time in Bukhara, in retrospect a nice middle ground between too-funky Khiva and too-neat Samarkand. They have radio stations there, too; gotta’ have some pop. Next and last stop will be Tashkent.