Backpacker Befriends Bukhara, Part 1

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Backpacking in Central Asia

“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.”
Shirley MacLaine.

My cell phone alarm rattled me awake just after dawn, interrupting dreams of Bukhara’s Silk Road glory. Yesterday I caught a glimpse of that past in the city’s mosques, madrassas, and minarets.

Today I wanted to get closer and feel the warmth of the Central Asian people.

I ended up hot and bothered instead. 

After a rushed breakfast at the guesthouse, I returned to Po-i-Kalyan for a few more photos of the major monuments in favorable morning light. Again there were few tourists around. An eerie silence permeated the immaculate mosaic walls, echoing the infinite possibilities of the day.

After wandering among the geometric buildings for a while, I put away my camera and headed out toward my next destination, Char Minar.

As I crossed a low, dusty hill outside a voice called out from behind, in English.

“Hey, hello!”

I assumed the voice was calling someone else. Someone who lived here, someone with ties. Not me, feeling unusually adrift since arriving in Uzbekistan.

“Hello! Good morning!” 

The voice persisted. There was no one else around. It was calling to no one but me.

Startled, I turned to find a handsome, smiling young man stomping up the hill behind me. I braced myself, unsure of what was next.

“Are you tourist? Where are you from?”

Why did he want to know? Did he want to sell me something? Did he plan to give me a lecture about U.S. foreign policy? Rob me? Still wary, I decided to answer honestly.

“Yes, I’m American.”

“That’s great! America is a great nation. What do you think of Uzbekistan?”

Another loaded question. I offered another honest but generic answer, avoiding unnecessary details that might get me in trouble. Wonderful, hot, beautiful, historic, amazing.

“Thank you, thank you. Where are you going now?”

His questions began to irritate me. What did this boy want? I wanted to get rid of him, but his rakish smile and chipper voice somehow pulled me in. But I was anxious to resume my sightseeing, and started to walk away.

“I’m off to see the minarets at Char Minar, so I’d better get going. Have a nice day!”

“Wait! If you want, I can show you around the city today.” 

My ears perked up. 

I had been feeling oddly detached since my lonely stint in Tashkent and wanted to see more of local life. This young man was offering me a tour. He could tell me about life in Bukhara while navigating to the remaining sights more quickly. It didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes. On the other hand, experience had made me wary of making friends on the road. Sooner or later, young men work up the confidence to ask the foreigner all their burning sex questions—

  • Do you have a girlfriend?
  • Do you like the local women?
  • Is it true any American woman will sleep with you if you ask?

Deflecting these questions and hiding my queerness in a homophobic country was an exhausting ordeal, so I avoided these situations like the plague.

But today? Was I willing to risk it for a tour and the chance to get to know Uzbekistan on up close and personal? 

Of course. 

“Sure, sounds great. Are you a tour guide?”

I tried to clarify the situation tactfully, pre-empting unexpected requests for money at the end of the day.

“No, I just love my city, and it’s good practice for my English.” 

Relieved, I smiled and outstretched my hand, which he grasped limply in typical Uzbek fashion. I searched his eyes, shining copper pools, for confirmation of my hunch. That he was in fact just a regular kid wanting to practice his English on a real, live American.

“I’m Theo.”

“Hasan, very nice to meet you.”

His smile, without a hint of malice, reassured me. 

“Before we go to Char Minar, did you see everything around here?”

I thought I had, but Hasan begged to differ. Flashing a sly grin, he popped into Taki Zargaron Mosque and headed for a quiet corner, beckoning for me to follow. What could possibly be of interest in this empty corner of the mosque grounds? My overactive imagination shifted into high gear once again.  

Stepping into a small covered gazebo Hassan pointed to a hole in the ground.

“What is this?”

The holy well in Bukhara.

The holy well (or ancient toilet) in Bukhara.

It looked like an ordinary water well, and I told him so, incredulous.

“It is an ancient toilet! Hundreds of years old. Take a picture!”

Hasan doubled over, laughing hysterically. I shook my head with a sarcastic harumph, took the picture as directed, and chuckled. Then Hasan straightened, trying to act serious again.

“I’m joking, it’s not a toilet. This well is holy. Drink some water for blessing.”

Public water sources, holy or not, are problematic. Later that night I would change my mind, but in the heat of the moment I decided I couldn’t leave Bukhara without this blessing, and my stomach could take the risk. Hasan fished some clear water with a tin ladle and held it to my lips. I took just a tiny sip, hedging my bets.

Hasan beamed, proud of his little joke. 

As we walked, Hasan told me more about himself. 22 years old, just returned from military service on the Kyrgyzstan border, studying English, planning to work in the tourism industry in Bukhara. I listened attentively, punctuating my silence with grunts of approval or one-note chuckles. I couldn’t reveal many details about my work (former government contractor) or my personal life (G-A-Y), leaving little to talk about, so it was best to just let him ramble, which at any rate seemed to suit us both.

Hasan also confessed his fervent devotion to American rap music, which would soon became a source of amusement and anxiety for me. 

“You know Eminem? Man, his songs, so COOL!” 

Without warning he pushed play on the MP3 player in his pocket, shoved an earbud in my ear, another in his, and burst into a wild staccato refrain, reciting Eminem’s lyrics without missing a beat:

My brain’s dead weight
I’m trying to get my head straight
But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate.

Hi, my name is, what? My name is, who?
My name is, chka-chka Slim Shady.

Be careful what you wish for, I thought.

This wasn’t quite what I had in mind by music, magic or flavor. It felt more like stumbling into the worst nightmare I didn’t even know I had. At the time Eminem was taking a beating in the U.S. media for his homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. If this was Hasan’s idol, I might be in for an aggravating afternoon. Still I resolved to remain calm, listening and applauding his impressive grasp of American slang. 

Looking back I can see a touch of Beat in this strange character. Was Hasan’s obsession with rap any different from Kerouac’s obsession with jazz? Both represented a desire to break free from the strictures of a deeply conservative society—Kerouac in post-WW2 America, Hasan in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

Despite my anxiety, I was secretly excited to find my new, unusual Beat friend. 

Char Minar

The Char Minar (“four minaret”) Mosque in Bukhara.

The four towering minarets of Char Minar Mosque appeared out of nowhere on a quiet backstreet of Lyabi-Hauz. This mosque was rustic, with only a few streams of royal blue tiles dotting the towers up to each of four turquoise caps. The mosque was built by a rich Turkmen resident of Bukhara relatively recently, 1807 AD, and the small dome between its four towers was supposed to create the perfect acoustics for Sufi dhikr ceremonies, in which mystics chant the name of Allah in unison until entering a spiritual trance.

We sat on a nearby bench to contemplate its beauty. Distracted by the presence of my Uzbek homie, however, I struggled to concentrate on the significance of the site.

Squinting toward the sky, I spotted a single white dove, gliding and diving among the minarets. Hasan momentarily ceased reciting his Eminem’s raps, and the moment was full with mystic meaning.

The good omen helped ease my anxiety. 

From here Hasan led me back past the familiar madrassa complex toward a monument known as “the Ark,” a massive fortress built in the 5th century AD. The fortress had in fact been built, destroyed, and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries, until the Soviets finally bombed it in the 1920 invasion.

The Ark

“The Ark” – ancient palace and prison – of Bukhara

Skinny logs jutted out of the smooth brick-laden walls like toothpicks. A few children sat on the steps or played in the shadows of the mighty fortress.

“Centuries ago, the emirs and royal courts lived here. It also had a prison,” said Hasan.

I tried to imagine what life had been like inside the Ark’s walls.

  • The opulence of the royal court,
  • the squalor of the dungeons,
  • the screaming and wailing each time Bukhara’s besieged residents sought refuge in the seemingly impenetrable walls, tall, thick and sloping around seven focal points in the shape of Ursa Major.

While I admired the site, Hasan mumbled Eminem lyrics under his breath, one earbud in, one earbud dangling.

Ark Entrance

The entrance to the Ark fortress in Bukhara.

Swinging around the massive structure we found the entrance, walked around inside, and admired the few remaining traces of the Ark’s palatial past. Hasan followed absent-mindedly, still rapping to himself in whispers.

Arches in the Ark.

Arches of the royal court inside the Ark of Bukhara.

After this, I only needed to see the mausoleums, shrines and museums in Samani Park, half a mile down the street. I asked Hasan if we could go there next. At this rate, I could finish my major sightseeing, bid farewell to my Eminem-quoting friend, and relax after a leisurely lunch. But Hasan had other plans.

“Listen, it’s too hot to go to Samani Park now. No shade. I have an idea.”

He proposed we pick up some snacks at the market, then go swimming with his friends at a nearby public pool. After a rest in my hotel, we would swing by Samani Park then hit up a local hangout he called “Semurgh”—the Persian word for Phoenix.

Just as I’d hoped, this was my chance to peek into the people’s lives, to experience the colors and sounds of Uzbek life through their eyes, away from the carefully curated tourist trails. Was it worth enduring the endless onslaught of Eminem lyrics the rest of the day?

Of course.

We hopped in a taxi and got off at a small, covered open-air market. It was quiet, the morning rush over, but a handful of sellers sat in the stifling heat, waiving away flies from their produce. The fruits in particular were amazing.

Huge cross-sections of juicy watermelon, pyramid stacks of ruby-red pomegranates, and reed baskets of fresh figs competed for our attention.

“Do you like this fruit? What’s it called in English?”


Delicious figs from Bukhara.

He pointed to a pile of figs on a table. Figs, I said, and sure, I like them.

“Try this.”

He lifted a blackish purple fig to my lips.

I obeyed.

A pungent, unfamiliar sweetness filled the inside of my dry mouth. I savored the revelation, swished the tiny seeds to and fro with my tongue. I had never tasted a fresh fig before, only dried ones, and this was a completely different experience.

My delight must have been obvious, as Hasan and the fig seller both smiled knowingly.

“Uzbekistan has the best fruit in Asia!”

I believed him. I bought a bag of figs and a round loaf of Uzbek bread, which we shared.

Aside from spontaneous rapping fits, things were going amazingly well. So I felt a pang of disappointment when Hasan’s chatter took on a dreaded, familiar tone as we walked to the public pool.

“At the pool, ladies don’t swim, for modesty. Fucking religion. We want to see bikinis, right?! Oh well, Uzbek girls are pretty anyway. You’ll see.”

He told me about the legendary beauty of Uzbek girls, how it was next to impossible to date one since fathers kept a close eye on their daughters, how it was easier to score with Russian chicks.

The scenario was familiar, uncomfortable. I’d endured it almost daily living in Bangladesh, another sexually repressed Muslim country. I listened and nodded as best I could, feigning interest and knowledge of women far beyond my experience.

Despite the turn of our conversation, Hasan’s antics made him somehow endearing, and I felt increasingly attracted to him. I repeatedly searched his face for signs of something that was obviously not there. I suppressed my impulse to test the waters with a casual comment or a brush of the hand. I was certain he was straight, but couldn’t help but daydream.

How much longer could I keep this up?

Five of his friends were waiting outside the entrance to the pool when we arrived, greeted me warmly with the usual limp handshake and white-toothed smiles. Each young Uzbek was more handsome than the next.

I suddenly realized swimming was an awkward choice in such company. The locker room, the cool water, the bare, sun-tanned bodies—none of these was conducive to “playing straight” for the day.

I took a deep breath, paid the entrance fee, and entered the revolving doors.

My new-found friends and I changed into bathing suites in a row of individual booths, then found a spot to sit by the pool. Hasan straggled, greeting people young and old along the way. He was apparently quite popular around town.

Families and small groups of friends gathered around plastic tables under large umbrellas, chatting and sharing fresh watermelon juice and soft drinks. Women in floral mumus and kerchiefs watched as children and young men swam in a rectangular pool, filled with water so green you could not see the bottom.

Again I considered my risks, decided that:

  1. I had just one life to live,
  2. I needed to cool off, and
  3. I didn’t want to disappoint my handsome new companions.

I cannonballed into the emerald water, while Hasan and his friends cheered. Despite the disconcerting color, the cool water was a welcome respite from the relentless desert heat. The other boys joked, laughed, and compared muscles. With no Uzbek jokes or impressive muscles to offer, I just smiled and basked in their radiant, carefree company. 

As we chatted, I recognized a number of Persian words in the boys’ speech. I spoke up, and was surprised to find they understood my Farsi quite well. Apparently many Bukharan’s first language was Tajik—not Uzbek—though mixing the two with Russian often made the local dialect difficult to recognize. I was ecstatic about my newfound ability to communicate, since only Hasan spoke English among them.

Despite being trapped in my makeshift closet, I felt refreshingly free at this very moment. 

I was trying things I had never tried before, meeting people I would never normally meet, and I could see that my intuition was right. Hasan was a nice guy, and Uzbekistan was the most underrated backpacking destination in Asia.

After an hour or so the sun’s rays acquired a renewed intensity, and we decided to pack up.

Limp handshakes, smiles and promises to meet up again that evening. 

Hasan dutifully guided me back to my hotel to rest.

“Did you see that girl at the pool? Man, those boobs! I used to date her, secretly, but we had to stop, her father became suspicious.”

Suspending my discomfort I tried to use this conversation to learn something about the local culture.

“So you stopped seeing her? Just like that?”

“Yeah, man, it’s too risky. Nothing you can do.”

His reaction was impressively sensible. He didn’t seem upset or bitter.

Relationships broken up by watchful conservative parents were just a fact of life for Bukharan youth, as in so many places.

I thought for a second that maybe Hasan, despite his bewildering (to me) attachment to hardcore American rap music, was more level-headed than I thought.

But as we approached my hotel, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“Yeah, dating is hard. I just wanna fuck! Rent a room with some friends, get a bunch of sluts and fuck all night long. A crazy orgy! Yeah! That’d be cool.”

This kid was way more “Beat” than I’d bargained for. 

For the first time since he’d greeted me this morning, I questioned the wisdom of joining up with my roguish tour guide. I’m no prude when it comes to sex, but I was pretty sure that if the mullahs and fathers of Bukhara didn’t approve of dating, they probably wouldn’t approve of such Bacchanalian behavior.

My mind raced.

  • Was Hasan just mouthing off to impress me?
  • Or was this something he had really done or planned to do?
  • Would I attract unwanted attention by hanging out with him?
  • How should I deal with his misogynistic, hypersexual objectification of women?
  • Just agree and hope he was just joking?
  • Scold him for being a chauvinist pig?

Instead, I just chuckled mutedly, shook his hand, and arranged to meet him again around 6.

Flat again on my large guesthouse bed, I had almost written off Hasan’s comment as a silly teenage fantasy, when a critical piece of the story suddenly floated to the top of my mind.

He said he wanted to do it with his friends. In the same room. Together.

Was Hasan bisexual? 

The possibility was next to zilch, I knew such Western labels didn’t apply in countries like Uzbekistan, but I was intrigued nonetheless. The desert heat, the isolation of backpacking alone, the exotic mystery of Bukhara, they all were getting to me.

I was hot and bothered. 

Racked by these thoughts and unable to sleep, I replayed Hasan’s fantasy in my head, feeling vaguely ashamed.

Who was the chauvinist pig now? 

Later that day, I would find out.

To be continued…

June 25, 2008.

Have ever had a weird social experience abroad? What happened, how did you react? Share your stories in the comments below!

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