A Lonely Fool and a Mirage in Tashkent

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Backpacking in Central Asia

“Our knowledge is a receding mirage in an expanding desert of ignorance.”
Will Durant.  

Blinding light and stifling heat pushed against the curtains of the tall French doors.

I awoke with a start. 

Dazed from jetlag, I headed to the courtyard to fuel up for the first day of my journey, excited yet anxious. Despite traveling frequently for over ten years, I suddenly felt like, I didn’t know how to do this. Before I’d always had structure, objectives. Exchange student, summer intern, Peace Corps volunteer, tourist-friend, hired consultant, guide-to-family-member. Travel by numbers. Start here, go there, do this, eat that, photograph this, drink that. Move move snap move pause move pause sleep post send gloat forget.

I’d traveled far, but always with a group, with friends, with family.

I’d never just allowed myself to wander.

Now, for the first time in my life, I was literally running the show with no template to follow.

I was afraid and confused.

Downstairs Gulnara greeted me warmly. “How do like your eggs? Tea or coffee?” I took the path of least resistance—egg fried, tea green.

Gasping for structure like oxygen, I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet and confirmed my plans. I had just one full day in Tashkent. Soviet modernization in 1917 and a major earthquake in 1966 destroyed most remnants of Tashkent’s Silk Road past (my main interest on this journey), so budgeting more time seemed like a waste.

Still, I had to make my only day count. I settled on a modest itinerary:

  • Explore the nearby Chorsu Market in the morning.
  • Have lunch at a “home restaurant” in Chigatay neighborhood to sample Uzbek cooking at its best.
  • Ride the metro downtown, admiring the fabulous underground art along the way.
  • Check out the Opera, History Museum, and other important landmarks.

Soon Gulnara brought out an ornamental plastic tray with my breakfast—flatbread with jam, cheese, eggs, and tea. Still starving from the long trip, I devoured it greedily, then paused to breathe. Sated, I noticed a craving for company, an anesthetic for my solitude.  Maybe another traveler would be willing to explore the capital together? I checked out the handful of other guests in the courtyard.

  • A beleaguered Brit was peppering Gulnara with questions about buses and trains, which she answered as best she could and with remarkable grace.
  • A middle-aged French couple stared glumly past one another’s shoulders, punctuating the silence with “pfff” and “et alors?”

When I set out on this solo backpacking adventure, I’d imagined striking up lively conversations with other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed twenty-somethings in cheap, colorful hostels.

That’s what backpackers are supposed to do, right?

The people in front of me, however, seemed disenchanted and stressed out, utterly disinclined to chit-chat.

In a pathetic sort of way, this suited me.

As a die-hard introvert, I was secretly terrified of talking to total strangers.

I was also a little disappointed. I wanted to overcome my fear, and these uptight travelers weren’t helping at all. I momentarily turned my back on myself, wished I were one of those ebullient, likeable guys who can effortlessly chat up anybody.

Oh well. Not today.

No viable travel buddies in sight, I worked up the courage to head out.

Alone.

“Everyone is isolated from everyone else. The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation. A fiction that serves as an anesthetic.”
Paul Bowles


The blinding sun and dusty streets greeted me indifferently as I stepped out the wooden gate of the guesthouse. Glancing one last time at my Lonely Planet map, I memorized all the streets and turns on my path. I hate using maps in public. Either you look like a “stupid tourist,” or worse, become a target for crime. Even the simple act of navigating made me feel self-conscious and vulnerable. I stuffed the book into my bag and marched toward Chorsu Market.

Taxis, hawkers, and porters swarmed outside the massive turquoise-domed complex. Inside, a plethora of stalls sold just about any kind of fruit, animal, or trinket you could imagine, in the middle of “nowhere.”

I strolled through the aisles, admiring the myriad goods.

  • The scent of colorful spices wafted from a row of plastic bins.
  • Random cuts of mutton—some recognizable, some not—were spread out on a plastic-covered table.
  • An entire row of women called out in guttural voices, selling the same round flatbread.
  • Huge piles of plump crimson cherries made my mouth water.

Despite the flurry of activity, the bazaar was admittedly much less chaotic than others I’d visited in places like Bangladesh or India. I bought a few cherries from the fruit seller making the least amount of noise, sweet-tart juice bursting in my mouth.

I remembered the market scene in “The Silence” when blind Khorshid becomes distracted by a bewitching melody from a young stranger’s Walkman,

“You never ask me
how I’m feeling.”

until his friend Nadereh has the good sense to follow her ears and find him next to a tapchan, playing a haunting Sufi song:

“Don’t go astray, don’t go astray,
The pilgrim and the dwelling are both me,
The trap and the bait are also me,
The wise man and the fool are both me.”

Chorsu wasn’t quite as charming as the market in the film, but close enough.

I think what was missing was the velvety male voice, stringy lute melody mystic, Sufi hymn soundtrack pulling me up—and down—the aisles,

“The master is me,
The enchained main is also me,
The master of destiny is me.
Don’t go astray, don’t go astray.”

Instead, a course, raw impulse toward knowledge was propelling me, dizzy, moving swiftly through sights and sounds and tastes like items on a verification checklist.

Leaving the main dome I floated toward an outdoor section of handicrafts. Felt hats, steel knives, and embroidered coats assaulted my field of vision. I coveted these items—everyday objects for Uzbeks, beautiful and exotic to me. I reached for the money belt deep inside my khaki pants, then changed my mind. I wasn’t looking to blow my wad or weigh down my backpack with souvenirs on the first day.

Besides, I didn’t come here to collect “stuff,” I came for “the experience…”

…Surely they sold the same stuff in Bishkek?

After about half an hour I became bored with looking, not buying, and shuffled toward the exit.

Outside, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed what appeared to be a beautiful mosque, about half a mile away. The Lonely Planet hadn’t mentioned anything about a nearby mosque. Momentarily I abandoned my checklist and followed my senses up the sloping hill. 

The closer I got to the building, the further I felt from God. It appeared to be not a mosque, but some kind high-end shopping mall,

a kind of post-modern mirage.

I would have swallowed a gulp of bitter irony, but I dehydrated with no saliva to swallow.

Undeterred, I swung down the road following another blue dome, this one clearly marked: Circus. But the building was closed, so I admired it from afar. Faded vinyl banners advertised the arrival of the latest lion, the newest clown.

The early morning sun seemed to absolve these farsical places of their sins.

Chasing mirages left me feeling peckish, so I decided to see what was edible in Chigatay. As I rounded the corner to Akademik Sadikov street, an eerie silence took root. No one seemed to be around. There were literally no restaurants open, no wafting aromas of anything. What had happened to this affordable gastronomic paradise so praised by the Lonely Planet guide?

Dust blew past me on the narrow residential street.

I paused to consider just how hungry I was.

I was hot.

Sweating profusely, I decided to take refuge in the metro, swinging back up the street toward Gafur Gulom station.

Subways in the U.S. were usually dark, damp, dirty, and riddled with delays. Japan’s public transit was clean and hyper-efficient, but either depressingly sparse or heavily commercialized. Soulless tunnels of rotted modernity, all.

Tashkent’s metro was a swift, impeccable museum.

I bought a blue plastic token (140 som then, 600 som today), the train arrived quickly. A few passengers got down, I got on, and we were off. Everyone was quiet and mild mannered aboard the spotlessly clean and brightly lit train.

Cheap, clean, efficient, orderly—just a few benefits of an authoritarian regime.  

The main feature of Tashkent’s metro, however, are the sublimely decorated station platforms, each with its own particular theme designed by famous Uzbek architects and artists.

Station by station, stop by stop,
my jaw fell further to the floor.

  • Gafur Gulom was decadent in silky green copper pillars and limestone bricks.
  • Alisher Navoiy was somewhat serious, geometric mulitigonal arches and stars in pink and beige marble.
  • Ozbekiston was dignified in white marble  and turquoise swirl flourishes under large, globous lamps.
  • Kosmonavtlar had a peculiar chess-meets-Snake-like tile floor, under vigil of past Uzbek cosmonaut angels from brooding iconography circles
  • Oybek was classic and serious, celebrating the somber works of a famous Uzbek writer.

I returned to Kosmonavtlar and got down to admire the artwork up close. Perched on a bench in the middle of the platform, I craned my neck, awestruck by the beatific spaceman portraits. The detailed craftmanship was incredible and engaging, like a bad but gripping 1970s sci-fi flick.

My left hand squeezed the outline of my camera, tucked into the bottom of my daypack. Looking around furtively I saw no trace of policemen, but dropped my hand anyway. Photography is illegal in the Tashkent metro, which is considered a military installation. Failure to comply could result in harassment, or even arrest.

Jail was not on my first day’s itinerary.

I surfaced at Kosmonavtlar station, the sun was still beating down relentlessly. I walked up the main avenue to see the buildings downtown.

I took a few snaps at the Alisher Navoi Opera building, and walked over to the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan. A guard managed to communicate to me in Russian that it was closed for the rest of the day. He tried to explain why; I didn’t understand. Down the broad steps I lumbered back into the sun.

I felt vaguely disappointed.

Immaculate metro aside, Tashkent had turned out to be just another unfriendly Soviet city of broad avenues and large, soulless box-buildings.

The exact opposite of a backpacker’s urban paradise.

The streets were practically deserted. There were few signs of commerce, even fewer tourists. Was it a holiday? It was nearly 4 PM. I remembered the Rudyard Kipling quip:

“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon-day sun.”

and began to feel self-conscious again. Turning away I picked up pace, trying to look like I had somewhere to go, then suddenly stopped in my tracks.

Don’t be ridiculous.

The day was clearly over in Tashkent, and it was

time to stop chasing mirages.

Exhausted, I rode the marvelous metro back to Chorsu.


Hunger pangs stirred me from a brief nap. Almost 7 PM. I decided to give one more go at the home restaurants in Chigatay. I stepped through the wooden gate and into the dark, menacing night once more.

A few blocks away, bubbling caldrons and scraping utensils echoed up and down a narrow, dimly lit street. Children giggled and stared at me from dusty corners and behind cracked wooden doors. Small groups of men in doppas followed me suspiciously with their eyes. Some were flushed beet red, cradling a Sarbast beer.

I walked up and down the street, surveying the options:

  • Kabobs roasting on skewers over makeshift metal barrel grills,
  • a giant caldron of carrot and mutton pilaf,
  • a glass display case full of pale meat dumplings.

While not entirely unappetizing, it wasn’t the colorful Silk Road fare I’d expected. Where were the garnishes of pomegranate and fresh cucumber and carrot salads? I had imagined being whisked onto a padded tapchan in a charmingly lit patio by a friendly, accomodating old lady, who was nowhere to be seen.

Had I taken a wrong turn?

Hungry and exasperated, I greeted the most maternal-looking dumpling seller I could find and stepped into her tarp-covered shop, the only one without a surly-looking huddle of men drinking beer. Collapsing into a small plastic chair at a tiny aluminum table in the corner, I raised one finger and called out “Manti! to the young woman, not exactly sure what that would get me. But it was getting late, and I didn’t care.

A few minutes later she brought out a steaming bowl of mutton dumplings, bathed in a savory sauce of sour cream and a sprinkling of chilli powder.

Once again I feasted greedily, trying to let the flavors linger, failing. The simple meal was filling and delicious.

I washed down my meal with a cold Baltika #7.

There were no tourists, and most patrons of the roadside stalls appeared to be neighbors. Safe in my invisible corner of the manti tent, few could see or stare at me. I spoke with no one. At once part of the scenery yet totally alien to it.

I reflected on what it must be like to truly, literally disappear, like a mirage on the horizon.

I supposed it was something like this. 

“The world, indeed, is like a dream and the treasures of the world are an alluring mirage! Like the apparent distances in a picture, things have no reality in themselves, but they are like heat haze.”
Buddha


Back at the guesthouse with a full belly and a bruised ego, I took inventory of my day in Tashkent:

  • There was no velvety lute soundtrack at the market.
  • The shopping malls looked like mosques.
  • The museums closed early.
  • The metro was a museum.
  • Downtown was a deserted ruin.
  • “Home restaurants” were really just glorified street food.
  • Nobody knew who I was.

Which was a mirage—Tashkent or me?

Travel is about discovery and the unexpected, of course. Occasional isolation was inevitable, sure. Things wouldn’t always go according to plan, obvious. But on the first day of my first solo backpacking trip, I couldn’t shake the feeling that

I was totally fucking it up. 

Where were the magical moments with colorful locals? Where were my fellow travelers? Where was the awesome food? Why couldn’t I get outside my fucking head?

As I lay down once more on the creaky guesthouse bed, I prayed, to whoever or whatever was listening, for a better day in Bukhara. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2008.

Did you ever visit a place that didn’t match your expectations? Have you ever felt a disconnect between travel fantasy and trip reality? Tell us your story in the comments below!

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