By Dora Ohrenstein
Though my main destination was the High Pamirs of Tajikistan, I couldn’t imagine coming to Central Asia without seeing the famed exotic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. My trip in Uzbekistan was arranged by Elenatours, represented by a Russian named Boris.
It wasn’t Boris who first spoke to me at the airport, but a young man named Izzat, who was to be my driver and companion for the Uzbek part of my journey. It was 5 a.m. We drove to a dinghy cafe for a dinghy breakfast, and conferred about itinerary and money matters. Although I had been emailing with Boris for months, I realized now that he didn’t speak English. He’d been using a computer to translate to and from Russian. Before too long we got into an unexpected spat. It happened when he brought out an enormous sack of cash. Uzbek soum come in bills no larger than the equivalent of one dollar bills. Hauling this quantity around in my purse gave me the willies and I asked to take only half. Boris became very irritated and we had an intense conversation where no one could understand what the other was saying and everyone got increasingly upset. I was never able to find out from Izzat what the problem was, but in the end, I took half the cash, about $200, which lasted for days.
Boris did plan a good tour for me, and provided the wonderful Izzat, for which I am very grateful. As Izzat drove along the hot highway from Tashkent to Sarmakand, the inauspicious start faded as he filled the car with rocking Central Asian music, from Azerbaijan, Russia, and all over. Izzat, it turns out, is something of a musical connoisseur, our drives were always accompanied by great sound tracks. We arrived in Samarkand at about 11 a.m. I napped for a while, then came down at 6 pm to catch my first glimpse of the magnificent Samarkand. A young lad who worked at the hotel, Ilhod, age 15, very charming and with a beguiling smile, joined me for the walk. In a shop an old lady offered me a beautiful knitted mohair shawl and I bought it for $20, too high a price I later learned. Everywhere we went people seemed excessively eager to meet and talk to an American.
That evening Izzat brought me to an outdoor restaurant crowded with celebrating families. We ate perfectly grilled shashlik — chopped spiced lamb. Two DJs played Central Asian dance music — great stuff — and people danced in groups, women with women, men with men. I couldn’t help myself and danced with a very pretty and stylish teenaged girl named Shahlo. She too seemed eager to talk more with me, so I invited her to join me for tea on the day after next. Her family toasted me with vodka and we agreed to meet again.
Next day I was taken by a guide all through Samarkand’s main sites. As it was Saturday morning, I asked to see the local synagogue. It was a plain low-walled building with no signs showing it’s function. A man stood at the door wearing a talis and pointed me to the doorway for the women’s section, where one women sat alone on a bench, looking through an opening into the service. A handful of men were saying prayers, the Torah was open and the chanting of prayers very familiar. I sat with the woman for about 10 minutes and followed along with her Hebrew prayer book.
Leaving the building, I broke out in tears, overcome with finding Jews praying in such a faraway place. It reminded me of the journey my father made, born in Germany, moving to Israel at 18 to flee persecution, eventually coming to the US to start a new life. I was filled with both sadness and admiration for the tenacity of the people I belong to.
My guide in Samarkand was a cocky young man, knowledgeable and fluent in English. While we roamed from one site to the next, he imparted historical data while continually checking out the surroundings for pretty girls (there were many), always exchanging a few words with them. I snapped on my camera relentlessly amid milling tourists from all over the world. The dazzling blue tiles of the city are endless, ever changing and in an array of styles from several centuries. It had all come to ruin by the start of the 20th century, many of these great buildings were used as big barns. The Russians made huge, extensive restoration of all the tile work in the 1930s.
In the heart of the city, the Registan Square, surrounded on all sides by monumental structures built over several centuries, we sat and had a real conversation. My guide spoke about the great reign of Tamerlane in the 15th c, the ruler’s dedication to art and science, and his assembly of scholars and artisans from all parts of his empire. Samarkand is the equivalent of Venice in Central Asia. I’m thinking, I went to a top-notch college, how can this be the first time I am learning about this great civilization? I only knew the name Tamerlane because it was the title of a Handel opera.
I knew Uzbekistan was famous for its embroidered textiles called souzani, and saw many displayed. I tried to be patient and bide my time before shopping.
After my tour, Izzat and I went for a late lunch at a nearby cafe where the waiter immediately grabbed my attention with his excellent English. He had spent time in the States, looked more Oriental than Uzbek, and told me his ancestors were Korean, and that his name was Vladimir. Even to a jaded New Yorker, a Korean Uzbek named Vladimir was hard to get one’s head around! I invited Vladimir to join me for tea the next day with Shachlo. Then home for an early night at the comfy Samarkand hotel.