Crossing into Uzbekistan is easy, if you speak Uzbek or Russian. It’s not so easy if you don’t. And it’s worse still if two members of the family are dealing with a little case of E. coli picked up in Kashgar, and the one not wearing a diaper has to go to the bathroom. Bad.
At the Dustlik border checkpoint outside Osh, we inched along. The line of colorfully dressed ladies, likely headed to the other side’s Sunday bazaar, was mostly silent under the blazing 10AM sun. Every so often one of the more elderly in the group, having suffered through more hot days than the others, would cut to the front, quietly muttering on her way past. Seniority has its privileges. Of course, bowel movements usually have their privileges, too. But not knowing the Uzbek phrase for “Out of my way or it’s gonna get smelly” (our guidebook was also no help with this), we meekly remained in our place.
As the sun climbed higher (and other things moved lower), we at some length entered the customs building. Inside was both a lot hotter and a lot less orderly compared to outside, and no more containing of toilets. A couple posted signs probably explained why there were would be multiple throngs of people clamoring to get their forms processed by one uniformed agent or another. And the text on the available blank forms that were scattered around the room also probably explained exactly what to do once you filled them out. But not to us, they didn’t. With the clock ticking down on the minutes of dignity left for our one unnamed family member, we stared at the Uzbek/Russian forms and guessed at where to write our names.
Our first guess was wrong. But fortunately, we learned this early. A soldier in a funny green hat came over, smiled at Owen, and then tried out his English, trying to help us. But his English, like our Russian, also consisted mostly of miming. So, by delivering what was probably one of the greatest performances of charades in the history of the game, we were able guess correctly much of the required information. “Nationality,” “date of birth,” and “amount of foreign currency you are bringing into Uzbekistan” all earned our team some big points and got us closer to the prize.
With a thumbs-up from the funny-hatted soldier, we approached one of the customs officials (all also wearing funny green hats). He furrowed his brow and carefully read over each of the forms. Then, as if checking for inconsistencies in our story, he checked back over them, constantly referencing one while looking at another. Satisfied, he then took out his pen and started signing his initials. Not once on each form, though–no, next to every single blank we’d filled and box we’d checked, all received his carefully signed approval. But just when we thought this was really taking forever, he apparently realized he’d made a mistake. One of the places he’d initialled did not actually require his initials. Out from his desk came the white-out bottle. We waited as he carefully dipped the brush, meticulously dabbed away his errors, and gently waved each form in the air to dry. Then, satisfied with the results, he detached his official seal from the small chain around his neck. Stamp, stamp, stamp. We made it to our first Uzbek toilet (a slit trench outside by the parking lot) just in time.
Our route through the Fergona Valley has brought big changes from our previous days up in Kyrgyzstan. For one, the scenery is now extremely bland. The spurs of the Tian Shan and Alay mountains to the north and south are too distant to be impressive, and the handful of coal plants located in this valley keep the sky somewhat obscured. Closer-up, the farms and villages that repeat themselves endlessly across the flat terrain are somewhat characterless Russian vintage. But after a day or two of kicking myself for not going through the extra visa trouble to detour around through Tajikistan, we’ve started to appreciate our surroundings for the human element. The people in this area are famously among the most conservative in Muslim Central Asia. It was supposedly here, in the late 1990’s, that Uzbekistan’s home-grown Islamist movement, which reportedly sought affiliation with the then-ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, got its start. But to us, having come from China’s adjacent Kashgaria region, the feeling here–as admittedly rather dimly perceived, from simple things like the way people dress, and whether many people openly don’t observe the Ramadan fast–is actually markedly less conservative, less traditional. For all the struggles and tragic violence in China over the last sixty years to stamp out “superstition” (okay, religion), promote “science” and generally modernize society, it would seem that the Soviets, who had the same totalitarian goals here, were more broadly successful in their time. Perhaps China will yet transform its own slice of Turkic Central Asia, educating and employing the indigenous people into the state’s vision of modernity. But for now, it is our rough impression that the Uighers of southern Xinjiang, generally speaking, remain the most traditional, least “modern” people in these parts. And for China’s leaders, anxious to prevent “extremism” and “separatism” that follow from rejection of their vision, this means they still have their work cut out for them.
Three things we have particularly enjoyed here since arriving in Uzbekistan: fruit, vegetables, and western medicine. The Russians previously did a lot of damage to the area’s ecology, transforming the sunny Fergona Valley into a cotton monoculture to meet their needs. Cotton still forms a big part of Uzbekistan’s rickety post-Soviet economy, but freedom (and lack of a vast common market) has also brought a little more diversity to the agriculture here. With abundant sunshine, a decent irrigation system, and relatively efficient farming operations (the latter two a gift of Soviet agriculture science) the valley is now like a mini-California. For the first time since moving to eastern China a year ago, we’ve been enjoying delicious, normal-tasting melons, apples, and grapes without reservation. They also do salads here. Actually, they do two types of salads, “Russian” and “Uzbek.” Selections of the former type are listed on menus, sometimes over several pages, sometimes with vaguely pornstar-sounding names: “The Caspian,” “Meat Assemble,” “Olivier,” and “Male Ideal” are ones we tried. Mostly, they were just bowls of mayonnaise with chunks of hot dog and green peas mixed-in. But the so-called “Uzbek” salads were the real treat: fresh tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, fresh onions. Served by default at every meal.
And the third big luxury? Real–that is to say, ‘Western’–pharmacies. Where the scientific names of medicines are the names of medicines, and not sometimes-imprecise translations at 药店 where the haughty lady behind the counter will only sell you some version of snake oil. In need of cipro (for that little stomach bug we mentioned) and short on time, it was truly a pleasure to walk into the first corner pharmacy and come out with it, with no arguments about Chinese vs. Western medicine required.
In sum, so far we’re doing well here in Central Asia. This is a part of the world we never thought we’d be seeing, and coming overland from western China has made it all the more interesting.
Now if only we spoke any Russian.