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Uzbek Sidestep


We finally made it through the mountain pass on our way to the Ferghana Valley after a minor delay when our driver careened over a huge fender in the road and punctured the gas tank. Not a great way to begin the tour, but at least the group got to know each other and the merciless Uzbek sun during our hot, shade-less wait. It didn’t score high on the Tour Guide Crisis Scale, not by any means.

We descended into the valley and stopped for tea at a Chaikhana (teahouse) on the side of the road. As we refreshed ourselves, a handsome young man appeared and greeted us.

“Hello Dear Guests, I am Anwar, your guide to Ferghana Valley.”

We were extremely suspicious of one another at first. I don’t book a local guide for that day of the tour, and I wanted to know what he was doing there–and would I be expected to pay him. I suppose that he was suspicious of me only because I was so quizzical and unimpressed.

Not because Anwar isn’t impressive. He works hard, dresses well (a real achievement when Ferghana City is the place you call home) and is delightfully charismatic.

He started coming around to me when we were at a potter’s home, about the third hour into his impromptu tour. I asked Rustam, the potter, why he and Anwar spoke to each other in Russian, rather than in Uzbek. Rustam explained that it’s because he is a Tartar and Uzbek is not his first language. Anwar overheard and seemed charmed that I’d bothered to attempt conversation with Rustam (in my shockingly poor Russian, to boot). Since that moment, Anwar grew increasingly more affectionate.

I warmed up to Anwar and his not-quite-fluent English skills about an hour later, when he told me how he taught himself English. He started in the tourist business as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He spoke no English, but taught himself by immersion, by spending months at a time having to communicate with tourists solely in English. I was impressed. That’s how I’m trying to learn Russian (without classes, I mean, not as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan) and it’s not easy. In fact, it is more difficult because I am expected to speak largely to Australian tourists in English. Much to my chagrin, total immersion via non-English speakers isn’t exactly an option. Not yet anyway.

So why was Anwar there? It was a business move. He works for the usually inept Uzbek tour company that my Australian tour company uses to book certain services–like our transport to Ferghana. More profitably, he works as a freelance guide. Knowing that his biggest competitor works at the hotel where we stay, he met us en route to pitch his services for the next day. Clever; it worked.

And I have no regrets–he’s a great guide. He’s quite an entertainer and presents himself to the tourists as what he thinks a good Uzbek man should be. It’s quite entertaining for me because between his monologues, he talks to me gamely, and drops the facade.

He gives the tourists what they want: A good Muslim boy with offbeat explanations for Uzbek custom. At a local museum, when he pointed out the pounds of heavy, jangling jewelry that Uzbek women once wore, he described them as an ancient security system, “So that men could hear where their wives went.”

Robbie, my favorite tourist, muttered to her husband, “Hmmm. Seems more efficient than checking the odometer.”

I laughed unrepentantly.

The tourists don’t hear that Anwar is not ethnically Uzbek. He, like Rustam, is a Tartar, and his closest ancestors migrated from Kazakhstan. Nor do the tourists hear that he is an atheist. Nor that men from the East, like him, make very good babies with women from the West, like me. He said this in Russian, so I had to consult his dictionary twice, screw my face up a few times, and wait until he pounded my knee and doubled over in laughter to be sure that he said what I thought he said.

What would his wife say about that? Yes, yes, of course he’s married, and they have a four-year old daughter. Anwar is thirty-two, though I first thought he was about twenty-eight. His wife would expect and accept the infidelity, but I doubt that a genetically diverse baby would be greeted with open arms. Men here are only allowed one wife, but many, many lovers. Monogamy is not practiced here, not by men.

Incredibly, I find Anwar’s direct approach refreshing because he’s fun and I like him. He’s up-front and he takes no for an answer in good nature. Time spent with him is amazing. He behaves the way American men must have fifty years ago. The lines are incredible–references to the moon and the stars, the whole works. I just can’t believe that he thinks I’ll buy this stuff, but he earnestly does.

“I can’t find where your passport saying you are married or not,” Anwar commented after snooping through my passport on day one. Before I snatched his to snoop in turn (all Uzbeks have to carry passports locally so that they can be thoroughly harassed by the Militia), he announced, “My passport says that I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish.”

His mother and sister live in Rego Park, Queens, in New York City, about a 10-minute subway ride from my last apartment. Anwar has no desire to move to the US and seems extremely annoyed that his mother and sister have decided to emigrate.

“If I lived in New York, I would never have the chance to have such a beautiful woman in my car,” Anwar spewed.

“Sure you would. All the time–you’d be a cab driver,” I quipped back.

His point was correct though; he has a great job. In Uzbekistan, tour guides make hard currency. This makes them wealthy, by local standards. On a good day, Anwar can make four times the average Uzbek’s monthly income. He also gets to travel a bit, meet lots of interesting tourists, and come on to them. I wouldn’t move to New York either.

Anwar has succeeded in Uzbekistan’s new economy, which is a remarkable achievement. His hybrid ethnicity is a vestige of the Soviet Union’s colonization and attempt to make one, single Soviet identity. For his business, Anwar pretends to be a proud, Uzbek Muslim. In reality, he’s sort of Kazak, a bit Kyrgyz, kind of Tartar, somewhat Jewish, a little Muslim, and more or less Uzbek. In my five months of guiding tourists around Central Asia, I constantly met with these blurred and confused issues of nationality, language, religion and ethnicity. Anwar, more fortunate than most, has managed his rich patchwork heritage with finesse.

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