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Living it up in the Kyzyl Kum desert

Great, there’s snow. There wasn’t supposed to be any damn snow. I look accusingly at the swaddled Uzbeks awaiting their family members outside the regional Urgench airport, as if they’re the ones responsible for the misleading forecast. As I quickly start to freeze, pacing around the security border of the airport, I realize there’s another problem. I hired a private driver to take me from the airport to Khiva, about thirty miles away, I’m half-an-hour late and he’s not there. I turn around and around, searching desperately for a sign with my name on it. A little girl laughs; by my face I probably look like the guy who thought he was getting on a plane for Tahiti and ended up in western Uzbekistan. I can’t wait any longer. It’s that true kind of cold, the kind you always imagine to be the curse of all ex-Soviet republics, which blows outward from Siberia in all directions. The landscape is bleak – flat, arid, and covered in a freezing fog. And there’s a healthy dusting of snow on the dark loamy fields, which stretch as far as the eye can see.

Muttering invectives, I get in a taxi, and vent my frustration by clumsily asking my driver a very stupid question: “Sneg pashol?(it snowed?)”. Like Billy Pilgrim, like Uzbekistan itself, my Russian tends to come stuck and unstuck in time. He laughs. It’s not snow, he explains to me through some elaborate hand gestures and very technical Russian terms that I only half-comprehend. It’s salt. This region was once at the bottom of an enormous salt sea, and in recent years water tables have risen, so that seawater rises from beneath the soil and evaporates, leaving a salty greeting every morning which very much resembles a light snow. The cotton harvest has just finished(Uzbekistan is one of the largest producers of cotton in the world), and scores of men are out in thick coats pulling up the lovely red-ochre stalks and stacking them in comically high piles which grow like trees out of their pickup trucks. I ask the driver about them without using the interrogative: “Oh, of course. Kindling for fires.” I’m wrong again. They mix the cotton stalks into the dough for various breads. I ask him why, and he just shrugs. “It’s good for bread.”
The Kyzl Kum Desert, Uzbekistan
He launches back into his highly technical discourse on the soil. He was trained as a hydrologist in Soviet times and has a lot to say on the ecological terrorism the Soviets inflicted on the Aral Sea, and also on global warming. Holding the wheel between his knees, he moves his hands ominously towards each other, representing the expansion of the Aral wasteland to the north and the Kyzyl Kum desert to the south. We’re in the middle, soon to be crushed by his chubby liver-spotted hands. I let myself panic just a bit. This region is about to be swallowed by the sands of time, and these people are trying to make food out of cotton chaff.

When we finally arrive in Khiva, I can stop panicking about the end of days. Khiva is frozen in time, and therefore immune to the ravages of climate change. The inner city was declared an open-air museum in the 1960’s and has been a marvel of conservation work ever since. And it’s beautiful in a way that only a desert outpost in the middle of nowhere can be. The inner town is surrounded by huge, sloping Game-Of-Thronesian fortress walls that give the viewer the eminent feeling of application – scars and striations reveal a history of raids by Turkmen bandits – and what’s more imposing, there are Zoroastrian-style graves and ossuaries sticking out of the wall, as if the corpses themselves will rise to defend their city when provoked.
Decorated ceiling, Uzbekistan
The techniques of majolica and terracotta did not reach this region, Khorezm, so that what stands in its stead is incredibly ornate relief work. Intricate woodwork and elaborate brick patterns are the order of the day. Only in the interior of certain buildings, such as the Pahlavani Mahmut mausoleum, do I catch my first glimpse of the floor-to-ceiling no-gimmicks tiling that Uzbekistan is famous for. This is a hot spot for weddings, and in the day-and-a-half that I’m here I will see more than fourteen wedding parties pass through this monument to the local patron saint of impoverished women. It’s Uzbek custom for the wedding party to dance at preordained points in the city streets while the newlyweds look on in a stern manner, without participating(don’t ask me, I couldn’t get a clear explanation as to the why’s and wherefore’s), and during the off-season the necessary tourist in the wedding pictures is a precious commodity. I get photobombed by a few couples, and am coerced to dance in several wedding parties. After about the eighth wedding-dance in twenty-degree weather, I start to question my priorities.

By the time I dance my way out to the eastern gate of the city, I notice a crowd of people around a camel. Some very severe Turkmen individuals are protecting the camel, and next to it, a crude sign: PHOTO $20. As we get closer, I ask a kind old woman, Delia, why it’s so expensive. Delia is a character in her own right. She mostly wants to talk to me about UFO’s, and her concern over the advances in 3D printing(“When will they start printing children?”). She looks at the camel for a moment before she answers. “Oh, they don’t want you to take a picture”, she tells me in English. “They get more money from the pregnant women. It’s to keep you away.” As we join the circle, I see what she means. With the help of her friends, a bulbously-pregnant woman is squatting, trying to fit under the camel. It’s a pregnancy camel, Delia explains. When a woman cannot give birth, she must pass under the camel three times. I think about the forty-five minute drive from the regional airport to here. “Isn’t there a hospital she can go to?” I ask Delia. She laughs, but to humor me she asks the onlookers in rapid-fire Uzbek. “Yes, it’s always the same story. She went to the hospital in Urgench, and they could do nothing for her, so they sent her to the hospital in Nukus. They couldn’t help, so they sent her here. This camel gets a lot of referrals.”

“Here, put this on your balls.” I look at Behruz, my hammam attendant, with a face between quizzical and mortified. He is offering me a small bit of a red granular material that smells and feels like an intensified version of Tiger Balm. I know just how intensified it is, because he has already smeared it over my entire body, which is starting to feel like it’s on fire. After a long drive across the desert from Khiva to Bukhara, I thought a visit to the local hammam would be the perfect way to unwind, but perhaps that was a mistake. It’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my private parts in Russian – the technical term Behruz uses is “eggs”, but his wild grin suggests I have apprehended his meaning correctly – and he offers it again, telling me it’s an absolutely necessary component of Bukharan hammam practice. I cock my head, scrutinizing him. This is one of those times where it’s critically important to understand if someone is kidding you or not.

I’ve been cooked like a cut of meat in a Turkish hammam and scourged with birch switches until I bled in a Russian-style banya in Crimea, so I thought I had seen all the pain that a traditional bathhouse experience in Bukhara might entail, but I’m dead wrong. Unlike the gentler Istanbul style, Bukharan hammams aim to relax the body by reminding it of its fragility and imminent demise. After enduring a fusion of Western deep-tissue massage and no-I-don’t-wanna Thai-style stretching and joint-cracking, Behruz walks on my back, inadvertently forcing my face into a small puddle of sweat and water that has accumulated on the hundred-degree marble slab I’ve been laid out on. And now I’m about to endure chemical warfare.

Having made my decision, I oblige Behruz. He is pleased, and makes several crass hand gestures which illustrate the potential benefits of the treatment. After enduring the sensation of having my body dipped in acid for as long as possible, I give him the signal and he douses me in succession with cold, hot, cold, then warm water. When I’m sure I’m not on the verge of cardiac arrest, I am allowed to relax in the steamy chamber for a moment before getting dressed, spritzed with rosewater, and served mint tea. The hammam-owner and I discuss the dangers of Apple invading our lives through satellites(Uzbeks seem on the whole to be much more concerned with satellites, aliens and UFO’s than terrestrial threats) before I grow hungry and leave.

Just to make sure I get all the purported benefits of Behruz’s torture, I eat a salad named “Masculine Strength” for lunch.

When I’m completely relaxed and ready to take on the city itself, I realize that Bukhara is kind of one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. It’s beautiful, bright and sunny, the last day of its kind here – real snow will take me by surprise in the night, robbing Bukhara of the sun and planning its next heist in Samarkand – but this is how the holy city in the desert was meant to be seen, with its sandstone walls shining brightly. The style is again this attention to miniscule detail in brick- and woodwork that makes even random houses seem like architectural masterpieces. But there is also ample silk-work in the form of scarves, carpets, dresses and wall-hangings which imbue the sandstone-shaded buildings with ever-changing colors, and the inner doors and mihrabs of madrassahs and mosques and mausoleums and all the Muslim M’s bloom suddenly and without warning into bouquets of golds, blues and greens which can take your breath away.
I wander over to the Ark Fortress, an imposing building which effectively marks the last place in Uzbekistan to fall to the Soviets. Since the epicness of fortress walls can only properly be described in pop culture and heavy-metal references, the Ark looks like that bass-dropping noise that hurts your ears the first time a Transformer lands or Godzilla emerges from the sea. I am so engrossed in the fortress that I almost bump into somebody, who just happens to be Elbek, one-half of a photobombing couple from Khiva. We both do a double-take; his wife Zamira appears with her friend Gulandom, a Bukhari who is putting them up for a few days. We get to know each other, and I am impressed at how accomplished they are; Elbek is a Hafiz(knows the Koran by heart), and both Zamira and Gulandom have Ph.D’s in philosophy, specializing in Sufism. Overly excited, I blather something about a book I have been reading on the Naqshbandi order native to Bukhara, and their eyes go wide. Within minutes I am formally accepted as Zamira’s student(an important procedure in the development of a Sufi). It could hardly be a more fortuitous second encounter, and suddenly they whisk me around the city to see the more obscure sights. Uzbeks have a reputation for hospitality, and the experience with these three forever cements that in my mind. After several stops, we arrive at a shrine dedicated to the water of Bukhara. Water is extremely sacred in Islam, and also in the native tradition of Bukhara, the oasis on the edge of the desert. Most of the great edifices are organized around the few naturally-occurring springs and pools, and wells are treated with respect. At their request, I pull up a bucket of water from the twenty-meter-deep well, and we use it to perform ablutions and to drink – then, we pray. Part of training to be a Hafiz is learning the highly technical sing-song method of Koranic recitation, and Elbek has a truly beautiful voice as he recites the proper suras and leads the prayer. I have a token amount of experience with Islam and vaguely know what to do, but they are sure to correct me as we go along without making me feel in any way embarrassed or burdensome.

After touring the city, Elbek puts his arm around my shoulder as Zamira and Gulandom become a whirlwind of activity, taking us into narrow recesses of the bazaar where they can get the best deal on ingredients for tonight’s dinner. I’m to get the full treatment, and I couldn’t be more excited. Vendors grunt their approbation as Zamira shoves various samples into my mouth and I do my best to judge them critically without making a fool of myself. We settle on a menu, rife with exclusively-Bukharan delicacies: beets soaked in a sugary brine until they turn golden, their folia disturbed by crunchy little bits of crystallized sugar, pickled tomatoes, walnuts, bereki(blessings), sweet little ravioli filled with roasted pumpkin, and all the fixings of Bukharan plov, famous for its abundance of mutton and different fruits. Then we jump in a marshrutka(Soviet-style shared taxi) and end up, well, somewhere, and after a short walk we arrive at Gulandom’s home. There are several necessary introductions in the vein of “who in the hell is this guy?”, but after I am acquainted with Gulandom’s son, husband, mother, aunt, sister, nephew, and daughter-in-law and I get over my initial attack of nerves we get along quite swimmingly. We eat kneeling on the floor, drinking green tea, and the number of people continues to proliferate. A newlywed couple makes an appearance – the bride performs an intricate custom of bowing into the room, wearing a beautiful silk dress and special hat. Traditionally she will wear a new dress and new wedding-hat-with-beads every day for forty days after the wedding. I am scrutinized carefully by about twenty people as the meal progresses, and I do my best to eat the right way, drink the right way, greet people the right way, and pray the right way. In winter, the five daily Muslim prayers tend to clump towards the evening, so I have three chances to prove myself. Every now and again I perform some gaucherie, such as absentmindedly accepting a cup of tea with my left hand, but nobody is offended – they just laugh at me. Grapes and pomegranates appear from the courtyard garden, and when I tell everybody how expensive pomegranates are in the States they make me eat two or three, and offer to fill my coat pockets with them for the trip home.
It’s time to leave, but my head is pretty swollen from being the center of so much attention, so I decide to perform my best parlor trick I have been keeping in reserve. Taking a Koran from the windowsill, I begin to read in broken Arabic. I don’t understand anything, of course – the Arabic in which the Koran is written is very difficult to understand – but I clumsily vocalize a little bit. I am just hitting my stride when the chef comes in and I lose my focus completely. Bukhara has a very large Tajik population, and a sign of beauty among certain Tajik women is a single big, thick eyebrow; by this standard, the chef is a very beautiful Tajik girl.

And she’s unmarried.

My desire to impress has gone too far. Necessary marital negotiations begin. At first I try to shrug it off, but some of the family members are very insistent, and eventually Elbek notices my consternation and has to step in, offering to find me a taxi home. After being blessed several times by the older ladies of the house, Gulandom gives me several parting gifts, including two of her published manuscripts on Sufism. Afterwards, I can’t think of anything but my busting gut and how incredibly well these learned Bukhari strangers had treated me, and how much life and hospitality still exists in the rapidly-expanding Kyzyl Kum, the desert threatening to devour the world.

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