The days pass, and they all seem to blend together. I made the decision to explore Uzbekistan, hoping to continue the journey that was cut short in Iran, but it appears I might have had too much expectations. Yes, Uzbekistan boasts beautiful monuments, though they are sometimes restored in a kitschy manner, but that’s OK and sometimes fun, and yes, the Uzbeks are friendly and their food tastes great, but it takes a little more—or perhaps a little less?—to truly touch me during my travels. #OldJadedTraveler. My daily routine involves waking up, eating fat food and drinking green tea, setting out to visit various monuments, feeling frustrated by the crowds of tourists vomited by buses, eating more fat food and drinking more green tea, exploring other monuments, searching for accommodation and booking train tickets for the next destination hoping it will be more inspiring, taking a shower, drinking more green tea, and eventually retiring for the night. If only the atmosphere and the interactions at the hostels were more fulfilling! Unfortunately, except for exceptional moments, it’s disheartening. Modern humanoids spend their evenings hunched over their phones, burdened by the weight of their universe. It’s almost as if their souls are being absorbed by those small metal and glass boxes. One might think the experience tastes different in various countries, otherwise why would they spend so much time fixated on their screens? Were it not for the hostel staff, I would have felt incredibly lonely. Nevertheless, there were two experiences in Uzbekistan that left a lasting impression on me, convincing me to stay.
The first one is that of the overnight trains. Let me be clear, I’m speaking about the budget version, the one favored by the masses, not the comfortable carriages where a good night’s sleep is guaranteed. I’m talking about the warmth of the old carriages dating back to the Soviet era, where railway attendants in blue shirts meticulously inspect the train’s condition at every stop by tapping the wheels with a hammer. These carriages exude a retro charm and offer a sticky heat, but most importantly, they provide a sense of camaraderie that helps us forget our lonely human condition. Through the weathered windows that have been contemplated by generations of Uzbeks and travelers, the landscapes of the Silk Road unfold. Slowly, to the rhythm of the train’s “toc-toc, toc-toc” as it glides along uneven tracks, villages, towns, and deserts pass by. Passengers of all ages sit on the berths. They may have never met before, but it seems as if they’ve known each other for a lifetime. A radiant young woman boards the train with her baby, seeking assistance. Naturally, an elderly man takes the child into his arms and cares for him as if it were his own grandchild, while another child joins in to play. Few speak English, but that doesn’t hinder their curiosity and their willingness to share a cup of tea with me. Google Translate becomes my trusty companion and performs admirably. Since the Uzbek alphabet is similar to ours, I attempt the pronunciation, which seems to work well and allows for brief conversations.
Then comes the time for prayer. The devout passengers orient themselves toward Mecca and invoke Allah through whispers and gestures that are unfamiliar to me. So, I capture these moments with my camera. After the prayers conclude, their curiosity leads them to view the photos with a hearty laugh, and they eagerly show me their thumbs.
As mealtime approaches, I’m invited to join them at the small table nestled between the berths. Food is shared generously, and the table is filled to the brim. I brought my own provisions: bread, smoked sausage, and a few bananas. The feast begins in an informal and communal fashion. We pass around small tidbits to nibble on while the setting sun casts a warm glow on people’s faces, etching these memories into my mind. I never anticipated that the light could be so magical within the confines of a train carriage. After the meal, the elders express their gratitude by sweeping their hands before their faces, and everyone retires to their berths to sleep, with their feet dangling over the edge. We might be woken at the next stop or the one after, when the carriage attendant switches on the lights for new passengers or when someone mistakenly thinks you’re sleeping on the wrong berth. But who cares… that’s part of the fun.
As the sun rises and bathes the drowsy carriage in its golden light once more, some faces have departed, replaced by new ones. The early risers are either engulfed into their smartphones’ screens or captivated by the passing scenery. Regardless the window through which they look, humans need to escape. Suddenly, a young man arrives, his face adorned with a carnivorous grin, carrying a large bowl. He invites me to partake. Bread? It is a bit dry, but why not? But that’s a trick. Under the thin layer of bread lie kilos of meat. That’s where that jubilant grin comes from! It’s 8 AM, and my new companions insist that I « try » it. I have no say in the matter, breakfast will be meaty.
The Nuratau Mountains
The other highlight of this trip was spending several days in the Nuratau villages. After hours of traversing the arid Kyzylkum Desert, a mountain range suddenly appears out of nowhere. You can’t help but wonder why the fuck it’s there. Mountains often mean remote villages, and that, I love. In recent times, the villagers, Tajiks who rely on their livestock and walnut production, have ventured into tourism to supplement their income and preserve their traditional way of life, preventing the rural exodus. Now, you can find home-stays in various villages—Sentob, Majrum, Hayot, Ukhum, Asrof, Porasht—and many of them feel heaven-like. If people have chosen to settle here, it’s because, amid all the aridity, there’s water. The Nuratau villages are oases where greenery explodes amidst the prevailing dryness.
Built along riverbanks in the heart of the valleys, the houses are nestled in small clearings surrounded by lush greenery. Gardens are equipped with tables, chairs, and tapchans (raised platforms with carpets) for everyone’s comfort. The streets are lined with centuries-old trees. Legend has it that one of them, a conifer with branches several meters in diameter, dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. Regardless of where you are, you can hear the joyous cries of children playing and saying « hellooooo! », birds singing, chickens clucking, cows grazing—they don’t moo much, but you can hear the “frrrsht frrrrsht” as they chew on the grass—and donkeys braying the hell out of their mouth from miles away. Unfortunately, where there are herds, there are also dogs, which disrupt the peaceful bucolic atmosphere, especially between Hayot and Ukhum, where I was attacked three times in two hours. These pesky dogs don’t want to let me use the path between the two villages. Feels like Tusheti…
As evening approaches, we gather around a table in the garden. October still feels good, even at night. The table is adorned with delicious dishes made from garden vegetables, locally sourced meat, and fresh dairy products, all prepared with love and served with a hearty « bon appétit! » (in French) by the woman or women of the house. Polygamy still exists here, although it’s not very common. Of course, just like everywhere else in Uzbekistan, the meal is accompanied by copious amounts of green tea before we retire to our beds, feeling content, in a room with a vintage decor: floral bed linens, carpets on the walls, and glass chandeliers shaped like leaves. And, naturally, there are hearts and love motifs everywhere…
The next day, a few hours of hiking through the mountains are sufficient to reach the next village. From the mountain passes, a breathtaking view of Aydar lake unfolds, a long and vividly blue body of water, contrasting with the surrounding beige and dusty desert. Along the way, I greet one or two shepherds with a friendly « Salom! ». No dogs in sight. It appears they remain in the village, even though some herds wander freely and return to their enclosures in the evening. Nevertheless, I must remain cautious of the « cobras » as the locals call them—although are they really cobras? I encountered one, just a baby, incredibly cute, which tried to take shelter under my shoe. Eventually, down in a valley, I reach my destination: a lush green mound of vibrant colors dotted with a few houses. It’s the village where my next liter of tea awaits. I encounter children on their way to school, more or less well dressed in their uniforms, who greet me shyly. In one of my pockets, I still have a few stones, remnants from previous dog encounters—and not for keeping children at bay, mind you! I show them to the guesthouse owner, uttering « it, » « dog » in Uzbek. He chuckles and tells me that I should also carry a stick. But in this village, he reassures me, « the dogs are all chill. » I spend the rest of the day playing with the kids and wandering through the village’s streets and paths, exploring the cemetery covered in golden grass… One could say, here as well, that each day follows the same pattern, and that would be true. However, when the days are beautiful and inspiring, why deny oneself the opportunity to repeat them?