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The Last 24 Hours in Uzbekistan: A Wedding, the Gay Dilemma, and the Kidnapping Attempt

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Published on October 29, 2009 with 5 Comments

fat minaret“Uz what? What the heck is that, Daniela? Is that a country?” a friend asked me when I told her I was going to Uzbekistan for the holidays.

“Hold on, isn’t that the country where Borat is from?” she continued. She was referring to the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan seemed like an odd vacation choice to everyone, but there was more to the country than its exotic name.

Neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan is in the heart of Central Asia. The country has overlapping Russian, Persian, Mongolian, and Turkish influences, making its culture unique, its population very diverse, and its architecture the finest and most exuberant in the region.

While I was in Uzbekistan, I traveled from Tashkent all the way to Khiva, stopping at the legendaries cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Termez. It became one of the most fascinating, exciting, and picturesque adventures of my life as a backpacker.

Samarkand

Samarkand

In that week, larger-than-life monuments covered with bright-colored mosaics took my breath away. Towns along the Silk Road took me back in time with their ancient architecture, rich history, and mesmerizing stories of treacherous khans, conquerors, slavery, hardship in the desert, and ancient international trade. I crossed arid and vast deserts in jam-packed shared taxis that made me feel like I was in a sardine can in a microwave. I went to the southernmost point of the country neighboring Afghanistan, crossing checkpoints in what was clearly no-man’s land. Locals—who I didn’t know at all, or who I had just met—stopped me in the streets to ask for my photo, holding me tight in the shot, as if I were a celebrity they were proud to show off, or a close friend or relative that they hadn’t seen in ages. They welcomed me into their homes, inviting me to eat or have tea as if I were part of the family. Dozens of Uzbeks—female and male—of all ages gave me their cell phone numbers, “in case of emergency,” despite the fact that they hardly spoke English!

After eight exhilarating and intense days in Uzbekistan, I was in Khiva, my last destination, waiting to catch a plane back home.

Before heading to the city’s airport, I rested under some trees in the main square of this small, well-preserved medieval town of ancient madrassas—Islamic schools—giant domes of blue-green mosaics, fat and tall minarets skillfully decorated with turquoise and greenish tiles, and Oriental fairy-tale bazaars.

Khiva

Khiva

During my two days in Khiva, I had walked through every little corner, alley, and street within the old town, which is still protected by ancient walls that make it looked like a large, sandy fortress from the outside. Regardless of the time of day, Khiva was always strangely silent, its streets almost people-free. It lacked the vitality and liveliness of cities like Samarkand and Bukhara. It was hard to imagine that this lonely, peaceful place was once the main slave market in all of Central Asia.

Sitting on the bench in the square, I was thinking about how my lively Uzbek adventure would come to an end in just a few hours. But I soon realized that it wasn’t over—not yet!

A nearby shop suddenly turned up the volume on their music, transforming the “lifeless” Khiva into a party town.

A newly married couple paraded down the street, bringing the wedding party with them! From one minute to the next, the lonely streets of old Khiva became the center of celebration. Both friends and strangers were invited to join the festivities while an old video camera and a photographer captured every second of it. Shaking their hips and raising their hands into the air, women and men danced around a very young couple, who seemed quite solemn despite just being married.

A party takes over the streets of Khiva

A party takes over the streets of Khiva


Some guys wearing furry hats started dancing, moving their arms up and down and their heads back and forth, as if they were possessed birds: it was a chicken dance! One of the “crazy chicken” dancers approached me at the bench where I was sitting by myself and made me stand up and dance with the group. I resisted at first, but the bride and groom smiled at me. The young bride invited me to come in, and the Chicken Man grabbed me by the hand and dragged me to the middle of the cheering crowd.

While the wild chicken dancer dared me to follow his movements, an Uzbek woman in a red dress tried to teach me a more traditional dance.

The champagne came, and someone from the crowd grabbed me and pushed me up to the couple to pose for a photo and to do the toast

“Good luck to the couple,” a man murmured to me. It seemed that having a foreigner with the newly married couple would bring them luck in their marriage.

Just married!

Just married!


Although the bride and groom were all smiles when the camera was off, they went back to their grave-faced look for the picture. After the sudden photo shoot, the festivity continued to cross the old town.

I went for a walk and ran into some tourist-free souvenir shops. As I looked at elaborate wood-carved souvenirs, a seller invited me to come inside to see some more. Inside the tiny shop, two men sat on the floor playing a game that looked like chess with bottle caps as game pieces. Their names were Mohammed and Zadar. Zadar was the owner of the store, and he spoke English fluently. Mohammed was a friend who helped Zadar with the shop.

“Where are you from?” Zadar asked.

“I am Venezuelan,” I responded.

“What are you doing here?” He was astonished that I had come from so far away alone. He wanted to know more about life in Venezuela.

“Do you want to play a game?” Zadar invited me sit with him and Mohamed.

I sat on the floor, and the interrogation started.

Most Uzbeks never have the opportunity to travel outside the country, but they are very interested in knowing about the world beyond Uzbekistan’s borders.

Khiva

Khiva

Before its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan and its Islamic culture were subjected to “Russification” for several decades. During those years, millions of people were sent to prison camps and deported to Siberia and other remote lands to work at collectivized state farms—otherwise known as kolkhozy—separating families and leaving millions dead. Islam was under attack, and national heroes were prohibited from being mentioned.

Uzbeks were repressed and isolated for so long that now locals are trying to revive their past and their history, even as they crave to learn more about people from other countries and cultures.

Both 26-year-old Mohammed and 34-year-old Zadar bombarded me with questions about the West. They were both married with three kids each. After they told me about their families, they started asking about my personal life.

“Are you married?” Zadar asked.

“No, I have a boyfriend,” I responded. That boyfriend didn’t exist, but in a country like Uzbekistan where people marry in their twenties or earlier, it would be hard for Mohammed and Zadar to understand that I was 30 and still single with no kids.

“Why your boyfriend is not here? He must not leave you alone!” Zadar continued.

“He couldn’t come. He is working.” I explained to them that in the West, it is okay for a woman to travel without her boyfriend or her husband. They couldn’t understand why my boyfriend hadn’t proposed yet.

“If a man is not married by the age of 25, he is gay!” Zadar stated.

“How about if a woman is not married at that age? Does that make her a lesbian?” I asked.

Zadar and Mohammed looked at me, puzzled. They didn’t know what I meant by lesbian. I explained it to them.

“Maybe she is ugly,” said Mohammed, giggling while he tried to find an explanation for why a woman in Uzbekistan would be single after her mid-twenties.

“Daniela, there are no lesbians or gay men in Uzbekistan. Maybe the Russians, but no Uzbeks,” Zadar assured me.

“Zadar, what would happen if you found out that a close friend or one of your sons is gay?” I couldn’t help asking.

“If it is a friend, I would no longer be friends with him. I am positive that my boys are not going to be gay. I just know. But if one of them were, I would kill him,” he said.

Mohammed came with some drinks.

“Take the big one. You are the guest!” instructed Mohammed. Keeping a tiny cup for himself, he put a big cup that looked like a bowl into my hands.

like a family As I grabbed the replete mug and tasted a non-alcoholic, sweet drink, I remembered what Alex—a Russian-Uzbek I had met in Bukhara—had said to me when I told him how overwhelmed I was by the Uzbek hospitality. Since I was a woman traveling alone in a Muslim country that had been cut off from the outside world for decades, the last thing I was expecting was such a warm welcome.

“For Uzbek people, the best is always for the guest. If my neighbor knows that I didn’t treat a visitor well, he won’t talk to me,” Alex told me.

Zadar, Mohammed, and I raised our drinks and toasted.

We were playing our third game of “Uzbek chess,” and I kept losing to Zadar.

Mohammed looked at me and said something to Zadar in Uzbek.

Big cup vs. Tiny cup

Big cup vs. Tiny cup

“Daniela, we don’t understand how your boyfriend accepts that you travel alone. Would he be upset if he knows that you are talking to us? What will happen to you when he sees the photos of you with other men?” asked Zadar.

“No, he won’t be upset. Where I come from, it is okay for women to travel alone. We can go wherever we want. We don’t have to ask for permission, and it is totally normal to have male friends. Plus, love is about respect and trust, don’t you think? My boyfriend trusts me, and he knows I am just sightseeing in Uzbekistan,” I explained. “If he had forbidden me to come to Uzbekistan, I would have broken up with him,” I added, laughing.

“Strong woman!” exclaimed Zadar.

“Women are in charge now, Zadar. Things are changing!” I said, half-serious and half-joking.

“Not in Uzbekistan!” he responded, smiling. Mohammed nodded his support.

“I am going to confess something to you,” Zadar said. “I once traveled to Japan for work. I had an affair there with a girl from Singapore. I also had an affair with an Uzbek colleague. My wife saw the pictures of these women, but she wouldn’t dare question me.”

“Zadar, the fact that you cheated on her when you traveled doesn’t mean that she would do the same. She could cheat on you right here in Khiva!” I said.

“No, that’s impossible. She cannot do that,” he replied confidently. “How long are you staying in town, Daniela?” he asked, changing the topic abruptly.

“I am leaving in a few hours. I should go to the airport now, actually.”

“Mohammed and I wanted to invite you to his house, where his wife can cook traditional food. You can meet my wife, too!” said Zadar.

“Thank you, guys, but I can’t. Maybe the next time I come to Uzbekistan?”

“Please come back to Khiva for longer. Come with your boyfriend. We want to meet him! We will get you the best room with the best view of the old city. You are a friend. We take good care of you and your boyfriend. We will convince your boyfriend to marry you!” Zadar said with excitement.

We all laughed. As we shook hands, I thanked them for their kindness.

I went outside the monumental walls of Old Khiva and grabbed a taxi to the city’s airport.

It was 11 p.m. and dark when we landed at the Tashkent airport from Khiva. A lot of people waited outside the international terminal. Only the people who were going to check in were allowed inside. My flight to Moscow was at 4:55 a.m., so I had four hours prior to check-in. It wasn’t worth checking into a hotel in Tashkent for that long, but I was exhausted. I set my alarm clock for 2 a.m., put my backpack on the floor, and leaned on it to rest. It was hot and noisy, but I still managed to sleep. This was not the first time my backpack had served as a bed or pillow.

After the alarm clock went off, I went inside the terminal. The counter was still closed, so I went looking for something to eat. I found a little shop with souvenirs and food.

As I paid for some cookies, I asked the man at the shop if he could change my sums into dollars.

He didn’t speak much English, but he indicated with his hands that I should follow him. He pointed at a comfortable chair and offered me some tea.

“Akbar, my name,” he said. He was a chubby, hairy man who looked in his early forties.

“Nice to meet you! My name is Daniela.”

I thought he was trying to be considerate, since I had to wait another hour for check-in, or that he wanted me to wait there while he found out where I could change the money.

About twenty minutes passed, and every time I tried to leave, Akbar made me sit again.

“Photo, wait, photo. Camera coming!” he said, holding both of my hands hard.

For the past eight days, I had been posing in photos for Uzbeks of all ages. So it didn’t seem strange that Akbar wanted a photo as well.

I didn’t want to be rude, so I sat. But the camera was taking longer than expected, and I was getting anxious.

Akbar introduced me to some colleagues who worked at the airport. I had no idea what he was saying in Uzbek, but they were all smiling.

The check-in counter finally opened, so I told Akbar that I had to go. Akbar picked up my backpack and walked with me to the counter. After I got my ticket and was about to leave, he begged me not to leave without taking a picture. Suddenly, an innocent hospitality gesture felt like a kidnap attempt. I offered to take a picture with my camera and send it to him by mail. He accepted, grabbing my arm and taking me to another shop.

“Exclusive photo, exclusive!” he said.

With Akbar...

With Akbar...

At that point, I just wanted to get rid of him. I also wanted to exit without being rude, since he knew a lot of people at the airport and I didn’t want to get in trouble.

Akbar made me put on a traditional long robe with heavy gold embroidery and a golden hat with hanging beading. He also put on a traditional Uzbek costume. He grabbed my arm, squeezed close to me, and proudly held his head up as if he were an Uzbek khan. The photo was finally taken.

“Beautiful, beautiful!” he said, looking at me in my Uzbek costume. He insisted I take the hat with me.

He had his photo, so he had no more excuse to keep me “hostage.” At least, that’s what I thought.

I got in line for customs. Akbar followed me. “No problem,” he said.

He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me with him. He talked to a customs officer, who let me pass. I felt awful to have been let through before the people who had been waiting in line, but Akbar didn’t understand that I was okay with waiting my turn. At least the Uzbek custom officers—who were infamous for giving foreigners a hard time —didn’t ask me a word, letting me go straight to immigration.

As with customs, Akbar took me straight to the counter of an immigration officer. Akbar stood very close to me as I got my passport stamped.

When I was about to cross into the gate, Akbar gave me a tight hug and a kiss on each cheek. His eyes were red and watery.

I didn’t know if I should be moved or scared.He waved and threw kisses at me as I walked away.

Fellow travelers watched the scene. If they knew what a night it had been . . .! At last, I made it to the gate. My Uzbek adventure was over. In a matter of hours, I would finally be home again.

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5 Comments

There are currently 5 Comments on The Last 24 Hours in Uzbekistan: A Wedding, the Gay Dilemma, and the Kidnapping Attempt. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  2. Dany!…Es un placer haberte conocido, estoy todavía impresionada con todos los viajes y notas que has plasmado en esta página…Que padre el legado que estás trabajando!…recibe un abrazo.

  3. Lo mismo Ale. Un placer haberte conocido y saber que disfrutas mi web. Sigue corriendo la voz sobre Diaries 🙂

  4. Uzbekistan sounds interesting and unique. After being to Tajikistan several times, I will definitely cross the border this time to take a look around, since your photos hit a nerve. Thanks for that!
    If you haven’t been there already, you should consider a tour along the Pamir Highway, nice landscape and very nice people (especially in autumn, since the wild growing pomegranates and pistachios are ripe and the cotton harvest underway).

  5. Hi Anders! Uzbekistan is really a unique place. I loved it. The architecture is truly striking, and people are so welcoming. They dont get many tourists so when they see one, they treat them really well! I would love, on the other hand, go to Tajikistan! The Pamir Highway is on my list. thank you for the tips 😉

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