The road to Tim and Samarkand – Thursday, September 7
Laura wanted to stop in Tim on the way to Samarkand and that created a couple of problems. First, Tim wasn’t exactly on the way to Samarkand and the side trip would add hours to our journey. More importantly, none of us were sure exactly where Tim was. All we had a very basic map from one of my travel guides. But it didn’t matter: Laura was a student of Islamic architecture from Italy. She was in Uzbekistan doing research and Tim had a mausoleum she wanted to see. We decided to go find it.
I had first heard about Laura from Amin, a young Uzbek guide/hustler who seemed to know all the travelers in Bukhara. When he found out I was going to Samarkand, he suggested I travel with Laura. My interest in Islamic architecture was great enough to bring me to Bukhara and I thought a trip into the countryside would be interesting.
So it was arranged. There were four of us: Laura and I as passengers, the young driver, and Amin, who would act as guide and interpreter. He was also going along to make sure we found Tim. We set off at 7:00 in the morning in a little four-door Daewoo. We piled our packs in the back on top of the huge speaker that was going to dominate our lives, on and off, for the next 10 hours. The sky was clear and the sun was already hot.
Our first stop was the Bakhautdin Naqshband mausoleum just outside Bukhara. Here a pattern was established: Amin recounted the history of the mausoleum and then Laura explained the architecture. We walked around, took a few pictures and looked at the tomb of the sufi saint. Then we peeked into the prayer hall and finally visited the large cemetery behind the mausoleum. But Tim was calling and we didn’t linger long.
After one more stop for food and water, we hit the open road. The two-lane road was straight and almost flat. We drove past orchards, fallow fields and small settlements. As we were settling in, I noticed Amin was rummaging through the glove box looking for a tape to play. I had brought one with me, a copy of all my favorite country music. I had dreamed of driving across the desert with George Jones or Conway Twitty playing. My friends in Michigan won’t listen with me, maybe these Uzbekis would.
“Here’s something to put on,” I said offering the tape to Amin. “See if you like it.” He put the tape in and turned the volume up. From the first note it was a hit. We rolled down the road with a hot wind blowing in the windows and country music blaring. We all sang along, or tried to. The boys in the front danced and wiggled in their seats. There was a sense of excitement in the air: we were on our way to Tim.
Along the way there were other things that Laura wanted to see. Our next stop was in the small town of Vabkent. There was an interesting brick minaret there that had a band of Koranic verse written in blue tile near the top. Laura, always prepared, had a pair of small binoculars to view it with. A little later we stopped in the busy town of Karmana to see another mosque. While Laura and I talked about how the dome was constructed, Amin paused to pray at the tomb of yet another sufi mystic.
It was the same pattern each time: Amin with the history, Laura with the architecture and now, back in the car, I was telling them about country music: all about Hank and Webb, Conway and George. At first I was delighted with the reception that the country music had received, but slowly I realized I had a problem too.
The driver, who already had a taste for speed, seemed to driver faster with the up-tempo songs. He had a habit of driving faster and faster until something forced him to slow down – a car pulling in front of us or some hole in the road. Then he slammed on the brakes and we bounced around inside the tiny car. I repeatedly asked Amin to tell him to slow down, but his slow spells were always temporary. Soon we were speeding furiously along only to be forced to break hard again.
As readers of my travelogues may remember, I was involved in a traffic accident in Jordan a few years back and have been pretty nervous about fast driving since. I decided I was going to have to have talk to Amin.
That opportunity came when we stopped to see yet another little known but incredibly lovely mosque. This one was unique because it had 9 domes – one of only three still in existence, Laura told us.
While Laura took photos, I told Amin that he really must get the driver to slow down. When we got back to the car I could see that Amin and the driver were having a little heart-to-heart. They were talking in Uzbeki, but the driver was looking at me in the rear view mirror. I tried to look both stern but friendly. I really didn’t want this to turn into some ugly issue between the driver and myself, but he really had to slow down.
We left the main road at the industrial town of Navoi and headed south into the flat, barren land. We passed little settlements where goats lay in the scant shade of the mud walls. There were few people out in the midday heat, but when we saw someone – anyone – we would stop. There were no road signs and we seldom passed up a chance to ask directions. Amin would get out to talk to them and see what they knew. Laura and I would get out too to stretch our legs and take a few photos. The driver would slouch in his seat listening to the country tape – a budding young Uzbek hillbilly.
Whenever there was a fork in the road it prompted a discussion between Amin and the driver. Sometimes Laura and I would add our opinion but none of us really knew for sure where Tim was and we had to rely on the people Amin talked to.
There was little to see now, just endless flat land. There were giant “dust devils” swirling in the distance to break up the monotony. And over and over the country tape played, like some monster I had let loose in the car. Laura and I, in the back, directly next to speaker, couldn’t talk and we begged Amin to turn it down. He would but soon, somehow, it always got turned back up to a painful level again. Finally we revolted. “Turn it off. Time out,” we shouted at Amin, “No more music” – and for a while it was quiet and we could talk.
All the time we were closing in on Tim. Just as we entered the small town Laura spotted “her” building and we all let out a cheer. The driver turned off the road and parked a little ways off. As we walked up to the mausoleum, we started to collect a few of the local kids – they came to see what we were up to. More came as we opened the building and started looking around.
It was a humble little building for such a long trip – its claim to fame was that it was the earliest existing example of Koranic scripture used in a decorative band around the portal – a feature of almost all Islamic monuments since. Inside was a small tomb of the saint.
As we were looking around more locals showed up. The driver squatted in the shade of the dome talking to the local young men, probably telling of his driving exploits. Laura was in heaven taking photos and I had Amin translating for me so I could see what the local kids were up to. Apparently none of them had ever seen the inside of the building and they walked in for a cautious look.
Then Amin did something stupid.
At the tomb we could hear kids shouting and splashing from a pond nearby. Amin decided he wanted to have a swim and ran off. I stayed with Laura and, when she was done, the driver locked up the building. Then we set off to find Amin. At the pool we discovered that Amin, in his haste to get in the water, had fallen and gashed his back and arm. While it wasn’t life threatening, they were ugly cuts. Laura, ever ready, said she had first aid supplies back at the car so that’s where we headed. And along with us came our whole audience of kids and young men.
Laura had everything from sutures to bandages in her pack. We cleaned up Amin’s wound and covered them with bandages. Our audience had settled down next to the car in the shade where they had a good view. After we had patched up Amin and were assured he was ok, I walked around taking a few pictures.
An old man in a bright coat had come down to water his cows. I called to Amin and had him ask the old man if I could take his picture – he was quite handsome in his colorful coat. He nodded ok and, as I was taking the picture, he asked Amin where I was from. Amin told him America and he said, without missing a beat, “Oh, I’ve been there.” When Amin translated that I looked up in surprise only to realize he was ribbing me. We all had a good laugh about that – what a quick sense of humor!
And then on to Samarkand – but there was still one lingering problem, the driver immediately started speeding again. I thought, “I’m going to have to kill him if he doesn’t slow down.” I was getting really tired of this constant battle. Then a thought occurred to me. “Amin,” I said, “Translate this for the driver. Tell him that I’ll give him a bonus if he slows down – a nice bonus.” The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror as he listened to Amin. “Now tell him that if he does speed that there will be no bonus. No bonus at all.” I repeated, looking directly at him. “God,” I thought, “I hope that works otherwise I don’t know what I’ll do.”
We drove along a narrow, bumpy road now heading east toward Samarkand, about three hours away. It was quiet in the car as Laura and I had mandated no music. I immediately saw that the driver was trying to slow down, but he had a heavy foot and was quickly speeding again. As soon as he realized it, he slowed down and glanced in the mirror – he didn’t want to lose his bonus. I saw that and knew I finally had him. Money was talking to him now and I knew he was through speeding with me in the car. I secretly cheered.
Life was good: we had seen the mausoleum in Tim and a lot of other interesting things along the way. We had listened to my country tape and I had finally won the battle of the speed. Laura and I relaxed and talked of our travels and of life. About 5:00 we arrived in Samarkand.
They dropped me at my hotel first. We all swapped email addresses and promised to keep in touch. After consulting with Laura, I gave the driver $2 – he seemed quite happy.
I checked into the hotel and took a shower. I wanted to wash the dust off. I then took a walk to try to work the kinks out of my back from the 10-hour trip we had just taken. After a semi-cold bottle of Sprite, I went to bed. What a great day!