Uzbekistan 2000 – Turkestan

The Road to Turkestan – Monday, September 11

I was on my way to Turkestan, in Kazakhstan, to visit the Yasawi Mausoleum. It’s one of the best preserved of the many monuments built by Timur – the national hero of Uzbekistan. It was the last trip of my vacation and something I had been looking forward to the whole time.

I had a driver take me to the Uzbek-Kazakh border where I found a line of trucks a mile long and lots of people milling around. I was dropped at the last turn around and walked the final few hundred yards to the border. I was surprised how quick the crossing went after seeing all the people. It was just like at any airport: my passport was checked and stamped first by the Uzbeks and then by the Kazakhs. It didn’t take more than 15 minutes.

On the Kazakh side I was supposed to meet a driver who was going to take me to Turkestan, about four hours away. As soon as I passed Kazakh customs I started looking for someone looking for me. As the driver that met me at the Tashkent airport had been late, I wasn’t surprised that there was no one waiting here. I stood near the border and waited patiently for awhile.

I was the only Westerner around and became the center of attention. In the first ten minutes I bet I met every taxi driver, moneychanger and bus driver. They all wanted to know where I was going and if I wanted to change money. I tried to explain I was looking for my driver but no one spoke any English.

After standing for awhile in the fierce sun, I decided I might be here awhile and had better find some shade. There was a small tree down the road a ways, so I headed there. The problem was that it took me farther from the border and, I worried, that might make it harder for the driver to find me.

I stood in the shade of the little tree watching the arriving cars. My theory was that the driver hadn’t arrived yet and I meant to catch him on the way in. As I didn’t know who or what I was looking for, every car was of interest. I spent the next hour or so wondering what kind of car I was looking for and speculating whether the driver would ever arrive. Various vendors, drivers and border officials came by to see why I was standing there. Other than the heat, I had a pleasant enough time trying to guess what was in the boxes loaded on so many cars – grapes, I finally decided. After a while I realized that something was wrong and figured I had better go find a phone.

This presented it own problems: no one yet had spoken more that a few words of English. How would I find a phone? I headed back toward to the border and started asking around. I held my hand to my face, thumb in my ear and little finger near my mouth and asked, “Phone? Phone?” It worked: the first person I asked pointed back toward the border. After walking a short ways I asked again and was pointed in the same direction. Finally someone pointed at a rusty, metal shed � there was no sign.

Inside a woman sat at a little counter with a phone. I gave her the number of my travel agent in Almaty and she placed the call. The agent was surprised that the driver and guide hadn’t found me. I learned right there that two people were meeting me: a man and a woman � that, I thought, would help in finding them. I asked what kind of car they were driving. And what color and license number? I figured if I couldn’t find them, I might be able to locate the car. She said she didn’t know, but would find out and that I should call back in ten minutes.

I took little walk and then called again. This time she described the car to me: a gray four-door Hyundai. Just as she was giving me the license number, a well-dressed man in his late 30’s came up to me and asked, “Mr. Bore-nett? Mr. Doogh Bore-nett?” I smiled and asked him in return, “Turkestan? Are you the guy who’s going to drive me to Turkestan?” He nodded. I told the agent that I had found the driver and hung up. He took me outside to a car parked right in front of the phone shed. “Wait. I get my friend,” he said and left. So the car was right there all the time � if I had only known what I was looking for.

In a minute the driver returned with the guide. She was a short, heavy woman in her late 40’s. She introduced herself, Sholpan, and then started apologizing. She explained that they had been waiting for me at the border. Apparently, we had passed each other. They were more upset than I was. When you travel you have to make the best of the delays.

We were off and within minutes the air conditioning had cooled the car (and me). The road was wide and smooth and we drove past golden-brown hills – it looked like northern California. We talked as we drove – the driver, Murot, showed a great interest in me and asked a lot of questions through Sholpan. When he found out I worked with computers he wanted to talk shop. He told me all about the computer he had just bought in Dubai. He was quite proud.

Sholpan wanted to talk too. She had a pile of hand-written notes she was reading from. They were about the history of the area and the monument I was going to see. It was the kind of information you would find in any reference or guide book. It was pretty dry stuff, but it was clear Sholpan had put a lot of effort into getting ready for this trip, so I tried to seem interested.

After a couple of hours we entered Shymkent, a mildly modern looking city. Both Sholpan and Murot lived in Shymkent and we stopped at a little bazaar they knew. As they picked up some water and fruit, I took some pictures. Everybody was very friendly and I felt quite the celebrity. As is often the case, people wanted me to take my picture with them. We had a lot of fun at that market.

When we reached the outskirts of Shymkent, Murot suggested we stop for something to eat. He said the food was better here than in Turkestan. He knew a place that was just off the road. From the outside it didn’t look like much and I was a little worried. But inside there was an open courtyard with a fountain and a series of private dining rooms around the outside. Murot said he came here with friends on special occasions.

The waitress brought menus and after an incredible amount of discussion we finally ordered two courses. The first was a kind of tortellini soup. It came with something yellow floating on top. I put the tip of my spoon in it and gave it a taste � butter. There was a pat of melted butter floating in the soup. One of the things all Westerners comment on with Uzbek and Kazakh food is how greasy it is. The soup was delicious anyway.

The second course was some kind of meatballs and the smallest bird I have ever seen. It came with the same delicious bread I had been getting in Uzbekistan. The meatballs weren’t anything special � just undercooked, ground meat � but I almost laughed to look at the bird. It didn’t look like there was anything to eat – the wings and legs were miniscule. Also, I wasn’t sure what the proper way to eat this tiny thing was so I went after the meatballs first. I figured I would wait and see how Sholpan and Murot handled it, but they ate their meatball first also.

Finally, I decided to ask and found out they hadn’t eaten this kind of bird before either. So we all attacked the little thing together � it was surprisingly good. There was more to eat than it seemed – the bird’s tiny body was full of stuffing. We drank some kind of Kazakh pop that tasted like ginger ale. We had a very nice meal.

As I feared would happen, Murot snuck off and paid the bill. As no meals were prepaid on this trip, it came out of his pocket. This always confuses me. The cynical part of me thinks that he was just trying to ingratiate himself, so I would give him a bigger tip. But maybe I was being unfair – maybe he was just being hospitable. Still, I would have been happier if I had paid for the meal � now I felt indebted to him.

Back on the road we passed the next two hours to Turkestan with more monologues from Sholpan. It was also clear she wanted to practice her English – she taught English at a university in Shymkent and she said she rarely got a chance to talk with a native English speaker. I was glad to oblige.

Both sides of the road were now lined with cotton fields and we passed wagons loaded with cotton on the road. I told Murot and Sholpan about my mother: how she had grown up on a cotton farm in Missouri and how many of her siblings had moved to Michigan to escape the drudgery of the farm only to exchange it for the drudgery of the automobile plant � an American success story, of sorts. They thought that was quite interesting.

All this time Murot’s speed was creeping up and up – sound familiar? I decided to take a different tack this time. I told Sholpan I wanted to tell Murot a story about a traffic accident I had been. As I told about my experience in Jordan, he wanted to know all the gory details: was I hurt? How? Did anyone die? I told him the whole ugly story and then when I was done I said: “Since then I get very nervous when anyone drives fast, so can I ask you to please drive slower?” Both Sholpan and Murot were a little surprised the direction the story had taken, but it had the desired results. He slowed down. I thought this was a good way to get his speed down.

Before long we arrived in Turkestan. The mausoleum was just outside the town and we decided to stop immediately and not wait until tomorrow as the travel agent has scheduled. I was glad to stop now – I had come a long ways and I didn’t want to wait.

The building was set back off the road and there was a lot of construction going on. Apparently the 150th anniversary celebration was coming up in a few weeks. We walked back through a huge rose garden and as we got closer I could see the scaffolding that was used during Timur’s time. Construction had stopped when he died. The front of the building – the entrance portal – was never finished. It is still just undecorated brick.

Inside was a soaring dome, the highest I had seen on this trip. Under it was a large metal cauldron. Sholpan told me that it was a tradition to put a small donation in it and make a wish. We each took our turn. Behind the main room was the tomb of the saint under a smaller dome.

Next we walked around to the back of the building. From there I could see three different domes � each covered in blue tile. The walls were decorated with patterns of blue tiles and unglazed bricks. The building is all the more lovely because it stands alone in an open field. After taking some more pictures we headed back to the car and off to find my hotel.

This turned out to be more of a task than I would have imagined. First, we drove into the dusty town and looked around, but didn’t turn up the hotel. Then we headed back out to the mausoleum again and after two passes, we finally found the hotel. It certainly wasn’t marked well. After I checked in, Sholpan and Murot took off saying that they would return in the morning. I spent the evening sitting in the hotel courtyard writing in my journal.

In the morning we paid one more visit to the mausoleum. I took a few more pictures with Sholpan in front of the rose garden and the building in the back. It was lovely in the morning light. Then we set off for Uzbekistan. Although yesterday’s story had done the job – Murot wasn’t speeding – he certainly wasn’t a very good driver. He had a habit of accelerating until he realized he was going too fast. He would then take his foot of the gas and let the car coast back down. He did this over and over: accelerating, coasting, accelerating, coasting. With nothing else to do, I counted 20 accelerations/decelerations in one minute. This went on all the way back to the Kazahk/Uzbek border – four hours. I was getting seasick. He was a nice enough guy but a lousy driver.

At the border Sholpan and Murot walked me through Kazakh customs and immigration. We then shook hands good-bye and I walked on to Uzbekistan. There was some confusion about the Uzbek currency declaration – I hadn’t turned one in on the way out – so I just filled out a new one. No one seemed to care that much, it was just another form.

On the Uzbek side I went looking for a phone. I asked around – hand-to-face again – and found a guy who was renting his mobile phone. I called my Tashkent travel agent and told them I was back. They said a car would be there in 20 minutes. I then asked the phone guy if he could change my Kazakh money back to Sum. He walked over to a cooler and got out a huge wad of Sum and counted some out for me. Talk about cold cash – I only wish the beer was that cold. Anyway, the driver soon arrived and took me back to the Uzbekistan Hotel.

Anyone wishing to make a similar trip to Turkestan could do it without the agent, driver and guide. Any Tashkent taxi could take you to the border and with the correct visa you can walk into Kazakhstan. From there it would be easy to get a taxi to Turkestan – I had plenty of offers. I was worried about doing the trip in two days, but there turned out to be more than enough time. Turkestan is less than four hours from the border. If you got an early start you could probably do it in a single day. The mausoleum is quite lovely and certainly worth the effort.