Friday, 17 April 2015

Daft tourists on tour across Uzbekistan

The Easter holidays arrived, as did our friends from university who work in Moscow. After twelve weeks of hard work, it was time to finally leave Tashkent and go on an adventure.

The first stop was Khiva, a city near the border with Turkmenistan. To get there, we had to fly to Urgench and get two taxis the rest of the way. It should have been fairly uneventful, but the most intelligent member of our group left her passport in the seat pocket of the plane. Luckily, our taxi driver was fairly proactive; he called the airport, verified the passport’s location and drove us back there. I learnt my lesson about putting things in the seat pocket on aeroplanes, and the only bad part of the experience (aside from a small extra expenditure) ended up being that the other taxi beat us to Khiva.

We stayed in a hostel in the old town, or the Itchan Kala. Around the whole town is a wall which dates back to the 17th century, although the foundations are much older. We spent the early evening on our balcony, admiring the windy streets and flat roofs with a couple of beers, and then went out for plov. Little did we know that it would be the first of five servings of plov that would occur in the next four days.

During our first day in Khiva, we explored the markets and wandered the city walls looking for a good view. Children came running along the streets after us, shouting, “hello! Hello! Bye bye!” I have never felt so exotic.

In the afternoon, we left the city for the Kyzylkum Desert, where we were to spend the night in a yurt. Our taxi driver played music by my favourite Uzbek popstar, Shahzoda, the whole way there, which was fabulous. We had plans to ride camels, but when we arrived, the lady who ran the camp told us that the camels generally roam the wilderness but sometimes come back for a drink. At the time of our arrival, the camels were having a bit of space. So we decided to take a stroll in the desert.

Some unfinished yurts. They are usually covered in lots of animal skin.

 The desert was a lot greener than I expected: very sandy but decorated with spiky grass and sporadic shrubs. We even found a plant could be described as ‘desert broccoli’. But even vegetables in the wild were not as exciting as what we saw next. While posing for a dramatic photo, my friend and I looked down and saw a luminous creature scuttling next to our feet. Of course, we reacted really maturely by screaming, “scorpion!” and running away. And then standing around it taking photos like the daft tourists we are. Once back in a Wi-Fi zone, one of our group found out that the little arthropod we’d been pestering was actually the most dangerous scorpion in the world, and the third most venomous.

I'm not sure how something can be the 'most dangerous' but only the 'third most venomous', but apparently that's how it works.

However, the best part of the desert was seeing the ancient fortresses, some of which are about 2400 years old. According to our (borrowed) guidebook, the desert is home to at least 50 fortresses which have yet to be excavated. We visited three of them, which were mostly deserted, but had background stories worthy of George R.R. Martin. Who wouldn’t want to see the place where a king killed 31 of his relatives to ensure that he was first in line to the throne? What about the one in which a king killed his daughter’s lover in front of her? Not bloodthirsty enough? There was one in which a soldier seduced a woman to gain access to the fortress, and then slaughtered everyone in sight once inside.

Not pictured: slaughter.

After a few battle re-enactments and a game of Fortress-Fortress 1-2-3 (or 1-2-3 Out, 40-40, Blocker, Tracker, whatever you want to call it), we went back to Khiva to get some lunch. The waiter was rather animated about how delicious the fried fish was, so we all ordered it, looking forward to trying some kind of Khivan speciality dish. It turned out to be fish and chips.

However, we became cultural once more by climbing a minaret. After this experience, I have a lot more respect for people who have to climb minarets every day, as the stairs were about as steep as those in student houses in Sheffield, with no banister or light to aid climbing. With my phone torch in my teeth, I scaled the spiral staircase and tried not to think about how far I had to fall were I to lean back accidentally. The view was fantastic, and we even managed to squeeze all eight of us onto the platform at the top of the stairs for a band photo. But it wasn’t all so idyllic; the worst was yet to come. Descending that minaret was the single most terrifying thing in the world, ever. The stairs became darker and steeper and the ceiling edged further and further away, making it impossible to find any kind of handhold. Eventually, I climbed down sideways, clinging to the steps above and below. My thighs are still hurting, four days later. However, I think this has less to do with the minaret, and more to do with my need for regular exercise.

We climbed this!

Next, we flew to Bukhara, keeping our passports as far away from seat pockets as possible. The first thing we did once we landed was eat plov, of course. We looked around the old town, the Registan and the markets. Bukhara was saturated with tourists compared to Khiva and Tashkent; we saw people from France, Germany, America and Sweden. We barely stood out, which meant that we felt more at ease, but everything was a lot more expensive.

On the last day in Bukhara, we visited the Ark Fortress, and accidentally bought a guided tour. We found out a lot of interesting facts about where the King sat, and how they had built a wall for people to back into and slide around so that they would never turn their back on him. There were some beautiful buildings, but the majority of the tour seemed to take place in tourist shops.

The no-back-turning wall.

After lunch, we visited the Summer Palace. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of battery at this point, about three minutes after I spent an extra 3000 sum on a ticket that would allow me to take photos. The palace itself was shabbier than it perhaps once was, but it was beautiful nonetheless. There were peacocks, ravens and even (apparently) a snake. Inside the palace, the d├ęcor was inventive and opulent. The first room was completely decorated in white woodwork that looked like patterned lace. In others, there were rooms entirely covered in mirrored and brightly coloured tiles, with windows in blue and red glass. It was so disco. We finished our visit in true ‘British people visiting a stately home’ fashion: with coffee and cake.

So, the holiday had gone (mostly) without a hitch. But there was one thing that we had not considered: our own foolishness. We got to the station, running a little late but otherwise unharmed. We showed the tickets to the guy for registration. He pointed to the date. Actually, we weren’t late for the train. We were a whole month early. Somehow, despite the fact that two of us had confirmed with the woman at the ticket office that we wanted tickets for April, we had managed to obtain tickets for May. And not one of the eight of us in our group had noticed.

Everyone in the station laughed at us for a little while, but then we were rescued by a man on the phone who only spoke Uzbek. He took one of the members of our group away for about ten minutes while we waited, our stress levels gradually increasing. The registration chap really enjoyed telling us that we would not get on the train, waving his arms and shouting, “NYET”. Eventually, after a tense wait, our friend reappeared, waving us through to the train. But it was almost not to be. A policeman came running after us shouting for us to stop. There was a huge argument in Uzbek, but eventually we were shown to the platform, where we all inexplicably ran to the train. We were put in the guard’s cabin, which consisted of a bunkbed with a bedside table. Four of us in one, four of us in the other. For six hours. Honestly, we were just happy to be on the train. And everyone’s mood lightened further when the guards opened our door to offer us plov and wine. I have a feeling we were slightly overcharged, but if I really have to become a victim of extortion for being foreign and stupid, I’d rather there were a bowl of plov and a bottle of wine involved.

Finally back in Tashkent, we went for a celebratory meal which was accompanied by a band playing traditional music, Russian folk songs and 80s classics on drums, violin and guitar. It was a lovely end to an adventure which taught us all about the dangers of scorpions, aeroplane seat pockets and not checking the date on your train ticket.

Here's a song from our taxi drive into the desert.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Assalom Navruz! - Springtime celebrations

About two weeks ago, I was being driven by a grumpy man to my Russian lesson. As we drove down the road, I noticed that the entire city was being prettied up. There were banners hanging from the lampposts and giant pink flowers everywhere. Teams of workers in high-viz were painting the bottoms of trees to make them look like they’d been paddling in white water. I’ve been told that this paint is to protect them from pesticides. I asked the grumpy man, what’s going on?


“Oh, of course…”

Look at that impressively straight line.

As a dim westerner, I had heard of Navruz. But all I knew was that it marked the beginning of spring and that everyone was convinced that it would finally warm up once it hit March 21st. The British amongst you will be interested to know that we have had snow, torrential rain and a day-long heatwave all within the past three weeks, so we were looking forward to some sunbathing weather. What I hadn’t realised was that Navruz, the first day of spring and Eastern New Year, is as important here as Christmas and our New Year are to us.

One of the traditions of Navruz is making Sumalak, a paste that tastes like sweet liquid bread. It even has its own legend, in which a widow asked her neighbour for some wheat to feed her two sons. She added the wheat to a pot and left it overnight, but awoke in the early hours to see angels standing around the pot, licking their fingers. Upon seeing this, she woke her sons, who ate the porridge, which they named Sumalak.

It does taste better than its colour suggests.

So, an email was sent round hinting for someone with a garden to host a Sumalak party. And, of course, we agreed to hold it, because otherwise what would I write my blog about?

First of all, we found some burly lifters to carry a cauldron into our garden. They borrowed some bricks to balance it on our lawn and stop it from singeing the grass. It’s debateable how successful this was.


Next, the pot needed a good clean. This was obviously the most difficult job, so it had to be left to someone trustworthy and efficient.

I even changed out of my pretty dress for this.

My other responsibilities included peeling potatoes, washing bowls and washing cups. And unclogging the dishwasher when it filled with dirty, mysteriously carroty water.

The ubiquitous Uzbek teacups. So pretty!

Once my cleaning duties were over, it was time to start on the Sumalak! Our friend’s aunt brought round several buckets of wheatgrass which had been soaking in water for several days. The girls were given the job of squeezing the water out of it, which was incredibly satisfying. It was washed again and again and the whole process was repeated several times.

This is the stuff you squeeze with a gauze bag.

Then it was time to go to my Russian lesson, so I entrusted my friends with my camera to document the rest of the process. Apparently some stones were put into the pot and the wheatgrass liquid was poured over it. Then it was time to stir: a process which would last for fourteen hours. When you stir the pot, you are allowed to make a wish every time you touch the stones. Whoever is in charge of wishes must have had an exhausting day.

Pouring the mixture in!

Not only did we stir, but some of our kind male Uzbek friends made us plov. First, it was down to the girls to clean the rice to make sure it was free from stones and pieces of plant. I thought I was doing a good job until a seven-year-old came to help me and pointed out some boulders I’d missed.

Hard at work.

The evening was fantastic: we ate plov and shashlik, danced to Uzbek and European pop music and continued to stir. But, as the night wore on, disaster struck in true British fashion. It began to rain. Everyone ran to save the Sumalak from the deluge: I continued to stir, some girls ran to fetch a big piece of cloth and a wild gazebo appeared.

Now that I've finally taken a picture of plov, I have fulfilled this blog's purpose and can probably stop.
You invite a load of British people to a party and all they bring is their weather...
At 2am, it was time to cover up the Sumalak pot and wait until the morning. The sensible people went to bed. The not-so-sensible people sat up playing a card game called ‘Durak’, which translates as ‘Fool’ in English. I decided to use this as a prime opportunity to start learning Uzbek, as I was surrounded by people who were speaking to each other in nothing else. After about two hours, I finally admitted defeat, as I inexplicably began to lose again and again. I strongly suspect that not having learnt some Uzbek before coming here may have been a disadvantage…

If you can actually explain the rules of Durak succinctly, I'll give you 4000 sum and 2 house points.

I finally went to bed at 4.30am, and woke up three hours later. The Sumalak was already in jars on the table, and my lovely housemate, Laura (you can find her blog, The Pinch of Salt Adventures here) was already making pancakes. There was a wonderful community feeling of exhaustion as we began to tidy up the house.

So that was the weekend of the epic Uzbek cooking lesson. Without sounding too soppy, I would like to say a huge thank you to all of the local people who came to our house and shared their traditions with us. We now have jars upon jars of Sumalak in our fridge and the memory of a great celebration. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

New house, new light fittings.

Hello, fans! I am back in Tashkent and have moved into a house with four other young women. There are several reasons for this, including a flat invasion during my first week, which I kept off the internet so that no family members inundated me with worried Facebook messages. The new house is somewhat larger than my old flat, as you will see.

So, lovely blog readers, welcome to my virtual tour of my new place in Tashkent, available from the comfort of your own home/library/bus/toilet/treehouse from which you can reach the internet.

When you enter the front door, you find yourself in a large, empty space. I believe this is the garage, where we would park all of our cars, were we not but recent university graduates. In the corner is a sink, which is useful for all of our outdoor washing needs. If you go through the glass doors, you can see our garden which includes one of our two pools and the outdoor kitchen. We have yet to use either of these, as it is still January and therefore nippy, but talking about having excellent garden parties is almost as exciting as actually having one.

All that necessary space!

 Going into the main house, you will find yourself in a hall. On the right, you can see our first living room which has tasteful white leather sofas and an even more tasteful green marble fireplace. This is where we sit and cry at Girls and shout at people in films such as Young People Fucking, which has changed all of our lives. I have a feeling that the six of us who watched it were the only six people on earth who have done so, which is a shame because it has real cult classic potential. It’s up there with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

The green light under the ceiling decor really adds a sense of style.

Next is the kitchen. It’s a kitchen. It’s nice. Next to the kitchen is a toilet, which is great. Then onto the first ensuite room with the most unnecessarily large wardrobe I have ever seen. My family probably does not own enough possessions to fit in there.

This is the kitchen, not the wardrobe.

Next we come to the banquet hall. This is where we host dinner parties and entertain guests. At the moment, our only entertainment is our conversation and a Bluetooth speaker, but we have started to pester the HR manager at work to let us get a piano. I’m sure our guests will be begging us to play it every time they visit. Or I’ll beg them to listen to me. Either way, there’s going to be a lot of piano going on if we’re allowed to get one.

Someone saw this in a shop and thought, "I should buy this and put it in a house."

Halfway up the stairs, you can find the most interesting room. As you enter, the temperature drops several degrees. The windows are somehow above the bottom of the ceiling, so there is very little light. One chair is facing the window, so you can sit there and think about how nice it would be to actually look out of it. We are currently using this room as a ‘Room of Requirement’: a gallery for art and bizarre objects that we have picked up during our time in Tashkent. Any unruly guests will be placed in here to consider their behaviour.

I'll give a volunteer 4000 Uzbek sum to spend the night in here.

Upstairs are the bedrooms. We have a green one, a blue one and a pink one.  The blue one is the best one because it is where I live. Everyone keeps telling me that this doesn’t make it the best room, but I disagree. I chose it because it is small and blue. And I love blue. For any long-term fans, I have a treat for you. Just look at the light fittings!
I hope there is nothing embarrassing in this photo that I haven't spotted.

I use this one when I'm feeling particularly gothy.

Next, you can see our second living room and the balcony. Just imagine all the Romeo and Juliet re-enactments that could take place. Just imagine waking up in the morning and throwing open the door to greet the day. Just imagine all of the smokers cramming themselves onto it at a party.

Downstairs, we can find our ballroom. We aim to build a den down here in the corner. There is a shower with a door that refuses to close, so having a shower is a rather liberating and risky experience. Next to the shower is the plunge pool which has been mysteriously filling with water – we have still yet to ascertain whether this is a natural phenomenon or the dirty shower water that has somehow got lost. Either way, we are not going to plunge into it just yet. And the last thing you can see on our tour is the sauna!

This house is probably the hugest place I will ever live. Even though my room is the smallest in the house, it is still about a third larger than any room I have lived in before. It’s so easy to keep it tidy because even if I threw all of my worldly possessions onto the floor, there would still be room to roll around and frolic. Feel free to come and visit.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Christmas Horror. And rafts.

I’m home! How exciting for everyone involved. So exciting for my parents that, after the first day of being around me, they both became overwhelmed and spent the day in bed being unwell. Sorry, mum and dad. And sorry for telling the internet.

The holidays began at baggage reclaim, sweating and swearing in four layers of coats and jumpers, head in my hands on a luggage trolley repeating the words “I want to go home. I want my mum. I want to go home.” After half an hour of staring at a blue screen with the words 'awaiting baggage' taunting us, I ran out of the airport and into the arms of my mum and my sister who were both supporting Christmas, judging from the jumpers.

I bored my mum for several hours on the drive home about what it’s like to be a teacher, what Uzbekistan is like and “oh my God, this feels like the wrong side of the road, how amusing.” And we got back to Matlock Bath and nothing had changed. Oh, apart from the addition of the worst street lights in the world which make everything look like daylight when it’s not.

Is it day? Is it night? Life is confusing and disturbing enough as it is without having to ask these questions.

I spent the whole of Christmas eve asleep until the event of the year (Eurovision aside): Nic the Vic’s Temple Hotel Christmas Pub Quiz. Catchy. Sadly, our under-23s team’s performance was substandard. Pop culture knowledge was second to none, but the eight years of immorality that separate me from a Catholic upbringing meant that the vicar’s questions on Biblical details from the nativity were rather challenging. However, it would be rude to whine because there was a lot of beer and I have a sneaking suspicion that one question was included just for me: “How many countries end in –stan?”

Actual Christmas was, and I’m not going to mince my words so pardon my language here, pants. I awoke to the sounds of both parents puking in stereo, and realised that my sister and I were in charge of Christmas. So while everyone else was instagramming every roasted ingredient of their perfect dinner, my little sister and I cried into the odd-smelling combination of everything we could find in the cupboard with potato on top. We then watched the first half of the Miranda Christmas special, hoping it would cheer us up, but, obviously anyone who has seen that will know that the first episode ends pretty sadly and is also… well, not very good.

The next day was a lot better, because on Boxing Day you’re allowed to see people who aren’t related to you, which in my case meant seeing people who weren’t vomiting. In Matlock, there is a very famous event that takes place on Boxing Day: the raft race. It’s so famous that it was even in the Matlock Mercury this week. A bunch of totally sensible people assemble rafts from old oil drums, wood and sometimes old pieces of cars and ride the results down a small portion of the River Derwent. The best place to stand to watch this spectacle is as near to the weir as possible. This is because all the boats get stuck on it so everyone laughs and throws bags of flour at them.

Here are some people dressed as Oompa Loompas in a boat.

The Christmas holidays gradually got better from there, and included many nights out and visits to Manchester and Liverpool. Big thank you to everyone who has invited me to places, had me to stay and agreed to come to the pub with me over the holidays.

And now you're in my blog. Soz, guys.