August 22: Nurata, Uzbekistan
7:00 The sun is shining brightly through the cracks and gaps in our yurt. I shake my head and decide that I feel pretty good. Not good enough to eat greasy fried eggs and steamed wieners, mind you, but pretty good considering the amount of vodka that was consumed only six hours earlier.
7:30 Instead of the eggs and wieners I manage to get through a chunk of stale bread slathered in homemade apple butter. For the uninitiated, apple butter looks like Marmite or Vegemite but tastes one helluva lot better. It brings back memories of the Mildmay brand apple butter that my grandmother always had on hand.
8:30 Today we have a 235 km drive to Bukhara. This could take as long as seven hours.
11:20 We come to a security checkpoint in the town of Kamana. Our Uzbek guide has an animated discussion with the about eight officials and after 10 minutes they allow us to move on with only a cursory inspection of the manifest. Just as we are about to pull away the guy in plain clothes yells for us to stop. He has noticed the small electric bike strapped on the back of the truck and becomes suspicious that we’re hiding children in the truck. Our guide explains that the electric bike has a removable battery and is for adults. After we are a ways down the road our guide explains that the plain clothes officer is a secret service agent and there are many such agents blending into everyday life in Uzbekistan. You never know who is watching or listening.
11:42 Only a few people are spotted picking cotton but within a week the harvest will be in full swing and all students over the age of 15 and most able-bodied adult citizens must report for cotton picking duty on September 1. This mandatory assignment (forced labour) generally lasts 8-10 weeks. Some people are lucky to be assigned to cotton fields near their homes but students are often bussed across the country and billeted at private homes during he harvest.
Above: Screen capture from http://www.GlobalSlaveryIndex.org
12:00 We stop at the remains of the 11th century Raboti Malik caravansary and a well-restored sardoba (water dome) that dates from 1017.
13:00 We visit the workshop, museum and retail shop belonging to a local pottery and embroidery collective. The man in the photo (below) has presented pieces of his pottery to Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Prince Charles and of course the Uzbek president. He’s apparently a pretty big deal in the world of Uzbek pottery.
13:30 After lunch the host passes around a big platter of assorted candies. As in most of Asia, it’s best to read the labels very carefully as things aren’t always as they seem in Uzbekistan.
20:30 There isn’t a table big enough for 16 on the roof of a popular local restaurant but they manage to accommodate us inside a private dining room on the second floor. We hadn’t ordered our drinks when the waiter asked if we’d mind if a woman played the piano for the benefit of the outdoor diners. Some light piano music in the background sounds nice so we say okay. The piano turns out be located inside our intimate room and to make herself heard on the other side of a thick brick wall, the woman plays a series of Russian waltzes with such gusto that conversation below the level of a full on scream is a waste of breath.
22:00 I’m sure it would have been easier to buy an old Soviet nuclear warhead at the local bazaar than it was to pay cash for a dinner for 16. After we received the bill, Helen counted, re-counted and triple counted the cash we had all chipped in before presenting a large pile of bills to the waiter. He took the money to the money room where it was counted, recounted and triple counted before we were presented with a receipt and shown to the door. (The largest note in Uzbekistan is 5000 com or about $1.20 Canadian).