Monday, September 27, 2010

Kiev, Ukraine to Tashkent, Uzbekistan


I left off in Kiev last week, feeling slightly improved after my day-long sleeping marathon and self-imposed embargo against physical movement. It turns out this upswing did not hold out, but first things first.

As usual, I decided to depart my hostel in Kiev with hours to spare before I needed to board my flight, feeling that I would rather arrive much too early than a few minutes too late. After asking direction from about a dozen different people in varying combinations of sign language, Ukrainian, Russian, English, and grunting, I made my way to the proper metro, then the proper connecting metro, then a mashrutka to the airport, to the correct terminal, and finally I found the check-in desk. However, check-in only opens for a select few flights at a time, so I waited over an hour in the airport terminal before figuring out where to go. Though it was not necessary to wait quite as long as I did, I ended up being second in line—or rather second in mob—for my particular flight, and caught my first glimpse of Central Asia as masses of largely male Chinese-Russian-Middle Eastern-Eastern European faces swarmed around me. The concept of a line was lost on this particular crowd. People were checking all sorts of strange boxes, from fruit juice squeezers to kitchen appliances to unidentifiable metal contraptions, seemingly taking advantage of either a good exchange rate or a surplus of cheap electronics in Ukraine. When I handed my second passport, which I had used to enter Ukraine, to the man behind the counter, I noted his visible confusion over the lack of a visa to Uzbekistan, and then heard him talking to his colleagues. At this point I decided to intervene, and handed him my OTHER passport, this one with the visa to Uzbekistan. I was concerned that presenting two passports would be more of a problem than a solution, but this is one instance in which having a language barrier between us helped. I think he thought that it was not worth the effort of figuring out why I had two passports, and decided to just go with it. After getting my boarding pass, I noticed that the flight, though advertised as Aerosvit, was operated by “Windrose Airways.” This was either “cosmic,” as my mother would say, as my middle name is Windrow, or something to be nervous about.

I proceeded up to passport control, where a few of my fellow passengers were milling about, confused. It seemed that nobody was on duty for Ukrainian passport control, so after a few minutes we figured that this must be intentional and proceeded through to our gate. Several flights to Tel Aviv were leaving around the same time as my flight, and a few Israeli men were playing guitar and drums as they sang beautifully. I sat and ate a sandwich, listening to them and watching all the Israeli kids run around the gate, but after a while I became concerned that my lack of exit stamp would be problematic at some point. I asked one of my fellow Tashkent-bound passengers with whom I had been conversing earlier about this problem, and he laughed, having encountered the same dilemma, and then took me over to an airport worker who directed me back to passport control, where somebody was now on duty. Once again I handed them both of my passports, having to show both my entry stamp to Ukraine and my visa to Uzbekistan, and a similar it’s-not-worth-the-trouble outlook took effect with the passport control agent. Soon I was boarding my flight, and found myself in the row before the emergency exit, which means I could not recline my seat. Out of Nyquil, I took some Dayquil, hoping it would help me sleep as I had been coughing a lot getting to the airport. Two meals were served in this four hour flight, and somehow, I ended up with a vegetarian meal! The fact that “Windrose Airways” can get my meal preference right, but most major airlines can’t, must mean something about the way this world works.

Unfortunately I did not sleep well on this flight, and the plethora of cough drops I consumed did not do great things for my digestive system, so despite the unusual airline, sunrise over what appeared to be the Aral Sea, and odd passenger make-up, and vegetarian food options, it was not one of my better flights. At Uzbek passport control I was concerned that my supposedly non-existent visa would cause issues. According to the Uzbek embassy websites in New York City and Washington DC, tourists may only obtain visas for 7- or 14- day periods. However, after several phone calls on the part of my father and myself to the embassy, we managed to wrangle a 30-day tourist visa, a class of visa which used to be available but in recent years has expired. (For anybody traveling to Uzbekistan/Central Asia using Lonely Planet’s 2007 edition of Central Asia—check current visa processes! The ones in the book are outdated.) I was also supposed to have indicated my itinerary for my entire stay in the country, but I managed to get out of that as well. My unusual visa did not cause any problems at the border, and I remembered to fill out how much American cash I had with me, as I knew this could present troubles for future border crossings (normally I under-estimate on customs forms, as saying you have a lot of money or even souvenirs sometimes raises questions which you don’t want to be raised).

Murad Mirzo from Turk Turizm’s National House Hotel met me at the airport and took me back to his house/hotel near the old part of Tashkent. I was feeling exhausted, sick, and generally run-down, and decided to spend the day in my room other than a brief adventure to exchange money at the bank. Mirzo’s guesthouse had only one other guest at the time, a non-English speaking Russian, and I saw from his guestbook that this level of occupancy was fairly standard. He had guests from several continents and regions—East Asia, the other stans including Afghanistan, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East—but his English was not exactly ideal, so we continually called up his son, who was in university, to translate between us. The largest denomination of Uzbek money, called “sum,” is 1000, which is equivalent to about $0.60 US. I left the bank with a couple pounds of sum in a plastic bag, knowing it was likely I would burn through even more cash during my stay.

I spent the rest of that day eating Professor Mirzo’s cookies, bread, and watermelon, resting in my room and emailing people from my phone. I went to bed early only to find I could not sleep because of how much I was coughing. With few options where medicine was concerned, I took a couple of Benadryl to pass out.

I woke up in the morning feeling worse, and realized that nearly two weeks had passed since I had first felt sick, and that I had been getting progressively worse as time went by. If I had followed a similar course at home, I figured, I would have been resting at home and already diagnosed by a real doctor. And this was seriously impacting my experience traveling—I remember Ukraine through a haze of congestion, sore throats, and coughing. Time to call home!

We ended up deciding to move me to a much nicer hotel, “subsidized” by my parents, where, for example, staff spoke English, there was a bathroom in the room, not a walk across a courtyard away, and no guesthouse managers urging me to get out and see the sights. My miracle-worker parents arranged for a car from my new hotel to pick me up, something that was awkward to explain to Mr. Mirzo but which saved me from having to explain to him in English, translated by his son. I'm pretty sure he thought I hated his place and was finding an excuse to leave, but at a certain point (and this was that point), you have to put your own needs before other people’s feelings. They also looked up where I could see a good doctor who spoke English, and found the Tashkent International Medical Clinic—essentially the embassies’ clinic. Because it was the weekend I had to have an “emergency consultation.”

According to a very sweet Uzbek doctor, bacteria have been attacking my trachea and sinuses for the past twelve days, and would continue to attack them until I started taking four different types of medication, which she gave me. She did a full check-up on me, and then, unable to determine exactly what was wrong, she took my blood and ran some tests. Apparently, I have a few too many granulocytes, which indicates a high level of bacteria in the blood—or something. She said it was like bronchitis. With some antibiotics, sinus decongestant spray, cough syrup and a pill to make my nose stop running, I would be better in a few days.

For the next three days and nights I never left my hotel other than to pick up my bill at the clinic once, and walk around the building to get some fresh air. I accomplished very little other than achieving an increased understanding of the limits of my own boredom, which I now know quite well. From what I could tell of Tashkent—and I saw a fair bit of it out of taxi windows—this was the Uzbek city in which it was okay to be stuck inside all day. Unlike Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, there are no true Silk Road architectural gems, or anything mind-blowing at all, really. I used my time to research the rest of Uzbekistan, planning out my time here, and figure out how to download Kindle—for free!—on both my MacBook and my blackberry! It was a very exciting discovery, and I am now reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity, a book which came out days after I started traveling.

On my fourth full day in Uzbekistan, I finally felt well enough to begin traveling again, and set out for Samarkand. My up-market hotel first thought I wanted a private taxi to take me there, which made me laugh. A private taxi would probably cost hundreds of dollars—my bus ticket ended up costing about $4. There is nothing quite like walking into a bus station and having everybody stop what they are doing to turn and stare at you, this strange young white girl with a massive backpack and unusual clothing. But rather than alienating me, I found that most people were quite helpful and nice, laughing about our miscommunications rather than being frustrated, rude, or disdainful. The four hour bus ride was uneventful, hot and cramped, because I had to bring my backpack on board the bus. Uzbek “highways” are unpaved roads with a fair number of semi-intentional speed bumps (potholes) that sent us rocking and shaking for minutes on end. Local women tried shoving pastries, sweets and drinks through the open bus windows—luckily, I had an aisle seat and left it to my seatmate to fend them off—and the driver blasted Uzbek pop through the bus periodically. Local Top 40 music is really interesting—often, lyrics are in English, and have very little meaning besides the typical American Top 40 cliches. You might think music would reflect on the culture a bit—maybe this weakens the correlation between American hit music (usually pretty horrible) and the quality/depth of American culture? I hope so.

Arriving at the bus station in Samarkand, or Samarqand, as Uzbeks now spell it, I knew I was a fair distance from the area that Bahodir’s B&B, where I hoped to stay (that is, if it still exists…) was located. Luckily, I stick out here, and a mashrutka driver waved me over. He cleared off the passenger seat of his mini-bus and forcibly took the backpack off my back and sat me down. A few stops down the road he finally turned to me to ask where I was going… uh oh. Luckily (my logistics seem to involve a lot of luck) this mashrutka was going nearby, and when I got off a young boy sort of followed me for a while, possibly to help me, possibly for a tip, possibly for companionship and possibly because we happened to be headed the same direction. I became a bit concerned, as he did not seem to know where I was going, so after a while I spotted a hotel on my map, figured out where I was and waved goodbye (a kind way of saying leave me alone) to my “friend,” and headed to Bahodir’s, where I am now! I’ve been here one night and I’ve met a lot of other travelers from all over the world (no Americans, of course) and spent today with several of them. More about Samarkand in my next post!

Love from the old Silk Road,


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