The kindness of strangers and other stories

Tourists usually ‘do’ the Fergana valley as a hectic day trip from Tashkent; even the Belgians from Samarkand who have sieved gold from the most unlikely places echo LP: “There’s nothing there”. I can be forgiven then, in anticipating the couple of days needed to move through Fergana to the border with Kyrgistan at Osh will be uneventful….

Revisiting Jahongir B&B in Tashkent en route felt like coming home. Upgraded to a softer mattress and favorite pancakes for breakfast. Then Feruza takes me down the road for a $6 haircut (not shown).

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Adina off to college. The Turkish-style hyper-hijab is all the rage this spring (with or without inappropriately short uniform skirt).

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Part 1 Kokand

It was never going to end well. The daily evening train from Tashkent to Kokand leaves at neither of the two different advertised times for departure (on the official website or the ticket) but rather 43 minutes early. This feint, as I have come to realize, is an enduring feature of Uzbek rail, and has been anticipated by all passengers, who have arrived an hour and a half in advance and are now milling around anxiously since there are no notice boards – the platform it will depart from is spread by word of mouth. So it is somewhat disappointing when we slow down to walking pace for several hours (more effective research might have revealed that this newly established route which avoids the otherwise inevitable detour through Tajikistan takes us through a 20 kilometer mountain tunnel, but not that a man on foot with a lantern appears to be guiding us much of the way). The upshot is it is pushing midnight when I arrive at the Hotel Istiqol (another only show in town option). Its resemblance to a state penitentiary making it  unlikely that the last Trip Advisor review (in 2015) contained even a smattering of truth. Even the taxi driver looks apologetic.

Cast of characters: a disheveled receptionist awakened from her lobby nap and (apparently) cursing the state of her mascara in Russian. Me.

Me: Is this a non-smoking room? I booked a non-smoking room. Why is there an ashtray?

The Guard: Why is there an ashtray? Does it smell? (of course right now it smells of odious room deodorant, it will be a different story later).

Me: OK then. It needs a top sheet.

Her: It needs a top sheet. What needs a top sheet?

Me: OK then, I need a top sheet.

Her: (Brings top sheet). Go to sleep.

Morning.

Her (still):  What you want to eat, toast?

Me: What do you usually serve for breakfast?

Her: Toast.

Me: OK then, toast.

From close inspection of the plate of sausage (the solitary component of the ‘buffet’) the last time anyone ate breakfast here was indeed around 2015.

The cell in question, from my bed. Note the cunning TV placement.

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The sausage in question. The photo angle doesn’t do its curliness justice.

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Kokand wasn’t totally a bust. The Shah’s palace was over the top as usual.

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Lots of exquisite decorative touches.

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This does look atmospheric. On closer inspection he was surfing the web.

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Part 2 Fergana

It seems unlikely but the best show in Fergana is a $24 hostel located above a pharmacy opposite the hospital. But what a hostel! The private rooms are decorated in authentic minimalist style and have unbelievable luxuries like bedside lights that can be switched on and off from bed and new satellite TV (the owner, Efrazar, proudly shows me BBC news on channel 16). Next day as we consult about options for getting to the border about 100km away (evidently there are two: expensive ($12) involves hiring a taxi [he wrinkles his nose with disapproval at such profligacy] or cheap ($5) involves two sequential buses but with a 500m walk in between) I allow that I am going to splurge since it’s my birthday and dragging my roly bag along a stony road [it will be stony] in 80° sunshine is remarkably unappealing.

What could this be? Some even more exotic mimosa?

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All is revealed as I pass by again after dinner.

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Fergana prides itself on its Wild West vibe. But these guys are definitely getting scammed.

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No takers for the photo-op.

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Its famous traditional silk factory

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Fergana is the vegetable basket of Uzbekistan. Spring produce at the pleasant, and massive, regional market.

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Along with other more unusual merchandise.

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Later there is a discreet tap on my door and Efrazar not only presents me with a lovely Ikat scarf as a birthday gift, but also proposes I spend the evening with his cousin and family who would like to practice their English. This delightful family and I eat dinner, stroll in the park and then pile onto the bumper cars at the fairground for a few energetic rounds in celebration of my turning 66.

The perfectly delightful Mamatov family. He is a policeman, she (unusually) an engineer. Their daughters  Ezoza and Shukrona bundles of energy

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Ushering in 66 with style

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Next day Efrazar drives me to the shared taxi stand, negotiates a bargain ($10) price  then checks in with the driver constantly while we are en-route to the border.

Moving through the Fergana Valley, all the fruit trees are in blossom

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Part 3 Osh

If the Kazakstan/Uzbeki border was the end of six lane highways then its Uzbeki/Kyrgistan equivalent sees the end of asphalt itself. Nonetheless it too fails to live up to its Internet hype: the Uzbeks are anxious to expedite my leaving (I have to stop them stamping my Indian visa) while the Krygis simply seem mildly amused I have chosen their country as a vacation destination (I am the only Westerner in sight). At the ‘unofficial’ currency exchange the witches have morphed into prowling gold-toothed wolves and although I only have about $5 worth of Uzbeki sum left I need to change it for the taxi on the other side. This time my unexpected Sir Galahad is one of the notorious Uzbek security services, who forces them to hand over the final 30c they had planned on pocketing, while shooting me a sardonic wink.

Once safely into stony asphalt-free Kyrigstan the inevitable taxi dilemma rears its ugly head: neither the drivers nor I know where my Airbnb is located and since I have no cell phone access until I can buy a local SIM, they will have to phone the host for directions, meaning I have little leverage. We are just squaring off when an NYL and her mom insert themselves between us, insist I share their taxi, tell me it’s a 144 (Uber equivalent) so I can’t help pay, and take me door to door.

The kindness of strangers.

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My AirBnB is a spacious apartment with all cons (mod and otherwise) including a complete set of Tolstoy in the bedroom and their own honey in the fridge. Welcome to Kyrgistan!

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