300 Cups of Tea

April 27, 2013

Arnaud and I were ready to go and quickly found  the bus that would take us to the bazaar where we could take a shared taxi to Fergana Valley, specifically, the city of Fergana. Transportation is decentralized here (the former USSR). If you are headed north, then the bus, mashrutka, or taxi you want to take will be next to a bazaar in the northern part of the city. The purpose of this is to prevent intercity transportation from having to go through the center. It can be annoying as you sometimes have to go far from the center without the certainty that you will end up at the correct bazaar.
This bus ride took an hour, so longer than most. At least we were in the right place, however. The taxi hawkers were all quoting the same price, but I know that the locals don’t pay as much. That’s just how it is here. After being stubborn about a fair price, I was able to find someone willing to break the cartel rate and we had a driver. After another 30 minutes of waiting for the car to fill. The driver brought two old men and we were on our way. It was now about 10AM.

The Uzbeks were fascinated with both of our passports and provided lots of entertainment for nearly half an hour. We then stopped for a natural gas fillup. Natural gas is much cheaper than gasoline, so lots of people have had their cars converted. The rules here are that only the driver is allowed to enter the station and we were let out with all of other passengers of the other vehicles in line. This is creates an ad hoc marketplace where you can buy traditional snack foods for the rest of the journey. We continued on for a bit before stopping for lunch at a roadside tea house. I wasn’t that hungry, but had some soup, ayran (kefir), and several cups of tea with bread to top off and be social.
When we got to the pass that connect this part of Uzbekistan (which is nearly swallowed by Kyrgyzstan) with the rest, we, as foreigners, had to register our passports. This area has a history of repressing Islamic fundamentalism, which culminated in the massacre of fellow Uzbeks in 2005 in the city of Andijon. So, this is another measure to keep tabs on those coming and going into this area.

We then descended into the Fergana Valley, which is not too unlike California’s Central Valley with its ubiquitous agriculture and distant mountain ridges. It wasn’t until about 3-3:30 when we dropped off the two old men in the same town. The second to be dropped off insisted we stop for a moment and share in more bread, more tea. and some salted cucumbers. At this point, I was partaking to be polite. I wasn’t hungry at all. We were offered a place to stay that night, but not knowing where the hell we were or how we would find transportation the next day, we decided to carry on to Fergana.

The taxi driver didn’t seem pleased with our decision. It soon became obvious why. He didn’t know how to get us to Fergana. At one point, he wanted to take us back to the old man’s house. We just continued to insist on carrying on to Fergana. So, with his tail between his legs, he asked several people how to get there. It just didn’t make sense. There were signs that pointed in the right direction. Arnaud reasoned that he was illiterate, and that seemed like the most likely explanation for the situation. Finally, we were back on the highway going the right direction when he pulled over to check the smell of gasoline. Turns out that this and other cars, have both, with the gasoline being a reserve tank. He lifted the hood, seemed satisfied with what he saw and kept driving- the smell abating somewhat. Once we were into the city limits of Fergana, he again seemed completely lost despite signs and buildings making it obvious where the city center is. In the end, I navigated him to where we wanted to be let off.

For once, I wasn’t annoyed that a 4 hour trip turned into 7 hours. I was just glad to be done. Perhaps paying full price would have yielded a better result…

It was 5PM and we were in need of a place to stay, but the first two guesthouses were closed. The first likely because they lost their license to have foreigners and the other for renovations. It just so happened that there was an older man wandering near the guesthouse under renovation who invited us to stay with him. Without anything to lose, we went to see what the accomodations were like. It turns out that the man owns 4 homes and renovating the place where we would stay as well. The smell of fresh pain permeated. One room had a double bed and the other a rickety pull down couch (ala Soviet style). The bathroom was partially renovated, but not the toilet, which needed it. The door near the bathroom hadn’t been closed so there were leaves and dust all over that area. The icing on the cake was when he showed us how to turn on the gas water heater with a match. Due to the basic conditions, I lowered my original offer and he accepted.

Afterwards, I guess he wanted show us that there was more to see. Through a door in the back wall, there was another yard- a barnyard. There were about 8 sheep of various ages and about the same number of chickens. He needed to feed them and I guess he liked the company and the chance to show off his livestock. Wow! We WERE getting a deal! Next thing you know, two grandsons show up and introduce themselves, then left quickly. There was lots of uncertainty of what was next because the old man didn’t leave us to what we pleased.

It seems that all of the pausing was to prepare his home for us, instead. We were invited for yet more tea and more bread and for a look around of the accomodations. We agreed and moved our belonging over. At that time we met the rest of the family living there- the grandmother and the mother. The grandmother used to teach German, and made Arnaud use every bit of German he knew in her lengthy conversation. The mother, widowed for 4 years, used to live in Washington DC for about 4 years and worked for the World Bank. For whatever reason, she wasn’t much interested in speaking English or being present.

We were fed  a lamb and vegetable soup, bread, and yes more tea. The combination of the days meal left me very bloated and dreading any more gestures of hospitality. So, it was just as well that I was left out of the conversation being held in German between the grandmother and Arnaud. Finally, they called it quits and we went to bed.

Up to the pass that is the entrance to the Fergana Valley

Up to the pass that is the entrance to the Fergana Valley

Arnaud enjoying his kurut.

Arnaud enjoying his kurut.

Enjoying tea with a fellow passenger.

Enjoying tea with a fellow passenger.

Arnaud and I with the taxi driver.

Arnaud and I with the taxi driver.

Feeding the sheep in the backyard of one of his homes.

Feeding the sheep in the backyard of one of his homes.

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