Yesterday, I thought I would plan ahead a bit which is not something I often do on these trips and when I do it, I usually regret it.  I went to a taxi stand to select a driver for today to a remote desert destination near Aidarkul Lake.  The taxi driver started out requesting a whopping $170 dollars for the day where I had estimated a reasonable and stiff enough $80.  We went back and forth and he came down to $100.  $80, I insisted.  Normally, I might not get so hard-nosed about $20 for a whole day worth of taxi driving, but my cash reserves are dwindling rapidly.  In fact, I completely underestimated the “broken” syndrome in this country.  The guidebook warns of banks and ATM’s without money, but it did not prepare me for the non-acceptance of my visa card everywhere.  I have not been able to use it once!  Even at a carpet shop, when I was ready to pay for some souvenir embroidery, curiously and suddenly visa could not be accepted since it was “broken”.  Of course, the internet has been “broken” in two hotels which I specifically chose for providing wifi!  It is agonizing.  Long story short, the cash I had taken along was calculated to be taken back, to be spent on souvenirs, or to supplement my living costs.  I had to stretch it to pay for everything.   That will leave me with close to nothing for Afghanistan; but at least there I paid up front and cash was only for souvenirs.

Back to the taxi driver:  I had left him with the name of my hotel and the task to “sleep over the offer of 80 or to find a second person to share a taxi with me; then he could have his 100”.    A knock at my door in the morning, came with the news that the taxi driver was out there waiting for me.   That could only mean that he either accepted the $80 or had found another person.  I happily packed and rushed out the door.  Neither!  He was still insisting on the $100 and thought I would cave in.  Wrong!  I told him to take me to the main bus station where I could find a share-taxi.  Along the way he could still make up his mind.  He did not and neither did I.  Share-taxis are taxis or private cars which go to a certain destination with a full load and charge very reasonable prices (often comparable to the public bus).  But as a passenger you may have to wait un predictable times for a full load of customers.

I was the first in line for a car and that meant waiting.  Two men appeared within about 20 minutes and at that point, I decided for comfort and for speed to pay for the fourth seat and speed up the departure.  Everyone was happy.  Both young men were dropped off shortly before the destination town of Navoi where I wanted to do some sightseeing.  I persuaded Istam, the driver to take me around for an extra fee.  He was happy to do that and so we saw almost everything I wanted.  An interesting water reservoir preserved right across the street from a magnificent early pishtak which once marked the entrance to a caravanserai named Rabat-i-Malik.  Then there was a fully preserved caravanserai, the Kasim Sheikh Khanagha  with the obligatory shrines and mausoleums.  One important mausoleum in town, the 11th century Mir Said Bakhrom, was only slightly younger than the famous 10th century Samanid Shrine in Bukhara which had set the trend for the style of this architectural type.  I was quite excited.  This was a lot more economical and efficient than I had anticipated.  I only had one major excursion left:  A valley outside of Navoi where prehistoric petro-glyphs had been found.

But Istam did not go that far.  But he and I had bonded over the fact that he was of Persian descend!  At one point he asked for my “ketob” instead of the Russian “kniga”.  Ketob, I had learned in my Farsi class was “book”.   I was actually able to get out about two entire sentences in Farsi telling him my name and profession!  Honestly, after an entire year of Farsi at the UofM, I should have been able to have a conversation with him, but I absolutely could not.  In my head everything from German, to Russian, to a few new Uzbek phrases mingled, and Farsi was only somewhere buried deep in a muddy puddle…  Nonetheless, Istam loved me for my feeble attempt at his language, and now went on a full-scale search to bargain for the best taxi driver to continue with me from here on out.   He found a nice guy who did not speak a lick of any language I could work with.  Not even Russian!  But I knew I was in good hands, even if in an old car and would make it to my yurt camp.

Along the way two more sights had to be “checked off”.  Sharmysh, the petro-glyph gorge, and Nurata with an ancient fortress.  Sharmysh did not go so well.  For one, my driver had never been there… This seems to be the story of taxi drivers around here!  But with enough asking around, we made it; only to be stopped by a huge iron gate manned by some military personnel.  The gorge was closed to tourist and any other traffic unless one had obtained prior documentation!  My book did not mention any of this sort and neither did Fatima or anyone else.  There was no way; not even a bribable one.  The officer in charge made it quite clear that he would be “killed” if he accepted any money to let us in.  He repeatedly made a cut-throat gesture rolling his eyes skywards.  I got the picture.  With me, a few cars of locals also got stranded; little consolation.   Together we poured over the petro-glyph picture in my book, mourning our loss.

Back on the road we went, pointing North, ready to see the fort.  All along dark clouds had gathered ominously and at one point, there was no stopping them.  A major thunderstorm broke loose.  With rubble roads on hilly terrain, I had never seen anything like this; it was the deluge!  The word “flash-flood” has taken on a fuller meaning for me.  I now understand how people can die in unexpected flash floods if they find themselves in the wrong spot.  We were in the middle of a major natural disaster.  Cars stopped all along the road, stone and mud came loose and littered the roads, small trickle-rivers turned into streams going right across the road.  All along, my taxi driver kept pushing on until we hit the rear end of a blocked road.  Thankfully, we had been going with the flood (downhill).  For those who were coming in the opposite direction, there was no chance.  Now, too many cars had been stopped and piled up due to a river washing across a road.  In hair-raising maneuvers, the taxi driver pushed on and went off the road all together to reach the front of the line.  He got yelled at by one of the officers, but we were now ahead of them all!  He even braved the water and made it! Others were drowning in the middle of it and had to be pushed out by a few Samaritans who were knee deep in water.  What  chaos.

Yet, the whole thing took no more than 30 minute!  And on we went for real now, up North to Nurata, to see the fort reinforced by Alexander the Great.  But wait!  The driver lived nearby and first we had to visit his wife, let her know that he was OK, and have some tea and sweets.  Why not?  What impresses me again and again is how differently people live in most parts of the world.  Here, living quarters seem typically quite large; square footage of average homes seem excessive.  A living room is easily 10 meters by 6 meters!  (30×18 feet)  But it’s bare!  There is a carpet, a TV, a stereo and in one corner mats are piled up which can provide seating spaces for dozens of people.  No “stuff”!  No decoration either.  I am not saying I want to live like this, but it makes me seriously question how much you actually “need”.

We spent about 20 minutes drinking tea and smiling at each other.  The driver’s wife was a doctor.  They had three children, one daughter, two sons, all between 10-15.  They curiously peeked in and said “hello”.  Supposedly, they learn English in school.  They can say about three things:  1.  Hello.  2.  How are you?  3.  What is your name?  And the A-students will also remember:  4.  Where are you from?   But perhaps, it is the same tongue-tight effect I have with my Farsi that there is never anything else?

The driver’s wife had never seen the yurt camp, still 75 kilometers ahead of us, and decided to come along.  She had seen the fort, but came along with me anyhow.  Really… a fort?  There were a few mud piles resembling walls and perhaps, turrets and ramparts – if you really stretch your imagination.  But perhaps more interesting than the real fort (or what’s left for it) is the legendary origin of the stream that springs at the bottom of the hill, the Chashma Spring:  Ali, Mohammed’s son in law is supposed to have caused it by striking the ground.  It’s a spring with a deep pool from which a small river forms.  In the pool hundreds (if not thousands) of fish are crammed for space.  Since they are holy, they cannot be fished…  This has been a local pilgrimage site for hundreds of years.

The ride was uneventful through sparse landscape, mainly sandy desert with some shrubs.  Near the camp, the lake was visible, but it was only the tame beginning of it.  It is quite a lake stretching for over 150 miles through the desert providing the life source for humans, animals, and according to the book also thousands of birds.  It was early evening when I arrived.  Including tips, I had spent $65.  $15 under budget.  Not bad.

What happened at the camp will be the story for tomorrow.

I am sure it will be a good night out here.  In the middle of nowhere.  Under the stars.


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