Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sleepover in Tajikistan

It has taken a few months and several thousand kilometers, but we have now sampled Central Asian hospitality in the form of an invitation back to someone’s home. Actually, two invitations in the same day. 

If you are familiar with travel writing from Central Asia and the Middle East or at least flicked through a few cycling blogs from the region (www.crazyguyonabike.com) you will be well aware of the following regularly dropped phrase: ‘The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Everyone says hello. We would often be stopped in the street and invited back to a family’s home for tea.’

At some level, we probably try to avoid such invitations. We almost always carry enough food and water and so never need to ask for basic supplies that might encourage a request for dinner. We try to stealth camp out of sight and haven’t approached locals to ask if we can pitch a tent by their yurt, ger or house. We chat in broken conversation, but never know enough to really engage with people. Also, although we are by no means adverse to the hospitality, sometimes the wealth disparity is so great in the regions we cycle through, we would feel guilty accepting any gifts. Even so, based on other stories, we thought we would have been offered a chai several countries ago.

After taking 20km worth of wrong turns out of Tashkent (incorrect maps, incorrectly labeled roads) we stealth camped in an open grassy field with some cattle. Over our morning coffee we agreed to accept any invitation that might come our way. This was in a bid to break the superficial culture bubble we inevitably float around in as cycle tourists who roll past speaking broken language. It was only a matter of hours before we had our first bite.

In the small town of Pskent, outside one of the small shops Abdurrahman (Abu) was picking up a few supplies. Unlike many outside of Tashkent, Abu spoke some Russian. The cultural bubble now had a small crack. After exchanging our usual Russian phrases, Abu was sufficiently impressed with us (or possibly worried about our nutritional intake) to buy a few extra snags and invite us back to his place for a bite.

As we walked though the side streets Abu relayed our story in Uzbek to his neighbours and stated we were his guests for lunch. We could be forgiven for interpreting him as being a little proud. Not because he had foreigners from a far off land in his grasp, but because he was offering hospitality.

Like many of the Uzbek homes, his had a large, windowless front wall and wooden set of doors that gave way to a bright courtyard. We love peering in through these doors. Inside we often see a roof of grape vines and floor of cobbled stones, carpets, wooden tables and soft cushions. Uzbek courtyards are very soothing. Abu sat us down inside while his wife prepared fruit, tea, bread and sausages. We ate with Abu (his wife stayed outside) and managed to learn a little about him and his family. After saying our hellos to the rest of the family, Ali played a quick jig on the violin and we farewelled Abu, thanking him profusely but declining the offer to stay the night.

The sun was getting low by the time we had cleared the Uzbek border and in doing so, the most thorough border control yet. All bags x-rayed and opened. Thankfully the Tajik side was a bit more streamlined, or perhaps careless. By the time we reached the village of Boston it was dark. A young Tajik, Adin, helped us locate the town’s hotel, only to discover it was closed. We were now somewhat stuck. Too dark to find a camping spot. No hotel. Adin told us to wait, ran home, obviously got permission to bring back two strangers, ran back and invited us to stay with him.

At home was his sister, brother and a very hungry cow. Adin had set up some mats on an outside table. His sister brought us a bread, pilaf, tea and sweets. It was perfect and very generous. His Aunt soon arrived and after seeing my beard questioned ‘Are you a tourist or terrorist?’

An incredibly loud bull several yards away and a very noisily munching cow tried valiantly to keep us awake for most of the night. Our bodies, tired from the Uzbek heat, managed to grab a few hours sleep before we were greeted with a breakfast of chai and bread. Ali decided to partake in some warm milk, freshly milked pre-dawn - unpasteurized, of course - and is still feeling the after effects. She was trying to be polite. After some Tajik small talk we left some presents and money as gifts and farewelled the family that clearly saved us.

The search for ‘culture’ can sometimes look a lot like the search for a good travel story. Travelers can be at risk of taking advantage of the local population in the name of ‘experience the culture’. Yet by reading over the stories of multiple cyclists before us, it seems that there is a lot of delightful hospitality shared in this region in a very honest way.

It could be a fundamental part of human nature that is just well practiced in these parts. Some suggest Islamic teachings promote offering such hospitality. Maybe we see it in another form in the worldwide online couchsurfing phenomenon. Whatever the origins, we think if it is offered and received in the right way, it is a very positive experience. But maybe hold off on the unpasturised Tajik milk.

Cycling Summary
Tashkent to Stealth Camp 10km from Pskent 68km
Stealth Camp to Boston (Tajikistan) via Oybek border crossing 70km


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