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19.09.09 08:08 Age: 8 yrs

Little cats and big horns in Istarvashan

By: Roger & Megan

Attacked by a red book (very endangered) mountain cat, while two rottweilers watch in awe

On August 22, the first day of Ramadan, we were wary of eating (or even drinking) in public, so by the time we arrived in Istarvashan that afternoon we were starving. Stopping near the centre of town, hiding amongst the trees in a small park secretly eating some fruit and nuts, a big group of important-looking men pulled up next to us and invited us to have lunch with them. Hearing this, we assumed they were not taking Roza (the act of fasting in the daytime during the month of Ramadan) and we followed them down the main street to wherever they were taking us. On the way, they pulled up outside a shop bought a few melons, grapes and peaches, then came back outside, piled them on top of us, and ordered us to follow them as they walked further down the road. At that time, we became very confused as we didn't know who these men were, where they were taking us, or what we were to do with the melons. About 100 m further, we turned the corner into a large Shashlick house, where 2 of the men sat us down at a table.

As the chai bowls came out it became apparent that they were indeed taking Roza (fasting) themselves, but were just feeding us and watch us eat as their guests! And anytime a plate even approached being empty, they'd re-fill it and instruct us to eat. This must have been very difficult for them, since they had to fast from 3 am to 7 pm, without even drinking any water (and it was over 30 degrees outside) - a real demonstration of the strong Central Asian tradition of hospitality. We ate a grand total of 8 shashliks (way too many) between us, plus bread, and all the glorious fruits of Istaravshan, including their famous grapes. Following this, they invited us to stay at their farm some 5 km from Istaravshan town. But for us to do this, we had instructions to wait at the shashlick house until 6 pm, eat whatever we wanted, and rest. He gave us the address of the farm and drew a quick map, and told us that after 6 pm, we were to ride out there. We said OK.

We sat there and waited happily (too full to move), and after some time a similarly important-looking man pulled up and approached us. He asked if we were cyclists from Australia, and when we said yes, and then he instructed us to follow him to the farm. However, only 5 metres down the road we realised we had a flat tyre! After a quick repair, we were about to head off, before we (very luckily!) saw that another of our tyres had the beginnings of a blowout, the tube was already starting to balloon out of the tyre, right along the centrewall - not a good sign.

So we again pulled over, and decided instead of trying to repair the tyre, we'd switch over that tyre to an older one, that we'd repaired following a previous blowout near Ayni. Riding on this (and thinking all was good) we got just out of sight of the shashlick house when BOOM!!! All the heads in streets turned to see what this explosion was, we looked down, and there was a 30 cm long slit running all the way along the centrewall of our tyre. The tyre itself had practically inverted, leaving the tube and patch on the outside of the tyre. Warily we pushed the quike over to the side of the road and started the age old repair process again. This time we did a quick repair on the near-blowout tyre and just shoved a big fat piece of Kamaz tyre rubber in there, taped over with a ton of gorilla tape (our saviour) - all in front of a big, curious audience, all wanting to help.

After doing all this, we rode on ever so cautiously, braking hard before even the slightest bump in the road, inching our way toward the farm with crossed fingers, toes and whatever else we could find. As was described to us, at the big roundabout 4 km down the road we came across the border post. And as we predicted, the border guards flagged us down for a chat. While we were sitting on the roadside waiting for attention, we witnessed some smooth dodgy dealings with money passing hands via the handshake, and were hoping that we weren't expected to do the same. They eventually came over to us and as per usual, all they wanted was to see our quike and ask where we're from etc.. They didn't even ask to see our passports! And we used our new magic word "ladna" (casual Russian for, "ok I go now") to end the conversation and ride off.

Another 1 km down the road we turned onto the dirt track toward what we hoped was the farm, and as we approached we identified the men we'd met over lunch in the distance. They all gave us a standing ovation for our effort to even get there that evening, as the other man had called ahead to inform them of our tyre difficulties. There we also met a man named Mazbut, who introduced himself as the president of the farm. He spoke a little English (well, as much as we speak Russian) and despite the occasional struggle, we think he enjoyed trying out speaking with us in English. The men were all waiting there together until sunset as they were all taking Roza. While we were waiting there we had a very quick tour of the farm, where we were given many kilograms of grapes, tomatoes and cucumbers to feast on should we need a midnight snack that evening.

At the stroke of sunset, a few tomatoes, cucumbers and glasses of water were brought out for the close of Roza. The 3 men chomped these down enthusiastically, then rolled out their Namaz mats. Mazbut and Sadick stood on a platform facing Mecca and Mazbut lead the prayer for the two of them. Following this we all rolled into the car and went back to another shashlick house in town... for more shashlick! But we were both so very full still from lunchtime, and struggled to fit in even 2 sticks for dinner. It seemed like the men were disappointed at our eating attempts, even though they'd seen how much we'd shoved in over lunch! Over this meal we got to know these mysterious men a little better. There was Akram, the farm manager and driver (best and safest driver in Central Asia), Mazbut, the president, Sadick, a senator of congress who also did some work with the farm, and Murat, president of the other farm and the Mosque "specialist" (we didn't quite know what this meant, but assumed he was an Islam expert or Imom).

The next day, after doing our big load of very dirty washing, we headed towards the Bazaar to see what handicrafts were being made which we could film. Unfortunately we'd arrived a bit late and it was already shutting down for the day (only 2 pm!) so we didn't get to see much. That afternoon, Mazbut swung by the farm and picked us up for a mystery excursion. First, we visited his very good friend, the president of the party in power for the region (a powerful man), who had as pets two very very rare (red book) alpine cats. We think they were either lynxes or mountain leopards, but they were only kittens so we're not too sure. We were initially warned about trying to pat them as they were feisty little creatures - his BIG rottweiler guard dogs were even wary of going near them! But Roger found the hard way that even being too close to them had its dangers and got a little nip on the leg. After this excitement, we went to yet another big dinner at a shashlick place. These men seemed to be quite wealthy, and were treating us like kings!

The next morning it was off to the Hokimat, where we were greeted outside by an English speaking man who had been expecting us (dining with the president of the party in power, and a senator in congress has it's benefits...). But as per usual (being Central Asia) the bureaucracy ensued, and we sat and waited in some room for a while. Eventually we were invited into another room to meet Azimov, the deputy Hokim (mayor) and the Minister for Culture. After a brief chat with us, Bakh, the English speaking man (also the press secretary) was assigned to us for the week, to escort us everywhere and help us in our quest to document the cultures and traditions of the region.

Our first stop was to a nearby hillside to where Alexander the Great (Iskander Maccadonski) had tried to breach the city walls (unsuccessfully) of the town for some filming. From here it was off to a small backyard shop to see how traditional knives were made. These knives are made from a whole sheeps horn which is split in two. One half making up the handle, and the other half the sheeth, with a very sharp knife inside. Thus when sheathed, the knife looks just like a ram's horn.

The rest of the day we continued on our tour of different handicraft workshops, including the ornamental carpenter and the plaster caster master. Spinning around the backstreets after lunch we visited another few mosques in town, but decided to delay our excursion to the town's central mosque until Friday Namaz (the most important of the week). As we were wandering around town we came across a Music house and asked them about the traditional music of Istaravshan. Once inside, we were shown many different instruments including a big long brass horn called a Karnai that was claimed as an Istravashan-only instrument and could not be seen anywhere else . We were very excited to see all these different instruments and technical masters at the school, so we booked in to spend a halfday with them, filming and recording, in two days' time.

Tuesday morning we awoke to grey clouds and the threat of rain. We decided to make this an errands day, and specifically, to track down where our new tyres had made it to. We checked in on the internet and found that since being sent from Melbourne (and sitting in customs for over a week), they'd taken a little trip across to Leipzig. So in other words, we weren't to expect them to arrive in Khojand anytime soon! That left the rest of the day a bit more open, and after doing some brainstorming with Bakh, we discovered that his home village might be an interesting place to visit. So soon enough, we were in the marshrutka to take the 5 km out to his village, and then the 1 km walk in the mud and rain to his house. There, after a quick chai, we made a short film about his new baby son, descirbing the traditions surrounding the care and celebration of the newborn. Next it was off to meet the star of the village - his 102-year old grandma!

Meeting a 102 year old person in such a remote village (where most people live to 60) was suprising enough. More suprising however was that she was a traditional doctor who was still practicing! She gave us a demonstration of one of her cures for a headache, a ritual that went on for some 5 minutes or so. This involved rubbing stones and knives on a girls face, before rubbing the soles of her bare feet all over the girls head, face and neck. To do this she had to stand on one foot, and lift up her otherfoot, to place in on the girls head, and then rub it round and round balancing delicately on one foot, without holding onto anything (all of which we captured on film). We would have trouble doing this now, let alone when we are 102!

After this we attempted to catch a marshrutka back into town, but since this was not a common route, we were waiting to no avail. Instead we hailed down a private car and asked them for a ride, for a fee. They agreed but only another 20 metres down the road the car conked out due to lack of petrol - not surprising as it seems everyone in Central Asia buys only a maximum of 5 L petrol at a time. This is a strange practice that we're still yet to understand. The price doesn't vary that much, they even do it to the cars in good condition, and it is the same for rich and poor alike. Even taxi drivers do it and they know they'll be driving a lot the next day too! We're wondering whether this behaviour comes as a result of having a fairly insecure future, including the nearest future of tomorrow, and so they don't fill up the tank for tomorrow's duties, because they don't know what tomorrow will bring. Anyway, we'll tell you when we work it out!

That evening, we had dinner at Mazbut's house, where he proudly showed off his new 20 day old baby son. We understood that the wife had to stay hidden for 40 days following birth, but she came out to say hi anyway since it was such a special/rare occasion. The next morning, we eagerly awoke, excited about our promised music concert and lessons. But before any of that, we decided to do a quick check on the web to see where our tyres were. We found that they had been to Singapore, then Leipzig, then London, and were now somewhere south of Moscow... so obviously they hadn't yet arrived in Khojand, and wouldnt for a few more days. So it seems that convoluted beauracracy doesn't just affect that which happens in Central Asia, it infects all ingoing and outgoing items too!

Just as we arrived at the music school for our big day, we were met at the door by Bakh. He informed us that if we wanted to see the museum, we'd have to go right then. After our numerous attempts at getting in the previous few days, and being told that it is almost always closed, we quickly jumped at this opportunity to see what lay beyond those doors. We were probably the first people in a looong time to actually get inside the museum (since it is no longer in use/open). Inside we found many examples of different handicrafts of the region, many very ancient and not practiced anymore. This gave us some good starting points to begin conversing with teh museum director over, as well as giving us some good ideas on what else to ask them to see (and where). We also saw a strange mummified corpse of a dwarf, which was extremelyt intriguing, quite alien like.

After we'd examined all the exhibits at the museum we quickly rushed back to the Music house to see and film the concert specially put on just for/to us. First it was the Dutar, flute, with a professional singer. Then they brought in bits of long brass tubing that we quicky identified as pieces of the Karnai horn instrument. The boys sat there assembling the horns for quite a while - in all there was 6 to be played, each one 2.1 m long. Because of their size, we had to now take the concert outside, so everyone re-positioned themselves out the front in the main street. The fanfare was quite spectacular. There were 10 musicians on drums, horns, dutars, and various other instruments. The star of the show was a young boy who would balance the horn on his chin while he played. After a few of these simple tricks he started piled the horns on top of each other and by the end he was balancing all of them and playing at the same time! (some 15m of brass tubning balancing just on his front teeth!). He also did some teacup twirling using the local knives.

In the afternoon we completed a few more errands in town and then headed off back to the room for some rest and before an early night, since we were considering leaving the next morning. First thing we did when we awoke was to quickly run into town and check in on the Hokimat to see whether they still wanted to have us on the local TV news (there was mention of it the day before). Arriving at the hukumat, we found that the TV crew would be coming the next morning to make a new story about us and our quike at the farm. So since we'd have to hang around for another day anyway, we decided that we'd aim to film the Friday Namaz there in Istaravshan instead of Khojand. In order to be respectful about attending namaz, our clothes had to be spotless (very difficult since they hadnt been washed in weeks!), so Megan spent some 1.5 hours washing two pairs of pants and two shirts by hand.

That evening we were invited to one of Mazbuts friends (an English teacher) house for dinner. His house had a huge garden (and more importantly...for us at least) his cellar had an amazingly large stockpile of kampot (preserved fruits in jars, with juice), of all different varieties! We drooled just looking at them! Thus dinner for us consisted in gorging ourselves silly on lots of kampot, Istaravshan fruits galore, and plov.

The next day we got up early to ensure quikey was all packed and ready for his television escapade, rushing off (without even eating breakfast) to the Hukumat, we found that Bakh had not turned up (we waited an hour)or the other promised translator (we waited 2 hours...which is not much waiting time by central asian standards!) Another hour passed and finally the TV crew was ready to head out with us to the farm with Bahkt. There, after a brief discusion about our script for the scene, we headed out to the main road to film. Unfortunately, they selected the piece of road that included the regional border post, and so in the middle of our filmed ride down the street we got pulled over and checked (not our passports, just curiousity!). After this we packed away the Quike into the shipping container (its home for the week) so we could head back into town to film the Friday Namaz. But this simple process seemed to cause a lot of commotion. Apparently it is virtually a sin for a man to stand by and let a woman do any action that required strength, so when Roger stood aside to let Megan open the container, he had gravely offended our interpreter and the film crew! So after we'd put the quike back inside, Bakh made a point of closing the door himself. (but the funny thing was, he had MUCH more trouble doing it than Megan). After seeing how much of a stir is caused, we were convinced that the news story they were to make on us would be about how the men make the women do all the work in Australia!

Since it was the month of Ramadan, the Friday 1 pm Namaz's were huge events, attracting up to 8000 people at the one mosque. Filming inside the mosque however was forbidden, and women were also forbidden from entering the mosque, so we devised a cunning plan to get around this. Walking around the mosque an hour before hand to suss it out, we spotted a lady hanging her washing out on the 4th floor window of her apartment, and came up with an idea. We knocked on her door and said the magic word "mozhna?" and of course it was no problem at all. We went inside and set up all our filming equipment in her balcony, just in time to see the big rush as all the men poured in the gates, and the Namaz prayer itself. Afterward, the family whose house we had commandeered invited us to sit and eat lunch with the children (the husband was taking Roza), and then we head off home again.

That night we were again invited to dinner with the English teacher, but this time to his brother's house, and to stay the night as guests. First stop on the way to his house however was to a Toi. Normally all celebrations are forbidden during Ramadan, so this was very strange but exciting. Upon entering, we were greeted by a very loud Karnai and ushered into a room for chai. Here we were told that it was forbidden to even mention the word Toi, as to have a Toi during ramadan was a great sin, so as long as the word itself wasnt mentioned it could all go ahead (as if it never happened). The Toi was for the coming of age ceremony for a young boy, after circumcision on this day, he would then become a Muslim. Normally these Tois are huge events costing up to 10 years' worth of income to put on, as they are very important events, on par with a wedding, if not more important.

After the Toi we went to his brother's house for dinner. This man also had endless supplies of yummy home made kampot, in a whole range of flavours. That night we drank litres of peach, cherry, and apricot kampot, filling our empty bellies with much fruity goodness. After a few more chais and visiting the neighbours houses after dinner, we were more full by bed time. That night however, Megans tummy took a turn for the worse, keeping her up all night with endless waves of cramps and nausea. By morning Megan was still no better (lots and lots of wind...on both ends), but we really needed to push on to Khojand. But it was (apparently) going to be all downhill again, so we headed off anyway with Roger doing most of the pedaling, and Megan just lying in the other seat pretending to pedal.

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[filed by TK 090919]