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20.07.09 07:37 Age: 9 yrs

Pakhtakor - 99.9% tourist-friendly

By: Roger and Megan

An unfortunate event at the start, but all ends well in the cotton capital of Uzbekistan

We had tried and failed to ride from Lake Aidarkol to Samarkand via the mountains (due to a road that had gone AWOL and more darned prickles) and because we had to backtrack, our only option left was to head to Samarkand on or near the Bitonka route. We were following various locals' directions for the shortcut back to the main route, and riding up a large hill toward some town we were followed by a very friendly man who invited us to his house for chai. But as it was around about lunchtime, this turned into a big full meal of plov and sorpa. As he was the owner of the local magazin, he also treated us to many and varied biscuits and lollies. Just before departing we bought a BIG bottle of apricot nectar from him and then couldn't hold out the temptation for too long, and stopped only 500 m down the road to guzzle a few litres. While we were there on the roadside a police officer pulled up next to us, and we thought, "here we go, document check no. 1...". But instead, he was just checking that we were OK, and wished us a good day as he drove off again.

As the day rolled on into the early evening, it only seemed like it was getting hotter, ironic given the time of day, so it was great relief when a young family stopped next to us to offer us some of their fresh sweet cherries. Riding on we soon found ourselves in a rather large unidentified town. Curious as to where we were, we made a quick stop to ask for directions from the locals, who directed us to the centre of the town. The name of the town was Pakhtakor, which in Uzbek means "place where cotton is grown". At the centre of town, we again were rapidly surrounded by some 50 men, women and children, with three different men all wanting us to be their guests. Not wanting to offend any one of them, we struggled to decide which man to follow. In the end, the decision was easily made (due in part to our hunger and thirst at the time), we went with the man who said his house was the closest. It turned out it was not his house he was taking us to, but rather his roadside shashlik "restaurant" just across the road.

We parked the quike out the front next to our table and chairs, and sat down to get acquainted with our new friend. But it seemed that Rustam (our new friend's name) prefered the quietness (and privacy from many onlookers) of the indoors and he ushered us inside to a private room into his restaurant to eat. It was here that we met a young boy called Alisher who was studying English at college. As per usual he was overjoyed to meet us (no one here had met any native english speakers, let alone Australians before) and excitedly called his sister (who was an English teacher) to meet us too. They both could hardly believe that she was standing there in person with two real-life native English speakers!

Whilst all this was happening, our host was graciously bringing out the best his restaurant had to offer. After an hour or so, with our bellies full, our host mightily honoured we had stayed with him, and Alisher and his sister Dilnoza still in awe at the Australians they had just met, we headed back outside to find a dead flat tyre due to a split at the valve. A very quick changeover and makeshift valve repair (thank god for rescue tape) got us the 1 km down the road to Dilnoza and Alisher's house. Not long after arriving at the house we realised that somewhere in the town we had "lost" our watch (which had been quite securely attached to the frame, so could not have fallen off by itself). This watch was of great sentimental value, as it been on Roger's last Australian Geographic sponsored expedition across Greenland. As soon as Alisher's father got home from work we went straight to the police to start the attempts to find it.

At this point began the enormous effort from the entire Pakhtakor police force to try to locate our watch. We had not expected such a response and we would certainly not get such service in Melbourne! The police and our other new friends in town were all on the lookout for it. After a brief sleep that night, we were awoken by the police at the house at 7 am (they hadn't slept!) so they could ask more questions about our watch. They had not yet any leads as to the whereabouts of our watch and so we agreed to stay in the town for another few days to give them more time to locate it.

This opened up the rest of the day for exploring this intriguing town to gather some more video footage and photos of their traditional lifestyles. Dilnoza was more than happy to take us on a tour of whichever places took our fancy, and so after a quick chat about what type of things we wanted to see and visit, and a few phonecalls later, she had a very nice tour schedule planned for the backstreets of Pakhtakor. On the Uzbekistan flag are cotton and wheat, and this Jizzakh Oblast is the centre of farming of both these products. Along these lines, she arranged for us to see the next stage of the process following the harvest of cotton and wheat, respectively, and how these products are used in the Uzbek home.

One of the most well-practised traditions in all of Central Asia is the having of chai. Chai is ALWAYS served with bread, but the particular style of bread is very unique not only to each nationality, but even goes so far as to each town. And they have certain rules regarding the bread, eg. it must never be placed upside-down on the tablecloth. During these chai (and bread) sessions, everyone sits on the floor and the food is served on either a short table, or simply a tablecloth on the floor. Thin mattresses (kurpcha), made of a thick wad of unrefined cotton, are provided for host and guest alike to sit around the table(cloth). These mattresses themselves are an important tradition - a new bride receives some 50 mattresses as gifts on her wedding day, as housewarming gifts for her new home with her husband's family.

Along these lines, our first post of call was to the neighbour's house to see how to make their style of bread. The women here learn how to bake at an early age, and the star of our bread-making video is the 15 year old daughter at the house. First, she showed us how to mix and prepare the dough. It took quite a bit of strength as she was baking a dozen loaves at this one time. A small family would eat 2 or 3 Naans each day, so this would be enough for the next few days.

While the dough was left to rise, we took a short walk to a backshed cotton-pressing factory in someone's house. After pressing, the unrefined cotton remains as is, for the purpose of making mattresses and pillows. In this person's house, we saw the machine they use to press the cotton, and we were quite surprised to see that a 28" bike wheel had been retrofitted into the machinery. It was also interesting to see how the customers managed to load on some 100 kg of cotton (very bulky!) onto their bike, to take home!

Then we dropped in at a similar backshed factory where they crush and separate the wheat to make the flour for their bread (and pasta and noodles) to video this. After this we took a short walk past the canal (where all the children were swimming) to the Tanur (bread oven) maker's house. These bread ovens (different to their cooking ovens) are made from mud, straw and sheep's wool and take a loooong time to make. Just imagine a large clay pot of around 400L, built by hand with no pottery wheel or any other help - a very impressive sight. All the businesses in this town from the cotton refining to the flour milling, are very small, family-owned, and run from a small room in the house, with only 1 or 2 people working. There are no "companies" or factories here, as the whole town is pretty much self-sufficient, and complexly interconnected, each family relying on many other families for their produces or services.

By now it was time to go back and video the rest of the very interesting bread baking process. To bake the bread, the girl started a very hot fire in the mud oven with cow manure, and when it had turned to embers she covered them and splashed water all over the walls of the oven. When this was done, she stuck each bread to the walls (just by pressing it firmly onto the mud), did another quick splash of water on the bread, then let it cook for about 15 minutes, before peeling them off the walls of the oven, and again splashing them with water. They were now ready to eat.

After tasting some bread, it was off back home for a quick dinner before the next item on our agenda began. A group of three professional traditional musicians had been organised to come to Dilnoza's house to perform a special concert just for us. Each man played an instrument, and two of the men sang as well. For some of the songs, one of the musicians would drop their instrument and do a traditional Uzbek dance whilst the others played. Some of the dance moves looked celebratory, some of them seemed as though it was a duel between dancers. But our favourite dance was the fruit-picking one, which is a special dance (not seen in other places), since it was native to the region, where just about everyone person and animal is used in some way for fruit picking. Thus by the end of the night, we had shot numerous hours of footage, danced ourselves into a sweat, and watched a man dance like a donkey eating from a fruit tree.

After such an action packed night, the next day we decided to have a more relaxed day. We walked around Pakhtakor, through its numerous bazaars, and in the evening, the restauranteur who had hosted us for dinner oon our first night in Pakhtakor came over to sing some of his poems. It was entirely a different style to what we'd seen the previous night. In his music, voice and melody were central and the rhythm was barely detectable, whereas the previous night it had all been about rhythm and dance, all very interesting seeing these two styles of music. Then late in the night we did a quick pack of our quike in anticipation of our departure. Due to our ever-present visa timing issues, we could no longer wait in town for our watch to magically reappear, so we sadly had to move on to Samarkand.

The next morning, we had only a few more errands to run before we could leave, and we were planning to leave before 10 am. But that's not the way things work here!
We went to the police station, sat around chatting for a few hours, before they took another hour to copy our maps (for their own interest). Then, when we stressed to them the urgency of our departing for Samarkand, the director of the police arranged for a driver to take us on a tour to Jizzakh city, to see some traditional dances and music at the arts college (more professional musicians put on a special private show just for us). Afterwards we checked in on a Sufi master school (but it was closed!) and on the way back were treated to some shashlik at a roadside cafe. After this, it was arranged that a truck would take us to Samarkand before dark so that we could find somewhere to setup our tent.

And so after our shashlik stop we drove straight back (VERY fast) to the house, and were told that we had maybe 15 minutes, or 30 minutes or 1 or 2 hours until a truck would come to pick us up to drive us to Samarkand. We quickly packed up in time for this possible pickup after 30 minutes. The time came and went, and then at about 6 pm an very old ex-soviet Kamaz pulled up outside. This was accompanied by two full carloads of policemen.

When entering a city or town, our usual plan is to time it that we have plenty of time to orientate ourselves in the streets, to find which is the road to get out of town again, and whereabouts we might find some good camping ground if we don't find a place to stay before dark. But now, it was 6 pm, we were now up for a 4 hour truck ride, with nowhere to stay that night. We told the policemen about this, they arranged that the truck driver would take us to the Samarkand regional police post (outside town), where we could set up our tent and camp the night.

Roger and the policemen (Megan wasn't allowed since she's a giiiiiiiirl) lifted quikey up, and Roger tied him down, then we jumped up to the front of the Kamaz, which was one bench seat, and no seatbelts. There was however, padding on the inside of the roof for some reason - we hoped not to find out why - and none of the dials on the dashbord worked. It took about 5 hours, with a 45 minute gas refill stop, and we'd finally made the 160 km to Samarkand regional border.

Apart from meeting some top-notch fellow bike fanatics, our time in Samarkand was something we'd rather forget... but because of the politically sensitive nature of that story, you'll have to wait until the book comes out to read all about that!