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30.07.09 07:41 Age: 9 yrs

The Wedding Dancers

By: Roger and Megan

Partying with the Uzbeks in Tajikistan

In the morning of the 23rd of July, we arrived at the Sarazm post of the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It had been a very stressful few days leading up to it, and we were holding our breaths, waiting for something else to go wrong before we could exit Uzbekistan for the safety of Tajikistan. And just as we were expecting, there was one last hitch before we could depart the country. A senior police officer at the post took our passports into his office for processing, which was OK, so long as he gave them back (we had the embassy on speed-dial at this point!). However, then another younger border guard kindly asked to also see our passports (which we couldn't produce), then called his boss over to ask to see them, and then they both were getting quite confused as to how we had arrived at the border without them. Then they started asking us what we were up to, trying to cross the border without passports. This was all made more difficult as we weren't allowed to look in any of the offices to show them the other guard that actually had our passports!

Finally just as the police were becoming increasingly suspicious, the guy who took our passports suddenly appeared, resulting in a sigh of relief for both parties. Our next dilemma then immediately arose - where were our entry declaration papers? We hadn't been given any copies of any papers when we entered the country, and the head of the Samarkand OVIR had told us that she would personally take care of the matter, and see that we were not held up due to this. However, abandoned at border as we were, we had no one to take care of this matter. After much explaining about why we had no declaration papers, the border guards soon let us through. Passing through the Uzbek border into no man's land, we were now free!

This 100 m stretch of land had its own events too. We found a poor british man and his girlfriend sitting under a tree stuck in self-inflicted purgatory - he'd made a mistake with his visa dates and having now exited Uzbekistan (without a re-entry permit), he had to wait until the next day until his Tajikistan would be valid. Thus he was stuck on this 100 m stretch of road, and not allowed back into either a country. We gave him what little remaining food we had, and some phone numbers of embassy contacts, but there was little we could do as the police who were with us, were hurrying us along to get to the Tajik post.

As soon as we crossed into Tajikistan territory we felt the mood change. "Welcome to Tajikistan!", the border guards exclaimed, and repeated numerous times whilst we were filling out the necessary paperwork and migration cards. Well we certainly did feel welcome after that! We started fastidiously completing our declaration papers - declaring every last Tenge and Sum - but the guards were not fussed about it and said we could take in some $3000 USD before we had to even mention it on the papers. And they didn't even open a single one of our bags to check that we had declared appropriately! Next we had a quick discussion with them about our visas, including registration rules, declaration, etc. to get the laws re-confirmed. After this, we were soon completely through border, making our first few tentaive pedals in such a new country.

About 1 km down the road, out of sight of Uzbekistan, we stopped for a short lunch of bread and ketchup, and then continued on our way to Penjikent. Quikey was very happy to be on the road again, not on the top of a car or in the back of a truck. Penjikent is the sister city to Samarkand, with a similar 5000-year old history, and many ancient historical archeological sites. It is also the birthplace of Rudaki, a poet from around the 9th century, whose works were an important influence in the maintenance of the Tajik language. About 8 km short of Penjikent city we entered a small roadside town called Kamatosh. Here we were swamped by many many kids, who soon ushered us to the house of the sole English teacher. This teacher was so excited to see us, telling us that the last time he had spoken to a native English speaker was well over 10 years ago!

We were now claimed as his guests (well, ordered to be his guests) and he took us into his house to meet the rest of his family - children and grandchildren. Within the hour, we'd also been invited to attend the 2-day wedding ceremony to be held that weekend in his street... how could we refuse?! We had only the Friday before the wedding so decided to use the day to complete some chores in at Penjikent town centre.

First on the list was visa registration, as we didn't want a repeat of our problems in Uzbekistan. On the way to the passportny stol we stopped in at the tourism office and they confirmed our suspicions that we needed to register within 3 business days of entering the country, lest we be fined (an unknown amount). And so with our English teacher interpreter leading the way, we marched to the passportny stol and asked to be registered. They very kindly told us, and with enthusiasm - "every tourist has the right to be in Tajikistan for 30 days without registration!" (By the way, this is a relatively new law aimed at promoting tourism in the country). We showed them our business visas but they turned them away, repeating the above statement over and over, and probably confused as to why we weren't happy in response to their news. Our host was also a getting a bit agitated and so we had to walk away empty-handed from our registration attempt, confused and worried about what would happen to us now.

That evening we were still quite worried about our visas, but since it was the weekend and we couldn't do anything about it, we decided to just forget about and enjoy the experience of the wedding ceremony. Weddings in this area are a HUGE occasion, where the whole street opens its doors to host the wedding guests (since there is no one venue large enough). The main venue on day one is the house of the bride's family, and on the evening of day one and on day two, it is the house of the groom's family. As it turned out, in this village it was common for first cousins to marry, and this happened in generation after generation, so in fact the whole village is practically family anyway.

On the Saturday morning we woke to find our entire host family busy with preparations for the day. Their duty was to receive some of the bride's guests into their house and feed them a big chai. The mother was hastily making the final adjustments to the dresses she had made as gifts for the bride and the daughter was cleaning out the chai room. The father and son were down the street greeting other guests at the bride's house, and they told us to be ready with cameras at 10 am for the start of the food preparation.

At every Uzbek wedding ceremony, the traditional dish of plov is served throughout the two days. The feature piece of the plov dish is the little bundle of meat and fat (sheep or cow) that is piled at the apex of the fried rice and carrot mountain. The other prized culinary bits are the scalp of the cow (layers of skin and fat), and the bum fat of the sheep. Therefore, the preparation of the meat is a much celebrated ritual. This procedure started with, of course, a prayer. Next, the sheep was dragged over to a designated space in the yard, had its feet tied together, and its throat swiftly slit. The slaughterman held the sheep down while it bled out into a hole in the ground. Next, he cut a small hole in its ankle and blew air into the sheep until it was fully inflated (like a big balloon) in order to make the skinning easier. The rest of the process was separating out the various body parts for the different dishes to be prepared that day. This included just about every imaginable body part.... every....

After the sheep slaughter ceremony we watched a few kids working hard at picking the stones out of the rice (for the plov) and saw some of the ladies preparing the various types of bread. Next, it was chai time, and Roger was taken to taken to the boys' chai room and Megan to the girls'. After making a few social false moves (including shaking the wrong person's hand first, and sitting in the wrong place), we each settled in to our respective chai sessions. Roger found himself chatting with a few old shepherds from the mountains, and another man that had been to Mecca. At first, Megan was the honoured guest sitting at the head of the room with the mother of the bride, but then was pushed aside when her daughter-in-law walked in the room.

All this sitting around made us tired so we headed back next door to our host's house for a rest. However, this is not what our host family had planned for us! For the party that evening they wanted to really dress Megan up Uzbek-style, instead of her wearing her usual trekking trousers and T-shirt. First of all, and most importantly, much attention was paid to the eyebrows. In Uzbek culture, a prominent and shapely brow, preferably monobrow, is most desirable. So it started with a strange technique of plucking unruly eyebrow hairs by twisting a piece of cotton string over it. This was actually quite painful, but at least all the ladies had a good laugh. They decided to leave out the next stage of painting the monobrow until the next morning, as Megan's brow was looking rather red and irritated after the string treatment. Instead, we skipped straight to the fashion show where Megan would try on various dress and headscarf combinations to see which suited best. In the end, everyone was happy with the dashing pale green floral number & blue headscarf combo.

It was only a short walk down the road to the ceremony, and we couldn't have gotten the wrong house, as the party was spilling out onto the street and the music already quite loud. The tradition here is that the bride's family and groom's family invite every single person they possibly know to the wedding, and each of these guests in turn invite every single person they know, and these guests do the same also, resulting in a wedding for a village of a few hundred people, often having 500 people attending throughout the night. But as soon as we walked through the crowd the music died and to our surprise we were introduced as the honoured guests! We were ushered to a table prepared just for us, our interpreter, and a few spare chairs so that other people could come and talk to us throughout the night.

As we looked over to the bride and groom at the table, we were a bit confused at first, as the bride was looking very ill and solemn, and we thought she may be feeling sick. When she periodically stood up with the groom, she kept bending over as if she were feeling faint. But after a while we had it explained to us that this was in fact their tradition - for this ceremony and for the next few days the bride had to look very very solemn, and was not allowed to smile, or laugh or look happy. She was supposed to be sad that she was leaving her parents' house to go live with her new family (her husband's parents), it was a grave disgrace if she did not look sad enough both at the wedding itself and for the few days after.

After the obligatory serving of plov, we were called to the microphone and Roger had to give an impromptu speech to everyone. Then we were whisked to the dancefloor with the groom's father, and we were given a lesson in Uzbek dance right there. Then we were bumped along until we were dancing in front of the bride and groom (who were standing for us), trying to repeat the moves we had just learnt. All the while that we were dancing, other guests were shoving notes of money into our skull cap and headscarf, respectively. Somehow, by the time the dance ended we had accumulated some 40 soumani between the two of us - not bad for our busking!

Day two of the wedding ceremony was a bit less intense, for us. Megan had to first get dressed up again, this time wearing the traditional and very colourful Uzbek pattern known as the Atlas. She was also treated to some monobrow painting, which involved grabbing some leaves of a particular herb in the garden, crushing it into a paste, then painting and re-painting over the eyebrows. Then it was on to the groom's family's house (the bride's new house) where the day's festivities were to be held. Again, boys and girls were separated and Roger was out in the yard with the rowdy men while Megan went indoors to sit with the women.

Men's business was just sitting around drinking vodka and eating plov, whereas the women's room was a bit more interesting. It was a relatively small room (perhaps 8 m x 5 m) and hiding behind a curtain in the back corner was the bride. Seated around the room were about 35 women of all ages, all sitting on kurpchas (cotton mattresses), in front of long tablecloths scattered with steaming hot chai pots and nibblies. As each new guest entered the room they quickly greeted and kissed every other woman in the room, then greeted the bride behind the curtain, then found a place on the floor, then proceeded to swap health and family messages across the room to every other woman in the room. All the while, new plates of food were brought in, ranging from lollies and biscuits to fruits, cakes and steaming hot soup. And this was all taking place on a 40 degree day, in a poorly ventilated room, so you can imagine how hot and stuffy it was getting in there, especially for the poor bride!!

After a few hours of this, then a rest back at the house, we returned for the revealing of the bride ceremony. All the while (apart from the wedding party the previous evening) the bride had to sit quietly behind a curtain, hidden away, and out of contact with the rest of the world. After one day of this it was now time for her to reveal her face to the world. The ceremony involved emerging from out of the curtain, and bowing VERY slowly (5 seconds down, 5 seconds back up) numerous times to everyone as a sign of respect, whilst still hiding her face under a big veil. After this bowing, she was now considered "revealed" and the wedding was over.

By the end of the night we were well and truly exhausted - ready for our departure the next day. With the quike all packed and ready to go, we thought it would be a nice quick, easy departure. But we still had our doubts (and grave concerns) about the visa issue, not wanting to be fined or deported again for breaching the visa regulations (which was not our fault since the passportny stol would not register us!)...

In the morning we returned again to the passportny stol, and re-enquired with the tourism office, and confirmed that in fact we DID have to register wihtin 3 days of entering the country, and this MUST be in either Dushanbe or Khojand, by the close of business that day. The problem was that each of these cities were 8 hours' drive away! Without too many ideas on how to solve the problem legally, the tourism man gave us the number of Niyoskol Nematov, a man with many many years of experience with tourists and their visa worries.

He confirmed that we should expect to be facing a fine, but if we went up to the mountains for 6 days helping on the one of his trekking tours as cook hands, donkey hands, interpreters, and mountain guides (whichever needed help!) he'd fix the registration and try to get the fine minimised. When this was all paid for, if there was money left over from our wages, we could pocket it. After our very troublesome ordeal in Uzbekistan dealing with the police first-hand, we thought that this sounded like the best option available to us, and so we agreed. The next day, we had our bags packed and were off for some trekking in the beautiful Fan mountains. These mountains are a long chain of mountains and glacial lakes rising up to over 5500 m. For our "trek" we'd be hiking up to 4500 m over a few days. And so with fingers crossed about our visas, we headed up to the mountains, hoping that all would be solved by the time we returned...