Silk Road Day 4: Bukhara and our New Years Eve experience

Day 4: Thursday, December 31st 2015

We woke up around seven and headed down to breakfast at our hotel. We then hopped on the bus and off we drove to Bukhara. In the long eight hour ride, we drove over one of the two main rivers in Uzbekistan, the Amu Daryi river in Uzbekistan, which forms part of the Turkmenistan border, then crosses over into Turkmenistan and is called the Oxus river. The drive could have been a lot shorter, as the distance that we were traveling was not too bad, but the roads are similar to pothole-ridden alleyways in Chicago, so the driver can only go about 25mph in some areas so as not to flip the bus.

On the drive, we stopped for a bathroom break at a place loosely resembling a gas station. I am vague because it was almost like a farm home beside a gas station. There appeared to be a residence beside it, and it was in the middle of nowhere. The bus didn’t pull into the station, so we had to cross the street. I peeked around the bus and saw a car coming from about a mole away, so I waited for it to pass. The car just laid on the horn until it passed, which I thought was annoying since I was clearly waiting. Ben said it was probably because the Uzbeks usually just keep crossing the road whether there are cars or not, so the driver was anticipating the worst. We asked the woman in the home where the bathroom was, and she pointed to an outhouse down the stream nearby. Patricia went first, and claimed the roofless outhouse was just a hole in the ground with three walls and a door. I decided to pass and just wait until the next break, however long it may be. Patricia willingly entered the stall simply saying “it’s all about the experience, right?”

Later we stopped for lunch at a place on the side of the road. We ate there like a restaurant, but there’s also a table fee you can pay if you want to just bring your own bags of food like a picnic stop.. I heard Spanish from one of the women at another table doing just that, and I asked her in Spanish where she was from. She said Valencia, and I got excited and told her I used to live there. Then I thought for a moment and tried to remember the special phrase and said “el mundo es un panuelo.” (literally means the world is a handkerchief, but it’s a Spanish idiom meaning it’s a small world). For lunch we had the carrot, potato and meat broth soup that we’ve had a few times now, followed by shish kebabs with lamb meat and a plate of grilled onions.

Once we arrived in Bukhara, we hopped off the bus to shop for groceries and booze at the convenience store near the hotel. They had a huge shelf in the back of the shop, but it only held a handful of bottles of cognac and vodka. If you remember, I mentioned that the guides told us how cheap liquor will be here. We haven’t been disappointed… the vodka, albeit in smaller bottles than back home, is only about 15000som, or about three USD total for a half liter. And it’s not cheap tasting, either. The liquor content is the same as back home, but the taste is smooth and doesn’t have the bite it normally does. Some people in our group have even opted to just drink it straight instead of with mixers. I bought two bottles of sparkling pear lemonade and a bag of bulk new years tree cookies. I figured we’d want something to pop at new years, even if it weren’t real champagne. Bek, Ben and Eilidh kept telling me the bottle said it wasn’t champagne, as if I couldn’t already tell by its location on the juice shelf and I was like “yes, I know!” “but did you know this isn’t champagne” “YES!” “this is for the children to drink on new years” “YES I GET IT HAS NO ALCOHOL. I AM FINE.”

We checked into the hotel, and Yvonne and I got lucky with a three-bed bedroom. Bek kept saying he was sleeping on the third bed, so much to the point that Yvonne and I were unsure if he was joking. Eillidh reinforced it as well, so I burst into our room, where Ben, Yvonne and Remy were exchanging large stacks of cash (as one does in Uzbekistan, so I didn’t bat an eye) to tell Yvonne this. She kept repeating “this cannot happen” and then Ben left to go check with Eilidh. It ended up being a big joke and Yvonne and I are just super gullible. The room's heat wasn’t adjustable because it came from the floor, which was super toasty but still comfortable. However, after leaving my luggage with a bag of chocolate inside on the floor for one night, that proved to be an issue. The heat also infused all my clothing with the previous day’s purchase of marketplace spices, so all my shirts smelled like roasted lamb.

Yvonne and I got dolled up for New Years dinner because hey, this is NEW YEARS and the only time on the trip to get all fancy. Yvonne said, “even if everyone else is dressed normal, at least we’ll be matching in dress.” I even put on makeup and everything! I was able to use my new favorite travel item, my Chrysalis cardi, and convert it into a fancy dress. The group was very impressed with me and Yvonne because yes, we were the girls who most dressed for the occasion. The group was telling us we were classing up the affair and were pulling us in directions to sit on their side of the table to “bring class” to that side. Thus we split up to even it all out.

The dinner was at a little place hidden from the main road, in what appeared to be a person’s house. The room was just for us, with one large table set with plates of cakes, pickled cabbage, nuts, fruits and other snacks. The walls were decorated with balloons and streamers. The room itself was filled with all sorts of interesting antiques and instruments, like suitcases, guitars, gramophone, hookah pipes and pottery. We enjoyed our meal of meat, carrot, potato and broth soup with the main course of stewed chicken and fries. The main course wasn’t our favorite meal but the atmosphere was lovely and everyone was in great spirits. About every five minutes, someone had a toast to make, to the point that Eilidh toasted to the idea of no more toasts. I think everyone had a great time.

For the post-dinner plans, it was up in the air. Apparently, this year, the Uzbekistan government wanted all shops and restaurants closed by six pm, and there was to be no celebrating on the streets with dancing, music or fireworks or otherwise. Bek didn’t know what to expect. He said it would hopefully be like previous years where everyone is out in the main plaza near the new years tree, having a great time partying, with fireworks going off every few minutes. Or that curfew could be actually taken seriously, with people staying in their homes and the streets silent. So Bek and Eilidh wandered off to scope the scene and report back to us as we enjoyed our desserts. Bek and Eilidh returned with great news: apparently there was a crowd gathered in the main square, and while there was a police presence, it appeared to only be for security and that the celebration was going strong. Bek then gave us a very serious lecture about a laughable topic: TEENAGERS. He tells us that we need to be less worried about the police (here police are definitely people you should be worried about) and more concerned about those pre pubescent humans called teenagers. They may talk to us in English! And they may seem friendly but watch out, they could be drunk. They could want to fight us, for no reason at all… because they are drunk. These teenagers just want to be cool so they could provoke us for no reason at all just to show their friends they are funny and cool. At this point we’re all laughing because this seems like it’d be the least of our concerns. Bek gets frustrated at our laughter and ensures us that these teenagers are a serious threat. YOUTHS! Matt stole extra snack cakes from the dinner table to fend off potential teen threats, in case things got real dicey.

Off we went to the square, and we were patted down by cops after entering a large fenced in area. There were live pop singers on a small stage, with a large LED screen playing what I would assume to be the music videos of these Uzbek pop songs. The videos were as cheesy as you would imagine. Everyone was sort of standing around hanging out and then here our group of fifteen or so monsooners bust in and Tan is the first to just start dancing. He is flailing around and flanked by Ben and Patricia. We’re having a great time dancing crazily to songs we’ve never heard of in a language we don’t understand. Soon, a crowd gathers and shortly thereafter, there is a huge ring of people surrounding us, taking pictures and video on their cameras of these crazy foreigners doing the running man in the middle of their plaza. Some strangers even join in, and the circle grows larger.

Matt gets sarcastically concerned that we’re doing the exact opposite of what Bek warned us about. We were supposed to lay low! We were supposed to not provoke the teens! Now there is a circle of people surrounding us, probably with some videos already uploaded to Youtube Uzbekistan! The police come over and we become concerned, until they push through the crowd to protect the circle from closing in, essentially becoming our bodyguards. It becomes a huge deal… we became the new years entertainment. And that’s not a pompous statement. Apparently a cop told Bek that the police were concerned that the event wasn’t going to be successful, with the crowd going home far before midnight, leaving these pop performers to sing to an empty plaza. But then we busted in, got the dance moves out, and soon everyone was having a fantastic time. We pushed to the front of the stage and shortly after, Ben and a handful of our group went around to the back of the stage to try to get onstage to dance. Apparently the police were totally cool with it, but it was the artist’s agent or someone associated with the music that prevented them from doing so. We were there for a couple hours dancing to 99% Uzbek songs and 1% Macarena and “I like to move it move it” until everything was abruptly interrupted at 11:30pm.

The LED screen beside the stage now had an older woman with a stack of papers, talking in Russian, almost like a news program. The music was replaced with the audio from the woman on the screen, and the police cleared the area right in front of the stage and formed a sort of wall to be sure people didn’t stand in front. It was a bit scary, until Ben informed us what was going on. The woman was a representative of the government and was reporting a sort of state-of-the-union address of what Uzbekistan accomplished in 2015 and what they have plans to accomplish in 2016. That’s nice and everything but it unfortunately cut into our dancing.

Locals began clearing the square, but Bek, Ben and Eilidh didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to our group so we remained until it was over. Ben also warned us “not to do anything stupid when it was over,” like cheer or something, since it would be disrespectful. The woman finished her speech and…a man came on the screen in the same setup, only now speaking Uzbek. So we stood around another long while until he was done, and the speech ended JUST in time with thirty seconds on the clock (they were each fifteen minute speeches) so we could count down. The countdown appeared on the screen with everyone counting in Uzbek or Russian, and our group attempting to be the loudest in English.

Once we rang in the new year, we headed out, and once out of the gated square, Bek popped a bottle of champagne for us to drink out of paper Pepsi cups. As we walked back to the hotel, we saw a handful of paper lanterns floating up into the sky.

Once back at the hotel, the party continued with our endless supply of honey vodka, wine, beer and sparkling juice. We danced and drank in the hotel lobby getting our party on when the owners of the hotel brought in vodka and snacks, offering us shots. I can’t even put into words that amazing feeling of hospitality you get in Uzbekistan, and this was yet another example of these people welcoming us.

We all went to bed pretty late, but luckily we were offered a late start tomorrow to allow us some rest from today’s celebrations.