This has been the most difficult and lonely part of my trip. Don’t take that as an Oh my gosh, Renee is struggling message, but rather an, Oh my gosh, Renee is learning message. The English speakers are far and few between in this part of the world, and there are few tourists, so having a conversation even as far as ‘How are you doing today?’ is rare. It’s been a real opportunity for me to sit back and be with my own thoughts, something I was able to do in the first part of this journey because I wanted to, but now because I simply have no other choice. All of that being said, I should note that I’ve passed by a handful of English schools in Uzbekistan, so perhaps there will be more in the next few years. As I’ve written and questioned before though, what does globalization do to a culture, and how are we taking away the special things about each place in the world by injecting a common language?
I took a short flight from Kazakhstan to get to Uzbekistan. The Yandex Go (Central Asia’s version of Uber) cost me less than $3 to get to the airport, which was a 30-minute drive. Everything is incredibly, incredibly cheap in this part of the world. At the airport, as I was pulling out a very ragged COVID mask, a man waiting in line handed me a fresh one from his packet. We smiled at each other and as I was putting on his much more functional mask, he handed me about six more. Not a word was exchanged, he just smiled, and took my old mask over to the trash can across the room. He has no idea I’m writing about him today – of course, he wouldn’t – but I want to remember this strange man who ultimately was sending a message of “I want you to be safe and well.”
Once I arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I met a woman who has been a part of my journey for the last four days. We smile together, we fight together, and we don’t speak any of the same words. This woman, who I believe is named Irina (quite ironic given that Renee stems from Irina), is probably in her 50s and might be the hardest working person I’ve ever met.
She greeted me at the hotel I was staying at, which by the way costs me $16 a night and my room is large enough for four people. There is a short flight of stairs to get up to the entry way and she had people lined up and ready to help me (I had requested a wheelchair accessible room when booking, so she knew I was coming). As soon as I got to the top and checked in, she insisted on pushing me to my room. She showed me the beds, towels, bathroom, everything I needed. She noticed that there wasn’t anything for me to sit on in the shower and rushed out of the room. Now this isn’t uncommon and I’ve gotten quite creative in how I shower, almost always sitting on an upside-down trash can. However, Irina had thought this through and was back in a matter of minutes with a plastic folding chair. She had a welcome drink for me, got me an extension cord for the electrical outlet so I could put my phone by bed (there wasn’t an outlet by the bed), hung sheets over the windows (the blinds were giving her fits and wouldn’t close). Irina was THERE for me. I went outside that evening to get some fresh air and she was behind me, pushing me around the grounds. Before bed, she asked me, using Google Translate, if I had plans for the next day. I nodded yes and she asked if I needed a taxi or if she could drive me. I, using Google Translate, told her I would take a taxi and she pushed me back to my room for the night.
I don’t always sleep well in hotels when I am alone, especially if I am on the ground floor, which I usually am since most places don’t have elevators. I’m a solo, disabled, female traveler. I think it’s natural to have my defenses up at all times, sleeping or not, and sometimes I leave a light or two on. However, I knew Irina was just outside my door and she was looking out for me. It’s really odd, but I have felt so safe knowing she is there. I trust nothing will happen to me.
So, the next morning, I opened my door and Irina was waiting for me. I swear, this woman is at the hotel 24 hours a day. I’ve seen her at 6 am and at 10 pm. She remembered that I was going to use a taxi that day and was insistent on calling one for me. I didn’t have any som (the local currency in Uzbekistan) and was planning on using the Yandex Go ride sharing app where I could pay with a credit card. I had already ordered my car but Irina was insistent, absolutely demanding, that I take money from her and let her call me a taxi (she knew I was out of som when I paid her for the hotel). I was getting a bit annoyed at this point. I had a plan and I wanted to stick to it. Did she not think I could handle getting a taxi on my own? Some of my own underlying issues with how people generally treat the disabled were starting to surface and I just said, very firmly, “No, I take my taxi,” and rushed towards the steps. I got out, bounced my chair down on my own, and moved quickly to the area where the taxi would pick me up. I was angry. All the while, Irina was yelling at me in what I assumed was Russian. Irina and I got into a big fight that morning.
I found my Yandex Go, which was pretty much a golf cart with a roof, and the man helped me to put my wheelchair in the backseat (there was no trunk). He pointed to the roof, and I shook my head strongly. Hell no, you are not about to tie my wheelchair to the top of this cracker box. It will stay safely seated inside with me. I suppose it was a kind gesture, to make me more comfortable, but can you imagine the absurdity of a wheelchair tied to the top of a car just so I could have an extra seat?
I spent my day exploring Tashkent. The city itself is incredibly accessible, minus a few curbs here and there where I will get out, bounce my chair down, get back in, cross the street, and do the entire ordeal over. It’s good exercise if nothing else, and more often than not, someone will come along and help me.
You all know by now that I really enjoy just strolling through cities, going after a few destinations but stumbling upon things along the way. That’s exactly what I did in Tashkent. I saw a number of mosques and memorials, had coffee at a local café, spent some time in a park. I just took it all in. At one point, I found myself deep into the city of Tashkent, standing on the side of the street waiting for a car, and looked around. I was deep into Central Asia. There was no one like me around and it felt so incredibly authentic. And I wasn’t scared. This was where I wanted to get in my journey, off the beaten path and experiencing the authenticity of a culture.
I had plov for lunch at an authentic restaurant. Plov is a Central Asian rice dish with meat, similar to fried rice in America, with a twist. The restaurant itself was crowded – one of the only crowded places in Central Asia – and I had no idea how to get a table and order. I figured if I just sat down, someone would eventually come and help. Turns out that wasn’t the case. I waited and waited and finally got up to find a young man who used Google Translate to assist me. I got my order of plov, and I have no idea what type of meat was in it, but it was delicious, and super filling.
I’ve learned to cross the street in Uzbekistan. There are very few crosswalks with lights for people. Instead, there are crosswalks where you stand on the edge, wait for a car to slow down, turn on their four-ways, and then you cross. I assume the four-way lights are a signal to the pedestrian that they are stopping and also a signal for the cars behind them that there is a person about to cross the street. This works for a two-lane road and for multiple lanes. At one point, I found myself crossing over eight lanes of traffic, waiting on the first car to turn on their lights, getting into the first lane, peering around the car to be sure the car in the second lane would turn on their flashing lights, and proceeding across all lanes of traffic in this fashion, each car proceeding past me after I left their lane of traffic. It’s an effective process, but man, you’ve got to be on your toes when crossing the street here.
When I got back to the hotel that night, I had secretly hoped Irina wouldn’t be working. I knew we were in a fight and I wasn’t ready to deal with her. I just wanted to be left alone, in my own world. But here’s the thing – Irina is always working. I think she must live at the hotel.
Once I crawled up the steps, she greeted me in the lobby and I think she finally understood that I needed my independence. She helped me fill my water bottle from the larger, drinkable water bottle that the hotel offered, and then let me be on my own. I desperately needed to do laundry and had read on the hotel’s webpage that they offered a laundry service. Well, I suppose I’m going to have to ask Irina for some help now.
Irina had made it clear that she didn’t like Google Translate. She had blatantly ignored my translation attempts on several occasions, which was frustrating because, how else were we to communicate? I knew I’d have to attempt to get laundry done through hand signals. I approached her and grabbed the top of my shirt and then imitated a washboard with my hands. She understood, nodded her head, and pointed to herself. Okay, great. I would gather my dirty clothes and give them to her. I did as she suggested and had a wad of cash in my hand. I didn’t know how much it would be but she wrote it down on a piece of paper. Forty-five cents. It cost me 45 cents for Irina to do my laundry, detergent included. She took my pile into a room, came back out, and pulled a vine of fresh grapes from a fruit basket for me. I think we are friends again. I’ve stopped forcing Google Translate on her and she’s stopped pushing me around. We have a new understanding.
The next morning, she handed me part of my laundry and indicated with hand signals that she was ironing the rest. When she was done ironing, she came into my room and laid out each item of clothing on the spare beds, flat and perfect, so they wouldn’t get wrinkled.
I was going on a day tour to Tajikistan and as I was leaving to meet my guide, Irina stopped me and shook her head in disgrace. She started pulling blonde hairs off the back of my shirt, shaking her head that I would even consider going out in public with spare hairs on me. She pulled each and every one off, making sure I was in tip-top condition. She, of course, had no idea where I was going, but it was evident that she wanted me to look my best.
I drove with my guide for two and half hours, listening to him tell me about the history of Tajikistan. It’s no secret that history is not my forte. I will never understand how some people just grasp onto history and can store it in their brains forever. The world has so much history, and it’s something I wish I could keep, but also know it’s just not in my nature. So, I listened intently, trying so hard to retain what he was saying, all the while overwhelmed with dates and names and locations.
We crossed the border from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan on foot. I was very glad to have a local with me at this border crossing. It was challenging with at least five checkpoints, each border control agent dressed in camouflage holding a long rifle on their chest. I had a double entry visa for Uzbekistan, meaning I could enter their country twice, once when I first arrived and a second time to come back from Tajikistan. At one of the checkpoints, the agent pulled up my information and informed us that their system was only showing a single-entry visa. I started to panic just a bit and stressed that the visa I had clearly showed a double entry, printed right on the visa itself. My guide remained calm and explained that another tourist had the same issue just a few weeks ago. He told me it shouldn’t be a problem to get back in (and it wasn’t), but I had a vision of Irina packing up my room and shipping my belongings to Tajikistan where I would have to find a flight out of Central Asia.
On the way back from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan, there was a long line of trucks waiting to cross. I asked my guide if this was normal and he calmly and factually said, “Someone must have brought drugs over today. The lines are only long when someone brings drugs.” Oh, lovely… I asked him where the drugs were coming from – Pakistan – and what type of drugs – heroin. He was so factual about it, a reality that smuggling drugs is commonplace at this border crossing.
We visited Khujand, Tajikistan where we saw a bazaar, several mosques, a museum, and a few memorials. We had kebabs – at his recommendation – for lunch and discussed the culture of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I asked him where had all visited and where he wanted to go. He told me he really wanted to go to Dubai with his family but it was difficult for women to get visas into Dubai. This surprised me. I asked him why and he said, “Well, prostitution,” as though it was so obvious. Here it is again, prostitution… I was intrigued.
We talked about this for a bit, knowing no one around us could understand English. He reminded me that prostitution is an age-old business and it’s always happened. It is illegal in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but it happens often. The government turns their head the other way, as they know if it they start to criminalize it, there will be an increase in sexual abuse and rape cases. So while it’s illegal, as long as violent crimes remain low, it seems it will go on forever, secretly and not so secretly.
That being said, the wealth in places like Dubai is much greater, and women will travel there to make more money from prostitution. They will work for a year, their families knowing what they are doing but never discussing it, and bring back loads of money to their families. My guide also explained that prostitution is in high demand for homosexuals. Homosexuality is illegal in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, punishable by three years in prison (if you get caught), so prostitution is the outlet most men seek. He was very calm and non-judgmental as he told me, “Yes, everywhere has gays. Homosexuals don’t have rights here, and many leave to go to America or Europe because of it.”
We talked about the various languages, and he explained that unlike Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, many people in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan don’t speak Russian, only Uzbek or Tajik. It occurred to me right then that Irina didn’t speak Russian. I was pushing a Russian translation app on her when she spoke Uzbek. I couldn’t have felt worse.
As we strolled around the city, which is incredibly small, him pushing me, he told me on several occasions. “This is the nicest wheelchair I’ve ever seen. It rolls so smoothly.” He told me has guided many, many tours for wheelchair users over the years, and my chair was still the best he’s ever seen. Seriously, I am so freaking lucky.
I walked from my hotel down the street to a local restaurant that night. As I was wheeling along, I happened to look down at my right wheel. It was about to fall off! What the heck, how did this happen, I must fix this immediately! I found a step to sit on while I popped off the big wheel, turned the giant washer holding it on as tight as I could, and popped my rear wheel back in. This very nice chair – as my guide reminded me – is due for a tune up. Thank goodness I noticed it when I did. I was probably just a few spins away from a dismounted chair!
Visiting The Stans has been one of the most unique travel experiences I’ve ever had, exasperated by being alone. I’ve been at restaurants where the prices are listed in Russian rubles, something that gives me the chills and at the same time reminds me of the interconnection of our world. I’ve learned more about our international political environment on this trip than I could have ever learned from a book, hearing about and feeling firsthand from the people most recently impacted by some of the world’s prominent historical events. I’m learning what power really is, and at the same time what powerlessness really is.
Flying into Kyrgyzstan a week ago was a bit nerve racking for me. I was a little on edge, not knowing what to expect from such an unknown part of the world. While the heat is exhausting (my own fault for visiting during one of the hottest months), and the language barriers are difficult, I have found that I feel safe almost everywhere (with some common sense of course). The cities are clean and well-maintained, perhaps one of the most well-kept places I’ve visited. The people are kind and helpful, even Irina, who I think is growing to love me in a unique way, as I certainly am for her.
So many people are coming out of the woodwork to tell me that they know someone from one of The Stans. It’s amazing that this place in the world, so untouched and not talked about, is connected to so many of you. I continue to surprise myself at how incredibly large and incredibly small our world is. And while this might be a place for the slightly more experienced traveler, it is a place that has been more profound for me than I could have ever anticipated. Like so many things, it’s always the unexpected that gets you.
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