Fabulous Suzanis, Terrible Toilets and Buzkashi

Counting the Cost of Nisha's Negotiations

Counting the Cost of Nisha's Negotiations

We drove from Termez into the hills heading to Shakhrisabz via the remote mountain district of Baysun. We were told there was a family we must meet as they keep tribal embroidery alive. When we arrived we were certainly not disappointed. The couple explained with actions how they had to behave as newly weds. The mother-in-law ties the belbog around the waist of the son-in-law when he arrives for the ceremony, signifying the need to stay strong. The gentleman has to cover his face with a belbog to show respect while the ladies had to wear a kurta with a duppi and white veil to cover the head and face for a year after the wedding in front of their in-laws. The family belong to the Kungrat tribe (also known as Onggirat or Qongirat, one of the main Mongol groups in the region) who have Alpamish as their warrior hero who, with his bow and arrows, bears a striking resemblance to Rama in Hindu mythology. They are one of the original settled tribes of Uzbekistan.

Shopping done, time for food...

Shopping done, time for food...

After we bought lots of their wares, they took us through for an elaborate meal (which we took to mean that they had clearly won in the price negotiations!) The meat and potatoes would have delighted Nigella! Cooking meat and potatoes in pure fat makes them tender, delicious and utterly sinful. Having satiated ourselves with that, the yogurt, the salsa type sauce ziravoi, the fruit, the dry fruit including the plum, juicy, local ottobi raisins and unable to eat another morsel, we drove to Baysun through rolling green meadows. Everywhere people were cleaning, painting and planting in readiness for Nowruz.

We stopped at a petrol station to use the toilet which was a cell with no light and a hole in the floor with two rather closely placed stones for balancing on. No water or signs of a flush anywhere. There is simply no sanitation and I remember being traumatised by it on my first trip in 2005 and to be honest I still am. No place is perfect but Uzbek toilets have been described by Anthony Bourdain as the worst in the world: “Toilets in Uzbekistan make the one in Trainspotting look like an operating room”. One has to wonder when they will do something about the public toilets for tourists if not for themselves. To be fair though, India fares quite badly on the public toilet front too. Exporting septic tanks or portaloos looming as a potential business idea!

We were in luck. We saw lots of cars parked and horse riders congregating in a small valley in the Hissar mountains with the audience spread over the adjoining slopes. Zahid stopped the taxi, grabbed the camera and ran off towards the action. Anaheeta and I stayed and watched from a sensible distance. This is the sport of buzkashi (goat-dragging) or kupkari (work of many people) or ulak (goat) where the riders are competing for a be-headed carcass, in this case one belonging to a black sheep. Common in most districts in Uzbekistan, other than Fergana Valley and Khorezm, as well as in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. The prizes range from a TV or carpet to a car and the word that came to my mind while watching it was ‘raw’. The scene would have been the same a thousand years ago, barring the cars. The sport is normally arranged for wedding parties and Navroz and usually played in spring. The carcass is considered halal and can be gifted by the winner to anyone for consumption.

Our hotel for the night, the brand new Shakhrisabz Hotel 15 minutes from Ak-Saray. Nice rooms and bathrooms but freezing cold (there is gas outage in the area) and we appear to be the first guests. We have only been here four days… seems like much has passed.

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