Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
AT FIVE THIRTY am, we packed in the dark and began to haul our gear to the road. As we sat waiting for the bus the light slid down the hill. The river did not know we'd been there.
It continues, devoid of adjectives or adverbs. We hadn't conquered it; you can't conquer something that doesn't even know you exist. It makes no distinctions between the brave and the foolhardy, the cautious and the timid; it had no rewards to offer, no tolls to extract. It is too busy with the business of its own existence to worry about our technologically splendid flotsam.
And this river trip was over, but even as we turned away, somehow, inevitably, another trip begins. If I had learnt nothing else in twenty years of river running, I did know that it's all one river trip; that the journey began in a two seat kayak on the river Wye all those years ago has weaved its way across continents and continues to this day.
The road was quiet. As the sun rose and warmed our pile of junk we could hear the river and the distant cows and cockerels. In the distance, a minute, solitary figure took a life time to walk up the dirt path to the village; a car stumbled along the road, a man drove a herd of goats and sheep, cows ambled along the verges, searching for grass. By ten o'clock it was obvious our bus was not going to turn up.
Gena and the Admiral set off to the nearest large village to organise another bus and Sasha took Mark and Blodwyn and me to an orchard in search of shade. We entered, Sasha explaining he'd ask permission if anyone turned up. We heard a dog barking and the soft sound of rippling Uzbek music.
The owner came to meet us through the trees, a squat man in a collarless white shirt. His son, a small brown-eyed child wearing a magnificent top hat, hid behind him. Like everyone else we had met in the mountains this bee-keeper welcomed us, despite the fact that we didn't speak his language or worship his God.
The man lived in the valley during the summer. In winter he went down to the town. His living quarters were sparse; a small dim hut surrounded by fruit trees and herbs. The only machinery we saw apart from his battered car was a complicated set of scales and the radio that was tuned in to the gentle music. His wife produced bread and honey and tea and the yogurt that wasn't yoghurt and we sat down to enjoy their hospitality.
My father used to tell me stories of rural Ireland where such hospitality was the norm, but I knew it would never happen in Australia. You'd never invite some passing stranger in to your house for fear of what he might do to your wife and children. Sadly your fears would probably be justified. I wondered if they were so open and free with strangers because they had no possessions to worry about. But their generosity is one of the things I remember most about Central Asia.
Sasha talked, Blodwyn slept, and then we heard a truck and saying goodbye raced back to the road. It wasn't our truck.
We found a raised platform not far from the road, still in the beekeeper's orchard, and crashed. I envied the beekeeper his uncluttered life. And for a few hours mine was equally uncluttered and it was perfect. The sound of the breeze in the orchard, a loose slate stuttering on the lean-to's roof, the buzzing of the bees and the drone of the flies; Sasha humming tunelessly to himself; the smell of the earth and Blodwyn's hair and dozing off and waking up when we heard a truck or bus banging along the road.
The Admiral and Gena finally returned about One O'clock. We piled all our gear into the back of a bus and squeezed in to the spaces we had left and finally set off for Tashkent. On any incline we moved at less than walking pace. The Bus stopped frequently. The driver disappeared under the bonnet to rip pieces out of the engine. Some he put back in, some he left on the roadside. At one of these stops Mark and I hopped out for air.
We could see the river, no longer running and wild, but backed up, green and still in the approaches to Charvak lake.
"For the first time in six weeks we aren't heading towards a river."
"For the first time in three years we're not heading towards a Central Asian river. Sumatra sounds interesting."
"I'd like to go home. Now. Beam me up Scotty."
The driver was worried that he wouldn't have enough petrol to get back, so after crawling around Charvak lake we detoured off the road towards Chimgen. The first petrol pump we came to was closed, and even after we'd got the owner out of bed there was no petrol to be had. The second station was deserted. The driver wandered over to the shade, shook hands with the small circle of seated card players, talked, sauntered back. By now we'd discovered the driver's mate's role in life. He kept leaping out of the bus to crank the reluctant engine back to life with his trusty, rusty starting handle.
We finally found a petrol station that was closed but which had queues outside while a bowser filled the petrol tanks. We queued for petrol, then queued while the cashier sent someone for change. "C'est la Vie," said the Admiral, sadly, as his timetable fell apart and lay in ruins on the dirty floor of the bus, "this is the way our lives are."
The road to Tashkent is mostly built up, although the urbanity is offset by orchards where tethered goats cropped the grass. There were no gardens in the useless ornamental western fashion. The closer we got to Tashkent the more people we saw; many looked positively European; trams, queues for buses, and police every five hundred yards or so. Traffic lights, and blondes with lipstick. Civilisation.
Our plans to spend the night in Samarkand were in ruins. But we had been travelling long enough not to be disappointed by this minor set back.
Arriving at Tashkent station we unloaded, to the amusement of the locals. We looked ragged. Our boats disappeared towards a freight train which would carry them slowly back to Moscow. Bags followed. The guitar had finally died, but the Admiral was determined it could be rebuilt. Andrei and Sasha, the latter still clutching his pieces of river wood, were taking the train home. They would take any gear we didn't need with them.
Good bye, good luck, and thank you. See you in Moscow.
Suddenly we were alone in the silver evening light watching the hoards of people while Vlod and Gena went to book us into a hotel. They returned with Constantine, whose mother had just died. He had a spare room we could have. Once more we piled into the back of a truck, heading through an unknown town. Once more, under strict instructions to speak no English, we piled out and following Constantine through the courtyard found ourselves installed in a large room with three beds inside, a hall way with another bed, and a small kitchen.
After a coffee, the delights of a hot shower. I had mixed feelings about the Tashkent Hilton. If I had to spend a night in town then I wanted the Nikko Narita; I wanted to be able to drink cold beer, wander freely, phone home. But we were there and then and that too was fine.
As soon as we had entered the room Constantine, fussing over our welfare,
had tried to turn the television on. When it hadn't worked he had
disappeared and returned with another set which he switched on.
The news, full of dead burnt bodies and a story in which I caught the words
"John Major" and "Marks and Spencers" was replaced by the Uzbek answer
to MTV. The colours of the back drops and costumes were garish, made
worse by the set's poor definition.
Constantine, returning to tell us the Admiral and Gena hadn't returned from their shopping expedition, turned it back on again. Every time he went out we switched the set off, and every time he came back in, with blankets or eventually food in case the others didn't return, he turned it on.
Gena and Vlod returned, exhausted but successful, with their bags full of food and drink. We prepared a banquet and proceeded to get perfectly drunk, to celebrate our rivers and the fact that nationality is a accident, not a definition. Gena's cure for my stomach was a mixture of equal quantities of salt and vodka. I was prepared to try anything.
I was wondering who scored the floor, there only being four beds for five people but the problem was already solved.
"You told me to go with the flow," said Chris, who was drunken. "So I took your advice."
The idea of anyone following my advice sounded so hysterically funny
that I laughed myself to sleep. As any paddler will tell you,
the flow often leads into some strange places.
At five am, when enthusiasm is usually impossible, we walked out through the streets of Tashkent, to take the metro to reach the bus that would take us to Samarkand. There was the same thin, silvery quality to the early light that I had noticed in the evening. In the absence of cars and dogs, the morning was almost silent. Outside each gate a tin bucket full of used toilet paper and a box of rubbish waited, presumably for collection. The thin sweet smell of the rubbish pooled and faded as we strode in to the spaces between them. An old woman was sweeping leaves from the gutter, and burning them on a small fire, as though it was the most natural thing to be doing at five thirty in the morning. I felt like singing and skipping, we were on our way to Samarkand.
After the spacious elegance of the Metro, which was like the Moscow version without the beggars and street vendors, in a cramped and crowded coach, we drove towards the city of my dreams; still pretending to be Estonians so we could travel at the Rouble price. We had been averaging ten kilometres a day on our rivers. Now we would travel three hundred in four hours through a landscape bleached and flat and uninteresting. We would only have four hours in the city, as we had to return and catch the early train to Moscow the next day. The bus steamed and filled with the stale smell of unwashed bodies. It must have unhinged Mark's mind. By the time we arrived he was suffering from a postcard fixation from which nothing would shake him.
The landscape was disappointing after the dramatic mountains we had passed through. Bleached scrub land stretched away to the horizon. Apart from the faint thrill of fear every time we stopped and the bizzarre moment when we passed an isolated building with "Fresh Hot Bread" written in gaudy neon English lettering above the door, there was little to do. Blodwyn was asleep, and Estonians don't hold long conversations in English. To while away the time I reviewed what I knew about Samarkand.
It is a city of legend, and it has stood here, in this valley, while the great waves of history rolled over and past. There had been a city there before the arrival of Alexander the Great. In 1200, just before it was sacked by the Mongols, it had an estimated population of nearly half a million people.
As we drove down the valley it was difficult to imagine this troubled history. Today it is a vast cotton growing area and the Zeravshan, which we crossed, has been diverted to irrigate the crops. Seeing this old river, which had been our first target when we had begun to dream of paddling in Central Asia, was like meeting a long lost acquaintance who has fallen on hard times. It no longer flows past Samarkand through gardens known to Tamburlaine, or makes the final miles to the Aral sea, but peters out in the desert. High banks and tall islands testified to the size of the now dead river, whose bed was being dredged.
My head hurt. Samarkand itself has seen some riotous parties in its history. Alexander held a huge feast here, and in a fit of drunken rage killed Cleitus, a close friend who had saved his life. The Mongols were prodigious drinkers, although a law of Genghis Khan made it illegal to be drunk more than three times a month. They drank Kumis, fermented mare's milk, and I'm sorry to say we hadn't been able to try any. Tamburlaine the Great threw a party here before setting out to attempt the winter conquest of China. It was the last big party of his life and it lasted for several months in the gardens on the banks of the Zeravshan, the Spiller of Gold.
When the armies of Ghengis Khan had swept up the valley, in wave after wave of disciplined horsemen, Bokhara, further down river, had fallen after a short siege. The citizens had surrendered although the Governor and his body guard had retreated to the citadel and refused to budge. This was hardly surprising. The previous Governor of a town to fall into the Khan's hands had been rewarded for his bravery by having molten silver poured into his eyes and ears.
But Bokhara fell and the city, famous for its libraries and the learning of its wise men, was burnt to the ground. Samarkand held out for five days and then surrendered. The Turkish soldiers of the garrison were slaughtered, the artisans, craftsmen and able bodied citizens were taken off into slavery, and the city sacked. For some reason it escaped total destruction and the markets survived to be mentioned in the Travels of Marco Polo. In other cities, like Nishapur, not even the cats and dogs were spared, and the only thing left standing when the Mongols departed were pyramids of human skulls.
Samarkand was rebuilt by a descendant of Genghis. Timur, known as imur-i-Leng, Timur the lame or the Iron limper, known in English as Tamburlaine. A conservative estimate puts the number of human beings slaughtered by the armies of this man at seven million.
Such a record of slaughter is neither edifying nor entertaining. The empires of the Mongols, of Tamburlaine and Stalin were all built at a cost of millions of lives, and they're shadows now, memories like the crumbling walls of the city of Macarandia. Tyrants and persecution are a fact of history, and will be, as long as nationality is seen as a definition and not an accident. As long as people deal with race and creed and politics, as long as they hide behind the worst forms of professional schizophrenia and forget the human faces behind the uniforms.
The bus steamed, my head hurt, and my mind wandered. I doubt the Mongols would have had much time for kayaking. They believed in the sacred value of water to the extent where, until their conversion to Islam, they wouldn't wash in it. There are descriptions of their bodies crawling with lice to the point where their skin seemed to be mobile. However, as they weren't adverse to eating the lice it was one way of carrying supplies.
After four hot hours, we finally saw the blue domes of the city, but the bus depot is on the outskirts. The first thing that strikes you about Samarkand is that the pictures you have seen suggest the famous blue buildings are isolated. They are surrounded by the busy little town, with its shops and houses.
To get from the bus station to the town we caught a Marshrutnoe taxi.
As we walked towards the "taxi rank" a policeman stopped us. Look
away hissed Blodwyn. The Admiral talked to him, then came back for
Gena's passport. We escaped and managed to get a seat on a Marshrutnoe
taxi by climbing over the people who were trying to climb over us.
It was like catching the school bus home in the dark days before teachers
policed the bus lines. I sat in the back, fending off irate women in floral
headscarves, mildly bemused by my own success. Having been brought up to
regard queue jumping as a heinous offence I felt like someone who had just
dropped his trousers in church and got away with it.
Power walking through the shady streets in search of the post office I noted the monuments as they flashed past: The Bibi Khanum Mosque, now covered in scaffolding, was one of the largest religious buildings in Central Asia before it crumbled under its own weight. Soviet style shops, the post office. It was a shadowy, hopeless building. Wooden corridors led to closed service windows.
The Admiral, typically, ignored signs saying the Uzbek equivalent of "Back in five minutes" and continued to push open doors and make himself unpleasant until an irate woman put down her tea cup and answered his questions. No, they did not sell postcards. Yes, they did sell stamps but no, you could not buy one unless you had the postcard to put it on.
Mark was insistent that he wanted postcards, and he wanted to find a place where he could sit down and write them. As it was the first and only time on the expedition that he'd insisted on doing anything I didn't feel like arguing with him. The Russians were visibly confused. They'd brought us to this city and all he wanted to do was sit down and write postcards? It was at this point that we should have gone our separate ways. The Admiral was obviously keen to show me around, Mark wasn't really interested in seeing buildings, and Blodwyn wanted to go shopping.
Instead of splitting up we headed for the Registan. I had read glowing descriptions of this place. In the late nineteenth century, Lord Curzon, possibly one of the first English men to see it, had called it the noblest public square in the world. In Apples in the Snow, 101 years later, Geoffrey Moorehouse described it in almost ecstatic terms. My first reaction was euphoria; I'd arrived. My second was disappointment. Perhaps it was illness, exhaustion, lack of sleep. Perhaps we had spent too long in the mountains, where the fractured rocks suggested ruins in the shadows of morning and evening.
The place is small. It lacks the arrogant upward reach of western Gothic and the famous blue mosaics with their scrolling patterns lack that attempt at infinity that characterises the manuscripts of Medieval Europe. The architecture is beautiful; but neat, precise, modest. I kept trying to avoid the word "polite" but it wouldn't go away.
We wandered inside. Almost every little room has been converted to a dim souvenir shop stuffed with tatty and expensive junk and staffed by aggressive salesmen who could not believe we didn't want to spend all our money in their shop. I had been harbouring romantic notions of sipping tea in the courtyard quoting lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, surrounded by roses and gentle Uzbek music. The roses are there but what you get is imitation Coke called "Thums Up" (sic) and the sound of pseudo western rock leaking from the bar.
We had been travelling as a group for so long, focussed on the shared goal of getting down two hard rivers, that the thought of splitting up to achieve our separate ambitions hadn't occurred to anybody. Having bought a set of postcards Mark now wanted to find somewhere to write them. I wanted to see all the things I had read about. The tension that had been building all day finally exploded when Blodwyn stormed off towards the markets claiming she wanted some time on her own. I didn't want to go souvenir shopping so I watched the others follow her.
In my mind I had been travelling towards this place for three years. And now, alone, with the linguistic competence of a two year old, I had less than three hours. Too tired and frustrated to be disgusted or angry, I wandered through the famous market. The sweet thin smell of spices lingered at the entrance, reminding me of the shit buckets in Tashkent. The fruit and vegetables looked lovely. Traders whistled shrilly to attract attention to their wares. Exotic, frightening, entertaining and strangely disappointing it was like every other street market I'd ever been in. I don't know what I expected. I wanted some overwhelming sense of place to rise up and grab me by the throat. I wanted some palpable emotional reward for reaching somewhere so remote and exotic.
I watched two urchins stealing goats cheese from a stall, and then decided to leave and investigate the Bibi Khanum mosque on my own. From where I was I could see the blue dome of the Mosque growing an adolescent beard of grass. The same growths had been apparent at the Registan. I also wanted to find the Gur-I-Emir Mausoleum where Tamburlaine is buried. The legend said that if his tomb was disturbed catastrophe would follow.
The day after Russian scientists examined the body the German's invaded Russia. As I headed for the exit to the market I saw a policeman checking papers. We didn't have any, and I suspect our presence in Uzbekistan was illegal. I worked out I could say, in my best Samurai Russian, that my Visa was in my hotel in Tashkent, and that my Guide was meeting me soon. But I turned back from the confrontation. I had had enough of policemen and "donations". There was a line of shops selling what looked like a variety of sweets, and a soviet style emporium which sold stereo speakers and twenty copies of one large pink doll.
By the time the policeman had left it was time to meet the others.
More paradoxes. An old man on a donkey cart moves slowly along the road beside a line of Skania trucks. In a culture famous for its hospitality to strangers the grudging indifference of the waiters in the restaurant bordered on hostility. Mark was still insisting on sending his postcards from Samarkand. Gena offered to take him back to the post office after we had eaten.
Blodwyn and the Admiral and I returned to the bus station where an aggressive Policeman discovered our lack of visas and after roundly abusing the Admiral ordered us to follow him.
We moved down a dim corridor to a small dark room full of computers and desks and other officials. I had just kayaked two dangerous rivers, but for the first time on the journey I was genuinely scared. I have read too many stories about brutal policemen and felt painfully vulnerable with Blodwyn standing beside me.
But we did not need to be scared; it was a game, like being "Smuggled" across the border. Blodwyn and I were ordered to wait outside, watched over by two young policemen who obviously thought it was a great joke. A sheepish looking Admiral soon followed and hurried us out to the waiting bus, where Mark happily told me, in a Australian voice, that he had sent his postcards.
I don't think I've ever apologised for telling him to shut up and get in the bus.
The regular coach back to Tashkent was no more reliable than our bus from the river. At one point we were overtaken by a man on a donkey. The closer we got to Tashkent, the more road blocks, but the police waved us through. Mark and I gave up pretending to be Estonians. We were exasperated enough to be ready to say; we haven't got visas, this man here told us we didn't need them, which sounds brutally disloyal at this distance but at the time seemed like the only logical course to follow.
We discussed the expedition and our relationship with our Russian fellow travellers. When it came down to it, we were obviously paying customers, not companions. I didn't like the way I couldn't get a straight answer from the Admiral about what had happened in the bus station; it was as though he didn't trust us to deal with the information. It was obvious that we were no longer worthy of being treated as equals. We were back to being baggage.
A baby cries, someone near by is eating something that smells like it
should have been buried years ago and the driver fiddles with the radio
trying to find something to keep himself awake. If there is a waiting
room to hell, I have heard its muzak on a bus from Samarkand to Tashkent.
End of Chapter
1 . . .
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