On the Road to Samarkand

The needle on the gas gauge is creeping into the red zone, but there are no gas stations in sight. The road to Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road capital, runs past mounds of watermelons, bucketfuls of apples and frequent police checkpoints. Past everything but a gas station. Finally, we see a line of cars snaking toward a forlorn pump. Relieved, we join the line. The driver of an aging Soviet car fills the tank, then fills three dented jerricans. He isn't satisfied though. There follows a bunch of empty plastic bottles of varying shapes and sizes, and he proceeds to fill those as well, splattering yellowish liquid on the ground. That seems to be the thing to do. Every driver after him approaches the pump with a certain reverence and silently lines up a small army of receptacles. We joke they would pour gas straight into their pockets if only they could. By the time it's our turn, the pump is about to run dry and the attendant is rationing fuel. We grab a few liters thinking there will be many more chances in the 150 miles on the Tashkent-Samarkand highway. We would come to regret not fighting for more gas at that lonely pump.

Cops cling to the highway as if their lives depend on it, and in a way they do. Payoffs from speeding motorists pad their incomes, and they aim their radars with merciless precision. We get pulled over twice within an hour, and each time my driver follows a prescribed ritual: he reaches for a wad of cash in the glove compartment, hops out of the car, and shakes the hand of the approaching cop with vigor. They look almost happy to see each other, like two old friends reunited by the side of the road. The matter settled, the driver guns the engine again. Every 20 miles or so, the road narrows into a single lane of traffic crawling through police checkpoints. Clumps of officers in green uniforms peer at the drivers and their passengers, trying to divine those worthy of a more thorough inspection.

They call Uzbekistan a police state for a reason. Jokes about the multitude of cops on the streets are legion. Here's a skit performed by an Uzbek stand-up comedian on Russian television (such indignity would never be allowed inside Uzbekistan). In the skit, people from different countries appear in their national dress, and the Uzbek shows up in a police uniform, dangling a baton. (A brief note on language: in Russian, the word "ment" is a mildly derogatory slang word for a cop). When asked where he's from, the comedian answers "Tashment" mispronouncing the name of Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent. "This is our national dress."

Clearing yet another police checkpoint, we continue toward Samarkand. My driver is Armenian. He was born in Azerbaijan, and moved here as a kid with his parents. I'm reminded again of the bewildering mix of ethnicities in Central Asia, a legacy of trade routes, conquests, forced resettlements and labor migration within the old Soviet Union. A few weeks ago I met a Russian Orthodox priest in a small church in Osh, in Southern Kyrgyzstan. His ancestors are of ethnic German stock form somewhere in Russia. In his paranoid ethnic gerrymandering, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered deportations of Germans to Siberia. The priest's grandfather was among the deportees. But Siberia didn't sound like a good place to call home. So he hopped off the train carrying him into exile and found himself in Kazakhstan. That's why there's an ethnically German Orthodox priest tending to a dwindling Russian parish in a Muslim town populated mostly by the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Osh's ethnic cauldron exploded in June when hundreds died in a wave of ethnic cleansing. Exactly what triggered the bloodletting is still unclear. But it is clear that someone chose to provoke the violence, and the government was too weak and inept to stop it. Recently I e-mailed the priest to ask him how he was doing. He wrote back to say he'd been praying and trying to do what he can to help.

On the road to Samarkand, the needle on the gas gauge has swung so deep into the red zone that we are not sure why we are still moving. We pass one shuttered gas station after another. Finally, we pull into a station and refuse to leave, even after the surly attendant tells us there's no gas. My driver cajoles and begs him, appeals to his decency, offers him money, flatters him, threatens him, and finally manages to procure barely enough gas to get us to Samarkand. At double the sticker price. Later, we learn local gas stations sell gas only every other day, for reasons neither of us understands. Our trip happened to fall on the off-day.

In Samarkand, I pay a visit to Registan, an imposing medieval ensemble of mosques, minarets and courtyards arrayed around a plaza. I'm there for about five minutes when a cop with a knife approaches me. He smiles as he twiddles the knife. A little worried, I notice intricate engravings on the blade. He asks me where I'm from and then whispers a business proposition: for an equivalent of a couple of dollars he'd let me climb one of the tall minarets. "It's a good deal," he says. It does seem a like a decent deal, especially when brokered by a cop with a knife. I bravely haggle the price down a little, and accept the offer. He phones in my ascent to another cop milling near the entrance to the minaret. The minaret racket is smooth. In one of the courtyards, a wedding reception is taking place. A local Tajik girl is marrying a Frenchman. There are flutes of champagne. I'm not supposed to be here, but the access to the minaret also bought me access to the courtyard. One of the guests tells me he feels a little odd drinking alcohol in a medieval complex of mosques and religious schools. He offers me his champagne glass. Then he says he'd rather have it this way than the Taliban way.
I climb my minaret on a spiral stone stairway. Early evening light streams in through slits in the exterior wall. At the very top of the stairs, I poke my head through an opening in the roof that caps the tower, and next thing I know I have a wrap-around view of the city, the mountains in the distance and a dazzling mosaic of two orange tigers walking across the top of an azure arch of the Registan. The Tashment deal paid off.