Bukhara, Uzbekistan: I Am So Hungry, I Could Eat a Horse! (and did!)

Our first 24 hours in Uzbekistan was by far some of the most challenging on our trip. We had experienced language obstacles before, but Hannah and I typically had enough command of Spanish, French, Greek, and English to navigate the issues. The lingua franca in the former Soviet countries is Russian or the native language, which is Uzbek in Uzbekistan. When I say that there were almost zero English speakers, it is not hyperbolic. A couple of train stations and taxis later, we had tickets to Bukhara, on the slowest train in the “lower than economy” seats. Fortunately our fears for the journey were not met.

The journey to Bukhara consisted of a 7 hour train ride in an old Soviet sleeper compartment. The floor of the train was covered with long carpet runners in both the compartment and the hallway. People milled about in the hall waiting for the train to slowly pull away and noticing that there were two white people on board who probably looked out of place. Hannah hopped onto the top bunk while I took the bottom. Luckily we only only had to share our compartment with one other person who kept to themselves and took a long nap. A conductor made his rounds and exchanged our tickets for bed sheets and pillow-cases while nearby passengers pulled out full food spreads to share in their cabins. Train travel is very much a social affair in former Soviet countries.

Our hotel hosts went out of town for several days to visit their son in the military. They left us in the care of a brother and his family. The father was saving money to open his own hotel, the mother was a university professor, the daughter was majoring in English at university, and the son wanted to play professional soccer. We learned later that the daughter had been studying English but had never met an American before and had little opportunity to practice with English speakers. Her parents excitedly called her when they found out we would be visiting. Her English was good and she translated back and forth for the family over several days. No one else in the family spoke English; the mother spoke French but that did not get us far.

As we were visiting on New Year’s Eve, the family invited us to have dinner with them. It was such a wonderful token of generosity. Hannah and I spent several holidays and our birthdays away from family during the trip, so it was always welcome to be adopted into a celebration. New Years is a family holiday in their culture, so we were honored to be included. Over the course of several hours, we took turns toasting to health, happiness, success, future children, glorifying God in the direction of one’s own religion, and to future travels. We even bridged topics such as the eating of pork and reptile being non-halal. Our hosts did inform us, however, that the plov contained horsemeat, which I happily tried. It tasted similar to venison, and I would definitely eat it again. They were surprised that people across the world do not eat horse, and equally surprised that pork is a staple in many diets.

Further into dinner, a barrage of curious questions about Uzbekistan, America, Islam, Christianity, and cultural customs were exchanged. The daughter remarked that “we were different than other Americans they had heard about”. I asked what made us different and she replied, “They are afraid of Muslims.” I explained that Hannah and I had the privilege of enjoying friendship with Muslims back home and have traveled to several majority Muslim countries that have given us better insight to empathize and understand. In many cases, I would argue the rationale of “us and them” applies to Islamaphobics because they’re afraid and have never given conversation a chance. The value systems of Islam and Christianity are not so different, but as in all religions, fanatics and extremism lead to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Akmed, the father, and I “cheers-ed” to friendship and shared several shots of smooth, clear vodka, warming the cheeks to match the soul from such a refreshing conversation. This was interesting to me since most Muslims do not partake in any alcohol, but Uzbekistan is slightly different due to its Russian influence. Akmed punched into his fist and laughed, explaining that if his father sees him drinking, he would punch him in the head. Everyone at the table laughed while we downed some of the smoothest vodka I had ever had.

It was explained that family is at the forefront of Islam and Uzbek culture. Women move into their husband’s home shortly after marriage and often it is the home of their in-laws. Also, sons are expected to take care of ill or elderly parents as they age, be it through care or monetary fashion. Respecting one another, especially elders, is paramount as is caring for one another in need. In another conversation, I explained many Americans are afraid of Islam because their only impressions of it have been from the sights of war from America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The daughter replied with, “what benefit is there to war?” It was so profoundly simple that I almost had difficulty answering it. The father, with his daughter translating, explained that Uzbeks have little tolerance of war from their neighbors in the region, and have been peaceful as a result.

The family took us through the Old Town on the way to the Ark for the New Year’s Eve celebration. Periodically, we stopped as the mother explained history for her daughter to translate. The father disappeared into the crowd at one point only to reemerge with 2 bags of kettle popcorn, one of which he handed to Hannah. Their generosity and thoughtfulness never ceased. After a particularly loud firecracker, the father elbowed me with a laugh and a joke saying, “Afghanistan? Haha”. The irony is that Hannah and I had been heavily startled by a firecracker earlier that very same day. We had been uncertain of the source of the sound, and in a new, very different environment. Guns are illegal in Uzbekistan, so the very thought to the father was laughable that any non-military or non-police would have one. He was incredulous when we explained the lax American gun laws and the ability to buy everything “all in one stop” at a Walmart.

During the stay, we periodically fielded questions about our western preferences for hotel style, façade, and location. The father, Akmar, wanted to gather ideas for ways to attract American and western tourists and to see what we thought. The day prior to our last, we joined the family for lunch where we continued sharing our cultures and thoughts on one another’s way of life.

Some of the questions were a bit difficult to answer. Uzbekistan has traditionally been a bit more closed off from Western influence and has only recently begun to allow tourists and other influences in. It is still a conservative Muslim culture. We did not want to provide the wrong impression, nor provide too shocking of detail. One example was a question on whether men and women live together before marriage in the USA. Another was whether they have children without being married, as well. The daughter, our translator, explained that in order to visit another city, or country, she must ask her father’s permission. If her father is not alive, then her brother. She reiterated multiple times that Uzbek children are very respectful of their parents’ advice, bidding, and to honor them.

The simplicity of the questions we fielded from the Uzbek family inadvertently made me draw pause several times. One example was about why McGregor’s team threw a water bottle at the winner, Habib, during a recent UFC match. As the daughter put it, “Why did they do that? Did they not respect him? Why would they not have respect for him?” She went on to explain Uzbeks respect everyone including those with different opinions and cultural practices even during disagreement. The exchange made me ponder the simplicity of conservative society, and on the large drawbacks of American individualism. Societies painted as “primitive” or “savage” by ignorant keyboard warriors in many ways have a far better understanding on the ground level of how to take better care of one another.

At this point in our journey, we slowly warmed to the idea of taking some souvenirs home. Uzbekistan is such a beautiful, unique destination and we collectively did not know anyone in our lives who had ever been. We carefully picked out a plethora of souvenirs: Central Asian/Uzbek hand-painted wooden chess set, some pomegranate themed table runners, bread stamp, a few paintings, and scarves. Our host family gifted us our favorite surprise: 1 large container of homemade honey for us, and 1 small one for our parents back in the USA. They truly made it an unforgettable, amazing stay and I sincerely hope to meet them again.

We later bought a bottle of nice vodka as a “thank you” to our hosts and told them we would be happy to host them any time in Texas. They had a plan to visit America in 2 years. They told us that feared America may not be safe and inquired where would be safe for Muslims to visit. This took me a step back. I sadly reflected on the harsh reality that some may find America as unsafe or too xenophobic to visit, which in my opinion, is frankly unacceptable. I was shaken from this moment of thought when the father asked if Las Vegas would be a good stop. Imagining our gracious, kind, and somewhat sheltered from the world Uzbek hosts in Las Vegas made me nervous, but I knew they would marvel at all of the lights.

Hannah and I took one last walk through the Old Town of Bukhara. The city’s claim to fame is approximately 1000 historical monuments throughout its streets. While we did not count, the history was easy to find no matter where one looked. The robin’s egg blue and peacock feather green facades peered down at us from crumbling mosques and empty madrassas that were once brimming with dozens of young students. As the paint fades and buildings crack, Uzbekistan is slowly rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union to welcome the western world with open arms. We embraced back.

Embodying the spirit of his country, with a big smile and laugh, the father hugged me twice with our heads bobbing to the side of one another’s in a traditional Uzbek goodbye. He confirmed we had contact via WhatsApp to stay in touch and waved us goodbye as we taxied away to the train station. I mentally added Bukhara to the list of locations I was sad to leave. The kindness and generosity emanating from our new Uzbek friends was something I will never ever forget.


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