Please note that when you view one of the above pages, the band picture will remain on the subsequent screen. Scroll down to see the content of the link you have clicked!
Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

Listen to our music!

July 5, 2011

Tajikistan is easy...Uzbekistan is hot...

So that day in the park in Khorog we decided to go to China.  So we booked a pair of tickets to Beijing, and we're going to work our way back west towards Central Asia to meet up with Susanna and Kevin in Kyrgyzstan on July 30.  We fly out of Tashkent on Friday.

After booking the flights, we hired a driver to take us to the Wakhan Valley.  The entire route follows the Pyanj River, which delineates the border with Afghanistan.  At times the valley is so narrow that there is room only for the road and the raging river between two giant faces of rock.  Other times the valley widens and the river spreads out and the water appears to stand still, and when you look across you can barely see the massive Hindu Kush because of all the dust in the air, which turns the sky a greenish brownish gray color at dusk when the wind blows into your eyes and blows the tall skinny trees that grow along the side of the road.  Families, dressed in red, sit by the roadside and smile as we pass.  Our final destination is Vrang, our driver's village, but we broke our journey and spent a night at a homestay at the top of one of the mountains.  I got sick that night, but the squat toilet was in quite good condition and our host family was kind so I still enjoyed myself.  The next day we continued to Vrang, stopping at some hot springs, a museum of a Sufi musician at Yamg village, and a Buddhist stupa at Vrang.  In Vrang we had planned to stay for free at our driver's house, but it turned out to be all the way at the top of a mountain, a two hour hike, and so we payed for another homestay instead, because our driver insisted that we needed to leave at 5am the next morning in order for him to find enough passengers who wanted to share the ride to Dushanbe.

We woke up at 5am the next morning and said goodbye to Eric, our friend from Colorado who we had met at the US embassy's event for us in Dushanbe, and then again later in Khorog at a guesthouse.  We decided to travel together to share stories; he was a guitarist and interested in jazz, but didn't take the time or make the decision to pursue it professionally, or to the extent that we had.  And I was interested in his travels, he had started in January in Hong Kong, spent 3 months in China, biked through Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, all with his guitar, onto which he had carved the phrase "you reap what you sow" in Chinese, Russian and Farsi.  He made his own phrase books and taught himself the language of each country he visited.  Before we parted ways he made us a Chinese phrase book from memory, quite extensive and impressive considering he had taught it all to himself.

The drive back to Dushanbe took more than 24 hours.  We were glad to make it back to Kirill's place, where Goulya, the children's caretaker, welcomed us back and made our beds for us and offered us food.  The next day we met Munira Shahidi and discussed further plans for exploring the relationship between Sufi traditions, poetry and music, and contemporary Western music, improvisation and techniques...focusing in particular on Tajikistan as a meeting place of these two spheres.  She gave me a collection of Shahidi's songs arranged for piano and vocal, as well as a CD that had just been published--with a booklet of liner notes that, I realized, were the same paragraphs she had sent me earlier this spring to edit!  We discussed possibilties for a concert/series of lectures in London later this year or early next year.  It was an exciting conversation and I left thinking about many ideas for future projects and exploration.

That night Kirill and Bactria in collaboration with the French embassy put on a wonderful outdoor concert in front of the Opera Theater.  It was fun to see live music again and they had a wonderful turnout.  Afterwards we went out for dinner with Siyma at a Ukrainian restaurant.  I felt that I could stay a few more days in Dushanbe, I had made some friends there.  But we had to go so that we could spend some time in Uzbekistan.  The next morning we met a young Dutch couple at the Rudaki statue to share a taxi to the Uzbek border.  We had met them earlier at a Khorog guesthouse and ran into them by chance at an Internet Cafe in Dushanbe (while I was typing the last blog post).  We continued together to Tashkent, where we spent the night at what Lonely Planet described as "the darkest hole in all of Central Asia".  It wasn't so bad.

The border crossing was relatively painless.  They searched my entire bag, and had me play two songs when they discovered I had a mini keyboard.  They asked me two questions: "Why are you so white?" and "Why don't you have a girlfriend?"  Then they laughed and joked when I put sunscreen on before heading out into Uzbekistan...we were in the valley now, you could barely see mountains, and the sun was hot.

The next day in Tashkent we went early to the Chinese embassy to apply for our visa.  We got one in a day, but it was expensive...somehow Americans seem to get the worst price for every visa.  In the evening we met couchsurfers Nuriya and Khoorshid (whose nickname was Mega).  They were so kind and took us to the train station to help us buy tickets to Nukus.  Then we changed money (in Uzbekistan, almost anybody is a currency exchanger...this time our taxi driver pulled out a bag of bills from the trunk to trade for our hundred dollar bill).  One US dollar is equal to approximately 2450 Uzbek som on the black market, and the smallest som bill is 1000.  So we stashed a giant wad of cash in our bags, and each time we go to a restaurant we count out more than 20 1000 som bills to pay.  I think people in Uzbekistan actually waste a significant amount of time counting bills.

Nuriya and Khoorshid treated us to a wonderful dinner and then saw us off on the train, 21 hours across the desert to Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, where the langauge, Karakalpak, shares more in common with Kazakh than Uzbek.  It was my first overnight train ride, and for a pretty fair price we got a comfortable bed on the top bunk, where we slept and then lounged all day long, watching the bleak desert speed past us and wondering if it would be so unforgiving at the place where we would be getting off.  And as it turned out, it was, but we still had a great experience in Karakalpakstan.

Now we are in Khiva, waiting for the midday heat to subside before we check out the ancient walled city.  Next blog post I'll describe the rest of our week in Uzbekistan, before we head east yet again.