Bukhara is hard to leave

It took me three attempts to escape the clutches of Holy Bukhara. Although perhaps that too strongly implies that a) I greatly wanted to leave, and more ridiculously that b) Bukhara greatly wanted to prevent me leaving.

For all that, I am not sure that I will return in a hurry. It is nice enough, of course. The architecture is amazing, and very well restored. If that is your kind of thing. If it isn’t, there isn’t that much else. But then I guess that you would not be here anyway. If restored Islamic architecture was not your thing, I mean.

The people are a laid-back mix of Tajiks, Russians and Uzbeks. They speak Tajik and some say that it would have been better if they had been put into Tajikistan when Stalin was patching this whole Central Asia border thing together (in the mid 1920s). They say the same thing about the people from the Samarkand region, who also speak Tajik but are also in Uzbekistan.

There are some interesting children who, at tender ages ranging from 9 to about 14, sell stuff to tourists. Some of them, at least the ones I got talking to, speak fluent Tajik, Russian, Uzbek and English (although I had to take their word for it on the first and third), enough German, Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese and Korean to negotiate, and enough Hebrew to pass the time of day.

It was fascinating to talk to them about the attitudes of different tourists to money and bargaining. The books they all sell cost the kids $4 each. So $5 is a reasonable price. The starting price varies with the country of origin of the potential customer. Americans and Japanese are offered $8 and buy without bargaining, French, Spanish and Italians bargain a little and usually pay $5 to $6, and Israelis refuse to pay more than $3 and therefore never buy a book.

More disturbing is that these children all want to leave Uzbekistan just as soon as their legs (or more likely their minds) will carry them. I figured they should be thinking of school rather than of commerce, but then I have never been to school here.

But most disturbing of all in this town is the focus on money, money, money, money, money. Mostly mine. And that of other tourists (although theirs does not interest me so much, of course). It does not have a very nice atmosphere or create a very good impression. People are very friendly. Come in to my house. Sit down. Have some tea. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been here? Where are you staying? Would you like some plov?

*chew, chew, chew*

Please pay me now. Oh, you did not realise that there was a fee? No, no. That price does not include the tea. Oh, add another 500 sum. It is not much to you anyway.

Or better still, the taxi drivers who ask for a price 60% higher than the locals pay, even when the local price is printed on the dashboard. And they do not seem to understand your dismay when you point out their blatant rapaciousness. You are a tourist. All tourists are rich. Therefore you pay more. Very Ramseyian in principle. But the second premise is just plain wrong. With the apparent exception of Americans and Japanese.

Hmmmm. So I left for Khiva the other day with a happier heart, suspecting that it would be rather better there. Perhaps Bukhara’s heavy tourist traffic and the decline in its importance and prosperity have adversely affected it.

But Khiva, if anything, was worse. Like Disneyland. Only with separate admission fees for everything – some invented on the spot by enterprising locals who saw you enter an unmarked building and figured they would try their luck in charging you for the ‘museum’. But older than Disneyland. And more restored. And empty and lifeless at night. A complete tourist town: a set of restored monuments neatly enclosed in a set of restored city walls.

So attempt number one to leave left me in a rather worse place. And I left my bag in Bukhara anyway. So I had to come back.

As luck would have it, I ended up meeting up with another guy (who tried and failed to go to Khiva – long story) and deciding to go on a camel trek.
So off we set. My second departure. A little late, but still on track. First stop on the way to camels, the bank. Strangely my card did not work. ‘Insufficient funds’ it said. Clearly not a rich tourist. I should show the receipt to taxi drivers.

Further investigation revealed that a friendly bank in Turkmenistan had withdrawn a serious amount of money from my card that they had not given to me. A serious problem that took some time to resolve. And that could only be solved by going back to my hotel.

But, I am pleased to say, attempt number three was successful. As you know already. Hence the yurt.

It is funny who you meet along the way. Staying at my hotel these last few days were the ex-governor and a senator from South Dakota. We even had dinner together. I wonder if some of their success will have rubbed off on me. I haven’t noticed a difference, although it did make me wonder who else famous was wandering the streets of Bukhara.

Someone said to me today that they meet very few tourists from New Zealand. No kidding.