Perhaps I was far enough from home so I didn’t much care. Or, defending our table of Americans, I wished to show up the Germans and the French, neither of whom sent forth a champion. So when one of the three Uzbek dancing girls, clad head to foot in gold, enfolded in four layers of gold coins that jingled melodiously over her chest, led me by the hand to the dance floor, I had little chance to decline, and didn’t want to.
Uzbek dancing depends a great deal on elaborate port de bras positions and movements, and if you follow your leader without being too captivated by her Central Asian eyes, you can make a fair facsimile of her motion, just about half a beat behind. Traveling in circles or in and out of close-order feints and retreats poses few challenges, too. But when you must throw back your shoulders, then round them while you lean slightly forward, then begin to shimmy vigorously, you’d better have a cascade of golden coins clattering over your bosom like the fingers of teen aged boys in an ecstasy. Only the non-dancing Germans and French felt more shame, though the dancing girls were very sweet about my failure.
Which brings up how you buy a car in Uzbekistan where, by the way, Uzbek GM manufactures a home-grown Chevrolet. You can buy a different brand if you like—a Beemer, perhaps—but that comes with a 200% luxury tax. When you buy your Chevy, you pay cash—about $17,000. You pay in CYM (pronounced Suum). If you bring your 17k in US dollars, you need to convert the currency at the dealership. Bravery will allow you to ask the manager to phone his personal black market agent so you can save a few hundred dollars. Make the wrong phone call and you lose your money and go to jail.
The exchange rate these days is 2330 CYM to the dollar. A twenty dollar dinner costs 46,000. That’s 31,900,000 CYM for a Chevrolet. It can take a few hours to count out the bills, but you have time because, while the government gets to use your cash, you don’t get the car for a year. If, perchance, the price of the car increases over the year’s time, you get to pay the additional cost before you drive away.
When you do drive away in Tashkent, you will drive in one of the oldest cities—2700 years—in one of the newest countries—22 years or so. The statues of Lenin and Stalin are gone; the metro stops have been renamed; schools and hospitals are now named for heroes from Uzbek legends. The absolute national hero is Timor, known to the West as Tamerlane, and known to English majors as Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine, you’ll recall, sidled up to rival cities and camped. On the first night, he set up white tents: surrender and we’ll all live together happily under my benign rule. On the second night, red tents: this will be a bloody contest. On the third night, black tents: everyone in your city dies. Only a fool let the third day dawn above a locked city gate.
Today, the city strives for the modern—except that a veneration for parks and greenery makes this the sweetest smelling, greenest emerging capital. You can play hide-and-seek among thousands of junipers, using for home base the colossal and beautiful Mourning Mother statue honoring the WWII dead. Beside the statue, a long arcade protects the tall brass pages that enshrine the names of more than a hundred thousand lost. Nearby is the heavy brick Russian version of a Victorian mansion occupied by a banished Romanov sent into horrible exile in the provinces. Something about a mistress. And near this house with its carved dogs lovingly protecting the front door, there’s a wishfully elite shopping street. A snack bar next to a Boss store advertises cheeseburgers, pizza, and “meat in French.” A passing teenager, asked for a translation, told us: It’s like French fries. You chop meat into pieces and drop them in the deep fryer.”
The bazaar is a goldmine of local stuffs and stolen telescopic portraits of buyers, sellers, and goods. The population, one imagines, is booming: cradle makers are everywhere. And the cradles are as elaborate as they are pragmatic. Of course there’s a hole near one end and a green or red bucket that fits tightly underneath. But then you must choose the appurtenances, one for boy parts and one for girls’. They come in plastic or carefully carved wood. They lead stray liquids through the cradle and into the bucket. How other overnight excretions might be handled has not been discussed.
Today, the bus takes us to Samarkand where we will pick up the trail of the ancient Silk Road. As it turns out, there were many routes, some avoiding deserts, some clambering through mountain passes, some skirting rivers, all of them creating and sustaining cities in their path. All that energy, all those risks, all that change in human behavior, religion, language, empire, gene pool, because silk feels rich against your skin and helps the golden coins slide across your breasts.