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And Then We Have a Party

We had only gotten two hours of sleep the day before, albeit on some very comfortable beds, on the floor of a generous Uzbek denim merchant’s dining room floor. But it was still quite difficult getting up early the next morning. But get up we did, collecting our things and heading out to the street to catch a cab for the outskirts of Tashkent, where we were to meet Shoney.

We would be heading up into the mountains outside Tashkent with him and a few of his friends. The friends were all members of a certain Uzbek heavy metal group, knows as Tortoise Minja. We were the first to arrive at the meeting spot, five minutes late, and soon the rest of the team rolled in. Much like at band rehearsal, there was one guy who just didn’t show up. So we called his house and spoke with his mother, who assured us he was already on his way, meanwhile screaming at him to get up in the background.

So we bided our time, munching some Korean steamed buns that were being sold by some members of the large  Korean community in Tashkent. Finally everyone arrive, which gave me an opportunity to introduce the cast of characters.

Shoney : Your fearless Uzbek Bureau Chief and general Uzbek rainmaker/Boston Bro mashup.

Jesus/Noise : Call him what you like, this rail thin fellow played the base in Tortoise Minja, spoke in the most hilarious rudimentary English, had the beginnings of a thick beard. He was obsessed with Texas, and told us repeatedly of his love for the place, and wish to travel there, but dressed more like a fellow I once knew from Arkansas.

Timur : Lead singer, and generally pretty boy of the group, his flowing locks and operatic voice made me very curious to hear how he fit into the heavy metal sound.

Vladimir: The drummer, a cool and calculating character, interested in cooking and maximizing the speed with which he could deliver (double) bass drum hits.

Igor: Lead guitarist – rumored to be a savage kickboxer, a wirey and unwashed but otherwise peaceful character.

Scott: Your basic adventure capitalist, torn bicycle grease-stained Carhearts, William Cheng and Son’s tailored buttondown, large mustache, camera, chest hair, and a pair of Dawn Patrols to keep it klassnaya.

Combine those characters with your humble, ukulele-bearing, correspondent, and you have just enough people to fill a Marshriutka, Mienbaoche, or however you’d like to refer to those small vans that are the glue that holds transportation together all over this planet. The Marshriutka we climbed into made short work of the drive up into the mountains, playing bizarre Russian club music the whole way. We climbed out and paid the guy, setting a time at which he would come back to pick us up, and headed out onto the trail, laden down with Soviet military style canned meats, potatoes, onions, water, and a few bottles of “Pulsar” brand beer.

Soon the trail disappeared and we were just walking up into the Uzbek Himalayan mountains. It had been cloudy that morning, but just about the time the trail petered out, the sun burst forth, and all the clouds burned out of the sky. Sunscreen would have been a good thing to have remembered.

Jesus in particular, son of an auto mechanic, and somewhat the black swan in this group of otherwise very academic Uzbek rockers, swore like a sailor. I found myself learning all kinds of new and terribly offensive things to say in Russian, just hiking uphill with the guy.

The sun was viciously bright, and the scenery magnificent as we climbed up into the hills. We stopped for a moment to rest and scream down at the stragglers. Despite the fact that most of these guys chain smoked cheap Uzbek cigarettes, they could hike very quickly, and I found myself positively drenched in sweat just trying to keep up.

On top of that, they were singing! I wanted to join in, but I was so out of breath that I could barely get out the words to Black Sabath’s “War Pigs.”

To make matters worse, the soil was sandy and the rocks that made up the hillside were barely secured in place by the roots of the scrubby foliage and grasses that clung there. This made it no easy task climbing up the mountain, and I didn’t even want to think how it would be trying to come down, heaven forbid in the dark.

We spent a while trying to find the perfect location to set up shop. It seemed that as soon as we had found one that was decent, Timur would scream down from above us at the top of his lungs, proclaiming he’d found the true best spot, just another 100 meters ahead. This pattern of setting up and moving, setting up and moving, went on for some time, until we finally just put our feet down and stopped moving.

Scott immediately took his shirt off and began looking fabulous.

The guitar player and I grabbed our instruments and began singing and playing together. He was a much better instrumentalist than I, even on the uke, which was something I am sure he’d never even played before. The only thing I could do to hold my own was continually rely on that old favorite, “House of the Rising Sun,” which never fails to be a cross cultural crowd pleaser.

Soon we had settled into the place, and we began peeling potatoes, undressing, eating some of the home-make pickles that Timur’s mother had made, and generally getting sunburned.  Jesus began to wail.

One party was sent out to search for firewood, which was none too easy to find on the scraggly hillside;  another party was sent to find out whether one might be able to purchase a bit of oil from some shepherds across the valley from us. Both missions would be long and time intensive. I ended up on the firewood side of the table.

The oil searching team came back about an hour later, with harrowing stories of the mission downhill, including tales of Timur falling head over tail (evidenced by a constellation of scratches on his arms and legs), and Shoney surfing down a minor avalanche standing on top of a large boulder. They had gotten the oil, though. It was cottonseed oil, the cheapest kind available in this cotton producing country. They had also brought with them a most well thought out and serious argument for moving our operations to a new place that they’d found.

We’d been up on that particular cliffside, collecting firewood and peeling potatoes for some time, and, knowing we’d need to go down the hill sooner or later, illogic and laziness prevailed, and the group voted to stay on the top of the hill.

And so general chilling continued, escalated even. Soon a bottle of vodka was produced from someone’s backpack. Now we were in the bright sun, becoming burned to a crisp and dehydrated, and loving every minute of it, up on a cliffside in the Uzbek Himalayas, eating pickles, drinking vodka, playing music, screaming at the sky, and the like.

It was sometime around when Timur started singing Russian anthems out into the mountains…

…that we realized there was another good reason to go down and cook our lunch at the lower area that Shoney and Timur had found on their mission to the local shepherds for cottonseed oil. Some of the people in our little squadron were becoming drunk, and the mission down that loosely graveled hill would be none too easy if we were to allow the inebriation to continue unabated.

And so down we went, scrambling and taking our time. Jesus, being the drunkest of the crew, chose to simply slide down the sandy mountainside on his rear end.

This was successful in that it transported him down the mountain with relatively little harm to his body, and in being a very rapid means of traversing that bit of land, but unsuccessful in that it totally destroyed his shorts. So down we went, toting musical instruments and bags of peeled potatoes, picking our way across the uneven ground and doing our best not to lose our footing. Meanwhile, Jesus was down at the bottom of the hill screaming obscenities up at us.

From time to time, though the going was rough and I was forced to keep my head down to plan my next step, I found myself tempted to look up into the mountains. They were like none other, impossibly dramatic and beautiful. Ah, Uzbekistan, Ya Habbibi.

We set up shop again at the new site. This one had the added benefit that not only was it near some more plentiful sources of firewood, but it was in the shade of a large tree as well. We were all glad to get out of the sun, which had been beating on us and sapping our energy for hours now.

Vladimir went to work, pouring a long slog of cottonseed oil into the bottom of a cast iron pot that he’d brought, and beginning to fry the potatoes. Meanwhile, Shoney opened up his computer and plugged in a pair of speakers, so that we could listen to some of Tortoise Minja’s favorite music, a group called “Children of Bodom” It was some pretty raw stuff. Listen to this.

Vlad continued to fry potatoes while I cut more fries, and Scott DJ’d. We stirred the fries with an old stick, dumping them out as they got brown into a cracked plastic bowl that the shepherds had lent us along with the oil.

Then Shoney got out his hookah and began the arduous process of unpacking, assembling, and operating it. It was the first time that most of his cigarette loving friends had smoked hookah, and they found it to be quite the fascinating new drug.

We then set to chopping onions, which we fried with the last of the oil and some salt, and once the onions were caramelized, we poured in the two cans of Soviet military style canned beef, stirring it all together and mixing it with the French fries into one giant matted pile.

It may not look appetizing, dear reader, but I’ll tell you, after that climb up and down the mountain, it tasted like pure manna from heaven.

It then became time for the band to show us their signature Tortoise Minja move, which was a kind of finger motion paired with a high pitched screeching sound. It might be more illustrative to just show you the video…

With that out of the way, it was time for more singing. And so we did, taking turns between singing a Russian or Uzbek tune, and singing an American tune. In one of the Russian tunes, they kept mentioning something called “pork vein” and once it was over, Scott and I asked what that might be.  “No, no” Minja replied. “It’s port wine.” Ah, of course.

In fact, the tune (by Viktor Tsoi actually if anyone is interested) goes “My mother is Anarchy, and my father is a glass of port wine.” Here it is:

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We sat around playing and singing songs. While we sang, Jesus took my tuning pitch pipe out of my ukulele case and began playing it like a harmonica. It worked quite well. You can see him here pictured with it.

Then it was time to clean up and head out. So we did, bundling everything up, and doing our best to practice leave no trace style outdoor gonzo journalism.

Then we made our way out of the mountains and back down to the street. We had arranged with that morning’s cab driver to come pick us up, but he had decided he had better things to do, leaving us for the time being stranded there on the roadside in rural Uzbekistan.

It was well after dark by the time we caught a car driving by and flagged it down. The car had four open seats, and there were sixof us, but we decided we had better squeeze in.

During the ride my legs fell further asleep than they ever had before, wedged as they were between Scott and the boney elbow of the lead singer in an up and coming Uzbek heavy metal group.

I watched through the cracked windshield  of the Lada we drove on, jostled back and forth as the driver worked to avoid potholes and wandering dogs, getting us back toward town. As we drove, I thought how amazing Uzbekistan had been, what an unexpected gem this country was. It felt so good to be here, to be speaking Russian again, to be drinking Kvas, to be eating Plov, to be out in the dry heat and the blazing sunshine.

We were heading to Kazakhstan the next day. I could only hope that it would be half as good as this place.

We are so grateful to Shoney and his family, and to the many people who took the time to be interested in us, to show us kindness and warmth. Oh, but now you’ve got me tearing up over Uzbekistan again.

When we got back to Shoney’s house, his mother had unexpectedly cooked up another giant Plov. This one was, as the last had been, just too good to be true. We ate like ancient kings, struggling to drink enough water to begin rehydrating from the day, for space in the stomach is always at a premium when Plov is around.

In addition to that, Luiza was on the mend, and we were invited to stay there that night, saving us a return trip to that nasty hotel.

That night we stayed up for some time discussing the politics of Uzbekistan with Shoney’s father and mother, both of whom scolded us heavily for not having remembered sunscreen. Guilty as charged.


Comments

  1. laura | December 3rd, 2010 | 12:28 pm

    that view of the Uzbek Himalayas is stunning!

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