Monday, September 19, 2005

A family outing

Yesterday the whole family jumped into Shavkat’s newly refurbished bright red Niva. We drove east toward Nookat through dry, golden hills, all the fresh life of spring and summer already drained out. As we neared Nookat, we passed rows of dried tobacco, brown, shriveled and sagging, hanging in eaves from fences.

“Nigora used to come to Nookat frequently to sell used things,” Shavkat told me from the driver’s seat. “Like children’s clothing.” They’d let me sit in the passenger seat, where there was a seat belt and my long legs would fit. Nigora and the two older boys sat in back and Lutfulo sat on cushions in the rear compartment.

“Why Nookat?” I asked. It was an hour drive. “Why not Osh?”

“Gas was cheap then. And people didn’t buy them as quickly as in Osh. In Nookat, people are poorer. Everyone gathers there – Uzbeks from Ferghana and Margilan, Russians who are preparing to leave the area.”

Habib gave his father an annoyed glance. “Why are you telling J. you used to sell old things?”

“Why not?” Shavkat asked. “Why throw things in the fire when you can sell them?”

“It’s embarrassing. You talk too much.”

“That reminds me,” Nigora said. “We need to sell some furniture.”

“Yes, like the washing machine,” Shavkat said, referring to the horrible old Soviet washing machine Nigora currently uses. It has to be hooked up to a pipe and does an excellent job at wearing out clothes very quickly. “Soon you’ll have a new washing machine.” He’s been promising to bring her one from Bishkek for ages.

“No one is going to take your old washing machine,” Nigora said. “That thing is done with.”

“People in Nookat will,” Shavkat said confidently.

We stopped in Nookat to buy grilled meat and watermelon. I was hungry and made the mistake of buying a samsa, a meat, fat and onion-filled pastry, pulled right from the side of the clay oven. Despite my pulling out all the visible chunks of fat and the “juice” (melted fat), the samsa sat in my stomach like a rock, leaving me unable to eat anything else until the evening. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Every time I eat super fatty food in a rural area I remind myself to never do it again. Then I return, hungry, and give in, only to repeat my mistake.

“You needed to drink hot tea with it,” Nigora said. “Or at least bread.” Locals believe that if you drink hot tea with fat, it reduces its effects. Perhaps it keeps it liquid as it goes through the arteries, reducing the amount that clogs and sticks to the artery walls.

We went to a tourist base called Sahoba. It’s a holy site. A small brick mosque contains a collection of ancient rocks with Arabic writing and people come to pray at the nearby mausoleum, holding the grave of a holy person. When I asked who, Shavkat said he didn’t know history too well.

We tried to walk up the mountains rising behind the park and to check out the caves we could see high up in the rock. But someone had built a house in the park area, blocking off the path with a fence and even blocking off a cave and putting goats inside.

We returned to the tourist area, where we swung on red and blue iron “boats” (two-person standing swings). We had a picnic lunch on a topchan, a wooden bed that we lay mats over and sit in a circle around the food in the center. We sat beneath the shade of a grove of apricot trees and listened to the sounds of a wedding being celebrated nearby and the creaking of the swings.

From there, we drove along a rough road connecting Nookat and Aravan. It is now a sparsely traveled road, but it used to be part of the great Silk Road. I tried to imagine caravans passing along the bumpy path, past poplar-lined residential areas and the rocky passes. They probably saw dusty children sitting in the road, watching them pass by with wide eyes, just as I saw.

We drove past fields of flowering tobacco, corn and sunflower seeds. Red streaks from iron ore glimmered in the mountains. About halfway between the two towns, the mountains met together in a giant V, only the force of a river keeping them apart.

Shavkat told me that the Soviets had planned to close up the narrow gap between the mountains, back up the river and make a water reservoir. This would have flooded all the houses in the area. They didn’t manage to get around to it before the fall of the Soviet Union, and thus, it never happened.

It’s quite a beautiful place now. Water runs out from a 10-foot wide tunnel-like cave, down a moss-covered waterfall and into the quick-moving waters, which race through the gorge and out of sight around the corner. The children threw rocks into the water. The rock fragments glittered with quartz and minerals caught between the stone.

A bit further on, we entered another cave. I wore my trusty headlamp, which I haven’t put on in years, and we went in to see barite and bats. It was a modest cave exploration – no more than a few minutes – but it was my first time in Kyrgyz caves and I was excited. There are supposed to be ancient rock drawings in the area and I’m hoping to find a local guide who can show me them at some point.

In Aravan, we stopped at the market, where Nigora and Shavkat stocked up on what could be found cheaply there – fresh sunflower oil poured from barrels into used bottles using a funnel, rice and watermelon.

Habib waited in the car and tried to turn on the radio. “It picks up the channel from Uzbekistan but doesn’t pick up the channel from Kyrgyzstan,” he said. The watermelon we bought had come from Uzbekistan and Shavkat said that Osh, Uzgen, Nookat and Aravan all used to be almost exclusively Uzbek places.

“The Kyrgyz lived on the outskirts, in the rural areas,” he said.

“I never used to see Kyrgyz,” Nigora said, though she grew up in the city of Osh. “I’d maybe see one or two per week, coming to sell milk. They didn’t start moving into the cities until the 1970s, when they built universities in Osh.”

She told me that she grew up in a home in the very center of Osh. But the Soviets declared eminent domain, cleared out the Uzbek homes, and constructed a multi-level apartment building for Kyrgyz instead.

“Wasn’t your family offended?” I asked.

“Very much so,” she said. “It’s like your parents (who are currently being forced to move due to eminent domain in the U.S.). They were given two plots of land on the outskirts of town and told to build their own house. But my father was too old to build something. So he gave the land to his nephews and bought a house in a village.”

On the way to Osh we could see the fence separating Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

“That’s Uzbekistan,” Shavkat said, pointing to the nearby brown mountains. Their ethnic homeland is so close and yet so far.

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