The trip from Beijing to Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways was the first flight on my journey. And it was a very comfortable trip on a brand new aircraft with a very friendly crew. Right after arrival in Tashkent, I ran through the usual administrative stuff: Getting local money and a local phone card. And a ticket for next day’s high-speed train to Bukhara. Then I settled savoring Uzbek Samsa’s which I bought off the street next to my hotel. And being able to buy the first sparkling water in months gave me a big feeling of comfort.
Arriving back to Uzbekistan was like a coming home for me. The air was clean, fresh and breathable. The weather – although also in the 40’s as in China – was dry and thus much more bearable. And the food is just perfect here. Needless to say that I am smiling a lot these days.
Since my last visit three months ago, the national phone company “Coscom” has been sold twice and now belongs to a Turkish conglomerate. They launched the brand “U Cell“, which has nice ads and beautiful colors. So I went with that company for my new mobile phone card. Call rates from mobile phone are anyway cheap – no matter which provider – at around $0.01 to $0.03 a minute within Uzbekistan. On the other hand, there are no subsidies for mobile phones. Even a two year old, big and fat Nokia phone starts at $60. This makes even a fake import phone from China a premium device.
The same evening, I called Rustam in Bukhara, whom I met back in April, to give him my arrival details. He was upset about the fact that I took the train instead of the bus. Although he insisted very strongly that the bus would be a much better travel option, I was not keen changing my travel plans, since I had already paid for the railway ticket. Trains to Bukhara stop about 15 km short of the town, in the neighboring city of Kagan. There, you’d take a taxi or Marshrutka to reach the destination. Since I knew the area, changing mode of transport would definitely not be a big deal and after hanging up the phone I was wondering why Rustam would make such a fuzz about taking the direct bus instead.
Next day, my train arrived on schedule at the Kagan terminal station. The atmosphere in the coach was quite strange and I saw other passengers talking about me, hesitating whether they wanted to speak to me or not. I decided to ignore them, since many times I’ve been approached this way, just to learn about some “friend” who would be able to give me “special price” (read: overcharge) for lodging or transport. On the platform, the train station looked eerie. Many policemen and security guards were looking at everyone unboarding. I tried to call Rustam who – for reasons yet unknown to me – would not want to meet me at the station. But cell phone service was down – with a strange message: “Network blocked”. I blamed my new SIM card and went to the station square to pick up a taxi. But there were no vehicles – only us passengers and heavy security force. Everyone seemed to walk like ants towards the road to Bukhara. Many locals were shouting and trying to use their cell phones as well – to no avail.
This was definitely unusual and I knew that somehow I was stuck in a place I really should not be right now. So I decided to follow the crowd and immersed in the ant colony. After walking for about five minutes, I spotted a couple of unmarked buses which everybody tried desperately to go on. So I did – and I managed to squeeze in a Marshrutka with my backpack. One Uzbek on board the bus started talking to me in broken English: “You know what going on?”. I replied “No, what’s the problem?”. He then said “You go back. You not go Bukhara. Must take Taxi back to Samarkand. Now!” Definitely, there was some kind of major problem in this region and I tried to figure out what had happened. Everyone seemed to try to put me on a cab away from this place and I saw families with children and luggage walking in the opposite direction as we drove towards Bukhara.
At a police checkpoint near a major road crossing, all the Marshrutka’s had to stop and all passengers were ordered to disembark. The place looked like a gigantic bazaar with hundreds of people and policemen. The guy from the Marshrutka, Ali, still following me was begging me to return back and avoid going to Bukhara. But I insisted to continue to Bukhara and told Ali that Rustam and his family were waiting for me in Bukhara. Moreover, I figured out that I had enough water to walk the remaining 10 km with my backpack – if really needed. Ali understood my determination and he gave in by showing me a way around the police checkpoint. After the checkpoint, he helped me to stop one of the very sporadic taxis and I joined as fifth passenger – clinging onto the backpack which was loosely put on the cab’s roof.
Finally, I made it to Lyabi-Hauz – a tourist area in Bukhara, where I would certainly find a place to stay. Only a handful of people were on the streets. But my phone worked again and I called Rustam who met me a couple of minutes later. He helped me to manage cheap accommodation. Later we settled for some tea in a Chaikana where I finally got an explanation about what was going on. There was a bomb attack about one week ago in Kagan and many families were leaving Bukhara, because rumor said that there would be a bomb attack tonight in Bukhara. It was unknown whether terrorists or the Afghan government was behind the original attack on Kagan. I was in disbelief.
Strangely enough, police drove around town in cars. But why would they let tourists visit the area while locals were leaving? So, I decided to wait for “the bomb” in my hotel – while Rustam’s family evacuated. His mother insisted in vain that I should leave town with them and stay at their grand-parents home, about 30 km from Bukhara. Maybe I am too naive – but then again: After having been in the middle of a civil unrest in the Congo, this here definitely was not looking the same and was not a crisis situation. It seemed to me more like an orchestrated panic among uninformed locals.
Although I was supposed to be waiting for the big bang, I fell asleep very quick that evening. Next morning, I had breakfast at my guest house. Nothing had happened and I decided to look up this mystery in the Internet. It turns out that on July 10th, an ammunition depot blew up in Kagan (ABC News, BBC News), killing and injuring a lot of people. There was no mention of this news when I was back in Tashkent and I guess the fact that the Uzbek government decided to mute any reports about this incident for the Uzbek people living in other regions just had contributed to the general panic.
As by the time of this writing, Bukhara looks very normal again with regular crowds of tourists, hawkers and locals. The real news story of the week was my first sun burn on this journey which I caught on a small trip to a neighboring lake. The Chinese sun block definitely does not work in Central Asia. But I’ll keep my smile (and buy a real sun block from the store here in Uzbekistan).