By James Power
After two nights in Khiva, we made our way to Bukhara. It was a brutal day of driving, 250 km that alternated from awful, pothole-ridden old road to road that had been completely torn up in preparation for the new road that was being constructed alongside. The gleaming smooth slab of white cement that awaited its final paving only magnified our frustration as we struggled along at 20 mph. The behemoth blue Willi Betz trucks that regularly blew past us were having a far better time of it. The German transport company won a lucrative NATO contract to haul supplies from Riga, Latvia to operations in Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and we wondered whether the new highway wasn’t being built more for their benefit than your regular Joe Uzbek.
We finally rolled into Bukhara at dusk and made it to within a kilometer of our hotel when our rear right tire blew. We’d probably damaged it somewhere when the road was at its worst, but by some uncanny stroke of luck, it held out until we got to the city and we weren’t left stranded in the desert. That sense of luck was heightened when we tried to put the donut on only to realize that it too was flat. As we contemplated how to get the car that last mile or so to the hotel, our crowning bit of good fortune found us.
A white Chevrolet Nexus pulled in front of us and put its hazards on. A tall, confident nineteen-year-old kid strode toward us and asked in excellent English how he could help us. At that point, we weren’t really sure that he could, so we politely thanked him and told him we would be ok. He was having none of it. We soon learned that his name is Aziz and that, “with Aziz, anything is possible in Uzbekistan.” He summed up his eagerness to help us. “Cars are my life. Not my hobby, my life. You are real drivers. You drive all the way to Mongolia, so I help you.” He made some phone calls, we tossed the bad tire and rim into his trunk along with the donut and one of our spares and he took me to a tiny tire shop that was somehow still open at 11 PM. They put our spare on the rim and balanced it and we drove back to where the car was stranded. We were back on the road within 30 minutes of his finding us. The next day, he sacrificed the better part of his afternoon taking us to the tire bazaar and negotiating an unbelievable price for two new spare rims and a new spare tire. He then helped us find some decent gasoline before heading off to a friend’s birthday party. Aziz walked away with the prize for Uzbekistan MVP, and was certainly on the podium for Rally MVP by the time we made it to Ulaan Bataar.
Unfortunately, our adventures in Bukhara getting our car sorted meant that we weren’t able to see much of what was clearly a beautiful city. The morning after we arrived, we had a couple of hours to explore (and try to find cash) before we had arranged to meet Aziz. We saw what we could of the city, and sat down to a lunch of shashlik and plov at a shaded cafe in one of the central squares.
When we got back from our successful trip to the tire bazaar and gas station, it was time to get the fourth member of our crew to the airport for her flight to Tashkent and eventually home to New York. From when we finally managed to find her in Odessa, Jamie had joined us for two of the most intense, but ultimately rewarding weeks of the rally. At times it seemed like there was no way we would get her home on time, and as she passed through security, I detected, or maybe projected, a mixture of relief and fond reflection.
As the sun was setting, I walked out to the taxi stand and after some hard bargaining, got a price on a shared taxi that I was comfortable with. As we approached the old city, however, it became clear that the driver had no idea where he was going. After a couple of phone calls, he shoved his phone at me and an English-speaking friend tried to jack the fare up. I refused and he ended up dropping me at the entrance to the maze of alleys where our guest house was located. After a few wrong turns and dead ends, I got my bearings and made it back to the hotel in time to join the rest of our convoy for our trip to the Uzbek bath house for massages.
The reception area at the bath house was a dark, stone-vaulted room with threadbare carpet and wood partitions separating the changing area. The ladies were led off somewhere else to change, and we gentlemen got into our swim trunks and were taken through a low stone corridor into a second, smaller vaulted chamber with a raised stone slab in the center and a cave-like hollow with a raised floor to the left. These turned out to be the massage tables. To the right, this room adjoined a wet sauna room, and a spigot room for rinsing. The sauna had no door so you could only get a good sweat going by standing on the bench and raising your arms. The water in the spigot room was lukewarm and didn’t provide enough of a contrast really give you that doughy post-sauna relaxation.
We were called one by one for our massages. My masseuse had me lie face down on the raised stone floor and after a benign first couple of minutes shoved his foot into the small of my back and pulled back on my arms until I was sure my shoulder blades were rubbing together. He then spent ten minutes exploring the limits of every joint in my body. When he was finished, he took me back to the sauna and smeared mashed ginger across my back. It did not feel good at the time, and I have no idea if there were any beneficial after effects because the slight queasiness I had had since after lunch was blossoming into full-blown nausea. By ten that evening, I was in the throes of a gastrointestinal infection that would leave me pretty well unable to eat for the next three days.