Remember this wonderful couple, Ian Patterson and his partner Chiharu. Ian left our tennis life in early 2020 to travel to far off lands in Uzbekistan, with Chiharu to follow later. Well at long last they have returned in one piece with some exciting stories to tell about their trip. Thank you, Chiharu for doing this and sharing your adventure with us.
I left Brisbane on the 6th of September 2020 and arrived back on the 5th of June 2021. These dates were almost like a trophy I won through the Covid-19 battle of madness. The departure date was changed at least five times due to flight cancellations and several extensions of the border closure of Uzbekistan. How did I manage the Australian border closure? Well, I applied for an exemption to the Australian Border Force that required pages of justification, proof of my work visa, a letter of invitation from the university, etc. On the way back, I had to give up my original return date in February to avoid the risk of being ‘bumped off’ at the last minute because of the nasty intake numbers that were halved by the Queensland government. Thanks to Emirates, I was able to change the dates without any charge.
Despite all this stress and anxiety through the trip, it was WORTH IT! I thoroughly enjoyed living and working in Samarkand, the ancient capital of the Timur empire (14-16 AD). Registan square is the biggest monument in Uzbekistan which is in the centre of the city. As our university was 1 km away from there, I visited the square often after work. (By the way, this amazing architecture was a university building for medieval scholars).
Silk Road International University of Tourism where I worked was located on the University Boulevard, which was built during the Soviet Union era and all major universities are along this street. Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. So many new (I mean 30-100 years old) buildings exhibit Russian style architecture, but old (200-more than 1000 years old) are in Islamic design. The official languages spoken are Uzbek and Russian. Most people are equally fluent in both languages. So my broken Russian helped me a lot, but English was…no use.
Samarkand has been the major city on the Silk Road for centuries, which means food and cuisine travelled with people from Turkey, the Middle East to Asia. One of Uzbek national dishes, Plof, is a middle eastern version of pilaf. Stewed beef and yellow carrots were topped on top of tasty rice which was cooked in the same pot as meat and vegetables. That was my favourite throughout my stay. Other than that, Shashilik = Sisikabab; Ragman noodle soup = Uyghur dish (a part of China) and so forth. But of course, you cannot eat pork... There were a few Korean and Japanese restaurants, however strangely no Chinese restaurants and takeaways at all.
More than 95 % of the population are Muslim. You might imagine ladies with hijabs, and men wearing head scarfs and long robes. Probably it would have been the case until the 19th century. After the occupation by the Soviet Union, the country was modernized and all religious activities in public have been banned. This means that women are not allowed to cover their hair and people are not allowed to pray five times a day particularly when they are at work. I saw some baker or shopkeeper praying behind the counter, but generally, people pray at home in the morning or at night. Older married ladies wear long pants and a long dress, a bit like Indian salli, while young ladies enjoy Western fashion although they won’t show their shoulders or upper thigh. Their eye blows were pencilled very clearly. Obviously, thick eye blows are considered a symbol of beauty.
The same story as food applies to race. Over the centuries, many ethnic groups moved along the Silkroad and settled in their new residence, thus all are Uzbek nationals, and yet ethnically could be Uzbek, could be Tajik, Kazakh or Iranian. Our university driver was Albanian. The majority of Uzbek people have black hair, but some have fair skin as their ancestors are from Russia or Eastern Europe, some are tanned, a hint of Asian ancestry. I blended into the society very well and got by as an Uzbek until our conversation goes beyond a few words. All in all, this region has been a multicultural society for thousands of years and embraces people who cannot speak their language without any hesitation.
What I felt most comfortable about was their polite manner to greet people, which is typical of the Asian culture. “Assalomu Alaykum” in short “Salome” is a common greeting across all Muslim countries. It means “Peace upon you”, similar to “peace be with you” in Christian culture. When they say it, they put their right palm on their heart. I find it very lovely and heart-warming.
One thing about Muslim belief…
I had to take a taxi everywhere. It was extremely cheap, but you had to negotiate the price first. Sometimes bad drivers charged more than they should (less than 5% of them). It should have been 50 cents, but he charged me one dollar!! Then my student who organized a taxi for me lamented later. “They are Muslim…why do they do such bad things? Sigh…”
I sincerely hope that the wrong image of Muslim people in Western society will be wiped out someday, through better intercultural communication in the post-covid era!