Rhubarb and Cucumber
Bukhara – Kiva – Nukus
Most male readers may consider they have, at some time in their life, met the perfect woman. It was probably your mother. There may be other challengers but they are unlikely to reach that perfect score, although I concede, that in some areas, the later contenders do very well. The theory that breast milk creates bias has some merit but I know some guys who profess to have sampled a range of breast milks and have not had their bias significantly muddled. This would make an interesting study. Few of you however, will have met the perfect Uzbek woman. I may have had that privilege.
The ‘Babushka’ at our Bukhara Madrassah (converted historic religious school to hotel) would be a formidable challenger for Mrs Uzbekistan. Here is my argument in support.
I do not know her name and would never have presumed it appropriate to ask. Our young English speaking host claimed she was a, ‘Sort of Auntie’. That in itself adds a certain mystique which the judges would appreciate. She may have a ‘history’. For the purpose of this argument I will call her ‘Mu’ (Madam Uzbekistan).
Contests of this nature always feature physical attributes. Please remember, Uzbekistan is Central Asia, a huge distance from any ocean and has extreme temperatures. It has a desert climate with temperatures ranging from -30 to +50. A well insulated woman is invaluable. Without being smothering, Mu would adequately impede any sneaky draft that found a gap in the sheets.
In any society, a fine cook is an asset … in fact, it’s a winning hand. Mu was the provider of our Uzbek Plov. It was superb. Without doubt this is her strong suite. She used good lean cuts of beef for the protein element together with carrots, raisins, onions and delicate spices cooked to perfection on a metal drum over a wood fire in our courtyard. This was followed by a desert of strawberries, banana and kiwifruit which created the best meal of our journey to date. Given there is no other meal in contention against Plov here in Uzbekistan, the judges would unquestionably award bonus points for this skill.
Most men would agree that arriving home to a wonderful smile is a wonderful reward - and worthy of good points. Um is exceptional in this category. Not only was the smile ready and constantly offered for any reason, but it featured the ultimate Uzbek quality. Um has an impressive array of gold teeth. Having ones wealth on display provides a secure feeling and any man would be relieved to arrive home in the evening to see that his savings remain secure. She certainly gets my vote and I’m sure, having learned her credentials, you would agree that Um does set standards that those women you know, should be aware of if they expect to hold your interest.
Apart from our encounters with the Chinese police from which we emerged with both our reputations and wallets intact, and quite a few conversations at Passport controls throughout Uzbekistan, I have been a little disappointed that they haven’t proved to be more worthy adversaries. There was an incident in Kyrgyzstan when a Policeman waved us down – but we were so stunned at his unexpected instruction that we didn’t stop for about 120m. He looked at us with the expectation we would reverse into his clutches. We furtively looked at him in the rear vision mirror (comforted by the fact he was too fat to run) and discussed with our guide what it was we may have done to attract his attention. The only law we had broken that the guide could think of was driving with a dirty car … so we drove on.
Here in Uzbekistan the police wear a fetching uniform with matching cap that is sort of like an inverted cake tin with a little peak. The whole ensemble is a nice matching shade of mid green. The local people call these enforcers of the law ‘cucumbers’.
Throughout all of Asia the population has the most astonishingly well developed peripheral vision. This is most evident in the driving skills. Every other driver knows exactly what is happening through a 200 degree arch without flickering an eye (and nothing behind that is of any interest whatsoever). The streets and footpaths are littered with traps. Missing manhole covers that expose deep dark holes that could transport you direct to hell without a stop. Rocks cunningly set to trip, uneven steps both up and down, missing pavers and work in progress that stalled years prior leaving the job worse than before it started. There are large drains that smell multi-functional and leave one quite convinced that a splash into one of those would require an antibiotic bath – although I personally would prefer to die as soon as possible. Across and through all of this, people young and old stroll along chatting without so much as a glance at their path or the obstacles they are navigating past. Vehicles miss them by millimeters, they float around obstruction and step over refuse that could be the harbouring the next plague. It’s as though they have a special sense directly connected to the mysterious contrivance that regulates the length of their stride. It also works in the dark when we inferior types are groping in fear and usually find the thing we feared.
The Uzbeks are very proud of their roads. They claim they are the worst in the word. This is a big boast given some of the other countries I have experienced. However, the average of the sum of their total road network may result in their claim being justified. It may be true given the number of donkeys still outnumber cars and many of the roads were build for these valiant little workers. We have principally driven their very best roads. On average these have been shocking. For our final few days around the Aril Sea we have been promised some really bad ones. While it may not result in a ‘coupe de tat’ by those wishing to protect the only thing that Uzbekistan can claim to be their best, the ‘Guvmint’ has agreed to accept millions of Euros to convert their main intercontinental highway into a 4 lane thing of comfort and speed. The ‘E40’ is a major highway that starts at the English Channel, crosses 8 countries and currently ends at Tashkent … on the map. The last 3rd is barely worthy of the E40 designation but that will change soon – well, perhaps in around 10 years. Sadly the Uzbeks have the Chinese mentality when building roads. They don’t do a short section then add to it. Oh no - they build it in 200km sections and expect the traffic to bounce along offroad for the distance and years that takes. The section from Samarkand to Bukhara was expected to take 5 hours – we bounced and jounced through dust and difficulty for 9.5 hours. Fortunately Bilbo and HeeHaw are up to the task and it justified our choice of transport.
These roads would have been perfect for our laundry equipment, but, as I predicted, the Washing Machine has yet to be pressed into service. Since south eastern China we have experienced a beautiful fine spring which, together with our transit of arid lands has resulted in temperatures that enable our traveling ensembles to be laundered and dried in the hotel rooms each night. If this was TV, you would think that I have only 1 shirt & trousers. I like this arrangement. Throughout my life one of the greatest challenges I have faced is deciding what to wear each day. Usually at home, I ask for Flypapers advice. Here, I’m my own man making this important decision alone.
Since Xi’an in central China we have been following the principal fabled ‘Silk Road’. It’s actually lots of roads joining Europe & the Middle East with China. Xi’an, Kashgar and Bukhara are all important crossroads where ‘caravans’ tended to join from north and south. We departed Bukhara on a northern leg that passes Nukus headed for Russia and northern Europe. From here it is no longer known as the ‘Silk Road’ – it’s the ‘Rhubarb Road’. This is true! The Chinese have known about the medicinal properties of Rhubarb for centuries. When ‘Peter the Great’ learned about it he purchased a monopoly of all Rhubarb leaving China and introduced it to Europe via Astrakhan. I know of no other person who made their fortune from Rhubarb and consider it very appropriate that we are following this route.