24 Feb

After carefully weighting pros and cons, Dave and I decided to spend the second half of our mini winter break in Tashkent. “Wouldn’t it be fun to finally go to that ‘edgy’ bar that Liz told us about?” I said to Dave, as my last argument for the trip. Liz is a 70 year-old consultant we had met during the Thanksgiving get-together of our small expat population. When she told us about the Steam Bar, and repeated ‘edgy’ several times, my curiosity was piqued on two levels. What exactly is considered ‘edgy’ in Uzbekistan? And by a septuagenarian? 

We planned to spend one day skiing at Amirsoy, a new resort less than two hours from Tashkent. Back in the early days of November we had hoped to book several days there but, after finding out that the only decent place to stay was a five-star hotel right at the top of the mountain, we decided to scale back. Our dream of skiing in Uzbekistan almost fell through, though. I am lucky that Dave is so tenacious and capable when it comes to technology. He kept exploring different possibilities and, after surfing through several Internet social groups starting with a Trekking one, he moved to Snowboarding and finally landed on the ‘doorstep’ of Olga. She too wanted to spend a day skiing at Amirsoy but needed a couple of people to split the cost of getting there. We were a perfect fit right from the beginning, since she had already made all the arrangements for a car and driver that she knew, and we readily agreed to the timing and the cost. We were coming into Tashkent from different parts of Uzbekistan but arriving on the same day, December 31st, so we agreed to ski on the 1st – New Year’s Day. 

Our flight from Nukus was very peaceful since the plane was half empty. Not a single crying baby within earshot. 

“We lucked in today. People really do stay at home for this particular holiday,” I told Dave while making myself comfortable using the empty seat next to me to spread out. 

“Look at this plane. It’s emptier than it was during the pandemic. So, it’s true that the Uzbeks celebrate New Year’s Eve with their families, unlike Westerners, who consider it party time,” I laughed. 

“Yeah, I’ve heard that from my co-teacher too. He told me that New Year is more or less like celebrating Christmas for us. Families get together for a big meal.” Dave had claimed two empty seats and looked quite comfortable when he confirmed what I already knew from Nadira, my colleague. 

I pulled out my ebook and started reading. With the previous chapter of ‘Outliers’ finished I turned to the next one, which just happened to be called ‘The Ethics of Plane Crashes.’ Not the best choice, considering where I was at the moment, but I proceeded anyway. After Gladwell introduced two major airline crashes and got into analyzing what went wrong, though, I had had enough. I skipped the rest of that chapter and ended up much happier learning how the culture of cultivating rice makes Chinese students better at Math. 

“I think we should have a nice dinner in a restaurant before we go to this ‘edgy’ Steam Room Bar. For all we know, they might only have sexy sounding drinks served by scantily clad waiters and no decent food,” I laughed at the preposterous image. After all, we were in Uzbekistan, where they renamed the ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail to ‘Good Time on the Beach.’ There was no argument from Dave, and we just needed to decide which one of our favourite Tashkent restaurants we would grace with our presence. 

“Why is this closed?” I stared at the front door of the Bon! café, barred as if they never intended to reopen. I checked the door again and turned to Dave, “This is weird. Maybe we have to go to a bigger place. Bon! is pretty small. Maybe they just decided that being open on New Year’s Eve was not worth it.” 

We tried two more restaurants, each one bigger than the last, to no avail. They were all closed. “I can’t believe this is happening to us. And on the 31st!” I railed. 

“Ok, I guess we’ll go straight to the bar, and hope they have something decent to eat,” Dave suggested. 

The Steam Bar was hidden by a hedge that, in summertime, probably gives it a welcome feeling of seclusion from the busy street on which it was situated. The building itself was nice looking, with nothing indicating any ‘edginess’ about it, at least to our minds. The entrance door was made of heavy wood and it took us a moment before we realized that the reason why we were not getting in was not because it was heavy, nor because we were pulling instead of pushing as had happened to us on numerous occasions in the past. The door was locked. The dark windows were not a sign of people wanting their privacy. No! The place, just like every other place in Uzbekistan, was closed on New Year’s Eve! 

“They really mean it – spending time with their families!” I sobbed. At that point we were really hungry and frustrated (getting ‘hangry’). “We need to have something to eat, otherwise we’ll end up at each other’s throats. Ok. Correction. I’ll end up at your throat. And it is New Year’s Eve! Let’s just see what we can get in a corner store and take it to our apartment,” I gave up on eating anything warm at that point. 

“Yeah, I guess there’s no point trying any other place. This is pretty conclusive,” Dave agreed but still gave the heavy door one more try. So, our New Year’s Eve dinner consisted of crackers with cream cheese and mussels because that’s all we could find, but it was not a chore at all. And who needs to have a drink before a full day of skiing anyway? 

When we met at her hotel the next morning, Olga turned out to be a pragmatic-looking ornithologist in her early 30’s from Belarus who was in her 5th year working for a NGO repopulating Uzbekistan with some nearly extinct birds. When I saw the car she had arranged for us, I was impressed. For the first time in Uzbekistan we were going to ride in a car that could comfortably accommodate not only us but our egos and anxieties as well. It was a fairly spacious 4x4 Lada, with a friendly driver who spoke excellent Russian. But I didn’t even have to bother myself trying to make small conversation – the task that falls to me when Dave and I travel alone. Olga did all the talking and translating, and that’s how we learned that the driver provides his services on a regular basis, and would be skiing as well. Not a bad job, I thought! 

Less than two hours after we met and climbed into the car, we were gearing up using rented equipment that was all new, just like everything else around us. 

“So how does it feel?” I looked at Dave who looked serious. 

“No, it’s not going to work. The wound itself is fine, but the skin around it is not.” Dave’s old, still not properly healed leg wound turned out to be too sensitive to be enclosed in the ski boot. 

“I hope they can refund,” he said while taking the boot off. 

“They were really nice about it. Gave me the money back and seemed really sorry I couldn’t ski,” Dave reported when he re-joined us. 

“Look at this line!” I exclaimed realizing that the long line ahead was for gondolas, all new and shiny in the sun. 

“Don’t worry. We are going to the outer line for skiers,” Olga assured me. That’s when I noticed the striking difference between the two lines. One was short and single-file, comprised of a mosaic of vivid colors, going through a single gate. The other line was long and thick, dark as a stormy cloud, made up completely of non-skiers; entire families with several children, and even grandparents, babushkas with their traditional scarves tied around their heads. They looked totally out of place but surprisingly endearing. I thrust my skis to Dave and clambered, maybe a bit too noisily, just to demonstrate that even without the skis I was a skier indeed, behind Olga and Dave. Together we used the short line and climbed into the gondola. 

After we finished admiring the spectacular view from the mountain top Dave, since he wasn’t skiing, joined the Black Coats to take the gondola down to the chalet. “Don’t worry about me. I was not sure about the leg, so I brought my tablet. I’ll alternate people watching and movie watching,” he assured us before Olga and I took off on our first run of the day. 

“Yes, we call them Black Coats because so many of them wear dark colors,” Olga started to explain. “They all come here just to see Amirsoy because it’s something new and modern. So, they make it into a family outing,” she shrugged and continued. “It only opened this year. This is Uzbekistan. They just see it as a new attraction. This might be the only ski resort in the world where you have more non-skiers than skiers.” 

It took us more than two hours to get back to Tashkent. The sunny first day of the New Year proved irresistible to many people. While we skied the visitors kept arriving and, by the time we had enough for the day, they too were ready to head back home. The traffic down the mountain to the flatter area around Tashkent was heavy and I was actually grateful for that. Navigating the switchbacks slowly suited me just fine. 

In the airport departure lounge the next evening I kept going back to the wonderful day of skiing, reminding myself that it had all been worth it. But my resolve was wearing thin. Four long hours of sitting on the hard plastic chairs of Tashkent airport, not knowing when or if our flight was going to happen, were taking their toll. 

“Dear passengers, the flight to Nukus is delayed until 10 pm due to bad weather at destination.” Do they really have to repeat it every ten minutes?” I turned to Dave. “I mean, wouldn’t everybody heading that way know by now?” he just nodded. He looked as dispirited as I felt. 

A week earlier I had read a news article about Omicron and how it affected traveling. It described chaotic situations at various airports in the States, when so many flights had to be cancelled due to staff shortages. The article was accompanied by a picture of people sitting on the floor of some airport, all looking dejected. I remember thinking how lucky we were in Uzbekistan, where the effects of COVID have not been so pronounced. I felt sorry for the passengers in the picture and congratulated myself on our luck. Little did I know what was coming. The plastic chair I had been sitting on for so many hours was a degree better than the dirty floor those poor people in the picture occupied but, still, I felt it was a lousy end to a mixed-bag weekend. 

One benefit of these unexpected situations, though, is that they sometimes throw you into the company of people you would otherwise never have met. Our flight was delayed to the next day, and so they put us up in a hotel. 

“I hear English,” were my first words the next morning when entering the breakfast area of our temporary accommodation. There was a table with two women who were the source of a lively conversation being carried on in English. In a town with very few English speakers you get to appreciate running into anyone who pronounces ‘w’ as expected, and not as ‘v.’ In no time we found out that our new companions were teachers from the one of our Presidential Schools in another town but in the same region where Nukus is located. Their flight had been cancelled several hours before ours, so they had enjoyed the hospitality of the hotel since early evening of the previous day as opposed to us crawling into our beds, exhausted, close to midnight. 

Amy turned to me, “Well, at least Uzbek Air put us up here,” she swept the room with her arm. “Once in Frankfurt I had to survive the night on a hard bench at the airport.” We had fun exchanging stories and suddenly our predicament did not feel so terrible. I got up and went to the buffet to get more coffee. Nobody had any idea when the flights would resume. The mix of ice and fog was too much for our small regional airports to handle. When I returned to our table with a fresh cup of coffee, Sophie was in the middle of a story involving a giant Hungarian salami she had once tried to smuggle into the States, “So, of course the officer pointed to the declaration form where I checked off that I carried no food. I played the dumb blonde and told him that it was actually for my father, so it wasn’t really mine. The guy was of a Korean background. A very patriarchal society.” 

I laughed, “So you told him that your dad will not open the door unless you have that salami in your hand?” 

“Yeah, something like that. You should see the guy sucking in his breath, pressing into his dimple as the Koreans do when they are trying to figure something out. Eventually, he brought out this huge book and started leafing through it.” Being a good storyteller, she demonstrated with her fingers the pressing of the chin, the leafing of the pages. She had our full attention as she continued, “After a while he stopped and said, ‘So here it is. The Hungarian salami is an exemption. It’s ok to bring it in.’ I still don’t know if he totally made it up or if there actually really are some exceptions.” Sophie finished her story and got up. That’s when I realized how tall she was. “I am ready for another egg,” she said and stretched. After she left, Amy turned to us, “And what’s this with a personal scale in my hotel room? Do you have one too?” 

“Yes, actually, I did notice one in the closet. Never seen one in a hotel before,” I confirmed. 

“Yeah, maybe they are trying to discourage us from eating too much at their buffet. Not going to happen …” Amy laughed and patted her stomach, her chubby cheeks attesting that she liked her food. 

“It might be for weighing luggage,” Dave suggested far too reasonably. 

We continued chatting, whiling the time away while breakfast turned to brunch and, later on, lunch. We felt almost disappointed when the announcement came that our new friends should get ready for the airport shuttle because their plane had finally gotten the go-ahead to take them home. A few hours after they left, our turn came as well. “All’s well that ends well,” I quipped to Dave while loading our luggage into the shuttle. “This was actually fun. And I am sure we’ll see them again.” After all, a text message from Sophie had already arrived. They had landed safely, and she had already started to organize our next get-together. This time a planned one.

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