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Part I: Departing K2 and Some Tashkent

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

I ended up rambling (no shit, really?) so cut this into two parts. This is the short section. Smile

Leaving Karshi:

We find out a day before we leave that we will be confined to the Sheraton when we get to Taskhent due to security concerns. On the way out the gate, our interpreter relays that the Taliban (?) set off a bomb in Tashkent not far from the Sheraton. I am not sure of this since the lovely Kamola later says that hadn’t happened. So then who do you believe? Someone who wasn’t in the same town, or someone who was, but maybe didn’t hear? I don’t know. I think it was probably just another rumor. I wasn’t concerned in any case.

I don’t know what the fascination is with going the long way around to get to the airport. Realistically it’s shorter, but I’d rather go through town. Give us a show! I don’t suppose most people care – they just want to get out and go home, or wherever else the plane takes you. Personally I think they are missing out. Maybe people really are the same all over the world, but there are differences and that’s the cool thing about it. Not always of course, but if you never experience it you can’t know one way or the other. I think a lot of people waste their time here thinking it’s just a job, and that’s all it can be.

So we hop on the Antonov AN-24 that will take us to Tashkent. It’s a lovely plane, bigger than the Yak-40 that brought us here. It’s also louder. Turboprops have this shudder and shake to them that might scare people. It’s different for me, at least. With the noise and vibration, it’s very easy for me to go to sleep. Comforting memories of riding around in the back of a track where you add darkness, a lot more noise, and the occasional merciless beating by equipment or an unfriendly road…that always put me dead asleep. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t much working out for me this trip. I catnapped some, but the seat was too short in back to support my head (yaaay! great to be too tall!) and dropping my chin to my chest wasn’t making me happy either. Chester from one of the other sites was sitting next to me, looking out the window and listening to some music. Occasionally he would burst into song. I decide he could possibly be irritating.


Eventually the plane lands. It’s hard to get my bearings at the airport, because while we spent a lot of time there, and more a few days after, that was the dead of winter. Snow, ice, and dark all around. It’s become a green April day. The trees are alive, and the place looks totally different. Bakhodir the Expediter meets us, and it’s off to the Sheraton. One guy keeps wanting to stop by and grab something to drink on the way to the hotel, but it doesn’t happen that way.

We get to the hotel and get our rooms. We’re all flying out to Frankfurt sometime the next morning. Meet Bakhodir the Expediter downstairs at 4:45AM tomorrow to head to the airport. I’m fully prepared for this moment. Up to the room for shower time! Lots of water, good pressure, and I almost burn myself…on purpose. There’s a refreshing freedom in being able to wander around in the privacy and nekkidness of your own room. Haven’t been able to do that for 4 months. I’ve skipped shaving for several days so I can that much more enjoy a good clean shave, not using a metal mirror that gives you only a general idea where your face is. (Ok, it’s a pretty good idea, I was just exaggerating.) It’s refreshing and I take my time. By the time I wander down, Ken is already a beer ahead. Several of the other guys have been at the bar for a while, since they moseyed over that way with a quickness right after walking in.

Wow! That first beer in four months hits me about halfway through. I start feeling oddly disoriented. That quickly goes away in favor of a more “eventually I will be drunk” type feeling. Now the first feeling wasn’t drunkenness related, but more like my balance went away. Beats me. After maybe a bit, one of the guys staggers away from the bar towards his room. We’ll call him codename Goofy for now. We figure it’s pass-out time for him. Chester the Singer, who seems like he’s probably alright, shares a shake of the head with us. We talk a little bit about people that you just cain’t let out in public. He’s an embarrassment. Another guy shadows him to make sure he makes it to, and inside of, his room.

Part XI: Off the Job

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Off the Job:
Beats me — 7 days a week, 12 hours or more a day…what do you expect? Usually I shower and shave, brush my teeth, that sort of thing. Sometimes I read just a little bit. Now that my laptop and movies have showed up, I can watch some DVDs or play games. Before (sometimes during) going to sleep I listen to a little bit of music on my MP3 player. That’s really the only time I start thinking about things “back home.” I have been able to drop a lot of things that bothered me, because I am …a lot of thousands of miles away from it. The outside world doesn’t really exist for me so much anymore. Less so of course than when I used to do the same thing in the Army, out in the field: we were a whole lot less in touch with the world then. No internet, no email, no phones over satellite. The time passes quickly because I am kept busy. I used to have a real problem with thinking, especially on the drive home from work where there was nothing else to do. I’d get all wrapped up in some issue, or some bit of my life that I should have done better. An individual that I know is fond of simply saying “you think too much.” Pining for the past doesn’t do any good. Sometimes you need a way of disallowing that as an option. That’s one of the reasons I came here. Of course, the money was a prime motivator too. Smile But I knew I needed to get away, if nothing else at least for a while. I didn’t feel necessary, so I figured I needed to go. This isn’t something I could do while attached to anyone. I had enough of separation years ago and it isn’t anything I’d do now. I can see how some people might short-term this for a financial shot in the arm, but it’s got to be rough on a family. Some of these guys have been working away from their families for years. But I can come back in a hell of a lot better shape than I left, and financially probably better off than I could ever be. Slaving away for erasing debt? Hell yeah! Anyway, I guess the point is that there IS nothing but the job.

When R&R comes up after 4 months, we’ll see what changes. Smile It’s better than I thought though. Since it can be so hard to get in and out of here, you get 13 days instead of 10. Now, the other three is on your dime, but you do get the days, so you aren’t burning 40% of your time going out and back. I feel sorry for the guys down south because it can be enough hell just catching a military flight up to here, much less the stellar service from Karshi to Tashkent. Ok, so it’s only bad in the winter, so that is an unfair dig.

There are also MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) trips to Tashkent, where if you are really burnt you can take 3 days, fly up there, sleep in a bed, sit on porcelain, shower in peace, shave in front of a good mirror, and generally wreak some havoc on the native populations. However, you don’t get paid for that time and all costs are on you. I’ll probably pass on that. This is a(n extended) cash run, baby!

Working my itinerary for my first R&R. I’m going to Ireland, and the North too. Just gonna wander around for a while. I’m planning to hit Dublin, Cork, Belfast, and a few other places you’ve prolly never heard of. Jameson and Bushmills have distillery tours, and Guinness has a brewery tour. Twisted Evil Stopover a day in Frankfurt, Germany on the way back since the flights to Tashkent are a little goofy. I’ve been to Germany before but not Frankfurt, so it doesn’t bother me at all. After that I’ll spend an extra day in Tashkent as well, wandering around and checking things out I guess. Part of the compensation deal involves getting a certain amount of reimbursement on tickets for R&Rs, and it works out my ticket will be about $10 less than that amount, so it costs me nothing to fly out. Yaay!

Part VIII: Finally Karshi

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

15 -16 Dec, Sunday and Monday: Tashkent, part Two.

Tashkent. Shit. I’m still only in Tashkent.

I sleep almost straight through 10 hours this time like it was nothing, interrupted only for a few seconds when called to be reminded “you know you aren’t supposed to leave the hotel right?” ACK! Scary phone noise! “Ok.” click. Bang! Asleep again as fast as I had awoke. And there you have it, how jet lag gets you, you get out of it, stay in an airport all night, and you get it right back! Only now you know you can’t leave the hotel for any sort of entertainment. Sad Only expensive food from here on out. The next two days are a bit hazy / not really interesting, so I will not go into them very much other than to say chicks dig it when you talk Russian to them, they are surprised and flattered, and that you do it badly is irrelevant, since you are trying, and they figure anything is better than no effort or knowledge at all. And they’re pretty, too.

17 Dec, Tuesday:
Ok, it’s time for one more try to get to Karshi. Really, it all worked out fine this time. We crammed back in that teeny tiny little flying cave, which was less than about 100 meters from the terminal this time. Yes, we rode the bus. No, Leroy didn’t get off the bus in any sort of unauthorized manner this time, either. I had a good (…umm…good enough?) seat at the back this time, until they told us to have a shot at those fine seats up front, 2 feet from the cockpit door. I got hit with the door and an ass or elbow or two, but it hit me flat at least, not sharp edge on like poor Ken.

It was a pretty uneventful flight. They did serve a round or two of drinks. It seemed like the pilot couldn’t really decide what heading he wanted to take, so he did a lot of turning. We dropped down from above the clouds. However, we stayed IN the clouds. Flaps down. Still in clouds. Gear down. Still in the clouds. Hmm… That’s unusual. Still descending, and turning a lot. Hmm mmm hmm…still in the clouds.


I figure we were at about 250-300 ft when we finally broke the cloud layer. It was a safe landing after that, and pretty uneventful from there. We stepped off the plane, walked past the guys with the slung AK-47s, and straight through the “airport” which I now know truly only means “a place next to a runway.” It was cold. No baggage issues. There were no lights on at all, so the building was somewhat dark and poor looking.

Attila and Csilla (chilla) met us and drove us to the base. You know, I didn’t realize the humor, or the rhyme of the names until just now. As we drove along, everyone stared at us. Not out of hatred or any ill will, but simply at seeing something unusual. We looked back at them with the brightly colored clothes amongst the entire general dirty and dingy feeling of a broken down and beat up rural area. You see quite a few jackets that bear an outward resemblance to a bathrobe. Lots of areas looked like they started to build but gave up. Maybe there’s no roof, missing walls, no windows. This place is so dirt poor, compared to it Tashkent is definitely the rich big city. There were several little stands set up along the road with a hook that had some kind of large animal hung off of it, and a butcher ready to take your order.

There are three different checkpoints we go through, 2 of theirs and 1 of ours. I wouldn’t want to try and run through either of them. The Uzbek soldier for some reason looks at my ID and says “Robert Alan” and waves us through. Didn’t say a word to anyone else, just says my name. That was odd. I would just as soon him not do that.

Part VII: Some Time at the Tashkent Airport

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

14 Dec, Saturday:

So after another expensive breakfast, we meander around a bit, and get checked out and ready for our flight down to Karshi. We head to the airport, but to the domestic side, which is smaller. The army of porters sees us a mile off (ok, a few hundred meters) and lines up ready to do some work. Turns out we have additional luggage since one of the guys who went out that morning was unable to get his locker on the plane. It’s a small plane, but more on that later. Anyways, so we have his truck box, and I mean that literally, with us also. The cost for porters is cheap, like a dollar a bag. Baha arranges the “overweight baggage charge” bribe with the airline people. That’s twenty bucks each. And through security we go, straight to the head of the line. Everybody and I mean everybody, sets off the metal detector. I think the only metal I had on me were the zippers on my jacket. So on we go, ready to wait for a bit for our 5:30 PM flight.

I’m going to change subjects for a bit and talk about the national luggage of Uzbekistan. If you are at all familiar with lawn chairs, the kind with the metal frames and that plastic / fabric combo that you actually sit on, then you have seen the basics of the Uzbek baggage. By that, I mean EVERYONE had these bags. I think they go shopping, buy a boatload of the bags, and fly it all home. They look like a stopgap not intended to last more than a few trips. Most of them are taped shut / together. One time we saw this extended family group, and they must have had over 40 of those damn things. It took about a half hour to get all of them inside the terminal. But I tell you what, when they realized they were in front of the wrong desk, they scooted every single one of those bags over to the other desk in about a minute flat.

Ok, back to the story. After an appropriate period of waiting, we shuffle through the door, and onto the waiting unheated bus, which we board and then stand in for an extended period of time while latecomers show up in ones and twos. Off for a nice little ride we go, maybe 400 meters including the wide circle we made turning around from the terminal…to this little teeny tiny corporate jet looking thing.

So we disembark from the bus, and prepare to board the plane through a small ladder in the rear. The interior lights are off for a minute, and it looks like a dark and forbidding cave. What’s in it you ask? Only what you bring with you. Our weapons, need them we will not. Wink The lights come on just as I have gotten into the plane and run into the wall by the door.

And behold! It is even smaller than it appears! I can’t stand up straight as I push by the stacked lawn chair bags into a tiny seat with no headrest. My backpack goes in my lap, since there is no storage under the seats (that’s for feets) and the overhead area isn’t even a bin, but a little area where one might place say, a book or something. It’d need to be a paperback, not hardback. So we get all crammed in this freezing, unheated icebox and sit there for about an hour. I think about sleeping, head forward on backpack like so many times before, but I keep getting distracted by tales of Thailand, from which one guy had just got back from R&R. He is a good storyteller to be sure, but begins to tell that same story a few times over the course of the night. It is also entertaining to see them out de-icing the wings. After about an hour of this, the pilot steps out and mutters something both quick and quiet, which disappoints all non-Americans on the plane. We aren’t disappointed in the same way since we are confused, but that we aren’t flying right now is obvious. So off the plane we go! We stand in the bus for a while and some of our bunch get concerned about the checked baggage. Should we have taken it off? I figure we didn’t put it on, so we don’t take it off. Leroy steps out of the bus to try to get his bag, and is told politely but firmly to get back on the bus. We expect that next time he tries this he will be shot. He doesn’t get off the bus again, so we don’t find out.

As it turns out, Karshi is not the most up to date airport in the world. They don’t have anything to clean snow off the runway with, and as I find out later, this place gets fogged in at the drop of a hat. It gets two flights a day, weather dependant of course. Must be a fun place to work.

Back to the terminal to wait some more. An hour or so later, we find out it will be another hour or so. Then we hop in the aforementioned unheated bus, and back out to the cave that flies through the air. Seriously folks, the lights were on this time, it’s a joke. We weren’t on the plane quite so long this time when the disappointment ripples through the crowd yet again. Back to the terminal to wait some more!

I won’t go into the gory details of how many delays we had, only it was finally decided it’d be decided if it was going to fly again at 2:30AM. That didn’t happen. Ok, wait a couple more hours. Again. Some other flight gets called, and one guy has to wrestle his passed-out partner into a standing position, and finds that his partner is unable to grasp anything, like his briefcase or ticket. Somehow they get him out the door. Again with the waiting. There’s no heat in this terminal, and no longer enough people to generate any heat. The benches are made of fine Soviet steel, guaranteed to leave a waffle print though your jeans. I sleep some, almost out of spite. There is a very drunk prosecutor who asks what the problem is, and if we sign out a complaint they will beat the shit out of them for us. He then goes and sits next to a lady who’s every movement (especially the part where she turns completely away from him) says “go away.” He never even notices. Later, he and a buddy throw up in the sink. Separately, as far as I can tell, because they got both sinks. They boil bacon here instead of frying it. It looks like he had some bacon. I wonder where he got breakfast from, because we are all very hungry. It is not in my plan to eat from the sink though.

Did I mention more waiting? I may have been distracted by the freezing, or the puking. It’s finally decided the plane is going to fly at 5:30AM. It doesn’t, and we knew it wouldn’t, but we are spared the journey back and forth from the plane. Now it’s going to fly at 8:30, but let’s just agree that it didn’t. Finally the decision is made to abort this madness, and we prepare to head back to the hotel. A couple hours later, we leave. Why so long you ask? We had to get the tickets switched, make sure we wouldn’t have to re-bribe for the luggage, that sort of thing. Turns out there is a later flight that they are sure is gonna go this time. We’ve heard that one before, and don’t fall for it. At 11:30 (or possibly later) it does. Sad I was dead asleep at the time, after we barely made it back in time for a tasty delicious break-feast.

Part VI: A Wander Through Tashkent

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Dec 13, Friday:
Good all you can eat breakfast. Thank goodness for expense reports though, because I am here to report to you it was expensive. We hang around the hotel some, and then launch another expedition to the outside, finally getting to the Golden Wing, which is quite crowded. We do a little better here, as my Russian is improving by the minute, but I still have these odd little gaps where I can’t remember a word, and wouldn’t you know it’s usually the most important one of a sentence? A crowd of 4, and then later 2 more, very young and attractive women sit at the table next to us, demonstrating the variety of looks and ethnic types all right there at the same time. Of course, their fashion tastes are even a bit different from the younger American generations, and they smoke like chimneys.

I’m gonna change the subject here a little bit and talk about the women in Tashkent. In a word, they’re beautiful. I’m sure there must be ugly ones, but I think they put them somewhere out of sight, at least until they turn into the little square babushkas of stereotype. That stereotype, by the way, is absolutely steel on target. This area has always been a crossroads of cultures, so you find Russian, Asian, Persian, Turks, and wonderful combinations of those. Exotic features, stunning blonds that seem almost out of place given the general darker hair / features, what a variety of sights to behold! Thank God for LASIK, so that I do not miss anything.

Aside from the women, there isn’t so much to look at. There was a large green domed mosque down the street from the hotel. Down from that is a statue of Timur (also known to the West as Tamerlane) who was big in these parts way back when. He’s got that fire in his eyes, charging forward on his horse. I bet he kicked ass. Just down from there is a boulevard turned into a sort of open air mall crossed with the barkers and food “shops” of a carnival. 6 items in great abundance and variety, not counting the 5 different kinds of food, set out on skewers ready to be cooked at a moment’s notice. It maybe wouldn’t be so bad because it was really cold out, but it’s not something I felt like chancing. Most of the shops don’t have much to sell, and there is a general feeling of sparseness to the shelves. There are quite a few Internet Cafes. Many of the shops have darkly tinted windows and look permanently closed. Some are. Interspersed among these little shoplets are giant apartment buildings, some of which look like they are going to fall apart before your very eyes. It can be hard to tell new construction going up – not that there’s much of that – from old buildings being taken down.

There’s no shortage of folks wanting some money from us. As obvious Westerners we stick out like a sore thumb, and the chant of “dollar, dollar” is often heard, though usually mumbled. The kids are the worst, because they are so persistent and heartrendingly sad-eyed. They’re also pretty damn hard to get rid of. The adults are much better from that perspective as they don’t really seem to care all that much, with little to no tugging at heartstrings action going on. The kids stick to you like glue, especially if someone in your group has taken any pity on them and run up the sucker flag for all to see. They will appear at your side, and meander semi-permanently attached to you wherever you go. That is, until they see the local militia or cops, whereupon they disappear with a surprising suddenness, and reappear with that same surprising suddenness when the “danger” is past. I had one lil’ urchin latch on to me, grabbing me by the arm and not letting go. I removed her hand 30-40 times and it made absolutely no difference. She actually had a hell of a grip, and I suspect she worked out regularly. “Okay, another set of 30-40 arm grabs, ready…exercise!” With an adult, that wouldn’t have even happened, but if so it could be dealt with. What was I gonna do, beat the shit out of this kid? Hey you, smartass in the front row, be quiet, it was a rhetorical question. Anyways, the second you give in to these people, you’ll find an army of clones descending on you wanting the same. Even worse, when the army decides to beat up the one to take whatever you may have given it. So your only hope is to play Mr. Heartless Bastardman and wait for them to get bored and leave. It only works if you are more stubborn than they are. It seems cruel not to help, but often doing so just makes things worse. The world is a shitty place sometimes.

Then you find you’ve been wandering around almost a whole day, and it’s getting dark. Time to leave Gypsy territory, just in case. Public drunkenness is not unknown, and we see two tiny people struggling under the weight of a large, yet happy man. I do not know if the car parked on the sidewalk blocking a shop door is related to him or not. We don’t go through the park with the statue of Timur, just in case it is our ass he would kick. We take a shortcut!

Sorry, but no story there. It was a safe and accurately guessed shortcut. Had you wondering though, didn’t I? AR!

Later back at the hotel, we sit in the other lounge and watch the belly dancer show. That’s right, belly dancing. You have to remember this isn’t southern Russia. To better understand it, consider that if you draw a (not completely straight) line from India to Turkey, Uzbekistan is in the middle. To the lower left is the Persian influence. To the right you have the western reaches of China. And the latecomers to the region, the Russians, are off to the northwest. They are what you refer to as a minority, even though they had ruled this country for the last 150 years or so. Then there was a little jazz type band that played. Not a hotspot, but just sort of a relaxing place to sit and chill. Tomorrow, we’ll catch a flight down to Karshi via puddle jumper.

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