Boysun and Termiz, Uzbekistan

Finding myself with extra time in Uzbekistan, and having also tired of Tashkent (in which I made a third stay, due to bureaucracy), I took a train to Termiz, again just on the edge of the Afghanistan border, fence visible and 60 km from the major city of Mazar-i-Sharif. (Nope, still not crossing.) Its former history as the southern limit of Soviet control does mean that there’s a large ethnic Russian population, which was a bit of a surprise.

But to be honest, it really just felt like a time-killer, and checking out the sites felt more draining than rewarding. While a perfectly fine and normal city, Termiz isn’t really a place worth going out of your way for. On top of that, travel fatigue is a thing, and having been on the road for quite some time now, I felt unmotivated and lethargic, and also pretty tired of the “prescribed” checkbox-ticking tourist trail in Uzbekistan. Remembering a throwaway suggestion from another traveller, I decided to just head to Boysun, with no info other than it being a pleasant town I might be able to kill a few more days in.

That turned out to be a serendipitous choice, as I couldn’t have predicted the wonderful experience I had, seeing a whole different side of Uzbekistan! But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Termiz may have been a bit dry on spectacle, but that’s not to say there’s nothing of interest.

After a brief visit to the museum, where both Hellenic artifacts — owing to Alexander the Great’s rule in the 300s BC — and Buddhist ones were on display, I opted to check out the archaelogical sights. Unfortunately, that got a little derailed when the share taxi I took dropped me off at Termiz-Ata instead, a park home to a mausoleum under construction, but also the remnants of the city wall of Old Termiz. Climbing up gave a view of Afghanistan, right across the mighty Amu Darya river, Uzbekistan’s largest water source.

The next day, I took a share taxi to where I originally wanted to go — Fayoz-Tepa, a Buddhist monastery from the 300s AD, only rediscovered in the 1960s. Though its dome-stupa has been restored, the rest of it seems to have remarkably held up over the years. Walls still have indentations most likely meant for Buddha figures, some of which were in the museum in Termiz. It’s not hard to imagine this place as a formerly working monastery. Just a stone’s throw away is Kara-Tepa, literally adjacent to the guarded border fence and unvisitable.

With not much else to do back in town, I took a marshrutka past fields of cotton to the 11th-century Kyrk Kyz (“40 girls”) fortress, currently under heavy restoration. A legend says this was a harem for a slain nobelman, and his faithful women barricaded themselves in here fighting off nomads. Whether it’s true or not, who knows, but the fortress itself is quite impressive, with two floors of arches still surviving. It’s hard to tell the purpose of the building otherwise.

After two days of ruins and not much left to do, I headed to Boysun. Against the advice of everyone I asked, I opted for a marshrutka rather than a share taxi, in a stubborn decision to save the equivalent of $1.50, and ended up waiting two hours for it to depart as the first passenger in a van for 16, stewing in frustration in the meantime. However, this led me to start chatting with the driver, Shavkat, and his fare collector, Mohammed, who were both exceedingly friendly and curious as to why a tourist would 1/ be in Termiz, 2/ head to Boysun, and 3/ do so in a marshrutka. And indeed, Boysun is a bit provincial — while Shavkat, being much older, could speak Russian, Mohammed (my age) could not, nor could virtually any of the 16 passengers in the marshrutka. We communicated in Russian, with Shavkat translating.

After a nearly-four hour ride instead of two, stopping to load and unload cargo and passengers along the way, and a long roadside stop for pomegranates (in which both Mohammed and other passengers kept offering me some, and I embarrassingly took half an hour trying to finish just three-quarters of one pomegranate), we passed through some beautiful mountain terrain, with the surprisingly-large city of Boysun nestled below some already-snow-capped peaks. With nowhere to stay in mind, I asked for cheap suggestions. Shavkat instead offered to let me stay at his house, and I gratefully obliged, offering to also pay.

Asking me what I had come to Boysun for, I told Shavkat and Mohammed that all I knew was that it was a beautiful place. With that in mind, Shavkat drove the marshrutka further to his favourite scenic points, taking me on a small tour of the city from above. I walked around a little more by myself, heading past the bazaar right into the residential areas, wandering past mud-and-straw houses bathed in the late-afternoon light.

With most Uzbek homes, everything is behind drab-looking compound walls. It was the same for Shavkat’s, but as soon as he invited me in, with his four kids and wife also greeting me (shockingly casually for being told immediately that they were hosting a stranger), I was surprised by not just how big it was, but how incredibly pleasant — three separate buildings surrounding a leafy courtyard. They allowed me to stay in the building I suppose is somewhat equivalent to a “living room”, home to a sunlit topchan and an more-insulated inner room with a bed. Awww!

They treated me to a home-cooked dinner and breakfast both days I stayed, in generous portions (though it could possibly because I was their guest) and a vast variety. His wife, who was sadly never introduced to me by name, prepared an amazing and giant plov one night, and a mountain of pumpkin manty the next. While bread, rice, yogurt, meat, and pumpkins came from the bazaar, to my surprise and delight, everything else — apples, persimmons, grapes, pomegranates, nuts, carrots, various other vegetables — came from their courtyard! It’s amazing how well they’re able to live, despite being a single-income family with Shavkat as a marshrutka driver. I can’t imagine that pays all that much — he had worked in Russia for 8 years doing renovation work.

Intending to head to the UNESCO-run museum (the town’s only tourist draw, which gets a trickle of visitors) the next day but finding it closed, Shavkat instead offered to take me along to work for the morning — driving for a wedding! With Mohammed again in tow, we drove up to the groom’s house, finding the party already started and tables full of plov. Despite being a complete stranger and foreigner, I was ushered right in and offered mounds of plov and other food. And this was right after breakfast from Shavkat’s wife!

While there were a few bemused looks at seeing a foreigner/tourist around, no one seemed to care that I was essentially crashing the wedding. Rather, guests implored me to look around, the videographer made sure to feature me eating and doing stuff, and I was taken and invited — or rather, dragged and pushed — to just take pictures of anything. Everyone seemed incredibly nonchalant about it! Then the musicians started to play, the guests started to dance, and I…well, of course I was forcibly dragged into the dance circle too. (Dance, monkey, dance!) Heh.

We took a portion of the wedding party to the bride’s house, quite a distance away near the town of Gulistan. However, Shavkat (with the consent of the teenage wedding guests in the marshrutka, curious about my presence) decided to make a short stopover in the junction town of Sayrob just for me, bringing me to two one-thousand-year old trees, formerly used variously as schools, shops, or town administrative buildings (?!), and now turned into a sort of museum.

Back to the wedding! The bride’s house was deep in the twists and turns of a village — all of whom were walking towards her house. And when we turned up, the crowd was even larger, and yet again, random guests pulled me right in and seated me at a topchan with a bunch of older men, shoving yet another full plate of plov in front of me.

With a few more Russian speakers around, I found them all super friendly to talk to…before I got dragged by another guest right into the house of the bride, where some sort of ceremony was taking place?! They certainly have no obligation (nor did I have any expectations from them) to give me the front seat and implore me to photograph, when I have no ties to the couple and no expectation to share my photos, but I greatly appreciated it. I can only assume that they were just eager to share their culture!

Aaaaand then dance party. Again. After being dragged running to chase the bride and groom’s car and told to photograph them through the window (“His name is Ruslan!” but I never got her name), we took another marshrutka-load of people back to the groom’s house in Boysun, where another dance party continued, and we bid our goodbyes.

Whew. And this all happened before mid-day. Shavkat and Mohammed drove me to another viewpoint high up above town, and I decided to wander around town alone some more back to Shavkat’s house for a few hours from there.

I was constantly invited for things. At the wedding, random guests would pull me aside and invite me for something something something I couldn’t understand in Russian during the evening — presumably dinner, but I was sadly unable to respond. Wandering around town, I was waved over and invited for tea (which I turned down), often stopped for conversation and attracting a crowd, and frequently asked to just take photos of people. Three men having a little picnic on a hillside invited me for wine, vodka (again, turned down), bread, and canned tuna, and they were a whole lot of fun to be around — especially since they were starting to get a little tipsy. And sure, most conversations consist of “Japan/Korea/Where are you from? What’s your name? How old are you? Are you married? What work do you do? What does your family do?” in that exact order, which is a little tiring, but the three drunk guys actually made it well past those six questions!

I never got to see that museum, but with the experience I got, that hardly mattered. But my time in Boysun ended so soon! With the country’s hotel registration requirement being every three days, and a tightened timeline now short of the free time I was trying to kill, I had to move on — to the point where I took an exhausting combination of bus, marshrutka, and taxi rides 700 km over 14 hours the next day. Yet despite the grueling journey, I felt re-energised, curious, and ready to continue: surprises like Boysun are what I travel for.

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