Since the Somsa pasty a couple of days ago, things downstairs have not been as they should. Nothing as desperate as a Kathmandu two-step, but still requiring precautions. Wet wipes in the back pocket. So I’ve been wandering across the old city not really worried about anything.
This morning I had a chat with the landlady about train tickets for Samarkand, and was delighted to discover that there’s a ticket office just 15 minutes away, rather than 45 minutes out at the train station at Kagan. I duly set off and after several false starts found the ticket office alongside a photographer’s desk. Realising that there wouldn’t be any English, I wrote the journey details on a scrap of paper assuming that all would be solved. Hah!
There was a queue (but not as you know it) which involved a person at the window being outflanked by various pincer movements from intruders on either side. This went on for a while and was lengthened by the speed of the clerk behind the counter and the presentation of carrier bags of cash needing counting. As a thousand Som are worth about £0.20, a train journey for a family of four costing 100,000 Som paid in small denominations takes some time. I was third in line, or I could have been seventh or even twelfth. There was no air-con, nor fan and my shirt was by now soaking. The man behind me exerted a calming presence on several grumpy customers who were shouting at the clerk, who resolutely maintained her pace.
When I finally got there, I glibly presented the piece of paper with my passport. The clerk resorted to Google Translate without success, then dialled a number and had a conversation before passing the phone across to me. A voice spoke in English and I explained the journey I wanted. Ten minutes later I had the ticket, much to the relief of the waiting Uzbeks who surged towards the desk as I left.
Once outside my soaking wet shirt started to dry in the hot breeze, and I cooled off. But there was suddenly an urgency; an immediacy over which I knew I had no control. I started to look for coffee shops, but found none. Then I looked for quiet corners and alleys, but there was always someone around. Ahead was a wide boulevard, and I hoped for a public toilet, but there were none. As I crossed the wide street, all seemed lost until I saw a closed restaurant with toilets on the terrace. I feared they would be locked, but thankfully the Gents was open.
Many years ago I went to an infamous talk at Plas y Brenin by John Barry where he showed a picture of ‘Smiler’ Cuthbertson crossing a railway platform somewhere in India. Cuthbertson had a similar problem to the one I was experiencing. In a statement that reduced the room to tears for over 15 minutes, Barry said “as Smiler headed for the train, there was a sound like a flock of starlings taking off”.
I just managed to avoid disaster, and was fully prepared as the starlings took flight. Not only was there running water, but paper too. The closest shave for many years.
I headed out into the sunshine and back through the Jewish quarter, this time making the correct greeting – Salom aleikum – before getting several bottles of Coca-Cola to deal with the stomach bugs. The rest of the day has been horizontal.