“Wait, wait, woah, chto eto?” the girl exclaimed in Russian, pointing at the two sticks linked by the short silver chain. What is this? She’d seen them in movies, but she couldn’t quite pin the weapon’s name.
“Nunchucks,” Baktiyor grinned, raising his eyebrows and flashing the two sticks, the silver chain ringing. He stood back, adopting a fighting stance. His muscles flexed as he briskly swung and whirled one stick while clutching the other in a white-knuckled grip. He struck the punching bag hanging in front of the flat’s window, pretending it was an enemy. Baktiyor threw in a kick, going faster as he switched his grip from one hand to the other.
The girl watched as the Uzbek sportsman leapt into action before her eyes. He was agile for his age, and he showed no fear at unseen opponents surrounding him in his constricted apartment.
Finishing his demonstration, Baktiyor’s stone-cold face broke into a smile. “Just like Bruce Lee, eh?”
The girl just laughed. Just like Bruce Lee.
Tucking away the nunchuck in his jacket and putting on his shoes, Baktiyor beckoned for the young woman to join him and his wife.
“Come, we’ll walk you home now.”
Earlier that day, Baktiyor walked across the heart of Samarkand City: Registan.
In wintertime, the historic square sees less tourists, but that doesn’t mean that it would be less busy. The shops inside the towering madrasahs were still up and going with vendors inviting passersby and travelers to buy their wares. Locals roamed the area in clusters. Young Uzbek ladies took selfies with their friends and young Uzbek boys sat on the park benches outside the main square, talking among themselves. Children ran from one madrasah to the other, cheeks flushed from the chilly winter air.
Tourists gawked at the patterned minarets, ornate mosaics and intricate iwans bathed in shades of blue, taking in the clashing fusion of Islamic architecture and Zoroastrian influence along with tales that have been literally lost in the sands of time.
Among them was a girl in a yellow dress and a fluffy winter coat.
She wandered through the madrasahs listening to music in an attempt to drive away the unwanted noise from the souvenir stall merchants. She entered her first tourist attraction in Uzbekistan expecting a display of the country’s rich history beside its breathtaking architecture but was instead rewarded with invitations to buy souvenirs as well as awful assumptions from vendors about her nationality.
She saw them bow their heads before her with prayer hands as they greeted her with a soft Namaste. She flashed them an irritated look before hearing another merchant holler Ni hao! which enraged her even more, since China was calling dibs on her own country.
Earphones it is, she thought. All she wanted was to gaze at the blue-tiled walls of the ancient square, imagining what it once was—citizens huddling as they waited to hear royal proclamations, scholars gathered around the famed Timurid astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg, men and women with hands cupped in supplication as they prayed in the grand mosque. She usually loved people and welcomed local interactions, but the nationality game was already becoming too annoying.
Drowning out the unnecessary noise, she continued to roam the magnificent square, neck craned upwards, eyes wandering from the elaborately gilded ceiling of the Tilya Kori Madrasah to the incongruous tiger mosaics on the Sher-Dor’s facade.
When she felt that she had seen every blue tile on the grandiose expanse, she stopped at the middle of the square, balancing her mobile phone against a nearly empty water bottle.
That’s when Baktiyor saw her.
At first, what she was doing seemed strange. She was crouched down on the Registan’s floor. After a few seconds, she ran in front of the Tilya Kori’s entrance before going back down again.
Baktiyor had come to the square with his son, Samir. Even the little boy thought the young lady was strange, but his father approached her, greeting her a pleasant afternoon.
“Can you help me?” his father asked. “I want to practice speaking English.”
“Of course,” the girl exclaimed.
Baktiyor asked if she could sit down with them for some coffee or tea in a nearby restaurant. He even threw in some tasty plov. At first, the girl said she was busy taking photos for her travel blog, but after charming the security guards and figuring out a way to get the crowded square all to herself the following morning, she agreed to go.
Baktiyor was glad she agreed. While it wasn’t necessary, he had been approaching tourists at Registan ever since he decided to study English, constantly looking for ways to use his skills in conversations with foreigners who knew little to no Uzbek, Tajik or Russian. Most of them entertained him. He showed them around Registan, offering some nuggets of history of the tiled expanse and telling them about himself and his life.
Save for winter, Baktiyor sells toys and trinkets in an amusement park every single day of the week. He has handed bright-colored balloons to giddy toddlers, sold charm bracelets to teenage girls and watched boys run around the park firing their newly bought toy guns at each other. For patrons who wish to test their luck, Baktiyor operates some park games, one of which involved selecting a random list and picking a numbered ball from a barrel to see if it matched any digits on the said list. If the number was listed, a small cash prize was up for grabs. He works at the amusement park all day in a spot that was nearly next to the gigantic ferris wheel, opening only a few hours after sunrise and closing up shop when the sun sets.
Once his toys are locked up in the cabinet underneath the tiny white table he uses to display their goods, Baktiyor heads home. He lives in a small Soviet-style flat near the park with his wife, Nigora, and his two sons, Samir and Bohodir. His eldest son, Hayot, lives in Istanbul, and still talks to him every day despite the distance.
“It’s okay with you to go to my home?” Baktiyor asked the girl nervously as he tried to hail a cab. He had put his headphones to rest on the base of his neck in order to hear her clearly. “My wife will cook for us, and you would be our guest.”
“That’s not a problem, but I have to tell my friends that I’ll be coming home a little later,” the girl said. Apparently, she was staying with a couple of German volunteers in a flat about two kilometers from Baktiyor’s home. She had met one of them during her trip to Tajikistan, and they were hosting her for as long as she needed. She revealed that she walked and hitchhiked all the way to Registan, lugging around a 30-kilogram backpack that contained everything that she needed to survive: a comfy tent, a portable stove, a little gas tank, a sleeping bag, a mattress and clothes and shoes for all seasons and situations.
Baktiyor thought she was strong and asked her if she wasn’t afraid to travel alone.
“Of course not!” she said nonchalantly as if she’d been asked this question hundreds of times. “What should I be afraid of?”
The ride to Baktiyor’s home was short. All the while, Samir spoke to the girl, trying to practice talking in English like his father. She found out that the little boy liked to draw and do sports. Later on, she would also find out that he hated doing his homework.
The trio climbed up a flight of stairs, and upon reaching his flat, Baktiyor rapped on the door. A tanned woman with tied jet black hair opened it along with a small, round-eyed boy who simply gazed at the guest.
“Come, come,” Baktiyor called out to the girl. She asked if it was alright to remove her shoes and place them by the doorway. She took her boots off to reveal worn-out socks, which Nigora would fix before the evening ended.
Baktiyor ushered her to a couch that doubled as a bed. He asked Nigora to serve them some soup as the two boys began the battle for their father’s cellphone. Nobody won, since Baktiyor took hold of the phone and tried connecting it to his new flat screen TV. He wanted to show some English videos about traveling and most importantly, about the Philippines, the young girl’s homeland.
The soup came warm, and Nigora laid out some bread and sweets with it. Baktiyor told the girl to help herself, and as she ate, she keenly looked around her surroundings. On her right was a punching bag hanging in front of the flat’s window. On the black table right below the TV were some books with worn out spines. A blue book, English in Topics, stood out brightly from the rest.
The girl asked Baktiyor about the book. He told Samir to bring it to the table, so she could see what was inside. The book contained information about Samarkand, its tourist attractions, its history, and the diverse ethnic population that has been bringing the city to life since time immemorial. She flipped to a page describing Registan and discovered that this was where Baktiyor learned all the things he needed to say to tourists who were exploring the magnificent square.
“I read that book every day,” Baktiyor said. “I read aloud every day for two hours, and then I listen to some audio,” he added, explaining that for most part of his learning, he was self-taught. He had only entered English courses recently and was only available to do so during the winter, thanks to his busy schedule manning his stall at the amusement park.
While talking, Baktiyor spoke slowly, obviously struggling to speak as smoothly as he can. His sons spoke faster, their youth giving them a likely edge against their father. Despite this, he managed to tell the girl about scrounging for English textbooks and trying to learn grammatical concepts by himself, relying on Google translate when things got tough. He read voraciously and wolfed down exercises testing his abilities as much as his time permitted.
As he spoke, the girl saw Baktiyor transform as an image of persistence. Here was a man exhausting all open possibilities to be better, but for what?
Before the girl could ask, Baktiyor put out an invite for the following day.
“Tomorrow, we go to Afrasiab. Have you been there?”
I guess there’s still time to find out, she thought.
Only on their second day since they met, Baktiyor had already taken the girl out on a city tour with his family.
They made their way through key tourist spots around the city, starting off with the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel and the Afrasiab Museum.
Acting like a semi-tour guide, Baktiyor dropped in some historical facts about the prophet. Apparently, he was revered across religions and his remains that were found on the hill grew to an extreme length; hence, the long coffin that housed him. In the museum, Baktiyor tried his best to translate the Russian text containing information about the artifacts so that the girl would understand them. Although it wasn’t necessary, she knew she was trying to practice, so she just let him be.
Throughout the day, they visited the tomb of the nefarious ex-president and a looming mosque that lost part of its grandeur in an earthquake.
When they got hungry, Baktiyor led the girl and his family to a place that served cheap and delicious plov, only to find out that they were too late to get a plate. They had some shashliks instead, and Baktiyor discovered that the girl had never tried a Central Asian shish kebab before. He also discovered her growing fondness for vodka, which kept her belly warm in the winter. This drink would solidify the bond of the seemingly father-daughter duo days later, as both were heavy drinkers who could keep up with each other and thought that “bit a little” alcohol, as Baktiyor would put it, was always a great idea.
Over lunch, Baktiyor launched into anecdotes about his family, complete with hilarious and heartwarming photos from his phone. He showed her photos of Samir and Bohodir in princely garbs, brandishing plastic swords and mounting stuffed animals. As if his martial arts display with the nunchucks wasn’t enough, he also showed her photos of his training sessions in the gym he frequents, his muscles rippling as he did push-ups, bench presses and pull-ups.
The girl listened intently, throwing in stories of her own. She focused on her travels rather than talking about what she left back home, and still, Baktiyor couldn’t fathom the idea of a young unmarried woman hitchhiking alone.
The night before, he and his wife decided to accompany her on her walk back to her flat.
“The streets aren’t always safe at night,” he said.
“Don’t worry. I can handle myself,” she assured him, having walked nearly half the world on her own.
He told her about the time he got beaten up and nearly killed when he decided to sleep in the amusement park next to his goods. There was trouble with the police, since he did great damage to his attacker, and he was sent to prison for it, despite the fact that he only tried to protect himself.
“No, we’re not letting you walk alone,” he declared. “Nigora, my coat please.”
And that was the end of it.
Bellies full, the family decided to resume their tour with a sunset stroll in Registan. Baktiyor showed the girl a trick to dodge the hefty tourist fees imposed on the square. He looked for guards roaming the grounds of the Tilya Kori Madrasah, and when he spotted none, he swung his foot up a low gate and helped his two sons and his wife up the barrier. The girl laughed, following suit and wishing she knew about this earlier.
The group wandered the blue-swathed expanse to a bleak winter sunset before calling it a day. Before heading back, the children decided to stop by a pet store to admire some fish. The girl told them that in her home, they could swim with them in their homes rather than gaze at them in a tank.
“Da,” the girl said. Yes. “In my home, I swam with them all the time and not just with fish. I swam with turtles, dolphins, and even whale sharks.”
Seeing that his children felt comfortable around her, Baktiyor put out another invitation on the table. “Are you free again tomorrow?”
“I usually have no plans,” the girl said, beaming.
“Maybe you could also help my children have better English,” he proposed. “Tomorrow, I can show you another museum.”
“And we could also drop by your English center, right?”
He nodded. It was settled then. All Baktiyor had to do was make a few calls to the center and inform them that a foreign guest was coming to visit and talk with their students.
They rode a cab on the way home, dropping the girl in the bazaar next to her flat.
“Rahmati kalon,” she said. Thank you so much. “Thank you for today.”
Baktiyor told her that it was nothing, and the family started walking their way home.
Once more, before saying goodbye, she tried and forgot to ask Baktiyor about his persistence, but as she watched him disappear with his wife and two sons on each side, she realized there was no need to.
Smiling, she waved at both Samir and Bohodir before they put their hands in the pockets of their coats.
“I’ll see you tomorrow!” she hollered, heading back to her flat.