Deep in the stark, barren Nuratau Mountains of Uzbekistan, I found myself in an idyllic little paradise. Like many Uzbek people, my host family lived in a stone and wood summer house, shaded by walnut trees atleast a 100 years old. A few steps below flowed an icy stream originating from a mountain spring. When the weather becomes colder, they move to their winter home in the village nearby.
A couple of days before, when I arrived in Central Asia for the first time, the region felt rather alien to me. The Soviet feel in the capital city of Tashkent, a language so hard to grasp, the constant advances from men. Unknowingly, I began looking for a bridge that connected me to this unfamiliar world, to enter a zone in my mind that made this strange land feel like mine.
Ditching the typical tourist places to visit in Uzbekistan, I journeyed in a shared taxi from Tashkent to the small city of Jizzakh and further to the Nuratau Mountains of Uzbekistan. The connection with the vast, barren landscapes felt instant. We rolled into the village of Uhum – literally, the land of gold – where I had booked a homestay through Responsible Travel Uzbekistan. The stark and stunning vistas, with mud houses, old apricot trees, striking desert oases and warm people made me feel like I had arrived home in the remote, barren Himalayan regions of Spiti or Ladakh.
Although Russian and Uzbek phrases I had practiced wouldn’t roll easily off my tongue, I quickly figured out that many Uzbek people speak Tajik – a dialect of Farsi – of which I had learnt a few phrases while in Iran. Soon we found shared meaning in words like azad, yadgar, aasman, murad – all common Uzbek names.
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As my Uzbek host family welcomed me with green tea and nuts, and excitedly exclaimed “Shahrukh Khan!” on hearing I’m from “Hindustan,” I knew the bridge in my mind had been crossed. With no wifi or phone connectivity, the mountain stream became my source of new connections. Each time I sat by it, the cool breeze on my sunburnt cheeks and icy water on my tired feet, someone from the neighborhood came along to show me a glimpse of their world.
The fiesty 5-year-old daughter of my big host family held my hand and walked me along the length of the stream, showing me where to cross, which fragrant herbs to smell and which stunning fallen leaves to collect. The nephew and his friend had a water splashing competition which got us all drenched. We collected wild mulberries growing by the stream and munched on them as the blazing sun dried us off. Together we climbed the barren mountains for a bird’s eye view of this striking green oasis by the water. In the morning, we hiked through walnut orchards in search of 2000-year-old petroglyphs – rock carvings of mountain goats sketched by our ancestors!
Two young kids from the neighbourhood ran towards me to examine this stranger in their land, and recited all the English they knew. We found pink thorny wildflowers growing under the bushes, played with wild apples in the stream and laughed over silly poses, which they photographed in fascination.
The grandmother and her sister slipped away from their kitchen chores for a while to rest under the trees… and when they saw me, this curious girl who had travelled alone from “Hindustan”, they jokingly pointed to the stream and said, this is the Ganga of Uzbekistan!
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Over breakfast, my Uzbek hostess sat with me, making actions and noises to represent chicken, cows, pigs, eggs and milk, trying to understand what I could and couldn’t eat (most Uzbek people are unfamiliar with the concept of veganism). She looked perplexed at first, but then decided to experiment with a delicious vegan “khanum” – somewhat like momos stuffed with carrot, cabbage and pumpkin. I gorged on homemade salads typically made with beetroot, carrot, tomatoes and cabbage (a Soviet influence), “dimlama” (a rather bland stew of vegetables simmered in their own juices) and “pirashki” (a thicker version of a puri, stuffed with potato and onion).
When extended family came to visit, I deciphered that upon hearing Hindustan, Uzbek people immediately reminisce about Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, Humayun Shah and Babur Shah. It’s a strange nostalgia, one that connects us and makes time feel like a set of stairs, possible to traverse both ways.
On my last night in Uhum, after we had finished dinner and the stars were yet to shine, my host family and I (their only guest that night) sat on a tapchan under the walnut tree, playing spin the bottle. Whoever it pointed to had to sing. Turned out, despite living in a remote mountain village in the Nuratau Mountains of Uzbekistan, with little connectivity or outside influence, my hosts were serious Bollywood fans. Together we sang and table-drummed a mix of local folk, Uzbek rap, Hindi songs and some Bollywood music I’ve never heard before!
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After the others called it a night, I turned off all the lights and lay alone for a while in the darkness, under the shimmering sky. The sound of the flowing stream gushed into my ears. A familiar sensation rushed through my mind. That unfamiliar land felt like home.
Nuratau Mountains: Practical travel tips
- How to plan: I booked my stay in the Nuratau Mountains through Responsible Travel Uzbekistan, a small organisation that focuses on community-based tourism. Please don’t opt for their hikes that use donkeys to carry gear – that’s abusive towards animals.
- Where to stay: I stayed in the family-run homestay in Uhum village, and highly recommend it. Note that there’s no mobile connectivity in the village.
- How to get there: Take a shared taxi to Jizzakh, after which a private taxi is the only option. Language was a barrier, so I called Sherzod from Responsible Travel Uzbekistan to help me fix the price.
- Cost: The homestay costs 25$ a night per person, including all meals. Private transfers offered by Responsible Travel Uzbekistan can be expensive, so opt for shared transport for part of the way.
- Solo travel in Uzbekistan: I felt safe travelling by myself in Uzbekistan, but know that men, as in many other places, will make advances often. Brush them off or change the topic. Here’s how to stay safe when you go solo.
Have you lived with a local family in a remote, unfamiliar part of the world?
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