Tashkent, Uzbekistan

There was a chicken in the baggage compartment. Just as I had placed my backpack in the baggage hold underneath the bus I noticed it. There was a chicken silently standing there in the midst of all of the luggage, one leg tied down with a red string. Just a few chicken steps away was a little pile of chicken matter. I pointed to it and laughed. The bus driver smiled and took out a broom and gently scraped away the chicken feces. “OK” he said nodding. Despite his reassurances, I carefully examined the length of the red cord and moved my backpack well out of the chicken’s striking distance. Five hours later I thought back on the chicken in the darkness below. The bus had been bouncing back and forth for hours tossing the chicken around on its red string, for the Silk Road is ridden with potholes.

Though the roads might not be the smoothest, nowadays the Silk Road is well covered by buses. Buses in Turkey were a joy, consistently of Western standards. Iranian buses were not far behind. Turkmen and Uzbek buses on the other hand have been fascinatingly inefficienct. Each day before I travel I dutifully inquire at the tourist information for bus times, but the concept of a schedule has yet to appear in these parts. So there is no choice but to head for the bus station two or three hours before I really want to leave. Bus stations are a generous description, for they more resemble a gravel parking lot on the side of the road. It’s here that the ordeal begins.

“Samarkand?”

“Nyet nyet, Tashkent” replies one driver. This puzzles me because the only sensible route from Bukhara to Tashkent goes straight through Samarkand. Why can’t he just drop me on the side of the road?

“Samarkand then Tashkent?”

“Tashkent Tashkent!”

The frustration mounts as this script has oddly been exactly the same since Nukus, since apparently ALL Uzbek buses go only to Tashkent, and no one ever wants to get off along the way. With my foot I draw a line in the gravel, and use my toes as a pointer. “Bukhara.” I point to one end. “Tashkent.” I point to the other. “Samarkand.” I make a new spot in the middle, and then point to the bus.

“Da.”

Now I point at myself and then the bus. “Samarkand.”

“OK, OK.”

Why do things have to be so difficult?

Uzbek buses also suffer from a strange phenomenon found throughout the under-developed world. After waiting for two hours beyond the driver’s stated departure time, we finally start to move, and I ease the seat back and settle in. But 50 meters away from the bus station, maybe just around the corner, we stop for yet another crowd of people who apparently couldn’t be bothered to walk the final 50 meters to the buses starting point. And so it continues for another half an hour or so until there are passengers cramming the aisle full. By the time the bus gets out into the open road, I am already cramped. With my long legs even a normally proportioned seat can get uncomfortable, but some Uzbek buses have a mere 5 inches of leg room. This is what it must have been like in one of those medieval torture devices.

While the bus might not be generous with leg room, it is certainly generous with staff. In addition to the bus driver, there is the man who takes the money, the man who takes your baggage, the man who stands at the door and shouts the destination, and two or three other people whose jobs are known only to them. It makes me think back on a newspaper article I read in Iran which decried the country’s poor productivity. It measured it as 20 minutes to 1 hour for every 8 hours worked (though I confess I’m not exactly sure what this means or how they measured this). “We must take better advantage of the latest management techniques” the article suggested, and rather amused I imagined a big thick textbook and journal articles expounding on what to most of us comes very close to self-evident. It will take a generation.