2001, Namangan, Uzbekistan, 7:20 am. Knock on the door
- "Rashid, come out! Let's go!"
Odilbay, Alish and Nodir are standing outside. It's time to join them for a communal walk to school.
It happened so that we all lived about a kilometre apart, exactly along the way. Alish lived the furthest away, but most of the school days he would spend the night at his aunt's place, which was a bit closer and so he could join us for the ritual walk. He would start his journey first, get Odilbay and together they walked down the Guzal ["Beautiful" in Uzbek] street to get Nodir and, eventually, me.
We walked every day. From home to school it was 3 km for me, 4 for Nodir, 5 for Odilbay and 6 for Alish when he stayed at his aunt's. We knew every stone and every plant along our way.
Down to the Anhor canal, passing the old bicycle factory that was now converted into a restaurant serving traditional Uzbek dishes. Like most factories, it was located near the river for the ease of getting water and dumping waste. Now the restaurant took over. The owners installed beautiful raised beds over the river - a paradise for the hot Uzbek summers when the shade temperature reaches over 40+ Celsius.
Our morning conversations flowed like water in Anhor, no one knew where they started and they seemed endless.
Down and across the train tracks, passing the merchants selling sunflower seeds, cigarettes and other roadside 'first need' goodies. Further down we passed the male hair salon of Rakhim-oka. Instead of the sign "Hair salon" he had a towel hanging on the pole, like a flag; telling everyone "you can get your haircut here".
The salon always smelled of many generations of shampoo and shaving creme and this nostalgic and, for some reason, calming smell penetrated the street and one's nostrils when passing by.
"Assalom aleykum, Rakhim-oka" [Hello big brother Rakhim] - we would say. "Valeykum assalom, bolalar" [Hello boys] - he responded. He was part of our walking ritual, perhaps we were part of his daily routine...
The next point of interest was the little improvised open-air market where people sold berries they picked in their gardens. Raspberries, blueberries, etc.
The amazing smell of fresh berries, mixed with the smell of the morning, still cool, anticipating the heat of the midday and generously caressing us in the shade of maple trees. Good thing we ate breakfast, yet the berries were ever-so-tempting.
Further down - a true miracle - the Coca-Cola factory. Built in the 1990s by the first president's son in law, this epic structure bottled Coca-Cola for the entire region.
Rumours about what's going on behind the white walls were popping around the city like bubbles in the very drink. "Apparently, the employees can drink as much Coca-Cola as they want" - was the most popular one. When passing the factory, this fact inevitably came up. We were amused.
The idea that you can drink cola as much as you want was more challenging to comprehend than any school subject. "Yes, but no one is allowed to take any home..." - someone would always add. This remark was somehow calming.
The final point of interest before school was city park. Established by the Romanovs during the colonisation of Central Asia, it housed their residence, then it became the park for culture and relaxation named after Alexander Pushkin. Now, it became Babur park, named after the Central Asian ruler - a descendant of Amir Timur and Genghis Khan. Every era has its own heroes.
The park was epic. Oak and maple trees way over 100 years old stood stoically, withstanding the regimes and the rulers, gifting shade and fresh air in the harsh climate.
The park seemed endless. It was the last 500 meters or so till school, but they were the most enjoyable. Here and there the old tree stumps had carvings of mythical creatures and it felt like we were walking through a fairy tale.
Coy couples holding hands and hiding from the all-seeing eyes.
A portrait master with his thick paper, easel and hands always covered in graphite was looking at the passing couple with hope. "A portrait for a good memory?" - he would ask them. Rarely did anyone agree to sit down in the artists' folding chairs.
Getting a portrait required sitting still, together, in the public eye, for quite some time. Coy couples could not afford the luxury. The braves ones, could. Sometimes we stood there watching the artist do his magic.
The park was our magical escape world right before entering the harsh realities of high school. Between these two worlds was a busy and loud road with no stoplight. We had to run across it, avoiding the cars.
School-gymnasium number 6 in the centre of Namangan. Behind me is Babur park. Kids still running across the crazy busy road to get to and from school. Some things are static.
Nearly 20 years have gone by since our last walk. The old, pre-Bolshevik revolution buildings have disappeared. Post-WWII houses are in the process of disappearing. Both are giving room to the tasteless 'modernity'. The Guzal road, however, is just as broken as it was back then. Some things are static.
I sound like a grumpy old man. Maybe I am. I do find renovation good, but I resent vandalism which is masked as improvement of urban infrastructure.
Cutting trees in the country where summer temperatures reach 50C is a crime against humanity. Replacing buildings that stood for decades with boxes that crumble within months is corruption. Throwing people out of their houses and reimbursing them with a fraction of the value of their property is a combination of both.
Years later, as I am taking the familiar walk again, this time alone, I see that those trees that outlived the Tzars, the Bolsheviks and the Communists, did not withstand modern rule. They were cut down and sold for furniture.
I keep walking down.
No Rakhim-oka, no familiar smells of shampoo and shaving creme, just dust-filled streets and the smell of construction in the nostrils.
Further down, to the beloved park. The mythical creatures are burned down along with the stumps they were carved into. Plastic attractions replaced them.
The remaining oaks and maples hardly make up 20% of the previous glory. Everything has changed. Such is the rule of life, I understand. Some things, however, remained the same, like the crazy road with no stoplight and the new generation of kids, running across, having their own 'walk to school' rituals...