Hidden Treasures: Prayer in an Uzbek Taxi

Joel Carillet's picture

Emerging from the Kyrgyz immigration post I took a few steps across wet pavement to the Uzbek side of the border. The morning rain had just let up and the day was beginning to look nice. It was looking nice, that is, until I handed my passport to an Uzbek official. Moments earlier I had spoken with a Kyrgyz officer who had been kind — unexpectedly, he had even walked me to the border and wished me a good journey. But with the man now thumbing through my passport there was no greeting, no eye contact, no interest. It was as if his uniform had devoured his humanity. True, one could also get this kind of treatment at a U.S. immigration counter (I had). But here the coldness had that peculiar feel of authoritarianism.


The Uzbek border post wouldn’t win any hospitality awards, but I was processed through quickly enough, stepping out into a sea of taxis where aggressive drivers shouted and grabbed for my attention. Shoving my way past two particularly aggressive would-be drivers, I found a taxi offering a fair price. With three Uzbek passengers already inside and me taking the final seat, the taxi was ready to go. Our destination: the city of Andijon, forty-five minutes away.


Tashkent and Samarkand are familiar names to many in the West, but few have heard of Andijon, an old Silk Road community located in the fertile Fergana Valley. The only times the city crept into news reports in the few years before my visit was when the valley’s small (but deadly) Islamic militancy reared its head.


In May 2005, however, seven months after my visit, Andijon would briefly emerge from international obscurity as more than 10,000 people, motivated by poor economic conditions and resentment toward the government, staged a demonstration in the town center. Given the Uzbek president’s low tolerance for disorder—“I am prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people,” he said after a 1999 bus hijacking, “to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic.”—it was no surprise that in response to the demonstration the government gunned down several hundred people.


But that tragic event was still in the future as my taxi entered Andijon. My only concern now was onward transportation to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital five and a half hours away, which I hoped to reach by nightfall. Dropped off at a taxi stand where Tashkent-bound taxis waited for passengers, it wasn’t long before my taxi had filled its four seats. Having thrown the last bag in the trunk, the driver, clearly anxious to get on the road, jumped in and reached for the ignition. But as he did so, an older man in the back quickly leaned forward and said something. The driver sighed in agreement—and, I suspect, in an effort to slow down. As he took his hand off the key, another passenger, this one a university student who spoke some English, filled me in. “We are going to pray before we leave,” he said.


Having had occasion to pray with others in Kyrgyzstan, I was familiar with the custom, and so along with the men in the taxi, I faced forward in my seat and placed my palms over my face as the driver mumbled a few words in Uzbek. Then as he concluded, we each slid our palms down to our chin. This form of prayer—I had never seen anything like it elsewhere—had already become one of my favorite things about Central Asia.


Prayer complete and the driver calmed down, he turned the key. We were leaving Andijon, leaving a town which few in the West had ever heard of, leaving a town which in the months ahead would experience a massacre.


Joel Carillet - fellow passengers in an Uzbek taxi

Fellow passengers in an Uzbek taxi 


Joel Carillet - While at the Uzbek immigration post, I exchanged a few dollars and got a wad of notes wrapped in a rubber band

While at the Uzbek immigration post, I exchanged a few dollars and got a wad of notes wrapped in a rubber band.


Joel Carillet - Tashkent bound

Tashkent bound


Joel Carillet - arrived

Arriving in Tashkent



Joel Carillet is Chief Editor of WanderingEducators.com. He is a
freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. His most recent
project is 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia, due for release in June. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com