It was one of the craziest hours of my life. An hour in which I dined, danced, and drank with strangers, superheroes, and a pair of 10-foot bears. It was totally unplanned. Yet, somehow, Uzbekistan had prepared us for it.
It started simply enough: Walking with Wendy and the boys from dinner back to our hotel in Samarkand, we passed a large building that looked like a cross between The White House and a university library. A crowd of men loitered outside, and loud party music came from inside.
Earlier in the day we had been told it was a wedding hall. Since weddings happen every day of the week in Uzbekistan, we had seen—at every monument and national shrine we’d visited—numerous brides, grooms, and wedding parties posing for photos. At the Registan alone, we’d seen five bridal parties, with the brides in floor-length, white, poofy, western-style wedding gowns and silver tiaras. The grooms wore simple, classic dark suits, white shirts, and black ties.
As we passed the wedding hall, some of the men out front beckoned us inside. Since the boys and I were extremely underdressed for a wedding reception—we were in shorts and T-shirts—we quickly agreed that Wendy should go in alone to squeeze off a few photos for her stories and then report back to us. Next thing I knew, we were all being ushered inside by several men. I wasn’t afraid because I had come to learn that Uzbeks are some of the most hospitable people on the planet. In our two weeks in the country, we had already been invited into numerous private houses and parties. In fact, the “prophet age” party for a 63-year-old woman in Khiva was a close second for the craziest hour of my life. But that’s another article….
The scene inside the wedding hall was like nothing I had ever seen. The ballroom was the size of a high school gym and as elaborate as any ballroom in any western palace. There was gold everywhere, a giant chandelier above the dance floor, twin curved staircases, and a band playing between them. It was out of a fairy tale. Cinderella would have been right at home—and Disney would have been hard pressed to make it look more opulent.
The dance floor was about the size of half a basketball court and was filled with kids and women, all dressed in their finest. The men, by contrast, were seated and casually dressed. The band played the high-energy, never-stopping music that we’d heard throughout our trip. Above the band, a giant TV screen showed live video of the party fed from multiple cameras.
On each side of the floor were 20 tables, each seating 14 people. Women sat on one side of the floor, men on the other. It wasn’t clear whether this was official policy or just basic self-selection. Each table was heaving with platters of food; on the men’s tables were bottles of both clear and dark brown liquor.
The only thing missing was a bride and groom. I thought maybe they were in another part of the hall or off signing documents.
As I was shooting photos, I got dragged onto the dance floor. That is a very normal thing in Uzbekistan. Dancing is a huge part of Uzbek culture. My advice to anybody going to Uzbekistan is to pack your dancing shoes. We were invited to dance almost daily, either at some sort of celebration or just because music was playing.
From the dance floor, I could see my two teenaged sons being handed shot glasses of clear liquid and toasting a group of men. They looked at me for approval. I grimaced and shrugged and thought, it’s cultural?!?
It’s rare when I get up and dance at any function, and—yes, I’ll admit —alcohol may have played a small part in my dancing at this one. While I turned down dozens of offers of vodka shots from party guests wanting to toast international friendship between our countries, I did drink my share. Enough that I flat-out don’t remember the party host handing me the microphone and asking me to give a speech. Which apparently contained my views on world peace through travel and a tribute to the bride’s and groom’s health and future. Fortunately, only a handful of the guests spoke English.
The dance floor was packed with women and kids and, while I was doing my best to dance in flip-flops and with two large cameras hanging off me, a woman danced up next to me and gave me a 500 Uzbek som note (worth about 50 US cents). Not sure why? I figured I’d dropped it and she’d picked it up and returned it. Turns out, if you like how someone dances, you give them money.
Also on the dance floor was an attractive woman with a fist full of 500 som notes and a couple of men in Power Ranger costumes encouraging the kids to dance. Then entered a pair of 10-foot-tall dancing bears (actually people in costumes); they whirled so fast that their moves were dizzying.
Then a woman who lives in Brooklyn half the year and in Uzbekistan the other half approached and, yelling over the loud music, introduced herself. I asked her where the bride and groom were. She explained that it wasn’t a wedding reception. It was a circumcision party for three young boys. Her son was one of them. Well, that explained the Power Rangers and the dancing bears.
Wait—what? A circumcision party?! Yes, it was a party to celebrate the fact that three little boys had been snipped. Whether they’d been circumcised years ago at birth, or yesterday, we never found out. But, according to their custom, this party needs to be held before their seventh birthdays.
After an hour of drinking and dancing, we gave the three boys goodbye hugs, thanked our hosts profusely, and stumbled back to our hotel. It was one of those surreal and totally unexpected travel experiences, yet a couple of weeks of Uzbek hospitality had prepared us for it well.
Transparency disclosure: While my family paid for our airfare to Uzbekistan, most of our travel arrangements on the ground once we arrived were complimentary, thanks to Zulya Rajabova’s connections and the Uzbek people’s culture of hospitality. Read paying travelers’ reviews of Zulya’s trips here.