Once upon a time, in 2013, I was making my way west along the Silk Road. I started in Nepal, made my way up to Tibet and Western China. Thoroughly enjoyed myself in Kyrgyzstan. And enjoyed my time in Uzbekistan visiting all the cool mosques, graves, and madrassas. But the travel was hard on my body so when I had a chance to visit a Hammam (Turkish Bath) in the charming Silk Road city of Bukhara, I jumped at the chance for a steam and massage. But this was the start of the time I paid to get molested and robbed…
I had 3 nights in town so on my last day, I stopped by the Hammam to get info. The manager told me that the daytime hours were for local men only, but after 6pm the bathhouse was coed and open to tourists. He told me the cost of the massage and told me a locker would be provided so I set up an appointment for 6pm and continued with my wonderful day in Bukhara. I did some shopping and enjoyed cinnamon tea and cardamom coffee with sweets. I traded some US dollars for additional Uzbekistan Soms – enough to pay for my massage and the next two days of touring to Khiva, our last stop in Uzbekistan before making our way to Turkmenistan. Uzbek currency was one of the wackiest I had ever seen. The largest bill at that time was a 1,000 note and this was worth about 40 cents. So, trading 50 dollars would give you a stack of 125 bills.
I went back to the hotel to change for my massage – swimsuit or not? He didn’t tell me how to dress so I put on my one-piece swimsuit just in case and headed back to the Hammam. The place was rather quiet when I arrived, and I discovered I was alone with a single masseur.
The masseur was a good-looking Uzbek “kid” – he must have been half my age. He spoke only a few words of English, but he gave me a lock and led me to the lockers. He handed me a “towel” which appeared to be a part of a bed sheet. I wrapped it around myself and headed to the Hammam.
The first part of the Hammam experience is sitting in the steam to exfoliate. The steam was nice and warm, and the masseur returned with a loofah and scraped off all my dead skin… 2 months of travelling worth of dead skin! He poured buckets on me to wash it away. I noticed his “uniform”. One of the same parts of a bed sheet. Soaking wet, totally see through, and nothing on underneath.
Next it was onto the massage part of the experience. He pointed for me to lay down on my front on the marble floor and he started the massage portion. He got to my calves and he exclaimed “Strong!” – one of the 10 English words he uttered. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable as he made his way up and up. Next thing I knew, he was massaging dangerously close to my groin region. I was so glad I had on my tight swimsuit. He kept on going up and took down my swimsuit straps so he could massage my back and shoulders.
He then had me flip over. I put my swimsuit top back up and laid on my back. Again, the massaging close to the groin and then back up around the shoulders. The next thing I knew, he had flipped my swimsuit top down and started a full-on breast massage! I was really uncomfortable but was also scared knowing there was no one else around. So I let him finish what seemed like an awfully long attention to this part of the body and then he massaged my head and hair and the massage was over. He led me over to the steam area and motioned that I should steam for a while.
And I steamed, and I steamed, and I started feeling extremely hot – like passing out hot. I headed over to the door between the entry room and the Hamman and found I was locked inside! I was frightened and called out to the masseur. I could hear him call back to me from the other side of the room and a couple minutes later he came in too give me one more bucket wash. He said “done” and started walking to the door. I followed and accidentally got a full view of his bare backside as he took off his “uniform” and grabbed a robe.
By this time, I was just glad for it to be over. I went to the locker space and got dressed in dry clothes and grabbed my bag from the locker. He invited me to sip on some tea to complete the experience and I sat in the entry room with some nice tea. It was time to pay him the 60,000 Som for the massage so I grabbed the big stack of bills from my bag and started counting out 1, 2, …,58, 59, 60. I was shocked to find I only had 4 more bills – 4,000 in Som or about $1.60 left over. I counted again and handed the money over, still feeling perplexed. I was sure I had more when I had traded money earlier in the day.
It wasn’t until I was walking back to the hotel until I realized what had happened… he had a copy to the lock. When I was locked in the bath during the last steam, he was rifling through my money, and counting out enough to make sure I had exactly enough to pay for the massage, so I wouldn’t question this or call the police.
We called the Hammam the next day to tell the manager what happened, but the manager said the masseur didn’t steal anything. I wondered to myself how many times he had done this before. The good news is he didn’t get more than $20 or $30.
My lesson learned is to walk away or speak up when someone is making me uncomfortable and always take my own lock or locking bag. Then I won’t ever again pay to be molested and robbed!