"Man U, Man U! Rooney … Shrek!"
My Uzbek driver bangs the wheel of his battered hatchback Lada, his face creasing with laughter.
I'm driving through Tashkent's heavy traffic, the car crawling through the scrum of motorbikes and pedestrians that kick up dust along its roads. It's another hot, dry, day in the capital of Uzbekistan and my window is wound down to dilute Mahmood's Uzbek pop songs with the screeching brakes of other cars outside. When he heard I was from the UK ("Angliski? Da!"), Mahmoud had gone nuts, thumping on the steering wheel while trying to name famous football clubs and players. I dry up fast, but he still yells, "Rooney! Shrek!" into the back of the car, hunched over, laughing.
A doctor gets in, squeezing into the middle seat for the four-hour journey to Samarkand. He tries to entertain me with pictures of his son in various poses at an American university, while Mahmood ramps up the stereo. "Closer" plays twice in a row. Two hours in, sweating and cramped, the car swerves into a lay-by while orange-brown dust churns outside. Uzbekistan is one hot-baked desert. And there's our oasis.
Melons. Melons stacked high by the roadside in amber, mustard yellow, and bright green. They're stored under tarpaulins—hastily erected structures with canvas awnings to protect the fruit from the sun.
We're just past the city of Jizzakh, halfway between Tashkent and Samarkand, when we spot them. Wordlessly, Mahmood switches off the car's stereo, parks, slams the door, and talks to a friend manning the stall. The other man—a short, squat guy with impressive facial hair—grabs his machete, swings it at the flesh of a yellow melon, and hands each of us a slice. The juice drips onto the sand and droplets of sweet sugar syrup dissolve. Mahmood wastes no time. Biting chunks off the melon—one, two, three, four, and done—he barely has time to swallow before throwing the chewed rind into a rusting iron pail.
Do not eat fruit unless it's been washed in mineral water! I swallow the words of my travel nurse as I eat the white flesh. This melon, my first taste of an Uzbek fruit, cut with an old, wooden-handled machete, is ambrosia.
Even the doctor, a man who had seemed straight-laced, rolls up his sleeves and digs in. "Arbus from Uzbekistan," he says, using the Russian word for melons, "are the best in the world." The traders call them qovun. One I speak to at the stall explains how the fruit is preserved during the winter in qovunxona, houses where melons can dry out.
"You need this. It is the best medicine for you here."
"So we can keep eating through the whole of winter and spring too!" he explains. "My daughter, she gives the melon dried to our kids, and in summer, we go on picnics with a bag of fresh ones."
Melons hold pride of place in Uzbek homes. Most meals finish with freshly cut slices of the fruit, and they can be picked up at the market for just a few pence. During periods of water scarcity, melons provided an important fluid source for travellers crossing the vast Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts. Early Uzbek settlers lived on the arid land, growing the fruit in small oases and relying on them for a safe water supply.
Thick and plaited like leather, dried melons can also be found hanging on the corner of market stalls. This "delicacy" has the consistency of dried figs, and is used as an antidote for constipation—a condition I can't believe anyone suffers from in Uzbekistan. When I got sick, the second thing my guesthouse owner did (after a pot of ginger tea) was hand me a slice of melon with the advice, "You need this. It is the best medicine for you here." I obediently took the melon slice and sucked on it, smelling the bitter rind as I ate.
In Samarkand, locals know melons are precious. The ancient centre of the Silk Road, the city was famous for being a busy trading site. Khorezm melons, Bukharan melons—they're all here, laid out in every market along with the turmerics, pomegranates, and frankincense. Over 150 varieties of melon exist in Uzbekistan, and seeds from the fruit were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
When I finally reach Samarkand later that evening, I ask my host Mizan why she thinks Uzbek melons are so coveted. Isn't it obvious, she seems to say, as she flashes a smile and flicks her hair off her shoulder. "They are our heritage," she explains. "They make our hair shiny, eyes look younger, and men's desire stronger. We are beautiful because of melons."