Shafkat has a mischievous look in his eye. "Ben," he says, motioning me to his table. "We eat dinner."
My plate is piled high with food, a mountain of rice and meat and vegetables, a dish called plov that's the traditional meal in this part of the world. I'd witnessed its creation earlier in the evening, the women of the household cooking over open flames, smiling and chatting and swatting away children while feeding the fire and stirring the huge pot.
The food, however, is not what's on Shafkat's mind. He is eyeing the half-litre bottle of local vodka that's placed on the table in front of him in the same way a jug of water might be in other cultures. The consumption of it is not a suggestion. We're expected to work our way through the whole thing.
This evening marks the conclusion of a day in which Shafkat, who is my driver, and I have moved steadily further away, both geographically and culturally, from everything I know. The night before we had been in Samarkand, the historical hub of Uzbekistan, a bustling and cosmopolitan city of incredible beauty. I'd dined there at a local restaurant, relaxing in an environment both exotic and yet familiar.
This morning we had met up – Shafkat in his standard jeans-and-polo-shirt combination, his bald head freshly shaven, his gold-capped teeth flashing through a jovial smile – and begun our car journey north to Ukhum, a tiny village high in the mountains near the Kazakh border that would be our home for tonight.
As we left Samarkand everything had begun to change, all familiarity for me gradually being peeled away: the people by the sides of the road had begun to look different, with more of the ethnic Tajiks dressed in their bright clothes; the cars passing us had changed from the modern, locally-produced Chevrolets favoured by the people of Samarkand to old Russian Ladas, vehicular hangovers from Soviet rule; we'd passed through steadily smaller and smaller towns whose names meant nothing to me: Bulungur, Gallaoral, Jizzakh, Yangikishlak.
Eventually Shafkat had pulled over to the side of the road on a dusty, empty plain, and grabbed his mobile phone. "I call family," he said. "From here, no phone."
No phone signal from here, and not much else, either. It was all desert from that point: barren plains that leapt into towering, rocky mountains on the far horizon; no more cars on the road; no more clouds in the sky. Just a freak cloud of locusts that forced Shafkat and I to roll our windows up to stop them pelting onto the back seat.
Eventually we turned off the "highway" onto a dirt road and made our way up into those distant mountains, passing villages of mudbrick homes, Shafkat calling out to locals for directions, skirting clifftops as we rose ever higher until eventually arriving here, Ukhum, a tiny scattering of dwellings way up in the hills, close enough to touch the sky.
It's ethnic Tajik country up here. The women I could see were wearing riotously coloured pantsuits; the men, for reasons I still can't divine, wore a lot of camouflage army gear. Our hosts for the night were a large family of locals who run a B&B style lodging, farmers who don't speak English but who welcome strangers into their homes and their lives for short periods of time.
First activity for us: lunch. In a small basement area there was a table set for me and Shafkat, with big bowls of mutton and potato stew called shorpa, served with traditional, chewy bread called "non", and cups of hot green tea.
Two big old dogs snoozed under the table below as we ate. Kids dashed around playing games, pointing toy guns at me and yelling bang. It was all very homely, all very welcoming, all very charming.
The language barrier, however, would prove to be an issue. Shafkat speaks enough English to make himself understood, but not to act as a translator. My hosts at this homestay didn't speak any English at all. There was another group of tourists, a family from Switzerland, who had a French-speaking guide with them, so we'd eventually worked our way into an odd arrangement of translations from Tajik to French by their guide, and then French into English from the Swiss people to me.
And so there I was, high in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, expecting to have a typical Uzbek experience but finding myself instead in a friendly and sometimes confusing mash-up of cultures and customs: my hosts were of Tajik background, people whose families made their way into Uzbekistan generations ago; Shafkat was Uzbek, though his first language is Russian; the food was classic of anywhere in Central Asia; the vodka was Uzbek in origin, though Russian in style; I was from Australia; the other guests were Swiss.
By mid-afternoon we'd figured out, through our complex system of translation, that this area is home to a nursery for rare big-horn sheep, so we followed one of our camo-clad hosts out onto the hillside, hiking over rough shale to reach the enclosure. Birds of prey circled overhead. Herds of goats bleated a chorus from the hillsides. So bleak, and so beautiful.
Finally, the call came from the farmhouse that there was plov being cooked. The men in the camo' made themselves scarce as the women started a roaring fire underneath the communal qazan, the huge wok-shaped pot that would be used to create tonight's dinner. Into that qazan went a huge glug of oil and some hunks of fatty beef and mutton, which spat and sizzled in the intense heat. Onion was added, then carrots, garlic, chickpeas, raisins, water, and rice.
There was a wait as the rice cooked – the women motioned to me with fingers outstretched, 10 minutes ... no, 20 ... maybe 30? – and then finally huge scoops of the dish were piled high on plates and I took my seat opposite Shafkat at that basement table.
Now, Shafkat grins his gold-toothed grin and pours the first shot of vodka.
"To your family," he says, and we tip back the rough, fiery liquid. This is Russian-style drinking, which means a toast before each drink. Shots only. No mixers. "To your excellent driving," I say as Shafkat refills the little glasses and we drink again.
The plov is good – it's really good. Shafkat swears it will be better in Bukhara, where he's from, but this is the best plov I've had in Uzbekistan. The dogs are still sleeping under our table. The children are still playing and laughing. I'm getting quite drunk from all the vodka as we toast Shafkat's own dogs, which he keeps photos of in his wallet, as we toast our careers, as we toast the good people of Uzbekistan and the village of Ukhum.
It's strange how so swiftly, in this world so foreign and so strange, you can feel comfortable.
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours.
Asiana flies three times a week from Sydney to Tashkent, via Seoul. See flyasiana.com
Wendy Wu Tours operates private, eight-day Heart of Uzbekistan tours, priced from $2340 per person, twin share. The company also has a fully inclusive, 28-day group itinerary called Road to Samarkand that includes 10 days in Uzbekistan. Prices start from $10,480 per person. Call 1300 727 998 or see wendywutours.com.au