Leaving Tashkent we flew to Urgench and then traveled by car to the desert fortresses (covered in our prior post) before arriving in Khiva. This was the first of many long drives across the ‘Stans. Looking back I think we greatly underestimated the amount of time we would be spending in cars during these three weeks, and while it often got tiring and I occasionally suffered from some bad-road-induced car sickness, we really enjoyed these chances to observe the less-seen nooks and crannies of Uzbekistan and its neighbors. While there is a whole lot of nothing, there is also a whole lot that’s interesting. The box-like houses that sporadically line the streets are all connected by exposed pipes carrying natural gas (a major natural resource of Uzbekistan). In general, we were struck by how much more prevalent colors like brown and grey (in the landscape and man-made structures) are here compared to supremely colorful places we visited like India and Sri Lanka. But in spurts, the red and yellow government subsidized houses dot the landscape like Ronald McDonald outposts. In sparser areas there are miles and miles of cotton and wheat fields and lining the streets is often a row of the silk worms’ favorite: mulberry trees. And of course, there are those donkey-pulled carts.
Khiva was the first major Silk Road city we visited. Among the Silk Road destinations in Uzbekistan, Khiva has a reputation for feeling more like a museum than Bukhara or Samarkand. The old city has been beautifully restored, but some fret it is now so polished and touristic that it has lost some of its living vibrancy. We can understand this sentiment, for when you enter through one of the four gates into the walled inner city (Itchan-Kala), the ancient mosques, madrasas, and caravanserais are all full and buzzing with shopkeepers and souvenir sellers (including some folks selling these incredible traditional Uzbek hats for the men, and lovely fur hats for the ladies. Alan and Ron look like 80s rock stars, no?), but at night it seems more of a ghost town.
In addition to the beautiful restoration, the sense that you’re in a museum is perhaps because the tightly compacted inner city means all these architectural gems and amazing sights are conveniently located a quick walk around, as though you are passing through a large, outdoor exhibit.
Our first night in town we walked up to a great vantage point atop the city walls to watch the sunset and get spectacular views of the blue and white tiles with a stunning evening light.
After sunset we had another hearty meal (hearty is a good word to describe every Uzbek meal), preceded by a medicinal vodka shot. Our guide informed us that taking a shot of vodka pre-meal helps the stomach to deal with any pesky digestion issues. Fact or fiction? We’re not sure.
The area in which Khiva is located is called Khorezm. Back in the day, people were named after where they came from, and so one man from this area, known as Al-Khawrizmi went on to become a pretty great mathematician. And it is from his name that we got the word for algorithm, and his book titled Kitab al-Jebr is where the word algebra derived from. Crazy, huh?
Among the other fascinating facts about the way life was in Khiva’s heyday, men sentenced to death were killed by impaling. And the punishment for adulterous women? They were placed in a sack with wild, giant Uzbek hornets that would sting them to death. What a way to go, eh? We were skeptical at first too, until we saw Uzbek hornets with our own eyes. They are enormous!
Within the Itchan Kala, the Kunya Ark is the old palace and a smaller fortress within the fortress. It was neat to learn some of the engineering and architectural intricacies, necessitated in part by the region’s extreme weather. Temperatures in Uzbekistan often plummet well below zero in the winter, and summers are scorching with readings of 120º and higher. So, for example, the ayvan of the Khan’s court faces north and tops out above the city walls, so it stays cooler in the summer by avoiding the sun and catching the breeze. We also learned that Uzbekistan generally has a high water table and high salinity, so drainage and irrigation were and are a common theme in land use and planning.
Apart from the scientific-leaning tidbits of knowledge, we heard many a tall tale. Legends and mythical heroes are commonplace in Central Asia. Thus when we visited the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, a fur maker and undefeated wrestler, our guide explained not only the various parts of the building but regaled us with a 10-minute story about how the wrestler was summoned to India because a rajah wanted to see him battle a local strongman and this local’s mother begged Pakhlavan Mahmoud to let her son win so he would not be punished in defeat and Pakhlavan Mahmoud did this but then got in trouble because the rajah knew he threw the fight but then in a dramatic turn of events…We must have heard 30 stories like this during our time in Central Asia.
Khiva was only stop number one of the Silk Road for us, and I have to be honest, we aren’t the biggest history buffs in the world, so there was definitely a bit of mosque/fact/history overload. Even this early on. One way to help us break up the long stretches and let us digest the information was to break for elevensies. Um, how had I never heard this term before?! Elevensies, tensies, twelvsies! You stop in the morning for a cuppa and a quick bite! Obsessed. I was told by Mansur that there is no such thing as threesies, but you can bet every time I snack break, be it ninesies or midnightsies I’m adding a “sies.” This also makes me terribly excited to go to London. Just so I can have elevensies (with scones and clotted cream!). And I can also try out the new expression we learned…Instead of saying, “kill two birds with one stone,” I can use the Uzbek twist on this phrase and say “kill two rabbits with one bullet.” Like, “Dear, we’re a bit knackered and hungry, aren’t we? Why don’t we break for foursies and we’ll kill two rabbits with one bullet? Right, then, cheerio.” Anyways, I digress.
A trip to the Silk Road would be incomplete without learning about the silk making process, and when we stopped at a small demonstration and educational facility it was practically impossible to pull Ron and Alan away from a book detailing the complexities of the silk dying and carpet weaving process. A very quick explanation: silkworms eat the leaves of the mulberry trees and grow tons and spin a cocoon maybe one-third the size of a chicken egg. When you unwind the cocoon they’ve spun you can have up to a kilometer of silk ready to be softened and died. The actual weaving process takes lots of time and is incredibly detailed. We were very impressed by these hard-working ladies.
On our last evening in Khiva and feeling a bit done with the touristy museum kinda thing, we requested Mansur help us find a non-touristy restaurant. He happily obliged, but even he had to say it as we sat practically alone in a big open room and were served a whole, cold chicken slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise, that maybe we picked the wrong city to try and get off the tourist track. I was also amused walking back to our hotel that night that despite the many very modern streetlamps, not a single light was on. When I asked Mansur why, he said “what for? They use them when officials are in town.”
Accommodation: We stayed at Malika Khorezm Hotel. It is located outside the old city walls, but within easy walking distance. Our room was huge and spartan but nice. The WiFi worked only in the lobby. We saw several options located inside the old city which might be a little more atmospheric, though everywhere felt like a ghost town at night.
Food: We dined at Hotel Kheivak in the old city. The hearty soup with rice and beef plus dill, and the pasta with meat and yogurt etc., came with vodka shots. Our second night we asked for a non-touristy place. Perhaps we picked the wrong city for this. There was hardly anyone else in the large room. There was no menu. Our whole chicken arrived half cold and slathered in ketchup and mayo. Actually, it was not bad. The vodka came in a small water glass, and our guide calls it medicine.
Activities: Our first evening in town we entered the Itchan Kala (the walled inner town of the city of Khiva) through the gates of Ata Darvaza (there are four gates, this is the west gate), and we walked up some stairs inside the Kunya Ark (the palace) for a vantage point with great views (especially at sunset). We paid 4k UZS each to enter. I’m not sure exactly how to find this place, but maybe if you ask for the sunset view place inside Kunya Ark then someone could point it out.
We had a full day sightseeing inside the Itchan Kala. We saw the Kunya Ark, the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, the Juma Masjid (with its 213 wooden columns), some minarets and madrasas, and a great little silk making place with a book describing the process. A silk worm’s cocoon might be one kilometer long when unwound! Our guide handled everything but I think you may need a ticket to enter the Itchan Kala and then also for specific buildings, though I’m not certain.
April 27-29, 2014 (Sunday-Tuesday)