Friday, August 22, 2008

Aug 19 - 20 Khiva

From the Urgench train station, we took a shared taxi to Khiva. The driver was very proud of his car. He was going upwards of 120 km per hour (over 75 mph) on 4 lane roads with people walking, people crossing the road, other slower cars. We arrived at the North Gate of Khiva just after 3 pm, and walked inside to find our hotel.

Khiva is a very old walled city. The Russians and the Uzbeks recognized that they had a city with a lot of old buildings in relatively good condition, and a wall in relatively good condition, and they cleared out a lot of the small houses and other buildings, renovated a lot of the other buildings, and created a museum city for the tourists. But like the old city of Jerusalem, it is also home to locals who have their own gardens, handicraft workshops, and a large bazaar.

The tourists come, and we came, because this is a unique city. It has mosques, medrassas, mausoleums, minarets, and buildings fit for emirs and khans, all in abundance. Beautifully carved wooden columns, each uniquely hewn, support high roofs, with wonderful decoration. There is elaborate tile work, both inside and out. Some of the structures are still revered shrines and places of pilgrimage.

There are also clumsy renovations, new fake buildings, poorly conceived museums in buildings that should be appreciated for themselves, and tourists tourists tourists. Where else in 40 C weather would there be a vendor trying to sell heavy Russian winter fur hats?

So the trick is to isolate what is great about Khiva from all that which is off putting.

We had reserved a room at the Meros Guest House. We really lucked out, because for $30 US we had an airy en suite room, with great views of the wall in one direction and the minarets in another. Suzanis (embroideries) and ceramics decorated the walls. After dark, we were able to climb on the roof, and do some stargazing in a beautifully clear dark sky, only subject to the rising nearly full moon.

Tourists are talked into getting a museum pass for 10000 sum, with photo privileges for another 5000 sum. So for 25000 sum ($19 US) we had all the museums we could eat. Many of the buildings were originally madrassas, which feature an inner courtyard ringed by small rooms, that once served as living spaces for the students. Thus a madrassa might have 10-20 rooms around a central courtyard, which may or may not be beautifully decorated. However, Khiva presents no plain madrassas. Nearly every one has a museum stuffed in it.

And what terrible museums they were. One museum had, for want of anything else to display, a glass case with a preserved two-headed baby. Another was a museum of Uzbek music, with pictures and bios of most of the great Uzbek artists of the past century, along with some of the lyrics they sang. Another sang the praises of the pre-Islamic faiths, such as Shamanism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, with a plaque indicating that President I. Karimov approved. In fact, President I. Karimov approves of much of this town, because many of the museums have his sayings emblasoned on them.

So we made our first foray through the sights. About 6 pm, after all of the museums closed, and as we had been advised, we walked outside the wall. We were trying to find some internet (by now closed) and to find a cheaper priced meal. We sat down at a place where the guidebook said mains were 1000 sum apiece. We ordered one soup, one kabob place, one samsa, one been, and one bottle of water. One again, the price mysteriously ballooned to 12500 sum. Dinner finished, we walked through the walled city in the other direction, found the real town, got 5 liters of water for only 1200 sum (less than $1 US) and went back toward our hotel. We thought we had missed sundown, but we hurried.

So just before sundown our first day, we climbed the wall and watched the sunset through the small carved embedded window notches. Picture perfect.

The next morning we took another 2 - 3 hours or so, and tried to see everything we had missed the night before. We managed to see all four gates of the city. We followed the wall through residential areas. At the southeast corner there was a site where people dumped and burned their household refuse. There we saw some crested, striped birds busily pecking through the trash. Two women, when asked for the name of the birds, said: qaldirgax (sp??).

Some of the buildings have an additional entrance fee, above the general museum pass. Carol opted to visit the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, a shrine whose interior is totally walled in elaborate tile designs. There were many reverent local visitors who kneeled inside and received blessings, while verses of Koran were chanted. There was a holy fountain and the worshippers lightly rubbed their hands through the garden of mint plants to fill their noses with the scent before departing.

[A few extra tidbits.

1. Khiva has a camel - Katie the photo-op camel. She is a single hump camel. She has her own garden, where she placidly chews on the leaves of proffered branches. The local visiting families go for the photos, not the foreign tourists.

2. In one of the two story madrassas, we climbed up the narrow stairs to get a good view of the stunning porticos. We motioned to a French tourist to follow. On her way up she banged her head and was bleeding profusely from her scalp. Suddenly, we two Americans and a Brit became an impromptu unit of doctors without borders. After 15 minutes, a happy ending, and off we all went.

3. Kids love to guess the identity of tourists. Following the usual demographics, "Bonjour" or "Hello" is most often shouted. We were quite amused to be greeted with "Konichiwa."]

By 11:30 am, we were ready to check out from the hotel. We checked out, walked to the North Gate, found a shared taxi to the Urgench bus station, and again found ourselves going at 120 kmh. Before we had left town, the driver was pulled over by the local police, for what reason we did not know. He grabbed the keys to the taxi in his right hand, along with 2 1000 sum notes, and went out to discuss the situation with the policeman. We do not know what was said, but shortly he was back in the taxi, with only the car keys in his right hand, and we were on our way.
Outside the bus station we pulled up at the waiting stand for shared taxis to Bukhara, around 12:10 pm. We negotiated the standard rate of 25000 sum per person, and waited for the taxi to fill with the other two necessary people to go.

We had time to grab a quick shashlik with tea, and then to visit the bathrooms, and get drinks to go. Carol regretted that there was no time to photograph the vintage Coke ads inside the restaurant.

By 12:45 we were on our way. The driver had a well built car, and was not afraid to push it. The road cuts east northeast to the town of Beruni, crossing the Amu Darya on a series of pontoon boats, loosely attached to make a sort of a bridge. From Beruni the road goes south and southeast to Bukhara. You can't go directly south from Urgench, because soon you would be in Turkmenistan, a no-no for visa and many other reasons.

Not long after we left Beruni, we also left the Amu Darya valley, and we were back in the Kyzylqum Desert. The road was occasionally well paved and smooth, but more often subject to washboard conditions, sand on the road, active construction, etc etc. Nevertheless our driver did his best to maintain 130 kmh, and he hit 155 kmh at one point.

Mike is 65 years old and has never traveled at over 150 kmh in a car. On these roads, we were lucky to be alive after this trip. We were following and then passing another car also doing the same speeds. It became sort of a game. Anyway, shortly after 6 pm we were in Bukhara, and, as negotiated, the driver let us off 88 meters from the hotel we had previously reserved through the SamBuh in Tashkent.

No comments: