Tag Archives: Khiva

Days in Khiva.

Of the three “Silk Road” cities in Uzbekistan I enjoyed Khiva the most. Samarkand clearly has its well founded reputation, the Registan, The Bibi-Khan Mosque and the Shah-I Zinda are all world class attractions and I would never discourage anyone from visiting the city. But one gets this feeling after a day or two that there isn’t much else to do or see. I walked past the Registan frequently and each time it was jaw dropping, a bit like the Golden Gate Bridge, but one wouldn’t stay in San Francisco for long if all there was to see was the Bridge. As I have mentioned previously the general population is hidden away behind quite substantial, unattractive walls. It’s as if there is a part of town for visitors and once you have seen that you are encouraged to leave. Bukhara had something of a similar feel. Seeing the walls of the Ark are worth the trip alone, quite amazing, but if you pay your $10.00 to go inside the Ark what do you find? Next to nothing. There are beautiful mosaics, fabulous Medressahs, Mosques, the Pond (!), some pleasant roof top restaurants but really, that’s about it. I should qualify the above with the fact that in both cities I woke up every morning with a sense of excitement, the thrill of a day in Samarkand doesn’t come along too frequently in one’s life and really, I am not that jaded.

It was therefore interesting that quite by chance I elected to stay longer in Khiva than anywhere else. My little B and B set just inside the walls was perfect for me, my room could not have been better, the rooftop was dazzling, the reception staff were ever helpful and the breakfast was always interesting, shall we say. My friends, Oliver, Katya and Austin came to visit most evenings to see the sunset and star gaze as night fell before we went for dinner. The legendary walls completely surround the old city and set in them are four gates, the North, South, East and West and passing through any of them felt like stepping back in time. It was like entering a living museum. One felt almost encouraged to walk the alleys and see the population attending to their daily lives, sitting outside their homes just passing the time of day and it was not in the least intimidating. People would say hello, albeit in Uzbek or Russian. Small children would run up and introduce themselves. There were no walls around to keep the visitors away from the inhabitants. Turning a corner, avoiding the gaping drainage system and the mini sand dunes, one could catch a view of a minaret or Medressah right there, in amongst the houses. The bazaar was very busy and very friendly, nobody seemed to mind having their photo taken, and I am getting better at asking. It was interesting to see how it was laid out, there was the spice section, the vegetable section, the electronics, the clothing, the shoes, I particularly liked the rope and hardware area.

Khiva then. Lots to do, lots to see, it felt genuine, not a tourist trap. Worth staying a while to soak up the history. Trips available out into the desert not to be missed. A walk along the top of the walls at sunset. Great people watching. Just remember, drink lots and lots of water.

This was my B and B in Khiva.

This was my B and B in Khiva.

The walls at sunset with the Ark in the foreground.

The walls at sunset with the Ark in the foreground.

Mmmm, biscuits!

Mmmm, biscuits!

A street view in Khiva with the "unfinished" minaret in the foreground.

A street view in Khiva with the “unfinished” minaret in the foreground.

A map.

A map.

A view of a minaret.

A view of a minaret.

 

 

 

Khiva to Dushanbe.

    Oliver, Katya and Austin had all left Khiva and I was confronted with the question, how to get out of here? Back in London I had paid for a visa for Tajikistan for the month of August and here it was, the 22nd. If I wanted to use that visa I had better get moving. But how was I to travel from here in Khiva to Dushanbe? My friendly travel agent had given me an estimate for travel to Dushanbe via Tashkent, Almaty in Kazakhstan and then Dushanbe. There is no direct flight, no straight through bus service, Uzbekistan vehicles are not allowed through the border control and I couldn’t rent a helicopter (I looked!). The proffered quote was for over $500.00 and would not only would take thirty six hours but did not include taxis or overnight hotel charges, I was therefore looking at about $600.00+ to go approximately 280 miles as the crow flies. This seemed ludicrous. There was an alternative, fly down from Khiva to Tashkent, have a driver meet me at the airport, drive me to the border, walk into Tajikistan, find a driver to take me to the nearest airport (Khujand) and try and get a flight from there to Dushanbe. Failing that I could find a shared taxi to take me the one hundred and ninety miles from Khujand to Dushanbe. This latter route is mentioned in all the guide books as the most economical and practical method of travelling between the two cities.

   This is what I decided to do.

   The flight from Khiva was unexpectedly short, the lady next to me prayed the entire way,  it was an Airbus instead of the usual  Ilyushin prop plane and my driver was waiting to take me to the border. There were storks with huge nests built on top of the electrical pylons on the way.  In an ok Chevy we sped the 150 kms and suddenly, without warning it was time to get out and walk. Bag on back I sallied forth. Just to leave Uzbekistan I had to pass through four checkpoints, fill in two more forms (questions in Russian only) ,had passport inspected by four different commissars. Then finally out, into no mans land. A half mile walk up a hill then the first Tajik border guard who wanted my headphones before he would give me an entry form, no, I wasn’t wearing them, they are built into my jacket. I declined. Filled in form in duplicate, went through customs, bags x-rayed, passport inspected, questions asked which I didn’t understand, “Britannia” seemed to be the right answer to most of them. Another long walk shadowed by some nasty looking Alsatians, through the last check point, and I was into Tajikistan. I felt like I was in a scene from a John le Care book. It was nearly dark by this time, which was not the plan at all so instead of trying to find a taxi to take me all the way to Dushanbe I opted for the airport 60 kms away. Negotiated down from $60 to $30 and away we went in a Mercedes.

After about an hour I was dropped off at the airport in Khujand and there was nobody there. A few night workers, the 24 hour coffee shop staff, and Police. Ok, this is bad I said to self, many times, as I walked around trying to make sense of what to do. There was a flea bag hotel which was charging $5.00 for some sort of room with no wifi. There were sundry derelicts sleeping on benches. I was stopped by the Police who made it clear that I should not be there. Nobody spoke any English whatsoever. To cut it short and many, many “ok, this is bad”s I eventually spoke to some random kid’s girlfriend on his phone. She spoke a little English and I explained I wanted a taxi to go to the hotel on the big billboard nearby. Two very scary hours behind me and there I was sitting in the back yard of the hotel with a very welcome beer and bottle of water plus incongruously, two BMWs. They had wifi so I could Skype back home, which was a comfort, and my nerves settled down.

      Slept well and headed back to airport to find there were no flights for two days. Oh no, two days here? After much gesticulating and mime I got into a taxi heading for the parking lot in Khujand where the shared taxis leave from to go over the mountains to Dushanbe. Here I found a 4by4, loaded my bag onto the roof and squeezed into the back. At least I got a window, there were no seat belts of course but I had got used to that. The next few paragraphs are what happened, as it happened:

 

     The first incline, a foothill? Yes, speed drops from 100 to 60kmph, no more melon stands, no more green, overtake very slow buses. Up and over now down again across another plain, looks somewhat like a mesa, with the mountains looming in the distance. There are clouds, anxiety starts for bag, on roof, with computer and misc electronics, and will it rain? Other cars back at the departure lot were putting plastic over their roof racks. Start climb up deep river gorge, villages with mud houses, many donkeys, honey stalls, beehives, and melon trucks grinding up the hill doing less than 5kmph, hazardous. The cops at the checkpoints are wearing mountain clothes; I thought it was getting cooler. Up and up, climbing, climbing. Ladies harvesting the grass for fodder with sickles. A stream tumbling beside the road, people are picnicking. Dushanbe 168 kms, we are about half way. A tunnel ahead……..we have now been in it for five minutes, this is some long tunnel. Out the other end after six minutes, my feeble math makes that about four kms, quite a long tunnel. Ok, now it’s getting scary, white knuckle driving, the road is carved out of the mountainside, rather a long drop to my right, I feel a bit sick. I wish our driver would stop answering the phone. Oh really, I can’t look! Actually it’s rather beautiful, but I still feel sick! The good part is that we are descending so the drop is decreasing, I hope. We are down. No more scary hairpin bends for the moment. SNOW on the distant summits. 

     We stopped three hours into the trip at a restaurant. Everyone filled their water bottles from a spigot, which I am sure was crystal clear spring water, but it did look a funny color. So I didn’t participate and searched around for 7Up or something with a seal on. No such luck until the driver beckoned me over and we indulged in tea. Nice of him to share with the dumb Westerner. Back on the road again and immediately there was a rock fall right over us, loud cries of Allahu Akbar as rocks hit the side of the 4by4. They missed the windows fortunately and on we go. Now it’s raining, I did check on my bag during the stop and there is another strapped above it, maybe it will be ok. I am trying to work out why, as we descend, there is a raging river on our left flowing the other way. The road descends and the river is definitely going the wrong way. My brain must be befuddled/addled? 

     Climbing again overtaking trucks grinding their way up, some with huge trailers. Those little villages we passed through before the climb that we can see far below  must be cut off during the winter, I wonder for how long. Uh oh, getting scary again. Higher and higher, closer too the snow line. Another tunnel, this one filled with dust, on coming traffic looks ghostly in the headlights.. Sister Sally certainly wouldn’t like this one! Oh great, there is a truck, stuck. Now down to one lane. This isn’t very nice in the pitch dark. There is road building equipment and people fixing the atrocious road surface. It’s rather like being in a movie, bouncing around in the gloom, ghostly lights all around, splashing along through a flood. We have now been down here for fifteen minutes with no end in sight. The smaller cars are having a rough time of it, swerving all over to avoid the deeper potholes. Still clouds of dust and its hotter and darker. We’re out after eighteen minutes. No more tunnels today please. 

     Oh look, there are glaciers up here, lots of them, what a thrill. We are above the snow line with a river far, far below and it’s only just a little bit scary as we descend. Lots of avalanche shelters over the road, short tunnels, or are they for rock slides? They are mining coal somewhere close. Massive coal trucks ahead of us at the roadblock. Just had a “Mister, what are you writing?” from over my shoulder, I told him and he told everyone else, so now there is much pointing going on, showing me things of interest, especially the ridiculously bad drivers. We all laugh. 

     As we roll down the mountain towards Dushanbe we have picked up another river beside us, flowing correctly, and the further we go the wider it gets, noisy too even over the traffic noise.  My over the shoulder neighbor tells me it’s the Yarzob. And now we hit the five hour mark though there are signs that Dushanbe is getting closer, there are hill chalets (dachas), interesting looking restaurants overlooking the river, hotels with swimming pools, banks, supermarkets, it’s getting green again, lush even, and it’s hot after our adventures in the snow.

I have crossed the Warzob mountains and made it to Dushanbe.

Tea. Please.

 NB. This is the expurgated version of an email I sent to family and some friends immediately after arriving at my hotel. Opinions differed! Some said intrepid or epic, others foolhardy. I received all sorts of advice. My Mother hastened to a glass of sherry! (sorry Mother). Some people apparently couldn’t read all the way to the end. Interestingly, I woke up on Sunday to find my social media feed full of news of a 6.0 earthquake back home, so ya know……….

The road ahead.

The road ahead.

More of same.

More of same.

Higher and higher.

Higher and higher.

A glacier.

A glacier forming.

The river.

The river.

The ruined fortresses in the desert.

       With all these train rides, taxis and different cities and hotels obviously I meet people and then bump into them again, so here in Khiva I met up with Austin who had been staying at the Samarkand B and B and then with Oliver and Katya who I saw on the train to Bukhara and who then stayed at the same B and B in that city. Oliver, Katya and I went for (the now famous) lunch on Wednesday and wandering through the Bazaar afterwards met up with Austin. We had all heard of a collection of ruined fortresses north of here in the desert and agreed to go on a group outing the next day. We tried the tourist office first but the negotiation was difficult so we went to see a man who Austin had met and he agreed to take us for a reasonable price.

Up early on Thursday, the car came for me at 7.50 and we went round the corner to pick up the other three. I was nervous that Oliver would be uncomfortable in the back as he is six foot six, but no, he was fine in the back and off we went. Back through Urgench where my train had arrived and then north through cotton fields, rice paddies, salt flats, goat herds, corn fields. We stopped for water at a roadside shack where bathroom breaks were taken, reports of three cows guarding the outhouse. The scenery changed after about an hour from the green of the oasis to the brown of the dusty desert, fewer and fewer other cars on the road, mainly just donkey carts, people walking and and herds of cattle. 

We came across the first ruin soon after entering the desert and pulled off the road onto a track for a couple of hundred yards, parked next to the only other car and all piled out. I paused to take photos but the others were off across the scrub, jumping over a muddy ditch and approached the main gateway. I followed, failed to jump the ditch and squelched into the mud, they pretended not to notice. I could see Katya running up the path into the fortress crying “and we invade the fortress”, this from a thirty something Stanford graduate from Moscow. I think we were all filled with a kind of child like enthusiasm. Austin bounded about, running from wall to wall, taking photos, Oliver beamed eagerly and I wondered how long I could keep this up, it was incredibly hot.

The second fortress was as breathtaking. The ancient capital of the region it was interesting to see the remains of houses, rooms, palaces, stables and storage areas. There were no guides at any of these ruins, no postcard sellers, no souvenir or trinket vendors, not much of anything really, just us, the vistas and the wind. The Wind of the Ages. I tried to take photos of the huge outer wall but it didn’t really work, too big and it was noon time so the light was terrible. But the ruins are still there. Our driver bought a melon, for lunch and we stopped at a roadside cafe after pausing at a lake, in the desert, full of fish apparently. Oliver ate a chicken, looked like a whole one, Katya had soup, Austin had some pastry things and I had a huge plate of stuffed dumplings called Manti. We then witnessed the melon cutting ritual which was quite delightful, it tasted good too, There are forty different varieties of melon available around here.

To the last ruined fortress which turned out to be two, close together. We parked adjacent to a collection (?) of yurts, real yurts, with people living in them and a small herd of camels. Great enthusiasm for camel riding from Austin and Oliver so they went off to negotiate a price and reappeared, on a camel. Katya didn’t seem too keen and I definitely wasn’t, but off they went up a long track to the fortress. A very long track. Katya lead the way and I followed, in my sandals, which kept filling up with sand, very hot sand. Up and up, on and on, we made it to the top. The views of the surrounding desert were stunning, such a huge expanse, and I could just imagine the dust cloud the inhabitants must have seen as the enemy came in from the horizon. I walked almost all the way round the fortress, took some photos of the second fort below and then cut across the interior, I was flagging, big time. Back down the long track, uncomfortable sand in sandals, blisters beginning, really really hot, one foot in front of the other, and I made it, bringing up the rear, again. 

Tea in the yurt was never so welcome.

Here’s a couple of things: I didn’t go into the history of the fortresses too much as its all available a click away on Google. I gave you the names, so if you are interested, click away.

All three of my outing friends have left town, Oliver and Katya to Moscow (a direct flight!) and Austin back to Tashkent. Thanks guys for a memorable day out. So I’m feeling a bit lonesome and will head out tomorrow. Lets see how that goes.

First view of Red Fort

First view of Red Fort

A view of the inside of Kyzyl-Kala.

A view of the inside of Kyzyl-Kala.

Is someone still keeping watch for marauders?

Is someone still keeping watch for marauders?

Toprak-Kala, the ancient capital of the area dating from 1st to 5th century.

Toprak-Kala, the ancient capital of the area dating from 1st to 5th century.

Someone's house two an half thousand years ago.

Someone’s house two an half thousand years ago.

The walls still stand.

The walls still stand.

First view of the Ayaz-Kala, built  at the end of 4th Century BC.

First view of the Ayaz-Kala, built at the end of 4th Century BC.

The front door or gateway into the fortress. It was very well defended against raids by nomads.

The front door or gateway into the fortress. It was very well defended against raids by nomads.

Ayaz-Kala 2, built 6th to 8th Century and lasted until the Mongol invasion in the 13th Century.

Ayaz-Kala 2, built 6th to 8th Century and lasted until the Mongol invasion in the 13th Century. Taken from Ayaz-Kala 1.

Another one of #2, and look at that view.

Another one of #2, and look at that view.

Walls of #1 fortress. Still standing and watching watching.

Walls of #1 fortress. Still standing and watching watching.

Maybe you share my affection for walls. I love walls!

Maybe you share my affection for walls. I love walls!

Last view of fortress from doorway of a yurt.

Last view of fortress from doorway of a yurt.

Pretending!

Pretending!