I had to get to Urgench to visit the fabled fortress city of Khiva for there was no direct transport to there for individual travellers. I left the flat Raisa had rented me, said goodbye and took a city bus to the bus station only to find that the regular bus from Bukhara to Urgench had been cancelled at the last minute. The two dozen passengers who had purchased tickets were refunded but we had no bus. Three ladies, four children and myself walked over 2 kms to a crossroad to flag down the direct bus from Samarkand but it did not stop so we had to walk back under the lava like sun. Finally one of the passengers called someone who had a private bus and 18 of us finally left at 4 PM after a three hour delay. It was a bit annoying, but it was also a break from routine, a wee bit of adventure... We picked up people along the way and soon the bus was as full as they usually are.
I love the desert because it forces me to enter into intimate communication with myself. There are no distractions, no external amusements, only the interior reality, only the things that really count. I took advantage of it for I knew that beyond this desert, the history and cities of the fertile Khorezm delta would keep me too occupied to introspect.
It was over 40 Celsius in the shade, and the sun was still white hot even in the late afternoon when we stopped here for a bite to eat. The passengers appeared happy to have gotten onto this bus in spite of the delay and all were in good spirits. I was not left alone with my thoughts for long. Being the only stranger aboard I attracted a lot of attention and several were pleased to try out their "hello" and "how are you" on me. I must say that I was equally happy to test the remaining shreds of my 40 year old university Russian on them. Going to Khiva in an air-conditioned coach would have been quicker and more comfortable but not half as much fun!
It was a nice experience and I got along fine with those friendly people but more particularly with my seat neighbour Safar Atadjanov who was returning back home with his son Alichev after a business trip. I was very lucky to meet Safar, a very interesting engineer running an absorbent cotton factory for a joint venture between a German pharmaceutical firm and his collective farm (kolkhoz). I learned a lot from him about soviet economics and life on a kolkhoz so I did not hesitate when he invited me to spend the night in his kolkhoz in Bagat about 50 kms before my destination Urgench (where I was planning to sleep in the bus since it would be difficult to find a hotel in the middle of the night).
The bus dropped the three of us off at a small village five kms from the kolkhoz. It was almost one in the morning and the village's only taxi which Safar hoped to get was not there so we set out to walk. I was very pleased with myself for travelling light because my 10 kilo backpack was easy to carry compared with the clumsy suitcases Safar and Alichev had to handle. I was also pleased to have a flashlight with me because the night was very black. The road was full of potholes and we had to watch our step. It was slow going but after an hour or so two local militia men drove up in a beat up car to investigate the light they had seen. They knew Safar and drove us to his house where his sister and mother were still awake and waiting.
I was very impressed by their hospitality, it was past two in the morning but the ladies served us a hot meal of mutton stew with tea and sweet cakes. A memorable experience recorded here with Safar Atadjanov, his sister Birkajan, his son Alichev and his mother Chinegui.
The next day, Safar played some traditional music for me and showed me posters of his brother who is a famous artist on this instrument in Uzbekistan. He introduced me to a dozen of his relatives, showed me around the kolkhoz and cotton factory and drove me to a truck stop where he arranged a ride to Urgench for me. I am a lucky person but I can't really get used to it for I often think that I am not worthy of the kindness shown me by people like Safar and his family. An experience like this makes me want to be a better person so as to deserve it!.
Above right, Safar's 63 year old brother with his wife on the foundations of the house they are building with their 10 sons and 2 daughters!
Here on the left, Safar's brother with 5 of his 12 children and 2 of his numerous grandchildren.
There was nothing to see in modern drab Urgench. I had missed the local bus to Khiva so I had to find and negotiate private taxi transport for the 30 km hop to the ancient city.
This was just a village mosque near Khiva but it was certainly worth a shot.
Khiva is very ancient, it was probably founded in the 5th century, but these fortifications are not that old.
For centuries, Khiva was only a minor fort and trading post on the silk road to the Caspian sea while the capital of ancient Khorezm was elsewhere, mostly in Old Urgench that was the heart of Islam under the Khorezm Shahs in the 13th century. Old Urgench was ravaged once by Genghis Khan and five times by Tamerlane who finally razed it to ensure the predominance of his own capital Samarkand. The ruins of Old Urgench are about 150 kms north-west of here near today's Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan.
After the Uzbek Sheybanids overcame Tamerlane's decaying empire in the 16th century one branch founded the Khorezm state in Khiva, which remained independent of the more important branch in Bukhara. Khiva's time had come as an important city-state trading mostly in slaves between the Turkmen desert tribes to the south-west and the Kazak tribes to the north-east. The Khivan Khans had to be ruthless and their city well fortified to survive in that dangerous environment. They soon acquired a reputation of incredible cruelty which has remained the trademark of their city ever since.
Khiva was ravaged by the Persian Nadir Shah in 1740 but the Khanate was restored by 1800. The fortifications and West Gate seen here date from that time but they have been so heavily restored that they might as well have been built last year.
Khiva played an important role in the Great Game played between British and Russian envoys, diplomats and spies trying to expand their respective empires for the least cost in the 19th century. That is what the mystique and romance associated with its name was all about.
The 18th century Juma Minaret and Mosque were built on the site of a 10th century structure using some of the original components. Below left, another view of Juma Minaret. Below right, a full view of the Islom-Huja Minaret next to the Mosque of that name shown below.
The Islom-Huja Medressa and minaret, Khiva's most recent monuments built in 1910, look older than many of the more ancient buildings that have been heavily restored.
Unfortunately Khiva has been restored to death and the people who used to live there have been chased away leaving only a sterile architectural museum where everything is too new to have any charm let alone mystery!
The Tosh-Khovli Palace was built between 1832 and 1841 by Alloquili Khan one of the more cruel and backward of Khiva's despots. The finishing touches were being put on his harem as I visited the place. It was so clean and well ordered that it was unreal and I just could not imagine the dozens of ravishing beauties of all races he is said to have gathered here to satisfy his carnal appetites.
No wonder the Kutlug Murad Inak Medressa, which is said to have been built in 1809, looks new; it is new for it's just been entirely rebuilt as you can see. I had the feeling of visiting an unfinished make-believe Disneyland. Maybe these new bricks will have acquired some patina in 50 years or so. Then, Khiva might be worth a visit if they let some real local people live here to give it some of the noises, smells and garbage without which a city is not a city.
The original version of this medressa was been built in the 19th century by Khan Mohammed Rakhim II who surrendered to the Russians in 1873. It has been heavily restored like all of Khiva.
When I think of it, I was lucky to come here in the off season with no other tourists around. I can just imagine what this Disneyland could be like with 20 bus loads of admiring, camera happy, tour groupies stomping all over the place with loud "ahs" and "ohs"!
This is the gate of the Kukhna Ark which was a fortress built inside the fortress to serve as residence and eventually last retreat of the Khivan Khans.
I had come a long way to see Khiva but I was somewhat disappointed to see how over-restoration had robbed the place of the capacity to stimulate the imagination it must have had before they cleaned it up. Luckily I had the place to myself so I did manage to dream... a little. I spent the night here, not in the Ark but in a hotel, and left in the morning for the Turkmenistan border without a visa...