Monday 7 October 2019: Sylvia
Slavl picked us up from the hotel about 8am this morning for the short drive to the airport. I had hoped to get a glimpse of rush hour in this near-deserted town but it was a holiday so potentially even less traffic around than we had seen during the weekend. Women swept the road with twig brooms and polished the railings that run alongside. A young man was busy polishing one of the statues. I have never seen such a clean place.
Arriving at the airport we went through the usual security rigmarole three separate times but although the people seemed to have no concept of queuing politely, and were in fact quite pushy, the process was pretty smooth and it seemed no time at all before we were landing in Dashoguz after a brief 40 minute flight. Unfortunately there are no direct flights from Turkmenistan so we had to fly to Dashoguz and cross into Uzbekistan by land.
It is desert all the way from Ashgabat until the last few kilometres around Dashoguz where there is irrigation and agriculture, particularly cotton. There is a significant canal infrastructure providing very effective irrigation but it has resulted in the Aral Sea nearly completely drying up. As we landed at the airport we saw rows of biplane last, apparently used as crop dusters for fertilisers and to spray the cotton plants to remove the foliage before harvest.
As in Ashgabat there are large marble buildings and monuments in Dashoguz but not to the same scale. There are also a lot more older Soviet era buildings and as we neared the Uzbekistan border more stand alone homes.
This more than made up for the simple immigration process on arrival. We passed through the Turkmenistan emigration process reasonably easily – luckily Slavl stayed with us as we had to complete forms with no English. We then walked about 50 metres and passed another checkpoint into the neutral zone. There it was chaos. We watched as a crowd of people tried to board a dilapidated bus to cross the kilometre or so to Uzbekistan with lots of yelling. Eventually that bus left and Slavl spoke to the guards. Apparently tourists around here get some sort of priority. After waiting in the scorching sun for about 25 minutes the old bus returned, disgorging its passengers making the trip to Turkmenistan. We were then ushered onto the bus and sat in the back seats with our bags on our knees while I reckon about 100+ more people climbed on (it was at most a 20 seat bus), pushing and shoving until every inch of space was taken. The driver yelled loudly and obviously quite aggravate fly to get people to stop climbing aboard and we headed off. On the Uzbekistan border side things were a little smoother. We were again ushered to the front of the queue and once our passports were stamped walked the rest of the way to be met by Nazira, who will be our guide for the 10 days we are here in Uzbekistan.
As much as I found Turkmenistan interesting it was also somewhat unsettling and in many ways I am happy to be somewhere different now. Having said that, a significant degradation in the road conditions was apparent. We drove through some fairly ramshackle villages and past a lot of fields of cotton and rice, eventually arriving at Khiva, where our hotel is right in the heart of the old city.
It is immediately inspiring with towering mud brick walls, tall minarets and turquoise domes. After checking in to our hotel, Malika Khevat, we headed out to explore, stopping first for a bite of lunch at an outdoor restaurant. It is always unnerving when looking at a menu in local currency for the first time – we both ordered a beef kebab dish for 45,000. I was relieved to check the conversion and find that was less than US$5. And I found out later we had picked the most expensive place in town!
We wandered around and took loads of photos. Tomorrow we have a proper tour so I will leave it to Roger to explain the details. However I am completely charmed by this place. There is something almost magical about it and I feel like I have been transported back in time.
Tuesday 8 October 2019: Roger
Thank you to all of you who write comments on our blog they are very much appreciated.
After a lazy start and a breakfast that was to the standard we were expecting (a bit less than tasty) we were met by Nazira who was full of enthusiasm and eager to overload us with every bit of information she had ever absorbed. It only took Sylvia about three polite goes at getting her to tone it down a bit – we really didn’t need to know who drew every flower on every mosaic tile in the fort.
Like the rest of this region the area has been fought over, captured, conquered, traded and ruled by all the great ancient rulers and leaders. Alexander the Great, the Arabs, led by Outabyba Ibn Muslim, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur and many others including the Russians and finally the Soviets, until 1991 when the country of Uzbekistan was formed. To give you the full run down I would have to first go to university and learn it all by which time, as there is so much to learn, I would have expired.
But here are a couple of interesting bits we discovered: the first is in this area around 400BC the Khorezmian occupied the area for a couple of hundred years. They developed farming, handicrafts and trade as the economy grew. On the right bank of the Amu Darya river they constructed the Koi-Kirilgan and DJjanbaskala canals, which irrigated some 3.5 million hectares.As a result there were many fortified towns in the area to keep both the products and the traders safe. Until 1598 Khiva was just a small town but then the Amu Darya river changed course destroying the then capital Kunya-Urgench. Khiva then developed into a small but well-fortified city.
Our first stop was the Kuhna Ark, the residence of the king, containing the summer mosque, the winter palace and a watch tower. First we entered the summer mosque with a large stage area decorated with glazed tiles where the the Iman would have given his sermon as the selected disciples listened intently from the courtyard. Out the back of the stage was a large, again ornately tiled room where the Iman would have held court. At the back of this area was also the royal mint which is now a museum with a collection of coins and notes.
Back in the main courtyard was a well, supposedly found by Shem, the son of Noah way back – not quite sure about that one! We headed through a door and up some steep stairs to the watch tower where we looked back over the whole 2 hectares of the fort. It is really hard to know what is original and what has been rebuilt whether from battles or just the passage of time. I am sure most of it has at some stage been rebuilt. There are good views along the northern walls, most of which have been rebuilt over the past few decades.
Back down the steep stairs and down a passage we entered the kings reception hall with another mosaic stage area but this time a built up area in the courtyard where a yurt would be erected for the king’s guests to await his audience.
Exiting the palace we headed across the street to one of the many madrassas in town. These are like a university where people received a higher education. This one is now a kind of museum with a bit of history on some of the many rulers.
Back out on the street we walked back past the large what looked like a chimney but was in fact supposed to be a 150m high minaret that was never completed.
At a stall I got to try on an old herders hat, made of sheeps wool to keep the heat and dust away from ones face. It also had a lining designed to absorb the sweat and keep one’s head moist and cool. Now I know why I never grew my hair long!
Stopping for a brew at an outdoor cafe we were entertained by a group of countrymen and women who had come to town for a wedding, complete with TV type camera. They danced on the street for some time, the men cutting some slick moves.
There are hundreds of stalls around the main restored or rebuilt area of the fort. The keepers are friendly and not pushy like they are in many parts of the world. Some sit hand painting fridge magnets that they fire and sell for a couple of dollars. In one stall a guy sat hammering out copper and brass vessels.
A bit further down the street we visited the Stone (summer) Palace, not even a km away from the winter one. It had the same same stage area as the winter palace for the king to hold court with a room to the side for the scribe to record the wisdom of the king and disciples. A passageway lead us to a room containing old wagon wheels, carved wooden columns and a camel driven mill for extracting oil from seeds such as sunflower.
We also discovered here that a lot of the tiles in this building had been nailed on. By now you may have noticed that a plumb bob and a level did not come into play when it came to putting in windows and doors, even one of the minarets is on a lean.
Next stop was the Djuma (Friday) mosque, the roof held up by a hundred-plus carved wooden columns, each mounted on a stone base. This too has been rebuilt, at least twice. When the Persians invaded here a thousand or so years ago all the locals headed into the mosque assuming Allah would protect them. The Persians simply burnt the place down killing all inside, or so the story goes. Genghis Khan also razed the place when he invaded.
Next to the main minaret is the madrasa Kutlug-Murad Inaka which was originally an university of art with individual rooms for the students. Cuts have been made into the thick walls that would have separated the rooms and a passageway runs through what is now a fine art museum.
The last stop with Nazira was the mausoleum built between 1810 and 1830 in memory of Pakhlavan Makhmud (1247 to 1326), an undefeated wrestler. Looking at the place wrestling must have been well paid back in those days. He was also a poet and philosopher, and well respected through the region.
“It is easy for me to smash 300 mountains
It is easy for me to paint the sky with blood from my heart
It is easy for me to be in prison for a 100 years
But it’s difficult for me to spend a moment with a stupid man.”
At the end of the courtyard is, I presume, a tomb, which is covered floor to ceiling in glazed tiles of various patterns and colours. Off to the left and right are two more tombs, where other rulers from the region are laid to rest. On the west side of the courtyard a two-storey building is also decorated partially with glazed tiles.
We headed of to the Bir Gazum restaurant, enjoying a dish of lagman and shashlik, and me some Uzbekistan Chardonnay. We waited for the sun to get around to the west to go back up the watch tower and take some more photos across the town, after which we walked around the inside of the fort wall, eventually finding some steps to the top.
Looking out across the outer city we realised that we have only had a glimps of Khiva and the tourist part at that.
We walked the wide walkway round the top of the wall, which has mostly been rebuilt and, in parts, the walkway cobbled. Where it is not cobbled it is starting to deteriorate quite badly. The inner and outer walls are I think encased in brick and plastered over with a plaster made of mud and straw in the traditional manner, as are a number of buildings in the town. In places the plaster has washed away.
There are thousands of people living in the many residences within these walls with many small hotels spread among the houses. We strolled through the back streets the short distance to our hotel noticing that each house or dwelling had a very nice door. Door making is obviously a real craft in this part of the world.
In the evening we were sitting in the hotel restaurant when a voice behind us said “you sound like kiwis”. Margaret from Wellington and Leslie from Auckland, who lives about 400m from us, are on a long 3-4 month annual holiday having rented their houses out and spent time in Turkey, now here, then Germany and on to Sri Lanka before heading home mid January.
A point of interest. back in the day none of the buildings here had locks on the doors. it was pretty simple – if you stole you lost your right hand, if you stole again you lost your left hand – bit cruel but it worked!!