Khiva – saving the best for last

After a leisurely morning (not common on this trip so made the most of it) we boarded a bus for a 9am departure for our long day of driving to Khiva – around 8-9 hours.  Thankfully, it was a big 30 seater bus for only 14 people, so we had plenty of room to spread out and make ourselves comfortable.

Today’s drive took as through the Kyzylkum desert – Kyzylkum meaning ‘red sand’ in Turkic languages which covers an area of almost 300,000km2 over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  It sits between two rivers, Amu Barya and Syr Darya and for some time the road ran along the Amu Barya and we could see the border posts running along the Turkmen side of the river border.

Interestingly there is an autonomous region situated in the desert called Karakalpakstan, the capital of which is Nukus.  The Karakalpaks are closely related to the Kazaks but there is little written about their origins.  Despite being part of the Soviet Union during their occupation it was still considered an autonomous republic and because of this, and its remote location, very few Russians ever visited the region,. For these reasons, the area was apparently used to store ‘forbidden’ art during the Soviet period.  (Forbidden art being images that depicted sad people, cloudy skies, rich people 🤔 🤔 – because of course in the Soviet Union everyone was happy and equal, and the sun was always shining!)

The first 100km of the road was terrible but thankfully it improved after that when we reached the concrete part of the road.  A concrete road seemed odd at first but made a lot of sense as it does not melt in the high heat the desert can experience!  I was also surprised to find clean western toilets at roadside cafés/restaurants – basically in the middle of nowhere 🤔.  This was a very pleasant surprise. 

As with all good road trips in the region, we passed several Ladas, many stacked with so many heavy bags I was surprised they could move at all lol

The final hour took us back on a bad road as the desert turned into green fields as we approached the city of Khiva. 

When we arrived, we had some free time and I took the chance to start to explore.  Our hotel was close to the walls of the old or inner city (known as Itchan Kala) and the route in to the old city took me through a labyrinth of dirt streets with mud walls where people lived and were going about their normal business, children playing and people watering down the dust.  Many of the houses had chillies hanging outside the doors which apparently provide spiritual protection for those who live there.

Once through the houses, you arrive in the centre of the old city where you find the monuments, the traders and the paved streets and I was just in time for sunset so I stopped off for a beer to watch the setting sun – it was definitely worth the wait as it was spectacular behind the famous landmarks.

For dinner we were treated to a well-known Uzbek dish (and a speciality of Khiva) called Shivit Oshi.  Bright green noodles which have been infused with dill, giving them not only their colour but their tasty flavour.  (Clearly you can tell from the photo that I am more interested in eating the food than taking a photo of it!!  The photography is always an afterthought lol.)

The following day, the group walking tour was not starting until 10am so I jumped at another opportunity to get out early to explore on my own.  It was cool and peaceful and for me, the perfect time to be exploring, passing children going to school and street cleaners out and about sweeping the streets. And the best thing – virtually no tourists – I wish all day could be like this 😂🤦🏻‍♀️.  Apparently, the city receives less tourists than other Uzbek cities because of it’s out of the way location, but I think it is probably my favourite city we visited in Uzbekistan.

Khiva started life as a Silk Road caravan stop more than 2,500 years ago and the old city was the first site in the country to be listed by UNESCO on their World Heritage list. 

Legend has it, the city was founded by Shem, a son of Noah (of the Ark fame).  After the great flood, he was wandering in the desert and dreamt of 300 torches.   He believed this to be a good omen so he a dug well and built a fortress.  (Apparently, the well still exists today but it is in someone’s garden!) The name Khiva is said to have come from “Khey Vakh” – meaning “What a pleasure”, which is what people exclaimed when they tasted the water from Shem’s well!

Historically Khiva was ruled by a Genghisid dynasty (Huns who were descendants of Genghis Khan) and in the 17th century, it was home to a large slave market and it is thought that many of the slaves (mostly Persian) were used to construct the city walls we see today.

The current city walls sit around Itchan Kala (the inner city) and it is believed that the foundations were laid in the 10th century, however much of the current day walls (up to 10 metres in height and 6 metres thick in some places) date back to the 17th century.  Our local guide (Maxhfirat) told us that the width of the walls (at the top) was important as they allowed carriages to drive around them and deliver ammunition during battles.

There are 4 monumental gates into the Itchan Kala today – north, south, east and west.  People had to pay tax at the western gate to enter the inner city to sell the goods.  Oddly, this is still somewhat true today as tourists have to pay/purchase entrance tickets at the western gate to enter (though you can just walk through the others without a ticket check lol). 

Khiva was a centre for education so there are many madrassahs within the walls of the inner city, but there are no functioning Mosques or madrassahs today.    Our guide told us about the long process of education at the height of Khiva’s golden years.  It took 6 years of study to become a teacher and 10 years to be a judge!  During the final exam, the students had to ‘invent’ something – if they didn’t, they would have to study another 3 years.  Luckily all these years of education were free!

For our day of sightseeing, it was a pleasant 32c but it can get up to 50 and there is very little rain. (It can also get as low as -20C in the winter!) Most of the main monuments face north to catch a breeze for natural ventilation.

And so we started our guided tour of some of the 50+ historical monuments in the inner city and we started with what is the main symbol of Khiva – the beautiful, but unfinished blue tower (the fat one lol) – official name Kalta Minor (meaning Short Minaret).  It was supposed to be a great minaret, between 70-110m tall depending on your source, but when the Khan (Muhammad Amin Khan) died fighting in Iran in 1855, his brother who succeeded him, did not continue the build so it stayed at 29m and 14.5m diameter at the base.  It is also the only minaret in Central Asia completely covered in glazed tiles which is part of its beauty. 

There are many legends as to why it was not finished and the one our guide told us was that the Bukhara Khan was jealous of the Khiva Khan building the tallest minaret, so he asked the same master to build a taller one for him in Bukhara (in some stories he has already agreed to do this). The Khiva Khan heard about this and said he would kill the master when he was finished in Khiva so he could not build another one.  The master learnt of the threat and escaped the city – never to finish the Khiva minaret, nor to build one anywhere else.

The tiles are in 3 colours – Blue for the sky, white for the pure soul and turquoise for Islam and nature.  It is not a coincidence that these are the same colours on the Uzbek flag.  It was so beautiful and to be honest I don’t believe photos do it justice.  I kept finding myself drawn back to it to see it in different lights, from different actions.

Our next stop was one of the Khan palaces, the earliest one, built in the 17th century.  The palace effectively has 3 walls – the outer city walls, the inner city walls and then the palace walls. 

The grand reception hall was made up of several parts including an area where guests were reviewed and taught how to behave in front of the Khan who sat outside in the summer and inside in the winter.  It even has different entry doors depending on the status of the visitors.  Of course, the Khan had a special door just for him.  He even had a yurt in the outside area where he accepted people from nomadic tribes.

Our guide explained the incredible skill required to build and tile these rooms.  The tiles of these era were made by masters called ‘magicians’ – the tiles are not in line with each other to ensure the weight is equally dispersed but despite this the pattern appears as one – as if like magic!

Did you know that there are two types of mosques?  An everyday Mosque and a Friday Mosque – not surprisingly, the Friday Mosques tend to be bigger and grander as everyone prays together on the holy day, including the Khan. The Djuma (or Juma) Mosque is a unique example of a Friday mosque as it is one of the few Mosques without a domed roof and because it has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof.  As it lacks the domed roof, they used ceramic jars for acoustics so that capacity of 5,000 people could hear clearly!

The pillars are all different as they have been donated by different families/people over the years.  Apparently 4-5 pillars date back to the original 10th century structure, and 8 are from the 12th century.  One in particular (with a ying yang symbol) was donated in the 14th century by a Chinese Silk Road trader. 

There are several really interesting techniques used to maintain the columns throughout the years.   Firstly, the use of camel wool in middle between the column and the and pillar at the base.  Apparently, this not only helps protect the column in earthquakes as it absorbs some of the movement, but it also stops bugs getting into the wood as the camel wool has special smell that insects don’t like!  Secondly, a Mulberry tree is planted in the middle of the open area to help protect the pillars from humidity.

Unfortunately, the Mosque was used as a storage room during Soviet times and all the rice and wheat bought lots of termites so many of the columns have required replacement in more recent years.   That said, it was crazy to me, that wooden pillars from the 10th century are just left for people to touch … if something existed like this at home is would be inside an environmentally controlled barrier!!!

It really is a stunning and unique piece of ancient architecture and a perfect location of another pre wedding photo shoot with another stunning couple.   👍🏻

We next visited another palace and definitely the most elaborate.  Tash-Khauli, the main palace of the Khiva rulers, built between 1830-1838 for Allakuli-Khan.  Legend has it the Khan was not happy that it took 8 years to build as he wanted it finished in 2 years and numerous master builders lost their heads over the delay!

The whole palace is made up of a labyrinth of corridors making it difficult for any intruders to find their way in or out – thankfully, our guide knew her way around!  The corridors are cool, even in the heat due to the thickness of the walls and it was incredible as you keep walking out of the cool dark corridors into beautiful sun filled courtyards.  The Khan’s chambers and harem were reachable by just one secret corridor.  Not surprisingly, the Khan’s room is the largest and most elaborately decorated.

Speaking of the harem, did you know that the Khan could legally have only 4 wives, but of course he can supplement them with concubines (of which he had around 40).  Now that is certainly enough to keep a man busy, especially as he had to give all 4 of his legal wives equal attention as any of their children could be the future Khan!  Apparently, the Khan would choose his successor based on exam results!

The Concubines on the other hand had no rights and nor did their children, but they could study in madrassahs which is something they may not otherwise have been able to do.  Concubines, who were always very beautiful, were only ‘in service’ for 2-3 years on average.  They were very well paid, got expensive presents and in most cases could go on to have a good marriage with an upper class man.  For this reason, parents were often more than happy for their daughters to become Concubines to the Khan.  Concubines were also sourced from the slave market (which finished in 1873), these girls, often from Russia or other parts of Europe and upon the end of their ‘service’ were given their freedom.

From time to time, wives and concubines would get jealous and poison each other if they thought they were getting special treatment, hence why the Khan had a secret corridor to his room so they could not see who he was favouring.  If only the walls could talk in the Khan’s bedroom!

As with the first palace we visited, Tash-Hauli Palace had a large reception hall with separate small rooms for registering guests and teaching them how to stand and speak to the Khan.  Embedded around the interior walls of the courtyards are small green tiles.  These are pre-Islam, dating back to when Zoroastrianism was the state religion – apparently, they were original yellow, but the colour changed to green, so they were not destroyed by Muslims! 

Fun fact – the motto of the Zoroastrianism was “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” – you really cannot argue with that!  Despite being one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions, there are only around 120,000 followers of Zoroastrianism in the world today, mostly living in India, Iran and North America.  Did you know Freddy Mercury was a Zoroastrian?

I noticed that many of the doors were very low.  This not only helped moderate the temperature inside the room but as we had seen in the yurts in Kyrgyzstan, the low door frames also mean people must duck as they enter – a sign of respect.

We explored what was a city Mint and came across the Silk money of Korezm.   At the beginning of the 19th century there was a paper shortage and silk was a cheaper medium for printing money! It was also practical as it could be washed when it got dirty.  They also made coins from pure gold, silver and bronze as they did not know how to mix the metals!

In the Mint we also learnt about beard smuggling.  At the time, all men were expected to have beards, but it was found that some would steal gold powder smuggled in their beards!  When this was discovered, the mint workers were made to shave their beards off!  Funnily enough, this is clearly still a smuggling technical as when I googled it to try and find something more about it, a number of articles came up about people being caught trying to smuggle gold dust this way!

There are so many beautiful doors around the old city, and many were made at huge cost – our guide told us that some believe/believed that doors are the faces of the people.  I got a little obsessed with the doors, not just the fancy ones, but also the plainer ones around the small side streets 😂

All that sightseeing and learning, and it was only just lunch time!!  We had the afternoon free, but a couple of the group wanted to go to a particular carpet making shop/factory – one that was featured about in a book called “Carpet ride to Khiva” by Chris Alexander who had lived in the city for many years.  Now I have not read the book (though may have to do so in the future) but the visit was still very interesting.  Did you know it takes 6-8 months to make one rug?  No wonder they are expensive!

Fun-ish fact – Traditional khiva hats are made with sheep’s wool and are also worn in summer, despite them looking very warm (I guess they already knew of that great quality of sheep’s wool for keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer)!  Black and brown hats are for younger people and white for older people.   Only a Khan could wear a hat made from lamb’s wool!

And so, we arrived at another evening and another chance to see the sunset – this time from one of the watch towers on the city walls.  It was clearly the place to be as it was crowded and of course there was another pre wedding photo shoot!  The sunset was beautiful – and I took so many photos, there is no such thing as too many sunset photos right 🤔🤔😂😂😂??

Our last night in Uzbekistan was celebrated with another large meal, served in what was more of a family home than a restaurant, with traditional entertainment by a local family – children through to grandparents, singing and dancing.  What a great way to end what has been an amazing time in the country.

Whirlwind touring of Tashkent

Day 13 of my tour and we set off towards Stan #4 – Uzbekistan. 

The final stretch of Tajikistan was through the Ferma Valley, once home to a Soviet uranium mine. When it was closed, they left behind large amounts of radioactive waste which has cause many radiation issues for the local nomadic population.

Upon reaching the Oybek border we said goodbye to Farhodbek and had two passport checks before we even reached the actual Tajik border, then just one check to get into Uzbekistan.

  • Currency:  Uzbek s’om (UZS) US$1 = UZS10,180
  • Language: Uzbek
  • Size: 448,978km2
  • Population:  33,000,000

We met Surat our guide at the border and his first introduction to the country was to proudly declare that everyone in Uzbekistan is a million!  Easily done when US$100 is the equivalent to over a million s’om.

Uzbekistan is the most populated country in Central Asia, with almost twice the population of the entire area and the capital, Tashkent has a population of 2.5 million.  There was clearly a bit of a baby boom after the end of the Soviet era, as there is a very young population with 65% of the population under 35 lol.

Until recently, the country has had turbulent relationships with its neighbours – a bit of an issue considering it borders on most of the other Stans!  Thankfully, the situation has improved greatly since the death of the first president in 2016.  One of the first things the new president did was to abolish visa requirements for 100 countries and improve relationships with their neighbours.  Apparently, he even hosted a meeting between Taliban and Afghani leaders.

Fun fact:  Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly landlocked countries (Liechtenstein is the other).

Cotton is Uzbekistan’s main crop (and one of its main exports) with 60% of the land used to grow it.  They are also now diversifying into other crops such as apples, peaches and pears.  In what seems like a throw back to Soviet times, farmers can only rent land for 55 years from the government.  They can’t own the land nor is renewal guaranteed!  The government do help with the provision of fertilisers, but in return, the farmers must sell all their cotton to them – not sure if they get a fair deal or not??

Did you know Uzbekistan is the world’s seventh biggest exporter of gold?  They also have a healthy export of cooper, uranium and gas and significant untapped reserves of oil making it a relatively wealthy country on paper.

Uzbekistan was an early adopter of a change in alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, starting the process in 1993 with the expectation that all the population would have learnt it by 2000. However this didn’t happen and the alphabet has undergone numerous changes since the one introduced in 1993.  Now days you can see the Latin and Cyrillic languages side by side, or sometimes one or the other – often it depends on the intended audience.  Thankfully, for me, having signs in the Latin alphabet makes them possible to understand and definitely less foreign to me.

Our first stop in Uzbekistan was in the capital, Tashkent, only 100km from the Tajik border. It is one of Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Road cities which sat on a major caravan crossroads – it dates back to the first century BC and it celebrated its 2200 anniversary in 2009.  Tashkent means stony settlement, and it was surrounded by stone walls until at least the 12th century.

In contrast to the other Stans I had visited, the Uzbek’s are historically settled people, rather than nomads, living in oasis towns and cities through the country.  Tashkent is one of those cities and despite only have 400mm of rain per year, it is incredibly green.

First impressions were overrun with the masses of traffic as we entered the city, so much more than we had seen in other countries but I guess that comes with the massive increase in population.  Chevrolet cars are manufactured in Uzbekistan and for these reasons, most of the cars on the road are that brand – that, and Ladas – again way more than I had seen elsewhere. (I must admit I was beginning to get a little obsessed with the good old Lada’s that certainly seem to have stood the test of time lol.)

Before lunch we had a quick stop in in a small park with a large memorial to the last large earthquake that struck the city – on April 26, 1966.  It was only a magnitude of 5.1 but it was very shallow, so the impact was immense.  According to the ruling Soviet Union, only 14 people died but the true number is believed to be closer to 200, with over 300,000 left homeless.

As with my hometown of Christchurch that was devasted by earthquakes in 2010/2011, it took over 10 years for the city to rebuilt, but it was an opportunity to redesign it.  Based loosely on St Petersburg, it was rebuilt with wide streets and lots of parks.

The memorial, known as the Monument to Courage, is dedicated to the men and women who rebuilt the city and has a clock showing the time of the first tremor (5.22am) and a man, shielding a woman and child from the earth opening up.

We were definitely ready for lunch by the time we made our way to the famous Tashkent Plov Centre at the bottom of the very tall TV tower (which has a rotating restaurant at the top and is lit up like the Eiffel Tower at night). Plov (very similar to Pilaf or Biryani you find in other countries) is the national dish of Uzbekistan and is a rice dish cooked in broth with vegetables and most commonly served with meat.  Apparently, plov dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC who spread the dish around his territories.

Unsurprisingly, the Tashkent Plov Centre only sells plov, cooked in massive Kazans (cast iron pot) in front of the two-story dining room which was packed so it was clearly good plov.

Due to its strategic location the old city of Tashkent has had a turbulent history. It was taken by the Arabs in the 8th century and then by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, before Tamerlane (who we met in Tajikistan) moved in in the 14th century.  In the 1860’s, the Russian Empire army invaded and started building a new town, though today the old and new parts have blended in to one.  Incredibly the old buildings (many of them dating back to the 16th century) have survived over 66 major earthquakes!

Our guide Surat, explained to us that we have to remember 5 M words when travelling around Uzbekistan: Madrasa (college for Islamic instruction), Mausoleum (a stately or impressive building housing a tomb or group of tombs), Minaret (a slender tower, typically part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer), market and money (I assume the last two need no explanation).

We started our afternoon of exploration in the Old City at the central of Muslim Tashkent – the Khast Imom Complex.  The complex houses various buildings include the Madrasa of Barak-Kahn, the Tilla Sheikh Mosque and the mausoleum of Saint Abu Bakr Kaffal Shashi (3 of those 5 ‘M’s).  Moreover, the complex as a library of original manuscripts which includes the world famous Quran of Caliph Usman Ottoman.

It was written in the middle of the 7th Century (not long after the death of the prophet Mohammed) and is written on over 350 pages. It was kept in the treasury of the Caliphs until it was moved from Baghdad to Uzbekistan during the time of Tamerlane.

Our next stop was the Chor-Su Bazaar or “4 streets” bazaar– one of the biggest and oldest markets in Central Asia and it is thought that the site has been home to a market for 2000 years.  More than just a market, it has been the location of public announcements and public executions over the years.  Thankfully these days there are no executions, just plenty of spices, nuts, fruit etc.

Given the masses of traffic, the clean and efficient metro is the easiest way to get around the city.  Built in the 1970’s by the Soviets, Tashkent is known to have some of the most beautiful and ornately decorated metro stations in the world. 

We exited the metro at Amir Temur Square Station and headed to the Museum of Applied Arts.  The museum houses over 7,000 pieces of art including carpets, textiles, ceramics, an exquisite building that was once the home of the Russian ambassador.  As seems to be a theme of the trip, we came across a young couple having their pre-wedding photos taken in front of the building – they were so beautiful.

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of Tashkent was Memory Park and Independence Square in the centre of the modern city.  Within Memory Park, we visited the Glory and Memory Alley in honour of 400,000 soldiers died in World War II. Along both sides of the alley are nocks decorated with wooden carved columns and Memory Books where the names of Uzbek people who died for the “Motherland” in the Second World War are written.  At the end of the alley is the statue of a mourning mother with an eternal flame.  

Independence Square has had numerous lives, in the 1800’s, it used to be the gardens of the General-Governors house and then during Soviet times, it was named Lenin Square with the mandatory large Lenin statue.  Finally, after independence in 1991, it became Independence Square and Lenin was replaced with the Independence Monument – a globe with Uzbekistan’s borders outlined on it.

That said, the Independence monument is somewhat over shadowed by the Arch of Goodwill, a huge archway, supported by 16 marble columns. Topped with sculptures of storks, symbolising peace.

Of course, we must not forget the large statue of Amir Temur (there will be more about him later) and also the lovely wide pedestrian streets filled with stalls and lights (sadly we were too early to see them in their glory).

Finally, our 13 hour day of travel and sight seeing was over and it was time for dinner at a western café.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the food so far had been amazing and always way too much, but it was nice to be able to make our own selection – I had a really good steak!

Day 1 of Uzbekistan over and we have only just scratched the surface.