From Tashkent to the Historic City of Khiva

Trip Start May 14, 2009
Trip End Jun 15, 2009

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Where I stayed
Asia Khiva Hotel

Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Thursday, May 21, 2009

We faced with some trepidation our 6.30 am flight to Urgench (nearest airport to Khiva) the next morning. Odil had explained initially that our flight was overbooked so we would have to catch another flight to the city of Nukus, some 200 km north west of Khiva. Here we would be met by a driver who would take us back to Khiva. This didn't sound too appealing to us but we did not have an option. Then the good news was that there were so many people wanting to go to Khiva that our flight would stop over at nearby Urgench airport before flying on to Nukus. All we had to do was to disembark at Urgench.

This sounded ominous. Our problem we pointed out was that we were ticketed to Nukus. "No problem" beamed Odil, “Your driver to the airport will explain at the check in. No problems. All you need to do is to get off at Urgench. Don’t  worry!”

We WERE worried. We knew well that a LOT of things can go wrong, especially when language is a problem.

Our obliging driver Abdul did however explain to the desk personnel and we checked in with no problems. No sooner did the driver farewell us and disappear than the Check In Svetlana ran over to tell us that there were indeed BIG problems. We could get off at Urgench but our luggage was ticketed to Nukus. There was nothing she could do for us. We would just have to ask the person at the stairs of the plane when we arrived in Urgench to get our luggage off. And what if that person did not speak English which was highly likely? Umm….

Funnily enough we were not at all surprised – or impressed.

As we sat in the lounge wondering how we would fare, Alan befriended Alpamis, an interesting young Uzbek man travelling to Nukus who spoke perfect English. Alpamis was from the Republic of Karakolpakstan where he worked for Medicins Sans Frontieres as a counsellor and psycho social support worker for people with multiple antibiotic resistant tuberculosis. Alpamis was probably more concerned about our luggage than we were and he went to no end of trouble to try to resolve our problem before we departed from Tashkent. A good natured Uzbek guide with a large Japanese tour travelling to Urgench also tried to assist us.

It took nearly three hours in our ancient Uzbekistan Airlines Ilyushin dual propeller aircraft to fly the 800km from Tashkent to Urgench. Miraculously there was a person at the staircase when we landed in Urgench. Even more miraculous that this fellow spoke good English. But it was a pity that he took off with our luggage claim forms and didn’t return for half an hour. If it wasn’t so stressful it would have been a hilarious sight. In the end we had about eight different people trying to assist us, all crawling around in the belly of the old Russian aircraft trying to identify our luggage - which after a very long time they did. We felt sorry for the passengers flying on to Nukus, including our friend Alpamis, who had been held up for well over an hour thanks to our baggage problems.

Our driver Naim met us at Urgench and looked more relieved than we did to have us AND the luggage safely on board and on our way to the ancient city of Khiva.

Khiva (Ichon Qala)

The city of Khiva is more than 2,500 year’s old and lies in the western Kyzlkum Desert end of Uzbekistan in the ancient khanate of Khorezm, close to the Turkmenistan border. It has a population of around 40,000 people.

Khiva is a wonderful and intriguing city. Just the sight of the massive ancient tawny clay turreted walls blasting against the bright sunlight of a hot azure blue sky was enough to make us forget any concerns that we had about getting to Khiva. It was simply spectacular. The atmosphere of this magnificently restored city took our breath away. And in exploring the many palaces, azure domed mosques, with their stunning, massive tiled minarets, medressas, fortresses, mausoleums and caravanserais, it was not at all difficult to imagine the treachery, barbaric cruelty and shocking slavery that is so deeply entrenched in the history of this incredible city.

We had in fact been concerned before our visit that Khiva could have been slightly disappointing. We had read that as a listed heritage UNESCO site, the architecture of Khiva was preserved so well that it resembled a museum piece, somewhat lacking in atmosphere or indeed even in interest. In fact Lonely Planet guide writes: “The historic heart of Khiva unlike that of other Central Asian cities is preserved in its entirety – but so well preserved that the life has almost been squeezed out of it”.

Fortunately for us, we found the city to be anything but bland. It was truly spell binding.

The enormity and sheer starkness of the robust clay built city structures, the intricacy of the ubiquitous azure tiling and the surreal sadness associated with the barbaric history was all consuming. Apart from the brutal jails, one of the saddest sites to us was that of the harem housing. Prisons to the many wives of the Khans, these buildings oozed in atmosphere of the unhappy somber nature of their past.

Our guide Mohammed was an educated and very intense young man whose passion for the old city of Khiva was truly infectious. Born in Khiva, he was self taught son of a poor farming family. His parents he explained were away from Khiva for the summer, working on a tomato farm in Russia.

Mohammed was a wealth of information and explained the fascinating history and architecture of the city in meticulous detail. Like many of our guides on this trip he was also able to share with us invaluable information on the culture and lifestyles of young Muslim people in Uzbekistan.

Mohammed revealed that although he was a true Muslim he was not particularly religious. His seriousness intrigued us. Mohammed’s most treasured form of entertainment he said was to discuss with friends their history studies in the late evenings within the walls of the old city of Khiva. Would he ever frequent discos, movies or hotels? Definitely not.

This is of course one of the great advantages of having the luxury of being on a private tour with just us and a guide. There were many times when we remarked on just how much more appreciation we had of a city or historic site when we were mostly on our own, away from the distraction of tourists and being able to totally lose ourselves in the history and atmosphere these ancient wonders of the world.

Another advantage was that after our tours we often had time to wander on our own through the old parts of the cities we visited. Khiva’s city walls and lonely streets in the long shadows of a late afternoon were a very special sight at that time of the day.

During our meanders we came across of group of children and suddenly became part a children’s birthday party. The parents immediately and generously offered us food and drink, and even whiskey. We declined politely but it was not without being given cake and bread and with warm invitations to be part of the party. Experiences such as these greatly added to the quality and fabric of our trip to such distant and exotic cities.

Our hotel at Khiva was right next to the old city walls. What a wonderful experience it was just to look out on dusk at this fabulous old city.
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