The Silk Road: Ichon Qala, Frozen in Time...Almost

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sharing a car with Yuki, Motoko, and another Japanese traveler, I headed west across the white Kyzylkum desert, a misnomer in the winter because it translates as "red sands."

Seeing no red sands for hours, but wide expanses of flat, sparse shrublands, we crossed the Amu Darya, now frozen solid, and reached the Hotel Arqonchi, the only one we could find open, by late afternoon. The desert was bitterly cold that evening--nothing new--but I climbed up to the top of the Kukhana Ark for sunset over Khiva, the old town of Ichon Qala, turning the fortress walls, the medrassas, the minarets, and adobe homes to gold.

One evening, we all celebrated two birthdays in the hotel family, one for their baby's first year and another for their grandmother who was 84 years old. We ate fried Amu Darya fish for the occasion. The children danced to music videos.

Despite the freezing temperatures, weekend brides still walked with bare shoulders to the holy shrines--the Aayid Alauddin Mausoleum and the Pahlavon Mohammed Mausoleum--to be blessed with their husbands, kneeling before the mullah, shivering. Besides the large wedding parties, many of the streets were understandably sparse with people fleeing the cold. Still, people, warming their hands over coals or curning cardboard, sold their wares at the bazaar, near the East Gate: everything from fish to new plastic bins or wooden cribs, still built the old-fashioned way.

The ancient capital of Khorezm was Urgench, which both Ghengis Khan and Timur destroyed. Timur flooded the city by destroying a dam upstream, changing the course of the Amu Darya and desertifing the area. Khorezm recovered, shifting their capital upstream to the smaller town of Khiva.

During its time, the city was known for its slave trade, its wrestling-philosopher-saint Pahlavon Mohammed, and handicrafts. The Slaves were brought to Khiva from both north and south--the Kazakhs and Turkmen nomads who raided cities for the slave trade. Walking through the East Gate, I saw the cells where the slaves were kept as they were being sold.

Once the Russians invaded, its was preserved like strawberry jam, hence its tourist draw: everything is similar to what it would have looked like in the nineteenth century.

Well, at least the buildings are similar, preserved as museums.

For one whole day, I walked around Khiva, climbing a minaret, visiting the wrestler's mausoleum, admiring the intricate knotted tilework, and eating shashlyk and bread in the market. Aside from the weddings, we were the only tourists in town.

The next day, after breakfast with everyone, I said goodbye and left Khiva by marshrutka to Nukus, a few hours further northwest. The marshrutka stopped at the edge of the Amu Darya, now a sheet of ice. Here three of us walked across the river to the other side, where we found waiting cars to take passengers to another marshrutka, driving Dukes of Hazard style through the shrubs on the way.
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