Day 19 – Film-set of the Slave Traders

Monday 15 September 2014

BMQ : Notable.

Khiva. Central Asian Khanate notable for cruel slave-traders and leaders with fickle loyalties. It was Khiva who invited the Russians to help defend against other tribes, in the early days of The Great Game, then decided she didn’t need their help after all, and massacred the lot on their arrival. It was Khiva the Russians tried to invade several other times, due to large numbers of captured kinsmen held in slavery there by local clansmen. And it was Khiva that was one of the centres of Great Game Realpolitik as British spies ended up freeling these same slaves from right under the Russians’ noses.

Eventually the Russians conquered Khiva in the 1870s, relatively easily in the end, just as with the other Great Game states in Northern Central Asia, and now the town lies on the very edge of Uzbekistan, a testament in the desert to past glories.

Unlike other Great Game cities, Khiva isn’t really a city any more. Rather, the centre of it resembles some kind of ‘film set’. It’s been ‘preserved’ (and, let’s be honest, ‘renovated’) to maintain its old look; a desert fortification made of mud-brick that those silk traders and Great Game diplomats would have recognised, even today. The trouble is, there’s very little substance behind the walls – it’s all rather pretty but it’s all for show.
The centre part of the city is full of souvenir stalls, museums/artisanal craft areas, a handful of restaurants (closed in the evenings, natch), and overpriced architectural pieces, which after a short time all begin to look very similar.
The old city is surrounded by a complete mud-brick wall that it’s possible to walk along a short section of, although the views it provides are more of the inner residential segment of low-rise hovels and narrow unkempt streets rather than the picture-postcard views you’d expect.
It’s also not very big –it’s possible to see everything in half a day. It’s an interesting question as to whether it’s worth the trek out here – obviously for me it’s an obvious stop-over on the way to Moynaq but if you were just doing the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, unless your route continued into Turkmenistan, it’s a long way out (about 8 hours or so by road from Bukhara), so to justify going there and back is kind of hard.

I came in by train to nearby Urgench, a more modern town some 35km North of Khiva and linked to it by trolleybus –The plan was to meet up with my fellow Aral Sea traveller, a lady called Marta, either at the station or at the trolleybus stop. However, confusion reigned when I asked around the shared taxi rank for the ‘bazaar’ and, for 5,000 som, I accidentally ended up in Khiva, near to the bazaar there, rather than the bazaar in Urgench. (the taxi drivers at the station were asking for 30,000 som to Khiva, hence my confusion at ending up in Khiva for so little else). I eventually met Marta at the hostel; she turned up about an hour after I did.

Our hostel (Alibek) is right outside Khiva’s West gate, and the balcony provides better views than the walk along the city walls. It’s a pretty colourful place, decked out in lots of local fabrics, and the room’s quite nice, again a dorm room with six single beds but no bunks. They also do food, something I didn’t find out until too late when I’d already arranged to go out for shashlik with a couple of other travellers, a German called Thomas and an American called John.
The three of us, plus Marta played cards later that evening on the hostel balcony. It’s quite a sociable hostel, and again not terribly large – maybe there’s a connection of some kind between sociability and size, although maybe the correlation is more between traveller type and hostel size. It’s very often simply pot luck.

The journey to Urgench was long and towards the end it did drag a bit. I never really got that comfortable on the bunk, and spent a couple of hours at either end of the journey standing in the door-space looking out the window at the passing scenery (even desert has its appeal sometimes). I did manage to get some water from one of the kids walking through the train selling stuff, so I didn’t die of thirst in the desert.
I did end up chatting to four local Uzbeks on the train, one of whom was acting as an interpreter (after a fashion, anyway). They were curious as to my presence, and impressed that I was seeing as much of Uzbekistan as I was. They were also most interested in my personal life – was I married, did I have children – and were confused when I said I wasn’t; they wanted to know why. I’m not sure there is an answer to that question really; obviously the culture is different so most people would be expected to be married with children by the time they reach 30. I do carry with me a photo of my girlfriend at all times though, partly for just this very situation.

While at the nearby shashlik place there was a power cut; apparently this happens quite often. Welcome to the sticks.

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