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Published: April 8th 2019
Riding six hours in a new bullet train from Khiva to near Bukhara was an experience. The cars were new, the wide and comfortable assigned seats were new, but the bathroom in car #2 was as smelly as any poorly kept outhouse. Our tour director, Anait, cleverly circumvented part of the potential problem of boredom leading to complaints by offering us "morning coffee": paper coffee cups filled with vodka and juice, heavy on the vodka. It certainly mellowed people, and predictably led to many of us falling asleep for a long morning's nap. Still, a few of us were ready to deboard much earlier than the train trip's end. Watching the desert as we rode along was the first time I felt we were in Silk Road countries; that train route truly follows the Great Silk Road and what one imagines it to have been. We saw no camels, but hundreds of sheep and a large number of goats. The land is beautiful in a stark, dry way. It was easy to picture caravans of hardy traders and camels riding through this desert, but we learned that the visual image most of us carried, of one camel following another, was incorrect; a typical caravan might have had 5000 camels in rows, riding ten abreast. Still it was hard to think that; the caravan configured this way would be a lengthy line of 500 rows. Impossible to visualize! But the desert stretches for hundreds if not thousands of miles along the Silk Road, and we are here, tracing some of it, following in history's tracks.
Crossing the border from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan took us several hours, not only because each of us had to show our passports and visas numerous times (between 15 to 25 times was our group's best guess), but at the first checkpoint three members of our group were not allowed to proceed as somehow their visa numbers were not listed correctly in the Uzbekistan computers. Trouble! At this point we were entering Uzbekistan on a Friday afternoon, also a holiday for the Uzbeks, and it was not easy to contact the lofty person who could possibly override this problem. While the lucky seven of us who got through unscathed sat in our newest bus and ate our boxed lunches, the unfortunate three miserably sat in a checkpoint guardhouse awaiting their fates. Not knowing what was going to happen was most stressful (especially for them), but after a few hours they got their lunches, the important person had been found (somewhat drunk at a holiday party), and was on his way to sort things out. Still we waited. Finally the unlucky three plus our guide appeared, walking along the dusty road pulling all their luggage, and while they were allowed to enter Uzbekistan, no one was quite sure if they would be allowed to leave when that time came. But we all hoped that could be handled in a kinder and more timely fashion later, and belatedly finally continued our travels to Khiva.
One of the first differences we noticed between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was the number of people. In Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, even though there are large, beautiful hotels and even more being built, they are mostly empty. Few people are seen throughout the city; there are very few cars on the pristine wide roads. Everything is new, all constructed after the fall of the USSR in 1991, but except for hotel staff (minimal), cleaning ladies sweeping steps and grounds even in the pouring rain (we watched as they futilely tried to sweep constantly running streams of water off stairways), a few scattered small groups of people working in the tree plantations, and militaristic guards protecting memorials, mosques, and other sites felt to require such careful controlling of visitors, we saw very few people in Ashgabat, a truly stunning, if sterile, city.
In lovely old Khiva, Uzbekistan, we experienced the dramatic opposite. Suddenly we were movie stars, almost constantly being photographed, surrounded by crowds of happy people wanting to take selfies with us. It was hard to make progress from one point to another as people kept inserting themselves into our group or pulling us aside asking for photos, ignoring our guide's requests for them to go away and allow us to hear her; they wanted to be photographed in our exotic midst. It was fun for the first few hours, but by the end of the day my face hurt from all that smiling.
Both Khiva and Bukhara were walled cities, but only a part of Bukhara's wall remains. It is exciting just to see these ancient structures! A few of us climbed up from the northern gate of the old city and walked on part of the wall in Khiva; a line of minarets can be seen from the top, as well as mosques, flat mud roofs on houses, hotels and hostels, bars, restaurants, and, unlike in Turkmenistan, people everywhere. In restaurants here tables are full; in Ashgabat we were usually the only customers. But I would not have wanted to miss seeing Ashgabat; it is a lovely, if uncrowded, almost empty, modern city. Perhaps in a dozen years or so more intrepid travellers will come to visit these extraordinary countries of Central Asia. Reading about the Silk Road is not nearly enough; one has to be here to become immersed in these ancient and legendary places and cultures.
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