Uzbekistan (Part 3) - Sand, Sand and more Sand but where is the sea?

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Asia » Uzbekistan » Khiva
August 5th 2009
Published: January 26th 2010
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- Introduction -
I’m now writing this blog well over two years after getting back home to England. I had good intensions at the time to complete all the ‘blogs’ while I was on the road visiting all these places. And when that didn’t happen, I intended to complete all my ‘missing’ blogs as soon as possible after I got back home to England. That also didn’t happen, and now it’s January 2010 and I’m still struggling to find the time to complete them all.

Therefore in the interest of completing the story of my return to England from Australia ‘overland’, or should I say ‘overland as much as possible’ - all the ‘blogs’ from herein will be brief and hopefully to the point. Which is probably for the best as due to the passage of time my memory of some of the events and people is now becoming very hazy. Plus, if I don’t keep it brief, the probability of ever completing this story will be virtually nil!

Fri 10th - Mon 13th August - (Kiva)
After a bit of searching around and bartering to try and get an acceptable and realistic price, Min, Rich and myself managed to find a shared taxi which would take us all the way to Khiva.

As far as I can remember, I don’t think the journey from Bukhara to Khiva took that long as we arrived in time for a late lunch (although looking at my notes, Khiva is supposed to be 450km north west of Bukhara and therefore going by my past experiences, the journey must have taken us quite a few hours).

However, once we had arrived, we quickly managed to find a guesthouse recommended in the LP (Mirzoboshi B&B) which had rooms available and which was located within the walls of the old city.

The guesthouse ended up being perfect as it was conveniently located within the old city close to all the sightseeing places that we wanted to see. The guesthouse was nicely laid out with the bedrooms located around a small restaurant which was set in a nice small courtyard.

Khiva is located across the Kyzl Kum desert from Bukhara in Khorezm province just across the border from modern day Turkmenistan. In the past, Khiva was synonymous with slave caravans and medieval barbaric cruelty, a view which was reinforced while visiting the various museums around the city and reading stories such as those which described people having their ‘eyes gauged out’; that ‘impalement’ had been the favourite method of execution in the past along with ‘throwing people off minarets’, and that sometimes women were killed by ‘tying then up in bags stuffed with wild cats’!

However, my first and lasting impression of Khiva is that it is a very clean and very heavily restored city located in the middle of a desert. Particularly the old city, where the Ichon-Qala (Old City) is still surrounded by its medieval walls which were heavily restored by the old Soviet regimes’ conservation program during the 70 and 80’s.

We spent the next few days wondering around the old city looking and going inside the historic buildings, a few of which are still functioning as mosques or shrines but the majority of which are now museums. Good views of the whole city can be found from the top of some of the high minarets (the tallest being 45m high) and from the city walls, especially during sunset.

One rather annoying aspect of the whole sightseeing experience though was that on top of having to pay an entrance fee to enter the old city and the historic buildings, there was also a ‘foreign’ camera tax which was astronomically priced compared to local prices and was many times higher than the entrance fees themselves! Being in no mood to be ripped off (I suppose looking back now it is all relative - but at the time it seemed outrageous) we declined to get a camera ticket and after being warned by the ticket person that we would be “fined very severely” if we were caught using a camera inside any of the buildings, we spent our time, not very successfully, trying to secretly take pictures inside the buildings without anyone looking - which over time all began to become a bit of a joke amongst the three of us!

While the old city is indeed very grand and impressive, I must admit that by this time all three of us were getting a bit jaded about looking around the same type of buildings day after day, city after city, and unfortunately looking around became more of ‘ticking them off the list’ exercise than anything else.

Away from the sightseeing, a little light relief was found in the local markets where both Min and Rich appeared to relish the prospect of searching around the market and dressing up in the most authentic medieval (i.e. ridicules) costumes they could find, including at one point putting on a tea pot 'cosy' which apparently looked ever so slightly like a local medieval hat!!

Another thing that sticks in my memory about the trip,…….. was Melons! I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many Melons before or since! Min had a bit of a thing about them and we must have tried every single variety of melon there is - and there did seem to be a lot of varieties of them in this part of the world!

Apart from Khiva itself, there are a couple of ruins on the outskirts of the City which were supposed to be worth a visit which we duly visited. Toprag-Qala, Ayaz-Qala and Ellig-Qala are a series of crumbling forts and temple complexes which were built and then abandoned between the 3rd and 6th Century. The complexes are located in the middle of the desert around 130k north east of Khiva and while still fairly impressive and worth a visit, they are now rapidly crumbling back in to the desert.

Mon 13th August - (Moynaq (Aral Sea))
After a couple of days in and around Khiva, we decided to take a trip up to a place called Moynaq which used to be a major fishing port on what used to be the banks of the Aral Sea.

Moynaq is a good 6 to 7 hours car journey from Khiva and as a consequence a lot of people break the journey up by staying at a place called Nukas which is located around 210 km south of Moynaq. Min was intending to stay in Nukas for the night but due to time constraints both Rich and myself decided to do the journey from Khiva to Moynaq and back in one day.

After speaking to the guesthouse owner/ manager in Khiva, we managed to hire a taxi which was to take us all the way from Khiva up to the Moynaq and back in the day, with a slight detour to Nukus so that we could drop Min off on the way back.

After an early start in the dark, the journey up to Moynaq was relatively straight forward, if a bit monotonous, passing through lots of desert - some of which had been turned into vast tracks of cotton fields much to the disaster of the local environment as cotton needs a lot of water - and in a desert area! - The legacy of the old Soviet industrial agriculture policy!

We arrived in Moynaq shortly after mid-day. Moynaq was once one of the Aral seas two major fishing ports but now it stands almost 150km from the water.

True to what we had been told, the town really did seem to be dying. It was very soulless, appearing to be virtually lifeless, and with what seemed to be a constant dust storm blowing through the empty run down streets with what remained of its fishing fleet lying rusting in the nearby desert.

The Aral Sea, which split in two in 1987, straddles the border between Western Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan and was once the world’s fourth largest lake - but sadly no more. The shrinking sea is now recognised by the UN as the world’s worst artificial ecological disaster. However, unbelievably, what has happened to the sea and the surrounding area was no accident. Apparently Soviet planners actually planned and implemented a policy which they knew would dry the sea up by tapping the rivers that fed the sea in order to irrigate new cotton fields in the desert.

We were told that 60,000 people used to live off the Aral Sea in this part of the world although almost all have now left. Official statistics for Moynaq tell the story of a town which has suffered the full force of the Aral sea disaster with hotter summers, colder winters, with the town continually being subjected to sand-salt-dust storms. The average number of rainless days in the area has apparently risen from 30-35 in 1950’s to 120-150 today.

Respitary illnesses and cancer of the throat, high rates of typhoid, hepatitis, and the highest rates of birth deformity in the former USSR have all been a result of the disaster and even more worryingly, an island that was once in the middle of the sea and which was used as a Soviet biological warfare testing site during which anthrax and plaque were both released on the island is now gradually joining the mainland.

It was when we arrived in Moynaq that we gradually began to fall out with our driver. When we arrived we went straight to a ‘friends’ house of the driver who prepared us something to eat. We were keen to explore, but we ended up spending well over an hour there - which I suppose was fair enough as the driver had had a long drive up and needed a rest. However, he wasn’t too keen to leave the comfort of his ‘friends’ house and it took some ‘encouragement’ for us to leave and begin exploring - the whole point of coming all the way up here in the first place!

However, initially the driver would only drive us to a ‘look-out’ where we could only see the abandoned ships lying in the desert from a distance. After 5 minutes of looking at nothing much, he then proposed that we begin the journey back. After expressing our objections, he was ‘persuaded’ to drive down to a spot where we could walk through the abandoned ships.

The driver was obviously impatient for us to leave and start heading back and after, in his eyes far too long, we got back into the car for the drive back.

Before the start of the trip we had agreed a price with the driver to make a minor detour to drop Min off at a town called Nukas before then heading back to a place called Urgench which is located 35km to the north east of Khiva and which had better connections to the transport network back to Tashkent.

Although he did eventually do this, the detour to Nukas resulted in some major grumbling on his part and when we did drop Min off at the guesthouse, more grumbling ensued because we wanted to spend five minutes saying our final good byes to Min properly and to make sure that she was sorted out with a room for the night.

It was a sad moment to leave Min there in Nukas. I had only spent the last 5 days as a travelling companion with her but Rich had spent considerably longer than that and it was very sad to finally say good bye to her. It had been a good few days and after travelling alone for a while before hooking up with Rich and Min, it had been good travelling with a few other people again.

However, we had to leave Min and after literally being man handled into the car again by our ‘grumbling’ driver, we set off on the long journey back to Urgench. We finally arrived in Urgench after dark and tried to find the hotel we had earmarked to stay at. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it, but while we were looking around we did manage to find someone (or more correctly they found us) who was prepared to rent out their apartment to us for the night.

However, our grumbling driver was non too pleased with an ‘additional’ 5 minute drive and promptly stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and began to take all our luggage out of the boot.

‘Fine we thought, no problem, we would just not give him the full fare and we would get a taxi to the apartment’!

I’ve never seen a taxi driver move so quickly to put luggage back into the car as he did when he realised that he wouldn’t be getting all his money until he took us to our accommodation!

After the long drive, we had intended to give him a bit of extra money but after his outburst and his constant grumbling over the last few hours, he wasn’t going to get an extra penny from us other than what we had originally agreed!

In general, it’s difficult to stay anywhere in Uzbekistan other than at official ‘registered’ places because you are supposed to be ‘officially registered’ with the authorities for every day of your visit in the country - a legacy from Soviet times. This is unfortunate because due to the economic situation in the country, there are a lot of people who want to earn a little extra money by putting up ‘foreigners’ for the night in their apartments.

As it was getting late and the hotel options didn’t seem too appealing, we decided that we would risk taking up the offer of the accommodation in someone’s apartment for the night. As with most people’s apartments in the former Soviet Union, the apartment was in a crumbling complex of apartment blocks on the edge of the city centre. However, inside, it was relatively modern and comfortable and we were able to use the nearby apartment block canteen to get something to eat even though it was by this time getting quite late.

Tues 14th - Thurs 16th August - (Urgench to Tashkent)
After a good night’s sleep in relative comfort, the following day we headed down to the train station to get a ticket for a train to either Tashkent or Samarkand. There weren’t any suitable trains that went all the way back to Tashkent so we got a ticket for the overnight train to Samarkand from where we could easily get to Tashkent.

The train wasn’t until mid-afternoon so we had a few hours to kill in Urgench, which as there is nothing to see in Urgench, meant that we spent the time slouched on cushions at a traditional Central Asian low table in a restaurant sipping tea and eating shashlik (kebabs).

As far as I can remember, the journey was uneventful and we arrived in Samarkand around 4am. Due to the earliness of our arrival, we had to wait for things to open up before we could get a taxi to Bahodir B&B where we had both stayed during our previous visit to Samarkand.

Nothing much happened during the day as we had done all the sightseeing that we wanted to do in Samarkand during our previous visit and to be truthful, we were both getting very tired of sightseeing around the admittedly very impressive and beautiful buildings, but which after a bit do begin to blend into one. We therefore spent as little time as we needed to back in Samarkand and by the following morning we were on a bus heading back to Tashkent.

Thurs 16th - Sun 19th August - (Tashkent)
After arriving in Tashkent around mid-afternoon, and after an unfruitful journey to the train station to try and stay in the train stations lodgings, we eventually ended up at Ali Tours guest house which was where I’d stayed during my first visit to Tashkent.

Rich was staying in Tashkent for just one day before catching a flight back to Kyrgyzstan while I had three more days to kill before my train to Moscow was due to leave. On Friday, the day that Rich was still around, we decided to have a day trip out of Tashkent to visit the nearby Chatkal Mountains and the small town/ village of Chimgan. Whilst this trip got us out of Tashkent for the day (which was certainly worthwhile), there wasn’t that much to see out in the mountains. We made a small trek up a valley but as far as I can remember, the day was only really memorable for the struggle we had getting a taxi there and back and for the fact that I was persuaded by Rich to use the metro system for the first time (and only second time during my time in Tashkent) since I got stopped on the system by the Militia during my first visit to Tashkent. Fortunately, we had no problems with them this time.

Sadly, Rich departed the day after our trip to the mountains leaving me with a day and a half to kill before my train to Moscow. It now really did seem like the end of a journey, or at least the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I spent the next day and half at the nearby internet café trying to update my blog and generally preparing for the long train journey to Moscow.

Whilst I had enjoyed my time in Central Asia, it had been hard travelling and very frustrating at times with the all the bureaucracy getting visas and travel permits and the relatively limited English spoken in these parts of the world.

In addition, unfortunately throughout Central Asia there had always been the nagging fear at the back of my mind of the threat, made up/ exaggerated or otherwise, of the potential for the local police/ militia/ border guards to make things very difficult for you if they wanted to. Fortunately this had not happened on as many occasions as I had feared after reading and hearing other traveller’s tales from this part of the world and it had only happened on a few occasions, most notably on one occasion when entering Tajikistan and then at the metro station in Tashkent.

However, in the main my time in Central Asia had been enjoyable and on the whole, the majority of people had been friendly and helpful, and the scenery and architecture spectacular . However, at this stage I really had had enough of Central Asia and I was ready for a change of scenery - It was time to move on to the next stage of my journey - To Russia and on to Europe!

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