Uzbekistan has a lot to live up to - Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva; just hearing the names of its cities conjures up such strong images of the Silk Road, of traders from India, Persia and China all mingling and bartering goods, of Alexander the Great capturing the Sogdian Empire, of Genghis Khan raising the cities and of Timur's near mythical rebuilding of Samarkand to be his capital. Its all so exotic in my imagination.
Luckily I liked Uzbekistan the second we crossed the border. It has a wonderful lived in feeling and is such a contrast to the almost sterile white marbled Turkmenistan. Neat brick built, mud rendered, white painted houses line the road. The front gardens are all neatly tended vegetable patches with structures for growing vines. For sure it is much poorer than Turkmenistan, there are no mobile phones videoing us just people waving and working in the fields, but it has that cosy lived in feeling that lets you relax and enjoy.
The little city of Khiva still has its towering inner city walls made of mud brick with crenelations on top and rounded guard towers. Inside the walls its crammed full of little adobe houses, towering
Victory Day Parade
dance groups from each province parade through the streets in traditional costumes
minarets, twisting alleyways and the enormous arched doorways to the Madrassas (schools). Everything is covered in blue glazed tiles in a whole range of patterns, styles and shades. The whole inner city was renovated by the Soviets in the 1970s so in some ways it actually looks too perfect, like walking through a museum. However, we are incredibly lucky, we happen to be in town on Victory Day, the equivalent of our Remembrance Day; the veteran soldiers are all enjoying a free meal in their Sunday best, proudly displaying their medals. At 9:30 the city gates are thrown open and a procession of dancers and musicians from each province parades through, all in traditional dress - its like a carnival and brings the place to life. Persian/Arabian Nights style music wafts out of all the buildings, groups of exotically dressed people are wandering the streets, its noisy and loud and crowded and colourful - its perfect, just like you have been transported back in time to the city's heyday. The Uzbeks in their traditional costumes far outnumber the tourists.
After lunch the singing and dancing finished and its time for competitions - specifically ram fighting and cock fighting. The
rams are of the fat bottomed sheep variety, some have bottoms that are so fat they can hardly walk, they waddle down the road. The ram fighting consists of two rams being lined up opposite each other then they are let loose to charge and head butting each other. After 2 or 3 goes one ram suddenly decides its had enough and rather than charging when let loose it turns round and runs away much to the amusement of the crowds. The winning ram is awarded a carpet and is led out of the ring with the carpet draped over its back. The cock fighting isn't as bad as I expected. The tow birds spend most of their time circling each other and sizing each other up then eventually one will try to jump on the other. They are regularly picked up by their owners and given a wipe down. There never seems to be any direct contacts between the two birds and I'm not sure how they '' decided which was the winner.
In amongst the jollity and festivities we do get time to admire the buildings. They really had their architecture sussed - way back BC they
had air conditioning in their buildings and the same techniques were still used up to recent times; summer palaces and mosques faced north and were designed to capture the breeze and distribute it round the building while the winter palaces and mosques faced south to capture the warmth from the sun or had platforms where winter yurts could be erected. They even earthquake proofed their buildings with wooden layers or pieces of felt at the bases of columns.
The Madrassa build in 1910 is in traditional style whereas the Isfandiyar Palace built in 1912 is in European style - well sort of European style. The individual rooms are European and each individual piece of decorations is European but in the same ways that every traditional surface is covered in a mix of different patterned/coloured tiles the walls and ceilings and cornices etc of each room are covered in a totally different patterned/coloured European style. It a full on experience, no minimalism here.
So Khiva well and truly passed the wild and exotic test. Tomorrow we head to Bukhara to see how it fares.
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