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Published: March 12th 2014
My road ended in Khiva, in between the 2 Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, right at the border with Turkmenistan. I didn’t expect it to end there. That wasn’t the plan at all. This is my last blog about Uzbekistan and Central Asia. This 8-month adventure is over but it is without any doubt calling for other journeys. I have made the choice to go back to China to be with Jiang Xin. She couldn’t stand the distance anymore and this affected me. I hate it when people say you can’t have everything… maybe I can have it all… later. I know I want to hit the road again to discover new places and make new friends the way I did in Khiva, my last stage on a 6-month bike journey.
I left my bike in Bukhara and shared a taxi to Khiva with 3 other tourists. You are going to wonder why I didn’t ride my bike to Khiva. The reason is simple, I simply didn’t have the time to ride 1000km through the desert… It’s 500km from Bukhara to Khiva and I needed to get back to Bukhara anyway to enter Turkmenistan at the border crossing of Turkmenabat (near
the city of Bukhara). After all these months on my bicycle, I had forgotten what it was like to share transportation. The lady in charge of my guesthouse had told me she had arranged a taxi driver to pick me up at 8am and it would take about 6 hours to drive to Khiva. I should have known better… I had dreamed that the taxi would be picking up people from one hotel to another and that it wouldn’t be too long before we were on our way across the desert… but as I was alone in the taxi, the driver asked me to pay 100dollars so that he could drive me to Khiva right away. As I refused, I ended up waiting outside the bazaar for other people to choose my taxi driver to ride to Khiva… It wasn’t a given because there were many other drivers at the bazaar and they didn’t seem to be willing to share passengers. So I grumbled and waited… I was bitter and I really missed my bike and the freedom that come with it! At 10.30 I grabbed my backpack from the trunk of the taxi and I told the driver that
I didn’t want to wait any longer. I crossed the parking lot when 3 young tourists showed up. They immediately were surrounded by a ton of drivers and they tried to negotiate a faire price to… Khiva! I made my way through the crowd to tell them I would like to share a cab with them, but there were so many men around them, they didn’t even realize I was a tourist! With my beard and my old maroon sweater they all thought I was a taxi driver with pretty good English! Haha!
Even in a taxi the ride to Khiva was long and monotonous. We followed the A380 through Kyzylkum desert: sand, bush, sand, wind, a gas station, trash, sand, bush, a little shop by the road, trash everywhere, more sand and wind. It would have been a pretty boring ride on a bike. The Parisian couple and the Canadian girl who were with me in the taxi exchanged a few traveling stories. I tried to ask a few questions to our taxi driver (different guy from the one who had picked me up in the morning) and got a few laughs but very quickly everyone in the
invited in their home
Mom and son. Lunch on the carpet.
back seat feel asleep and I was back to day-dreaming. We arrived in Khiva just before sunset. I dropped my bag at a guesthouse and headed to the old town right away to enjoy the pink light over the ancient mud-buildings. Khiva was all quiet. People were getting ready for dinner and the empty streets were swept by a cold wind. I got back to my guesthouse for dinner, just on time before the rain started falling. I sat down for dinner with Elaine (from Canada) and ………… (from France). Elaine has been on the road for 2 years, traveling and taking language courses here and there. ………….. just left Beijing after a year of teaching French at the Alliance Francaise. He has decided to travel by land to France for Christmas. Both of them were extremely out-going and friendly and we ended up talking (about traveling of course!) for hours.
The next day was mostly cold and rainy. …………. left in the morning and Elaine and I went for a stroll in the old town. I played football with a few kids in the street and we got to taste Uzbek hospitably on several occasions. First, a lady
invited us to her house after Elaine took a picture of her at her window. We ate a pomegranate and a shot of vodka. Lunch was served on the floor and the grandpa was very excited to have guests at his table/carpet. The lady’s husband had just come back from Russia where he works. Their teenage kid was extremely friendly and although we couldn’t talk to each other much because I barely speak Russian, we managed to understand each other through miming. Elaine laughed at me for the rest of the afternoon exaggerating my numerous attempts at questions using one Russian word only and lots of body language… We were then invited for tea several times but we politely declined and instead had a few short conversations with people outside their homes. I expected Khiva to be a tourist trap but actually I was treated as a guest more than a tourist. I don’t know if people who visited the town in the summer (the busy period) felt the same as Elaine and I did, but for us the locals in Khiva presented Central Asia’s hospitality at its best.
Khiva is often described as a “museum city” and stepping
into the old town surrounded by its fortified mud-wall takes you to another era. One legend has it that Khiva was founded when the son of Noah, Shem, found a well (they called Kheivak) in the middle of the desert. I personally prefer the story about travelers passing through the city, and upon drinking the clear water in town, they would exclaim “khey vakh!” (what a pleasure!) and thence the city was called Kheyvakh, that later derived into Khiva. Khiva has been on the map for centuries but it’s in 1592 that a branch of the decaying Timurid empire founded a state in Khorezm (the Urgench area) and made Khiva their capital. The town ran a busy slave market between the Turkmen desert and the Kazakh steppes. The main sites inside the ancient town regroup medressas, minarets and mosques built a long time ago but restored in the 18th
centuries. The view from the tallest minaret in Uzbekistan, the Islom-Hoja Minaret, is splendid. From the top I got to witness Khiva waking up, the old buildings bathing in pink early light: what a spectacle!
On my second day in Khiva I was fortunate to meet 2 European
diplomats working in Afghanistan. We had dinner together and as we hit it off, they invited Elaine and I for a guided tour of Khiva the following morning. We followed an old-fashioned local guide with rigid English and very little sense of humor. He was on a schedule and we had to see it all according to his plan… But it was very interesting to see the columns of Juma Mosque that date back to the 10th
century and of course the very large blue tower that stands in the central city square: it was supposed to be a minaret, but the Khan died and the succeeding Khan did not complete it; perhaps he realized that if completed, the minaret would overlook his harem and the visitors would be able to see the Khan's wives. Construction was thus halted and the minaret remains unfinished to this day.
Traveling was fun. Seeing new places and meeting new people was exactly what this trip was all about. But good things never come easy and I had a serious problem on my plate. My girlfriend, Becky, was still in Beijing, and she wasn’t happy about this long-distance relationship. She had
one of the couples getting married in Khiva
photos, drinks, dancing, little ceremony at the mosque...
asked me (of course) to come back to her many times and we had reached what I thought was a good compromise… I wouldn’t ride all the way to Turkey but from Iran I would catch a ferry to the United Arab Emirates where she could fly to meet me for Chinese New Year (a month and 2 weeks away at the time) and then I would fly back to China and move to Beijing with her. But 6 weeks were too much and she couldn’t wait for me anymore… L I seriously think that I asked every single tourist I met on the road what I should do in regards to my relationship: go on and fulfill a dream, or go back and make my girlfriend the happiest lady in the world?... Was I being selfish for wanting to go on? Yes. Was she being selfish for asking me to go back? Maybe… I was gone for almost 8 months but we met in Urumqi in July and then I flew back to China in October for National Day. Most westerners I talked to thought I should finish my trip (“if she loves you, she will understand and wait
for you. There’s only 6 weeks left…”) but all of my Chinese friends advised me to come back to “make Becky feel safety…” At the guesthouse in Khiva I met a young Japanese man who told me how he had presented his girlfriend with the fait accompli that he was taking a few months off to reach Europe by land (…) and that was it, there was nothing else to talk about. And he made the best impersonification of Japanese girls (his girlfriend in this instance) with a sad pouting face and a hushed up sigh… C’est la vie! Well, it doesn’t work like this in China where girls are a lot more over dramatic (anyone wants to comment on this?) and after a long and late conversation with Elaine, I decided to pack and take the first morning bus back to Bukhara, pick up my bike there, and then catch a train to Tashkent from where I will fly back to China…
This had been on my mind for many weeks but I thought Becky would be stronger. I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my experience on the road anymore knowing that I was causing Becky so much
pain. Plus (and it’s true!) the weather was hell with grey sky 5 days out of seven which was not how I imagined my traveling through the desert on the bike. So Turkmenistan and Iran will have to wait. But I will be back someday soon, and not in the winter!
An email from Oliver, the German diplomat I met in Khiva, did make me smile and reinforced the feeling that I was doing the right thing. I am sharing it with you today, and yes, I am thrilled to be back with Becky in Beijing. I managed to put my pride aside, and those of you who have known me for years will say it’s a first…
“Wow Jeremy, this is grand cinema: crossing China and the Pamir, nearly feeling the winds of the Persian Gulf (with Santa Claus waiting in Dubai) – and then rushing back: congratulations, this was definitely the right decision – and a very French one en plus.”
Are the French romantic or what??!!! J
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