Times I was asked yesterday for directions: 2, or possibly 3 – I couldn’t tell if the third wanted directions or thought I was a (badly dressed) Russian prostitute. If I look like I know where I’m going, it’s entirely illusory as I wasted quite a bit of time yesterday trying (unsuccessfully) to relocate the metro entrance that I had exited from earlier. That’s right – there’s a metro here as I’m now in Tashkent – meanwhile the blog remains a respectful few days behind and arrives in Khiva! [have also added more photos to the 2 Mangistau entries]
Khiva is one of the Uz silk road tourist trilogy, along with legendary Bukhara and Samarkand. Most tourists who visit the country visit at least 2 of the 3, after their arrival in Tashkent (cos they usually do – unless they are masochistic overland travellers arriving from another Stan 🙂 ). If you’re not arriving in a coach with your touristic group (and yes I was asked the above question, but only twice…) then it’s normal to get there via the larger city of Urgench, a few miles from Khiva.
I googled for where I could find some transport from Nukus, discovered that real life had as usual made the lonely planet info I found online seem like a quaint historic memory, and got a taxi from the bazaar. Despite being the next major city to Nukus, apparently people there don’t especially travel to Urgench as we had to wait an hour for enough passengers (four in total plus driver, no it’s not comfortable as these are standard saloon cars..). During that hour the driver seemed to be conducting lots of other business – one thing that seems to be common here is people borrowing phones to make calls – and at least two people came to use the driver’s phone, including a pissed off seeming military guy, who apparently had his own, better phone so I don’t know what that was about. There was also someone who got in, then got out again a while later, and a not too healthy looking man who came over to retrieve medication of some sort. It was all a bit odd, but just seems to be the way stuff happens here.
In Khiva I almost felt like laughing when I saw the mud brick old city – it’s embarrassingly photogenic. Yes, I get it now…This is why the bus loads of Italians, French, Spanish, Russians all come here (rarely Brits, for some reason). But I was also glad I’d seen Nukus first as although Khiva is beautiful, it’s not representative of most of the country (not anymore, at least) and if this had been my first impression, then the rest of Uz would have been an even ruder awakening than it already had been.
After dark, it was cold (mid October, and the continental winter is about to kick in) and the mostly unlit lanes of this silk road theme park were almost deserted (all of the threesome have I think been heavily restored, though Khiva perhaps has lad less done to it as the surviving buildings weren’t as old in the first place as in Bukhara and Samarkand). So I ducked into a teahouse, where it seemed half the tourists in town were eating (though earlier it had been full of what looked like locals). There I discovered the Khiva speciality , the price-free menu! You pay what they think you can afford. Annoying as there’s no need – these inflated prices *are* still affordable to me (even with my worthless pounds) so yes I will pay them – no need for the opaqueness.
The next day I wasn’t quite sure what to *do* with Khiva so I postponed tackling its long list of sights, and headed into Urgench to go hunting dollars again. I was lucky – Rustam (not his actual name because.. duh.. U*********) found me staring at the useless map on my phone and offered to a) help me find a bank and b) show me a bit of Khiva. (A young professional and employee of the state, he’d finished his work for the day). Eventually we realised there were dollar ATMs at the Khorezm Palace hotel (info seekers: mastercard one worked, don’t know about visa). We attempted to get some plov for lunch – at the plov centre – but they’d run out of plov. So we went next door and had a big pile of fried fish (carp I think, also a local speciality). Then took the green trolley bus back to Khiva.
As well as having an impromptu local guide for what would otherwise have been several *interesting to look at but almost indistinguishable to me* sights, I also ascertained that he knew quite a bit about British politics (Theresa May! Brexit! Ha!), that he liked the spice girls (err..) and that Harry Potter is really popular in Uz. Though like most people here he is culturally muslim, he drinks (we had a beer) and doesn’t go to mosque as apparently the authorities would give him grief for being a possible terrorist. He confirmed that state employees are asked to give up some of their free time in the autumn to work on the cotton harvest, and though highly educated, seemed to have very favourable views about the recently deceased president (whose name I wont mention here). As far as I know the man spent decades maintaining a regime that controls pretty much every aspect of the lives of its citizens – there are police everywhere, you need your passport to do most things, bureaucracy is still soviet style, there’s high level corruption (eg the illegal but essential currency black market) and a hole in the economy. There are going to be elections on 4th December, but even if they are free and fair, it seems like the man did a number on enough of the people to ensure the continuation of something very similar. On a more cheerful note, here are some more touristy Khiva pics:
I didn’t share my views on the regime – it didn’t seem like a smart move to single-handedly attempt another central Asian revolution, and we parted ways with Rustam offering to help me with the shared taxi negotiations for the next leg of my journey, which he duly did a couple of days later. (And it was interesting then to see that having a local to do the talking didn’t prevent the taxi drivers from being argumentative and trying it on with the prices. I guess it’s a very difficult life – there can’t be enough work to sustain them all, that’s for sure.)