Uzbekistan: A Tale of Four Cities (Part #1)
Uzbekistan: A Tale of Four Cities (Part #1)
Khiva is hands down amazing.
If mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind historical ‘lost cities’ – with no tourists – are your thing, then this right here is your jam. I thought the place was simply god-damned fabulous and definitely one of the greatest historical cities on Earth. I could keep raining superlatives on the place but let’s back up a little first.
Putting aside the fact that Uzbekistan rarely appears on the top of anyone’s ‘Too Go’ lists, Khiva finds itself isolated within the country itself, placed on the far Eastern, far from the nation’s capital and the two better known cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Littler and lost, Khiva is on hardly anyone’s radar.
I however would be entering the country overland from Turkmenistan on the Eastern side, meaning Khiva would be my first stop in the country, saving the best of the country for first. As we approached our destination and the cities great walls first came into view, my reaction was one of good old fashioned childlike amazement and wonder. I’d seen a few pictures of the city prior to getting here, but they all failed to convey the size and majesty of its walls – that to me evoked something from ancient Mesopotamia. I really can’t recall the last time a place left me speechless by virtue of its uniqueness and grandeur. I remember getting to Angkor Watt and feeling bored right from the get go. No offence to the Khmer’s – it’s not their fault their ancient temple mega-plex has long been bore-brow-beaten to death from sheer over-exposure. Oh wait, it is. The damn thing is on their fucking flag.
The main thrill of Khiva is simply to walk around the old town. The Madrassas (Islamic schools), multiple blue domed structures and ancient sandstone pathways all appear frozen in time. Though the pristine, peaceful state of the town today totally belies its origins as the biggest slave trading post in Central Asia throughout the 18th and early 19th Centuries. The most iconic structure in the area would have to be the 19th Century Kalta Minor Minaret – A gigantic conical tower that’s coated in radiant turquoise tiling.
On account of the meticulous maintenance of the place, some people have disparagingly referred to Khiva as the Museum City. But to me this served as no detraction. It was however, a little disappointing to learn that the current form of the great, seemingly ancient walls of the city only date back to the early 1800s, even though the original ones and city go back well over a thousand years earlier. Their unique, antiquated design owes itself to the former Khivan Khanates near total isolation from the modern world, up until it was absorbed by the expanding Russian Empire later than Century.
My top rated experience:
While sitting at the Bir Gumba café enjoying fine Turkish Coffee and Khivan style Baclava with magnificent views of Kalta Minor, I had one of my occasional moments of clarity. This was all just perfect. I felt swept over by the privilege to be amongst such an unknown, incredible looking place, that up until that day I’d barely given a thought too. What a find. It felt like real vindication for what travel at its core is all about.
Bukhara is Khiva in a more spread out, less concise, more tourist crowded kind of way. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own unique charms. To underline both points, Lonely Planet has one of Bukhara’s iconic architectural offerings – the Char Minor – gracing the cover of their Central Asian Guide book. The old town also makes a statement of its own with masses of much older madrassas and turquoise domes, on a far larger scale than Khiva.
Up until the late 19th Century, Bukhara operated as an autonomous Khanate ruled over by a series of Amir’s, many of whom became legendary for their madness and cruelty. The Palatial, walled former residence of the Amir’s known as the Ark, still stands just outside the area loosely designated as the old town – and is a close to star attraction that city has. It also features a museum of torture featuring the ‘bug pit’, a Temple of Doom style concoction squirming with rats and of course – bugs – that Amir Nasrullah Khan had furnished to toss in the countless people who offended him during his tenure – including a couple of bumbling Victorian emissaries who spent almost 2 years eking out a miserable existence there before they were executed.
Throughout the town, vendors abound with the wares of artisans who have been perfecting their crafts since the ancient days of the Silk Road. Bukhara steel goods, while largely forgotten since the Silk Road dried up, are still some of the finest on the planet, and obviously, here is the best place to get it. I bought some intricate embroidery scissors for my Grandma. Carpets are flogged to me everywhere here as well, though I’m not quite in the market for those yet.
My top Experience
I’m a massive fan of all sauna, hamam, banya, spa culture. It’s one of the great pan-cultural souvinears of the Roman Glory years, and simply an excellent way to feel fucking awesome. When I found out there was a 500-year-old Hamam in the Old town – I was all up on that. Unbelievably, the facilities are co-ed and given that you’re only given a small towel to wrap yourself with – which is partially removed when getting massaged – you’re likely to see a bit of everything from everyone else in there (There is a more modern women’s only Hamam nearby but naturally I can’t vouch for it). The ancient marble hamam is arranged in catacombs that look and feel every bit as old as they are, and the exfoliating and soap massages are as good as you’d get anywhere from Istanbul’s finest. But it was the uniquely Bukharan twist at the end which really put an exclamation point on the whole experience – being rubbed down in a raw mixture of ginger and honey. It made my skin feel as though it were on fire… but in a good way, as though it were singing. I left feeling transcendent.