Monday, 31 July 2017


Arriving at Samarkhand's immaculate station we were once again struck by the lack of rubbish, as almost everywhere in Uzbekistan. We now had an idea of how it worked, however, having seen the street cleaners on the main roads, the gypsies recycling everything at the markets, and the housewives sweeping their backstreets at  six am.

The train ride from Samarkhand twelve hours north west to Urgench was our first long distance sleeper train in Central Asia- hopefully the first of many! We had chosen platzkartny class (or third class), and were pleasantly surprised to find it spacious, clean and organized (apart from the toilets towards the end of the journey!). We were given a set of clean white sheets, and as it was 11pm, we deposited our bags safely in the storage under the bottom bunk, climbed into bed and fell asleep. Unfortunately the other man in our area didn't enjoy the window open as much as we did, and Sal had to wrestle with him for a crack in the window the entire night. What is it with Asians and fresh air??!!

Inside Khiva's old city walls

Our route through Uzbekistan

The scenery when we woke was scrubby desert, with the occasional village, until the outskirts of Urgench where it became more industrialized and surprisingly green. Every square inch here seemed to be taken up with orchards and small farms, and the crops were mostly water costly cotton and rice. It was the forced growing of cotton by the Soviet regime that devastated the Aral Sea (more about that in Kazakhstan).
Surprisingly fresh, we arrived at Urgench, fought out way to the front of the line in the booking office, bought a train ticket out for the following week, caught a bus and a marshrutka (minibus), walked through Khiva, found a room........and then collapsed for most of the rest of the day!! 

Decrepit Amir Tora Medressa, being renovated by the Chinese, Khiva

Resting in a mosque during the heat of the day, Khiva

Loved this plain, but so beautiful mosque- Ok Mosque, Khiva

Photogenic children in Khiva

If we thought it was hot in the rest of Uzbekistan, the 40+ degree temperatures here soon changed our minds! Our first priority for the room was strong working AC, and we spent most of the middle of our days resting in it. The room was extremely comfortable and snug, with everything in working order. We were again struck by the seemingly strange phenomenon, that in a country that becomes so incredibly hot for a large part of the year, no fans were to be seen- not in any of the rooms, eating areas, shops or public places. Of course, we stuck to our mornings and evening to see things- it was still hot at eight pm. The few times we ventured out in the middle of the day, we felt our faces would melt off! As well as being cool, early mornings were quite magical around town, with no stalls open and the only souls about a few ladies busying themselves with brooms cleaning the old city.

Sweeping in the early morning, Khiva

Keeping the city clean, early morning, Khiva

Spic and span Khiva

A bit of Khiva history- Khiva was a minor stop on the Silk Road even in the 8th century, but never really made it to the limelight (even under the powerful Khorezmshar empire during the 10th-14th centuries) until it became firstly an important capital under the Shaybanids, and then one of three khanates in Uzbekistan in 1747. In some ways, it was the heyday for the town with trade thriving in many goods, including slaves, but the savage rule of the emirs meant a lack of importance for religion and education. It became a far flung part of the Persian Empire in the 18th century, then the khan eventually became the last khan to surrender to the Russians in 1873.

One of many beautiful brass knockers, Khiva

Our favourite lane, Khiva

Old guys hanging out at a blacksmith's workshop, Khiva

We fell in love with Khiva on our first outing. It had a completely different character from Bukhara or Samarkhand, and it's containment within the small city walls, the proximity of the buildings inside the walls, and the narrow lane ways with high buildings on either side gave the town a unique flavour. 

Glowing morning light, Khiva

Popular means of transport around Khiva

Kids playing in the streets of Khiva

Something around every corner, Khiva

The colours were different, too, with white, navy blue, gold, emerald green and dark green added to the turquoise and aqua blues we had already seen. We particularly loved the small bright green tiles placed in walls and towers at even intervals as decoration, and the minarets with their stripes of bright colour. The painted interiors often had an unexpected splash of orange, and combined with the dusty brown mud brick walls and domes, the effect was striking. Around every corner were pleasing shapes in the skyline.

Angelic light in Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, Khiva

Soaking up the colour, Tosh-hovli Palace, Khiva

Coloured ceiling at Tosh-hovli Palace, Khiva

Soaring ceilings, Tosh-hovli Palace, Khiva

Detail of the intricate patterns, Tosh-hovli Palace, Khiva

Contrasting light brown mud walls, Khiva

Brown on brown, Khiva streets

Mudbrick tower, Khiva

Lovely green tiles dispersed everywhere all over Khiva

The unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva

View of Khiva at sunset

Grand old Russian car, Khiva

Puppets for sale, Khiva

Dyed wool ready for suzani making

Wandering the outside of the monuments of Khiva was by far the best attraction of this "living city". We did splash out and buy the ticket that allowed entry to pretty much all buildings (no negotiating on that one!), but we found that sometimes the insides were either a bit plain, or housed dimly lit and random museums. Exceptions included the old Russian school with a magnificent exhibition of a famous photographer's work from the 1920s and 1930s, the Traditional Arts Museum, with beautiful old rugs and ceramics, and a character-filled carpet and suzani (embroidered hangings) centre.

Beautiful courtyard, Khiva

Suzani making workshop, Khiva

Weird and confusing museum display, Khiva

VERY popular hats in the old days of Khiva, Islam Hoja, former leader of Khiva

The best interior, however, was the dazzling Tosh-Hovli Palace, a maze of dark corridors opening up to two surprise courtyards which housed soaring tiled doorways, with colourful roofs, wonderful wooden carved posts and even a stone platform for a yurt.

A close second was the Juma Mosque, with it's dark interior and 218 differently carved wooden posts. The light at different times of the day could be atmospheric, especially when there weren't many people around. A nice addition to Juma Mosque was the nearby wood carvers, all working on doors and posts in their workshops.

Master craftsman at work, Khiva

Young apprentices learning on the job, Khiva

Tenth century Islom-Hoja Mosque and Minaret were the highlight buildings for us (along with the funny squat Kalta Minor Minaret), and the lofty towers with their beautiful colourful stripes were able to be seen from most parts of  Khiva. Richard was very tolerant of Sal's moaning after she strained her leg climbing the extremely steep steps up to the top of the 33 meter minaret (Rich's knee not up to it). A surprise musical performance in the adjoining courtyard was a pleasant inclusion on one of our evening wanderings. 

Islom-Hoja Minaret- a sight visible throughout most of Khiva

View down an old street to Islom-Hoja, Khiva

Beautiful Islom-Hoja Mosque and Minaret, Khiva

Climbing to the top of Islom-Hoja Minaret, Khiva

Kalta Minor Minaret at sunset, Khiva

Fantastic young performer in Khiva's streets

A funny aside about all the museums and monuments were the ladies who worked on the door, seriously scrutinizing tickets and signing us in in their ledgers as we arrived. Often when we left, they would break into a smile and pull out something handmade, such as woolly socks(!!), from under the table hoping for a sale.

Center of the old part of Khiva

Typical village street scene outside the city walls, Khiva

This picture makes me so sad!

Two completely different little Uzbek faces, Khiva

One of our important stops was the market, and we were once again pleased with the amazing array of fruit and salad items, especially as we were in the middle of the desert. Alongside the usual covered market, was a scruffy dusty road filled with mostly women who had brought along a bucket of fruit and a couple of bags of vegetables from their gardens or small farms. It had an unorganized, yet cheery feel, with most of them not having scales or bags (most people seem to take their own bags), and we were often pressed to take something away for free. 

More colour at Dekhon Bazar, Khiva

Counting the som, Dekhon Bazar, Khiva

Mixed selection of goodies for sale, Dekhon Bazar, Khiva

Hooves, Dekhon Bazar, Khiva

We were allowed to scramble up onto the towering town walls, which were punctuated by four huge gates complete with niches where slaves were once kept and courtyards where they were sold. We walked along the walls as far as we could, looking down upon the winding streets and residents going about their business in their little mud brick homes with courtyards. Apparently, being a protected site, properties are not for sale within the walls, rather passed down through families. People living inside the walls would often have a tapchan (outside bed) to sleep on and laze in the hotter parts of the day.

Bird's eye view of Khiva

Up on the city walls, Khiva

East gate, once a slave trading area of Khiva

Outside city walls of Khiva at sunset

Having plenty of time in Khiva was a blessing, as it meant we could stop and rest in the shade (admittedly, often with an ice cream in hand!), and watch people come and go . People would come and sit with us, eager to talk, and we were happy to comply. A little boy in one family was particular cute, screwing up his face to remember English words and then blurting out "Cow!", "Children!" or "Theatre!" with a huge proud smile.

Mucking around with local kids, Khiva

Comparing beards, Khiva

A short video in Khiva:

We were still entranced by the wonderful variety in the looks of people's faces. Some more examples:

*We have included a list of costs detailed here for those who are interested (US$1= 8,100 som):

Accommodation for Samarkhand and Khiva:
Samarkhand, Hotel Abdul Nazrah US$20
Khiva, Lali-Opa Guesthouse US$20

Accommodation was, for the most part comfortable, with some sort of AC, WIFI, attached bathroom with hot water, and a hearty breakfast. Having said that, it was the most expensive part of our budget in Uzbekistan by far. It seemed strange to us to be paying next to nothing on transport and food, but still forking out at least US$20 for a room. The great thing about all the guesthouses we stayed in in Uzbekistan was the common areas in which to make contact with fellow travelers.
Often in our travels we arrive at a place with WIFI, and every single person in there has their head down in their phone or computer, not interested in speaking, or what is actually going on around them. Or we will be somewhere remote, with no tourists, where we miss the craic of a chat and a laugh with fellow roamers.
The route we took through Uzbekistan was full of friendly travelers passing through on bikes, motorbikes, cars, taxis and trains, and there were plenty of people to socialize with. We also seemed to be crossing paths with people often- people we'd seen in one town, showing up at the guesthouse in another.

View from Khiva guesthouse

Breakfast Bukhara guesthouse

Bukhara to Samarkhand , train, 45,000 som 1.5 hours
Samarkhand station to town, bus 9,000 som 20 mins 
Ishratkhana mosque Samarkhand to Registan, taxi, 5,000 som, 10 mins
Samarkhand to Urgut shared taxi 6,000 som 50 mins
Urgut to Samarkhand marshrutka/damas 5,000 som 50 mins
Samarkhand to Urgench, train, 83,000 som 11.5 hours
Urgench station to Urgench bazaar  bus 700 som 15 mins
Urgench Bazar to Khiva marshrutka 2,000 som 30 mins
Khiva to Urgench train station taxi 25,000 som 30 mins
Urgench to Beyneu train 216,000 som 19 hours

Transport was reliable, comfortable and very cheap. We were able to take trains all through Uzbekistan, ranging form the amazingly fast, clean and spacious Afrosoiyob bullet train we took from Bukhara to Samarkhand, to the long distance sleeper trains from Samarkhand to Urgench and onto Kazakhstan. Within cities we traveled on local buses, shared taxis, non- shared taxis and marshrutkas (minibuses) without any problems. It was always easy and cheap.

Swish train from Bukhara to Samarkhand

Sleeper train Samarkhand to Urgench

Sights Samarkhand and Khiva:
Bibi Khanym 8,000 som
Khiva entire town entrance fee 47,000 som
Islom-Hoja Minaret 6,000 som


Food costs were similar to Tashkent and Bukhara, but even cheaper as we headed north.
Our typical leisurely guesthouse breakfast in Uzbekistan was usually bread, eggs, cheese, salami, a pot of tea and coffee. Variations included rice pudding, semolina, cakes, mashed potato (!), biscuits, fruit, French toast, pancakes and honey. In Khiva, breakfast was a full meal including rice, vegetables, fried eggs, potatoes patties and sausage! Needless to say, all that food kept us going for most of the day!
We continued preparing our other meals fresh from the market- delicious flat breads, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, herbs, various types of cheese, salami, pickles, a creamy natural yogurt called smetana and loads of fresh fruits. Like the Iranians, Uzbeks love their ice cream and there are parlours at regular intervals around the towns. We loved this diet, after so many years of spicy Asian rice based meals, and the added bonus was the extremely cheap prices for such produce. But our reasons for self catering were also about the Uzbek food. Let me explain......
The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov, rice mixed with lamb and some vegetables. Sounds OK, right? Wrong. Every pot full we saw made us feel ill, dripping with fat and full of disgusting looking meat. Ditto almost everything else on the Uzbek menu. Greasy noodles with horse meat, fatty kebabs, gristly shwarmas, boiled meat porridge, chunky horse meat sausages, and samsa- savory pastries filled with God knows what, sometimes we were lucky, mostly not.

Bits of unappetizing meat

The chick peas look nice, shame about the rest.....

Plov, complete with oil

One of many funny local copies of famous products

In conclusion, we would without a doubt love to return to fantastic Uzbekistan- the people, transport, sights, and history were all brilliant. But it would be easier for us to do so when the government has changed the registration rules. Every hotel in Uzbekistan must provide tourists with registration (a little slip of paper to say when we stayed at the hotel), that we must then show to authorities upon exiting Uzbekistan. Also, some hotels will not accept tourists who don't have their previous registration slips. It's an annoyance as it restricts activities such as camping and home stays. We pretty much stuck to the big towns of the Silk Road, as to veer off meant finding affordable accommodation that provided registration. Hopefully in the future, if things change, it will be possible to leave the main tourist route and find some lovely small places to explore.

Rich at the entrance of Allakuli Khan Medressa, Khiva

Khiva street scene

Souvenir sellers, Khiva

The magnificent Allakuli Khan Medressa, Khiva

Old man in same spot every day, Khiva

So many cute kids around Khiva!

Interesting old man, Khiva

Got a smile in the end! Dekhon Bazar, Khiva

Onward to Kazakhstan!!