Solomon, the taxi driver had the list with my destinations for the day and you would think that he would have used the time between yesterday and today to do some homework. I had asked repeatedly if he knew where I wanted to go and been assured he knew. I had my doubts, justifiably so. He was barely 21 years old and hardly had seen the world. He spoke no English and had already trouble yesterday to find the sites around Nukus. I kid you not, in the course of the day he asked for directions about 35 times. Complicating the matter is the fact that except for a very few major intersections, there is absolutely no signage anywhere. We would turn into rough little dirt roads and actually end up at some archaeological site. One would think these would be of interest mainly to people who had no idea where to go and anyone interested in attracting tourists would have the brilliant idea of labeling a few of them. I guess, not. The GPS industry would have a golden market here… Without GPS and mapquest, I would have thought that at least a basic map would have been in order. But, in the end, we found everything. Solomon learned a few English phrases and I brushed up on a few more Russian ones. The day was a success.

By 8 AM we were on our way in Solomon’s unmarked “taxi”. Only few of the taxis in this country seem to be officially licensed. Most any car will act as a taxi if the driver feels so inclined. And a few, like Solomon, actually make a living out of being unofficial taxi drivers. The day was overcast and gray. Our first stop, about ½ hour into the trip along the main road between Nukus and Khiva was Chilpak, close to the Amu Darya, one of the two main rivers of this country.  This was a Tower of Silence of the same sort as I had seen in Yazd, Iran. There it made perfect sense to me, as Zoroastrianism was the main religion. This far away from Iran, I had not expected to find one. But there it was. Stout and round, rising up in the landscape and visible from afar. These towers were used for secondary burials and there would have been a cemetery nearby. No hint of that exists today. Solomon told me, that as a school kid he had gone on many excursions visiting this site. The view from the tower into the landscape was rewarding.

This was my first glance at this river. Along with the other main river of this region, flowing much further North through Kazakhstan, the Syr Darya, it got drained so much under the Soviets for cotton production, that it caused one of the most unfathomable environmental disasters of modern times: the loss of the Aral Sea. If I had more time, I would have made the trip up North to see what remains today of the once fourth-largest lake in the world.

Around the city of Buston, half-way between Nukus and Khiva is an area known for its desert sites. The most popular and best explored is Toprak Kala. By the time we got there it was raining… A huge mud-clay citadel dominates the landscape with two peaks connected by a rim. A series of rooms can be made out as well. I will leave it to the archaeologists to make out what this all was. It was impressive and interesting on several levels. First, there was a folklore multicultural festival going on, rain or shine. Thousands of people had gathered to watch hundreds of dressed up performers, including dozens of major TV stations and journalists. Traditional yurts lined the main avenue providing shelter for the performers. Others were souvenir stands selling local handicrafts. Dozens of covered tents were set up to provide local dishes and drinks. And all of this in a place made up of mud in the rain. You should have seen my shoes after walking around there for an hour… But what fun! Each major city in Uzbekistan was represented in local costume with the women and children dancing and the men playing various instruments. We got there just in time to catch the end of a parade during which all of these groups were walking down the central avenue. A stage was set up for individual presentations to follow throughout the day.

But horror of horrors, the ancient site was part of this festival! Guards prevented the thousands of visitors from climbing up – that was good. A few journalists were let through with special permission, or people like myself – pleading that as a foreign visitor from far away I had no opportunity to return at a different time. But as the parade occurred, dozens of dressed up warriors were lining the ruins. They had climbed up the sides of the monument to get into position and you could see the damage their ascent and descent created on this mud site. This is mud after all; rammed earth and vulnerable as ever to intrusions like that! So far so good, but that’s when the trouble started.

Solomon did not want to follow my guidebook’s advice to return to a town a few miles back and to take the main road from there to the next monument. He thought he could manage the back roads… Two hours later (rather than 30 minutes), we reached the completely unmarked and remote site of Koi Krylgan Kala, a citadel known for its unique concentric layout. It was a small but charming site whose main function today seems to provide the nesting ground for hundreds of birds who find shelter in its small holes and crevices. As you circle the outer time of the fort, the birds fly out from beneath, shrieking over the disturbance.

A few miles down the road, the impressive outer walls of yet another desert town Guldursan, rise up in the modern town of Katta, forming a perfect square. Next to the miniature Koi Krylgan Kala, Guldursan appeared gigantic. Nothing is left of the houses that once were protected by these mighty walls. With Solomon’s help, I climbed the top of the walls and we walked the ramparts. A group of school children spotted us and came running over to watch the spectacle of that foreign lady balancing the precarious rim. Luckily, I did not trip, slip or fall or make an even bigger spectacle out of myself. After successfully getting down, the kids happily posed for me. To Solomon, the taxi driver, all of this was new. I tried to tell him in my broken Russian, that he should first of all learn English, second, make good notes of where he had just been and third, start to market himself to the tourists of Nukus as a knowledgeable taxi driver who can cater to their needs. I hope he listened. And I hope he will buy a map some day.

Between Nukus and Khiva the landscape had changed from desert sands sparsely populated with low growing shrubs, to more lush fields of wheat and trees. The villages along the road had a mix of mud-brick and brick single story architecture. Traditional ovens for baking breads could be seen near almost every house. There were lots of animals and stables. Cows, sheep, goats and chicken were roaming everywhere, not too many cats and a few dogs. The women here wear colorful full-length dresses or two piece matching outfits, made of velvet-textured synthetic materials (that must be hot in the summer!) and scarves bound in a knot at the back. Many men wear traditional square head-caps embroidered in bright colors. Ethnically, people seem to be a mix of Turkic and Asian origin. The clothing makes for colorful touches in the midst of mainly beige colored brick and mud architecture.

We reached Khiva by the late afternoon. Solomon had never been here before either. Our chins dropped. This was a different world from Nukus! No wonder, all hotels were booked… I found a bed in a dorm room at a place that mainly functions as a restaurant. So far I am the only occupant. But I will have to share if necessary. I don’t mind. I was directed to a restaurant that had wireless internet; the only one in the vicinity. And after a very frustrating evening of low connectivity which once again prevented me from loading images, I managed to accidentally turn my computer screen sideways! Who has ever heard of such a thing?! Now I could not even write anymore! If these frustrations keep piling up, I might have to suspend the blog until I get home. It was hours later with little accomplished that I gave up and went to bed.

Good night (I hope).


5 comments so far

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  1. Elizabeth, this is a guide from Uzbekistan reading your blog. Excellent blogging! Thanks for sharing all these. Regarding the sideway computer screen. Ctrl+Alt+arrows will help you. 🙂

  2. Wow, the photos just make your words just so much more powerful.

  3. Oh no, I hope you don’t have to quit blogging. I can only imagine how difficult it is to do every night after your adventures though, so I understand if you do!
    I can’t believe how those people climbed onto the mud monuments. It hurts my heart.

  4. It’s so interesting that the dress of the people is wonderfully colorful to offset the monotony of the sandstone desert structures. I looked up Khiva and saw all those beautiful blue Minarets…colorful among the tan buildings of the city. I wonder why they are mostly blue and not red or green or purple (or some other colors)…probably some Islamic color thing from “back in the day” that I am not aware of.
    If you ever get bored with teaching (I hope not), you can always buy a few maps and open a taxi business over there. Sounds like you know of what you speak in your suggestions to Solomon.
    I sure hope the internet thing improves as you move around…I would hate to have your wonderful blog go dark, but understand if it must be so.
    And oh yes, do let us know if you have to iron your shoes like you did on your last trip. lol

  5. Hang in there, Elisabeth – and may you and your computer both have a good night.