2012
05.08

SYNOPSIS:  THE UNESCO SITE OF KHIVA – AN UNREAL STEP BACK INTO MEDIEVAL HISTORY.

It was about 5 PM in the afternoon when I reached the medieval city of Khiva, laid eyes on the immaculately preserved ramparts, and stepped for the first time through Ota Darvoza, the West gate of this UNESCO preserved medieval town.  The sun already had that warm afternoon glow and shone onto the squat Kalta Minor, the minaret that was to be the tallest in the world at over 230 feet, but which stopped at a mere 85 feet instead.  It is massive and commands respect even in its truncated embarrassment.  It is covered top to bottom with colored tiles and thus provides the unquestionable visual focal point of the entire city.  I was at once reminded of Jerusalem.  Just as modern Jerusalem surrounds the Old City which is divided into its four quarters, so does modern Khiva surround this medieval gem.  Here, too, you have quarters.  The central East-West axis comprises most of the monuments, madrassas, caravanserais, minarets, markets, and squares whereas the North and the South holds residential neighborhoods with small, ramshackle buildings arranged in no apparent order. But Khiva is much, much smaller.  From East to West you barely have 350 meters and from North to South about 500.

For a moment I could not help but think of this as a movie set.  There was something completely unreal about this site.  Everything looked like it had just been restored, cleaned and fixed up yesterday.  Everything was picture-postcard perfect including the people in it, dressed up in local attire.  But yes, there were the tourists, easy to spot, too.  The “hotel” where I am staying, the Mizorboshi B&B, is really a restaurant run by a local family.  The building in which it is housed is a wonderful example of a traditional upper-class medieval mansion.  It reminded me of Baba Dool in Egypt.  There was the same layout of rooms around a central courtyard, open to the sky but shaded by high walls.  Here, additional cover is provided by the Iwan, an Islamic architectural feature found from Damascus to obviously Khiva.  There was an upper balcony sheltered by a wood-beam ceiling open to one side and a mud-baked rooftop with a great view across town.  From the outside you see little more than mud-baked tall walls!  I could not have picked a better and more traditional place to stay!  That is except for the tour groups which dine and laugh, talk and shout right outside my bedroom window.  But they come and go, from 12 to 3 and from 7-10.  After that and in between it is quiet.

I got a wonderful home-made breakfast with more than six home-baked pastries to choose from.  That, after in Nukus I had to pay for butter!  For breakfast there was dry bread and fried eggs.  No jam, no butter, no juice – that is, unless I pay extra, but even then there was no cheese…  Here I had three varieties of home-made jams and a freshly baked potato pancake.  And the owner Rishad came personally to shake my hands and to welcome me in his home.  Thanks, Ganesh – this was a miracle well performed!  I really should have gotten a reservation for this tourist-beleaguered town, but then I would not have gotten this.

Again, I have to make a choice between roaming the city or going to any of the many museums in the old town.  Almost all of the buildings that once functioned as mosques or madrassas, fortresses or residences have been converted to either hotels, restaurants, shops, or museums.  In fact, the criticism of this fairy-tale town is rightly that its soul has been driven out by making it a complete touristy city museum.  Even though there are still about 2000 residents left in the old town, they live on the fringes of the main axis and do not create a lived-in feel.

The UNESCO status for Khiva was applied in 1967 and already under the Soviets this had become the showcase tourist destination.  In fact, this morning, I almost went into shock when I looked down from “my” rooftop into the alley and saw it packed – I mean cram-packed – with tour groups, school classes, and just masses of people.  It was maddening.  So bad so, that I decided to leave the Ichan Kala (inner city) and explore some of the sites in the Dishan Kala (outer city) even though there is decidedly little to see.  I just could not bear the masses.  Judging by the situation yesterday, it is by about 6 PM that these tour groups leave town and things quiet down.  I might have to beat the crowds and get up with the sun tomorrow to get a different impression of this town in the morning.

I stuck to my decision not to spend time in any museums even though I am missing out.  Some of them display worthwhile collections of local history and local handicrafts; one, I would have been particularly interested in was on local music history.  But you cannot enter these museums individually.  You have to buy a full day pass for all of 17 museums!  With only one full day to spend here, something had to give.  During my walks through the outer sections of town I came across some of the less-restored medieval structures.  Some are crumbling away, some are under restoration, one minaret – completely divorced from its original purpose is now adorning a suburban garden!

As expected, by 6 PM the town emptied out.  The streets are empty now and I am sitting at the balcony overlooking the nearby brick structures glowing orange just before sunset.  Down in the courtyard outside my window a group of German tourists is having their first meal – as they are all introducing themselves to each other.  Once in a while I have to pass them, to get my computer, to get to the bathroom and I hear them whisper behind my back:  She lives here!  I pretend I don’t speak German.  It makes them less self-conscious.

Speaking about speaking to people:  Central Asia is definitely different from the Arab Middle East in that respect again:  People don’t just “attach” themselves to you, involving you in conversations, asking you off the street to join them in their home for tea, etc.  People mind their business and leave you alone.  I had this experience in Lebanon and Turkey as well.  I could have it either way.  For now, I am OK with this even though at some point, I would like to find a knowledgeable English-speaking person to talk to in some detail about what is going on in the daily life of these people.  What about secularism versus religion?  What about the Soviet legacy versus Uzbek identity?  What about the economy?  For now all of this is hidden from me behind tall mud-baked walls.

The good news is that I figured out (by accident and lots of trial and error) how to straighten out my computer screen.  At least I can write again!  For now I have lost my appetite to sit through frustrating hours of posting my blog.  I would rather enjoy my balcony than sit in a stuffy restaurant.  Let’s see what Bukhara will have in store for me on the computer front.  And since I will have a very early start tomorrow, I will call it a night.

4 comments so far

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  1. I’m so glad you got to straighten out your computer screen and can continue with your blog. Once again, I’m mesmerized. Beautiful photos! And, I always, reading about the people you meet on your travels is a real treat for me. I’m going to Google Maps next to see where you are.

  2. What a gorgeous place. It reminds me a little of Turpan (and that reminds me I still have a lot of photographs to work on {unsmiley emoticon}) but I am so delighted that you have started to encounter some of the magical places on the central reaches of the silk road.

    Sometimes you will have to play “dodge the tourists” but they are easily escaped because few are very imaginative or adventurous. Anyway, without their presence you might have to spend the entire trip dining on stale bread and rubbery eggs.

    Be safe………………………N

  3. P.S. I looked up your next destination, Bukhara, and coincidentally one of its Sister Cities is Santa Fe, NM.

  4. Indeed it would be interesting to find out about the daily life of the people of this city. I always wonder what is going on in the minds of people as they wander through their daily lives. And in a city like Khiva, so different from anything I have ever known, I’m sure some of their concerns and interests are the same as ours…but I am also sure that some are very different and could only exist in the context of this ancient place.
    I think it’s kind of cool you don’t let on you speak German…who knows what people will say about you when they think you don’t understand them!!!! lol Their uninhibited appraisals could be very interesting!!!