Having spent a month as youngsters inter-railing around Europe living in the trains and seeing as much as we could we’re nostalgic about train travel. It was only when faced with 16 hours of being bounced around in a tiny, hot cabin with a comatose drunk man that we remembered the reality.
We caused much bemusement when after getting on the train we promptly bailed off again as it was too hot to bear but when the guard understood why and he booted a couple of men off the bench on the platform, so we took a seat spending a pleasant hour in the evening cool making new friends with the help of a young man that spoke a little English.
When we got back on the drunk man was kicked out of one of our bottom bunks and banished to the top where he should have been by our carriage guard (who had taken us under his wing) and we settled in. Drunk man sobered up pretty quick when we opened the window and when he got off at 2am we had the cabin to ourselves – we wasted no time locking the door and settling in for some decent sleep.
We woke at 6am to find we were in the desert. 5 hours and 2 snoozes later and we were still in a desert. Eventually a town began to emerge on the horizon and we figured somewhere there was our stop. We enjoyed getting a glimpse into the outskirts of town and for the first time saw cotton fields- Uzbek’s largest crop.
As we pulled into Urgench station we could see a crowd of taxi tours behind the fence who were meeting people. We entered into a broken Uzbek negotiation with the first driver to say ‘Khiva’. He wanted US$10. With the help of the guy we had talked to the night before on the platform (who we knew lived in Khiva) we paid 30,000 som (US$5.5). He also came with us and one other guy was found to fill the last seat and within 5 minutes of arriving we were heading off.
A big flat straight road in reasonable condition linked the two and saw us there in no time. It’s was just about cool enough for a jumper. The locals were so rugged up you would think it was mid- winter.
Khiva is an old Silk Road town that has existed since the 8th century. It’s historic centre is within an inner walled area. The young guy we were with reckoned he knew a good cheap hotel so we headed there and after checking it out we checked in. The guidebook had it priced higher than we would want to pay but the rate we were offered was nearly half, that making it a price we were ok to pay. It was like a large guesthouse built around an indoor courtyard area. When an oil heater was put in our room and switched on we guessed they were expecting it to go cold later.
We dumped our gear and headed out to explore. It’s not a huge area within the walls so we didn’t bother with the map. Eventually we found the West gate. To access the museums and also technically to take photos you need a 2 day ticket. The office wasn’t signed so it was more of a case of them spotting us rather than us finding it. With a ticket in hand we continued on. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and getting our bearings. It’s coming into low season and there were hardly any other tourists around. The majority we saw were Uzbek although we eventually got talking to a Russian woman and at dinner, given we were at the restaurant recommended by the guidebook as ‘the place to go’ we found a few more. Judging by the size of the handful of restaurants and the number of souvenir shops it obviously gets pretty busy in summer and with just a few of us there it looked pretty pathetic. It was hard to see how they survive the low season. It was pitch black and only dimly lit when we left the restaurant. With nowhere else to go we headed back to the hotel.
We were greeted by a boiling hot room as the radiators were also now on and the oil heater had already done its job. Luckily we had a window we could open so we could easily regulate it. Ever the opportunists we promptly did our laundry. With plentiful hot water we decided we had landed a good hotel.
A decent night of sleep punctuated only twice by waking up roasting (nothing that a brief stint of opening the window didn’t fix) we woke up to a cold grey day, and it had been raining overnight.
Breakfast was a feast although everything was quite dry and not fresh looking. Marie and food still don’t get on post Delhi so she just picked gingerly whilst Emma set about trying everything with gusto.
We headed out for the day weaving our between potholes. We soon learned that desert and rain = mud. Particularly when we ventured outside of the walls to see something of the town proper, as we ended up down very muddy backstreets making very slow progress as we tried not to end up on our arses.
We spent the rest of the day exploring some of the 16 museums, we covered all of the walled area, we walked the perimeter of the wall and visited the bazaar which included outdoor covered market areas for veggies, shops around off to the side with clothes, plastic wares, blankets, raw meat, cured meats, butter etc. We found the row of stalls BBQing meat skewers and selling somsa (onion and minced lamb in puffed pastry parcels) so that was Emma’s lunch sorted. We also bought Uzbek famous carrot salad which is like sweet pickled carrot.
As the day wore on the wind picked up and it got colder. It felt like it was blowing from Siberia, so we pit stopped at the hotel to put more clothes on. When it spat with rain or we wanted a break from the cold we made a tea stop at one of the restaurants.
The museums each have a different theme and each is in a different building but probably the most common would have a series of rooms off a main courtyard that we often had to ourselves. We had unknowingly saved the best until last, the museum of handicrafts. It wasn’t the museum that made it the best but its ornate courtyard.
The tourist information centre is where all the action in Khiva happens. We had called in earlier in the day to ask about how much a shared taxi to Bukhara would cost and they told us to come back at the end of the day and they would tell us if anyone else had come in looking for the same so we could join them and split the cost. They can also change money there. The official exchange rate is kept artificially high so everyone uses the black market as you get so much more.
They said they would do 1USD for 6,000 som (400 more than what we got in Tashkent). When we returned at the end of the day no one else had been in for a taxi so for just us it would cost US$70. At 450km away it’s not just down the road but the price still seemed steep. We asked about a shared taxi and were told we could get one for 6,000 som each to Urgench and then 80,000 each to Bukhara. We would have to wait in Urgench while they found more passengers but at close to US$30 it sounded worth the extra hassle. Armed with the knowledge of how much it should cost we stood a good chance of actually getting that rate too.
When the woman who had been dealing with us disappeared out to change our money another woman in the office sidled over and said she knew someone who would pick us up from the hotel, would fill the car with more passengers in Urgench and take us for $15USD each (90,000 som). We signed up. She wrote our names and hotel in a book, we paid her and in return as a receipt she gave us her phone number. We reckon the other woman disappeared deliberately- she definitely clocked the deal going down when she got back but pretended not to notice. She’s probably the person who officially works there.
That night we headed to one of the farthest restaurants for dinner, with few people about on the dimly lit streets we didn’t hang around after.
- Our hotel water smells strongly of sulphur so much so we wonder whether we should stop drinking the tea. Our jewellery is tarnishing with every shower.
- Everywhere has central heating; Uzbekistan is more progressive than New Zealand
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