Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Saturday, October 18, 2003 06:28:43|
Central Asia 2003: 11 - Urgench, Khiva, Bukhara
Thursday, January 16, 2003
The day before yesterday we arrived in Urgench, a city of 100,000, which was founded in 1656. Crossing the border from Turkmenistan into Uzbekistan is another small milestone for me - this is the 250th country I have visited. The crossing went smoothly, with the Uzbek officials friendly and helpful. Our driver and guide, Timur, were there to meet us.
This part of the country has brutal weather - as hot at 50C in the summer and as cold as minus 40C with the wind chill factor in winter. In winter there are a lot of storms with strong winds. We are definitely here at the right time of the year. While Timur feels this part of the country is just emerging from the dark ages - he is from the capital - in reality the city is quite pleasant with wide streets, flowering boulevards and lots of trees.
After arriving we had some free time, which I used trying unsuccessfully to get on the hotel internet and catching up on writing. Marilynn has come down with a nasty head cold and is not feeling great. Dinner was in the hotel so there was no need to go out, which suited her fine.
In the morning Marilynn was feeling even worse, so opted to stay in bed for the day, which is a real shame as we spent the day exploring the famous city of Khiva, a World Heritage Site which was first founded in the 10th century AD. We had a local guide who knew the area well, but spoke only Russian, so Timur translated for us.
The city has been completely reconstructed, including the massive inner city walls, to look like it did in the 18th and 19th century when it was the capital of the ruling khans. Most of the buildings inside the walls are original. The city was finally taken by the Russians under Czar Nicholas II in 1868 beginning the long period of Russian occupation.
Part of the outer wall can be seen - it was 6 ½ km long, 7-8 meters high and quite thick. It was constructed of clay bricks brought from a few km away by a long line of people passing bricks from one to the other. So much clay was taken for the construction that the hole made is now a lake. The wall is said to have been constructed in 40 days by 50,000 labourers. They had an incentive program for the workers - if you slacked off you got to be part of the wall - or at least what was left of you did.
The inner wall, which stands as it did then, is 2 ½ km long and encloses the 26 hectare city which was known as Itchan Kala. It is a functioning city, with people living in houses that look as they did, lots of shops and various places manufacturing cloth, carpets, metal work and wood work as it was done then. There are also hotels, restaurants and even a department store in bazaar styling within the walls. It makes me think I should have brought my video camera to capture the sights and sounds, as a still camera does not do it justice. On the other hand, the reason I didn't bring it is that I have 12 years of video tapes which no one (including me) has ever seen sitting unedited in a drawer, so there seemed little point in adding to them.
The Khans (pronounced "hans" here) were pretty fierce and ruthless rulers. The highest structure in the city is the minaret with its hundreds of spiralling inside steps leading to the top. The second highest structure is similar, except it was for carrying out death sentences by throwing the convicted person off the top. The entire city was required to watch executions, which also included stoning, where the victim was buried to the shoulders then stoned to death, and impaling - where the victim was forced down on a sharp stake protruding from the ground for over a meter. The system seems to have been effective in controlling crime, for even with the transients from the Silk Road caravans there was no need for merchants to lock their shops at night. It was a relatively crime free city.
A superb lunch was laid on for us in one of the hotel/restaurants in the city, including complementary bottles of wine. After lunch we headed for the washroom in the direction indicated. I found one with a bath symbol, plus the symbol of a boy peeing painted on the door. Tom, one of our travelling companions, stood in line behind me in a small area outside the bathroom which had two other doors opening off of it. When I came out, there was a huge donnybrook going on with two Japanese women. I guess it was a shared toilet for two hotel rooms, and one woman was screaming "my room, my room" and waving her arms while yelling for a maid to come and clean the whole area again as it had been desecrated by foreign devils. It was quite a scene!
There are some beautiful original buildings in the city, with lots of ceramic tile work, paintings and carved wood columns which have stood the test of time. The Friday Mosque has 212 ornately carved wood columns supporting it. The palaces and harem quarters of the khans are as they were then. It was the most amazing place I've seen on the trip to date.
When we returned to the hotel I checked on Marilynn, who was still not up to speed, and then walked down the street to find an internet location as the hotel system seemed basically inoperative. I found a place that had about a dozen computer stations. I slipped in my disc to send the last update, only to find there was no floppy drive. This required the computer to be shut down and taken apart to recover my disc, but I was then given a machine with a floppy drive and finally was able to get messages away.
Today Marilynn was feeling a bit better as we headed off at 8 AM for Bukhara after some drama before our departure. The rooms were checked at the hotel before we could leave, and a glass was found missing from Jim's room. The crisis was resolved when the glass was found to be in our room, as Jim had brought over a little brandy for Marilynn's cold last night! There were strange policies at this hotel. Two keys for the same room was an absolute impossibility - unheard of even though Jim and Tom were in the same room.
There were a lot of police checkpoints along the road. The driver misunderstood a policeman's gestures and didn't stop at one spot where the road was not blocked, so when we arrived at the next check point they were waiting for him. There was a whole lot of yelling and arm waving on both sides. We left them to it, as at this point there is a bridge made of steel barges placed end to end across the river. Due to the steep ups and downs between barges passengers are required to walk about a kilometre across the river. The driver obviously reached some financial arrangement with the police as he passed us just before we reached the far shore.
The serious security check at this point is to enter the independent Republic of Qoraqalpogistan, which although geographically a part of Uzbekistan has its own government and is expected to eventually join with Kazakhstan. It is populated largely by Cossacks, and covers a very large part of northern Uzbekistan.
The drive was through the Kyzyl Kum, or Red Desert. The road, which was in bad condition, stretched ahead into infinity as we drove through hundreds of kilometres of sand and small scrub bushes. The wind was blowing, and graders were out removing small sand dunes, which would close the road if not continually pushed aside. We made a lunch stop at a small open "restaurant", which was a truck stop of sorts in a tiny, treed oasis. We bought tea, but ate fruit, bread, cheese and sausage which Timur had purchased in Urgench. We sat on chairs at the one small table, but all other eating places were raised platforms with cushions around the outside edges and a tablecloth in the middle. Everyone just sat around the cloth on the platform cross legged.
Don't confuse desert with hot - although it is sunny today it is very cold. It did warm a little in the afternoon, but the mornings are bitterly cold. As we head south we have been promised warmer temperatures. The small scrub bushes in the desert give Marilynn little cover for bathroom stops, but we did make out OK. Public washrooms are right down there with the Caucus countries. Iran was a rest room oasis!
During the drive Timur was telling us that medical care here is supposed to be free, but in reality is not. Clinics are charging, and tests must be paid for by the patients. If a shot is needed a person must bring their own syringe. This drives those who can afford it to the private hospitals. Education is free up to grade 10 and there are scholarships for university, but they are handed out more by bribe than merit.
There is no diet pop sold in the country, which is causing some severe withdrawal symptoms for Marilynn. She has been forced into drinking the local cola full strength! The local beer is great, so no problems from my point of view.
Arriving in Bukhara, a city of 270,000 people, was like entering the Arabian Nights. The city goes back 2,500 years and is a World Heritage Site. There was and enormous walled fortification on one side of the street. All around us were old palaces, ornate mosques with bright blue and green ceramic domes, madrassahs - the mosque operated schools that were the centres of learning and minarets. Minarets are not in the Arab style, they are more like lighthouses - free standing and tapering from a wide base to a high narrow top. Circular stairs give access to the top from within.
Hotel Zargaron, where we stayed, is located in the center of all this, blending perfectly with the surroundings. It is a two story building with stairs to the roof. It looked like nothing from the street - just a blank wall with a small door, but inside were two courtyards, bar and beautifully decorated restaurant. The staff fell over themselves to be helpful. We had dinner there after having time on our own to walk around some of the city. It is a really special place where even the Internet worked.
Saturday, January 18, 2003
Yesterday we set off at 9 AM with a local guide, a woman who knew her subject well but never stopped talking, which made asking questions difficult. Our first stop was the Ulugbek Ark Fortress which we saw coming into town. This was started in the first century BC and was residence and army headquarters of the Bukharan Emirs. It was 80% destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1920 when the emir was disposed. Until then the state was a vassal of Russian, but with the emir nominally in charge. What is there now is spectacular; so it must have been really something when intact.
Some of the mausoleums from the 9th century are in very good condition. The reason they escaped the destructive invasion of the Mongols is that they were buried in sand and not found. The Mongols also spared the tallest minaret, which they used as a lookout tower. In its prime the city had 180 mosques, over 100 caravanseries (lodging places for the caravans), over 200 madrassahs and 97 large, ornate pools of water. It is no wonder such fables came from this city of culture and learning, located in the middle of the desert!
We walked down dark, narrow streets for dinner in a local restaurant which had Uzbek music and a dancing girl. Timur had purchased a bottle of excellent wine for Marilynn and I, which we downed with dinner. I headed off alone after eating, as I had an appointment for a massage at the hotel. As streetlights here are few and far between it was interesting to walk the dozen blocks with shapes of local people in various garb looming out of the blackness only a few feet from me. It is fortunate that I have a good sense of direction, as absolutely nothing looked familiar in the dark twisting streets.
It turned out all to be in vain, I should have stayed at the restaurant. When I reached the hotel the masseuse had accompanied a German tourist to the hospital, as he had taken a header when he missed a step coming down inside a nearby minaret. It is amazing he wasn't killed, as each step is very high and the stairs are in a tight spiral. We saw the poor fellow the next morning, head and face all bandaged, being helped into a vehicle. He got away with a broken leg and a lot of cuts and bruises.
Tomorrow we head for the fabled city of Samarkand.