A little more than a year ago, one of my former colleagues spent the last weekend before his packout from Tashkent hopping a domestic flight with his family. He told me that he couldn’t believe his two year tour had passed by without him ever making it to Khiva, an Uzbek city in the far west of the country. He told me, “If you get a chance to go to Khiva, take it. Don’t wait until the last minute when you need to pack and have a million other things to do.” So when the embassy’s Community Liasison Office (CLO) organized a trip last month to Khiva, my husband and I were among the first to sign up.
Khiva is so far west, it’s practically in Turkmenistan. The first weekend in November, we flew there from Tashkent with a group of our friends and colleagues from the diplomatic community. The flight took a little less than 90 minutes.
I’ve already been to much of the central and eastern parts of Uzbekistan, but never that far west, so I was really looking forward to the trip.
The Ichan Kala (walled city) around Khiva is a UNESCO world heritage site, and contains more than 50 recognized historical monuments and spots. Archaeologists believe that the city is more than 1,500 years old, but most agree that the outer walls appear to have been constructed in the tenth century.
My husband and I climbed up impossibly steep and narrow stairs at the Muhammad Rahimhan Madrassa for a glorious old city view.
We also took in restoration efforts at the Citadel Kuhnya-Ark that began about fifteen years ago. The original work, according to our guide, was created with painstaking talent and care, and we could see the difference, too.
We had a chance to experience the area’s traditional music, folk dancing, and plov…
…conduct a little shopping for scarves, ceramics, suzani, and Christmas gifts…
…and we noticed that people in Khiva bury their dead above ground. Maybe it is the quality of the topsoil, or concerns about groundwater, or Islamic tradition in Central Asia, or perhaps even a combination of reasons I’m unaware of.
I asked our guide if people were usually buried one by one, or if relatives, e.g. spouses and children who died years apart, could be added to family crypts to be kept together. He said it was OK to open one and add more relatives, so hopefully that is true and I did not offend him! Uzbeks are practical, family-oriented people, and space is limited in the city, so what he said seemed economical and made sense to me.
There are sights to see slightly outside of Khiva, too. About fifty kilometers away is the ninth century fortress called Kalajik Kala, next to to Shur Kul Lake.
We took a bus out there, and although there was no one around, I understood from our guide that during the warmer months people make pilgrimages to the lake. Apparently the lake’s high salinity and something about the sand’s mineral content is meant to cure aches and pains if you submerge yourself for a few hours. He said that in the summers, people literally dig in the sand and bury themselves all day. I admit that I was tempted for a moment to take off my boot and bury my left foot in the sand despite the bitter cold. Hey, what could it hurt? There were salt crystals the size of fifty cent pieces strewn all over the sand, boasting configurations every bit as complex and unique as snowflakes.
At the top of the old fortress, there is some kind of triangular metal structure where pilgrims have evidently been climbing for ages to tie up ribbons representing their hopes and prayers. From below where I was standing, I was struck with the realization that there were probably more than one thousand scraps of fabric blowing in the frigid air. I kind of wish we’d had time to hike up there, but it would have been strenuous for the children on the trip (and probably for some of the adults, too!), and it would have taken hours. This was a CLO weekend trip, remember – out on Saturday, and all the way back home by late Sunday night. Us working dead will be weekend warriors, though, and take what we can get!
Apparently the high-roller pilgrims can further soothe their pains by opting to stay the night in a climate-controlled yurt. I kind of feel like I need at least one night in some manner of yurt before we leave Post.
Another jaunt outside the city walls was to the former khan’s winter residence, the Nurullaboy Palace. I love winter, and I think we all should have a winter palace, no?
The Juma (Friday) Mosque was more beautiful than I’d expected, and gave me such a feeling of peace and connectedness with the outdoors, and a higher power.
The iconic minaret below was never finished, apparently due to the death of the khan who commissioned it. I don’t think anyone knows why his successor didn’t complete the job, but I actually think it looks pretty cool and different the way it is.
Other memorable moments from the weekend included a stray orange cat resting atop wool gloves for sale, the most delicious hot bread I’ve ever had at Mirzaboshi restaurant, two brides placing their right hands over their hearts and bowing to each other as their wedding processions met in the street, a butterfly landing on my husband’s finger right before my friend S helped me negotiate for a beautiful pomegranate-decorated suzani I’d spotted, and the beautiful moon as we crossed the airport tarmac to go home.
It was a super weekend, and although it went quickly, Khiva was worth seeing. For those who have been to Bukhara and found a bit of a hard sell from Uzbeks peddling their wares, in my opinion, Khiva had just as many things (although perhaps less jewelry?) and was much more relaxed.