Uzbekistan

July 21. Chimkent, Kazakhstan.

It’s 4 AM and it’s pitch dark. We get off the train and, despite the early hours, Chimkent train station is already buzzing with people engaged in all type of things, old ladies pushing carts filled with packaged food, taxi drivers smoking by their cars, little kids running around and passengers boarding and getting off the trains, with their white sacks on their shoulders.

We spot a man smoking a cigarette and ask him where we can find the marshutkas going to the Chernyaeva border. He’s a taxi driver so, of course, instead of answering our question, he starts bargaining and trying to convince us to take his taxi. He seems like a nice guy so in the end we opt for riding with him rather than waiting a couple of hours for the first marshutka to leave. Gian seems pretty wary of the whole 4 AM gypsy taxi drive to a walking border somewhere in the -Stans, but well, Marta and I make the decision and hop in the car.

And god, what a ride. I mean, the first 15 minutes are actually not that bad, meaning there is actually a cemented road, sort of lit by a street light here and there. Then I look out the window and see a corpse lying face up on the side of the road. A woman. A whole bunch of people is gathered around her, two crashed cars behind them. It’s a dreadful scene and as I turn my face not to look at it and trying to control my breathing, the driver lightly explains that oh yeah, happens all the time on this road, as he speeds past them.

This however seems to have triggered is eagerness for conversation, so he starts asking questions about us, and since I’m not in the mood after what I just saw, I let Gian handle the conversation from his front seat.

Question #1: “вы женаты?” Are you married? – there you go. Since there is really only one correct way to answer this question is Central Asia: “oh yes, she’s married to me and she’s married to him”. The man immediately gets relaxed, as if we’ve passed some sort of test and nods “хорошо хорохо. Это хорошо”. The questions keep coming till at some point I hear something like: “so you let your wife handle money? I give my wife money sometimes but I am always in charge of the money! It’s better this way!” – Gian is just as startled as I am, wondering if he understood well, and just awkwardly replies with a “да да”, hoping to let the subject drop.

Fortunately, or not, a new subject naturally comes up: there is no road anymore. We’re riding through what looks like a desert and suddenly our car gets stuck. “Oh, don’t worry” – Our guy says – “They are still building the road, see?” and point to a truck moving dirt from one place to another. He then pulls behind, pushes on the accelerator and manages to get the car going. We’re literally in the middle of nowhere, how does he even manage to know his way? Is he even taking us to the border?

I look at Marta and as we always do in these situations our silent answer is: let’s just hope for the best. An attitude that has always brought us luck so far, and indeed at about 6 AM we approach an area full of parked cars, a few currency exchange boxes and a big gate. This must be it. The driver tells us to get off and walk to other side. We pay him and thank him, then head toward the gate.

We take out our passports and start going through security checks. One of the soldiers sitting on a plastic chair past the first gate grabs my passport, looks at me and smiles: “where are you from, Turkmenistan?” – “Ehm, no, Italy”. Man, that’s a new one! I mean, I’ve been asked whether I’m from Lebanon, Turkey, Spain, Mexico, but well, Turkmenistan? Ha!

He hands me my passport back and directs me to a building packed with people. We enter and start standing in line in front of the immigration booths.It looks like we’re the only “foreigners”, everyone else is either from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, carrying sacks and boxes full of stuff. Once it’s my turn, the officer takes a good look at me and then stamps my Kazakh visa, letting me pass through.

As I exit the building, an Uzbek soldier is sitting on a plastic chair, checking passports before he lets people through. I show him mine and wait for the others. We’re now walking through some sort of corridor, soldiers standing every ten meters holding their rifles, till we reach another building. And it’s chaos inside. A crowd of people is pushing each other, moving toward the immigration entrance, while others are sitting and leaning everywhere, filling up some sort of forms. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the crowd is actually pushing to grab the forms from an officer standing near the entrance, “distributing” such papers. Okay, let’s do this.

Gian and I join the crowd and slowly move forward, trying to avoid getting bruised. Finally, we manage to get 4 forms and zigzag our way back to Marta and Ale. Once we get a chance to actually read the forms though, we realize it’s all written in Uzbek. Great. How are we supposed to fill these out? We try to ask some people for help, but either they’re Uzbeks who can’t speak Russian or they’re Kazakhs who can’t speak Uzbek and are just as confused as we are. Finally, we find a man who speaks both languages, well, claims to, and gives us some hints, although he’s in a hurry and just quickly explains us what to put in the main blanks, then disappears. Meanwhile, behind us, a guy is copying from our forms, which is funny, cause, dude, we have no idea what we’re even writing.

Half an hour later, with a little help from here and there, we’ve completed our forms: victory! Now back in line. this time to actually pass through and reach the immigration booths. Using our backpacks as shields, we navigate through the crowd and get to the first desk, where we hand in our passports and forms. The officer looks at us and goes: “where is the other form?” – “What form? Here!” – ” Yes, you need two copies each.” – “What?” You’ve got to be kidding!

So back to the distributing officer, completing the forms, again, and sailing back to the controls desk. Now that we’ve got TWO copies, the officer actually checks what we’ve written, scrutinizing the part where we’ve declared our possessions and the amount of cash we’re bringing in. An average of 300 dollars for me, Marta and Ale, and… 900 Euros for Gian. When we read he’s actually carrying all that cash, Marta and I look at him like ” you are crazy!”. He smiles, embarrassed, and explains it’s all hidden inside his belt. Oh great, except the officer actually wants to see all that money, so here we go thinking there’s a bribe in store for us, while Gian takes off his belt, terrorizing the old lady sitting on a cart next to him, and pulls out a bunch of tinily folded bills, for the officer to count. And… no bribe! The man just hands him back the money and tells us we are free to head on to the final checks.

We put our bags into the metal detectors, reach the immigration booths and, finally, get our visas stamped! We made it! We’re in Uzbekistan! As we step out of the building, a bunch of men approach us, taxi drivers, mostly, asking if we need a ride or if we want to exchange money. Tashkent is less than an hour away so we negotiate our price and hop into an old car, one of those you would see in the ’80s. We debate whether we should trust the guy and exchange money with him and in the end decide to change like 20 dollars to see if the whole black market thing is legit.

So once we reach the city, the drivers pulls over in a back street, gets off the car and says he’s going to get the money. Oh-kay. Five minutes later he is back with a stack of bills. It’s 84000 Soms, all in pieces of 1000. We count them and it’s indeed 84 pieces, although we have no way to tell if they’re counterfeited or not at this point. Anyway, we take it and tell the driver the address of our hostel, which he easily finds.

We pay him and walk in. The place is really cool, young and hip and, although our beds are not ready yet, we can rest on the topchans on the upper floor, which kind of looks like an inner terrace. The other guests are all western travellers, mainly solo bikers and “walkers”, yeah, you get these in Central Asia, people just hitchhiking their way to the East. Finally! A “normal” hostel.

As the others crash on the topchan pillows upstairs, I head to the kitchen and try to make some coffee. I’m so tired I can’t even see the water boiler on the counter, till I hear a voice pointing me to it. I turn around an Irish guy with scruffy hair and a big smile introduces himself to me and we start talking. His name is Alex and he biked his way here from Ireland. Yes, biked! He even crossed Turkmenistan on a transit visa, which only allows you to stay in the country for 5 days, and as he tells me of his misadventures through the desert I am amazed. He’s got no phone nor laptop or anything, all he needs is his bike and some paper maps so he decides which way to go as he goes along. He’s been on the road for about six months now and will keep going east, though he admits his routes do not follow an exact logic, like he says he went all the way to Morocco and then turned back and recycled to the Alps.

“But that doesn’t really matter you know?” he says “I just go with the flow, sleep where I can, and sometimes you end up sleeping in amazing places, sometimes it’s on a bed of leaves under the stars, sometimes it’s inside a museum, once I even slept on a luxury boat on the Cote d’Azur after I sort of broke in! You know it’s just at some point my life was kind of figured out, I was about to get married to this girl and then I thought why? Why do I have to do this? And once I got myself an answer there’s no way back you know? Cause we all try to live our lives and make them into a straight line, but that’s not natural. That’s not how nature, how the universe works, you know? Think of the seasons, think of the tides, the waves in the sea, it’s ups and downs! So why fight it? It’s okay, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down and that’s okay. It’s the beauty of it you know?”

Wow, yes! I love you.

And the way he says all this, it’s so genuine and natural, void of artificialities, that it brightens everything up. Even when he asks me what I’m gonna be up to once I get back to Italy and I go “I have no idea”, he stays true to that and tells me: “Well, you know, that’s great! Interesting people never know what they’re going to do. Cause there’s so many possibilities, right?” – Right! Best answer to the question I hate the most.

Anyways, our bed are finally ready, but we decide to pretend we’re not dead tired and head out to explore Tashkent. Our first stop is the bazaar. It’s huge and chaotic and completely awesome. The smell of fresh bread is pervasive and everything is so colorful. Even the people are colorful, and as we look at more and more of them, I notice how beautiful some of them are. They are actually very different from the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, they don’t have those Mongolian features, they rather resemble the Persians: bright dark skin, thick black hair and deep green eyes, with lashes that last for miles.

We make it to the clothing and tapestry area and decide to try and exchange some money. If anything, this is the place to do it. We enter a small shop and ask the lady if she can exchange about 100 USD for each of us. Her eyes light up as she says “of course!”. She then starts moving some things around and pulls out  box full of cash, hidden beneath some scarves. “1 USD = 4300 Soms, okay?” – “Sure! Great!”. Man, that means 430,000 Soms for each of us! How are we even gonna count them! Not to worry though, she has a money counter machine in the shop. She just insterts the stacks of 1000 Soms bills in the thing, which starts scrolling them and counting them for us. Cool! This whole black market thing seems pretty legit after all.

I now have like 5 stacks of bills in my lap, which I put in my back but can’t help but feeling like someone who just robbed a bank. The lady is counting the money for Gian, but as we basically took all that she had in that box (400 USD is a LOT here), she smiles at him and tells him not to worry, then puts her hand inside the upper part of her dress and pulls out two more stacks of bills from her breast! What? She seriously had them hidden under her bra. Amazing! I love this country already.

We decide to hold the shopping for another day and visit the rest of the city, a few mosques and mausoleums, to which we are escorted by a 60-ish-year old local, who voluntarily offers to guide us, no money asked.

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Tashkent is a strange city, it has a few contrasts. It definitely seems more developed than Bishkek, at least infrastructurally speaking, but at the same time it really depends on the areas. There’s the crowded, chaotic and dusty bazaar, there’s the back streets with their old, modest houses, and then you get these polished, newly-constructed buildings with their square shapes, these large empty roads with their shiny cement, a huge park where the grass is so green it almost looks fake and here and there, golden plates reciting something like “this area was created and realized thanks to the great president of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov”.

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Karimov is indeed in power since 1990 and has installed a highly authoritarian, personalized regime on the one side, and focused on de-russianizing the country after the long Soviet rule, reintroducing old Uzbek customs and traditions and promoting the Uzbek language, on the other. He also set himself firmly against islamism and any type of its radicalization, which explains why Uzbeks are in fact muslims for the majority, but are also very open and moderate.

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Anyway, the first impression of the country is definitely positive and we can’t wait to head on to Samarkand and discover one of the oldest cities in Central Asia!

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July 22. Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Time to head to Samarkand! I am excited like a little kid on Christmas eve. This city is just so legendary that I am buzzing with curiosity. I remember when I was in first grade and the teacher would play us this old Italian song by Roberto Vecchioni called “Samarcanda”, which reinterprets an old Arab story about a servant who meets non-other than Death at the village market. So he runs to his master asking for the fastest horse in order to run away from the black lady, toward Samarkand. The master then goes to the market asking Death why she scared his servant and she replies that she was just surprised to see him there because she was waiting for him in Samarkand that same night!

I don’t know why exactly but that song had a huge impact on me, it’s like I have this vivid memory of it, and it gave me this image coupled with a big question mark about this legendary city somewhere East.

So we wake up early and head directly to the main station, in the hope of finding a train or a bus to take us to one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia. Obviously, no trains are apparently heading there this morning and before we even make it to the bus and marshutkas parking spot, we are once again surrounded by taxi drivers who start bargaining with us and, eventually, we end up agreeing for a private drive.

We get in the car and in no time we’re out of the city, the arid lands surrounding us, one lonely dusty road to guide us. Here and there, cotton fields and police cars parked on the side of the road. Actually, as we look closer, we realize they’re fake, they’re not even cars, but shapes of cars, planted as to scare the drivers out of speeding. So sort of deterrence measure, apparently, cheaper than using real cars and real officers.

I look out the window and somehow, unexplainably, I feel good. Like, really good, free, unafraid. And I tell myself that yes, do not be afraid, the flow goes and you just go. Never be afraid, do not force it, don’t force anything, just go with whatever. Ups and downs, and it’s beautiful like that, even the downs, it’s all just natural, like the waves, like the tides. Stability is a fake, it’s a mockup. It’s like we’re obsessed with it, we’ve been taught to look for it, to hold on to it. So we cling on to everything, but there’s no need. Movement is the most beautiful thing, movement is life. Once you understand this, just go with it, there’s no way back. The earlier you get it the better. And I, i feel like I’ve seen too much to go back. Once you realize it, it’s too late to reteach yourself the acceptable way, what society put in your head since you were little. It’s too late. So go, change, don’t be afraid. There’s so many possibilities, and each of them is valid, each way is okay. There’s no right way to do anything, there’s just your way, no dogmas, except be true to yourself, and don’t hurt others. Reshuffle. Reset. No fear. Never hate.

We finally arrive in Samarkand and the driver drops up right across the Registon, framed by its three madrasas. It is majestic. There’s no other word to describe it.

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Our guesthouse shouldn’t be too far from here, so we start walking around, getting lost obviously. Fortunately, a nice Uzbek guy, originally from Samarkand but who studies in the States, offers to help us out and takes us right were we should go.

The guesthouse is really nice, it has a huge inner courtyard with topchans and terraces all around. While the owner prepares our rooms, he invites us to sit on one of the topchans for some tea and nuts as we wait. Everything is so colorful, covered in patterned carpets and curtains.

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We leave our stuff and start exploring the city. As we walk the streets I feel there’s something undisclosed about it, it’s real life hidden, like they  put on shiny windows for tourists to see, highlighted paths for them to follow, while keeping them out of the dirt of the real streets, the chaos of its real people, the real Samarkand of today is hard to detect.

It’s sort of disappointing, almost disheartening really. The legendary city I imagined from the stories passed on about it is nothing like I imagined it. Or better said, there’s nothing left of it. Of its authenticity. And now that I saw it, now that I’ve been here, that romantic dream-like image of it I had in my mind is gone too.

That said, Samarkand still remains and incredibly interesting place and we did bump into some amazing stuff. The Guri Amir, the mausoleum of the great conqueror Tamerlan, for once. Its massive architectural complex with its light-blue dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane and his sons and grandsons, and its interior blue and golden decorations are something almost outworldly.

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One curious fact about Tamerlane’s, or Timur’s, tomb is that it was allegedly inscribed with the words “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble” and “Whosoever disturbs my tomb will unleash an invader more terrible than I”, which fed the so-called legend of the “curse of Tamerlane”. Now, when Stalin ordered the exhumation of Tamerlane in 1941, he charged Russian anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov with the task, who opened the tomb on June 20, 1942. Exactly two days later, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union without any formal declaration of war, in an operation named by Adolf Hitler Operation Barbarossa. After numerous defeats by the Germans, Stalin finally ordered that the remains of Timur be returned to his tomb in Samarkand with full Islamic burial rights, which was done on December 20, 1942. Shortly after that, the Soviets won the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, and reversed the fate of the war. Coincidence?

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Another stunning site is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the biggest mosque in Central Asia. According to the legend,  the mosque was built by order of Tamerlane’s favorite wife, Bibi-Khanym, in honor of his return from a trip to India. It was supposed to be the most grandiose creation of Samarkand, but the lead architect fell madly in love with the beautiful queen, and delayed the completion of the works in any possible way. Bibi Khanum was furious and when she asked the architect to hurry with the construction, the architect stated that he would completed the mosque in time for Timur’s return, only if she allowed him to kiss her. The queen reluctantly agreed with the terms, but the kiss was so hot that it left a bright trace on her cheek. When Timur returned and noticed the mark on his wife’s cheek, he was furious, so he ordered that part of the mosque was transformed into a tomb and buried Bibi Khanym alive, then killed the architect and finally ordered all women to wear a veil and hide their beauty. Here, according to the legend, lies the origin of the chador.

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An enormous marble Quran stand sits in the inner courtyard and local lore has it that any woman who crawls under the stand will have lots of children.

Still, the spot that most stuns me for its mysterious and unique architectural vibe is Shakhi Zinda Necropolis, located on a hill in the northern part of Samarkand. It is basically an ensemble of eleven ancient mausoleums made up of rows of sparkling blue colored domed buildings, lined up along narrow medieval streets. It is the burial place of royals and nobles, but the most famous “alleged” grave is that of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Kusama Ibn Abbas, who, according to a legend,  came to preach in Samarkand in 640, spent there 13 years and was beheaded by the Zoroastrians during his prayer.

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It is here, in this necropolis, that I somehow get a vibe of what this city once was.

We end the day at the Bazaar, which, like any bazaar in Central Asia, doesn’t disappoint with its colors, smells and well, occasional cow meat stuffed in the truck of a car and put on sale. But hey, who wouldn’t buy it?

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And yeah the “where the hell do I put all this worthless money?” continues. Freezers seem like a good spot no?

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July 23. Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

We start our day with a glorious breakfast served on the upper terrace of the hostel, overlooking the Registon. There’s all sorts of stuff, fruits, cheeses, bread, eggs and so on.

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As we eat, we make friends with this middle-aged Irish couple who been travelling by car and who’s just arrived by ferry from Azerbaijan and then through Turkmenistan. They tell us that it took them about two days to cross the Caspian sea, as they got stuck on a cargo ferry  which just wouldn’t leave. Apparently it’s normal on the Caspian sea, since there are no commercial ferries but only cargo ones, and all you can do is negotiate a ride with the captain and wait till they decide to leave. Nice, I wanna do it! They also tell us they had no idea about the no-atm thing here in Uzbekistan so they did not bring enough cash to exchange so they’re now counting money and hoping it’ll be enough for their stay. Poor guys!

We spend the morning visiting the Registon, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, a public square framed by three massive madrasas, where people attended royal proclamations, executions and other events.

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We visit the three madrasas, admire their mosaic patterned decorations and visit local craftsmen’s shops located in their inner courtyards. We even give in to a very commited seller and buy a Suzani, a typical uzbek handmade carpet with beautiful zoroastrian patterns. Although it is hard to tell what this place must have been once, due to its numerous renovations, the high level of security guards lurking at every angle and the crowd of tourists, it still remains incredibly impressive, like few places in the world probably are.

Anyway, time to move on to our next destination: Bukhara, which lies about 4 hours north of here. We grab our stuff and head to the bus station, where we manage to fend off the hungry taxi drivers and get a ride on a bus packed with locals, transporting all sorts of stuff, mattresses, tvs, carpets, textiles, food, there is literally no room to walk the aisle and reach our seats, we have to climb on top of the packages! Marta and I find a spot in the last row, and as we lay down we notice everybody is looking at us, literally everybody on the bus. Two Uzbek girls sitting next to us smile and ask where we’re from, then offer us some pillows to be more comfortable. They’re dressed in the same pink patterned dresses and as I close my eyes, I notice they keep staring at us but everytime I somehow catch them, they shyly turn their faces or awkwardly smile. I wander what they’re life looks like, where they’re going and I somehow feel close to them.

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July 24. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

We arrived in Bukhara last night and I immediately felt like I had fallen into the world of Aladdin. Everything about this city, it’s atmosphere, it’s air, it’s streets is somewhat surreal and as I spent the evening laying on a topchan in the inner courtyard of our hostel, watching the starry sky, I felt like that sort of quiet and peaceful detachment that you experience in dreams.

This city is indeed more than 2000 years old and probably the most complete example of a Central Asian medieval city, its urban structure having remained vastly intact, contrary to Samarkand. Mostly, this city feels alive in its authenticity, it does not feel like a city-museum where you get to see what they want you to see, what the local government put out for show for the tourists. You walk these streets and see the locals, going about with their daily activities, framed by incredibly beautiful ancient Islamic architecture.

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Every corner has something to offer, something to admire, from the beautiful madrasas, to the majestic mosques, the trading domes and the local carpet shops.

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We end up at the carpet bazaar and are amazed by the beauty and refinery of the huge carpets produced here. We even visit the shop of a carpet-maker, who shows us her work and explains how long its takes for her to create the various carpets (about 8-10 months on average) and all the types of materials she uses, from silk to camel wool.

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We also visit the Ark Fortress, the ancient citadel once a residence of the Bukhara khans, whose oddly-shaped towers are very fascinating. According to the legend, the Ark was created by the epic hero Siyavusha, who, when he was a boy, hid from his stepmother in the rich oasis of Turana. He then fell in love with the daughter of the local ruler of Afrosiaba, who agreed to allow them to marry, only if Siyavusha first built a palace on the area bounded by a bull skin, which was obviously intended as an impossible task. However, Siyavusha cut the bull skin into slender strips, connected the ends, and inside such boundary built the palace.

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To my surprise and pleasure, we even get to enter a Mosque, which never happened to me before, as, being a woman, I was never allowed to enter. Although you can definitely feel you are in a Muslim country when in Uzbekistan, it is also true that everybody seems quite moderate about it and open to foreigners, which is most likely part of President Karimov policy to fend off all types of radicalizations after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. The interior of the mosque is beautiful, its walls entirely decorated in blue and golden mosaics. A little boy sitting in a corner slightly moves up his head to look at us as we enter, and quickly returns to reading his quran.

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It is almost prayer time, so we hurry outside, as a group of men lays down beautiful red and golden carpets before the entrance of the mosque. A group of old men sitting on a topchan notices us and greet us, welcoming us to their country and inviting us to take a picture of them, “na pamyat”.

We continue on to the bazaar and enjoy its beautiful confusion.

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It’s however past noon and the sun is definitely too strong to keep walking around, our skin is already getting burned to we conveniently find refuge in a restaurant-kiosk near the stream just outside the bazaar. There’s a bunch of topchans in the shadow of the treets and two men are grilling shashliks on a barbeque. Best spot for lunch.

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We then continue our walk through the city streets and reach the beautiful Chor Minor, a 19th century picturesque structure, whose name literally means “four minarets”. It was originally the gatehouse to a madrasa later demolished and was built in 1807 by Khalif Niazkul, a rich Bukharian merchant of Turkmen origin. The curious thing about this structure is its minarets with their sky blue domes, which have nothing in common with ordinary minarets. Also, the towers’ decorations are believed to reflect the religious-philosophical understanding of the world’s four religions.

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The Kalyan Minaret is stunning at sunset. Built in 1127 it has survived since then and still dominates the skyline of the city with its sinuous shape circular formed by baked bricks that narrow from its thick base to the top.

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We spend the evening visiting the shops in the trading domes, buying souvenirs and negotiating for Gian, who is determined to buy a carpet. In the end, he scores a deal with an old lady for an 80-year old silk carpet for just 80 dollars. Still, since it is forbidden to export anything which is older than 100 years out of Uzbekistan, the lady has to release a “certificate” stating that the carpet isn’t as old, which is basically a peace of paper where she signs her name. No phone number, no contact or anything in case something goes wrong at the border. Uhm. we’ll see what happens, once again!

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July 25. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Our morning starts with an awkward situation for Gian, who gets stuck in the bathroom, and lots of laughs for me and Marta. We call the hostel owner who basically has to disassemble the door to finally free Gian! Anyway, crisis averted and we pack our stuff and negotiate a ride to Khiva.

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As we drive, we realize we are literally in the middle of the desert, the is nothing whatsoever around us for kilometers. The city is indeed sandwiched between the wide Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, and lies just a few kilometers away from the Turkmenian border.

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We stop to put gas and the gas station is one of those old Soviet ones. We look at the dispensers as our driver fills the car and just pray we’re not gonna end up stranded once again.

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Around noon, our driver insists for us to stop and get some lunch at a tavern by the road, where apparently they cook incredibly delicious fish – fish? In the middle of the desert? We sit at the table and order this mysterious fish, and notice a European guy sleeping on a topchan, next to his bicycle. He must be another crazy backpacker biking his way east. As he wakes up, he starts talking to us and we can tell how happy he his to be able to exchange a few words with foreigners, as he’s been biking across the desert for days. We eat our fish with melon and wine, which is actually not so bad and get back on the road.

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It is almost 5 PM by the time we arrive in Khiva, as we had to exchange rides in Urgench and grab a local taxi. Our guesthouse lays just a few meters outside the Itchan Kala, that is the old city, surrounded by a mud-made wall. The entrance is majestic and everything reflects the typical Islamic architecture, although everything within the wall does look more like a museum than a city. People indeed don’t actually live within the walls, which mostly contain souvenir shops, restaurants and the numerous madrasas and mosques. The population is in fact concentrated in the modern Dichon Kala, the Soviet-looking part of the city.

As we walk within the walls, it is hard to imagine how this city once was and its long and brutal history as a slave trading post along the Silk Road. According to a legend, Khiva was founded about 2500 years ago when Shem, a son of Noah,  discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed “Khi-wa!” (“sweet water”).

Around the 16th century, the city was made capital of an Islamic Khanate and started a bitter rivalry with the Khan of Bukhara, 450 km down the Silk Road. It was during this period that the majority of Khiva’s immense architectural projects began and the town established itself as a center of power in the region.

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We immediately stumble upon the beautiful blue and green Kalta Minor minaret. It is massive and we discover its weird shape is due to the fact that it is unfinished. It was indeed supposed to compete with the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara and to be tall enough for the Khan to be able to see Bukhara from its top, however the architect fled before the project was terminated.

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As the sun goes down, the city becomes magic, its harmonic shapes taking us back in time, the time of the mythical Arabian nights.

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July 26. Khiva, Uzbekistan

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After another abundant Uzbek breakfast, we spend the day walking through the streets of the old city, admiring its madrasas, mosques and minarets and getting lured in by experienced sellers of all types of textiles.

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And as the day ends and we prepare to leave this surreal place to head back to the totalitarian Tashkent, a piece from the Arabian nights seems like the best way to end this experience:

When the call of the hudud,
echoes through the palm fronds
carrying in their mists,
visions, memories:

caravans of high spirited steads,
crisscrossing the endless seas of sand,
rushing through the oasis,
free, yet under control.

Of women washing in the hot springs,
sheltered in the evergreen palms,
weaving baskets,
cooking, sewing, scampering after the herds,
of days filled with toil.

Visions, memories:
cascading starlight,
casting its mild light over campsites,
the moonlight’s silver shadow
illuminating bearded faces,
young boys thumping their feet
to the wild desert drum beat
Dana, ya dan dan
singing of the pearls in the far away gulf
Dana, ya dan dan

The warm cardamom scented breeze
carrying the fresh coffee aroma,
warming, sizzling in the golden hooked pots
to the young giggling girls
shyly peeking from behind the partitioned tent walls.

Flames flickering in the pit
wood slowly consumed, sparks flying,
dancing to the strain: dana, ya dan dan.

The cry of the hudud
sweeps through the quiet morning air,
to the dawn of a new century.
Visions, memories,
blown away by the winds of change.

– Nimah Ismail Nawwab

Cheers, P.

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