Here’s my journey to the historical city of Khiva, Uzbekistan.
I stretch my body on my toes still unable to reach the dark and delicate burgundy fruits hidden by the dense green heart shaped leaves. From nowhere, a few children materialize, shouting “toot” all seemingly too well orchestrated by nature. I try and remain where I am, unobtrusively on the crimson stained road and watch a rectangular cloth turn pink and purple as ripened mulberry fruits fall in abundance.
The summer afternoon turns delightful as we savor the sweet and sour of “shehtoot” fruit slowly amidst laughter and languages that neither of us understood of each other.
One tree, a few silk worms and a yard of fabric led to such gigantic upheavals in annals of history, is truly hard to imagine.
Uzbekistan for me had been a land of the unknown, like an invented season. To be honest the blue of the mosaics, the astounding mosques and land of forefathers of Mughal Dynasty King, Babur were enough reasons for me to pack my bags and hit straight on the other end of the silk route.
Most people complete their travel circuit and turn back from Bukhara; little realizing that the real gem is located in the Khorezm oasis inside the great karakum desert – the timeless 14th century city of Khiva.
26 hectares of land, 51 monumental sites and 250 dwellings, enclosed by brick and mud fortification walls – Khiva has seen its fair share of history. Whilst it is famous for its intact and sanitized monuments courtesy the Russians, Khiva was notorious for being a trading post for slaves.
With the sun, behind my back now, the minarets of Khiva rise from the ground like giant fisted hands wearing bangles of blue and teal, shimmering in the hot afternoon sun in the otherwise muted pallet of mud brow. The city lives in her quotidian routine, though the visitors do manage to find their surprises and adventures.
The archaic city dominated by earth colours seems to stand very still, observing the changing seasons and a life beyond the utilitarian offering its aesthetic beauty to those who wanted to discover her.
Evening does not come quickly in Khiva, as I realize that I am sweating and in need of taking frequent breaks in the shadows. My mulberry tree is too far away to offer any respite. Taking umbrage in Kuhna Ark, the hot breeze blowing along the brick road enters the old fortress of 12th century more humbly and with lesser warmth. The stunning tiles in combinations of white and shades of blue with intricate carving cool me in the otherwise hot and arid weather.
Walking past a door at the back of throne room, I climb up the deep and narrow stairs that open up at the watchtower, set back against the Ichon Qala’s formidable wall. Watching the sunset from the watchtower through the Kuhna Ark seemed to be the perfect vantage point and were are glad that other tourists thought otherwise. The wall divides the modernity with the medieval, both relying on each other to keep their existence meaningful.
I stand separated between two worlds.It seems a perfect way to end the day as we make our way back to the hotel. It was still hot and I was very hungry and eager to be a part of the national obsessions of Uzbeks – the plov.
A British couple sitting close to our table sits huddled taking in every word their guide had to offer. “Alexander the Great after capturing Bukhara was served Plov at a royal banquet and do not forget that he walked in the lanes of Khiva as well…”
The waitress soon arrives carrying the lagan(platter) of Pilov. I watch her dainty hands holding the huge plate as the steam rises and fills my senses with the meaty aroma and I forget everything else. It is said that most skilled chefs- called oshpaz can cook for 1000 people at one go.
In my over enthusiasm, I realize I have overeaten the Plov and with my aching feet, the air-conditioned room in the hotel was my oasis for the night. The city has fallen very quiet by now, waiting for the next busload of tourists to conquer it.
Outside my hotel room window, the mulberry tree leaves scrape the glass as if knocking and inviting me to listen to his story. I sleep with the ghosts of many travelers and conquer before me in the city of mosques, mausoleums, minarets and mosaics.
Sun rises quickly over the edge of an unforgiving desert as I step out in the cobbled street; the magic of mud and the scent of the earth engulf me. Spread across hectares, it seems like daunting task to pick the start point. Since our hotel in in the precincts of Icahn Kilan (inner city), everything seems close enough to touch.
There are many ways one can explore Icahn Kilan. You could pour yourself over the map and make your detailed and precise itinerary or you could like me with no plans at all, want to get lost in the labyrinth of the desert city. Some find it too sanitized and then a few feel it’s a living marvel. The odd would find it boring and then some find it mesmerizing. The restored, rebuilt and revitalized city is like a story with many stories within its confines.
My first encounter of the day is the great Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, founder of algebra, algorithms and the number “0”. In deep thought, playing with his beard, Khwarizmi is unmindful of the tourists who stop and take a photograph with him.
A woman smiles at me as she brooms the street where the mighty Alexander the Great once walked. Somewhere a couple gets ready with their traditional dresses as they pose against the exterior wall of Juma Minar, the most magnificent and towering monument of Khiva. I lose my hesitation and amble across the rickety wooden bridge before plunging in darkness. Resting left hand on the inside wall, my steps are careful in negotiating the narrow and deep steps. At points the roof is too low for comfort as I stop frequently to catch my breath and take respite from the cool breeze that blew through the small windows, which lit the otherwise dark and dingy staircase.
The top is disappointing as there is hardly any space. A Romanian couple smiles at us seeing the sweat drops on our foreheads. The sun casts a haze and the jade blue dome of Makhmud Pahlavan mausoleum stands out in the otherwise subdued mud palette of Khiva The blues are sudden and they erupt in large inverted cups wearing multiple ring bands of turquoise and Persian blue. Behind the mausoleum, stands Kala Minaret; a beautiful chimney draped in shades of blue.
I dread the thought of heading back and making a dash, my return journey is quite fast, as I make no pit stops. Khiva is timeless – with its bounty of architectural delights, it is a great place to get lost. My legs, though feel otherwise.
Peek through the unassuming doors and they take you centuries ago with their stories and architecture, all intact. To take refuge from the scorching sun, we duck in the cool confines of Juma Mosque, tentatively, with its structure supported by 213 unique columns of karagacha (black elm). Sitting in the company of trees that were cut in the 10th century, I drink the deep calm. The tree trunks huddle together, each one has a story engraved on its bark. Two puddles of light find their way in the otherwise dim and unusual mosque.
Sitting on wooden bench in the company of the dark scent of worn out wood, I wondered what layers of history was I brushing with my wanderings.
I wish I could have stayed longer in the solitude of Juma Mosque for a longer time but with only one day left at hand; there was much ground to cover. Once outside, the heat strikes with vengeance. A few steps ahead, both sides of the alley have been taken over by the hawkers selling scarves, bracelets and souvenirs. “Sharukh Khan” – shouts a lean, mustached man wearing a faded brown baggy trouser – you from India”? In the bustling amidst the chromatic confusion of people, this gentleman stands out with is high-pitched voice as his hand reaches out to shake mine. . “Yes, I am from India”, I reply holding his sweaty hand in mine.
The only way get away was to buy a cap, which was a useful purchase to keep my head from boiling over. I find Turks and Russians in equal numbers. We two were probably the only Indian with a handful of Europeans. In shaded stalls, Uzbeki women with their gold-capped teeth bargain politely with the tourists, most of whom are locals themselves. Nearby a few kids kick the football as I join them for a quick match. Their energy and stamina is no match for my aching muscles of wanderings in the city and soon I stand exhausted and we decide food comes first.
We enter a re created building, which seemed more like a touristy café that was mercifully quiet for the moment. Khorezm Art Café is a welcome break from the history. “What would you like to eat”? – A waiter asks me. “What can you get fastest”? Within five minutes I have been served Mastava with Uzbek Nan bread. A thick soup of meat, rice and potatoes sat in front me. My friend settles for Manti as our table falls silent for a while as we take a break from history and heat to relish the Uzbeki food. We wait for the sun to mellow down as we take sips of hot kuk – choy and kora- choy – the green and black tea versions of tea.
Outside a crazy lady in blistering heat wears a Turcoman fur hat for “been there, done that” photo op.
Replenished and rehydrated, trudging along the dusty, sunlit alleys, my tired feet move quickly to discover the mystery of Khan’s harem – Tash – Hauli.
Through the seductive blue columns and intricately carved wooden ceilings, the rooms of the four wives, overlooks the balcony of the 40 concubines. Singular wooden pillar holds the Kings chamber as I quickly push myself inside through a low ceiling door. It is a small room overpowering with its shade of gold and blue. The throne room, as it is called was built sometime in 18th century for the Khan King to enjoy the pleasures as the wives and concubines lived a life of seclusion and isolation. I smile as I imagine the 40 concubines lounging in the balcony looking and flirting with me with me as I stood in the courtyard.
Smell of freshly baked bread breaks my reverie as I walk out into the shade of a wooden portico. The arched entrance of the largest dome, Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum is almost blocked with the entourage of a newly wed couple who come to seek blessings and the groom draws sacred water from a tiny well offering to his bride for continued fertility and many children. Dressed in a white puffed up meringue gown with a tiara on her covered head, her husband wearing navy blue suit with a dotted red tie. Holding hands, they seek a loving kiss as the cameras whir to catch the moment and I wonder what the Pahlavan must be thinking of all this fuss.
I have never seen shades of blue so beautiful and I must confess, indescribable. The silken suzani- needlework sheets flap unceremoniously in the hot wind making a whipping sound. My imagination runs wild as I see mirage of slaves in chains walking in a single file ahead of me. The cold can of coke in my hand is the only reminder of present times.
Take your pick of a character in Khiva – Warrior saint of Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum, Blood thirsty and lecherous Khan sultanate, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan or Amir Temur; the real joy of the Khiva lies in getting lost in the cobbled streets between lined monuments and the sky that peeps from above.
Lovely Khiva will steal your heart with its carpets, concubines, camels and coffee.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Khiva can be blistering hot or shivering cold, depending which time of the year you go requiring adaptive clothing. The best times, quiet and comfortable is before 10 am and after 5 pm.
The only way to see the Ichan Kala is by walking so make sure you are wearing good footwear.
You will need a bottle of water as a must have companion. Tracing history can make you very thirsty.