Silk Road Day 3: Khiva, the walled city with severed horse heads

Day 3: Wednesday, December 30th 2015

We woke up in our Tashkent hotel early. We’ve been having sporadic issues with people in the group having trouble meeting up at a particular time, so Bek last night told us about twenty times that we needed to have our bags on the bus by 4:45am SHARP. Yvonne set her alarm to 4:15am, since breakfast started at 4, and we’d have time to bring everything down and eat. But of course since the tactic of telling us to be somewhere at a certain time and trusting us to be there hasn’t worked on three occasions now (one required Bek calling up to a room when someone was late for dinner after not waking up from their afternoon nap), so Yvonne and I awoke to a phone call, groggy and confused, way before the break of dawn. My immediate reaction was “oh crap, Yvonne’s alarm has failed us and now instead of being the most responsible people in the group we’re in the other category!” but I picked up the phone and it was a man with an Uzbek accent saying “hello, wake up call”. I asked him what time it was, and he said “3:30am.” Yvonne and I were pissed; we could have slept another 45mins! With that in mind, we kept her alarm on and went back to bed. Then we get a SECOND wake up all, this time at four am, saying “Breakfast is now ready.” Screw you, random hotel dude just doing your job! I am trying to sleep for like fifteen more minutes! I just got up at this point and headed down to eat.

We loaded the bus as planned and headed out at five am. Bek was adamant about getting us out early for our 7:30 flight because in Uzbekistan airlines, they like to oversell tickets, then tell late arrivals that they were too late to board. We were asked to present our passports before entering the building, and the dude just looked at the inside cover of mine, not even the picture/ID page, and said I was good. We went through security before even entering the main lobby, then got our tickets and went through security again, which was the most thorough that I’ve ever seen. The technology was not like it is at O’Hare, so after going through a simple metal detector and putting our bags through a machine, they grabbed almost every other person to rifle through their stuff. Oh, that was also after they personally frisk you post-metal detector. They have a female officer do the women and a male officer do the men, but still I got my boobs grabbed by a stranger either way.

Claudia stood with the woman who went through her bag and every tiny bag within it, including toiletries and chargers and purse contents, having her pretty much vocally identify each thing. “That’s chapstick. That’s mouthwash. That’s a keychain.” Tan had to remove his mini shaving cream from his hand luggage and put it on his checked luggage. I was flagged to get my bag searched, but once they finished with Claudia, they moved to Yvonne at another table, so I waited and waited, blocking the line, until a separate officer from the one who flagged me just told me to go. Guess they just wanted one less bag to check. Ines finished security before me but Bek had me call her back, because the checked bag she had contained something they couldn’t identify. It was a hair dryer.

Finally the time came when we were going on the plane. The flight to Urgench was short, about 45 mins. You know that moment when a flight lands and the seatbelt sign turns off and everyone rushes out of their seat to exit? Well, imagine that moment but as if everyone had been on a seventy hour flight and there was a fire on the back of the plane. That is how local people exit flights. I had the aisle seat and was in the middle of the plane and once the line of people started moving (with about twenty people still between me and the exit) the woman and her toddler daughter seated beside me started trying to push me out. There was nowhere to go, as about five of my trip groupies were still blocking my way, and they were being pushed from behind by a man, who was being pushed by a ten year old child behind him, being pushed by his brother and father behind him. The ten year old was even smooshing his face against the stranger in front of him, by choice. As the line of people continued out of the plane, the man behind Ben started to push him and tell him to go, and they got in an argument because there was literally nowhere for Ben to move. Then on the tarmac the argument continued. But Ines left her camera on the plane and some woman returned it to her, which reversed our temporary frustration with the locals. It’s hard to get mad at their insane pushing and shoving when they are just so nice!

We drove a short thirty minute ride to Khiva from the Urgench airport, on a very rural two lane highway that resembles the drive from Chicago to Champaign with no sights on either side, but somehow has a cable car trolley that runs on it…and has lots of rural cyclists.

We got to the Old Khiva Hotel which is the cutest place that I’ve ever seen. It resembles an old inn or bed and breakfast with three floors, all of the doors facing the inside balcony that overlooks the tiny lounge/restaurant area. It’s run by a family, and every member of the family, including the ten year old son, has some sort of role, whether it be providing guests with keys or serving drinks in the restaurant.

We then went off to the walled city of Khiva where we had to pay for basically a tourist fee, because the city is free to walk around in (as there are residents inside) but you have to buy a little card that permits you to take pictures of things. You have to keep it on you to prove you paid the dollar fee. Guess how many times we were actually asked about that photography card? Zero.

Our local guide, Inessa, talked at lengths about everything, to the point that most of us were really itching to get away. To be honest, I think the tour was a normal length and we were being very well informed about the history of the city, but all of us were hoping to get some free time in, because it was starting to resemble the previous day’s visit of the bazaar, but with extra lecturing thrown in. We saw tons of cool stuff including a few madrassas and beautiful tile-covered buildings. But it was just “look at this, let me tell you about the history of this, ok let’s go to the next place.” We even entered a couple small museums but didn’t have much time to look around and absorb before being pushed on to the next place. And every time a person wandered off to take pictures, the guides got a little paranoid of making sure the group was together before moving on. What was also unfortunate was that the guide was Russian and therefore had an accent while speaking English that caused her to word things in a way that would build up my hopes for wandering time. For example, when we first entered the city, she pointed to one of the large minarets and told us if we ever got lost, we just need to look up and find that tower to orient ourselves. I thought that meant we could wander… but it was just a throwaway statement.

We finally got a break at lunch, when we popped into a local house that also functions as a restaurant. We had a bowl of pumpkin soup, noodles made from dill, and a handful of side dishes consisting of pickled vegetables like carrots and eggplant. The owners of the restaurant set themselves up in a curtained-off room next to the dining room, where it looked like they would also open their New Years’ presents.

After lunch we continued our tour and I think the guides were catching on to our disinterest when they would say things like “only a few more things, okay guys?” One part of the tour led us into an under-construction hotel in some old historical building. You could walk in, and the far end was actually an exit from the walled city into a bazaar. Calvin, Chris, Patricia, Siavash and I wandered in, and the boys stepped out to the bazaar. Patricia and I decided to head back, so we walked back towards where we left the group, then realized we were being followed by a dude in this huge empty building, so we quickened our pace back to the street, even though we later realized the guy was clearly not a threat. When we got out on the street, the group wasn’t there.  It was at a junction of several streets, so we looked down each street and were laughing because we thought every man wearing a black coat and a fur hat was Bek, and there were many men with black coats and fur hats. We eventually found him off in the distance and re-joined the group.

Once we were free from the tour, most of us went up in the tall minaret on the east side of the town, which is the larger of the two that are open for you to climb for city views. We almost had to pay 5000 som each to climb the tower, but Calvin bartered with the woman that we had such a large group that we should pay less, so we only ended up paying 4000. The difference is pretty much 20cents in USD but if you don’t barter, there’s no fun!

The walk up was not long, but some steps were big and the ceiling was low so it was more crawling than walking. Also it was very dark, at some parts even pitch black, because there were few windows in the stairway. Matt was able to use his phone light to guide us at parts, but even then it was difficult. We finally arrived at the top, where it was our entire group plus one stranger, who of course just started taking pictures of us. We joked that we should start charging strangers for pictures of/with us. We made our way down and then off we went to the bazaar.

We split up into small clusters, and Matt, Johnson and I walked around and I got some uses out of my Point To It book, which I finally remembered to bring with me. It helped when I could point to a picture of a horse drawn carriage and then the sausages on a vendor’s table to see if any were horse meat. No luck finding it, but the woman sure was amused. There was a vendor with tons of boxes of candy that she sold in bulk, so I filled up a bag and it was only less than a dollar. There were vendors selling spices out of canvas sacks, cakes on tables, melons in convenient rope nets to carry them, meat hanging on metal poles, and severed horse heads on plastic trays. They had anything and everything you could possibly imagine, and for dirt cheap.

We met up with Ines and Eilidh, the latter of which answered my question about taking pictures of people. I wanted to know if it would be offensive to locals if I took pictures, and she said if I asked, she thinks they would not only say yes, but actually be very excited to be in a picture. So I started doing it, and the first man was a vendor wearing head to toe camouflage with a fur hat, sitting beside a pile of ropes he was selling. I gestered and pointed to indicate my request, and he nodded, then proceeded to adjust his jacket, fix his sitting pose, and then nod that he was ready. I took the picture, showed it to him, and he smiled, asking what I assumed was where I was from, and I said “Amerika, Chikago.” On I went, taking more pictures of the amazing surroundings, all with positive feedback. One man was cobbling shoes with his young daughter beside him, who was wearing a sad face. I asked the man and he said it was ok, so I took their picture. Neither of them smiled, but once I showed the little girl the picture, she beamed and grinned from ear to ear. It made me so warm and fuzzy! One of my favorites was a serious-looking older man with a moustache and a fur hat sitting behind a stand overflowing with brightly-colored plastic kids’ toys, balloons and other contraptions.

After I bought a bread press to make my own Uzbek kleb and a handful of spices, we headed back to the hotel, but not after trying on a furry hood with rabbit fur pom poms at the end of the satin ribbon. It was only 30 dollars, pre-barter, and made of real fur, but I passed since I don’t think Chicago is catching on the furry pom pom hat trend anytime soon.

We hung out at the hotel a bit trying to get internet, but with so many people signed on, it was a huge struggle and ultimately not worth it.  Dinner came and we ate broth soup with some sort of meat chunk, potato chunk and carrot chunk, which was delicious, and then the main dish of meat crêpes, rice and soggy/cold fries. It wasn’t the best meal, but the crêpes were great and if the fries were avoided (they were) then it was quite enjoyable. We got little rolled cakes with a caramel cream filling that were rich and delicious, followed by lots of green tea.

Once done eating, a group of us went off on an adventure into the city to see it at night, and it didn’t disappoint. Just outside the walls was a big illuminated new years tree (looks just like a Christmas tree, but new years here is a bigger deal… and somehow still involves Santa Claus), and just inside several of the historic buildings had lights in the middle providing a majestic glow.

We then wandered out of the city and into an abandoned, or rather, off-season, amusement park. There was a completely unguarded Ferris wheel which we entered and took lots of pictures. We walked across the street to another part of the park, which included a fenced in bumper car track. The entrance had a padlock, but the group just climbed over the fence and played with the cars inside, albeit without power. We then wandered down an unlit path with really nothing on either side until we decided to head back. I told Calvin, who had been quietly playing music out of a Bluetooth speaker in his bag, that he was choosing the wrong music and that Tubular Bells would be more appropriate for aimless wandering in an empty amusement park.

We headed back to the hotel, where Tan, Helen and I wrote postcards until it was time to go to bed. We went to sleep late, anticipating extra sleep time on the long bus ride to Bukhara tomorrow.