Travelling west and coming from Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is the next city of interest on the Silk Road. The remarkably well preserved old city is turned into a museum with intermittent cafe’s and souvenir shops. In Khiva I saw the only camel I’ve seen in Central Asia. It stands there for touristic purposes.
The fat tower in the picture above is the Kalta Minor, an unfinished minaret. It was originally started by Mohammed Amin Khan who wanted to make it so tall so as to enable him to see Bukhara in the distance, which is 400 kilometre away. The Khan probably didn’t know that in order to do so, it needed to be a fair bit taller than Mount Everest, this because of the curvature of the Earth. The monument is not quite as old as many of the buildings in Samarkand or Bukhara or in Khiva for that matter. It was only built in 1851.
Khiva is famously the birthplace of the 8th century mathematician and geographer Al Khawarizmi. It was only by happening on his statue just outside the Western Gate that I found this out. Al Khawarizmi gave his name to our algotithm and he wrote a book the title of which later introduced the word algebra in European languages. Unfortunately, the mists of time have obscured the significance of his person and so it is unclear whether he was a brilliant thinker or merely a compiler of then existing knowledge. However, it was by his works that Europe received Hindu numerals and the fundamental concepts of algebra.
A few days after my arrival, the temperature suddenly dropped. The bazaar, which was outdoors, didn’t stop. The sellers covered the fruit up with blankets so it wouldn’t get damaged by frost. The wind was arctic, but the vendors were wrapped up in layers of fur and sat stoically behind their piles of carrots and turnips or whatever else they were selling.
As everywhere else in Asia, the market is always a good place to find good and cheap food and the bazaar in Khiva was no exception. Next to a small eatery, I saw samsas in a kiln. Samsas are small pies with savoury fillings like samosas and there seems to be a connection with India where the snack is very popular. Some sources suggest samsas actually originated in Central Asia and were later brought to India where the name changed to samosa.
One day as I was walking along the city’s ancient walls, I saw a mysterious figure climb up the old walls. It was Michael Jackson, or, at closer inspection, a Japanese guy who was dressed like Michael Jackson. Billie Jean-san.
From Khiva I took a shared taxi to Urgench and from there I took another shared taxi to Nukus. I had bought a train ticket from Nukus in Uzbekistan to Aktau in Kazachstan and from there I would fly to Tehran in Iran.
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan, which means something like Land of the Black Hats. The taxi drove through the Red Desert and crossed the Amu Darya. The Arabs hold that the Amu Darya is one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, or more precisely, the river Ghion.To the Greeks the Amu Darya was known as the Oxus. The lands across the river were known as Transoxiana. These were once the outer reaches of The Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great and I find it confronting to think of Alexander the Great and all that he had accomplished. If we, Alexander the Great and I, for the sake of comparison, would have been born at the same time than, by now he would have conquered half the known world and would have fought many battles betwee life and death. On top of that he would have been dead for 15 years. So it’s not all that bad….
The next morning I woke up at four in the morning and a taxi brought me to the railway station. A thermometer in the car showed the outside temperature: minus 16 degrees Celsius. The train stood ready and I was happy to find out that the carriages were comfortably heated and snugly I climbed in my berth and fell asleep under a blanket.
This time I travelled platskarty, which resembles a sort dormitory on wheels. The journey took roughly 27 hours. During the day I spent my time reading, watching the snow covered desert and the incessant throng of people filing through the train selling all sorts of things. The train stopped occasionally at forlorn stations in the middle of the frozen desert for no apparent reason. As all trains in this part of Asia, every carriage had a samovar and I was happy to have brought nescafe and noodles with me so I could make hot beverages whenever I felt like it . I shared my compartment with a family of wodka smugglers which became evident during the border crossing when they moved plastic bags with clinking bottles to put them in the far recesses of their enormous baggage. The pater familias of the wodka smugglers was delighted with me and started a confusing conversation.
Goodbye! he said to me in a booming voice.
Goodbye? I asked him surprised.
Good morning! He replied in the same loud voice. It now became clear to me that he was practising his English.The more so because it was evening.
Good evening. I said therefore politely.
We were getting along just fine.
His grandson, a toddler, was playing with a bundle of banknotes. He was too young to count them, but he was placing them in bundles before him.
The border crossing took a long time, but didn’t present any problems. The hotel registration slips were in order and nobody wanted to count my money. The border formalities were over by seven o’clock in the evening which promised a good night’s sleep before we would arrive in Aktau.
At the time we arrived in Aktau, it just started to get light. It was sunny but sill bitterly cold. From the train station I took a shared taxi into the city.
My main concern in Aktau was to purchase dollars for the next leg of my trip which would take me to Iran. Since this country still suffers under sanctions of the Western world, it was necessary to bring hard cash into the country as it was otherwise nearly impossible, or very expensive, to use any of my bankcards. In a bank I met a young man who spoke English and was happy to help me.
Actually, the people here are not very nice to foreigners, the man warned me and he advised me to take a hotel and stay inside.
It never fails to surprise me how little people think of their nearest neighbours. After leaving the bank I settled myself in a small fastfood restaurant and from there made several forays into the surrounding area. All the people I met were very friendly and helpful.
I walked to the shore of the Caspian Sea.
Wikitravel had an alarming article on Aktau and warned that the city was shockingly expensive. That didn’t seem all that accurate and I was happy to find a taxi to the airport, a distance of 25 kilometre, that cost me only 2000 Tenge, the equivalent of 6 dollars. Food and drink was similarly inexpensive.