We set off on our first big drive of the trip. The Soviet buildings and sparse greenery of Nukus die away giving way to scrub desert and the driver carefully picks his way between the potholes in the tarmac. After some time the horizon becomes dotted with low mounds and we pull off the main road and head along a dust track towards one of them. As it gets closer I spot the unmistakable shape of a round tower crowning the top of the hill. It is a familiar shape to me as we had seen some Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Iran and indeed the pleasing shape, the sense of tranquility and the ethical practise of disposing the dead away from the land you use to live on and feed from had me seriously considering converting to Zoroastrianism.
We clamber up the slope and follow the rather precarious path that circumnavigates the walls around to the stepped entrance. It requires a bit of a scrabble up through the break in the wall but we manage to reach the platform inside. Chilpak was a royal cemetery of the 4th century and unlike the ones I saw in Iran where the bodies were left out in the open to be picked clean by birds and then the bones swept into a communal central pit, this one had internal divisions creating familial spaces called ‘naoi’. When the bones were clean, each individual was placed in a substantial ceramic ossuary that in many cases looked like little houses that we had likened to the Villanovan burial vessels in the museum. The camel-shaped ossuary must have belonged to this group and together with the fact that griffins were assumed to be the birds that pecked the bones clean I became convinced that this was the way I wanted to be buried.
Inside the tower was a curious metal frame to which were tied hundreds of pieces of coloured textiles. We all presumed this marked the most sacred of spots in the tower but were amused to learn that is was a landscape surveyors’ trig point and that the locals had adopted it as a place to leave offerings to bring good luck.
We drive to the next mound on the horizon. The area we are entering is known as Elliq Qala, in the province of Khorezm, and in every guide book it tells you it means ‘Fifty Forts’. Oktyabr explains that this is in fact a misnomer and the name comes from the local pronunciation for the word ‘wind’ which was misheard as ‘fifty’, presumably because it was so windy. These are the Windy Forts. Easy to see why: they sit perched on hilltops overlooking the flattest of dusty plains and there is no obstacle to break of hinder the passage of any wind.
We arrive at the impressive walls of Qizil Qala fortress which dates to the 1st to the 4th century AD with later additions in the 12th century. The base of the fortification wall is very much reconstructed but has a really pleasing sturdy shape with sharp corner angles and an impressive slope reminiscent of the travertine walls of the Vatican. Protruding out of the smooth surface of the wall are the ends of horizontal wooden beams that cast long shadows like a collection of sundials.
At the entrance we see that there are decorative pilasters where a constrasting mudbrick design was used to break up the facade. Rather chichi for an imposing fortress.
We scramble up through the doglegged entrance which was intended to throw off anyone trying to breach the walls in antiquity. The inside of the fort looks like the gently undulating surface of the moon littered with dust-covered shrubs. There are deep holes in the odd place where the archaeologists have investigated the internal layout of the fort. The walls, though seemingly solid in construction, were once punctured by arrow slit windows. I loved hearing that through time the standard brick size changed – between a dumpy brick and a slender one it is hard to know what the difference is when it comes to building threes massive structures but there was a human decision to change the shape and it is that that I love.
Our next stop is the neighbouring mound of Torpak Qala another fortress founded in the 1st century AD. On first glimpse it looks unimpressive, a large crater has been dug through the build up of mud layers in the entrance and nothing is visible within it. A sloped track borders the crater and looks like the access road to a quarry site. We follow Oktyabr up the slope and as we reach the crest we see why he has led us here. A ridge extends out from the hillock we are standing on and stretches out to form a huge rectangular enclosure. Along the spine of the ridge sits a ruined mudbrick wall and it suddenly apparent that we are very much in one corner of a huge complex that lies below us – a walled and protected city. It is a little bit of a pull focus moment.
We continue to clamber over the citadel and are told of a king’s throne room, a room of victories and a Zoroastrian temple with a cleansing room with adjacent prayer room. It appears that this corner of the complex served as the royal and religious centres of the settlement. Sadly not visible now as they are housed in St Petersburg, but we learn of frescoes that would have once adorned each of the rooms: sun gods, large scary faces, dancers… it is world away from the bleached mudbrick before us.
Lunch is taken in a local restaurant and we are served little pasta ravioli filled with meat or egg. More like mini dumplings we gobble them up to replenish the calories we’ve burnt off during our morning of mudbrick and hilltops. We drop Oktyabr off in a town where he can catch a taxi back to Nukus while we continue onto Khiva. We bid our farewell and in the midst of this we are trying to organise a tip of a certain amount as he has been a wonderful host. Apparently between he front and back row of a small nine-seater minibus there is some misunderstanding and a hug wad of notes is passed to me. One thing to understand about Uzbekistan is that the current black market exchange rate is 7000 Sum to the dollar and the biggest note they have is 5000 sum. Paying for anything is a laborious process of counting out notes – it’s the same as if we only had 50p notes in Britain. Wads of notes have already become a familiar sight and paying for lunch leaves the little case heaving and with money spewing out.
So when I hand him a large wad I presume it has been counted out and that this is the tip we are leaving. Oktyabr gratefully accepts it and pops it in his pocket. We wave goodbye and as he crosses the road to get his taxi someone asks me for the left over money so that it can be returned to our kitty.
I am hit by the sudden realisation that I have handed him goodness knows how much of our money. The rest of the group register what has just happened and we decide that the best thing to do is confess to him our mistake and rectify it. I hop out the van and chase him along the road and I’m followed by one of my fellow travellers. Oktyabr spots me, and comes over. I explain the mix up that has happened in the most apologetic way I can muster and he digs into his pocket and retrieves the wad of notes. The pile suddenly looks enormous and I feel awful for having gotten his hopes up. As my companion distract him by talking to him about the weather, I count out the right tip and then deliver a distinctly slimmer wad of notes into his hand. It is monstrously awkward but it had to be done as we are on a budget and to judge by the size of the remaining wad I am now in possession of I had probably given him a good few days worth of our budget. Poor man
The landscape we are driving through is not particularly notable but it is quite something to cross the famous Oxus River…
I’m keen to arrive in Khiva in daylight as we are straight off the next morning to Bukhara. We pull into town in the warm evening light and it is perhaps perfect. The wonderfully bulbous mudbrick city walls of Khiva greet us and we get taken to our hotel. Only that it is not the hotel we thought we were staying in. We are without a translator but our driver, Azim, seems utterly convinced that he has brought us to the right place. He enters the hotel and returns with a lady dressed in purple with hair to match. She grins at us and we get a flash of her row of gold teeth. She welcomes us to the hotel but our group is still confused and try phoning the agent to confirm which hotel we are booked into. Usually it wouldn’t matter but in this case a special and more expensive hotel had been chosen for the one night because it was the only one in a traditional building. Meanwhile the purple lady is quite insistent that we enter the hotel and we apologise that although we are sure her hotel is lovely we would like to check there has been no mix up. She retains a fixed grin but is looking a little dismayed and keeps gesturing towards the hotel doors and tries to move us from our perches in the bus but to no avail. Finally it is confirmed that the original hotel cancelled our booking and we are indeed in the purple lady’s hotel. Her face lights up when we all follow her into the hotel and she keeps enthusiastically welcoming us. We are handed keys to our rooms and she offers us tea. I am now very conscious that we are losing precious daylight but she suggests we should take tea so we all sit and wait for the brew to be poured. We paw over our maps and guide books and discuss a few of the sites we want to see in Khiva. The purple lady just sits with us and smiles her gold smile. I am entrusted with map reading and given the task of navigating our group through the old town in the absence of a guide. I stare at the map of little wiggly streets of Khiva and get my bearings while we gulp down our tea. The purple lady continues to smile and in so doing wrinkles up her piercing blue eyes. As we finish our tea the purple lady announces she will show us Khiva…. our group falls silent as the penny drops that she is our guide and not the owner of the hotel as we had all imagined. To say this was an awkward moment is an understatement. Our second for the day. She sees our faces and the penny drops for her too. She bursts out laughing and says she should have probably introduced herself.
We set out on a lovely evening stroll through the town and every building looks magical in the warm glow of the sun. I instantly fall in love with the relatively recent build of the Islam Khodja Minaret (1910). It has a very pleasing dumpy but perfectly rounded shape and it sits looking very much rooted to the ground. The tapering coloured bands of glazed tiles seem to squeeze it upwards and it’s evidently Khiva’s lookout point.
Along the road and past the stalls selling embroidered silk, silk scarves and carved pieces of wood we wend our way towards the mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud. He is the adopted patron saint of Khiva and rather wonderfully, I discover he was a furrier in his day but also renown for his wrestling talents. Not many patron saints can claim that combination. The mausoleum was set up over his furrier workshop and boasts a gorgeous green dome visible in glimpses from around the city. Though he died in the 13th century, the tomb was only inaugurated in 1810. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted it to be fur-lined but the cooling blue and white tile decoration is lovely.
Our guide, Matsuma herds us along the streets and brings us to a crossroads. Part of the group are distracted by the very distracting enormous shaggy wool and fur hat stalls and the array of strange mannequins with no noses. Our poor guide is keen to continue the tour and eventually gathers us in one spot to adore the second mina of Khiva, the Kalta Minor minaret. It’s a stunted minaret as it is incomplete but was supposed to be the highest one in all Asia until its benefactor was beheaded and its architect fled. So it sits rather heavily at one side of the town but the turquoise tiles are a teaser as to how it may have looked had a head not rolled.
We move on to the Juma Mosque. As we enter in between the huge carved wooden doors we are met with a forest of carved columns. There are 213 columns of which only a handful date to the original 10th century, the rest mainly from the 18th century, but the atmosphere in this building is wonderful. Patches of light seep through the small open courtyards but for the most part the room is dimly lit. We weave in and out amongst the rows of columns and I really do feel a sense of peace in this space.
Our final stop, just as the sun is getting low in the sky, is the impressive facade of the 19th century Allah Kali Khan Madrassah at the eastern edge of the town. Its bricks are a warm colour in this light and the delicate and sparing use of blue tile decoration is used just to highlight the grand entrance and the arches over the window.
The group by now are weary and the sun has all but set. The lure of a drink before we eat is growing strong and my companions saunter back to the hotel. I lag behind with one other person to catch the last glimmers of light on the city walls but soon dusk settles and the camera is switched off.
Tomorrow we head to Bukhara.