Khiva Caveats, part I: Love in the Ruins
Well, I’ve been so effusive in my infatuation with Uzbekistan so far, like a kid in a candy store, or with a new toy, or a new girl-friend, that it had to end sometime, so I guess I’ll have to vent my spleen against the good folks of Khiva, since they are less attractive to me than the people of Samarkand or Bukhara in the first place. You’ve got a vast desert between the two, for one thing, the Kyzylkum (“red sand”), not to be confused with the Karakum (“black sand”) which usually should take no more than a few hours to cross, half day at most. It took Marco Polo and Ibn Battutah longer than that BTW.
And, just when it seems like the desert itself will never end, you’ll soon come out on a sizeable fertile plain that was the ancient kingdom of Khorezm, the same Khorezm that gave its name to the mathematician al-Khorezmi, architect of the ‘algorithms’ that define the operating systems of the computer you’re using right now. It doesn’t look like much on the map, not much more than a bend in the river. In fact it is the capital of an ancient culture, one related but not synonymous with its cousins back east.
Khorezm corresponds most closely to Karakalpakstan on today’s map, i.e. not much. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s of not much importance in today’s world, if ever. Yet there it is, self-sustaining and inevitable, something like half-way between Bukhara and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. It must have been a glorious sight after days in the desert back in the day.
It feels different in Khiva, too, almost like you’re almost in Iran by now, with its mullahs and its shari’a law. Wait a minute… Yes, you are almost in Iran, and you can hear it in the music, light catchy pop replaced by long dirges, the same intense sobriety that induces Zoroastrians to allow buzzards to clean their carcasses for final burial, fun fun.
People are not as friendly here, either, laughing or staring, but not smiling, not the electric magnetic smiles of their compatriots back east, anyway. I could imagine someone wearing a burkha here, or mugging a tourist for that matter. I’d be shocked to see it back in the east of the country. The markets are scuzzier, too, people ignoring well-ordered stalls in order to squat on the ground of their ancestors, as if real business can only be transacted in a clusterf*ck.
Still, that’s no real problem. But is it okay to eat, sleep, sh*t and f*ck in a UNESCO world heritage site? I don’t mean in the town outside the site; I mean the site itself. That’s the way Khiva is laid out. That citadel that you would be charged admission to in Bukhara (Buxoro) is the citadel where you’ve booked your lodging in Khiva. The little alcove where you’ve booked your romantic meal is the same little alcove where Al Goritmi once worked his equations. The little corner where you pose for pictures with Shah what’s-his-name is the same corner where astronomical observations were once taken. Doesn’t UNESCO have rules about how their certifications are adhered to?
Admittedly there is probably no physical damage being done (that hasn’t already been done and repaired dozens of time by now), but still… Is an archeological site supposed to look like Archeo-Disneyland? The Europeans love it, of course, the southerners especially, with their romantic notions and sublime moments over drinks around the table with dozens of their compatriots in tow. Street vendors are more likely to speak French to you than any other language here… unless they make you for a Spaniard. Most of the locals don’t even speak Russian, unless they ARE Russian. It IS beautiful, to be sure. But is it authentic?
That’s where I booked my first night, in a ‘hostel’ right in the forbidden city—big mistake. I know Uzbeks love a cluster-f*ck, but this is ridiculous—restaurant cum bar cum travel-agent cum tour-guide cum B&B cum souvenir stand? Get out. I don’t know why a restaurant that can draw a hundred tourists at a time would bother with a handful of dorm beds in a back room adjoining one of their dining rooms. Do French package tourists enjoy seeing half-naked backpackers squeeze by their tables to get in and out of their rooms? I know the backpackers don’t appreciate it. On top of that, the Wi-Fi doesn’t work. So after eighteen hours of that, I got out, eighteen hours too long. They must make as much off one diner in one meal as a dorm bed for the night, so why bother?
I only booked the so-called “hostel” because I wanted some alternative to an expensive hotel…or nothing. But Wi-Fi is part of the deal, and not tomorrow. And there are plenty of reasonable options. They just don’t know how to list their places online—too bad. After a breakfast of little more than sweet breads at my old place, breakfast at the new place was the best meal I’ve had in three weeks, maybe three months, or even three years. Okay, so that’s how long I’ve been vegetarian, but I never took any vows, so I have a ‘travel clause’ that allows me—without guilt—to opt out. At home, all guilt applies.
I know I’m losing weight when I read about the new revelations about that “Into the Wild” guy’s death and catch myself thinking, ‘Why did he have to eat so much?’ And I notice I can make funny shapes with my stomach muscles that I haven’t been able to do since I was a carpenter thirty years ago, so I figure I should probably eat a real meal or two. (to be continued…)