Khiva, Uzbekistan

There can be nothing as sorry as an amusement park in a country as poor as Uzbekistan. It’s Sunday afternoon and extended families are strolling through in roving clusters of sisters, cousins, grandparents, and nephews. A tiny little pool lies empty with rusting paddle boats, chained one to the other to protect against theft. A mangled swing set has toppled down into the mud, and children climb over it pelting each other with stones. Further on, a plain white rocket ship hangs from a tall central revolving pedestal; there are 10 single seats, all in a row, all empty. A boy beckons me over pushing me into the front seat. He sits down behind me and shouts to his friend pointing at the control box, the casing of which has been pulled off and lies in a scrap heap. His friend flicks a switch in the open gear box, and with a shudder and a jolt our rocket ship launches forward reaching its top speed of 3 miles per hour. After 2 agonizing revolutions, I get out and walk over the park’s cafe — actually 2 cafes side by side. Their competing stereo systems are each blasting imitation western dance music. As I sit there sipping an orange Fanta, the cafes’ dueling techno merge with each other into a single dissonant noise. Welcome to the Tivoli of Khiva.

For some sanctuary I retreat into the confines of the stunning walled old city, the best preserved I’ve seen on this trip. 200 years ago, the only foreigners within these walls were those Russians unlucky enough to be captured and sold as slaves in Khiva’s bazaar. 200 years later, the only locals within these walls are those Uzbeks lucky enough to be associated with Khiva’s small but lucrative tourist industry. This legendary Silk Road outpost’s fame comes less from its historical importance, and more from the brutality of its ruling khans. In addition to specializing in a wide variety of Russian slaves, they distinguished themselves from the other Turkoman tribes with particularly brutal methods of publicly decapitating trespassing passers-by.

What remains today is a perfectly preserved maze of medressas, mosques and minarets. So perfectly preserved and immaculate, in fact, that it can be difficult to imagine the bustling filth which Khiva’s old city must have been when normal people actually lived there. But the architecture is so impressive that it was enough just to soak it up as a museum. And for the first time on this trip, the influence of the Hindus to the southeast can be felt: sub-continental woodwork is mixed in with the now familiar Persian-style turquoise and blue tiled mosques and minarets. For the first time, I can really feel that I am moving East.

Though I’m traveling by myself, I’m very rarely alone. Especially in Khiva, little boys and girls are endlessly accosting me with requests for sweets and pens. So it was a bit of a relief to climb up onto the city walls. Since no one ever bothers to look up, I sat there as if invisible spying down on the city life below: women washing clothes, men riding bicycles, cars stuck in traffic jams, and children tugging on the trousers of a japanese tourist. And above all of this is the skyline littered with television antennae and minarets. The most prominent minaret was built as recently as 1910 and the guidebook calls it the last great architectural achievement of the Islamic era. Forming a backdrop behind all of this are the great architectural achievements of the Soviet era: black smokestacks of decaying factories belching smoke into the heavens, a reminder of the “real world” beyond the old city walls. This was perfection, just sitting there undisturbed listening to my walkman watching all. And then the sun’s last crimson rays disappeared fromt he mud brick walls below me. There was darkness and I left.