I arrived in Khiva via shared taxi at 1:00 in the morning. The other passengers had long since been dropped off at their respective destinations; little nowhere towns that stood defiantly against the oppressive nothingness of northwest Uzbekistan. For the final hour, it was just me and my driver. When he ran out of water, I passed up my own. It was a relaxed environment in the car as we sped on through the night. Normally I hate being alone in the back seat while someone drives me, especially when I’m in a foreign country since it makes me feel like I’m getting chauffeured around. But this guy was a prime example of the relaxed kindness Uzbeks are known for, and despite the total language barrier the drive was nice.
We rolled up to a hostel I had arbitrarily picked off my map, just outside the walls of Khiva’s massive old city. I thanked him for the ride, and he sped off for home. At first, I felt guilty for making him drive just me all the way out here, but it turned out he and his family lived in Khiva so he was going there regardless. I approached the front steps of the hostel where thankfully the owner was sitting, and he got me sorted out with a room painlessly.
In the morning, I set out to explore Khiva and was quickly sent packing back by the absolutely oppressive heat of the Uzbek summer. Khiva’s old streets are baked mud and radiate heat back up, broiling the poor souls who tried to fight it. But the streets are also quite narrow and the buildings tall, so for every brick oven courtyard, there’s a shady alley lined with vendors and ice cream stands. That’s one thing I quickly came to love about Central Asia — there’s an ice cream vendor on every corner from Kashgar to Khiva. At 2,000 Uzbek som per cone (0.23 USD), I became a regular sight at the stand located dangerously close to my hostel.
I stayed in Khiva for several days, exploring the ancient streets morning and night, relaxing on the massive balcony of my hostel by day. My main objective was to prepare for my entry to Turkmenistan and to rest after a rough month that led me there. In fact, I was prepared to spend my time in Khiva lazily wallowing in the heat like a lizard, venturing out into the heat only for food. I had walked much of the city but wasn’t motivated to take photos. Thankfully, I was challenged during a phone call with my mother to go out and take 100 photos of the city. Not all 100 became usable of course, but I documented my final Uzbek sunset well enough.
I really love these far-flung corners of countries. It doesn’t matter what country we’re talking about; every one has some hidden corner that takes work to reach. Granted in Khiva’s case, it’s not quite hidden nor is it terribly difficult to reach, but it’s the road less traveled in Uzbekistan. Many travelers go as far west as Bukhara, and for good reason — it’s the place in Uzbekistan for all things architecture and old city. I spent no more than an hour in Bukhara, trying to find a way to Khiva. But what I found in Khiva was so worth the trouble. It only came into my route because it’s the last stop before Turkmenistan, but the odd traveler I’d meet who visited it sang its praises all day long.
So to all you who might visit Uzbekistan, Khiva is worth the effort. It’s out of the way and kind of a pain to reach, but it’s a pocket of culture that I’ve never really experienced before. I’ve been to old cities before, of course. I lived in Patan in Kathmandu. Turpan and Kashgar in Turkestan had thriving old cities. But Khiva is special, among special places. Sure, it’s becoming touristy, but in the intense heat the city empties. It’s a time capsule. You can walk anywhere. Every building is a work of art. Businesses set up in the old town are built right into the traditional architecture; I got a haircut under the dome of what I think used to be a small mosque.
But the best part of all is the windows.
Khiva is of course not just the old city. There’s a new town built around it, though admittedly not much. I wish I had explored it a little, but it never occurred to me at the time. But the old city itself is surrounded by a massive wall. There are a few points where you can walk up on the wall, and lining it are ancient windows that look out on the new city. I spent my last night walking along that wall looking through each window, imaging the time when peering through would yield a view of the endless Uzbek Karakum Desert. At sunset, each window lit up like gold nuggets embedded in the clay. Looking through them onto the new city was like looking forward in time.
When the sun fully set beyond the horizon, I set off on one last nighttime loop through the city before retiring for the night and to prepare for entering Turkmenistan the next day.
The streets were empty during the day due to the heat. At night, they’re just as empty as many shops start to close up. Local kids run in the streets and Muslim men come when the call to prayer echoes hauntingly through the alleys (which, by the way, is one of my favorite sounds). One or two tourists explore as well. But on the whole, it cools and quiets down, becoming tranquil and serene. There are few lights to dim the stars, and they twinkle above the minarets just as they have since Khiva was built hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s one of those places that I try to seek out; a place where the environment is so unchanged in ways that allow you to feel a tangible connection to all those who came before. I waxed nostalgic for awhile as I walked, pausing only to take a few photos.
Walking at night has always been my meditative state. It helps me solidify my comfort level in new places, and to cope with the anxiety of moving to a new place and the sadness of leaving an old one. My final night in any place always brings a disembodied, transient sadness; even more so when it’s my last night in a country. Walking the empty streets at night helps ease those feelings and loops my mind around to prepare for the next step.
In this case, the next step was Turkmenistan — my concrete goal since I arrived in Beijing from Kathmandu, and the object of my interest for over a year, since before I left America in the first place. So the feeling of anxiety before entering the place was multi-layered, but first I had to bid farewell to Uzbekistan.