Saturday, September 18, 2010

Khiva & Out

Khiva & Out

Small border. Easy out, easy in. Except that the Uzbek Customs guy wanted to spend ten minutes playing with my netbook. In perfect passive aggressive form, Mark and David had snuck off without saying goodbye, presumably thinking that I'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere with nobody to translate Russian. But it was a quick taxi to the nearest town, a share taxi to the city of Nukus. another share taxi to the city of Urgench, then a final share taxi to the north gate of Khva. No more than a three minute wait at each stop, and I was probably there before they got to Nukus.

Khiva is the third jewel on the UZ tourist circuit. If Samarkand is Large and Bukhara is Medium, then Khiva is Small, a restored adobe sort of walled town from a couple of hundred years ago measuring only about 300 yards by 900 yards. The LP acted like the Soviets had restored it to a squeaky clean Disney version of itself, but hardly. The northern and southern sections were primitve, lived in, barely electrified, with cobblestone alleys. Most of the tourist sites were on the east/west axis, and consisted of some pretty basic adobe 'palaces' and medressas and minarets. The minarets looked somewhat like lighthouses, although lighthouses with intricate bands of blue/green and white tiles, were the main draw. That and the jumbled, closed in nature of the various light brown mud buildings and alleys, all penned in by the light brown mud city walls.

The Khivans, like the rest of the Uzbekis were pretty darn nice, and looked really guilty even in their mild attempts to overcharge the tourists. Strangely, what they mostly had to sell were cheap little manufactured trinkets and lady care items like bobby pins and lipstick. And lots and lots of nearly identical woolen socks and mittens which the women must knit all year. Unfortunately for them it was presently 92 degrees.

Unfortunately for me, there were lots and lots of busloads of retiree European tourists out too. Even more so than in Bukhara, probably because Khiva was so much smaller. Also, September is probably the big tourist month, because July & August are even hotter.

I had the opportunity to climb Uzbekistan's tallest minaret, but the prospect of 102 steps for 165 feet of height was way too much for my poor knees to contemplate. Ah, the diminishing horizons of age. Instead I went into the adjoining medressa, which was now a small museum. Really old looking wooden doors, etc., were labeled 'XX Century'. It was really something to realize that less than 100 years ago the Emir of Khiva was still carrying on in his craven barbaric ways. Then there were the 70 years of the Soviet Union. Now there was literally a busload of Belgian tourists parked outside.

Back out on the streets I was a little startled to hear somebody talking in an American accent to their guide. This was the first actual other individual American tourist that I had seen, so I stopped to say hello. He wasn't all that friendly. Somehow I always naively think that when you meet another traveler at the end of the world they will be overjoyed in having found someone else who shares their end of the world passion. But I have noted that a fair number seem to possess a sense of self importance and superiority from having gotten there, and that therefore they act annoyed and offended when they are reminded that they aren't all that unique.

Either that or they're just jerks. Who knows. Who cares.

And speaking of jerks, there I was in the hot afternoon strolling along the main dusty cobblestones downing a bottle of chai when who should I see but Mark and David. I mean, if you're going to be cowardly rude, you should at least be smart enough not to do it to somebody who you know that you'll have a fair chance of seeing the next day. I glared at them and they probably went back to their hotel room and hid for the next 24 hours.

Khiva was indeed really cute. But you can only walk back and forth on that east/west axis so many times, stopping so many times to admire all the rustic and exotic angles. So when the next morning at breakfast at my simple but adequate hotel a couple at the next table asked me if I wanted to share the cost of a car to Bukhara today, I said, how much? When I found out that my share would only be $5 more than the price of taking share taxis, but without any of the hassle, I said, what time?

By ten I had taken one last stroll around Khiva and my bag was packed and ready to go. The taxi pulled up to the hotel door and I and my two new friends climbed in.

John was Belgian and his girlfriend Judit was Hungarian. And they soon restored my faith in fellow travelers. The LP said that it was four and a half hours to Bukhara, but even with our own car it took seven, mostly through more light brown sandy flat monotonous desert with temperatures reaching 100. But we all had a great time trading travel stories and observations. Judit had even been to both Madagascar and Ethiopia, two of the last great unchecked off destinations on my list.

The driver took us right to the door of the hotel in Bukhara which I had stayed in a week before. Kamil was there to greet me, and offered me the same great rate, this time with free wifi. The others went off to a slightly cheaper place, but we met up again at 6:30, and I took them to La Bella Italia, where I had perhaps my last good meal until at least China.

The next morning Kamil had arranged for the same driver who had taken me to the TM border last week to show up at 8, and take me this time to the share taxi lot for points southeast. My goal for today was to make it to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. But it was unclear how, or whether or not, I would make it. The LP said that share taxis went directly to Denau, the UZ town near the border. David at Stantours had declared that I would first have to go all the way down to the creepy city of Termez, on the Afghan border, and then work my way back. I had decided to first try to get to Qarshi, about two hours away, and see what developed from that particular node on the map.

So when the share taxi driver at the Bukhara lot said that he could take me directly to Denau I was so delighted that I agreed to his price. It was only when I was in his car and on the way that I realized that I was paying him too much, and that he would just 'sell' me to another driver when we got to Qarshi. Which is what happened. Still, I was so glad not to have to be going to Termez that it was worth it.

We got to Denau around 2 and it was chaotic and hot. Needless to say, no one spoke English. And all the drivers acted like the border was still way far away. I could see that no other passengers were going there. So I finally agreed to $15. It turned out to be only about ten minutes away.

It was pretty dead at the border. No lines. But the UZ Customs guy decided that he wanted to look through every conceivable nook and cranny of my pack. Even though I was leaving the country. So I stood and waited while he probed, unzipped, felt up every piece of clothing, looked through every bottle of medicine, etc., etc. I don't think he was crooked and/or trying to entrap me; he was careful not to handle my money. And in the end of it all he had found my prescription bottle of Zolpiden, which was on his list of banned substances. But I was patient and told him repeatedly that the little brown bottle with the nice Walgreen's label meant that I was all legal, and finally he gave up and let me keep them.

Note to Self: When packing in future, put the friggin' Ambien in a bottle labeled Tylenol.