The road to Khiva

Well, my road may not have been so golden. Or silky smooth, for that matter. But it started okay. Ten dollars was a fair enough price, as it turned out. And we set out bravely across the desert in our five-speed Daewood sedan (Daewoo must be very happy with their business here. There are only old Russian-made cars and Daewoos on the road).

Amazing non-scenery, the compelling view of nothing at all. The usual conversation. Where are you from? (the usual looks of blankness from some and kangaroos from others). Where is your tour group? (the usual nods of surprise and interest). Are you married? Do you have children? (Shock horror. Looks to assess what might be wrong with me). How old are you? (I was married and had x children by your age). Can you help me emigrate to New Zealand? (understanding nods when I explain the immigration rules and that my influence is somewhat limited).

I do not mean to imply that I am bored of talking to people. Quite the contrary. These conversations tell you quite a lot about what is going on in Uzbekistan. The official encouragement of big families is now gone, but the people I met married young, and most have large (and growing larger) families.

There are very few tourists here (many Uzbek people (and fellow tourists) say ‘hello’ in the street when they see you), and those that do come mostly come on organised silk road tours, in bus-sized groups that fit snugly into souvenir shops.

And most people are not happy with their lot. Nor should they be really. Economically there are many things to complain about. As they tell it, unemployment is high (officially I suspect there is no such thing, which helps to explain why there are so many able-bodied people just hanging out everywhere that work is done, but actually doing very little), and those that do have jobs get paid very little and seldom. Business is difficult in an environment where the government controls everything, foreclosing the option of self-employment as anything more than a driver. With domestic options limited, anyone who can leave does leave. Which includes the smart young people that Uzbekistan needs, but whose skills are so much better rewarded in other places.

Everyone (excet me and, thankfully, the driver) slept through the heat of the day, waking only momentarily as we pause at the numerous police checkpoints. I only have to register at one today (they write down my passport details in a square-lined notebook). The driver slyly gives each militiaman some money. It is hard to see how much, but it seems to ease the way.

My English-speaking back-seat neighbour is especially keen to leave Uzbekistan. She also speaks perfect Russian, and wonders if there is no demand for her skills back home. I fear to report not. She has three jobs to save up some money to try to leave (teachers have it easy back home by comparison with those here). All I can suggest is Turkey (there is an ethnic link) to Germany. But I have no idea if this is feasible. She talks about going to work in Russia, Korea or Japan. Apparently many Uzbeks do this; cleaners are better paid in Korea and Japan than anyone in Uzbekistan.

Eventually we arrive in Urgench – 25kms from Khiva. The others get dropped off one by one, but I do not want to find a hotel here. It is dark, and that makes it difficult to assess the character of anything. I want to get to Khiva.

So we negotiate a price. Cheap too. I should have been more suspicious. We stop to pick up a woman. The driver speaks just enough Russian to tell me that this is his wife, and then to say that all his women are his wives. His wife does not seem to mind. Perhaps next time someone asks me why I am not married, I will refer to my lack of positive Central Asian marriage role-models.

Up goes the music. Fabulous Russian techno. Up goes the speedo. 130 and climbing. The driver is dancing in his seat now. Is his wife impressed by this? At least I am laughing. And singing quietly “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, s’long as I got a plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car… Going 90 it ain’t scary ‘cos I got the Virgin Mary ‘ssuring me that I won’t go to hell”. An okay Friday night, all things considered.

It turns out (see above point about suspicious price) that the driver does not actually know how to get to Khiva. We stop to ask a lot of people. He and his wife are clearly tired of ferrying me around, so when we reach something that looks like the old city, out it is time to get.

I am not really sure where I am. The old city is surrounded entirely by wall, my guidebook says. Anyone can see that these walls in front of me are only 10 metres long and don’t surround anything. Hmmmm.

Anyway, the driver is gone. Happily enough. With the last of my local currency. To his credit, he did not try to renegotiate the price (something which is far too common over here, it seems). It is 11pm, rather dark, and I don’t know where I am. On the plus side, I have a map (but no compass, since it was stolen (I suspect by street kids) in Tblisi) and a light, and it is a warm (even balmy) night.

Then suddenly (as usual) it starts to rain. Were I the type to worry then I might start now. Actually, I guess that were I the type to worry, I might would have started some time back. But I am not. So I pull on my bag and set off in a promising looking direction. Fortunately I left most of my stuff in Bukhara, so my load is light. And I quickly come across a set of city walls and a gate (although that does not much help with figuring out which way to hold the map since there are four gates marked). Even from random wanderings in the dark I can see that Khiva has some amazing architecture.

Eventually, with the assistance of some helpful people who are clearly intrigued at this bearded foreigner scoping out nooks and crannies to rest his head till dawn, I find a hotel with some lights on and an English sign, and the surprised nightwatchman shows me to a room.

The morning brings news that I have stumbled on the very best place to stay in Khiva, with rooms opening out on to a pretty central courtyard, the best food in the town, and all meals included in the price. Don’t you just love a happy ending?