Khiva to Ayaz-Kala

‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is filling my mind and heart with wonderful images as the music of Jimi Hendrix accompanies us into the desert after our lovely stay in the immaculately preserved old city of Khiva. Ben literally had to drag me away from here after I didn’t want to leave the Tosh-Hovli Palace and it’s tile and gaunch work. To enter the palace one has to duck through a beautifully hand-carved wooden door and walk through a dark passage way. Coming into the light again one is stunned by the many rooms either side of a courtyard, each with an open front and covered from wall to floor with individually hand-painted tiles. Each of the rooms is decorated completley differently. The celing is propped-up with a gigantic intricately-carved wooden column, not unlike the forest of colums one can walk through in the Jama Masjid. They are bulbous at the base and rise heavenward to a fine tapered end.

As Uzbekistan is not high on many tourists’ travel lists (apart from the French, for whom Uzbekistan oddly seems at the top) the travellers we have met have been the most intersting people we have spent time with anywhere in a long while. From the Frenchman Bastian traveling overland from Paris to Thailand, Jonas the Norweigan bloke trekking throughout Central Asia and Ray the vulcanologist from Spain and his partner Stephanie, a dutch chef, on a 12 month adventure across the world, all with inspiring tales to tell. Our paths keep crossing along the way and we trade tips and tricks on working out the quirk that Uzbekistan is.

Out side the taxi window the desert stretches unbroken to the horizon. Then suddenly out of nowhere the ancient Ayaz-Kala fort (4-2nd Century BC) is immense and crumbling before our eyes. We race up the dirt path and survey the ruins of what was once obviously a thriving city. One can still see the foundations of the streets and houses all made from mud-packed earthe and hay, blowing away with the desert wind. Ben, the keen amateur archeologist starts an illegal dig in the wall but comes up with nothing. It doesn’t look as if it has ever been touched.

It could be the psychedelic music we are listening to, or the fact that we are under the middday sun, but everything is kind of surreal here. Or maybe it is just the deliciously fresh desert air. After driving for three hours in this barren landscape we are glad to reach our yurt not far from Ayaz-Kala Fort. Set up on a hill over looking the nothingness and with a lone camel sitting near the door we feel we are home. Paloma is ecstatic and is practically jumping on the camel for a ride. Ben and Paloma mount the bad-tempered camel and disappear over a dune. They come back a while later with Paloma excitedly telling me ‘It was a baddy camel, he went up and down and up and down all bumpy over the desert!’ Ben tells me the camel stood up and sat and stood up again, over and over, then refused to move in the middle or nowhere. If you’ve ever been on a camel you will know that lurching feeling of almost catapulting off each time the camel gets up.

Inside the yurt the softest beds have been laid out on the floor. There are thick layers of handmade felt surrounding the outside of the yurt and beautiful horse hair ropes are decorating the bamboo structure. A feast of chicken soup and fresh vegetables, salad, bread and meat has been laid out for us, and the Uzbek tea which accompanies every meal. Gayrat (yes, indeed) our driver joins us and we demolish the food in no time. It is the best we have eaten our whole trip.

We are told we must see ‘the lake’ and we trek through the dunes and the thorny bushes for an hour to find the fabled lake. On our way I spot a turtle running across a dune. Whoever said turtles are slow has never met one. On arrival ‘the lake’ is more like a stagnant pond. We head back with Paloma trailing through the dust like a little nomad.

As twilight falls we sit outside our yurt watching the stars come out. Our favourite star, the first star we now call our Paloma Star is buring bright. The moon is full but not yet up and as the darkness descends the milky way lights up as only it can to it’s full glory with not one city light to diminish its glow. We watch shooting stars glide across the sky, satelites blink from afar. Our al fresco dinner becomes lively with a bottle of Uzbek vodak which is lovely and sweet. Then the turbaned Uzbek ladies with gold teeth glinting in the firelight bring more delicious food to our low table.

A huge bonfire is lit and some local musicians who have walked hours from some distant village are sitting on stools. A traditional Uzberk dancer is spinning round the fire. Her movements are eccentric and like nothing I have seen before. The few people who are staying here are all up and dancing round the bonfire with Paloma. She loves it and we dance for hours.

Fabled Cities

Samarkand. Even the sound of the name conjures up all sorts of wonderful imaginings in me. Standing in the main square of the Registan among the enormous stunning medrassas (schools of Islamic learning) is truly breathtaking.

They are some of the oldest on earth, and the Ulugbek Medressa is thought to be the largest and most important centre of mathematics and astronomy in the world during the 15th Century. Glowing in the late afternoon light, the facades and minarets of an enormous tiled mosque to the right of this medrassa, are azure and yellow.

After escaping any sickness in India, we are surprised to be briefly struck by gastro in Uzbekistan. The result of this ends up all over me, thanks to Paloma, as we sweat it out in an old Russian train from Samarkand to Bukhara. When enquiring as to why the air con wasn’t on despite the 30-degree heat inside the carriage and locked windows, we are simply told ‘It is turned on in May’. Rules and regulations govern the peoples of this country to the point of incomprehensibility. There are policemen on every corner, even when the streets are practically deserted. No wonder people here seem slow to smile. These are simple reminders to never take for granted even the smallest freedoms we have in Australia.

The further west we go the more desolate the countryside becomes. Rural life here is evidently very hard. The earth is dry after a particularly bitter winter and many farmers are toiling under the sun to ready the fields for planting. It’s a joy finally reaching the city of Bukhara, the centre of which is free from cars and pollution. The town is small enough for us to walk everywhere and we take to the back streets for a glimpse of local life.

Relaxing under the mulberry trees by the pretty Lyabi-Hauz pool, Paloma is entertained by stray cats and crazy Scottish gents studying Islamic architecture who beg us to let them babysit her. Paloma rides on Mullah Nasruddin’s donkey as he imparts his ‘wise fool’ Sufi wisdom to her.

Bukhara is home to many beautifully preserved mosques, minaret’s and medressas, and a maze of mud-brick alleyways to get happily lost in. Dome-covered bazaars display beautiful suzanis, the hand-embroidered silk textiles that were once bride’s dowrie pieces. They are usually made by several women at a time and take months to finish depending on the size. I am quite obsessed by them, and search for the older vintage pieces. Many of the antique suzanis sourced here are sold for thousands of dollars overseas, pushing up prices here to something ridiculous. We still leave with some bargains for our collection.

The fastest and only way to get from Bukhara to Khiva is by taxi. Driven at high speeds across a road pocked with pot holes, slippery with sand drifts and nothingness stretching to the horizon on either side of you. Stocked with a few provisions, drawing books, and an ipod full of the ABC’s children’s traveling songs, we launch into the 8-hour drive. Travel is in Paloma’s blood now and she loves to look out the window with me for hours into the dusty desertscape, thrown out like a dirty table cloth before us, trying to spot a lone bird or donkey. Out on the horizon, the billowing black fires of burning crops bloom randomly against the sky.