Our 500km drive through the desert took the best part of eight hours with a limited landscape of low scrub bush and sand.
At one point the road traced close to the Turkmenistan border where we could see the Amu Darya dam and the surrounding fertile agricultural lands.
One of the few stops we made was at a lay by to try some delicious honey melons – flavours and ripeness you just don’t get from European fruit and veg.
On the approach to Khiva we encountered several diversions, first the main bridge was closed for reconstruction and then the alternative road was closed for resurfacing. After zig zagging through the back streets we finally caught a glimpse of the 30ft high, crumbling mud brick walls of the old city, known as ‘Itchan Kala.’
After checking into our hotel – a converted old Jewish family mansion – we headed out to explore the city before sunset. As the sun began to set, we hurried through the maze of narrow streets, through a series of courtyards and climbed a set of stairs onto a large flat roof which gave stunning vistas across the city.
We spent nearly half an hour snapping photos and posing for group selfies as the sun began to dip behind the large minaret and domes. From the roof top we headed back down through town to a local restaurant where dinner and a traditional dance had been laid on for us.
Rather than dinner and a show, we were instead greeted by some locals stood outside the restaurant who started singing and dancing in the street. Several members of the group joined in, while cars with headlights on full beam negotiated their way around the entertainers.
From the entertainment we headed in doors for what would be the most disappointing meal of our time in Uzbekistan – I ordered the Plof, usually a safe bet but tonight it tasted like the leftover Plof from the past fortnight scraped together!
With under a day in the ancient walled-city of Khiva we all agreed on an early start for our walking tour of the city. Our local guide started with a visit to the statue of Muhammad Al Xorazimy a renowned 9th century mathematician whom she interestingly credit as one of the founders of modern algebra.
Our next stop was at Khiva’s most famous sight, the aqua marine mosaic covered Kalta Minor Minaret. Originally intended to be the largest minaret in the Arab world it was left only half finished when its creator and sponsor died during its construction – meaning today it looks more like a factory chimney than a minaret.
We continued our tour through the narrow winding mud-walled streets – stopping inside a number of notable buildings which were used to receive guest and dignitaries. The final stop was at the kings Harem, a large building looking out onto a central courtyard with five main rooms – one for the king and four adjacent rooms, one for each of the four wives he was allowed by law. If he wanted a new wife, he had to divorce or ‘remove’ one of the existing ones – finding a new wife would have been easy as opposite the royal chambers was a long balcony with viewing holes where the Kings concubines resided.
After grabbing our bags from the hotel we headed to administrative capital of the region Urgench. After a quick stop at a local supermarket to get supplies for the next two days we finished the 30min drive, arriving at the train station ninety minutes before departure. While locals had their tickets and passports thoroughly checked we were largely waived through to the spacious departure hall where we waited until called.
With boarding time upon us we wandered down the platform to the very last carriage of about fifty and climbed onto our rickety old fifties Soviet train. The corridor and open compartments were all a dated wood, with horrible worn Persian carpets on the floor and a brown gold coloured sheet and pillow case on each of the four bunks – all making for an overload of brown.
After a few reshuffles of personnel in our compartment we settled on Emma, David, Oli and myself and conversation flowed. We were soon joined by half the group and the temperature soared with nine bodies crammed in the small space. As the evening flew by we decided on watching a film – with no speakers, nine of us all crowded around my small laptop to watch the film Nightcrawler before bed.
Tired from another long day we said goodnight and assembled our beds – in the morning we’d be arriving in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.