Saturday, August 05, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map V

We were somewhere outside Samarkand when the desert began to take hold.  The infinite grasslands had disappeared, replaced by wasteland devoid of all life but for the scrub of small plants.  Where the odd village did appear, the old concrete buildings of the north had been replaced by less solid dwellings of baked brick.  Children ran along the dusty lanes between them.  The livestock too had mainly been replaced by high electrical lines, and when finally some sheep did appear, judging from the distance between shrubs, I imagine they’d be hard pressed to find food.  Yet despite the dry, parched look to things, there was far more water to be seen, in the form of broad rivers, narrow irrigation channels, and oasis-like collective pools. Most of the latter were surrounded by dense, multi-colored clusters of vegetation.  This abundance of water may help explain the profuse flowers sprouting acre after acre from the arid earth.   But between these, salt stains bleached the landscape like some weirdly abnormal pigmentation.  Coming from nowhere and heading toward the same, two men bounced across this desert on a motorcycle. 

 So it was some surprise to come to the train station in Urgench , just outside Khiva.   This tidy looking town was filled with squat, boxy buildings, and an elaborate canal system that demarcated the perimeters of the multitudinous rice fields here.   A tractor was busy tilling one field, pulling a plow atop which two men were squatting in order to force the blades deeper into the dry soil.  Not far off in another field, an old couple clad in traditional dress labored heavily with their hoes, under the watch of some fresh new homes.  A fleet of green Scoda trolleybuses, the last such buses in Uzbekistan, provided service for the few residents here.  Yet most of the homes looked unfinished, despite the odd car here and there. 

With all this cultivation, it was easy to see Khiva as an oasis, and the compact nature of the walled, fortress-like town confirmed it.  I found it the most splendid place so far, the absence of cars within adding to the ambience.  There were very few temporal markers within, making it easy to forget the century.  The only touristic elements were the sellers of hats made from various furs, but they stayed close to the main gate and once through this initial gauntlet, the place was mine.  Narrow lanes led between the usual mosques and madrases, but they too took on the uniform look here of plain brown, baked soil walls.  The most impressive building was the Kuhna Ark, and climbing up and around its multi-level, angular dimensions was a return to the games of childhood.  This spirit remained with me as I climbed on all fours up the steep, spiraling internal stairwell of the Juma Minaret, the only light coming from a few small windows, and the screen of my iPhone.  The views from the top were of a film set, Tatooine to my mind.  I could imagine the traders here in days past, elbowing their way through the masses, adorned in a fashion show with origins all across Asia.  It was the birth of the global economy.


These ancient roots can still be glimpsed in the bazaar just outside the East Gate, where sellers sit on blankets in the shade, under the gaze of camels bellowing obstinately in the corners. A box of onions has been left in the streaming sunlight, each orb gleaming like the top of a minaret.  I found myself caught up in the sprit of the place, coming away with a fur hat befitting a Mongol horseman, as well as with a tube of toothpaste. 

Under picture perfect blue skies, I wandered the lanes again and again, before winding the day up with a cup of tea in one of the squares, taking a hint from Katya, the town’s famous camel, who lazed about in the shade nearby. 

On the turntable:  Duke Ellington, "Ellington at Newport"

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