Although both Uzbekistan Airways’ flights were on time (London Heathrow to Tashkent overnight and Tashkent to Urgench a few hours later), the on-board food was nothing to celebrate. Just over half the seats on the flight to Tashkent were occupied, which meant it was not crowded (Hilary and I had three seats to ourselves). Although the flight to Urgench was busier, it was in a comfortable Airbus and took about only 90 minutes.
At Tashkent Airport we were greeted by Davron, our guide and tour manager for the trip, who led us to a coach that took us to a hotel about 5 kms away for a very good buffet breakfast (we arrived at the hotel about 10.15am). The breakfast included many typical Uzbek items including porridge made with oats, porridge made with semolina, soup, pastries stuffed with ground meat or cheese, pancakes both sweet and savoury, tomatoes, cucumbers, runny cream, dried fruit and bread. Tea was green or black, but not so strong as in Turkey so it could be drunk without sugar, and coffee existed, but only in instant form. Chilled glasses of cherry juice and kefir (the latter established itself as a favourite of ours) were also available.
The hotel, one more popular with citizens of Uzbekistan, both Uzbek and Russian, than with foreign tourists, lay along a quiet side street dominated by housing, but the main road nearby was lined with large Soviet-era apartment blocks, some of which had been given a makeover including a bright coat of paint. Very similar apartment blocks exist in many other parts of the former Soviet Union and its one-time allies.
What were our first impressions of Uzbekistan? Tashkent looked a relatively clean, overwhelmingly modern city with some wide boulevards, large apartment blocks and mature trees providing shade from the sun. The boulevards, apartment blocks and trees appeared to be legacies of the Soviet era. Some of the main roads carried a lot of traffic but the side streets very little, and the food looked very promising (Uzbek food reflects the cuisines encountered almost the whole length of the Silk Road, from what is now western China to Turkey). When I briefly left the hotel compound (via an entrance where a young man sat beside a sentry box checking who entered or left the grounds) to look around the nearby streets, I saw a large cafe and restaurant arranged around a spacious courtyard where plov, perhaps Uzbekistan’s most famous and delightful savoury dish, was cooking in a large stainless steel cauldron over a wood fire.
Already we had observed that some Uzbek words were the same as Turkish, others were very similar, but still others bore no relation to Turkish at all! Moreover, Tashkent Airport’s international terminal reminded us of how things used to be in Turkey about 20 or 30 years ago. This said, the domestic terminal in Tashkent and the terminal in Urgench were of recent construction.
The flight from Tashkent to Urgench took us over predominantly flat land, most of which was desert or semi-desert. There were places where ponds and lakes were shrinking or had disappeared altogether and many dry riverbeds (on the flight from London to Tashkent we saw parts of the much-depleted Aral Sea and the wasteland that had once been covered with water). However, on approaching Urgench we encountered an area far more fertile than anything that had preceded it (villages were common, as were houses within plots of land producing many varieties of fruit and vegetable), irrigation canals being the reason that crops and livestock prospered. But the flat land persisted and would persist for almost the whole trip.
Walking from the plane to the terminal at Urgench, I carried a large wicker basket full of strawberries that a middle-aged woman had bought in Tashkent. As we waited by the carousel to retrieve our bags, the woman rushed over with a bag of the strawberries, which Hilary and I ate about two hours later in our hotel room in Khiva.
We walked to the very comfortable and full-sized coach in which we would spend so much time the next nine or ten days and met the two very helpful drivers who shared the burden with Davron of getting us from place to place. We left for Khiva where we stayed for two nights. We did not see much of Urgench but it looked overwhelmingly modern (the airport terminal, although not very large, had few facilities because it did not handle a large number of passengers). There was a mixture of Soviet-era and post-Soviet-era structures overlooking streets too wide for the amount of traffic that used them. We drove past an enormous square with very little vegetation to protect people from the heat (it was only mid-May, but the temperature was about 30 degrees centigrade. Davron said that July is usually hotter than August. However, in most parts of Uzbekistan the air is very dry, so, despite the high temperatures for at least half the year, humidity is rarely a problem).
Urgench felt very much like an overwhelmingly Soviet-era settlement and, as a consequence, a lot of industry mingled with the buildings assigned for administrative, public, commercial or residential use. Although Khiva is one of Uzbekistan’s most obvious and remarkable destinations for tourists, whether the tourists are citizens of Uzbekistan or foreign, we were surprised that the road was in a condition worse than many a pot-holed road in the more disadvantaged parts of the UK.
We drove beside some relatively small-scale, rust-bucket industrial plant around the outskirts of Khiva, then encountered a stretch of the city’s outer wall. We passed through a gateway in the outer wall and ahead saw the south-facing wall and South Gate of Khiva’s main claim to fame, the astounding Ichan-Qala. Our hotel, the Asia Khiva, lay within a large compound between the gateway in the outer wall and the South Gate of the Ichan-Qala. We could not believe our luck and knew immediately that a wonderful experience lay ahead.
It did not take long to realise that many people living in Khiva and the surrounding area speak a dialect even closer to Turkish than the dialect around Tashkent, so we instantly felt even more at home than was already the case. This said, nothing in Turkey can compare with Khiva’s Ichan-Qala because, although Turkey has some settlements with complete or almost-complete walls encircling the old city (e.g. Iznik, Kayseri, Diyarbakir, Malazgirt), in all such Turkish settlements modern development (or destruction due to armed conflict, some of which is contemporary) has done much to alter forever the original appearance of the enclosed areas. As we were soon to discover, many of the buildings in the Ichan-Qala are not as old as they at first appear, but they have been built (and restored, sometimes on more than one occasion) along a medieval network of streets in styles that have not altered for centuries. In short, the Ichan-Qala is one of the most remarkable architectural treasure troves in the world and rightly acknowledged as such by UNESCO.
The more I thought about it, the more the Ichan-Qala reminded me of another walled old city I like very much, that of Sfax in Tunisia.