Khiva: in and around the Ichan-Qala.

I left to examine the residential area west of the Ichan-Qala. There are fewer major monuments than in the area to the east of the Ichan-Qala, but enough exist to make the detour highly worthwhile, even though, with the exception of one medressa, they are in a poor state of repair. Additionally, because there are fewer open spaces where houses have been flattened, the area more convincingly resembles what an old residential quarter in an Uzbek city used to be like. There were a few small shops, lots of children and women in the streets or their cramped courtyards, and a few men playing chess or backgammon, perhaps as they sat around an old table under a tree. In workshops in abandoned medressas, craftsmen made household items from metal of wood. The medressas were in urgent need of tender loving care. I liked the area very much.

Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala
Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala
Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala
Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala
Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala

I arrived at a point north-west of the Ichan-Qala about 300 metres from where the west and the north walls join (not far away was a large supermarket full of tempting items to buy, but no alcohol). Nearby was a delightful complex which I think was once a harem, but also nearby was the Isfandiyar Palace.

Khiva, west of Ichan-Qala

The Isfandiyar Palace was built toward the end of the tsarist era (between 1906 and 1912) and is a quite stunning, over-the-top combination of Uzbek and Russian architectural and design components. It has much in common with summer residences built during the tsarist era that we encountered later during the trip. The rooms are largely empty, but the walls and ceilings have been decorated to a degree that screams bling in the loudest manner possible. The walls are covered with brightly patterned tiles; some of the ceilings have intricately painted patterns inspired by flowers and foliage; fireplaces are lavishly decorated with tiles more European than Uzbek in style; tall mirrors partly cover the walls in a salon octagonal in shape; and in some rooms large chandeliers hang from the ceilings. Yet more ceramic tiles, on this occasion less flamboyant than those internally, decorate the exterior of the palace, especially those parts of the porch leading to the palace entrances.

Isfandiyar Palace, Khiva
Isfandiyar Palace, Khiva

Between the palace and what I assumed was the harem is an open space with some trees. It was here that I saw two women, probably in their late thirties, who were even more friendly than women in Uzbekistan usually are. Every so often individual men in their cars drove up to the women and engaged in short conversations. When the man in one of the cars drove off but returned a few minutes later to engage in a second conversation, it was obvious I had found a manifestation of Khiva’s sex industry.

Reports compiled by reputable organisations that know Uzbekistan well indicate that, because of the dire economic challenges facing many Uzbek nationals (job opportunities are few and prices are steadily rising), women in growing numbers engage in prostitution to meet the needs of their dependents. Some such women travel abroad (India and the United Arab Emirates are two destinations for sex workers with Uzbek passports), but it is also said that many prostitutes and pimps work in cities such as Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. Figures for the number of prostitutes and pimps in Uzbekistan remain relatively small (provincial prosecutors’ offices keep a record of prostitutes and pimps brought before the courts), but such statistics no doubt significantly underestimate the scale of the industry. Reports occasionally leak out that prostitutes and pimps bribe police officers so they do not fall foul of the law.

It would seem that women of Russian origin (themselves holders of Uzbek passports) used to dominate the sex industry in independent Uzbekistan, but in recent years a growing number of Uzbek women have become prostitutes, which has been a shock to most Uzbeks, who, as Muslims, place a high value on female modesty (some women of Uzbek origin are forced into prostitution because they have been divorced, because they are no longer virgins and therefore cannot find an Uzbek male to marry them, and/or because they lack specialist skills that would secure them a job in the mainstream economy).

Prostitution is illegal in Uzbekistan, but, when prostitutes and pimps are arrested and charged for engaging in illegal activities, the penalties they incur are relatively light. Quite correctly, reformers say that it is not the prostitutes who should be penalised but the pimps who control/manipulate them and the men who pay them for sex. Additionally, more needs to be done to improve the economy and to change male attitudes toward women who are divorced or lone parents so that women are not forced into the sex industry in the first place.

Some reports about prostitution in Uzbekistan suggest that many women in the sex industry are infected with HIV and AIDS. But it is not only Uzbek nationals who exploit the sex industry in Uzbekistan; the country is a major transit route for goods between China and Europe and vice-versa, and, as a consequence, lorry drivers of many nationalities, Turkish, Iranian and Chinese included, take advantage of Uzbek prostitutes. No fewer than 6,000 women are said to provide sexual services in Tashkent alone.

A report about the sex industry in Central Asia by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting suggests that some Uzbek prostitutes travel to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to work because “open soliciting is impossible in Uzbekistan” and the financial rewards for the same work are higher. A prostitute in the report is quoted as saying, “Religion has a stronger influence” in Uzbekistan, but “in Kyrgyzstan people have a more accepting attitude toward prostitutes.”

I entered the Ichan-Qala through the North Gate and walked through a predominantly residential area, although a few major monuments such as medressas exist. Some of the large old houses have been turned into interesting B and Bs whose main clients appear to be Uzbek nationals. People walked around or engaged in tasks in their courtyards or the nearby streets. One woman baked bread in a tandir and tore off a piece from a loaf covered with sesame seeds so I could taste it. It tasted excellent. In a cavity in the east wall of the Ichan-Qala was a tomb in very shabby condition. It was near here where local people used small open spaces beside the road to grow fruit and vegetables in very fine soil that looked little better than dust. The area emerged as my favourite part of the Ichan-Qala, partly because there were very few tourists, partly because what commercial activity took place was designed to meet local needs, and partly because the residential streets were the busiest.

North Gate, Ichan-Qala, Khiva
Near North Gate, Ichan-Qala, Khiva
Bread, Ichan-Qala, Khiva
Ichan-Qala, Khiva

I arrived at the Islam-Hoja Medressa with its minaret 57 metres tall. Amazingly, the medressa and the minaret date from only 1910, but, because they have been built in a style wholly in sympathy with the older buildings nearby, look much older. I could not resist climbing to the top of the minaret by ascending the sometimes steep and deep steps that wound upward inside the gently fluted structure. The views from the top were outstanding. The Ichan-Qala looked just like a settlement that had altered very little since the construction of its mud walls in the 18th century (but many buildings within the walls, including the remarkable Juma Mosque with its 10th century origins and wooden columns exceeding 200 in number, date from long before the 18th century).

Islam-Hoja Medressa, Khiva
View from the minaret, Islam-Hoja Medressa, Khiva
View from the minaret, Islam-Hoja Medressa, Khiva

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