The road to Khiva

“I do not remember the last time it rained,” said the man driving me from Bukhara to Khiva. I’d just asked about the rice fields we’d begun to pass, after the pale Kyzylkum Desert had given way to the richer land of the Khorezm region. The river has been low, which makes rice cultivation difficult. Apparently the cotton fields are a huge drain on the region’s water resources, and other aspects of life here are suffering.

I’d been puzzled when the woman helping with my travel arrangements decided to book me a driver for this leg of the trip, but it ended up being a fascinating day. She’d estimated that the drive would take seven hours, but she underestimated my driver. We made it in five and a half.

And that was with a stop for gas, where the cars lined up two and three deep and are then served by young women in green and yellow uniforms wearing their long hair in ponytails.

The road was wide enough for three or four cars, but it rarely had lane markers. There was something amusing about the driver signalling left to pass someone when there was neither a lane nor a third vehicle in sight. Much of the pavement was rough enough to encourage twisting and swerving, if not decelerating. At one point, when we were about to make a right turn, he said, “If we go straight: Turkmenistan, seven kilometers.” How often do you hear that? Apparently, some drivers go straight through, but we went around. It looked cloudy in Turkmenistan.

We discussed Uzbek life. He confirmed what someone had told me a few days ago, that women tend to marry at 18 or 19, and men at 20 or 22. Children live at home until they are married, and the youngest son – even after he marries – will stay in his parents’ home indefinitely. “In Europe, North America,” he said, “work is the first thing, then family. In Uzbekistan, family is the first thing. Then work.”

We talked about tourism. “Before eleven September,” he said, “many Americans come to Uzbekistan. After eleven September, no.” He wondered if Americans are afraid of all the ‘Stans now. He wondered if maybe Americans are traveling less overall. [Distraction and loss of train of thought: a bride in a very poofy dress, surrounded by people looking both festive and hot, just walked by outside the internet cafe window.]

The one stop we made was at the Amu-Darya River, named the Oxus by “Alexander Great,” as my driver called him. A new bridge is under construction, its pilings reaching over halfway across the massive river. For now, the way across is a rickety pontoon bridge, with sometimes absurd vertical gaps for cars to traverse.

Despite the heat, the reckless driving, and the condtion of the road, I was glad for the drive. I like to understand space by passing through a landscape. We saw little desert rodents that reminded me of a cross between gerbils and ferrets. We saw fields of sunflowers. A bus stood by the side of the road, it undercarriage doors lifted to reveal piles and piles of watermelons. At one point we came to an abrupt stop: a donkey had run away from its owner and, in response to shouts and hand claps, was slowly making its way back across the road in front of us. Donkeys seem to be the farm transport of choice around here. One pulled a cart piled high, while a bicycle rider hitched a ride alongside by hanging onto the cart with one hand. In a small village, a man beat his fruit tree with a long, long pole to bring the fruit raining down.

Khiva is another world: the old city surrounded by undulating walls, within which alleys lead past playing children and people carrying buckets of fruit from the market. I walked through the market this morning, just a few rows of people setting down their wares on the pavement outside the city’s eastern gate. The fruits and vegetables are gorgeous: tiny cherries, apricots, and plums; cabbages, tomatoes, purple garlic. Bolts of cloth, hanging vertically; a butcher’s, with two young boys diligently waving away flies. People pushing bicycles or three-wheeled wooden carts. A man fixing a bike in the middle of his stall.

And more mosques and mausoleums, with their turquoise domes and tiled fronts. I climbed a minaret, grateful for the ticket-seller’s advice to watch my head (she wasn’t kidding). And I found a deserted dead-end, in view of a medressa under renovations, where I sat against a bumpy brick wall and read in quiet solitude.

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