It is impossible to tell our story about Khiva without first recounting our seven hour shared taxi ride with three Uzbeks in a vehicle slightly larger than though not nearly as luxurious as a smartcar.
We dragged ourselves out of bed at the guesthouse in Bukhara, me still recovering from the prior day’s illness and Angie hoping not to be its next victim. We walked out to the transport area and easily found a marshrutka headed for the karvon bazaar and jumped in.
Shared taxis heading to Urgench and the nearby Khiva (amongst other places) depart from the southern car park of the karvon bazaar. A shared taxi is pretty much the only reasonable way to get to Urgench from Bukhara. If you wish to travel via the more comfortable train you must get a train north to Navoi and then hop another train to Urgench, before getting a tram or taxi to Khiva. This takes much longer and you risk spending a night in Navoi in the process if there are no more trains when you arrive. We heard rumors of a bus to Urgench, but no definite information and every Uzbek we asked said that shared taxi was the only way to go.
The marshrutka takes us north from Bukhara as a co-passenger with little English attempts a conversation. Eventually he understands where we’re trying to go and, as he works at the bazaar, offers to lead us to the correct spot. Sitting in the marshrutka I can’t see it being difficult to find the south end of the bazaar, but the man’s offer proves very helpful as the bazaar is an absolute maze.
We are immediately approached by a taxi driver, a shortish roly poly man sporting a checkered beret and a dark blue jumpsuit. He uses his phone’s number pad and digital display to propose a fare and I, perhaps in some kind post-illness swamp-headed funk, bargain down only slightly and accept a price well above the pre-discussed Brett and Angie acceptable range. I will self-flagellate all day over this misstep and Angie will reassure me that at most I’ve cost us an extra $15. The bitterness will continue to attenuate later when a girl at the Khiva tourist information center tells us the average taxi cost to Nukus and we realize that prices have inflated significantly and that our paid fare was not too much above the likely going rate.
We load into the car and wait. It is just the two of us and we suspect the driver will add another passenger. He soon does as a perhaps mid-20s Uzbek man sits in the front passenger seat. We still go nowhere and this is when we realize that a third backseat passenger will be added to this tiny motor-driven vehicle that I hesitate to call a car.
We wait 45 minutes before the driver finds another passenger, but in the meantime we watch him out the front window. He is the only one in a jumpsuit, every other driver or person he slaps hands with and yaps at is formally dressed in a dark, shiny wiseguy suit. Its like some scene from a mafia movie and he must be the Don – surely only the king of these well dressed huxters could demand the respect of his peers in a worn blue jumpsuit and checkered beret? That or he is a jovial idiot whom all that know him well pity and look on with some sense of parental responsibility. The fact that I’m now going to propose calling him ‘the glutton’ for the rest of our story should tell you which of those possibilities is correct.
A thankfully slender fourth passenger squeezes into the car and we finally depart, the glutton racing at full speed and dodging the many potholes though seemingly less concerned about dodging the oncoming cars. Here I should note some characteristics of Uzbek driving:
1. Where there is no traffic, you drive on the center line.
2. If it is a four lane road and there is oncoming traffic, you drive in the center most (left) lane on your side of the road. You do not drive in the perfectly usable outtermost (right) lane.
3. If it is a four lane road and you need to pass/overtake, you still do not use right lane but instead cross the solid centerline and pass in the center most lane of oncoming traffic.
4. If there is oncoming traffic and you wish to pass/overtake, do the same as in point #3 but also honk repeatedly.
The glutton is instantly at the four main pastimes that he would occupy his attention due ng our trip: eating, smoking, chewing tobacco and making a slight chirping sounds with his cheek or even honking at girls on the side of the road. Note that I did not include driving in that list. In broken English, he also offers to take us to a hotel in Khiva ‘very cheap, only $50’. Uzbekistan is an expensive place to travel, but we expect to do better in Khiva and we decline. We have no doubt that the glutton gets a nice kickback if he delivers lodgers to his guesthouse of choice, particularly during the low season.
As we leave Bhukara we emerge into a flat, arid dustland of sparse spindly vegetation and a dusty indefinable horizon, a straight road ahead and not a building in sight. About an hour into the trip we abruptly swerve to the side of the road and, given the abruptness of the stop, the landscape, and the fact that another vehicle was not to be seen, its not hard to see why Angie’s initial, calm reaction was to turn to me and say "So this is where it ends". By "it", she meant our lives, but she’d have been more correct if she’d have said "so this is where the glutton’s bladder stress ends", because he simple pissed in the desert wind.
That was the first of many such stops, all the while Angie and I thankfully unable to understand the no doubt crude comments the glutton shot at the two Uzbek passengers. To these comments the passenger in front humors the glutton but looks uncomfortable and the slender man next to Angie is silent in clear disapproval.
Eventually we stop for lunch at the glutton’s chosen roadside eatery which Angie and I and the passenger in the front don’t take having brought our own foods. Angie walks around outside while the I end up giving an impromptu English lesson to the front seat passenger, who’s name is Rustan, using my copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich. Rustan knows no English but is interested, and I try to show how the Latin letters correlate to the Cyrillic ones he knows, and he then tries to sound out words from the first page of the book, words he does not know. I don’t know how to tell him that Solzhenitsyn is probably not the best material for beginners, or that he’s reading an English translation of a book originally written in a language he certainly knows. I help when he errs in pronunciation and he repeats diligently and we make it about 75% of the way down the first page in the thirty minutes it takes the glutton to chase his continuous morning snack with whatever hearty lunch he’s chosen. Rustan is moving to Khiva for work, either in construction or restoration.
We’re soon off again, this time through a sandy desert of a beige sand infused with a burnt red hue. The sand sweeps onto the road where there is one, though the road has been intermittent. The Uzbek government is clearly making a big effort to put in nice shiny new four -lane highways out this way, but that is a project in its early stages. In places we do drive on part of a new road, but this is a very temporary reprieve – more often than not we are either on fairly deteriorated road or a stretch where the road has been completed removed in preparation for new road construction. Its like the Gibb River Road in a go kart filled with five people, and the driver does indeed have the maturity of your average go kart patron.
After six long hours tightly squeezed and thoroughly throttled we arrive in Urgench, where the slender quiet man next to Angie finds his destination, exits and delivers us to the nirvana of slightly more space and the ability to partially relax muscles that have remained continuously constricted in this tiny box (I think this is a realm in the Bhuddist cycle once one has attained a state where he is no longer subject to reincarnation, though somewhat less attractive that enlightenment). We relish the thought of the last 30-45 minutes in relative relaxation.
We pause in town to stretch legs and so that the glutton can refill his snack and drink supplies yet again. I talk with Rustan while the glutton tries to communicate with Angie. In the course of this conversation she discovers that, to our great surprise, this gluttonous leathery man we’d taken to be in his late 40s or early 50s is actually only 29 – younger than we. Its been a rough life.
Before we head to Khiva, the glutton intercepts a just-arriving bus and adds another passenger – a very overweight and heavily-perfumed woman confines Angie and I to the left 30% of the backseat. The rest of the ride is none too bad and the road is smooth. The glutton does still drop us off at the hotel where he’d tried to sell us a room, which is nice and just outside the west gate of Khiva’s Ichon Qala, and our suppositions are confirmed when the hotelier promptly runs out and offers us a room for $30 instead of the glutton’s $50 offer. We decline and head into the Ichon Qala, exhausted and happy to find some dinner and a bed in the ancient city.