The next morning dawned early, and being outside we woke with the sun. Mahmoud and his brothers took me around to meet the rest of their extended family first, which is difficult when you’re the ‘guest’ and can’t understand much – but hooray for some basic interpretation from Mahmoud, and basic sign language! We had breakfast there, which was great.
That’s when I made an error. Often I’ve had people ask if I’ve got a souvenir from home, and am annoyed at myself for not bringing some coins or similar to show people.
Instead I was only able to show some of the strange money I’d accumulated through Kazakhstan and Russia. Mahmoud’s mum jokingly made a gesture asking if she could hang on to one, and since I was getting so used to notes with large numbers on them being of little value, I accepted. They seemed very surprised and happy, and only then did I realise the sum I’d given them as a gift. Ah well, they did take me into their homes, and it’s nice to see gracious hosts taking you in unannounced.
Next, it was off to the Savitsky Collection at the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art – the only tourist attraction of note in Nukus. Well that’s not fair, there’s also the receding Aral Sea – but after much debate, I’d decided it was too far and too hard to get to – and more importantly, too expensive – you had to get tour companies to help you out – at least that was my understanding. Looking back, I could probably work it out with local transport now, but this was fresh into Uzbekistan for me.
Ihe Savistsky Collection is named after Igor Savitsky. He was born in Kiev, and after an expedition into this region with famous scientist Tolstov, hung around to collect works of art from the area. He also began collecting art from around Central Asia, and historic priceless Russian art which the current Soviet regime was banishing and destroying. Out in the distant land of Karakalpakstan, far from Moscow, he mostly went unnoticed, and as word spread of his underground efforts, people began even smuggling art out of Soviet hotspots across the Union to his collection, where only a fraction can now stands on display today; it is so massive.
It was quite something, even for someone like myself who doesn’t always appreciate the fine arts as much as I could have, to see classic Russian art, beside Socialist Realism, beside clothes, carpets and silk from the areas around. Quite a collection indeed.
Then it was time to get some cash, as I had only changed a bit on the dodgy deals on the train, and I was short on Russian cash since Mahmoud’s house. Although I was confident on finding my way out of the city and dealing it myself, he insisted on sticking with me, hailing cabs and taking me to banks. It was now that I was starting to get worried. Due to juggling my funds around, I had only one credit card I was able to use, and there were no ATMs to use my debit/eftpost cards. And all the banks we tried would only take the other major type of credit card.
Finally they insisted one across town would take my card, so off we went. Mahmoud explained to the guard at the door to the bank, who explained back that I could not enter the bank, as I was wearing shorts! As such, I’d have to give them my card and pin, and they’d withdraw the money for me, for safety.
I loudly explained back that for a bank concerned with security, asking customers to give out their pin numbers was unacceptable, and that they could either bring me a machine to enter it on, or let me in, as there was no other option (hoping they wouldn’t just tell me to leave). After some more heated discussion they conferred with the bank manager and decided that one crazy foreigner was welcome in after all.
Inside there was a guy who spoke a little English – a few words, so helped me fill out a form and get it all sorted. While that was being processed he took me around to the safe to get the money, and my jaw dropped. You may remember me saying that their biggest note is US$0.50. So imagine just how many notes the bank has to keep on site. I begged, and when he saw the look on my face, the manager smiled and for the only time in my life, I’m sure, I was able to take a photo inside a bank vault. Look at the moolah!
Then it was time to say goodbye to Mahmoud, and it got a bit strange, as he showed me the inter-city taxi rank, and then suddenly his English sort of faded, and started making inferences about cash. I’d already given his family a sizeable gift, and being short already had to dodge this, but it felt a bit awkward on parting after a great experience in the town with him and his brothers. Ah well. A rate was negotiated with the shared taxi for a seat to Khiva, and I stood around for 25 minutes or so while the cab slowly filled up, and then off we drove through sandy, bumpy roads before finally stopping in a city, outside a big wall. I asked if this was the gate to the city, and assured it was, and got out, and looked up. Wow…
The walled city of Khiva is inside the modern city, and I was at the Northern Gate. Except I didn’t know this, as the taxi driver had said Western Gate, so I was VERY confused for the first 20 minutes, for this reason, and because there was nobody around. NOBODY. I walked past temples like nothing I’d seen, past dusty alleyways and closed doors. I was so tired, and so hot, and so dusty. It was early afternoon, and the sun was directly overhead. I poured sweat, but I was getting used to this experience. And this time I’d remembered to check the Lonely Planet. It finally dawned on me why nobody was around – when it’s this hot – everyone stays indoors. In the coming days, I’d realise that any sightseeing should be done before 10am, and in the early evening. In between, you have to really want it to be out in the heat.
I arrived in a central square where the hostel was. Except, there was nothing. No sign. Fortunately a guy working on a stand nearby saw me and made a sign with his hands to indicate closed. I gestured ‘anything else around?’ and he said a name and pointed. I soon worked out that he meant the Mirzaboshi guest house across the square. I met the cheery owner, who happily showed me to a private room. It was a small guest house, with a main ‘house’ where the family lived, with a handful of small rooms leading off of a small courtyard out the back. I was evidently the only one staying, but it was really nice having a room to myself after the stress of the past few nights.
I went out after a bit and explored a bit more, as the afternoon cooled into evening, and the stars came out, twinkling specks contrasting brightly against the dark night sky. A few small restaurants had music playing, and I picked up a snack, rather than a meal, and retired to my room, looking forward to a good night’s sleep. My room was small, with two beds lined in series, and a wall fan which I was thankful for. I pointed it at my bed, did some reading and dozed off, looking forward to a day in Khiva.
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