“You cannot make a drawing without shadows.” Anonymous.

Our final morning in Tashkent, we transferred to the airport an early-morning flight to Urgench. Then we drove to Khiva along the Amu-Darya delta, which stretches from southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea. This region, an important oasis called the Khorezm Delta, has been inhabited for millennia. Along the way, we stopped to walk through the rooms of an ancient palace with a stone courtyard surrounded by a harem’s quarter, visited a caravanseri (inn for traveling merchants), and photographed an old mosque with 200 uniquely carved wooden pillars.

Urgench, Uzbekistan

Carriage used to bring a new bride to the palace near Urgench, Uzbekistan

Khiva seafood

My fish takes one last breath.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant specializing in seafood. Skeptical, Gunter asked, “Seafood this far inland?”

“It’s from the lake close by,” Fak answered. We saw fish was swimming in a tank outside the restaurant. At least, they would be fresh. What I didn’t realize is that they were carp!   Growing up in Wisconsin, I was taught never to eat these bottom fish. I ate a few bites, didn’t like the texture, and hid the meat under the skin. And then we traveled on to Khiva.

Khiva was an 8th century minor fort and trading post on a side branch of the Silk Road. The town remained an insignificant player until the 16th century when it became the capital of the Uzbek Shaybanids. Khiva ran a busy slave market for more than three centuries. Slaves were bought by Turkmen tribesmen from the desert and Kazakh tribes of the steppes. By 1740, the town became an outpost of the Persian empire and by 1873, its khan became a vassal of the tsar of Russia. Finally, in 1920 the Bolsheviks installed the Khorezm People’s Republic, theoretically independent from the USSR.

What I wanted from Khiva was a spectacular photo of its west-facing facades bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. What I got was clouds, rain, wind for two days. And I was still trying to recover from a cold. Our hotel, the 78-room Orient Star, offered us the chance to stay inside a 19th century medressa, with its hujras (study cells) converted to rooms. We were told to bend low climbing the high steps curving toward our room the second floor, but with my short height, I’ve never had to bend over for ceilings. Bump! Fortunately, I have a hard head! Because Old Town is a UNESCO heritage site, certain restrictions applied, for example, only one electrical outlet to plug in all our electronics (we each had an iPod and cellphone). No matter, internet reception was only available—quite intermittently—in the walkways facing the courtyard. I didn’t feel too much like a hermit; the bathrooms are made of fancy stone, similar to the rustic farmhouse décor currently in style.

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Pomp and circumstance: a dual presidential visit. The next morning, after a simple breakfast of fresh yogurt, wonderful cheese, warm bread and fruit, we found the courtyard and all the streets filled with frenetic activity. The following day, the president of Uzbekistan would be visiting Old Town Khiva, along with his guest, the president of Turkmenistan! Gorgeous young women from both countries were flown in. The day before the event, we saw them practice standing in a receiving line the delegation would pass by. Bands were blaring; dancers and other performers were perfecting their arts; all the while, locals swept the streets clean and gardeners planted wheelbarrows full of colorful annuals—gold marigolds and red petunias—along the parade routes.

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That evening, we attended a magnificent dinner, complete with a musical performance and a puppet show. I feared it would rain on Khiva’s parade because it poured most of the night. But while the morning dawned cold and windy, the rain had ceased. We skirted puddles along mud walls dating from the 18th century, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Persians. We were relieved to get back inside the walls to the familiarity of “our street.”

The plazas and streets looked deserted. “Where are the other tourists? Gunter asked.

“Oh, most of them stayed inside because of the weather,” Fak explained. I wondered what I was doing there! Then he added, “When the event begins, they’ll have to stay inside their hotels, or another hotel or restaurant. Security.”

Shivering, we ducked inside a restaurant offering freshly pressed ginger tea. How wonderful! I asked for the recipe and it turned out the chef was from Germany! Gunter talked with him about his experience coming to Khiva to train the restaurant staff in “western” ways.

A Special Ginger Tea

A Special Ginger Tea

We took an afternoon nap before packing for our flight home. Our morning flight–which had unfortunately been scheduled the day the two presidents would arrive—had been cancelled. The airport would be closed all day. Security.

We were driven back to the airport for our re-scheduled 7:30 evening flight, which we were assured would take off to Bukhara. The airport was still closed. The visiting president was apparently still in town. Our driver could not enter the airport parking lot, and only those with tickets were allowed into the terminal. We passengers had to pull our luggage from the other side of the building, around to the entrance. And then we had to wait, and wait, until close to midnight, when the plane finally took off. Our guide, Fak, was flying with us, so we weren’t left alone.

“In the U.S., if a visiting president were in a town or not,” I told him while we waited, “the government would not close the airport.

“It happens all the time here. How would they provide security for your president if he came to your town?” he asked.

“In San Diego, he would probably land at our naval base,” I said.

“Keep in mind,” Fak explained, “we do not have private or government airfields outside of Tashkent, the capital.”

Always expect the unexpected. These are but the “shadows” of a country just opening to tourism.

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