Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan
Day 6 -
Thursday, 27 April 2000
Urgench & Khiva
To compensate for the bad hotel experience last night, we had a
wonderful tour guide named Albena who led us through the monuments of Konya
Urgench, or Old Urgench, and taught us much.
In the bus, she began by telling us that a persons dress indicates
the socio-economic group. She told us about herself, how in 1949 and 1950, her
parents knew it was necessary for her to know Russian, so they spoke to her
only in Russian. She learned Turkmen only when she was 20 years old. But she
heard it from childhood, we determined, so perhaps it was not too difficult to
learn. Her English is quite good. We forgot to ask when she learned English.
Last September she had flown to Chicago by special invitation, and
there she wore her traditional dress. People from 213 countries were there, all
in their own native dress. They talked to each other in English or Spanish. It
was a wonderful experience for her.
The Kutluk Timur Minaret (right) stands 203 feet tall at Konya
Urgench. It is said to be the tallest in Central Asia. It was built starting
about 1320. The top of the structure leans to the west.
In the 16th century, the river (Amu Darya) changed course, and was
40 km further away from the city. That is a long way to carry water in buckets
for all your daily needs, and the people moved to New Urgench. The name Amu
Darya means "can change its way," she told us.
"The Turkmen people are lazy," she said (she is Russian), and
"don't grow anything but animals." By contrast, the Uzbek people are tillers of
the soil, and plant vegetables, trees and gardens.
Fruits and vegetables are cheap here, near the Uzbek border. In
Ashgabat, clothing is cheap. The standard of living in Turkmenistan is better
than in Russia.
Since the Russians have been growing cotton here, and irrigating
the land with water from the river, the water table has become very high due to
seepage from the many unlined canals. Intensive irrigation has left the soil
very salty. In order to plant anything here, the land must first be washed
seven times in spring. This is done by flooding the fields with river water.
The state areas have priority on the water.
At left is the Il-Arsian mausoleum with its unique 12-sided
conical dome. The father of Tekesh lies here. He (the father) lived in the
School begins for the village children on December 1, and the
children must pick cotton after school. Right now the fields are green with
wheat. The wheat harvest is mid-June. The president comes for the harvest. The
people must be educated and healthy, he says.
The horse is the pride of the Turkmen people. Their houses are
built of mud. The youngest son must live with the parents.
A married woman wears a head scarf and a long dress. The people
don't like cotton, it is the fabric worn by the poor families. Many people have
gold teeth in front. It is not because they had problems with their teeth, but
because they want to show their riches. "It is more important to show their
wealth," said Albena, "than to raise their standard of living."
So if they can, they buy a camel for the same reason, to show
their wealth. (Meli didn't think this was correct, but she believed that the
camel could help the family to make money.) One camel is worth about $300. A
family with five camels is very rich. They can use the milk and the wool, Meli
I remember that Atajohn pointed out some women beside the road
selling something, a drink of some kind, made from camel's milk. None of us was
interested in tasting it. I also saw some carpets in Istanbul, made from
camel's hair. They were different in color and very attractive.
At right is the brick conical dome
topping the mausoleum of Tekesh.
Daughters are taught carpet weaving so that they can earn money in
the carpet factories. (Wouldn't it be nice if they could market their own
carpets, and not just work for the state?)
A bride, said Albena, could be worth $1000 to a family who needed
a wife for their son. But if the woman had been educated, her value was less.
In the arranged marriages, the bride becomes a slave for her mother-in-law. The
daughter-in-law must sit separately from the husband's parents. With her head
scarf, she must cover her mouth, and is not allowed to talk to her
mother-in-law. Covering her mouth with the scarf indicates that she is to stay
in silence. As a sign of her obedience to these rules, the new bride must make
three deep bows to her mother-in-law.
Old men wear fur hats, wide trousers and a robe. "We prefer to
suffer our own heat rather than the heat of the sun," is their attitude,
according to Albena.
At left is the west gate of Khiva. The
Kalta Minar minaret can be seen on the right side of the photo. It reminds me
of a nuclear plant cooling tower.
State schools teach American English. In the past, diplomas could
be bought. Albena and her husband are both teachers, and earn $25 a month for
this work. The cost for private school for a student is $100 per month.
The official rate of exchange is 5,500 menat per $1 U.S. On the
black market, as of yesterday she said, it is 16,000 menat per U.S. $1. The day
before it was 15,000 menat per dollar.
Albena told us that she always carries a piece of scripture, from
the Koran, written in Arabic on leather, as protection from the evil eye. "I
didn't always believe," she said, "But now I believe." When I asked her why,
she told me a story of a time when she and her husband were having trouble, and
she had severe health problems. A woman told her that someone had put a curse
on her. She was told that she would find a certain amulet near the gate of her
house. She was to bring it back to the woman, who would then know what to do to
break the curse. The scripture on leather is the result. The problems in her
marriage cleared up. Her health also was recovered. So now she believes.
A monument that we visited, Torebeg Khanym, is not a mausoleum,
she told us, because it has windows. Also, when it was excavated, no graves
were found, but secret passage tunnels were discovered. Perhaps it was a
A nearby cemetery has some round graves, with ladders beside them.
Some of the ladders lie beside the grave, other ladders stand at one side of
the grave. Albena told us that the standing ones are for men, so they can climb
up and go straight to heaven. The women must wait 37,000 years before they can
go to heaven. Meli didn't believe this either, and talked with some local women
who seemed to not believe Albena's ladder story. Utkir told us something about
women's sins being deeper than men's. So who knows what the true story is here.
Maybe no one really knows. I don't know how old the graves are, but they appear
to be fairly recent.
The Islam Khodja minaret
was built in the early 1900s. It is Khiva's tallest at 148 feet.
We also visited a building that was mysterious, and Meli believed
it to be a "teke" which is a building in a Muslim school, specific to the
teaching of theology. Albena listened to her, and as we walked away, she told
me that when someone tells her such information, she "writes it down" in her
mind. The Russians trained the tour guides, giving them specific information
that they could tell people. Since independence, the guides are learning new
things. So perhaps we should take it all with a healthy dose of skepticism. It
is all so old, and without a continuity of history, there is much that is
On one mausoleum, an Arabic inscription says "Deny all good things
of life - the grave is the beginning of happiness." The people who believed
this philosophy, said Albena, were easily defeated by their conquerors.
After lunch at the Korean restaurant, we drove to the border,
where our papers and passports were duly expected. It took an hour to get
through. Much of that time was spent filling out customs forms. We had to
declare what we had with us, money, jewelry, etc., for the customs agents.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Khiva, and the sun
shone dramatically on the western face of the great wall and its huge entrance.
It has been perhaps too perfectly reconstructed, and someone has aptly called
it a sterilized monument to the past.
After Khiva, we drove to New Urgench and slept in a better hotel.
- Continues with Day 7 -