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No sooner were we beyond the suburbs of Bukhara than the road turned into a patchwork of broken surface; dirt and potholes. Soon everyone was shaken to the bone and dreading six to seven hours of this. We pounded on into the desert.


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Leaving Bukhara the road soon turned into a patchwork of broken surface; dirt and potholes


After an hour or so and just as despair was setting in, relief.  Out in the desert we encountered a brand-new concrete dual carriageway – the New Silk Road - built by the Germans we were told, using International finance.


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The New Silk Road - what a relief!


The desert became ubiquitous. Then on the left a river and on the other side we glimpsed a dangerous, forbidden territory: Turkmenistan.  We'd noticed that road has security checkpoints, now mostly unmanned, against infiltration. So it was like looking over the DMZ into North Korea except that when I looked up the Australian Government Travel Advisory I discovered that here (as in Korea) we were in the North looking South. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are far more dangerous for potential attacks on, and robbery of, tourists than Turkmenistan.  The red danger is the border area between all these countries, that are indeed a series of DMZ's, enforced with mine fields.  The river is the once mighty Amu Darya that briefly becomes the border here and runs past Khiva before dwindling to a trickle as it approaches the once vast Aral Sea.


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The Uzbekistan - Turkmenistan DMZ - beware! land mines!


Today Khiva shows us what Bukhara and for that matter Tashkent, might once have looked like before all the renovations. The whole city is preserved as an historic World Heritage Site, where the principal remaining industry and activity is tourism.


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Khiva City Wall and one of four Gatehouses


Like Bukhara, Khiva was a city on the important Amu Darya Silk Road route to the Aryl Sea and across to the Caspian Sea and the Volga to Russia or overland, across Georgia, to the Black Sea and on to Constanople and Southern Europe. 

Despite its 17th century importance on the route between Russia and China, Khiva is quite a recent city by Bukhara's standards, founded by the Persians at the beginning of the first century CE.  Then Turks came here before the Muslim Arabs arrived.  During the Mongol and Timurid periods it was the capital of the Khiva Khanate.

From the 17th century onwards Khiva became renowned for trading in slaves (see Alexander Burnes' impressions of the slave trade above). 

Russian slaves were highly prised for their skills.  By 1830 there were more than 2,000 Russians in bondage principally at Khiva. In 'A Narrative Of The Russian Military Expedition To Khiva: Under General Perofski, In 1839' we learn that: "The price given for a strong middle-aged Russian was 900 Rubles, while slaves of other countries could be purchased for half that sum; women were valued at half the price of a man."

Long before Burnes reported it in Travels into Bokhara, the Russians had been struggling to curtail this trade in their citizens. A century earlier Peter the Great had unsuccessfully attempted to stop it.  Three decades later, in an attempt to demonstrate goodwill, Catherine the Great had sent her oculist (optometrist), Blankenagel, to see what he could do to help the elderly uncle of the Khan see better.  But the man's eyes were diseased and incurable.  After persistent refusal to use his 'magic' to cure the uncle, Blankenagel was advised that if he attempted to return to Russia he would be killed as a spy. In a tale of derring-do he narrowly escaped, with the help of Russian slaves. But Catherine was not amused and took less polite steps:

In.. ..an Ukaz {an edict from Tsar Catherine II} of the 28th January 1767, hostages were ordered to be seized, for the purpose of compelling the Asiatics to exchange them for Russian prisoners.
This measure was quite justifiable, seeing that Khivans and Bukharians traded and lived in safety along the Orenburg and Siberian lines and at Astrakhan, while Russian merchants dared not venture themselves within Central Asiatic territory without standing a risk of falling into life-long bondage. The distance and inaccessibility of the Khanates of Central Asia proved, and still prove, a serious obstacle in adopting more effectual measures for the liberation or prisoners...

...in 1833, the audacity of the Khivans reached such a height that the Chief Collector of Customs at Khiva was sent to Orenburg to inform the Russian and Bukhara merchants privately that their caravans would inevitably be plundered if they did not pass through Khiva; this, it was evident, was merely a ruse to screen themselves from all responsibility in the event of future robberies. 
At the same time the subjects of the Khan of Khiva carried on an uninterrupted trade with Russia, and their caravans crossed to Orenburg Line to and fro every year. It was plain then that force of arms could alone bring the matter to a definite conclusion...

...In addition to crippling Russian trade in the East by the constant plunder of caravans and inciting the Kirghizes to commit these depredations, the Government of Khiva had since many years encouraged the pirates of the Caspian, who kidnapped Russian fishermen on that sea in great numbers every year, and sold them in all the markets of the East, and particularly in Khiva.
These unfortunate prisoners were doomed to pass their lives in hard toil, suffering every privation, and they usually ended their insupportable lives under the blows of their taskmasters, whose Mahomedan creed freed them from all considerations of humanity with respect to Kafirs or unbelievers, while the civil law gave them irresponsible power over the lives of their slaves.

A Narrative Of The Russian Military Expedition To Khiva - circa 1835


In 1839 Russian patience finally came to an end and despite the 'distance and inaccessibility', a military force crushed the local defences then appeared outside these walls and forced the Khan to surrender. Yet as in Bukhara five years earlier the Russians knew not to make their military presence too obvious, as the British had in Afghanistan, and the Khanate was allowed to continue as a vassal kingdom or quasi-autonomous protectorate.  Thus life could go on as more or less before - sans Russian slaves.

The local museum had some interesting historical photographs taken early in the 19th century, during Tsarist/Khanate times, before the Soviets took control.


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Royal wives posing bare faced for the camera
As in Turkey, India, and China, among others, there was a royal harem with principal wives, mistresses and servants
Below right - the opening of a new hospital in 1912 


The harem in the Tash-Khauli Palace was one of the stops on our guided tour of the city. The Tash-Khauli Palace is newer than some buildings in Sydney. Building commenced in 1830 by order of Allakuli-Khan and it took 8 years to build.  The Khan had required it in two years and though he had made it plain that money was no object he was unhappy with the progress and the final result.  In a response that would make the present NSW Government envious, on several occasions the contractors lost their heads. 

Like other palaces we have seen with harems, internal corridors connect the official reception hall and court to the khan’s chambers that are within his harem - his private household.  No other males, except his prepubescent sons, were admitted to the harem - lest he discover a 'cuckoo in the nest' and we were told that he did not employ eunuchs - I suppose by 1830, even here, cutting the wedding tackle off young men was frowned on.  Cutting their heads off was still OK.

By comparison to the Biblical Solomon the Khan's connubial requirements were modest. According to the Qur'an, a man is limited to just four wives. But a loophole means he's allowed unlimited concubines; and mistresses among the servants. So the men in town were well advised to keep their wives' charms hidden, as the Khan might well help himself to any woman who took his fancy.

The harem section of the Palace consists of a long rectangular courtyard with rooms on two stories for female relatives and concubines, also connected by corridors to the Khan's chamber. The four wives each had their own room that only opens to a forecourt on the long courtyard, so that their daily and potential nocturnal movements could be monitored.


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Tash-Khauli Palace - Khan of Khiva 's Harem
and a principal wife's apartment


As a result of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, in 1924 Khiva became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.  The Khan was no longer; quel dommage!  Civil reforms were imposed by the Communists, sometimes against the local will: freeing women from the veil; suppressing religious extremism; introducing universal education; and implementing public health. Yet in Khiva the Soviets didn't set about the demolition of everything and rebuilding in modern form, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia.

One reason Khiva has been left relatively untouched is that it’s strategic importance declined.  Urgench (new Urgench), a larger conurbation, had already been developed during Tsarist times, 35 km away nearer the Amu Darya River, where there is now a substantial area under irrigation. The modern city of Urgench has become the new capital of the Khorezm Region, as well as the transport hub; railway terminus; and location of the airport.


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The modern city of Urgench 35 km away


So the old city of Khiva could continue to exist as a medieval curiosity and nowadays a source of tourist income.  Just as it used to be...

Except now the people here are completely changed.  Women wear wherever they like and probably outnumber men in the street. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone and most locals are engaged in commerce.

Yet the fabric of the place is largely as it was in the 19th century and older.  The city wall remains intact and vehicles are restricted to limited commercial access. The mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums have had some work in the interests of safety and ease of access but are in more or less original condition. Unlike Bukhara, the renovators have not replaced every old mud brick that offended their eye. One can even buy a traditional fuzzy hat like those in the old photos. But no locals except the camel man, get a 'selfie' with a camel, wore anything like traditional garb and it was much too hot for me to be tempted. 


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The Madrasah of Allah Kuli Khan
The Friday Mosque - built over a Zoroastrian Fire Temple


It's hard to imagine how they housed a hundred thousand local people and hundreds of travellers in the city's several caravanserai. The living conditions for the ordinary people must have been horrendous, let alone the lives of a couple of thousand slaves.

These days very few families live in the city and we were told by a guide the up to two thirds of the old dwellings are uninhabitable.


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The city within it's walls


Indeed few, if any, of the buildings still function as they were intended.  Many of the more substantial have been given over to commercial enterprise like: shops; restaurants; so called workshops; or hotels. But this leaves tourists to wander the old streets and go in and out of buildings without concern for religious sensibilities, provided of course, they have given Mammon his due and paid the appropriate fee.

Among the activities available, for a small extra fee, was the 45m climb to the top of the tallest minaret. It’s quite new, completed in 1910, when this was still a medieval Khanate, so I’d expected it to be well built inside, perhaps like the somewhat older (1857) lighthouse we’d climbed in Uruguay or perhaps a tower much more ancient like the spiral stairs to the top of the very much older Durham Cathedral tower (built in 1133) that's also much higher (66m).  Yet inside this was extremely dark and cramped particularly at the bottom where the central core was very thick, with steps of irregular height, requiring us to virtually crawl upward for part of the way. And the top platform, where a misstep while gazing out would result in a nasty fall back down the stairs was an OH&S nightmare.  Safety was probably not an issue in the days of the Khanate.  No doubt the minaret functioned like the one in Bukhara and was used to summon the people to prayers (but only the chief priest and then only on Friday, lest he overlook the women's apartments of the houses in the city); and for the occasional disposal of criminals.

The skills required to design and supervise the building of such things were possessed by very few craftsmen as formal education was exclusively in religion and worldly things were regarded as less worthy and as we have already seen the Khan was very likely to put those with the actual skills to death if their work failed to live up to his often unreasonable demands. Little wonder that so much of it was faulty.


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The city's two and a bit minarets


In addition to the city's two completed minarets here's a partially built twin, that was said to be left unfinished as a memorial to the Khan's son who died during its construction or perhaps it was the supervising engineer?

But our reward for climbing up to the top was wonderful views over the city and beyond the walls, across the irrigated fields and modern buildings, all the way to the river flats 40km away and out into the desert beyond.


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An OH&S nightmare and the view out into the desert beyond



The train at Urgench

Our next adventure was the return to Tashkent by overnight train.

When our friends travelled to Moscow from Beijing by train we decided to skip that bit and flew straight to Moscow but we were later envious that they had traversed the ‘Stans’ and stayed in a Yurt. Comparing notes we’ve since discovered that the train in Uzbekistan compared favourably with theirs. We had the luxury of a four person cabin for just us two.  But even with our bags on a top bunk it was very cosy.  After a while having the bunk down over our heads seemed claustrophobic so we hooked the bunk up and got the bags down again ‘til it was time for bed. The air-conditioning was welcome but just a bit too cold so we put on warm clothes that had not been used since the high mountains. Suddenly our similar train trips in India were recalled and I wasn’t envious of our friends at all.


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Catching a train
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# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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A Little Background

The land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, known as Palestine, is one of the most fought over in human history.  Anthropologists believe that the first humans to leave Africa lived in and around this region and that all non-African humans are related to these common ancestors who lived perhaps 70,000 years ago.  At first glance this interest seems odd, because as bits of territory go it's nothing special.  These days it's mostly desert and semi-desert.  Somewhere back-o-Bourke might look similar, if a bit redder. 

Yet since humans have kept written records, Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Ottomans (and other later Muslims), British and Zionists, have all fought to control this land.  This has sometimes been for strategic reasons alone but often partly for affairs of the heart, because this land is steeped in history and myth. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

The Secret

The Secret

By Richard McKie


 Download PDF (for e-readers)


Lansing Michigan was a fine place to grow up, she guessed.  It was nice, and safe.

Her dad worked in the Michigan State Government and her mum stayed home. They weren’t rich but they were comfortable. Their new house was big, the nicest they had lived in and it was in a really good area. 

She had never been overseas, unless you count nearby Canada, and that was mainly on trips to Niagara Falls, usually when one of Mum’s sisters came to stay. When they passed through Sarnia, into Canada, Dad would always say "Yea! Overseas again!". It was about his only joke.

Sometimes they went through Detroit. But after what had happened there the last time she shut that out of her consciousness. No wonder she is timid and takes fright easily. Now if a friend even seemed to be driving in that direction she would go into the foetal position and shut-down.

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Opinions and Philosophy

World Population – again and again



David Attenborough hit the headlines yet again in 15 May 2009 with an opinion piece in New Scientist. This is a quotation:


‘He has become a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a think tank on population growth and environment with a scary website showing the global population as it grows. "For the past 20 years I've never had any doubt that the source of the Earth's ills is overpopulation. I can't go on saying this sort of thing and then fail to put my head above the parapet."


There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s - a fact that has convinced him that if we don't find a solution to our population problems, nature will:
"Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation."


Bob Hawke said something similar on the program Elders with Andrew Denton:


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