September 9, 2012, Day 30 – Khiva, Uzbekistan
Today we went on a bus tour with Barbie, Ken, Terry, Bob, Brad and Bea. While driving in the bus our guide told us what the singers from last night were singing about. The mother (who sang and danced in the most beautiful outfit) was singing about going shopping. She loved jewelry and wanted to buy some more. The little boy was supposed to be her husband and he was singing about how he did not want her to spend his money on jewelry (no wonder he was shaking his head around so much). He was pleading with his wife not to spend his money. Too funny! Terry said her name was probably Ellen and his name was most likely Russ. Because Russ always said no to me whenever I wanted to buy something.
We visited three old ruins, settlements that were once thriving during the 4th to the 6th Centuries but had to be abandoned because their water supply dried up due to the redirection of the Oxus, or as currently known, the Amu Darya River. Today the once fertile land in this part of the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan was a flat desert with barren mountains in the background. Excluding the irrigated areas, which were green. It was extremely hot outside our bus, in the high 30’s or low 40’s Celsius. Thankfully, we had a little relief inside the bus because it had air conditioning.
On the way to the first ruin, we passed the sacred lake I talked about yesterday, where the Prophet Muhammad took clay to build his town of Medina. Our guide said today this lake was called Jokkol, (I am not sure about the spelling). The clay surrounding this lake was still a very high quality and was collected to make mud bricks and ceramic crafts. Children also swam in the sacred lake to cool off. But the water could not used for drinking, as it was salty.
Prior to the Soviet occupation (roughly from 1920 to 1990), the land in Central Asia was owned by different Khans (Kings of the various Kingdoms or regions called Khanates). The Khans gave land to their Military Officers plus Religious Leaders of Mosques and Madrasahs to keep them happy. When the Red Army of the Soviets came into Central Asia, most of the common people who were dominated by their landlords, welcomed the Soviets because the land was taken away from the Khans, Landlords and Religious Leaders.
The Soviets organized state collective farms, and offered the ordinary people housing and equal rights. People worked 8 hours per day, 6 days per week for the government. Everyone was paid the same salary whether they worked hard or not. Salaries were low but high enough for everyone to live comfortably. The Soviet government decided what crops or type of farming was to be done and where. For example Uzbekistan was to grow cotton, Turkmenistan was to specialize in camel breeding and Kazakhstan was to specialize in sheep breeding. 6 million tons of cotton was to be harvested in Uzbekistan each year or else! Individual families living in the countryside could have their own land with 1 – 5 cows for milk, cheese and yogurt, chickens for eggs and meat, maybe some goats or sheep plus vegetables. Most of the people were paid very low in their jobs but they were happy, secure and self-sufficient with their countryside lifestyle.
When the Soviet Union collapsed the Uzbekistan government had to bring in new reforms. What to do with the government owned land, factories and collective farms? Should everyone get the same salary? What to do with farmers that were lazy and did not look after the land versus the hard working farmer whose farm was profitable and immaculate? The government gave the collective farms (and businesses) to the people who had knowledge about how to operate a farm (government leaders, heads of the villages, people who had money i.e. people within the Communist circle, etc.).
The government leased the land to these people for 25 – 30 years. The farmers would then hire the hard working people in the village to help them with their farms. Farmers took on all the risk. The farmer, not the state, decided when to water, to fertilize, how to make money, how to pay the bills and look after their land. The type of crop was still dependent on the government because they purchased the entire product from the farmer. But after the cotton was harvested and sold to the government, the farmer could then plant something else and sell that product in bazaars or elsewhere.
There were some growing pains with this, newly introduced free market system because many people were used to depending on the government for their income without working very hard. A large number of people became jobless when the focus became efficiency and not equality in business and farming. New owners wanted to hire hard workers and as few as possible, to make a profit.
In Soviet times, housing was allocated to families under a formula. In cities, residents were assigned apartments when their children grew up and the apartment was too small for everyone to live in. The newly married son would apply to the government representative in his location for a new apartment. When an apartment space turned up, the state would allocate the apartment to an applicant. The cost of the apartment would be free and tenants would pay for the water, gas and common area fees.
In the country, people would be allocated a piece of land where they would build the house at their own expense. Sometimes the government had already constructed houses in new villages because many of the people in Central Asia were nomadic or semi-nomadic. The Soviets planned for these people to be settled to work in communal farms and built villages for these people to move into. An applicant would be assigned a new house. They would then have to pay back the cost of the house to the government over the next 15 – 20 years.
During these Communist times it was not important to keep track of who owned what property because the state owned all of the land. For whatever reason, some families had many apartments or houses, while other people may have had only one. When the Soviet regime collapsed these properties became privatized. Individuals now owned their apartments and houses including the land. This made some families wealthier than others depending on how proactive they were on applying for additional living space during the Soviet occupation. All farmland was still owned by the new independent government.
Since 2010, the farmers in this area (Khorezm) of Uzbekistan were allowed to buy their property from the Government. Previous to that date they leased their land.
Not sure about how accurate this information was? But on the outskirts of Khiva there was lots of new construction of private homes. Large homes comprised of two or three stories. It was obvious that many people were more prosperous and able to construct larger homes today than in the past.
We drove past tons of cotton fields despite the fact that farming in this area was very difficult. Because of the salt below the surface, their fields had to be washed twice each year by flooding them to remove the salt from the fields before planting their crops. We also noticed that the cotton plants, were green one week and then all brown and ready to pick in the next week? Our guide explained that the plants were sprayed to make them dry and open up. This made it easier to pick the cotton from the plant all at once. If they waited for Mother Nature each plant would have to be picked many times over as the buds opened. Spraying them with chemicals made picking cotton faster and more efficient.
Driving along we saw a desert rat. It was a cute little guy, much like a bull legged squirrel with a chipmunk tail. Next thing I knew we had driven back into the Karakalpakstan region, where we were a couple of days ago, to visit a castle fortress, now in ruins. Same story the river had moved leaving the people with no water so they abandoned their village for greener pastures. This castle was built in 2nd Century AD up on top of a hill, which was very difficult for us (well me at least) to climb up in the heat but it was a great opportunity for us to see the steppes, mountains and desert areas all at the same time.
According to our guide, there used to be more than 1,000 castles in this area of Uzbekistan and they would communicate with each other via smoke signals. White smoke meant the fortress was having peaceful visitors and black smoke meant enemies coming and prepare for a fight. They would get the different coloured smoke by burning different types of bushes. Reminded me of the North American Indians.
Kora meant black and tag meant mountain so Koratag, the name of one mountain range meant Black Mountain; whereas, Okqtag, another mountain range meant White Mountain. Below this castle on the hill, was another fortress on a lower hill. Legend said that the reason this second castle was built just below the higher castle was because when the leader of their army died their custom was to select the new leader was by letting a bird free. When the bird landed on a person that person would be the new leader of the army. Well, one time the bird landed on a slave and everyone said he couldn’t be the new leader because he was a slave. They tried letting another bird free and that bird landed on the same slave. They did this three times and each time the bird landed on the slave. (He must have hidden birdseed in his pocket). Anyway, they decided that the slave was meant to lead the army only he could not live on top of the mountain with the rulers and noblemen but he could live just below them in another fortress lower down. Better to defend the main castle plus the location of his castle would remind him that he once was a slave.
We drove to another fortress from the 4th Century AD and again all the people moved elsewhere in the 6th Century. We could see little dugout areas in the walls where the Zoroastrians kept their fires going.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed another salt lake called “Money Lake”. It was believed that if a woman threw money into the lake she would get pregnant and her wish for a child would be granted.
The bridge we crossed to exit Karakalpakstan and enter the Khorezm region again was only a year old but it seemed to us to be more like 100 years old because it was full of potholes. Our guide pointed to a rusty old boat abandoned on the shoreline and said that just last year we would not have been able to drive across, we would have had to leave our cars and take that derelict barge across the river to be met by transportation on the other side of the river. Wow!
Batir our guide lived in a 70 square meter apartment (800 square feet) in the outskirts of Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan. It had two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom and was worth around 40,000. US dollars. They had hot and cold water, a centralized heating system where heat was transferred to the apartment building during cold weather, natural gas for cooking, an elevator, garbage collection and electricity for lighting. Their monthly fee was approximately 60. US dollars. They purchased the apartment in 2000 for 4,000. US dollars. In 12 years the apartment had increased in value ten times the original price! This same apartment in the city center would be worth over 100,000. US dollars. Remember the average salary was 250 US dollars per month. Hard to purchase a $40,000 apartment and feed your family!
Our Khiva guide was married with 4 children, two boys and two girls. They all lived with his parents outside the city of Khiva. This living arrangement was common in Central Asia where several families lived together in a compound sharing the kitchen and common areas. The house was built up to the edge of the street and many times did not have windows facing the street. You would drive through a large gate into a beautiful courtyard. All buildings, including the main house, faced into the courtyard and included gardens, fruit trees and their animals. I just loved the peaceful and private feeling inside those courtyards.
When a couple married, the custom was that the men moved their brides into his family home. If there were several sons, the whole family would help the first son move into a house of his own with his family. It could take several years to build this house as they paid for it as they built it. No such thing as a bank mortgage. Neighbours, friends and relatives all helped to build the new house. One year the family could afford to build the foundation, second year the floors and walls, third year the roof, etc. The youngest son would stay with his family to live with his parents in their house and eventually inherit their home. No need to share the family home as inheritance with his brothers because everyone helped them to get their houses earlier. Sisters would have left the family fold when they got married and moved into their husband’s family home.
Most of the people we saw in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had gold teeth. Our guide explained that ceramic caps were a new concept to Central Asia. Previously, gold or silver caps were their only choice for capping decaying teeth. It became a status symbol to have gold teeth and another way of hiding money from the KGB during Soviet occupation. Our Khiva guide said only women sold gold jewelry in Bukhara’s gold market and most of these women had 32 gold teeth in their mouths. This was their security, as they did not trust the banking system and their gold could not be lost or stolen.
Another custom was when a son was born; the family planted 10 young poplar trees. As the boy grew; the trees also grew. When the family was ready to build a new house (for the boy and his bride) they would cut down the trees and use them for the construction of the rafters for the roof of the new house. Uzbekistan was mostly desert with very few trees. This custom was a practical way to construct a house when it was needed. Any additional wood required for the home was imported from Russia.
We were standing in the lobby of our hotel saying goodbye to Terry & Gillian Johnston and Randy & Sue Wall when up drove these 4 Land Rovers with 6 men who were mapping out routes, logistics and times for a 2013 Land Rover experience. One man was a British photographer, recording their experience. The 2013 Land Rover experience will be from Berlin to somewhere in India. This Land Rover Experience Division followed the G4 Land Rover Experience and the Land Rover Camel Experience, which both resembled iron men car rallies. The G4 race required drivers and navigators to be physically fit because they would have to build bridges for the cars to cross and climb mountain ranges etc. For some reason these two experiences didn’t work out, I think they sounded like a lot of fun? The new Land Rover Experience will also be a challenge because they were scheduled to travel a long way in a short amount of time, requiring them to drive (many times off-road), for 12 hours or more each day. I thought we should join them until I heard how much driving was required. Better for me to follow their journey online.