We spend a few days in Bukhara, enjoying the relaxed feel of the place and dodging crowds of French tour groups. Some of the local women are wearing interesting outfits resembling Victorian bathing costumes - a short dress with matching short trousers - the best are in ikat designs, very colourful. Older men wear an embroidered box-like cap, but the young boogaloos are in beanies. We have also detected a predilection for gold teeth, sometimes whole rows of 'em - though whether this is due to poor diet or a lack of confidence in the local currency, we are not sure. This is the first country where we have needed a bag to carry our cash around - the largest note is worth 40 pence - the smaller notes are saved for those moments when when there's no Russian toilet paper to hand (and I don't mean for sanding down the floorboards).
Our next stop is Khiva, which alongside the khanate of Bukhara, remained a big slave-trading centre until the Russians finally arrived in the 1870's. The old city is surrounded by undulating mudbrick walls, and crammed full of medressas, mosques and palaces. There are two spectacular minarets, one built only a hundred years ago, but looking like a tiled lighthouse, and the other unfinished - a huge base that would have supported probably the largest building in the world if it had ever been finished. The base is tiled and its a wonderful sight. The hotels are full - we are definitely travelling at high season here - but we get a room after a bit of searching. Khiva is not large, and we spend a day seeing all the sights. There is a silk carpet workshop with information on the process of silk production. They are producing carpets using designs found in miniature paintings of Tamerlaine's era, or using the ornately carved doors, or intricately-tiled buildings that are dotted all over. Generally though, the crafts are not impressive and Khiva seems a little more down at heel than Bukhara, the old city more like an open air museum. It's still a great place to visit. Even though we are in the desert, the surrounding landscape is given over to farming. We are on the southern edge of the Amu-Darya (aka the river Oxus) delta which runs into the fast-disappearing Aral Sea. Cotton farming introduced by the Russians, and excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, are causing a long term environmental problem in Central Asia, and this is one of the blighted areas. The earth is sometimes bleached white.
The travelling around here is not so simple. There are rarely any scheduled buses, trains are few and far between, and so we have been using the dreaded shared-taxi. These tend to be quick, you only have to wait for four passengers before you go, but they cost a bit more. The problem is finding one who will go for a decent price. Whenever I approach a parking lot full of taxis now the theme from Jaws comes into my head. Thankfully the Uzbek people are generally very friendly and helpful and we have great fun asking for directions and not understanding a single word of the reply. We take a detour north to Nukus (which sounds like an open invitation to George W. Bush) simply to visit an art gallery. This is a tough call, the journey back will be longer, and the town has nothing else to offer except for a funfair, a museum with the very last Caspian tiger (stuffed and mounted, what else?), and a collection of cafes and restaurants inside people's homes (so it seems). It's all low-key stuff after the oohs and ahhhs of Khiva. The art gallery houses a collection of Soviet-era artwork that was saved and protected by the gallery's director, Igor Savitsky, since much of it was banned by Moscow for not conforming to Soviet Realism. The collection is impressive and there are plenty of great paintings by Russian artists inspired by the Central Asian people and landscapes. It's staggering to think this has been achieved in such a remote place.
The evening before we meet other travellers passing through, and talk about some alarming news that China is refusing to issue visas for overlanders. This seems to be in response to the protests in Tibet and the international reaction - they seem intent to 'lock-down' the country before the Olympics to avoid further embarrasment and protest. To use an idiom that may be of interest to any English language students out there, this has pissed on our chips. We have to work out how to get to the Pakistani Himalaya between now and August. Michael, an American we have seen in other places, ends up taking the third bed in our hotel room, as there is nothing cheap left available. He assures us he is no psycho killer. Worse though, he is a snorer. I almost become the pycho killer. Luckily for all, we all survive the night.
Our journey back across the desrt is made in a very sweaty bus run by a family of women, and driven by two young men. The bus is going to Almaty in Kazakhstan, which seems like a long haul in the old tin can. We are dripping sweat from every pore, along with everyone else, while we wait interminably to depart. When we set off it feels like the driver has turned on a hairdryer, as the hot desert air blows in through his window. On a small hill we pass a walled enclosure - an ancient Zoroastrian 'Tower of Silence' where the dead were left to the vultures. It is the only remarkable feature in an endless journey through desert scrub and numerous police checkpoints.