The museum madness of Uzbekistan

Well friends, I saved all my silly little registration slips, figured out a way to have my paperwork in order and managed to successfully leave Uzbekistan yesterday afternoon. Huzzah! I’m now in Kyrgyzstan and I have friends! Rachel and Ben arrived the same day from the US and I woke them up from their jet-lagged mid afternoon nap. Well, I woke Rachel up. Ben basically refused to move. Anyway, I promised a post about the museums of Uzbekistan, which I know sounds boring AF, but stick with me – ridiculousness abounds.

From Nukus, where we left off, I hired a guide and driver to visit the “fortresses of ancient Khorezm,” a group of crumbling, hilltop dwellings of the ancient peoples of Central Asia. Most of these fortresses were built in the 4-5th century B.C. – 8th century A.D. and largely persisted until Chinggis Khan burned them all to the ground. They are all in various states of decrepitude, being made of mud and all, and refreshingly un-refurbished. Mostly. A few have some ostentatious “rebuilt” sections that I found annoying, but most have been left to the elements, melting back into the hillsides. You’re allowed to climb them and scramble all over them like Indiana Jones. Some are so littered with pottery shards that you’re basically walking on nothing but ancient pot fragments that were left behind by archeologists because there were just too many to save. It was a lovely day. We stopped frequently to buy fruit, including juicy sweet Karakalpakian melons, the weather was actually pleasant, and I was not forced to eat any soggy meat dumplings or drink any camel milk. At the end of the day, my driver dropped me off in Khiva, the final “touristy” city of my trip through Uzbekistan.

Midzakhan Zoroastrian temple ruins.

Khiva is famous for its walled old city and everything I’d read made it sound just magical. A red mud-brick labyrinth that has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years and has a history as a a dreaded, vicious kingdom of slave traders and blood thirsty khans who ruled the desert. Like a combination of the Medina of Fez, Morocco and Game of Thrones’ Meereen. I saved it for last when I planned this trip, because I had expected to like it the most. Fortunately, I’d spoken with some other travelers at various stops along my route and realized pretty early on that my expectations were not likely to be met. Firstly, the old city of Khiva is much smaller than I’d been led to believe and secondly, it has been crudely “Uzbek-ified” and basically turned into a museum of itself. A souvenir-shop lined museum.

The souvenir stands of Khiva.
Khiva’s glowing, obviously reconstructed, earthen wall at sunset.

I arrived in Khiva at around 6 PM, dropped my stuff at my hotel and went on a wander around the city. Which took about 10 minutes because it is TINY. My guidebook recommended staying here for a few days. I’d planned one full day and immediately realized that might be too much time. It was lovely, of course, with twisting pathways, tiled minarets, and a mud brick wall that glowed orangey pink in the sunset. But there was really nothing to do and the city had, in that unique Uzbek way, been sterilized so intensively that it was almost boring. It was also STUFFED with souvenir shops. Just rows and rows and rows of vendors lining every street and filling every plaza and stuffed into every corner of every medressa and minaret. All selling the EXACT same scarves, wooden carvings, and painted tiles, none of which I saw anyone buying. There were no shops selling anything anyone needed to actually live, like groceries, which was proof enough that people didn’t really live in the old city anymore. I had a beer at an outdoor cafe filled with tourists, finished my book, and tried to figure out what the hell to do the next day. My guidebook was unhelpful – it was researched a few years ago and I think things have changed so much that most of the information is no longer relevant.

Plaza filled with souvenirs that no one is buying, Khiva.

In the morning, I woke up and went to buy an “attraction ticket.” Basically, tourists now require a ticket to enter the walled old city (my hotel was inside, so I could have avoided buying this ticket if I never walked outside of the walls, but I needed to buy water and snacks somewhere). Like there is a turnstile and everything. In case you didn’t KNOW it had been turned into Silk Road Disneyland, you had to go through a turnstile with a ticket to even enter the city. There were 3 levels of ticket – a basic ticket that just included admission to the city, but did not allow you inside any buildings; a premium ticket that allowed you into the city and to the top of 3 viewpoints, a minaret, watchtower and the wall; and a VIP ticket that also included “all museums.” I almost just bought the premium ticket because I had been in enough museums already to know that they were complete crap. But then something in me just snapped and I thought, “Here is how I can spend my day in Khiva. Going to every worthless museum and seeing what marvels are on display.” So I did.

I went to TWELVE “museums,” all stuffed into the courtyards or side rooms of medressas and mosques, turning every single interior of every single historical building save a handful into profit-making propaganda pieces. I visited the museum of applied arts, museum of medressa history, museum of music, museum of ancient Khorezm culture, museum of nature, museum of history, museum of ancient Khorezm (sans culture), coins of Khorezm, Kazikhana interior, the exhibition of Ak-mechet Mennonites, museum of handicrafts, and, I shit you not, the museum of “Independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland.” I’m pretty sure these are all of the museums in Khiva, though there is no list, because they are all crap and no one has bothered to compile one. A brief rundown:

The “museum of musical instruments” had a couple of rooms of photos of Uzbek pop stars that had obviously been downloaded off of the internet and printed on someone’s HP at home and a single room with mannequins playing musical instruments and wearing the big furry hats everyone tried to sell tourists (“traditional hat of Khiva”) but no one actually wore. The museums of medressa history, history, ancient Khorezm and ancient Khorezm culture were all filled with old copies of the Koran, random unlabeled ceramics, bizarre unrelated artwork and bits of jewelry with no other information or cohesive exhibit explaining whatever the purported topic was. “Filled” may actually be a bit of an overstatement as the museum of ancient Khorezm was only two, sparsely decorated rooms. The Kazikhana museum was, to the best of what I could understand, vaguely related to law or justice or something. It was two rooms, one containing a case of whips and shackles and the other filled with weird mannequins that I think were representing the legal process. I’m sure that nobody knows. The museum of “Ak Mechat Mennonites” was ostensibly about a German Mennonite community and had the obligatory pale-skinned mannequins churning butter to represent Germans. It also had wall-sized print outs of quotes from Islam Karimov, the dictator who controlled Uzbekistan from 1989 until his death in 2016, about the close relationship between Germany and Uzbekistan. This is another important feature of the Uzbek museum. It must include a blown up quote from Karimov, translated into every possible language, so his wisdom can be spread. In the Mennonite museum, a wall was devoted to “Germany is a reliable and prospective partner of Uzbekistan” ~ I. Karimov. Doesn’t really seem like a wall-worthy quote to me. Also doesn’t really make sense.

Music man mannequin in a music man mannequin hat.
I think this is justice being administered at the law museum? IDK. Also, they’re both wearing the same hat as the music man. Or maybe it’s hair and there was a discount on the mannequin with the fro and beard combo so they bought in bulk?
Weird ass painting in the medressa museum. So, just to be clear, this is hanging in the museum of the history of religious schools. With no explanation.

The museum of nature gets its own paragraph. It was an absolute marvel. Housed in one of the larger medressas, it had more rooms (10-15 total), spread out around a ramshackle courtyard. The rooms actually had themes with titles, which was a level of organization I hadn’t seen in any of the other museums. Never mind that the titles were things like “birds” or “fruits” or “cattle breeding.” Those titles merely served to put your expectations squarely where they needed to be. But the contents of the museum were the real prize. A weathered, 1980s photo of a cow with the caption “cow.” Photos taken on someone’s cellphone of pile of cucumbers at the market. A stuffed pigeon. A diagram of a fruit tree drawn by someone’s five-year old kid while they were having a seizure. Just really some incredible stuff in there.

I wasn’t kidding. The room of “catle breading.”
I shit you not.
Yes, this is actually for real.

But the best museum was the exhibition of the “Independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland.” This “museum” was a concert-hall sized propaganda piece with not one but two armed guards. None of the other museums had armed guards to blast you away with an AK-47 if you stole a cow drawing. The exhibition of the independent Uzbekistan, the free and prosperous motherland, had as its centerpiece a gigantic fold-out photo of Islam Karimov. Around the periphery of one wall were trifold standing posters of Karimov’s great successes. Like a poster dedicated to the national airline. And a poster dedicated to Uzbek olympians. And a poster of photos of Karimov meeting with various world leaders, all of whom, no doubt, considered him to be a megalomaniac dictator. And, my favorite, a poster dedicated to the noble soum, Uzbekistan’s spiraling, worthless currency. Along the other wall was a heavily redacted “history” of Uzbek independence that took considerable liberties with actual historical events. Karimov, a Soviet to his core, did not tolerate religion or civil unrest and his government looked on devout Muslims with a high level of suspicion. Unrest in the Fergana valley led to brutal government crackdowns, including likely hundreds to thousands killed in Andijan in 2005 (government numbers are unreliable, of course). This complicated, cruel, and politically unsavory history was completely rewritten, in poster form, rife with Karimov quotes, to paint protesters as dangerous and Uzbekistan as the warm, righteous motherland. It was an absolute Soviet wonderland. Just a museum straight outta the USSR.

Islam Karimov with very important people who like him very much and think he is very important. Please remember how important he is.

What I learned, from my day of museum hopping, is that all of these museums are filled with whatever random crap someone could find in their storage shed, or could commission their kid to sketch, or could be printed off of the internet and framed with short notice. These “artifacts” are punctuated by Karimov quotes. This is the formula. Find an old building, stuff it with crap no one wants, and add some quotes from the dead ex-president. Voila! You have a museum! Only the museum of applied arts seemed to have genuine artifacts, but the lights wouldn’t work so I was unable to see them. Each museum was staffed by hordes of bored young women flipping through their cell phones, working the turnstiles and appearing surprised that anyone wanted to go inside – but less surprised when the visit was over after 10 minutes.

The day after my museums, I woke up with a migraine – sadly untreatable since I’d had to throw away all my prescription drugs. I took a flight back to Tashkent and prepared to go to the train station for my train ride to Fergana in the east, near the Kyrgyz border. The taxi driver at the airport lied to me, said the airport was far from the train station, and when I called him on it  by pulling up Google maps he said “Google maps doesn’t work in Tashkent.” As though the buildings were somehow rearranged magically. Then I refused to get in the car until he lowered the price to a level that was still a rip-off but one I could tolerate. We went to the train station, which was close, as I knew, and then he pretended to not have change so I’d have to pay him more. I don’t know if it was the heat or the migraine or my day of craptastic museums, but I WANTED TO LIGHT HIM ON FIRE.

Then, still migraine-bound and crabby, I took a 5 hour train ride to the Fergana valley in eastern Uzbekistan. It was a cheap, old Soviet train not one of the high-speed tourist trains. Which served as a good reminder that on public transportation in third world countries, you can assaulted by foreign music videos or dubbed action movies played at MAX volume at any time. The risk is higher (~100%) when you have a migraine.

I stayed the night in Fergana, woke up in the morning and took a taxi to the traditional silk weaving factory in the nearby small town of Margilan. It was lovely. The Fergana valley is Uzbekistan’s agricultural heartland and it is hilly and cooler, resembling an Islamic California. At the silk factory, a delightful tour was offered in English. For free. From a legion of college-aged girls who are in a language program and want to practice with tourists. And who made jokes about Trump. And who said I look young 😍. It was one of the first times in Uzbekistan that I haven’t felt like someone was trying to rip me off. I immediately wished I’d spent more time in the untouristy Fergana valley and less time on the Silk Road.

From Margilan, I took another taxi to the Kyrgyz border, where Uzbekistan once again ran all of my belongings through a metal detector and checked my belt for weapons (I think my stuff was scanned at least daily by someone). The Uzbek checkpoint was strict, with lines and many guards and rifles. I left Uzbekistan uneventfully and walked across the border no man’s land to the Kyrgyz checkpoint, where there were no guards or weapons at all and the border agents sat in a wooden trailer with flickering lights and a weak fan that barely dislodged the flies from the desk. I filled out no paperwork and there was no customs at all. Walking across a border is my favorite way to enter a country. Like you can actually FEEL the difference. From the police state of Uzbekistan to the palpably chill Kyrgyzstan. I’m ready for it.

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