Escapism

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A wander through Khiva's grisly, blood-soaked past (+photos)

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Last night I managed to get lost in the shadowy, narrow alleys of what was once one of the most notorious and blood-soaked cities of the silk roads through Central Asia.

Khiva, in Uzbekistan, was infamous for centuries for its thriving slave market but thankfully the trade in nomadic tribespeople, Kurds, Persians and Russians ended in the late 19th century. However, the city's name was whispered with fear for other reasons as well. The khans (rulers) of the 19th century had turned torture of miscreants and intruders into a grisly art form. Impalement, eye-gouging and even tying up unfortunates in sacks full of wild cats are all well-documented.

During Soviet times Khiva was restored and transformed into a living museum and on a bright sunlit day the almost too immaculate renovations seem to have stilled the spirits of the past.

Not so at night. All the tourists (save two of us) had gone, the fur-hat sellers and purveyors of goats' wool shawls and stripy woollen socks had also retired for the day. Khiva's ensemble of minarets and facades of its many madrassas (religious schools) were softly lit but the alleyway and flagstoned thoroughfares were mostly in darkness.

We'd arrived in the early evening after a long drive across the Karakum Desert from Bukhara and went straight to our hotel, a new one for me.

But I was certain it was just along the road from a hotel I'd stayed in before. So, when I offered to take a first-time visitor on an evening stroll through the city I was confident I could find my way back to the city gate nearest to home.

We wandered past one of the Khan's nineteenth century palaces where his bedroom was adjoined by those of his four wives. On the other side of the courtyard was the accommodation for his hundreds of concubines. In the interests of family harmony the khan's bedroom was linked to those of his wives by a secret corridor. Any man (other than the khan or his eunuch) found in this corridor was executed on the spot and questions asked only afterwards.

The evening azan (call to prayer) sounded as we walked past a small mosque. Beyond it was the city's tallest minarets silhouetted against a sky of deep lapis blue. Arched windows encircled the tower just under the dome, a reminder how once minarets were not just used for the azan but also as the lighthouses of the desert. Fires lit at the top functioned as beacons for the caravans.

It was at this point I turned towards the east gate to take us home. "I think we need the south gate," my companion, on his first visit, replied. I was certain I knew better. So we emerged from the gate to find a rubbly wasteland where our hotel should have been.

A man was standing in the shadows watching us. I asked him for directions.

"You need the south gate," he said.

My friend tried not to look smug. "Maybe I've been here in a previous life," he said. I hoped that if he had been he had stayed on the good side of Khiva's bloodthirsty khans.

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