Trans Eurasia travel

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Around Nukus

All around Nukus the Amu Darya is bullied, cajoled, channelled, funnelled and squeezed into a maze of canals, lakes and hydroelectric dams, of which the most impressive to visit is at Takiatash, 12 kilometres southwest of Nukus. Its Soviet power, originally earmarked for Turkmenistan, now lies on Uzbek soil and is only one of many subjects presently under discussion as the two republics attempt to disentangle their countless connecting threads.

Some 15 kilometres west of Nukus and 4 kilometres from Khojeli, on the road to Kunya Urgench, lie the holy sites of Mizdarkhan, once the second-largest city in Khorezm.  and Yusup Ishan, two enormous cemeteries of several thousand graves which spill over the only two hills on the horizon, each like a mini Jerusalem on the steppe. The larger of the two, Mizdarkhan, was once an important centre of handicrafts set on the trade crossroads to Gurganj, until it was destroyed by Tamerlane en route to larger things in Gurganj.

Inhabited from the 4th century BC until the 14th century AD, Mizdakhan remained a sacred place even after Timur destroyed it; tombs and mosques continued to be built here right up to the 20th century.

Today the main attraction is a hill littered with those mosques and mausoleums, some ruined, some intact. The most impressive is the restored Mausoleum of Mazlum Khan Slu, dating from the 12th to 14th centuries.

On the neighbouring hill towards the Turkmen border are the remains of a 4th to 3rd-century BC fortress called Gyaur-Qala (Fortess of Infidels), which is worth checking out if you missed the forts of Elliq-Qala.

The cemetery gets its popular name, Mazlum Khan Slu, from the restored mausoleum and ablutions hall of the same name, skilfully constructed underground at the beginning of the 14th century. The beautiful (siu) Mazlum Khan was the Juliet-like daughter of the city hakkim who died for her love of the Romeoesque hakkim of the rival town of Yusup Ishan. Other tombs include the seven-cupolaed, 25-metre long sarcophagus of the giant Shamun Nabi, said to have grown an inch every year for several centuries, the crumbling 11th century tomb of Caliph Yejereb and the holy hill of Jumurat Khasap, where Khorezmian majolica and Mongol coins have been discovered.

To get here from Nukus, take a shared taxi from the Nukus bazaar to Hojeli (20 minutes), then get in a shared taxi bound for the Turkmen border and get off after 3km in Mizdakhan.

On the eastern fringes of Khalkabad, 40 minutes' drive from Nukus, lie the 150- year-old remains of the frozen feudal village of Ishan Kala (Fortress of the Elders). Individual buildings are clearly defined and include the ten-metre- high walls of the citadel, a central Friday mosque and the holy tomb of local Sufic elder Ata Ula Ishan. On Fridays, the nearby mosque is a boundless source of colourful Turkmen clothes, hospitality and plov.

Some 90 kilometres southeast of Nukus lies the 30 kilometre long Badai Tugai Nature Reserve for endangered species. Tour companies arrange visits to glimpse the rare flora and fauna of the jungle-like tugai forest that once covered the region. Residents include Bukhara Deer, among the world's rarest with just 120 survivors, and the Amu Darya catfish, or lakka, which grows up to 2 metres long and weighs up to 120 kg. Bring mosquito repellent.