The distant lands of Khorezm are formed and fed by the Amu Darya delta and its history is inextricably linked to the river, like Egypt's to the Nile. Its turbid waters prise apart the red (Kyzyl) and black (Kara) deserts on either side to colour the desert island oasis with a fragile smear of green. The great river divided Turkic from Persian and provided a cradle for Central Asia's earliest civilization, only to shift course like a capricious nomad, turning marsh into baked desert, killing cities at a whim. Today it is dammed, channelled and bled dry to quench thirsty cotton quotas and only then allowed to fade away, exhausted and spent, into the desert sands, no longer reaching the dying arms of the Aral Sea.
Today this land of shifting rivers, trade routes, capitals and nomads is divided into the Khorezm oblast and Karakalpak Autonomous Republic and still maintains its distinct character. It echoes little of Ferghana's religious revival, but enjoys the best of Central Asia's incorrigible hospitality. Winter snows that froze the Oxus and the summer furnace that forced European visitors "like the Mussulmans, to remain immovable on the same spot without doing anything at all, not even thinking" still sandwich the tourist season and the region is generally unaccustomed to tourism, but hardy souls will be attracted to its desert citadels, ancient capitals and the Aral Sea.
Urgench (pop 140,000), the capital of Khorezm province, is a standard-issue Soviet grid of broad streets and empty squares, 450km northwest of Bukhara across the Kyzylkum desert.
When the Amu-Darya changed course in the 16th century, the people of Konye-Urgench (then called Urgench), 150km downriver in present-day Turkmenistan, were left without water and started a new town here. Today travellers use Urgench mainly as a transport hub for Khiva, 35km southwest. It’s also the jumping-off point for the ‘Golden Ring’ of ancient fortresses in southern Karakalpakstan.
The town’s axis is Al-Khorezmi, with the post office at its intersection with Al-Beruni marking the centre of things. The train station is 600m south of the centre down Al-Khorezmi, the airport is 3km north, and the main bazaar 500m west.
Khiva, the third of Uzbekistan's foremost architectural ensembles, stems from a later period when the region first attracted the Russian tsars. Preserved as a living museum of mud walls and minarets, it is frozen in a time when a visit required months of travel through desert and the prospect of days without water paled into insignificance at the sight of the 'man-stealing Turkomans', hungrily roaming for slaves.