Trans Eurasia travel

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There are two cities named Urgench in the Khivan oasis, this one close to the Oxus, founded in the seventeenth century by an Uzbeg khan, and another, the seat of ancient power one hundred miles or so to the north-east, capital of an empire laid waste by Genghis Khan. It is not always clear which Urgench (or Coogentch or Oorgunj or Urgendj) is meant by nineteenth-century travellers such as Fraser when he writes that "Ourgunge, once capital of an empire which embraced the principal part of Western Asia, has become a ruin, and the seat of the petty power which now exists has been transferred to the mean and modern town of Khyvah" (Khorassan, 1833). In Count Pahlen's time (1908) new Urgench was a trading station which owed its prosperity to "the enterprise of a few wealthy Russian merchants who had... monopolised the commerce of Khiva" and who formed the Council which ruled a practically independent town. In this Russian Shanghai Pahlen was feted at ten commercial houses, and "in every single one was treated to zakuska and iced champagne... to this day I do not know how I survived the ordeal". Since that time (he laments in his book) the Revolution of 1917 had replaced that dubious mercantile oligarchy with "a new breed of loud-mouthed, uncultivated barbarians".

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook

Konya Urgench, the historical city, now lies out of reach across the border in Turkmenistan, but its newer incarnation, the Soviet city of Urgench, dismal and concrete though it is, remains significant as the gateway to Khorezm Province and things you'd actually want to see.

Uzbek Urgench is a flat, grey Soviet city with all of Tashkent's faults and few of its saving graces. It is however the entry point and the home of most group travelling to visit Khorezm. For those with time to kill the city offers a bustling modern market and mushrooming modern statuary, where Soviet giants once held sway. Lenin disappeared overnight in 1992, replaced in the huge central square by Abu Mohammed Ibn Musa Al Khorezmi (783-840). Khorezmi's mathematical genius is today recognised in the word algorithm, taken from his name and referring to a 'constant calculating process' that buttresses his status as the father of algebra. Born near Khiva to descendants of Zoroastrian exorcists, Al Khorezmi later moved with the Caliph to Baghdad and authored several important astronomical works that may have later helped Columbus find the New World.

The new settlement, situated again on the banks of the Amu Darya, was at first simply a small trading town in the Khanate of Khiva. The the arrival of the Trans-Caspian railway at the end of the 19th century made it viable as an international trading post, however, and during the Soviet era the city was heavily industrialised. The Soviets introduced cotton, motifs of which dominate the city, adorning everything from apartment blocks to street lights and in the autumn months the city empties into the surrounding cotton fields and cotton harvests monopolize local news. This cash crop remains the mainstay of the local economy to the present day.