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Khan's Palace

Without a shadow of doubt, Kokand's most impressive sight is the Khudyar Khan Palace (2 Istiqlol str; 553 6046;; 09.00-18.00 Mon-Sat; foreigners US$1), one of the most glittering royal residences in central Asia and a structure that would make fairytale princesses jump up and down for joy. At the tail end of the 19th century, just before the Russians put paid to his architectural (and political) ambition, Khudyar Khan indulgently commissioned a sumptuous palace with 113 rooms set around seven courtyards. His mother lived in one of these courtyards, housed in her very own yurt.

The Khudayar Khan’s Palace was built in 1873 – just three years before the tsar’s troops arrived, blew up its fortifications and abolished the khan’s job. The palace was built by Khudayar Khan, a mean ruler who was chummy with the Russians. Just two years after completing the palace, Khudayar was forced into exile by his own subjects, winding up under Russian protection in Orenburg. As his heirs quarrelled for the throne, the Russians moved in and snuffed out the khanate, in the process breaking a promise to eventually return Khudayar to the throne. The homesick khan later fled Orenburg and embarked on an epic odyssey through Central and South Asia before dying of disease near Herat.

Khudayar called his citadel an urda as opposed to a Bukharan ark. American diplomat Schulyer judged it on completion, "much larger and more magnificent than any other in Central Asia... glittering in all the brightness of its fresh tiles, blue, yellow and green". Recent restoration give today's visitor a similar impression of vibrant, crowded colour glazed onto a long facade of arches and minarets.

Besides satisfying his own extravagance and proclaiming his name in garish inscription, Khudayar also built the palace for his Kyrgyz mother, Hakim Ayin. Ashamed that she persisted in using a nomadic yurt, he installed her in style, only to watch her set up the felt tent in a courtyard. Mir Ubaidullah led the valley's finest architects on the project. Legend tells that when Khudayar asked how long his building would last, Ubaidullah placed a dish of millet on top of a minaret. Even in windless weather, millet spilled slowly down. The architect saved his life and the palace by identifying the cause-the vibrations from the paper factories for which Kokand was famous-whereupon Khudayar had them relocated.

A ramp leads through the entrance portal, studded with poles to ward off the evil eye, into the 19 rooms to survive from an original 113. To the right, the former chief secretary's office entertains a natural-history display of stuffed animals and cotton plants. Beyond is the redecorated office and mosque of Khudayar's war minister. The khan received his bowing guests in what is now a museum of jewellery, clothing and metalware. Russian troops later used the hall as a chapel, hanging an icon behind the throne. The works of Kokand's master woodcarver Khaidarov (1889-1984) fill an antechamber created for soldiers to change for prayer. Khudayar's 'second receiving room' was his opulent bedroom, where the top band of wall painting has been left unrestored. Wall niches house objets d'art including Japanese and Chinese vases.

Roughly half of the palace used to be taken up by the harem, which the Russians demolished in 1919. Khudayar’s 43 concubines would wait to be chosen as wife for the night – Islam allows only four wives so the khan kept a mullah at hand for a quick marriage ceremony (the marriage set up to last just one night). These teenage girls donated by subject lords lived and died in a two-storey complex of pavilions and swimming pools that stood at the palace rear. As with the last emir of Bukhara, guides describe Khudayar watching his harem bathe from a poolside divan, before tossing an apple to the apple of his eye.

Of the original rooms, only 19 remain, but walking here in Khudyar Khan's footsteps you gain a fascinating glimpse into the life of an oriental despot just before everything around him fell apart: it is a palace built on the cusp of history, and you can almost sense the unfulfilled dreams tied up in its walls and furnishings. The collection of objects on show is somewhat eclectic (everything from jewellery and weaponry to a beautifully carved hall), probably due to the fact that most of the original contents were dispersed or destroyed in the early years of Soviet rule. Some of the interiors have fortunately survived (some partially restored), however, and these are the palace's real attraction. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and you can clearly see the influence of Russian and European tastes on more traditional Uzbek designs. The museum's English-speaking director gives guided tours (US$3.50) of the site, and these are the best way to understand not only the physical building but also the lives and times of Khudyar Khan and his family.

Six courtyards remain and their 27 rooms collectively house the Kokand Regional Studies Museum, with displays of varying degrees of interest. The museum was recently rearranged and renovated. The palace is closed on Mondays. Formerly the focus of a 40-hectare park dense with a multitude of trees, it now shares the narrower confines of Mukimi Park with a mini-railway shunting past fountains, rusting fairground rides and an Aeroflot Yak 40 converted into a children's cinema. The Uzbek poet Mukimi (1851-1903) was a major contributor to Kokand's literary heritage. His life and works are detailed in a 19th century madrassah turned museum south of the Juma mosque at 77 Mukimi St. West of the palace, several Tsarist-era Russian buildings line Istiklol St: the former German-Turkestan Bank remains a bank, while two grand residences house the mayoral and telegraph offices.

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The royal palace, built in 1860 by the repulsive Khudayar Khan, stretched a long facade above parklands of weeds and roses. Its blank arches and walls were sheened in a medley of garish tile-work, but its rectangle of ramparts had gone, blown up by the besieging Russians to the stupefaction of the townspeople. A heavy ramp still mounted to the gates in a baleful path of unwelcome, and entered between narrow towers. Inside, the 113 rooms had been completed only three years before the Russians sacked them, and their survivors spread round the porticoes of empty courtyards, where I walked in solitude. The whole palace was infected by a grotesque dilapidation which cruelly suited it. In one range of rooms a natural history museum was decaying unvisited, its stuffed animals tottering into dust under the intricately painted ceilings. The inner court, once interlaced with verandahs, stairways and pavilions, had dropped into a lake of rubble, and in the park a children's playground was disintegrating. Schoolboys splashed naked in the preposterous fountains, and a defunct Aeroflot jet had come to rest among the birch trees. Seated under the weeping willows, a few lovers gazed away from one another in awkward unison, the girls flushed and coy in their earthy silks, the youths silent, their interlaced hands lying guiltily between them on the bench.

The last khan had distributed his harem among his friends as the Russians closed in, then fled to Mecca. But some of his ancestors lay in a cemetery near the Friday Mosque - a wilderness of the dead, dense and secret with trees.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron