Melons along the Silk Road

Posted on 16/12/2019 by Bertie Adam

If you ask anyone in the western world what comes into their head when you say ‘Uzbekistan’, some may name the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and others might just shrug. I’d be willing to bet however, that none would say ‘melons’. The truth is, in this country they’re everywhere and they’re mad for them. With 160 indigenous varieties there are almost enough for a new kind of melon every two and a half days of the year.

After three days of hitching through the Kyzl-Kum desert I was ravaged by an insatiable thirst. I’d been holed up in the back of a van stuck at a snail’s pace, trundling along quite possibly the worst stretch of road I’d ever encountered in all my life. So, when I said thanks to my lift and emerged into the city of Khiva I was pleasantly surprised to see a melon stand just in the distance. As I assessed my surroundings, I could see another, and another, and another… was this some kind of mirage? Or was I simply going mad?

Luckily, I’d timed my arrival to the silk road city and UNESCO site of Khiva perfectly. Just outside the old town gate, locals were busily erecting a tower complete with circular platforms draped in streamers and displaying melons. Over in the square was a plywood watermelon emerging in a state of organised chaos, and reminiscent of some sort of Amish barn raising ceremony. With these bizarre sights around me I still wondered if the previous three days had taken some of my sanity, until a local told me that tomorrow would be Qovun Sayli, an annual Uzbek celebration of this unassuming fruit. With the festival held on the eve of the nation’s Independence Day, it seemed I’d have an interesting couple of days ahead of me.

Image: Bertie Adam, 2018

The next day I strolled towards the old town to see it completely transformed; traditionally dressed dancers in the local chugira hat were a sight to behold. As a band filled the air behind them, the dancers would get into a line and each throw a different kind of melon up into the air, increasing in height with each throw, with the added flourish of a little spin on successfully catching it.

Uzbekistan had been a desired destination for me for years, but it was fast becoming one of my favourites with these glorious little parties and celebrations that seemed to crop up almost as much as the roadside melon stands did.

Image: Bertie Adam, 2018

Khiva itself is in the Khorezm region, which is considered to have the best variety of melon in Uzbekistan. This reputation goes back centuries, with even the famed Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta proclaiming their glory way back in the 13th century:

“There are no melons like Khorezmian melons... maybe with the exception of Bukharian ones, and the third best are Isfahan melons. Their peels are green, and the flesh is red, of extreme sweetness and firm texture. Surprisingly, they cut melons into slices, dry them in the sun, put them into reed baskets as it is done with Malaga figs, and take them from Khorezm to the remote cities in India and China to sell. They are the best of all dried fruit.”

The Qovun Sayli festival takes place only in Khiva, and if you’re there around the right time of year to see it, definitely take part in this wonderful spectacle. As well as melons they also display plenty of other gourd produce, some of which have been cut into beautiful works of art. There are even competitions where competitors go to test their talents in distinguishing the hundreds of different varieties. Some of the older men claimed to me to be able to identify the specific variety just from the sound they make when you knock against them. Whilst there’s no way I could verify these claims, it was fun to watch their attempts.

Walking around Khiva is a real treat just in itself. As you potter through the labyrinthine streets it truly feels like you’ve been transported back in time to this dusty silk road outpost, deep in the Uzbek desert. One of its grandest sites is the Kalta Minor, a striking turquoise tower ringed with Arabic calligraphy and vibrant tiles that greets you as you enter the old city. The colours really stand out from the sandstone that surrounds it, and draws the eyes upwards towards the cloudless skies with its sheer size.

The story behind the Kalta Minor is interesting; in a classic display of dynastic opulence it was originally intended to be so tall that you’d be able to see the city of Bukhara in the distance. Alas, as these things go, the Khan who ordered its construction died before it was completed and construction thus stopped, leaving the minaret in its half-finished state.

The many madrasas and mosques that are sprinkled throughout the old city rival some of the best in the world. Islamic art is forbidden from depicting faces, particularly those of its various prophets. Many Islamic scholars believe emulating God’s creative force is a sin, which has given rise to the beautifully intricate geometry that we now see as a cornerstone in Islamic art. The vast arches and entranceways of the Khivan and Uzbek mosques are some of the best examples of Islamic art and architecture in the world, and the tones and patterns of the banna'i tiling will remain etched in your memory for a lifetime.

Image: Kalta Minor - Bertie Adam, 2018

For me getting to Khiva was something of a hassle to say the least. But thankfully getting off-the-beaten-track for you would be much easier (and much more comfortable). At Travel The Unknown we run plenty of fantastic Silk Road tours which give you the chance to get there much more comfortably than myself, and with the added bonus of a knowledgeable guide who will ensure you see the best that this glorious city has to offer.

Check out our tours with these unique experiences below

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Uzbekistan Odyssey

Culture | Silk Road

Ancient cities, spell-binding architecture and stunning landscapes

£1,995 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
11 days
2024: 11 May, 14 September, 05 October, 12 October

Five Stan Odyssey (along the Silk Road)

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan
Culture | Silk Road

Get under the skin of all five 'Stans'

£5,495 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
30 days
2024: 27 April, 31 August
Call us on:020 7183 6371

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