I almost didn’t go to Khiva. Deviating from my planned Bukhara to Samarkand route to the tiny, northern desert oasis meant enduring a 10 hour shared taxi ride from Bukhara and a 14 hour overnight train onwards to Samarkand. It wasn’t until I read ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’ by Christopher Alexander that I decided to go. Normally, I never would’ve even started reading a book about carpet-making, not exactly my cup of tea. But, when a fellow backpacker recommended it to me, I just so happened to be looking for a good book about Uzbekistan.
“It’s surprisingly good,” he reassured me.
He was right. It was fantastic. After reading it, I couldn’t wait to see Khiva.
So, when I headed out of my B&B–snuggled in the maze of streets inside the fortress known as Ichon-Qala–the morning after arriving, I was eager to explore the jewel of Khorezm which I had read so much about.
Said to be founded by Shem, the son of Noah, Khiva is ancient. However, it wasn’t until the late 16th century that Khiva really became influential. Khiva was the most prominent slaving center of Central Asia, trading in Kazakhs, Karakum tribesfolk, and even Russians unlucky enough to be captured.
Now, luckily, the slavers are gone. In their place are street vendors, tucked into tiny trading nooks in front of madrasahs and mosques. While most offer touristy trinkets, you can still find some quality handmade goods if you’re persistent.
Most of Khiva’s sites are located inside Ichon-Qala; in fact, you could say most of Khiva IS Ichon-Qala. A huge fortress in the manner of Bukhara’s Ark, Ichon-Qala is remarkably well preserved. Unlike the Ark, visitors have almost complete reign of the place. An admission ticket gets you access to most of the sights; but I decided to spend my time just walking through the streets, having gotten a bit burnt out on museums and the like in Bukhara.
Luckily, just wandering through the streets was an enchanting experience. Away from the main thoroughfares, tiny passageways wind between buildings, leading to small, stone graveyards or courtyards sheltered by trees.
Looking up, the azure domes of majolica-tiled mosques and minarets decorate the skyline. Since cars are mercifully absent throughout most of Ichon-Qala, it’s almost possible to forget that it’s the 21st century.
A little north of the South Gate is the tallest of several minarets in the town. Islom-Hoja Minaret is relatively new, built in 1910, and at 57 meters it is Uzbekistan’s tallest. It just so happens to be beautiful as well.
After paying a small fee, it’s possible to climb up and enjoy the best view Khiva has on offer: a 360° jaw dropper.
The main focal point Old Khiva is the area just inside the West Gate. Khiva’s Ark, the unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, an old madrasah turned hotel, and a mausoleum are all within spitting distance of each other. If the the minaret were finished, you probably COULD hit every one of those sights with a little bit of technique.
The minaret was the pet project of the ambitious Amin Khan, who wanted a tower tall enough so that he could see Bukhara without ever having to leave Khiva. Though the Kalta Minor Minaret wouldn’t have accomplished this, it would have certainly been one of the tallest buildings in the world. However, four years after the building was started, the poor khan keeled over and died. Without his ambition, construction ground to a halt and the tower was never finished.
Just across the street from the minaret is a small cafe. It became my go-to place in town to have a cup of Turkish coffee, a little food, and something sweet as the crowds went by. Hundreds of years of history lay before me, making it an easy task to sit for hours and soak it all in.
Soon, daylight began to fade, and I headed back to my hotel. Climbing the stairs to the roof, I enjoyed a magnificent sunset, the sky turning to gold behind the silhouettes of minarets and mosques.
Khiva, you were absolutely worth it.
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I love the obscure places you visit. The history that dates back to biblical time is quite interesting. I hope to find myself in such remote locations, but for now I’ll have to settle for this part of Asia.
I love places that make you feel small 🙂 Persepolis was one place where I felt like an ant. So old, with so much amazing history. Korea has some awesome history as well! I actually miss it a lot.
Damnit, Nathan, you’ve done it again. Every time you post, I question every decision I’ve made that didn’t lead to “Go to the ‘Stans like Nathan.” It’s amazing that you were inspired to randomly to visit this amazing place by a book on such a random topic. Like you, I wouldn’t have probably thought to go through with reading a book on carpet making, but you obviously made the correct decision. Beautiful photography and storytelling, as always.
Thanks! Hopefully you guys make it to the ‘Stans someday 🙂
I really need to learn a lesson from this and read more books about places I’m planning on visiting.
Evan and Rachel
A 10 hr. taxi ride and a 14 hr. train ride?? YIKES! I’m honestly worried about leaving Korea, just cause I’m so used to travelling in a small country now. haha that sounds like a nightmare to me. It seems worth it though, Khiva looks magnificent. How is Uzbeki beer by the way?
That’s there AND back, but yeah, it was ridiculous! I’m so glad I went, though. And it’s not that the distances were huge (though it was quite a ways), but the roads aren’t the best. Really slows things down, not having freeways, haha
Ah Nathan, you keep bringing those wonderful colors out and making me want to visit Uzbekistan!
It’s interesting that you mention using a book as inspiration to travel, and that’s something I prescribe to as well. Why weren’t you interested in visiting Khiva before reading that book? What about the book made you want to visit? Maybe that’s a better question.
I’m having a similar moment with searching for books on SE Asia and just finished The Beach. I love reading about other people’s perspectives on not just travel, but life. Even though the book convinced you to visit Khiva, do you sometimes wish you hadn’t read it and gone in fresh?
The colours you capture are so beautiful. I’m also glad you got to go there, too! I love reading about the history of these places you go. You must’ve found tons of cool toys at the market.
Lots of cool stuff! I wanted to get some of the fur hats, but couldn’t justify spending the money. Next time, I’ll get a poofy hat 😉
Rafiqua Israel (@Rafiqua_Israel)
Interesting story about the slave zone…Your photos are awesome as always. What i find quite amazing is how dead everything looks aha. There is no plant life and the buildings (while pretty) all look the same. It looks really maze-like.
Thanks, Rafiqua! Yeah, this is in a desert area, so they don’t have much to work with. It definitely made me appreciate being from a very green place.
The pictures make it so enchanting!
That’s a beautiful picture of the Islom Hoja Minaret and the sunset. All the photos are beautiful but those two stand out! Your is post is a big proof that personal experiences and travel are the best teachers. You get to appreciate the history of the place because it’s right there in front of you to appreciate.
Agreed! I love learning about a place as I experience it.
Brandon Fralic (@bsfralic)
It’s funny how reading a book can inspire travel. Reading a book set in the location I’m exploring is one of my favorite travel activities 😀
Great pics – Khiva looks like it could be the setting of the next AC game!
Those pics really do justice to the architecture of the place. I’m intrigued though, it that a sweet you’re having beside the drink? If so, what’s it called?
Awesome photos!! I’m super jealous! Have a great rest of your trip`!
Lara // the passage
Beautiful photographs! I love seeing all of the blue hues against the sand coloured stone, and the architecture is just amazing…trying to imagine what the interiors must look like. Not sure if I will ever have the opportunity to visit this part of the world, but I have to say that your posts have made it very enticing. ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’ is now on my winter reading list…
Thanks, Lara! Let me know what you think of the book 🙂