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.