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The Mysteries of Khiva, Uzbekistan

When the lights go off at night and the streets are swept clear of day-trippers, what’s left are 2500 years of walls and dust.

Inching along paving stones I might once have shared with camel caravans on the Silk Road, I round a corner lit only by stars, nearly expecting a brigand to swipe me with his saber and abscond with my gold-filled purse.

I pass the ghostly shadows of long-sealed mausoleums, stone structures that house dead holy men whose spirits seem to inhabit the subdued corners of this little town.

The pattern of the past

In daylight, Khiva is anything but dark. It has all the energy of a timeless crossroads, one that has worn many disguises: trader, slaver, warrior and scholar, in turn tolerant and conservative. It has welcomed and rebuffed strangers and now, in its latest incarnation, Khiva is a magnet for tourists zipping through an Uzbekistan slowly emerging from years of one-man rule.

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Khiva’s West gate, Ata Darvoza, at sunset – rebuilt in 1975 (the original was destroyed nearly a century ago)

According to legend, a son of Noah founded Khiva but archaeologists place the city’s birth four or five centuries before the Christian era – a bit late for Noah.

Ibn Battuta, the medieval Arab geographer, is said to have greatly admired Khiva but his visit remains mysterious, especially to me: I haven’t been able to find any reference to Khiva in his travels. Perhaps it wasn’t a major center in the geographer’s lifetime, although he did visit the province of Khorezm in which Khiva sits, of that there is little doubt.

The original city of Khiva was razed, rebuilt and sacked by Genghis Khan. It survived to become a major cultural and eventually Islamic center. More recently, it tussled with Czarist Russia, having abducted a number of Russian citizens as slaves. Finally, the 20th century turned Khiva (and Khorezm) into a Soviet socialist republic, which was eventually appended to Uzbekistan.

After independence in 1991, Uzbekistan didn’t throw open the floodgates but visiting is relatively easy, visas are becoming simpler to obtain and nothing stands in the way of a solo traveler with a desire to see the country on her own.

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The so-called ‘unfinished minaret’ was to be 100 meters high but stands at 30 meters – the ruler who started it died before it was finished

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Souvenir stalls in Khiva obscure some of the sights

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Exquisite detail of the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum – I could admire these mosaics for hours

Khiva is divided into an inner and outer city. The area within the inner walls, the Inchon Qala, is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, a living, breathing (car-free) museum. By day it converts into rows of soft-sell souvenir stalls, packed up at dusk and bundled home along with their owners, most of whom live outside the city. The happiest are those whose houses happen to line the main streets: they can rush into the cool indoors between sales and have mere steps to walk to work – not to mention that they own prime commercial real estate.

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When the days are hot, vendors shift to the shade for respite

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A panorama of Khiva, from the walls of the Kunya Ark fortified palace, one of the better views of the city

No longer a holy city, Khiva retains some of its religious heritage. The Juma Mosque, the city’s largest, has 213 elm pillars, some recent, some dating back nearly a thousand years. The newest are more than 200 years old, carved when the present mosque was built over the foundations of a far older one. To rebuild, the Imam convinced his faithful that this was the House of God and that each pillar would guarantee its owner a place in that house. And so each pillar was designed by a separate donor, and each is different.

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The Juma, or Friday Mosque – each pillar is carved differently

Beyond the Inchon Qala lies the Dichan Qala, or outer town – which I did not visit, so taken was I with the inner town’s winding streets. I’m told there are plenty of sights but you know how it is – once you’ve been captivated by a place, you can’t wrench yourself away.

A counterpoint to religion

In counterpoint to its religious heritage, Khiva has remnants of a more salacious recent history. Rumour has it that a certain shop or two served as gateways to greater pleasures (or so my guide tells me) for older women seeking younger men, and for men seeking their soulmates for a night. That trade was shut down quickly a few years ago, having given Khiva a reputation it was anxious to shed.

Khiva’s miracle is its survival through centuries of turmoil. Under the Soviet regime, much of the city became derelict, its mosques used for storage and madrassas, or koranic schools, as offices. Timbers rotted and fell, walls were defaced and cleaned of their art, and the mystic sense that has started to fill the streets again was rubber-stamped out of existence.

To me, the essence of Khiva emerges once the hot sun has disappeared. When that happens, the stars sparkle in a sapphire sky, bathing in the absence of jarring streetlights. In the air, music floats.

A few holy men have just returned from the Hajj pilgrimage and a feast is in the offing, somewhere behind the thick town ramparts. Soon the sounds of strings will be joined by the smell of roasted lamb on a spit, charring the air.

In an unlit alley, I walk across paving laid down more than 1000 years ago. The air has settled and I feel a slight chill, as though someone could round that corner at any moment, dagger in hand. I quicken my step and grasp my imaginary gold pieces tightly – imaginary because the greatest danger you’re likely to face in Khiva is a twisted heel on an uneven cobblestone.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • Architecture of Khiva, UzbekistanThere is no direct transport to Khiva so don’t try. The closest transport hub is Urgench, about 45 minutes away, and that’s where you’ll find the airport and train station.
  • Some tours stop in Bukhara and don’t go any further. Don’t do it! If you’re going to take a tour in Uzbekistan, take one that includes Khiva – which turned out to be my favourite town – like the itineraries on this 11-day tour or this shorter 7-day one.
  • You can buy a single-entry ticket at the Tourist Office at the West Gate. It covers entry to most of Khiva’s museums, with a few exceptions.
  • Don’t photograph the camel without paying first. At least that’s what the sign next to the camel says. Nicknamed Catherine Zeta-Jones for some obscure reason, the camel is there to pose. That said, the gentleman who minds the camel is often nowhere to be found…
  • Because of the strange black market situation – two competing rates, quasi legal – you may be asked to pay for your room in dollars. It’s not legal, but there you go. The owners will use your dollars to buy soms at a rate twice as good as the official rate. It would be nice if the government were to sort the situation once and for all.
  • In Khiva I stayed at the Orzu Guest House, with great breakfasts and oh so convenient – a few meters from the center of town.
  • Like much of this region, health care is rudimentary so make sure you get insured (I purchased a World Nomads policy before leaving).

You might also like:
Uzbekistan Tourism: Secrets of the Silk Road

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Tom January 7, 2017, 2:47 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this, I visited Khiva myself in 2014 and this brought back lots of memories. When we were there a film was being shot in the Ichon Qala and there were people riding round in period costume on horseback, which made it feel even more like stepping back in time!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 7, 2017, 3:14 pm

      That must have been fun – and there’s a special feeling about being somewhere when a film is in progress…

  • Irene Yurko January 18, 2017, 5:51 pm

    Leyla, I so enjoy your postings. I traveled to Khiva in 1986, long before there was any real tourist trade, and it remains one of my best travel experiences. You have resurrected that memory and I thank you for that.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 18, 2017, 6:32 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that! When I visited there were some tourists, but not many and I can only imagine what the city must have been like before all the ‘improvements’ took place…

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