TRAVEL GUIDE TO KHIVA, UZBEKISTAN
Ahhh Khiva! Imagine arriving at an oasis in the desert. The aroma of bread baking in clay ovens mixes with the scent of the earth as you enter a walled city made of mud and straw. A local woman is stamping flatbread with Zoroastrian symbols and placing them into a basket.
Another woman is sweeping the dusty streets, she slowly smiles as she looks up at you with a golden grin and the particles from the broom dance in the early morning light. A hunched old man wearing a skullcap walks by humming a tune, while the steam rises from the first pot of tea inside the doorway of a tiny home.
Khiva is the crown jewel of the Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan and the Silk Road. Take a step back in time as you walk through the cobblestone streets, stare up in amazement at the minarets bedazzled in turquoise and emerald tiles, or climb up the tight dark stairways to the top of them for unforgettable views from above.
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HISTORY OF KHIVA
Local legends claim Khiva to be 2500 years old, when one of the sons of Noah (yes, the guy from the bible with the ark), Shem, dug a well. The water that sprang from the well had a sweet taste. People that drank it would exclaim “Khey vakh!” which roughly translates to “what a pleasure”. Archaeological evidence dates the city back to the 6th century.
Khiva is a significant city in Islam, containing over 90 mosques and 60 madrassas, the first of which were built within proximity to the well. Being that it was sandwiched between the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts it became an important trading post and stopover for caravans crossing on their way to Iran or Bukhara along the Great Silk Road.
Over the years several famous invaders including Alexander the Great, the Arabs, Genghis Khan, and Amir Timur repeatedly destroyed the city.
It’s the former capital of Khwarezmia, a kingdom that was once a part of Greater Iran. Nearby Gurganj (now known as Urgench) is where Genghis Khan began his Mongol conquest of the Islamic world in the 13th century. Years later the capital was shifted to Khiva and ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan, operating as the Khanate of Khiva from 1511 until 1920.
Khiva was at one time the largest slave market in Central Asia. Marauding Turkmen tribesmen and nomadic Kazakhs from the steppes captured unlucky caravan traders and travelers and sold them as slaves. Most of the slaves were Kurds or Persians, but Russian sailors shipwrecked on the shores of the Caspian Sea often ended up in the slave markets as well.
Russians becoming slaves eventually inspired the Russian conquest into the region. The Khanate eventually fell to Soviet power in the 1920s and became part of the USSR until it became independent in 1991 when Uzbekistan was created.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The city is split into two parts: the Dichan Kala or outer town (where most of Khiva’s residents live) and the Itchan Kala, the historic inner town that resembles a life-sized sandcastle. The Itchan Kala is where most of Khiva’s main attractions can be found, and was the first place in Uzbekistan to gain status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
It can be very crowded and touristy. For now, it’s mostly filled with national tourists or people from the other Stan countries, but this is likely going to change in the not so distant future. Go soon!
The inner walls of Itchan Kala are best at sunrise before all the vendors set up and the masses flood into the area. After that, it starts to feel more like a Disneyland theme park. We highly recommend taking a quiet morning stroll on your own. If it’s a sunny day, the warm light that hits the sand-colored walls makes for the best photos!
Like everywhere else in Uzbekistan it’s best to arrive with cash in USD, preferably clean and crisp hundred dollar bills. At the time of writing this, there are only two ATMs in Khiva and they only accept Mastercard. They are located inside the Arkanchi Hotel and Hotel Asia. Inside Hotel Asia there is a little office behind the reception that claims to give cash from Visa cards, but when we tried this their system was down.
If you have a Visa card and run out of USD you’ll need to go to the bank. Xalq Bank (pronounced Halk Bank) is the closest and easiest option nearby. Heading straight out of the north gate you would continue until you get to a stoplight, then it’s on the right side of the intersection. Arrive early in the day if possible or expect to wait. It has typical banking hours and is closed on Sundays.
How long to stay in Khiva: 1-2 days
Being that it’s much smaller than Samarkand or Bukhara you can walk the whole inner town in a day, but we’d recommend staying at least one night. This gives you the chance to walk around the Itchan Kala on two separate days and explore everything at a more relaxed pace.
GETTING IN AND OUT
A quick flight, train ride, or a shared taxi can get you to Khiva. Understand that the airport and main train station for Khiva are located in Urgench, a larger city located about 30 minutes away by taxi.
If you are in a hurry, flying is a good choice. Daily flights are connecting Tashkent with Urgench. You can find one-way flights on Uzbekistan Airways for about 450,000 som ($53) and it will take about an hour and a half. On a side note, we learned that Uzbekistan Airways has now started direct flights to Urgench from both Paris and Rome!
There are a few options for train travel to and from Khiva: the slow Soviet Sharq train and the night train in Urgench. There is not Afrosiyob (bullet train) service to Khiva yet (summer 2019) but it’s in the works. There is also a brand new passenger train going to Khiva directly from Bukhara. Your tickets should be booked in advance either at the train station, online or through your accommodation. Keep in mind that your passport is required for the purchase of tickets.
You can book tickets online through the Uzbek Railways website, although some people complain that the site is confusing and problematic, or through a reliable Uzbek travel agency, but understand that you’ll pay a premium for the convenience.
To and from Bukhara: We took the new train from Bukhara directly to Khiva. Our tickets cost 91k som ($10.65) each and the journey took around six hours. We booked our tickets through our accommodation in Bukhara to save time, as the train station is far outside the city. If you’re going from Khiva to Bukhara, unfortunately, there is no direct train, so you’ll have to go through Urgench.
To and from Tashkent: Khiva is only linked to Tashkent via the night train from Urgench. It takes around 16 hours and there are four different options in price, comfort, and privacy. The SV/Lyux is a 2-berth wagon, kupe is a 4-berth wagon, platzkart is an open wagon, and obshye is just a seat.
We took the platzkart option which cost us 139k som each ($16.50) and it was comfortable enough. You are provided with a pillow, sheets, and a thick blanket. Aside from the toilets, it was clean.
We recommend that you bring your own food, there is hot water for tea and instant noodles. But we didn’t end up eating much of our food because of the hospitality we received from Uzbek people. They were insistent on feeding us. It was a memorable experience we won’t forget!
For more in-depth train info see this Advantour page.
Shared taxis to or from Bukhara are best booked through your accommodation. The advantage of the shared taxi is that you can be picked up and dropped off directly from/at your hotel. You can also arrange to stop at some of the other archaeological sites and Khorezm fortresses such as Toprak-Kala along the way. The disadvantage is that there is much less space and it will cost a bit more than the train. The shared taxi between Bukhara and Khiva will take 6-7 hours and cost around 100,000 som ($12).
As for getting around Khiva, it’s a very walkable city. Most of the main sites are within the wall of the Itchan Kala. If you need to catch a taxi, the best place to do that is by any of the gates.
THINGS TO DO & SEE IN KHIVA
Wander the Itchan Kala
Itchan Kala was the site of the khan’s palaces and where the mullahs, clergy and wealthy merchants used to live. Most of the sites in Khiva are located inside of this area. It’s more touristy than you’d expect but still really beautiful. Wandering through this ancient mud-walled town was one of the highlights of our visit to Uzbekistan!
Buying tickets to the Itchan Kala and how it all works
From 9am to sunset you can buy tickets at the west gate. Technically you don’t need a ticket to enter the north, south, or east gate, but you’ll still need a ticket if you want access to the museums, minarets, and madrassas. You used to be able to buy tickets to each of the attractions separately, but as of 2019, this is no longer the case. There are now three kinds of tickets available for purchase and all are valid for two consecutive days:
- VIP for 150k som ($18): includes access to all museums + the watchtower, minarets, and the city walls
- Standard for 100k som ($12): includes access to all museums, but not the other 3 sites
- Economy for 50k som ($6): includes entrance into the ancient city, but not to museums or 3 sites
The VIP ticket is the best deal if you want to go up in the minarets or see a sunset from the top of the watchtower. Note that the Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum is not in the original ticket price, but is pretty stunning and worth entering. At the time we visited, the entrance fee was 10k som ($1.20).
Walk along the city walls
Climb the walls for a majestic view over the inner city, especially at sunrise or sunset. Many portions of the wall have been destroyed, but there are still some sections that remain. You can easily access the walls near the north gate.
Translating to ‘Stone Palace’, the khans of Khiva built this complex as a second royal residence on the east side of town. From the outside, it appears to be a fortress, but inside, its courtyards are ornately decorated.
The four queens and the royal concubines were once housed here inside the harem. You can also have a look into the khan’s former bedroom. Often skipped over because it’s kind of hidden, make a point of finding this one. We found it to be more interesting than the Kuhna Ark.
Climb the watchtower at sunset
Located inside the Kuhna Ark, it’s a popular place to watch the sun go down. It’s just incredible to watch the orange glow swallow the city. It’s also one of the best places to shoot photos from because of its lofty vantage point. Just don’t expect to be alone up there.
This short and stumpy, powder blue-tiled minaret was envisioned by Mohammed Amin Khan and started in 1851. The story goes that he wanted to build a minaret high enough that he could see all the way to Bukhara. Unfortunately, he dropped dead unexpectedly in 1855, so it was never finished. It now stands as the largest incomplete minaret in the world.
Another story states that Mohammed Khan threatened to kill the architect of his minaret because he didn’t want another to be built like it. As a result, the architect fled for his life, leaving the partly built minaret. Whichever story is true, it’s a special sight to behold.
Reach the Top of Islam Khodja Minaret
Standing at 57m (187 ft) this is the highest minaret in Uzbekistan. Go up to the top for a sweeping panoramic view over Khiva. Prepare yourself for a little claustrophobia on the way up!
Admire the woodwork at Juma Mosque
This mosque is no longer in use, but it’s worthwhile to go in and weave your way through its 218 wooden pillars. The current building is mostly a restoration from the 18th century, but a few of the pillars date from the original 10th-century construction, can you find them? Afterward, climb up the leaning minaret for another view over the old town.
Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum
The mausoleum of Khiva’s patron saint, both a famous poet and wrestling champ, is a highlight of the Itchan Kala. Step inside to admire the glazed blue tile work that adorns these walls and is so emblematic of any trip to Khiva. During our visit, a man was reciting Muslim prayers that were echoing throughout the dome in the most hauntingly beautiful way. Bring your tripod or a wide aperture lens if you’re keen on photographing this magnificent building.
Khiva Silk Carpet Workshop
A former British expat started this UNESCO fair trade shop. Local women now run the workshop, famous for making handwoven pillowcases, suzanis, scarves, and silk carpets. It’s located in a converted madrassa with an open-air courtyard. Upon walking inside you’re hit with an array of colorful designs hanging from the benches and walls. Detailed tile work, carvings from wood doors, and ancient miniature art are the inspirations for the patterns.
The silks are all dyed naturally using plants, fruit skins, minerals, and insects. It can take three women up to three months to complete one carpet because it’s all handmade, tied knot by knot. We would have loved to buy every pillowcase and silk rug in the courtyard, if only we had a house to put them in… and thousands of more dollars to spend.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva is a fantastic (out of print) book written by the same British expat who started the Khiva Silk Carpet Workshop. It’s an addictive read that goes through his personal experiences in the country, explains many aspects of life in Central Asia, and provides a glimpse into Uzbek culture. It’s the perfect read for anyone who plans on going to Uzbekistan and more specifically to Khiva.
WHERE TO STAY IN KHIVA
Budget: Hostel Laliopa
The owners of this place are so wonderful and helpful. Narid speaks excellent English and has a way of making you feel right at home. We also met some other friendly travelers here to share a day trip to the Aral Sea. The only drawback of staying here is that it’s located outside the inner walls of the old town.
Budget inside Itchan Kala: Teahouse Farrukh & Hostel
Owned by another lovely local family, this pleasant little place is located right inside the walls of the Itchan Kala. Staying here made it easier for us to get up early, explore the area, and capture the photos we wanted. Try their Shivit Oshi a green spaghetti-like dish with fresh dill that’s famous in Khiva. The hostel has a courtyard containing a yurt that you can eat in when it’s cold outside or on warmer days you can enjoy eating your lunch on a traditional Uzbek tapchan.
Midrange: Meros B&B
This cozy B&B has a chill vibe and comes with a wonderful terrace on the rooftop with views over the old city. It’s a perfect spot to sip a pot of tea in the morning or later in the evening. They include breakfast and also have vegetarian options.
High end: Orient Star
Excellent location right next to the Kalta-minor Minaret, and within walking distance to all of the historical sites. It’s a converted madrassa and each room is a former student dorm. We didn’t stay here ourselves, but a friend of ours said it was the best place she stayed in Uzbekistan. Keep in mind that they don’t accept credit cards.
WHERE TO EAT IN KHIVA
Khorezm Art Cafe
The service is fast and friendly. We enjoyed their vegetarian options. Try the pumpkin manti or vegetarian plov! We think the prices are reasonable overall. They also tend to have singers or live music in the evening. Go early before the tour groups show up.
A large dining room inside of a converted madrassa. We had the mixed dumpling platter and pumpkin soup. Their shivit oshi is not bad either.
This place is a bit touristy and therefore the prices are higher, but you really can’t beat the view from the terrace. They serve delicious coffee, shashlik, and tuhum barak. Make sure to get there early, this place fills up fast.
For a less touristy experience and cheaper prices don’t hesitate to wander outside of the city walls to find a local restaurant.
Don’t miss out on Khiva if you’re heading to Uzbekistan! It’s a long way to get there and because of that some people skip it altogether, but in our eyes, you should definitely make the journey. Walking through the Itchan Kala of Khiva feels like you’ve stumbled upon an old film set.
The concentration of Islamic architecture and the contrasting color palette of sand, turquoise, and indigo is something you’re unlikely to experience anywhere else. But don’t take our word for it, go and see it for yourself. We hope this travel guide to Khiva, Uzbekistan will inspire you to visit this one of a kind city!
The Sandy Feet: Short Guide to Khiva
Have you ever heard of Khiva? Are you considering a visit to Uzbekistan?