We’d heard of Samarkand and Bukhara, but the smaller Silk Road city of Khiva was not even on our radar when we first started planning for Uzbekistan.
When we looked it up, we thought the history of slave trade and barbarism for this Silk Road city seemed uncannily mismatched from the stunning blue mosaics and sandcastle style of such a living old city. We wondered what on earth it must actually be like. Geographically its a bit out of the way from the usual Silk Road stops and can’t be reached by fast train, so it doesn’t get the tourist numbers of Uzbekistans major stops [an appeal which suited us even more].
We arrived by car from Nukus, half asleep in the back when our driver quite literally drove INSIDE old city walls. It looked as if it surely must be part of a movie set… We sat bolt upright and couldn’t believe our eyes as we entered the most beautiful and dreamlike setting; the fabled city of Khiva.
THE BEST OF KHIVA
Khiva is a great walkers town, set up brilliantly to explore on foot. It’s easy to imagine how it would have one been with caravans of camels entering through the minareted city gates to tie up for the night in the many options of Caravanserai.
If you have time on your itinerary then definitely make sure you allocate at least two days to explore the ancient city. There is a great map in the Lonely Planet Guide that will point out the different mosques, minarets, palaces and gates. Or you can do as we did and literally just wander and make your way around because at each corner we turned we were in awe.
Without doubt, the best time to explore was in the golden hours before sunset. The city is already a golden hue of desert sand, but it seems to come to life in the late afternoon. You can wander to the sound of life on the ancient streets as it has been for centuries.
This is one of the most iconic sights of Khiva. Muhammad Amin-Kahn started building this Minaret in 1845 though it was never finished. He intended it to become the biggest minaret in all the Islamic world. One legend has it that he realised partway through if he built it so high people would be able to see right into his harem… [Gavin reckons that made total sense… You’ve got to think about where you build those towers!].
Tash-Kauli Palace was built between 1830 and 1838, and is stunning to wander with with its blue tiled courtyards and classic Silk Road style architecture. It was once the private palace of Allakuli-Khan.
And definitely visit the Islam-Khodja complex. Aside from the unfinished minaret, this is perhaps the most iconic sight of Khiva, standing at 45m in height above the city. We didn’t climb up, but you can pay an entrance fee to climb the old wooden steps of the minaret for a beautiful view over Khiva.
VISITING KHIVA WITH KIDS
We found locals to be friendly and curious to see us visiting Khiva with kids. The boys easily made connections with other kids. It was surreal to see them racing and chasing each other past structures that have such iconic history for the ancient Silk Road!
There are more official sights to see in the Old City, but for us our memories from Khiva were made from the people we met. Bonu and Soruj, the family from our hostel, took us one afternoon to their family farm in another village on the outskirts of Khiva…
Khiva seemed to me like the most unlikely place to ever have anywhere to fish (it is the middle of a desert after all). But it turned out that relatives of theirs had a small fish farm. They were trying to rejuvenate some of the old canals that had dried up when the Russians diverted the major rivers from the Aral Sea to irrigate the cotton fields. And, they also had cows and donkeys they used on the farm. It was an unforgettable kind of afternoon and gave us a glimpse into life in the villages out here.
GETTING TO KHIVA
Nearby Urgench is the main transport hub for Khiva. It takes about 30 minutes by taxi to get from Khiva to Urgench. Trains depart daily from Urgench headed for Tashkent (via Samarkhand). However, it does take 17 hours by train to get all the way to the capital. Alternatively from Samarkand it is possible to get the high speed train.
Having already taken the 20 hour train the week previously, we found reasonably priced flights with Uzbekistan Airways. (A no-brainer opting for the 55 minute flight from Urgench to Bukhara this time!).
WHERE WE STAYED
- Guest House Khiva Yoqut [a beautiful spot right in the heart of the Old City of Khiva. We highly recommend this family run guest-house if you are looking for somewhere local to stay. Bonu and her Dad, Erkin, plus their cousin Suroj went out of their way to make our stay extra special. We left feeling like family!]. The guesthouse is great value for money with a shared bathroom and breakfast included. Definitely look them up if you are in Khiva.
We stayed two nights and could have easily stayed longer in Khiva. If you have the time, then definitely do not miss out on this gem of the ancient Silk Road.
READ MORE ABOUT UZBEKISTAN
- Uzbekistan with kids: A complete travel guide (things to know, practicalities and challenges).
- Visiting human disaster: Our journey to the disappearing Aral Sea.
- Taking an overnight train from Tashkent to Nukus, Uzbekistan.
- Three days in Nukus, Karakalpakstan: What is there to do there?
- Vodka, Plov and Non: What we loved most about Uzbek Food.