Uzbekistan offers a whole series of remarkable Silk Road cities. One of those historical gems is the city of Khiva. Travelers often question whether Khiva is worth the detour. If you’re coming from the capital Tashkent, then Khiva is indeed quite a long journey. But if you ask me, this city is definitely worth the journey. I am very fortunate that I’ve visited Khiva twice: in 2016 and 2019. In this blog post, I will tell you everything you need to know about this sand-colored jewel. I am sharing a list of great things to do in Khiva, as well as some practical money tips and how to get there.
A short history of Khiva
Khiva is a city in the western part of Uzbekistan and it used to be an old caravan city on the Silk Road. The traders used Khiva as the last stop before they had to cross the desert to get to Persia (nowadays Iran). The city is sandwiched between the Karakum desert and the Kyzylkum desert. Translated out of the Turkic languages (Uzbek belongs to the Turkic languages), these names mean the red and black desert. Sounds quite exciting, but the sand is nothing more than plain yellow.
- Big pictures are from 2019, collages are from 2016.
The jewel of Uzbekistan…
Khiva is often called the ‘open-air museum city of Uzbekistan’, and when I arrived there I completely understood why. Because of thorough renovations by the Soviets, the old walled city is still in really good shape. A curling city wall surrounds dozens of Islamic schools (madrasas), mosques, and minarets. Most of them are not actively used anymore and are now small museums. During my second trip to Uzbekistan, I was still very much impressed by the beauty of Khiva. Just like the first time, I often gazed up to the sky to look at all the amazing blue domes.
… but also the former slave Central Asian slave capital
Khiva also has a dark page in history. This city used to be an important slave center in Central Asia and the Khan (king of Khiva) was known for treating the slaves very poorly. According to the stories, the Khan did not chain the slaves, but instead nailed their ears to the walls. This way the Khan made sure the slaves could not escape.
Khiva things to do
Simply put, Khiva is split into two parts. You have the tourist domain Itchan Kala (inner walled city) and the Dichan Kala (the city outside the walls), the place where most locals live and work. Itchan Kala is the jackpot for things to do and places to visit in Khiva. The old town has more than 50 monumental structures and 250 historical houses. It goes too far to share every little detail about all monuments, but I am going to highlight a couple of my favorites.
This is the first remarkable structure you see when entering through Khiva’s West Gate (Oto Darvaza). The outside of this minaret is paved with beautiful blue ceramic tiles. According to legend, this should have been the highest minaret in the city, giving the king the opportunity to watch over Khiva and neighboring Bukhara. An ambitious plan, if you know that Bukhara is 387 kilometers away(!). However, the construction was never finished. The Khan died abruptly in 1855 and the plans were aborted. This is the reason why the minaret looks rather small and fat. Good to know: you can only admire it from the outside. It is not possible to enter.
Islam Khoja Minor
With its 45 meters height, this is the largest minaret of all Uzbekistan! A small winding staircase takes you to the top of the building from where you have a bird-eye view over the city.
This is the former palace of the mighty Khan and his family. The most impressive part of the palace is the kurinishkhanas, which were the reception rooms where the Khan met his guests. Each room had a beautiful aivan, a veranda that gave shade for the sun. Inside the aivan, it is nice and cool. The turquoise tiles on the walls of the aivan and the wooden pillars are breathtakingly beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at it! Do not forget to climb the watchtower of the Kuhna Ark for another magical view over the city.
Literal translation: ‘Stone Palace’. This was the 19th-century summer palace of the Khan, his wives, and his family. The place is divided into three parts: the haram, the entertainment hall, and the court of justice. Again, the blue-tiled interior is stunning! This palace is often overlooked by tourists as it is a bit hidden.
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
After two visits to Khiva, I somehow managed to still skip out on a few sights, like the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. Maybe the third time is the charm? I certainly hope so, because judging from the photos, the interior of this mausoleum is completely tiled with glass blue mosaic. Looks stunning!
A pretty unusual mosque in a city of turquoise and sand colors. The interior of the Djuma Mosque consists of 212 wooden columns, decorated with floral and leave patrons. Some of these columns are more than 800 years old and are the oldest wooden columns in all of Central Asia. The Djuma Mosque is also a nice place to get out of the sun and cool off.
What you need to know before you go to Khiva
The entrance fee system
Tourists can buy three types of entrance tickets at the West Gate of the Itchan Kala. All tickets are valid for two days:
- Economy ticket = 50.000 sum (almost 5 USD). This ticket will only give you access to the walled city.
- Standard ticket = 100.000 sum (close to 9 USD). This ticket will give you access to the walled city and covers the museums.
- VIP ticket = 150.000 sum (almost 15 USD). This ticket will give you access to all museums, plus you can climb the watchtower, minaret, and the city walls. You need to pay extra though for the Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum (6.000 sum).
To my knowledge, it is also possible to buy separate tickets inside the Itchan Kala for each sight. This would be around 10.000 to 30.000 sum per sight.
Which ticket should you buy?
First of all, I strongly discourage you from purchasing the economy ticket. If you enter the walled city through the East, South, or North Gate, entry is free. Just don’t enter through the West Gate. Secondly, if you have a number of specific sights in mind, it could be interesting to check the prices for separate tickets at the sights itself. If you want to see it all, I think the VIP ticket offers the best deal.
Price changes: 2019 vs. 2016
Back in 2016, I paid 30.000 sum for an entrance ticket to the Itchan Kala and 7.000 sum for a photography ticket. I also had to pay extra for the Islam Khoja Minor and the Djuma Mosque, but that was it. Prices change and I get that. When you convert it all back to USD or EUR, it’s still not a lot of money. However, I noticed that Uzbekistan is slowly seeing its tourist potential as a Silk Road destination and is slowly increasing the prices.
Money: there are ATMs (but don’t expect them all to work)
In 2016, I had to bring all my money with me to Uzbekistan and change the money on the black market to Uzbek sum. Luckily in 2019, things had changed for the better. It is now possible to go to an ATM and simply withdraw Uzbek sum with a Visa or Mastercard. But there is a catch. For example, during my last visit there were only two ATMs available in Khiva:
- In hotel Arkanchi – didn’t work when I was there (2019)
- In hotel Asia – only Mastercard
My advice: make sure you already have a decent amount of Uzbek sum before you go to Khiva. This way you don’t have to worry about missing out with these ATMs.
How to get to Khiva?
From Nukus or Urgench: in 2019 I traveled from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan and Nukus was my first stop. From Nukus, it is possible to take a shared taxi to Urgench (55.000 sum), and from Urgench you can take a shared taxi to Khiva (15.000 sum). Shared taxis are the public buses of Uzbekistan, they connect all major cities. You just show up (use Maps.me to find the shared taxi locations), pay per seat and the driver will wait until all seats are filled. You can also catch the train from Urgench to Khiva. This train departs once a day (around 10.30 AM) and takes 30 minutes.
From Bukhara: in 2018 Uzbekistan rolled out a modern train network, connecting Khiva all the way to Tashkent. For a ticket Bukhara – Khiva you pay around 120.000 sum for second class and around 87.000 sum for third class. The journey takes around 6 to 7 hours. A shared taxi is also an option. It can be faster (5 hours) and cheaper (60-80K), but it is also a lot less comfortable. You will be sitting shoulder to shoulder with other passengers, often in a hot sweaty car.
And there you have it, a list of great things to do in Khiva. Would you consider visiting Khiva or Uzbekistan in general?
This blogpost was written in 2016 and updated in 2020.