Last month a dream came true for me. For years I have been thinking of visiting this country, and finally the time was near. I am talking about Uzbekistan! Not a country that is on everyone’s list (which is usually the case with the destinations I pick). So I got some mixed reactions when I told about my exciting travel plans. Some people said ‘That is so awesome!’, but others said ‘Uh.. where the hell is that?’ and ‘Is it safe to go there?’. First of all, based on my trip in June 2016 I can say it is safe. I never felt unsafe or threatened and the people were so friendly and helpful. Secondly, Uzbekistan is not really that far. I mean, if you can find Iran and Kazakhstan on the map then you are almost there. And finally, Uzbekistan is such a beautiful country! You can find here a whole series of old Silk Road cities that are in a remarkably good condition. Today I will tell you more about the sand-colored museum city Khiva.
An oasis city with a dark side
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 a 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) this means the red and black desert. Sounds exciting, but it is not. The sand is just plain yellow.
Khiva is often seen as the open air museum of Uzbekistan, and when I arrived in the city I immediately understood this name. Because of thorough renovations by the Soviets the old walled city is still in really good shape. A curling city wall surrounds dozens of Koran schools (madrasas), mosques and minarets. Most of them are not actively used anymore and are now small museums. When I walked through the city I often gazed up to the sky to look at all the amazing blue domes. There are so many details to see in this city!
But Khiva also has a dark page in history. This city used to be an important slave centre in Central Asia and the Khan (king of Khiva) treated 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.
Fifty small highlights
Khiva is not a city with one or two major highlights, it has more than fifty small highlights. The city counts 51 Unesco monuments and 250 old houses that are all found in the walled inner city called Itchan Kala. This is the jackpot you need to visit in Khiva. It goes too far to tell about all of the monuments, but I am going to highlight a couple of my favorites.
- Kalta Minor, the building that immediately caught my eye when I entered through the west gate (Oto Darvaza). The outsight of this minarets is tiled with beautiful blue ceramic. You might notice that something is off with this building. The minaret is rather small and a bit thick. This was not the plan of the Khan when he built this minaret. According to legend this should have been the highest minaret in the city so that the king could watch over Khiva and neighboring Bukhara. An ambitious plan, because Bukhara is 387 kilometer away(!). The construction was never finished. The Khan died abruptly and the plans faded away, which was actually a good thing, because the building would have been too heavy for the ground.
- Islam Khoja Minor, the highest minaret of all Uzbekistan. A small winding staircase takes you to the top of the building from where you have a great view over the city. I would know, because I climbed those stairs!
- Kuhna Ark, the former palace of the mighty Khan, his family and servants. Impressive are the kurinishkhana which are the reception rooms where the Khan met his guests. The most beautiful parts of these rooms are the aivans, a veranda that gave shade for the sun. Inside the aivan it is nice and cool and you feel a cool breeze (which is a great considering summer in Uzbekistan is hot!). The turquoise tiles on the wall of the aivan and the wooden pillars are so beautiful and full of details. I could not stop looking at it!
- Djuma Mosque, an unusual mosque within the turquoise and sand colors of Khiva. Inside the mosques there are 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.
Practical tips for Khiva
The entrance to the Itchan Kala is free, as long as you do not enter through the west gate. Use the other entrances and you can wander in for free. To visit the sights you have to buy a ticket at the west gate for 30.000 som (a little more than 9 euros). If you want to take pictures or film, you have to buy an extra ticket for 7.000 som (little more than 2 euros). Next time I would not buy this ticket, because everyone was taking picture and nobody was checking the tickets. For visiting the Islam Khodja minor and the Djuma Mosque you have to pay extra. You can get to Khiva from Urgench (45 minutes by car). You can fly to Urgench from Tashkent in one and a half hour.
Would you consider visiting Khiva or Uzbekistan in general?