Khiva’s colourful minarets tower over the city’s thick crenelated walls, surrounded by flat-roofed mud-brick houses and elegant madrassas tiled in turquoise. It’s a fairy tale sight, aided in our imagination by romantic tales of khans and princesses, thirsty camel caravans marching through the gates, and brutal slave raiders hiding out in this desert outpost.
But, Khiva gets mixed reviews and we can see why. The 2 minarets are amazing masterpieces. The panorama view by sunset from a rooftop, sipping on a sundowner in the evening glow while listening to the mullah’s cry: it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. On the flip side: it is easy to get disappointed after those initial wow-moments by Khiva’s small size, the uninteresting museums, the other tourists milling around and the many street hawkers vending souvenirs.
How to visit
You no longer have to spend weeks traversing the forbidding desert to get to Khiva. However, even with today’s efficient transport links, Khiva is still a long way from Samarkand and Bukhara, the 2 main tourist draws of Uzbekistan. The historic heart of Khiva is also really small, and like other famous sights in Uzbekistan, overly sanitized and touristified.
That does not mean that everyone should skip Khiva. It is worth a visit for its outstanding architectural heritage. But if you are not already in the neighbourhood because you are overlanding, unless you are a true architecture enthusiast, you should make sure you pad out your visit with some of the surrounding destinations to make it worth your while.
You could for instance arrive late afternoon, visit the old town, after a lazy breakfast visit the desert fortresses of Khorezm before heading back to see Khiva once more at sunset. Then leave the next day.
If you would like to visit the Savitsky museum in Nukus as well, and you are coming from Tashkent, we recommend you take an overnight train or flight to ideally arrive in Nukus in the morning, visit the museum, then drive 3 hours east to watch the sun set over Khiva where you have a better choice of accommodation. Moynaq and the vanished Aral Sea are best approached from Nukus, with an overnight stay near the former sea.
Think about getting a guided tour around Khiva. Guides are not expensive, speak many languages, and can really make the history come alive. Do also make sure you venture out of the central Ichan Kala and explore the more lively Dishon Kala.
Khiva is a desert town. Separated by a short spring and autumn, there are 2 main seasons: summer (April – October), also known as “I didn’t know this part of my body could produce sweat”, and winter (November – February), or “I knew deserts could get cold but this is unexpected.”
Especially during the main summer season, Khiva’s inner city is best enjoyed at dawn, at sunset or bathing in starlight.
Khiva had been a small trading outpost on the Silk Road since time immemorial. As Uzbeks started pouring into the region from the 15th century onwards, Khiva took over the mantle from nearby Konye-Urgench as capital of the Khorezm region, and vied for power with Bukhara to control trade routes.
As Russia’s footprint in the region grew in the 19th century, it grew increasingly impatient with the impudent Khivans, who raided their caravans and sold thousands of their compatriots into slavery. After several disastrous expeditions the Russian army finally managed to cross the desert and arrive at the gates of Khiva in 1873. Khiva became a distant part of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, and finally, the new country of Uzbekistan in 1991.
Sights and things to do
In 1967 Khiva’s inner city or Ichan Kala was given the title of “museum city”, which ensured the preservation of one of the most homogeneous collections of architecture in the Islamic world.
Given over completely to tourism, Khiva has certainly lost some of its charm. Nonetheless, watching the sun set over the Kalta Minor from a rooftop terrace at the end of a torrid day will never lose its magic.
The Oriental Architecture website has excellent descriptions of Khiva’s most important buildings, so rather than regurgitate their efforts, we are happy to redirect you there.
With Khiva so tiny, it’s all about the angles, the nuances, the details: in the columns of the Juma Mosque for instance, you can find a bird standing on the shoulder of an hourglass, a griffin, serpents, angels, and a peacock signifying Paradise, all signs of Khiva’s Zoroastrian past.
While the Ichan Kala is free to enter, there is an entrance fee for most of the historic monuments. A museum ticket is sold at the west gate where most tourists enter. It costs around 50 000 sum and gives you access to 16 buildings. You need to pay a small extra sum to visit the Pahlavan museum and the Khodja Islam minaret.
None of the museums exhibits are of much interest. The exteriors are more interesting than what’s inside.
For all its monumental splendour, the Ichan Kala can leave one strangely cold. To see daily life, the visitor must take the rare step out of the Ichan Kala into the Dishan Kala, from the royal city to the merchant suburbs.
Here, amongst the cobweb of aryks (canals) and crumbling outer city walls is where the medieval meets the Soviet. Although it rarely figures in tourist itineraries, its neglected sights still have something to offer. The outer walls date from 1842, built in response to relentless Turkmen raids.
The bazaar lies just outside the eastern Palvan Gates. It’s the usual blend of colourful characters amongst heaps of melons. With all mosques in the Ichan Kala closed, the nine-domed Sayid Niaz Shelikerbai Mosque (1842) today acts as a surrogate Juma Mosque.
Also surrounding the bazaar, the Abd al-Bobo Mausoleum holds the grave of the 12th-century Khorezmshah Atsiza of Gurganj and marks the site of Khiva’s old slave market. Just north from here, the simple Tort Shalbaz mosque (OSM) gives a flavour of community life as it survives today. The attached khanagha here is where Arminius Vambery stayed in 1863 while visiting the city disguised as a wandering dervish.
On the other side of the Ichan Kala lies the Nurullabai Palace (Gmaps), where the brash blend of eastern and western styles of decoration reminds of the Bukharan Emir’s Summer Palace. Entrance is 50 000 sum, which some might find a lot in comparison to the rest of Khiva. Nearby, Sayid Magrumjan was built in 1884. This collection of mausoleums acts as a storeroom for rusty bed frames as well as a family grave for several generations of khans.
Crafts and souvenir shopping
Even if you really don’t want to, Khiva’s omnipresent hawkers will press-gang you into having a look at their wares. Some of it is high quality, and prices can go very low. Make sure you bargain.
Khiva is home to the Silk Carpet Workshop, the story of which is memorably told in Christopher Alexander’s book A Carpet Ride to Khiva. There is no entrance fee if you want to observe the master weavers progress towards their newest chef d’œuvre, taking their inspiration for the patterns from the tilework and enormous carved doors that is their heritage.
The carpets are stunning but well beyond most people’s budget. Luckily there are also suzanis and cushion covers for sale at more affordable prices. The workshop is by the Pahlavon Mahmud mausoleum (Gmaps) and is open Monday to Saturday.
Khiva is known for its woodcraft. Not sure how that happened, since it is a desert oasis, but a quick look at the magnificent pillars of the Juma mosque will clear any doubt of the city’s long lineage of master sculptors. Khasanbai’s workshop behind the Qozi Kalon (Kazi Kalyan) madrassa (Gmaps) is where you can see sculptors at work.
Elliq Qala desert fortresses
The many desert fortresses in the area testify that Khorezm was once a powerful kingdom, controlling trade routes and producing food surplus, in constant need to defend itself from raiding nomads and rival kings.
Visiting some of these fortresses is a good way to get out into the desert and come face to face with this withered history. All info in the Elliq Qala fortresses guide.
Badai-Tugai nature reserve
A quick look at the Aral Sea makes it clear that nature is not valued in Uzbekistan. At all. So it should come as no surprise that the Badai-Tugai reserve is a bit of a letdown. Nonetheless, you can see some animals here, notably the Bactrian deer which are easy to spot.
The reserve is a riparian forest on the right bank of the Amu Darya about 90 km north from Khiva, off the road to Nukus (OSM). Access and price will be based on your negotiation skills. Bring mosquito repellent. Luke Junglewalker has a good report.
More old buildings
Unless you are a real architecture nut, you have probably seen enough by now. Still, it’s worth seeking out these sites, if only to serve as an excuse to spend time in the cotton fields of rural Khorezm.
Away from the tourist hubbub, you can have real meetings with people along the way, neither side burdened with expectations of any capitalist exchange. And the peace and silence surrounding these still-revered desert sanctuaries might actually bring you closer to an understanding of the different world these Sufi saints inhabited.
The Sheikh Mukhtar Vali mausoleum (OSM) is an extraordinarily complex building near Ostana. Mukhtar Vali was a holy man from Khorasan. In 1287 a tomb was built and the final touches were added in 1807 by Mohammed Rakhim Khan I. Ask around for someone to open the door in case it is locked.
The desert holds other, more unassuming pilgrimage sites marked with votive ribbons, piles of stones and withered mausoleums to Sufi saints – they are yours to find.
Combine a visit to the Mukhtar Vali mausoleum with these sites east of Khiva.
A few kilometres east from the city walls lies the Atajan Tura Ensemble, named after the Khivan prince royal who received the Russian forces while his brother, the khan, hid in the surrounding desert. The mosque, baths and well stand in excellent condition and provide a creative home for yet more woodcarvers.
Chadra Hauli (OSM / Gmaps) is an unusual stepped tower that served as the 19th-century out-of-town summer residence of a local nobleman or rich merchant, desperate to escape the baking streets of the Ichan Kala. Above a ground floor stables and storehouse rise two diminishing living quarters which form a bala khana (from where we get the English balcony), whose high and easily defended iwans point north to catch the cool prevailing breezes. The tower echoes the kushka form of the much older Ak Sheikh Bobo Bastion in the Ark in a remarkable continuity of style and, as the only one of its kind to survive, it gives a rare peek into non-nomadic country life.
A local caretaker can unlock the tower. In Sayat the renovated Bibi Hadj Bibi Mazaar and Mosque is the focus of female prayers and Friday communal plov.
Food, transport and where to stay
Shivit oshi, a uniquely Khivan dish, consists of noodles that have been coloured green with dill and topped with a savoury stew of beef, potatoes and carrots. It’s served with yogurt on the side to cut the richness. It’s a pleasant change from the relentless plov, lagman and somsa.