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October 2, 2014 / oneworld82

From the Land of One Thousand and One Nights: Khiva

I am sort of ashamed to admit it, but prior to researching places to visit on my Lonely Planet I had never heard of Khiva. Or, at least, I had no memory of it. I knew of course Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. But Khiva was a novelty. For days I debated whether it was worth the hassle of going all the way to Urgench, near the “border” with the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, in the middle of the desert and near the Turkmen border. What convinced me, in the end, were the rave reviews that everyone was giving to it. And so I decided to visit the walled oasis town of Khiva. I am surely happy I did.

From Wikitravel: According to legend, Khiva was founded about 2 500 years ago when a son of Noah, Shem, discovered a well in the middle of the desert exclaimed “Khi-wa!” (which locals will take delight in roughly translating as “sweet water”). For the next 1 000 years or so, the area was inhabited by settlements that used the nearby Amu-Darya river to irrigate agriculture. According to the archaeologists Khiva was founded in the 5th or 6th century. As Islam spread to the area, the first major structures were built near Shem’s well, and it became known as a small trading post on the Silk Road. First written sources date from the 10th century. The Arab traveller Al Istachri mentions Khiva in his enumeration of the most important settlements in Chorezm. The Arab geographer Ibn Battuta visited Khiva in the 14th century. He praised the emir who was untiringly taking care of law and order and reported that the city was so full of people that it was almost impossible to find one’s way in the crowd. It wasn’t until the 16th century when Khiva was made capital of an Islamic Khanate (starting a bitter rivalry with another Khan 460 km down the Silk Road in Bukhara), that the majority of Khiva’s immense architectural projects began and the town established itself as a center of power in the region. Locals will say (sometimes in hushed tones) that if Khiva didn’t have a rivalry with nearby Bukhara, it would not be the significant site that it is today. In the 19th century a strong central power was created and taxes and money were introduced. For a long period of time Khiva was one of the most important markets of slaves in Central Asia. Slavery was only formally abolished during the October Revolution of 1917. Khiva with its 94 mosques and 63 madrassahs is considered an important center of Islam. Because of this significance, Khiva was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.

Everyone familiar with the One Thousand and One Nights tales would magically feel transported back in time once in Khiva. The place is just magical. High walls, beautiful medressas, incredible minarets, and a charm of centuries past – Khiva has them all.

Khiva's Western Walls

Khiva’s Western Walls

Entering the Ichon-Qala from the West gate, it’s a mind-blowing sequence of astonishing monuments: the Kunha Ark, the Kalta Minor minaret, the Juma Mosque with its wooden pillars, the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoluem with its incredible tileworks, the stunning Islom-Hoja Minaret and Medressa… there are many more monuments that have a story to tell, but that I will not name here as I cannot match a good guidebook level of details anyways.

 

Welcome to Khiva!

Welcome to Khiva!

What I can tell you, though, is that the atmosphere found in this town is different from anything else I have ever experienced before. To be honest, even without a guidebook you would thoroughly enjoying this place. The secret is to just wander around the many alleys and streets that invariably lead to some splendid sight. Get lost in this splendid city, and you’ll be rewarded by a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Ark entrance

Ark entrance

Tiled map of the city

Tiled map of the city

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Carved wood details

Carved wood details

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Entrance to the Orient Star Hotel

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Kalta Minor Minaret

Kalta Minor Minaret

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The center of the power in the Khanate of Khiva was the Kuhna Ark, a massive fortification along the Western Walls of the city that’s perfectly preserved today. The scorching sun (it was 101F when I visited) made the place all the more surreal.

Kuhna Ark

Kuhna Ark

Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassah

Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassah

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Original ancient woodwork

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As you wonder around town, you realize that you have just started scraping off what Khiva has to offer. Walk straight, then right on an alley with B&B’s and artisan shops (great cotton products as well as carpets and other trinkets are found everywhere), then left again… and this is what you see:

Stunning

Stunning

The Islam-Khoja Minaret (with its 45 meters) towers over most of the town. Flanking the street are a host of old buildings and madrassas that make the cityscape look surreal. It was a sight I had only seen in Aladdin before. I think I sat down on someone’s house stairway for 10 minutes just soaking in the view.

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One of the major sights here is the Pahlawan Mahmud Mausoleum, one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Uzbekistan. Pahlawan Mahmud (“the strong man”) was famous for his extraordinary bravery, physical strength as well as his good nature. He was a furrier, but also a wrestler, doctor, poet and saint. The people gave him the title “Pahlavan”, meaning brave and handsome hero, as he defended the poor and is said to have had mystical powers.

Pahlawan Mahmud Mausoleum

Pahlawan Mahmud Mausoleum

The largest medressa in Khiva sits on the opposite side of the mausoleum. The Shirgiz Khan Medressa is monumental to say the least.

Shirgiz Khan Medressa

Shirgiz Khan Medressa

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As you walk around the rest of Khiva, there are plenty of other medressas and palaces to entertain you. This city is truly remarkable!

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Juma (Friday) Mosque

Juma (Friday) Mosque

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Eastern Gate

Eastern Gate

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Food-wise, the town has two places that I highly recommend. One is Bir Gumbaz, near the Kalta Minor Minaret (and with a spectacular view over it); this is a great little spot to just have some tea or drink a beer while enjoying the view over the monuments around. The other place is Khorezm Art Restaurant, a very atmospheric restaurant that serves decent food at reasonable prices (including local favorites like laghman and plov).

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Drinks with a view

Drinks with a view

My first plov!

My first plov!

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The locals are unobtrusive. Souvenir stalls are everywhere, but hardly anybody tries to summon you to buy articles as varied as magnets or sunglasses. Uzbeks, and I will have to get into this more in detail later, are very honest, kind people. People dress pretty freely in traditional dresses or more “Western” clothes. The majority of the population is Muslim, but not of the observant kind.

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Around the old city of Khiva (which was a stop along the Silk Road just like Bukhara and Samarkand) there are chaotic bazaar and a more modern town. Exhausted after having been up for 24 hours straight, I laid down on a shady bench on a nice park to rest a bit and fell totally asleep. When I woke up, a boy started approaching me asking me questions about… well, everything. I instinctively thought that he would end up asking for presents or money, but he (and then his mom and brothers) where genuinely only interested in knowing a foreigner and in looking through my entire photo collection on my phone. Again, what a genuine people are the Uzbeks!

Bazaar

Bazaar

Uzbek family

Uzbek family

To get to Khiva, like I mentioned earlier, one has to fly into Urgench, a rather ugly provincial capital full of Soviet-stle building and other ugly stuff. It’s not like it didn’t feel safe – it just didn’t look pretty. Urgench airport is a tiny affair, handling just a few flights a day (including some international flights to Russia once or twice a week).

Cotton fields between Urgench and Khiva

Cotton fields between Urgench and Khiva

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The day I flew into Khiva is the the same day I flew out of it. I took a 6.20am flight from Tashkent and came back on a 8.55pm flight to Bukhara. Everything looked great on paper, except that my flight from Almaty landed in Tashkent at 11.40pm the night before, and so I had the brilliant idea of spending the night on a bench outside the international terminal at Tashkent airport. So smart. It’s not like it’s unsafe – most international flights land and/or departs in the wee hours of the day. It was just very tiring. Once I moved to the domestic terminal, I found an American and Spanish couple who were doing the same thing I was doing. We became instant friends.

Needless to say, I felt exhausted all day long in Khiva, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying this incredible city in the least.

 

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