Three Weeks in Central Asia (Part 11): Uzbekistan – Khiva; in the middle of the desert.

Departing Bukhara we had an 8 hour drive through the Kyzylkum desert; the 15th largest desert in the world, towards Khiva. Khiva is quite isolated and sometimes left out on some Uzbek itineraries but I am so glad I visited this wonderful city. In fact, upon reflection it made my Top 15 Cities I’ve ever visited!

The desert is as you expect. Nothing more than just sand with the occasional shrubs and more sand. There were a couple roadside pit stop kitchens. The one that we stopped at was nothing more than to stop to eat something, stretch our legs and use the facilities. We were given kebab meat on a stick from them as our lunch but we had also organised a packed lunch.

We got to disinfect our hands with vodka as the water was limited here. In the interest of health, we also took a shot of this vodka to … clean our insides… you know for health.

Another thing we saw driving in the desert was something you see in deserts everywhere, cardboard policemen…


Isn’t cardboard policemen normal to see? Especially in a desert?

The aim of these is to stop speeding cars on the desert highway.

Khiva is basically right on the border with Turkmenistan. The ultra secretive and reclusive state that is quite difficult to get into to visit (strict visa requirements). We actually got to see our first glimpses of Turkmenistan, but we did not get that Welcome to Turkmenistan sign. Rather a Stop! Or you will be shot sign…

Eventually, in the late afternoon, we reached Khiva and began to explore the city. I was instantly amazed by it.


Khiva is a city in the Xorazm region of Uzbekistan. It is the most western region of Uzbekistan before you reach the Autonomous Region of Karakalpakstan – a region of Uzbekistan that is basically independent but is still part of the Uzbekistan sovereign nation.

According to legend, Khiva was founded when Shem, the son of Noah (Noah’s ark) discovered a water well here. The city was on one of the Silk Road routes, remembering there were several interconnected routes. It was mainly ignored during the times of the Timurid Empire but when that collapsed and the Uzbek’s moved in a new state was established here, Khorezm (later Khanate of Khiva), with Khiva as its capital in 1592.

From there it became a trading post for an unfortunate trade market; slavery, between the Turkmen tribesman in the neighbouring Karakum desert and the tribes in the Kazakh steppes.

The Khanate of Khiva remained as a Russian protectorate state before a Soviet puppet regime was installed in 1920. A brief period of ‘independence’ from the Soviet Union was had until it was organised into the Uzbekistan Soviet Republic.

The City Walls

One of the four entrances into Itchan Kala – the walled city.

The City Walls provides four entrance into the walled city of Khiva or Itchan Kala as it is known. There is a northern, southern, eastern and western entrance. The photo above is the southern entrance and was down the road from our hotel, Hotel Asia. The western wall is the main entrance and you’ll see a large car park of taxis, buses and private vehicles.

The “vaults” you see on the walls are actually tombs of fallen soldiers who died outside the city walls. The dead could not pass into the city.

Although the walls have been destroyed in parts, there are still sections you can climb to get a view of the inner and outer cities.

Itchan Kala

The inner city is where all the monuments of the city are; around 50 in total. The city has been declared a UNESCO site. It is mainly car free making this a walkable city you can easily do in a day.

Kalta-Minor Minaret

The icon of Khiva is an unfinished minaret. At 15m tall, this wide minaret was supposed to be as tall as 70m but its architect died before it could be finished and the project was abandoned. The name Kalta-Minor stuck as it literally means the short minaret. Although it does have the title of being the largest unfinished minaret in the world.

Tash-Khauli Palace

The Stone Palace built in 1838 was an example of the architectural masterpiece that Khiva and Khorezm were known for. During its construction period of 1830 – 1838, the region was experiencing economic prosperity as a result of strengthening trade relations with the Russian Empire and its rival, Bukhara.

Many architects were killed by the ruler of Khiva at the time, Allakuli-Khan, for their failure to complete the palace in 2 years, which is what the Khan wanted. It took 8 years to build and has all the essentials of a palace, grandeur, opulence, multiple rooms, chambers and reception halls for receiving dignitaries. It is built like a labyrinth with several interconnected corridors. Apparently, it is for this reason that the palace is a popular spot, nowadays, for Khiva teenagers to make out, away from the prying eyes of relatives and friends of relatives. And yes we totally ruined someone’s romantic moment #sorrynotsorry.

The palace you see nowadays is almost completely original with minor renovations and restorations taking place.

Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum

The 1326 tomb of a legendary poet, philospher and wrestler who became the patron saint of Khiva. It is a beautiful and impressive mausoleum and should be on your list for at least a quick visit. I remember there being a rather unbearable smell in the mausoleum but can’t remember if this has anything to do with the fact that there were a lot of people and that shoes must be taken off before entering.

Islom Hoja Minaret

The skyscraper of Khiva is a 57m tall minaret – the tallest in Uzbekistan. You can climb to the top of the minaret for some stunning views over Khiva. I did not do this, opting to have a drink at a bar instead but those that did it seemed happy with the view.

Kunya-Ark Citadel

Also known as Kuhna Ark it is located near the western gate and was once the residence and citadel of the Khans (rulers) of Khiva. It is basically a fortified town within a fortified town, having everything the Khans and his family would need including areas for entertainment, leisure activities and a mosque. Built in the 17th Century, only a few buildings survive to this day including the stunning mosque.

The citadel also has a watch tower which is climbable and is a perfect spot to watch the sunset over the town.

Khorezm Art Restaurant

There are a number of restaurants and cafes within the city walls all offering authentic and traditional dishes of the area. There is even one with a nice terrace overlooking the entrance to the citadel. You can’t go wrong with any of these for place to sit.

For dinner we went to Khorezm Art Restaurant which has outdoor seating right under the Allakuli Khan Medrasah. The food was delicious, the Uzbek wine great and friendly and attentive service. We were also treated to a song and dance show of a local performance group.

At one point the performance group asked for people to get involved and of course nobody got up. But, being in the front row, I volunteered and not really knowing how to dance at the best of times, let alone how to dance the traditional dances, I started dancing. Eventually, other members from my group joined me… and then they upstaged me with my dancing… Talking about you Bill, if you are reading this… Rude

The performance. The food. The location. The slight summer desert breeze. The view. This entire night ranks as one of my top travel memories ever.

Shopping haven

As much as Khiva is wonderful for its many historic buildings, it is also great for some souvenirs – textiles, pottery, embroideries, clothes. There are shops everywhere. Everywhere – lining the streets, in special trading pavilions and in medrasahs. You can also purchase the traditional Uzbek wool hats known as chugirma.

Khiva was the last stop in Uzbekistan. Our final night in Khiva was also our last night with our awesome trip leader, Mirza, as he had to return to Tashkent the next day to start a whole new trip. We said our goodbyes and thanks to the best Trip Leader ever! Thanks Mirza!

Khiva ranks as my favourite city in Uzbekistan. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know your thoughts below.
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