It’s been a couple of months since my last article all about Tashkent, but here is the next instalment in the Uzbekistan travel series. Our second stop on the trip: Khiva – a short hour and a half flight from Tashkent into Urgench International Airport. Tashkent is very much a modern metropolitan, but visiting Khiva felt like another country altogether.
That’s one of the beauties of Uzbekistan though – that you only visit one country yet get to see so many different ways of life, hear different languages and see some of the most impressive buildings ever built. Again, I really wanted to make this post picture heavy, as pictures always tell a thousand words and for a city that was established around 1,500 years ago, thousands of words are required.
- Why Khiva is One of the Top Places to Visit in Uzbekistan
- Getting to Khiva
- Where to Stay in Khiva
- Sites to See in Khiva
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Why Khiva is One of the Top Places to Visit in Uzbekistan
Admittedly, Khiva is the town that is furthest away from the larger cities of Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand, but I highly recommend that you don’t skip it! If you have already travelled all the way to Central Asia, then it makes sense to see all you can see whilst in the country.
Khiva is one of the top places to visit in Uzbekistan, and my own personal recommendation is to spend 2 days there in total – one to explore the old town of Ichan Kala and the other to visit fortresses like Ayaz-Kala and Chilpik Kala (a fortress three hours outside of Khiva that overlooks the river Amu Darya). I recently learnt about a day trip from Khiva to the Aral Sea Ship Cemetery that I wish I had known about when I visited! Two days should allow you enough time to cover everything.
There is much to be said about why you should visit Khiva. The most well-known reason is that it was a trading post on the infamous Silk Road – a network of trade routes connecting the East and West, which was paramount to the economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between these regions.
In addition to that, it has an incredibly interesting and illustrious history that not only involves Genghis Khan, but one that went through numerous iterations before becoming part of present day Uzbekistan. It was once known as the Khanate of Khiva (17th century), and became a Russian protectorate in the Russo–Khivan War in the 19th century. It then became the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic in February 1920, until it eventually became part of the Uzbek SSR (what is now the country of Uzbekistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union).
On top of all that, it endured the Siege of Khiva in 1924, between insurgents and the Red Army. I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson (although perhaps I’ve done that already) but what I’m trying to get across is that there is so much more to the history of Khiva than it’s position on the Silk Road. I also want visitors to remember what this small city has been through over the years as you walk the streets, just because it will make you appreciate it all the more.
Getting to Khiva
Depending on your itinerary, Khiva should either be the second city you visit in Uzbekistan or the last. If you are travelling in from overseas, chances are that you will land in Tashkent, and from Tashkent you can choose to travel clockwise (Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara to Khiva) or anticlockwise (Tashkent to Khiva to Bukhara to Samarkand) around the country. Whichever option you choose, the best way to travel to Khiva is by plane.
We travelled Uzbekistan Airways from Tashkent to Urgench International Airport, which is the closest airport to Khiva – a quick 90 minute flight. There is no direct train from Tashkent, and a taxi would take over 13 hours. If travelling to Khiva from Bukhara, there is a direct train which takes around 6 and a half hours. My advice to save as much time as possible is to travel by air – and internal flights are very well-priced. Note that flights are not daily though, so this would need to be worked into your schedule. If you’d rather not hassle with logistics, Viator offers a One Day Tour to Khiva from Tashkent.
So you’ve landed at Urgench International Airport, collected your luggage and are wondering what to do next. The city of Khiva is located about an hour away from the airport, but you’ll find plenty of taxi drivers waiting outside. It’s a really small airport with only one luggage carousel and the taxi drivers all know exactly what times flights come in – so you’ll never be stranded. The average cost for the taxi should be around $15 (but I am pretty sure this included a ‘tourist premium’. Tip: be sure to always agree on the cost of your ride beforehand as they do not use meters.
The taxi drove through the city of Urgench and then on to a long stretch of road with large houses on either side. What was most interesting to me though was that there was no light except for that of the car’s headlamps. I wondered if all of the houses were abandoned at first, but our taxi driver explained that they are all very much lived in yet power cuts are a normal occurrence out here away from the main towns. Remember that this is not a small country – about 30m in population, and yet there is a proportion of the locals that do not have steady electricity.
Where to Stay in Khiva
There are plenty of hotels in Khiva that you can choose from for your time there, but set your expectations accordingly. Khiva is an incredible city, but you won’t find international five star luxury hotels like you can find in Tashkent. What you will find are local hotels that are comfortable and clean, although don’t be surprised if many of the staff cannot speak English and that WiFi signal is relatively poor. With this in mind, below are some of the ones I would recommend.
Hotel Asia Khiva: we had stayed at this hotel, just outside the walls of the inner city and just a short 14 minute walk away from the West Gate. It is the largest in Khiva – the rooms were large and spacious and the restaurant tried hard to cater to my dietary requirements, despite the language barrier.
Arkanshi Hotel: excellent location just outside West Gate, with a stunning terrace that overlooks the city
Meros B&B: a quaint family run guesthouse, located close to Kunha Ark, offering a terrace and vegetarian breakfast options.
If you’d like to continue your search for a Khiva hotel, you can find plenty of options over on booking.com. A final word of advice on accommodation – staying inside the city walls will allow you to be a little closer to the action. That being said, don’t worry if you cannot find a room as they are booked up. Our hotel was just outside the city walls and this didn’t hinder us at all. The town of Khiva is small and you can walk pretty much everywhere! The only taxis we caught were to and from Urgench Airport.
Sites to See in Khiva
After landing, we drove up to our hotel, Hotel Asia Khiva, just outside of Itchan Kala – the inner walled city and also a UNESCO World Heritage site since the early 90s. You’ll need to purchase a ticket to enter, but there are 3 different options to choose from. All are valid for two consecutive days:
- VIP for 150 000 som: includes access to all museums + the watchtower, minarets, and the city walls
- Standard for 100 000 som: includes access to all museums, however does not include the three sites listed in the previous point
- Economy for 50 000 som: includes only entrance into the city, but not to the museums or sites.
On top of that we also got a tour guide from one of the Tourist Information Centres, costing an additional $30 – well worth it though! Khiva is very much like a maze and we found it to be more time-efficient having someone with us to show us where to go. As mentioned earlier, there is so much history in this town that having a guide to talk us through it all made it so much easier.
A really important tip for anyone travelling to Khiva – the town has only a couple of ATMs and NONE of them work. It’s an absolute must to take some cash with you for restaurants, sites, souvenirs and of course, tips. Regarding sites, there is an additional cost to enter some of these that is not included in the entry pass to Itchan Kala.
I will add a few lines about our guide who you will see in the pictures. She is a devout muslim and university graduate who is fluent in Uzbek, Russian, English, Arabic and Japanese – no, I am not exaggerating. She is also a seamstress in her spare time and made all of the clothes she is wearing. She explained how she is currently unmarried and that when the time is right, the male members of her family will select her husband. I’m all for respecting cultural differences but I found it really hard to understand how such an educated woman would be content with what would effectively be an arranged marriage.
Tash Khauli is one of the sites where Uzbek architecture and design is displayed in all its glory. Tash Khauli translates to Stone House and was once one of the residences of the ruler at the time – Allakuli Khan. It was built between 1832 and 1841 and apparently has over 150 rooms and courtyards. I use the term ‘residence’ loosely, as the palace was predominantly used as a harem for his four queens and royal concubines. Definitely worth visiting for its interesting history and for the ornate wooden carvery and colourful mosaic tiles.
The Kuhna Ark Watch Tower
If you are looking to have a spectacular view of the city of Khiva, then the Kuhna Ark Tower is the place to visit. I read a lot of posts recommending that you visit during sunset. We visited both in the morning and during sunset. In all honesty, I much preferred it in the morning. There were far less people and I think there were much more beautiful sunsets in other parts of Uzbekistan. That being said, the Watch Tower is definitely something to see whilst in Khiva.
If you have seen any pictures of Khiva online or on social media, it would likely have been of Kalta-Minor minaret – one of the main buildings in the city, just by the West Gate. It is the largest incomplete minaret in the world!
There are two stories as to why it remains incomplete. Mohammed Amin Khan began work on the tower in 1851 and intended to make this minaret so tall that it could be seen from Bukhara. Unfortunately he died in 1855 and therefore it was never completed. The other legend has it that Mohammed intended on killing the architect so that he could never build another like it! The architect naturally fled for his life and thus it was never finished. Which one do you believe?
Islam Khodja Minaret
If you feel like walking around Khiva all day didn’t give you enough exercise, fret not. I say that with a lot of sarcasm because I like to see myself as quite fit, and even I found this a challenge. The minaret is impressive to say the least, standing proud at 57m high. Needless to say, there is no lift, so to get to the top you’ll need to climb the internal staircase. Travel tip: don’t wear a dress like the one I’m wearing! Remember that this is, after all, the tallest minaret in Uzbekistan.
Khiva Silk Carpet and Suzani Workshops
Ask your tour guide to take you to silk carpet workshops to watch local women weave these beautiful carpets and suzanis. If you plan on buying anything, make sure to haggle your hardest!
Wooden Carvery Workshops
The same applies for the wooden carvery workshops. If you want a beautiful memento of your time in Khiva, I highly recommend buying one of the carved wooden bookstands. Carved out of a single piece of wood, these stands can be manipulated into 9 different styles. Truly a work of art! We bought ours for around $35 – we probably overpaid but it was worth the craftsmanship that went into it.
Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum
In my opinion, this is the most beautiful place in Khiva. The Pakhlavan Makhmoud mosque is where the locals go to pray during times of need. Our tour guide, Naz, explained to us that her grandmother would come to pray frequently when she was sitting her university exams.
The mausoleum was built in 1701 over the grave of Makhmud Pahlavan who died in 1322. Pahlavan is seen as the Patron Saint of Khiva and apparently was a famous warrior and poet. It costs an extra 10k som to enter, but inside you will find an impressive set of blue mosaics. Fun story for you. When Naz found out that I have been married for three years and still have no children, she took me inside to pray that it happens. I jokingly replied ‘please don’t’ but we went inside anyway. You should know that I am giggling as I write this.
And last but not least, is Juma Mosque in the centre of Itchan-Kala. The mosque is known for the 218 wooden columns supporting its roof – a concept thought to come from ancient Arabian mosques. Six or seven of the columns date back to the original 10th century mosque but the present building can be dated to the 18th century.
Are you thinking of heading to Khiva or just Uzbekistan in general in the near future? It’s such an amazing place and has only just opened itself up to tourism. I recommend visiting before it becomes the next tourist hotspot! Let me know in the comments if you’ve already booked your trip!
If you enjoyed this article or are planning to visit Uzbekistan in the near future, you might want to check out my Uzbek travel guide on how we planned out our journey, as well as more detailed articles on Tashkent and Bukhara. If you are looking through Tashkent hotels trying to decide which is right for you, you may want to read my article on the Hyatt Regency Tashkent.
This article was initially published in October 2019, and edited for updates in March 2020.
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