We took the early morning flight from Tashkent Domestic Airport to Urgench International Airport. Many international travellers choose Urgench (instead of Tashkent) to begin their multi-city tour of Uzbekistan. After surviving snow flurries and sub-zero temperatures before boarding, we saw the sun rise and bathe the arid land (below) with golden light. It takes about 40 minutes to Khiva from Urgench and we skipped haggling with cabbies because we had our driver waiting for us already.
The old fortress wall looked spectacular as we entered the North Gate and proceeded to check-in our hotel. A, our guide, exited the fortress and bought day passes for us — with entry tickets to all the main monuments. The ticket counter lies just outside the West Gate and this gate is the starting point for all guided tours. Passes our checked upon entry and it’s better to have a day pass if you’re staying inside the fortress walls.
Khiva’s history is about 2500 years old and its origins is steeped in local legend. Back in the day, when the Silk Road was a global trade corridor, Khiva was an oasis in the desert and a pit-stop for travelling caravans. The ancient city is dotted with mosques and madrasahs and is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Central Asia — making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Traditional Arts & Crafts
The narrow alleys of the ancient city were lined with tourist shops and stalls. In late December, when the temperatures dipped below zero, the cobbled lanes were largely empty. Photo-ops were strategically placed and few local tourists succumbed to the bait.
Kalta Minaret (short minaret) is quite striking from every angle and its blue majolica tiles literally call out to you. It was supposed to be tallest minaret of the region, however, construction was stopped after the death of Amir Khan, leaving behind a 29 m tall remnant that inspires local folklore.
Kunya Arc is a stone’s throw away from Kalta Minoret. We met A at the main gates of the palace. The sun was out now and cast shadows on the ground.
The main gates open into a wide open space, probably used for ceremonial processions. Towering walls cleverly camouflaged the important parts of the palace.
In the 17th Century, with the rise of the Khivan Khanate, Khiva became an important capital city on the Silk Road. Kunya Arc (original citadel) served as the primary residence for the Khans until the construction of Tash Khovli Palace. The Reception Room is a hidden gem. The towering aiwan is supported by two intricately carved wooden columns. Blue mosaics fill up every square inch of the walls.
One of the wooden doors opens into the Khans’ Throne Room. This room spells opulence and grandeur.
The courtyard’s circular platform served as the pitch for the Khan’s winter yurt. A kept the information flowing while I struggled to scribble notes with frozen fingers. In summer, the front courtyard maintains a temperature at 25°C — irrespective of the average temperature. The upper floors were reserved for the Khan’s 4 queens, concubines, and harem.
Each door opened into a new world. Women pleaded me to buy hand knit socks or trinkets and I found it hard to resist. One of the staircases leads to a watchtower that requires a separate ticket. A advised us to come back and enjoy the sunset from the tower.
Mosque & Treasury
Another narrow alley opened into a spectacular mosque. The intricate mosaics were more spendid here. The mikhrab, at the centre, faces Mecca. The treasury (mint) was built opposite the mosque to deter thieves from stealing valued currency.
We walked for a couple of minutes and reached Juma (Friday) Mosque. An older mosque was built, in the 10th century, at the same site. The present day mosque was built somewhere in the 18th century — over the ruins of its predecessor.
Juma Mosque is a stunning example of woodwork and carving. Around 212 ornately decorated wooden pillars support a wooden rooftop.
The mosque has an open floor plan with a mikhrab at the centre. Natural light trickled through the sky roof and lit up the dark room.
Tiredness, shut-eye syndrome, and the cold began to play spoilsport as the day progressed. Fortunately, all the major sites inside the walled citadel are within walking distance of each other. Walking through the narrow cobbled lanes — often cloaked under the shadows of towering walls — transported me back in time.
Tash-Khovli Palace or Stone Palace gets its name from the stones that were used to build the palace. It was built in the 19th Century as the summer residence for the Khans. The main Reception Room is quite similar to the older Kunya-Arc, but the mosaics were more intricate and grand — indicating an increase in wealth.
We followed A as he lead us through unfamiliar alleyways — lined with interesting gems — at every corner. En route, we passed the doors of the former ‘Slave Market‘. Today, it’s been replaced by an interesting collection of local Uzbek crafts.
A lead us to the entrance of the Tash-Khovli’s Harem. While the architecture was one of the best we’d seen so far, I felt deeply sad — just thinking about the plight of the women being kept for ‘pleasure’. A spoke about aiwans, majolicas, mosaics, and the beautiful women who’d once lived here. It was one of those rare occasions when I didn’t want to go back to the past — despite all the beauty that surrounded me. It’s hard enough being a woman in the 21st Century, I can’t even imagine how these women lived their lives in gilded cages.
Secret tunnels opened into interesting chambers that were ornately designed. I let Basil play treasure seeker, while I tried to ignore that feeling of sadness.
Winter is a low time for tourists and very few eateries were open in the cold weather. A took us to his friend’s house for a home-cooked Khivan meal. The heating in the living area instantly warmed us up and I appreciated the soft carpet beneath my feet. His friend’s house doubled as a homestay for guests in the peak season. I had pumkin & potato manti (dumplings) and Basil had meat manti. We also ordered green tea and salads as accompaniments.
Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum Complex
Hot food and dry fruits replenished our depleting energy and enthusiasm. The sun was shining brightly and I was happy to walk under the blue sky. Wedding parties had begun their procession to all the important sites.
Pakhlawan Makhmud (meaning strong man) was a poet, warrior, wrestler, and philosopher. He was made a saint after his death and his mausoleum is an important pilgrimage site for many.
The central facade of the mausoleum dwarfs everything around it. There’s a source of water from which bridal couples drank water.
Splendid geometrical designs and floral patterns filled the inner walls and roof of the mausoleum. A single glass chandelier lit up the blue tiles. Bridal couples sat with the imam as he sang hymns. There is sanctity and peace in this mausoleum. His lilting voice reverberated in the natural acoustics of the mausoleum. I could have sat there for a very long time.
There are separate chambers on both sides of the central hall. The tomb of Rahim Khan is placed in the main hall and the tombs of Khan Anush and Abdul Ghazi Khan are in the narrow chambers. The saint’s remains rest in a smaller chamber. Pilgrims pray at each tomb.
According to local legend: brides will get pregnant within 40 days if they pray to the saint and will have a blessed marriage.
The Islam Khoja Minaret is the tallest minaret in the citadel and can be seen from anywhere in Khiva. Towering at 45 m, it might be quite the walk to reach to the top, and A dissuaded us from climbing the tower.
It was early afternoon and we had ticked all the important places of interest for the day. We walked back to the hotel and passed multiple wedding processions. The blue dome of Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum sparkled in the afternoon sun.
A gave us the rest of the day to explore on our own. Our hotel was probably a madrassa before. After an hour of getting some rest, we head out to explore the old city on our own.
The Evening Sky
The sky was covered with streaks of white clouds and every monument looked more alluring. We had to pass by Kalta Minor to exit the West Gate. A group young boys spoke to Basil whilst I took in the magic of our surroundings.
Walking Around the Outer Wall
On A’s recommendation, we walked around the outer perimeter of Itchan Kala. The weather was wonderful and we had over an hour for sunset. The city walls were destroyed over the years and only 2.2 km of the ancient wall remains today.
We passed towering gates (four in all) and ramparts. Most tourists had left the ancient walled city making it perfect to walk along the deserted pavement.
It was hard to ignore the grim reality that surrounds this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ve seen this before. Ideally, tourist sites should become an opportunity for local communities to thrive and have a better life. Partnerships with local communities can empower the marginalised and give them more options of earning an income — without being dependant on just selling trinkets and souvenirs. For only then, international tourism — and the wealth it pours into an economy — can truly serve its purpose.
We rushed towards the West Gate as the sun got ready to disappear in the horizon. We had to show our day passes to enter the walled city again.
At the Watchtower
We entered Kunya Arc with our day pass and scrambled to find the doorway that lead to the watchtower. I must have been sleep walking in the morning because it took us a while to find the correct alley. Finally, we saw some familiar sights, and the ladies who sold socks guided us to the tower. A dimly lit staircase took us to the top.
The watchtower has two floors — each offering a different panoramic view of the citadel.
It’s easy to romanticise an ancient citadel that looks like a sequence straight out of Aladdin. A had skipped the darker side of Khiva’s past. A simple internet search revealed all that we had missed. At that moment, looking at the vast expanse of sky, earth, and man-made glory; I wondered: how many blood baths were fought for this? The silence was peaceful and managed to quell those pessimistic thoughts on humanity and how little we learn from the past.
Is there anything more glorious than the sun?
We could count the number of tourists living inside the fortress wall. The alleys and monuments were lit up, but deserted. Only one restaurant was open for business and everyone gathered there. A had helped us made a booking at the restaurant. After dinner, we walked back in the cold night, and were excited for our road trip to Bukhara.