It had taken weeks to reach the old city of Khiva.
I’d crossed the Caspian Sea, travelled through the endless desert of Kazakhstan and then down into the boundless waste of Uzbekistan’s remote and arid Karakalpakstan province, past the rusting ships of the Aral Sea, past endless unchanging scenery; thousands of kilometres in hot, Soviet trains and cramped shared taxis, sharing seats with old friendly Uzbek ladies and the occasional goat in the scorching Central Asian summer as I made my way to the old city of Khiva, to an old oasis in the timeless desert.
The taxi driver thought I spoke Russian- I think- the lingua franca of Central Asia, and one of the enduring legacies of the former Soviet Union. He wouldn’t stop speaking- fast- as we drove- even faster- down the rough highway from the city of Urgench on the last leg of my arduous journey to Khiva. This was the shortest leg, barely thirty kilometres were left, but it was quickly becoming the most dangerous. The old taxi man was swerving violently around pot holes and oncoming traffic while he hurled question after question at me in Russian.
“Ya Nye Panimayu!”- I don’t understand!
I kept repeating in my best Russky, but he wasn’t believing a word of it. In the former Soviet Union, it’s beyond comprehension for someone to not comprehend Russian, especially amongst the older folk. I occasionally picked up the odd mention of the Uzbek President, while Putin’s name was thrown around a lot too, but for the most part, Ya Nye Panimayu. I could only nod and agree as I clung on for dear life in the old taxi.
Khiva has long been a stop along the Silk Road trade and caravan routes. A literal shimmering beacon of hope in the dusty, dry, water less landscape. A literal oasis in the desert for traders and travellers coming from as far east as China and as far west as Europe. For me, as the sandy, mud brick walls appeared along the highway, it was a relief- an oasis from the danger of the mad drive and driver from Urgench. And as it was for the many travellers through the centuries before me who’d trodden the same path, I hoped too that Khiva would be an escape from the endless deserts and provincial towns I’d traversed to get here.
The journey to this old Silk Road city didn’t end at the gates to this ancient oasis. My old taxi man didn’t know where the guest house was. Even when I showed him the location on a map. He just dropped me the other side of town and kept pointing down the road. It definitely wasn’t in that direction, but I wasn’t holding any grudges. At yet another point in my travels through a former Republic of the Soviet Union I was disgusted by my own inability to speak Russian. The stories that this old taxi driver would be able to tell me if I could communicate better with him, I would never know.
I walked through the gates of Khiva and into the winding alleys that make up the old heart of the city. Across town, after crisscrossing through narrow streets, past vendors selling souvenirs and in the shadow of the city’s famously colourful minarets, drenched in a perverse squall of humid sweat from the midday heat, I finally reached my room, with the walls of Khiva rising high opposite the guest house. After changing some US Dollars into the local Uzbek Som at a generous black market rate- and being given plastic bags full of the inflated currency, as there are roughly 6000 Som to the Dollar- it was time to explore the old city with a rucksack stuffed with money.
Khiva is an ancient city.
It’s been inhabited for centuries. But despite its enduring age, much of the Itchan Kala- the old city- is now a refurbishment, the walls and minarets having been lavishly restored by the Soviets during the communist days.
The old foundations though, remain.
Because of this, it’s become one of the country’s primary tourist attractions, an iconic stop on the Uzbekistan tourist trail. But this is a tourist trail which sees few tourists, in a country which can, at times, be difficult to travel around.
That’s all part of the appeal of this unknown destination.
Khiva might be old but Uzbekistan itself is not. Before Uzbekistan existed as a nation, before the Russians made their indelible mark on Central Asia, before Stalin and the Soviets began dividing, ruling and creating new countries and histories for those new Republics within the Soviet Union, Khiva was an independent city, ruling lands and people as the Khanate of Khiva, with a fearsome reputation for slaving along the Silk Road. When Stalin created Uzbekistan, the city of Khiva and its history became an integral part of this new creation, whether anyone liked it or not.
I walked into the old city through the slave gate, where unfortunate slaves were bartered and sold to merchants from across Asia. This was a slaving city, a city built on the wealth of the slave trade network which crossed the Silk Road, even as late as the end of the 19th Century. One of the reasons- or at least pretexts- on which the Russians invaded and occupied the Khanate of Khiva was to free Russian slaves from the Khanate. And of course, to enlarge their Empire.
Surrounded by desert and encased by sun baked mud bricks, the old centre of Khiva is a surprising and colourful refuge from the scorching heat of the Uzbek summer. Greens, blues and turquoises shimmer in the heat, and rather than selling slaves, the Uzbeks try to sell me souvenirs and photos next to camels. The Soviets turned Khiva into a museum, and now Uzbekistan is ensuring that the business of Khiva will be tourism.
Winter Is Coming…
In the hideous heat of mid July, the Uzbek vendors try to sell me huge, Khivan hats. Made from thick wool, they are perfect for the cold winters, but not so adept for the scorching summer that bleaches everything in sight. They keep insisting that winter is coming… but I can hardly bear the sight of the thick head gear as the sweat drips of my face into a puddle in the dust.
I walk past the Kalta Minor, an icon of the city, a short, stumpy and strangely mesmerising minaret along the main street, one of the many, many minarets to dominate the Khivan skyline.
I decide to get high up, above the city, by climbing the narrow rickety staircase of the Juma Minaret. The minarets are tall, built as much for the defence of the city as for religion, and high enough for the wind to whip the sweat off my face and cool me down.
Is This Real?
From above, the city doesn’t look real. It looks like a model diorama. And perhaps that’s because it is. Khiva is ancient and glorious, the old city is beautiful and historic, yet the streets are empty, quiet and slightly stale. It’s one giant museum, it’s infinitely interesting and strangely fake at the same time, but I wanted to know where all the people were.
It’s quiet because most of the locals live outside the walls. And outside the old walls of Khiva, that was where the real life was. I walked out through the Slave Gate and into the heart of the bazaar.
Life Outside The Walls Of Khiva.
With the minarets of the old city in the background, the locals of Khiva were going about their daily business underneath the towering mud brick walls.
The bazaar was alive with the noise of people selling watermelons, fruit, butchered meat and all kinds of household goods. There were no minaret magnets or outlandish hats for sale here.
Men standing around with huge plastic bags full of Uzbek Som tried to get me to exchange US Dollars with me, shouting out numbers in Russian and occasionally English, while the odd kid came running over to say hi or to try to sell me a fake watch.
Uzbek women were cooking up Somsa- an Uzbek pastry, like a Samosa- and the smell of roasting Shashlik kebabs filled the stalls.
Things here weren’t as clean or as pristine as within the old city walls, but this was local Khiva, where the people not in the business of tourism lived and worked, where you could buy a mean kebab and go home with a huge bag full of Uzbek Som and a fake Rolex.
Khiva is, in reality, two cities. The old and the new. The tourists and the locals. This ancient oasis, with its minarets and mosques, with its history and high walls can’t be missed by a traveller on the Silk Road, and for a real taste of the new city of Khiva, of the enduring legacy of the Silk Road itself, the local bazaars and modern Uzbek life outside of those high walls can’t be ignored either.
Khiva Travel Advice!
As with anywhere in Uzbekistan, Khiva is a long way from anywhere.
I travelled from the West, from the city of Nukus in Karakalpakstan, and then travelled onward to Bukhara in the East. I found share taxis to be the most efficient and the quickest method to get between these cities. It can be cramped, but you”ll really get to know your fellow passengers. Especially if they happen to be a goat… It costs a little bit more than the bus but is way quicker and easier to arrange.
Most share rides and busses or trains will get you to Urgench first, the big city half an hour’s drive from Khiva. From here, you can catch a cheap share taxi down to Khiva, or if you can find it, there’s an even cheaper trolleybus which runs infrequently. When I left I was lucky enough to find a share taxi all the way to Bukhara from Khiva itself.
There are a load of cheap guest houses, with dormitories and cheap rooms by the East Gate of the Old City. Literally just across from the walls. It’s hard to miss them, they are the best value options- I stayed at Guest House Laliopa for instance- and they are great at arranging share taxis and changing money at decent black market rates.
For real detailed travel advice on Khiva, then Wikitravel have a real detailed page devoted to the city which is reasonably up to date, but the best you’ll find! Find that HERE.