Earth : Asia : Central Asia : Uzbekistan : Northern Uzbekistan : Khiva
Khiva (Uzbek: Xiva, Хива; Russian: Хива) is a town in the western province of Khorezm in the Republic of Uzbekistan.
Along with Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is an important and often overlooked historical site on what was once the Great Silk Road (Uzbek: Buyuk Ipak Yol'i). Famous for it's long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between the vast Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, Khiva is now a quiet, sleepy oasis that awaits busloads of tourists instead of caravans of captives. It's difficult imagine what exactly ancient Khiva was like, considering the historical areas were restored to a scrubbed and squeaky-clean look by the Soviets in the 1970s. However, the clustered array of mosques, madrassahs and tiled minarets within a area of less than 3km give you a sense of how crowded and bustling this town must have been throughout it's history.
Khiva is divided into two distinct sections; one being the older, museum-like Ichon-Qala or Itchan Kala (literally: within the wall) where striking examples of Islamic architecture were built over the span of 600 years; and the modern Dichon-Qala (literally: outside the wall) where both the majority of the population live and where all of the modern buildings exist, but glimpses of Khiva's greatness as a center of Islamic power still linger. Today, the entire city is home to about 40,000 people. It's a quick 35km from the regional capital of Urgench and a mere 5km from the border of Turkmenistan.
According to legend, Khiva was founded about 2500 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 this exclamation as "sweet water"). For the next 1000 years or so, the area was inhabited by settlements that used the nearby Amu-Darya river to irrigate agriculture. 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. It wasn't until the 16th century when Khiva was made capital of an Islamic Khanate (starting a bitter rivalry with another Khan 460km 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. Because of this significance, Khiva was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
Khiva almost has a two-season climate; with slivers of spring and fall in between frigid winters and blazing hot summers. It starts to get uncomfortably cold in Khiva by November, with temperatures hovering between -10°C and 5°C. The chill usually lasts well into mid-March; just in time for the Navruz holiday. Spring usually lasts around a month and a half and is usually one of the best times to visit. Summer arrives quickly, however, with temperatures reaching as high as 45°C by August. Luckily, it's a dry heat (rainfall and humidity are practically negligible) so walking around the city isn't too much of a burden.
Usually people travel to the regional capital of Urgench, whether it's by air, train, or taxi, and then take a taxi to Khiva. With the exception of flying where the rates are fixed (most of the time) you might be subject to ticket agents at the train or bus stations charging you a bit higher for a fare because you look like a tourist. Ask a guide or local for correct information, as Uzbeks are usually willing to assist you in getting the correct price. You will, however, be expected to haggle for the price of your cab everywhere, with the unusual exception of the taxi from the Urgench bazaar to Khiva (see "by car").
Khiva is about 40km away from Urgench Airport (IATA: UGC). Uzbekistan Airways operates twice daily flights from Tashkent (operated by RJ-85, AN-24 or YAK-40, flying time 1:30 hrs) and a flight on Saturday (operated by B-757, flying time 1:40 hrs, return flight on Sundays). Flights (as July 2008) were about 105.000 sum for return ticket ans about 75.000 sum (€ 39,-) for a single ticket.
Taxis from Urgench Airport to Khiva are about 7000 sum one way.
Trains from [Tashkent] leave twice a week and make the 19 hour journey across the desert to Urgench, with one major stop along the way in Samarkand. Trains leave Tashkent on Mon, Wed and Sun at 6.15pm and arrive in [Urgench] at 1.45pm next day. Depending on the class, you can get a 2-bunk coupy for 41000 sum, a 4-bunk shared coupy for 25000 sum, or you can rough it in plaskartnyy (hard-class) for the bargain price of 16000 sum. The price for a place in a sleeping car is 50.000 UZS one way (2008). Taxis from [Urgench] Railway Station to Khiva are about 7000 UZS one way. For the Trolley Bus see below.
If you're really budgeting your cash, you can catch a bus to Urgench from the Hippodrome station in Tashkent. The good news is the journey doesn't take much longer than the train (20 hours) and is only about 7000 sum. The bad news is you'll be sitting in a cramped space without toilets (the driver decides when to make a pit stop) and minimal ventilation (forget about air conditioning).
There are daily busses from Bukhara to Urgench, leaving from Bukhara Avtovoksal. The busses have no air condition. The journey time is about 8 hours and the price about 5.000 UZS on way . There is no fixed timetable, the busses leave, when all seats are occupied.
Collective taxis from Urgench to Khiva leave from Urgench Bazaar near the Dynamo Stadium. The taxis leave when all seats are occupied and the price is about UZS 1.000 one way. Taxis will drop you at the Northern Gate of Khiva Old Town.
Inter-city "taxi" services are essentially a collection of informal drivers who wait to fill up their cars with passengers and then drive them off to their destinations. They usually charge per passenger; however, you can buy all the seats in a car (typically 1 in the front and 3 in the back) if you're willing to spend the cash. From Bukhara, the next closest Silk Road site, the 460km trip in a shared taxi should cost between 4000-6000 sum per person. The price can sometimes depend on the type of vehicle you're negotiating for, with Daewoo Ticos (think Ford Fiesta) costing less and Daewoo Nexia and Matiz brands (think Honda Accord) costing a bit more.
One you reach Urgench, you can either negotiate for a local taxi to take you directly to Khiva, which usually costs about 8000 sum for the entire car. A cheaper way is to negotiate a ride to the western side of the Urgench Bazaar (inner-city trips shouldn't cost you more than 1500 sum at the most). There you'll find the official Khiva taxi stand, which is a row of Daewoo Tico and Matiz brand vehicles all in a line. On average, it takes between 10-15 minutes for a car to fill up and the cost is about 1000 sum per person, flat.
Trolleybus: An interesting (and cheap) way to get to Khiva from Urgench is via the trolleybus, which you can pick up near the Urgench Bazaar. At 400 sum, it's a bargain and it allows you to see the countryside between Urgench and Khiva at a snail's pace. It will also drop you off right in front of the northern gate of the Ichon-Kala with the rest of the taxicabs. Trolleybusses leave Urgench every 30 minutes during daytime and the journey takes about 60 minutes.
Khiva is about 1390 km from Andizhan, 470 km from Bukhara, 1370 km from Fergana, 630 km from Karshi, 740 km from Samarkand, 1270 km from Kokand, 200 km from Nukus, 750 km from Shakhrisabz, 1020 km from Tashkent and 850 km from Termez.
Since cabs don't run in the Ichon Qala, walking from sight to sight is your only choice! Since the city is so compact, it's very easy to take a leisurely stroll around the city.
Outside the walls, Khiva is still a very walkable city. You can access the main bazaar, either through the Caravanserai through the Ichon-Qala east gate or you can walk around the Ichon-Qala walls on the north side until you see the produce sellers sitting near the western wall. A few of the better, authentic Uzbek restaurants lie within a half-kilometer of the Ichon-Qala walls as well as some great beer stands. If you want to explore the residential northern and western ends of town, flag down an informal "taxi" and negotiate a fare, which should run between 1500 and 3000 sum per hour.
You'll find English spoken inside the Ichon-Qala at hotels and through a handful of the guides at the main tourism bureau. In the Dichon-Qala, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone speaking English, unless you run into some local school children who want to practice their skills on you from their English classes.
Because Khiva is located in the Khorezm province, the locals speak a dialect of Uzbek that is actually closer to Turkmen called "Khorezmcha". If you've been feverishly practicing your Uzbek in elsewhere in Uzbekistan and now find that you can't understand a word of what a local Khivan is saying to you, don't worry; they may not be able to understand you either. In that case, try falling back on Russian.
The main sights lie within the massive Ichon-Qala, which contains almost all of the ancient buildings of Khiva. There are four gates on each side of the wall; the North Gate (Bachtscha Darwase) is closest to the trolleybus and taxi stand; the East Gate (Palwan Darwase) is the entry and exit to the caravanserai (a large building to house caravans); the South Gate (Dascht Darwase) is probably the least used, except by locals who live inside the Ichon-Qala, or for those staying at the Khiva Asia Hotel; and finally the West Gate (Ata Darwase), which is the main exit and entry point for almost all of the visitors. The tourist office inside the West Gate will most likely ask you to buy a ticket that covers entry for all of the museums and buildings inside the city (excluding the Islom-Khoja minaret and the Juma Mosque) for about 10000 sum.
The Dichon-Qala and surrounding areas contain only a handful of historical sights, but still have some interesting attractions including Friendship Park, Independence Square, as well as a long stretch of ancient secondary wall that snakes it's way around the outskirts of the city.
There are many souvenir vendors in Khiva and they all will want to sell something to you, trying to attract your attention with some knowledge of English. Souvenirs might be more expensive than in Samarkand and Bukhara, but you can bargain quite a lot and get some very good deals.
A good place to buy is the UNESCO-sponsored silk workshop in Qqozi Kalon Medressa. It sells unique silk handcrafts. Although they might be more expensive than in other places, you support the workers there directly:
As in whole Uzbekistan please buy only bottled water. Carefully check bottom of the bottle for any deposits otherwise you can buy counterfeit bottled water.
Most of the hotels lie within the Ichon-Qala, with a few exceptions. Homestays are a good idea if you happen to be on a budget and it's a great way to meet locals and experience the almost overwhelming hospitality that is unique to Uzbekistan and Central Asia. If you're coming with a tour group, you're guaranteed a spot in one of the more "upscale" tourist hotels.
Because of the nature of Khiva's importance as a tourist town, most of the staff and locals will go out of their way to keep you safe. In and around the Ichon-Qala, your biggest risk is being asked by local elementary school children for gifts like pens, in which they will probably be shooed away by a stern adult. Take the usual precautions of watching your valuables and you'll be fine.
In the Dichon-Qala, especially in the late evening or at night, you may run the risk of being harassed by local drunk men. However, these incidents are rare and the perpetrators are easily scared away with a few stern words (in any language). Aside from the main road, Khiva gets very dark at night, so carry a flashlight with you if you plan on exploring the town in the evening or having dinner outside the city walls.
Take the usual precautions when drinking from local water sources, but make sure to stay hydrated, especially in the summer. The heat bouncing off the mud walls can make Khiva feel like a broiler sometimes, and you can easily run the risk of heat exhaustion.
Bukhara - Once the historic rival of Khiva, Bukhara boasts an impressive old city with lots of interesting alleyways, buildings, and shopping. Check out the Jewish Quarter, one of the last bastions of the Judaism in Central Asia, and the towering Kalon Minaret, where the Khan of Bukhara executed prisoners by tossing them out of the top window.
Nukus - The capital of the nominally autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan sits on the remote frontier of Uzbekistan. Nukus looks like a planned Soviet city (in fact, it was host the the Red Army's Chemical Ressearch Institute) but is also home to the Nukus Museum of Art - commonly referred to as the Savitsky Museum - which houses the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde artwork in the world, second only to the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. A rare gem of a museum in the middle of practically nowhere and a must-see.
The Aral Sea and Moynaq - If ecological disasters interest you, then checking out the Aral Sea should be high on your list. Once the 4th largest saline body of water in the world, the Aral Sea has steadily diminished over the last 50 years due to past Soviet agricultural planning and current water management practices by several Central Asian countries. Moynaq, once a thriving fishing town, now sits about 250km from the current coastline and is a haunting reminder of the environmental devastation.
Urgench - The capital of Khorezm doesn't have much to offer in the way of sights, but it is a great launching point for trips to Khiva, Nukus, and the surrounding areas. There are a few old fortresses in the deserts surrounding Urgench as well as a few ancient Zoroastrian archaeological sites.
Toprak Kala and Toi Krylan Kala - two fortresses dating from the Kuschan period (3rd and 4th century AS), located in the desert, about 75 km East of Khiwa, on the other side of the river Amudaria.