Top things to see in Khiva Uzbekistan
From sleepy town on the outskirts of the Silk Road to largest slave market in Central Asia, from imperial Khanate to Communist Republic: It’s safe to say that this little known city has reinvented itself more than a couple of times. A wealth of history translates into plenty of things to see in Khiva Uzbekistan.
A bit of history: The Khanate of Khiva
The city of Khiva is located in the West of Uzbekistan, and is a popular stop for those travelling around the region. Khiva is usually buzzing with lively street vendors and gaggles of tourists, both local and foreign. It is home to about 90.000 people, the vast majority of which live in the less visited, newer, part of town.
This guide will be focussing on Itchan Kala (the wonderous old town), which was first established about 1500 years ago and proudly holds the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before we dive into the list of things to see in Khiva, let’s take a step back and review a few key pieces of history.
Khiva started gaining in importance around the 16th century when it was turned into the capital of a state called Khorezem, dubbed the “Egypt of Central Asia” for its cultural and historical importance. You see, Khorezem was situated in a prime location on the Silk Route and saw a never-ending flow of traders travelling between Europe and China. Not surprisingly the traders would stop off in Khiva to trade goods, rest up or purchase a new slave or two.
One of the main things to do in Khiva was stock up on your slaves as it housed the largest slave market in Central Asia at the time. Slave trade was a very lucrative business for all parties, except of course the slaves themselves.
The neighbouring Turkoman tribes, being expert raiders, plucked unsuspecting fisherman and families out of their homes and carted them off to Khiva to be sold. The funds allowed them to purchase grains and other items to feed their families. The ruler of Khiva, the Khan, received 20% for every slave transaction. This explains why the trade prospered and continued to grow for over three centuries.
The vast majority of the slaves were Persian. If they happened to come from a wealthy family, their kidnappers would demand a ransom which if left unpaid meant automatic servitude for the rest of their natural lives. Once in a while there would be Russian slaves up for sale too, they reached premium prices because they were a “hot commodity” and a lot rarer.
Slave trade would shape the political future of the country and is one of the reasons why Uzbekistan ended up establishing the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. For more information about the subject have a read here.
Despite being part of the USSR, the (religious) monuments inside of Uzbekistan were left in tact. This is highly surprising as religion and communist ideology usually do not see eye to eye. The fact you get to see Khiva as it is today, is partially thanks to the grand scale renovations carried out by Soviet leaders in the sixties of last century.
Getting around Khiva
Itchan Kala is very small, you can easily walk around to visit all the most important things to see in Khiva.
Navigating the maze of little streets is one of the top things to do in Khiva, however also one of the most frustrating. Google maps will help out, however it does tend to get just as lost as its human counterparts. Consider going old-school and getting a (free) map at your hotel or the visitors centre next to the Kalta Minor.
To make your life easier, go to the West Gate and look into purchasing an Itchan Kala entrance ticket. There are two types of tickets:
– Regular Ticket: 100.000 SOM will allow you to visit all of the main sites
– VIP Ticket: 150.000 SOM, includes everything that is in the regular tickets plus a few extra activities most notably climbing the Kodja Madrasah Minaret).
Things to see in Khiva
Time to visit old town and to find out exactly what to do in Khiva.
Itchan Kala is one of the first sites in Uzbekistan to be classified by UNESCO. This honor was bestowed upon it thanks to its authenticity and tribute to Muslim architecture in Central Asia. Think about it, the architecture of the town is still very much the same as it was when Khiva was ruled by a Khan over 500 years ago. Imagine the guards walking on the 10 meter high mudbrick walls, keeping an eye out for trouble, the Khan visiting one of his concubines in the stone palace or vendors selling their goods on the main marketsquare.
Itchan Khala is so perfectly preserved that it will not be hard to imagine what it felt like all those hundreds of years ago. The only downside is that it is a little “too” perfect and filled with hoards of tourists in high season, taking away that authentic feeling and replacing it with Disneyland-vibes.
The solution to that is pretty simple, visit when there is nobody around (yet). We set off in the early morning, around 07.00 to start exploring. The streets were deserted, aside from a few adventurous souls on the hunt for the perfect photo. Once the clock struck 09.00, like magic, busloads of tourists filled the streets and we made a beeline for breakfast.
Kalta Minor Minaret
One of the most known architectural feats in all of Uzbekistan, and it is not hard to see why. This turquoise-tiled minaret is a key attraction of the city and absolutely ranked number one of things to see in Khiva. It is located right off the main square and visible anywhere within Itchan Kala. For me personally I used it as a reference point because I kept getting lost in those small little streets.
The minaret was built with the intention to overlook the rival city of Bukhara. Construction commenced in the 19th century but came to a grinding halt 4 years in. The Khan on whose orders the minaret was being built, kicked the bucket. The builder, who was in charge of the project, had been a bit naughty and promised the rival city of Bukhara a bigger minaret. So he reportedly got thrown of the Kalta Minor minaret. That was the end of the Kalta Minor building project. So it stands today, presiding over the square in all its half-finished glory.
Practical details for visiting the Kalta Minor Minaret
Side note: It is not possible to visit the inside of the Kalta Minor Minaret unfortunately.
When to visit: Sunset offers the best light as it engulfs the surrounding buildings in a soft orange tone and the motifs in the tiles almost feel like they are dancing as the sun ricochets off them.
Khiva Juma Mosque
As an architectural fiend, this was one of the main places in Khiva I absolutely wanted to see. Funnily enough, we stumbled upon it accidently on day one, as it is conveniently located next to a public toilet.
The outside of the building is nothing special, you would never guess the beauty it holds within. The unassuming building is easy to walk right past, but boy would you would be missing out if you did.
The original Juma mosque, or Friday Mosque was built in the 10th century and extensively rebuilt in the 18th century. The main attraction are the 218 columns of time-worn wood which hold up the low ceiling of the main hall – You can skip all the other things to see in Khiva, but not this one – I assure you, you will want to see these columns.
Each column was intricately carved by hand, some of them dating back to the original 10th century building. The columns are a true testament to the long history of the city, and the carvings are like the pages in a history book – with calligraphy and traditional Khivan floral patterns depicting the many tales of this city. Running my hands over the columns instantly transported me back in time to the great Khanate of Khiva. What an exciting time that must have been!
Practical details for visiting the Juma Mosque
Entrance Fee: Included in the Itchan Kala City Ticket
Opening Hours: Every day 09.00 – 18.00
Time spent visiting: 45 minutes
Dress code: Dress modestly – For women this means covering both knees and elbows and no cleavage.
Note: You used to be able to climb the minaret to catch a view over the city. This however was no longer the case when we visited in November 2019.
Khodja Madrasah and Minaret
Aside from the eye-catching Kalta Minor Minaret, there is the one other building that dominates the skyline of old town Khiva. This minaret is the highest building in Itchan Kala, standing 56 meters tall – by modern day standards not very high at all. However, considering the average mudbrick building in the town is about two stories, the minaret towers over the town like an ancient skyscraper.
Surprisingly the building is a recent addition to 1500 year old Itchan Kala, dating back a mere 110 years. You can crawl up the stairs inside the minaret to the little observation deck at 44m high to catch a view of the city. I use the word crawl very deliberately as the stairs are tiny and spiralling steadily upwards. It gets pretty hairy when people are coming up and down simultaneously. I am not faint hearted, but this was a little too adventurous for my personal liking. My heart was beating in my throat from the get-go and about half way up I started breaking into cold sweats. No view was worth giving myself a heart attack over, so I swallowed my pride and sat myself on my butt and slide town one step at a time until I reached the ground floor.
The madrasah, to the right of the minaret, houses a museum with interesting history about Khiva. Add it to your list of things to do in Khiva if you have some extra time.
Practical details for visiting the Khodja Madrasah and Minaret
Entrance Fee: Climbing the Minaret is not included in the regular ticket. Pay 2USD at the entrance to go up. If you have purchased the VIP ticket, the visit is included.
Opening Hours: Every day 09.00 to 18.00
Time spent visiting: 30 Minutes (depending on foot traffic in the minaret)
Kuhna Ark Fortress and Watchtower
Time to visit the home of the Khan, his close and extended family and of course his harem. This fortress is the largest building in Itchan Kala, measuring a whopping 1,2 hectares. It is a labyrinth of courtyards, little corridors and interesting rooms all built to provide the utmost privacy for its inhabitants.
The fortress is located by the west gate of the city, right on the main square in the heart of Itchan Kala. The original structure was erected in the 12 century, however like most of Itchan Kala it too underwent many reconstructions most notably the facelift it received in the 17th century.
One of the things to see in Khiva is the sun setting over the city. There is no better place to view this spectacle than from the watchtowers of Itchan Kala. In a funny turn of events, the watchtowers, once used to protect the fortress and the city against potential foreign invaders, are now opening their doors to the descendants of those foreigners to come witness the beauty of the city.
For a small additional fee of USD2 you can climb up the stairs and enjoy the view. The ark closes at around 18.00 but the watchtower will stay open until right after sunset. After which you will be shooed down and out of the premises.
Practical details for visiting the Kuhna Ark Fortress
Location: Near the cities West Gate on the main square.
2 minutes walk from the Kalta Minor Mosque
Entrance Fee: Kuhna Ark Fortress included in the regular ticket, 2USD to climb the watchtower
Opening Hours: 09.00-18.00
Time spent visiting: 2 hours
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
This mausoleum is dedicated to the patron saint of Khiva, Pahlavon Mahmud. Pahlavon was an Iranian poet and writer who lived in the beginning of the 14th century.
The tomb dates back to the 14th century but was rebuilt into a mausoleum in the 19th century. Head straight for the building opposite the entrance, and be sure to take off your shoes before walking inside.
As morbid as it might seem to place a mausoleum on the list of things to do in Khiva, you will understand why it is on the list once you walk inside. The mausoleum is tiled from floor to ceiling in deep blue tiles. The architecture is very similar to that found in Iran. The grand chandelier in the main hall illuminates the intricate decorations that snake up towards the ceiling. It will quiet literally take away your breath. This is without a doubt the prettiest spot in all of Khiva.
Practical details for visiting the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
Entrance Fee: Included in the regular ticket
Opening Hours: 09.00-18.00
Time spent visiting: 45 minutes
Dress code: This is an Islamic mausoleum so the keyword is modest. For women you will need to cover your elbows and knees.
Tach Khaouli (Stone Palace)
Welcome to the summer palace of the Khan, located in the eastern part of Itchan Kala. This palace was built in the 19th century according to the height of architectural fashion of the day. It contains more than 160 rooms and no less than 3 large courtyards. It is neatly divided into three parts: The Harem, The Entertainment Halls and The Court of Justice.
You might be thinking “not another palace on this list of things to do in Khiva, we have seen one already”. Trust me, you will want to see this one too and take in all the stunning blue tiles on offer. My absolute favorite part is the harem, which incidentally is the first large courtyard you see when entering through the northern entrance. The Harem contains 5 rooms, one for each of the Khan’s official wives and one for himself, which lay behind the 5 beautifully decorated blue-tiled aivans.
What is a Khan without his concubines? They too were housed in this courtyard, albeit a little less luxuriously than the official wives. Opposite the rooms of the official wives you will notice a few balconies. This is where the reported 41 concubines of the Khan shared their rooms.
The palace is a bit of a maze so I would recommend getting a guide to explain about the little corridors and to get you to the best courtyards. When we were there, sadly most of the place was closed for the upcoming winter.
Practical details for visiting Tach Khaouli
Location: We entered through the northern entrance of the palace museum, it was a bit tricky to find. It is located between the Caravanserai and the actual palace.
Entrance Fee: Included in the regular ticket
Opening Hours: 09.00-18.00
Time spent visiting: About two hours
Visit a Silk Carpet Weaving Shop
Perhaps not something at the top of your list of things to see in Khiva, visiting a silk carpet weaving shop. But you might be looking for an authentic souvenir to take back home with you though.
Khiva is known for its artisanal hand weaving of silk carpets. You can find a number of ateliers dotted around Itchan Kala. The dies used are natural and the patterns are inspired by colors and designs found around Itchan Kala- think of the floral tiles on the mosques or the carvings on doors. The long production process of the carpets (roughly 4 to 5 months) explains the pricey nature of the carpets (anywhere between 1500USD and 2500USD).
If you are looking for a souvenir that is a little less expensive or easier to fit into your suitcase, you might consider looking into a piece of traditional embroidery (suzani). Readily available around Ichan Kala, sold by leathery-faced street vendors with big smiles.
Looking to support a good cause? A project was set up my UNESCO and Operation Mercy to train the poorer locals and provide them with skills to generate income for the family through the weaving of silk carpets. You can check out the project here.
Where to eat: Vegetarian-friendly Khiva Restaurants
Finding good vegetarian alternatives in Khiva is a bit of a struggle. While many restaurants have one or two vegetarian options, they are usually not particularly flavoursome. The below restaurants offered the best views and vegetarian options we could find in Khiva.
1. Terrace Restaurant
Located on the main square, overlooking the Kuhna Ark. This restaurant has multiple vegetarian options, and also has a very tasty selection of cakes. One of the things to do in Khiva: have a slice of cake and watch the sunset from the balcony of the terrace restaurant.
2. Malika Kheivak
Located off main street, this place is actually a beautiful hotel. It offers a tasty breakfast selection filled with local delicacies. It is one of the few places with a decent selection of vegetarians food in Khiva. I tried the pumpkin stuffed dumplings which were very tasty. Portions are small, so think about order two dishes if you are hungry.
How to get there: Tashkent to Khiva
Uzbekistan has a very well developed train system which makes it easy to get around the country. In addition, in most touristy cities, there is always someone around that speaks enough English to help you out. There are different types of trains ranging from high speed trains, to slow trains that stop everywhere. Be sure to ask before purchasing your ticket what type of train you are getting on.
We took the night train from Tashkent to Khiva. We ended up getting the economy sleeper, which was a little intimidating at first but thanks to the lovely nature of the Uzbek people turned out to be a wonderful experience.
To get traintickets from Tashkent to Khiva you need to go to the main trainstation in Tashkent. There are two buildings, one is the main entrance hall and to the left off it you will find a smaller building which houses the ticket office. Go inside and go straight to the reception desk on your left hand side. The ladies there speak English and will be able to help you out. To buy a ticket you need to show your passport and pay in cash. You can check your train schedule in advance on uzrailpass.uz , but best to purchase your ticket online.
On the train itself you can purchase food and drink through local vendors coming by ever so often. We opted to have our own food and drink with us as there were no vegetarian options available on the train.
I hope this guide to list of things to see in Khiva was helpful and provides inspiration for your trip to Uzbekistan. Stay tuned for my 10 day guide to Uzbekistan filled with practical details on visiting this beautiful country.
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