A Walk Through Old Town Khiva, Uzbekistan (VIDEO)
Born and raised in Samarkand, Abdu Samadov is full of inside information about Uzbekistan. He has studied in England and the U.S. and is fluent in English, Farsi and Russian. Abdu guides MIR travelers throughout Central Asia and enjoys sharing his knowledge with other travelers.
Here, Abdu describes his ideas for how to spend a day of sightseeing in Khiva, Uzbekistan’s legendary “living city.”
UNESCO-listed Khiva was once one of the most important desert oases along the Silk Route — a crucial way station for ancient traders and explorers, and the capital of the Khorezm Khanate, which ruled the surrounding area for over 300 years.
Though it’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times over, its fabled inner town, the Ichon Qala, still has the power to transport you back in time in a way that few other places can. Over 2,000 years of history have been remarkably preserved in its undulating city walls, blue-green tiled minarets, and mud-brick architecture, creating a city that’s part museum town, part re-creation of life hundreds of years ago.
Approaching Khiva’s old main gate (the Ata Darvaza, or “Father of Gates”), modern-day travelers experience the same sights as Silk Road caravans did — the dun-colored city walls, the main gate opening on a dusty stone thoroughfare, the distinctive banded minarets towering overhead, merchants hawking their wares at traders’ stalls and artisans’ workshops, and the hustle and bustle of life on the mud-walled streets all capture the incredible atmosphere and spirit of the ancient Silk Road oases.
Be sure to get yourself out of bed early and go exploring inside Ichon Qala, just as the city begins to wake up. I find these early morning hours to be really energizing for your soul and body: the stars still brightly glow in the early morning hours, casting a gorgeous backdrop against the whole city, and crowds are few, making this a great time to immerse yourself in local life and snap lots of fantastic photos.
At dawn, you may observe locals walking to the mosque near the Pakhlavan Darvaza (“Wrestler’s Gate”) for the morning prayer, while at Khiva’s local bazaar, you can spot traders bringing in goods for the day’s market. Girls often start sweeping the streets, and boys run through the narrow zigzagged lanes on morning errands. The scent of breakfast being prepared in family homes wafts through the streets, calling out with the pleasing aromas of fresh bread, milk, and cheese. A cacophony of sounds signals the start to the day: dogs barking, donkeys braying, roosters crowing, birds and crickets chirping, and camels grunting.
I recommend walking from the Ota Darvaza (“Father Gate”) to the Pakhlavan Darvaza, a route full of innumerable historic buildings and homes and small alleyways for you to discover. From Pakhlavan, you can then walk towards the Boghcha Darvaza (“Garden Gate”) where you can get access to the upper level of the city walls surrounding the town. Walk along the walls to see the sun rising over the town — a great opportunity for photography.
Entering the inner city from the eastern gate, you’ll come across two important sites. On the right hand side is a 176-year-old functioning mosque. Opposite the mosque is the local market of Khiva, famous for its rice, grains, fresh produce, dried fruits, butchers’ stalls, and fish market. Especially popular with locals on Sundays, the market provides a great opportunity for photography, and walking through the food stalls and crafts section is especially rewarding for those on the hunt for good buys. At the nearby Ala Kuli Khan Madrassah, you can purchase carved bookstands made of elm or handmade scarves as souvenirs.
As you walk through Old Town Khiva, don’t forget to peep into the numerous artisans’ workshops. Locals are friendly and hospitable, and you’ll often be welcomed with a big grin by the locals, many of whom are excited to share their stories.
The woodcarving workshop at Tash Darvaza (“Stone Gate”) is a unique place, and you can typically witness the usta (“master”) here teaching woodcarving skills to his apprentices. At the entrance of the main city gate is a hat-making workshop, where the local master can demonstrate the art of making Khiva’s special hats, chugirma.
If you’re looking for the silk carpets and suzani that Uzbekistan is famous for, then be sure to head to the Khiva Silk Carpet Workshop, which was opened as a joint project by Operation Mercy and UNESCO. As part of an effort to revive traditional crafts and designs while providing income and skills for underserved individuals, weavers at the center are trained to create stunning silk carpets and suzanis by hand, using natural dyes and time-honored techniques.
The most spectacular site in the Ichon Qala has to be the Juma Mosque. The base of this outstanding building rests on 213 magnificent wooden pillars located partially below ground level, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. Wood carving is a traditional speciality of Khiva, and some of the best examples of the craft can be found on these incredible wooden columns. It is cool inside even on hot summer days, so you could spend hours watching the sunlight cast revolving shadows from the mosque’s two square light wells, if you choose.
There are several places where you can see panoramic views of the city. The best is the platform at the Ak Sheykh Baba Observatory, which is located inside the Kunya Ark, once the fortress and residence of Khiva’s khans. A nominal fee of $1.50 USD grants you access to the top; you can pay at the ticket vendor located near the base of the platform. It is a rather easy climb to the top with a lighted passageway and some handrails offering support. You may observe the sunrise or sunset from this spot.
If you need to take a break at any point during the day, you can walk to the newly opened café on the city’s main square, another good stop to take photos and have a cup of coffee, made the old-fashioned way.
I often like to end the day with a climb to the top of the Islam Khodja Minaret. This imposing minaret was built over 100 years ago by Islam Khodja, a reformist vizier of Khiva. The minaret measures well over 187 ft, making it the tallest minaret in the city. Climbing the dark, spiraling, 81-stair pathway brings you to the upper observatory platform — the highest possible viewing point in the whole city. While the observation point is rather narrow, you’ll get an unbelievable panoramic view of the other minarets, domes, and architectural marvels of the town, with the mud roofs of old houses in the background.
Travel to Old Town Khiva & Uzbekistan with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan, with a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
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You can also travel on one of MIR’s handcrafted private independent travel itineraries, Essential Uzbekistan or Essential Central Asia, or book a custom private journey. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.
(Top Photo: A local offers a camel ride in Old Town Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photo credit: Peter Guttman.)
PUBLISHED: February 14, 2017