Sunday, 11 November 2012


From Bukhara to Khiva in 24 annoying hours

Getting from Bukhara to Khiva took one full day, and was not a fun process: far better to take the night train from Samarkand (or Tashkent). Even if you're dumb, like me, and visit Tashkent, Samarkand, and finally Bukhara in geographical sequence, it would still be better to backtrack from Bukhara to Samarkand just to take the night train.

The reason I say this is because the road from Bukhara to Urgench is really bad, and in order to take it you'll need to get a ride in a shared taxi. As with other places, getting a shared taxi often isn't fun, and often involves hours of waiting around. For me, the taxi process involved showing up at the bazaar in the morning, negotiating with a driver until we reached a reasonable price, then waiting in the car while he solicited more passenger. Then, after an hour of waiting, he returns to the car with three passengers who want to go somewhere else, so tries to kick me out of the car, while I argue with him for a while and tell him to find me another driver going to Khiva or Urgench for the agreed price. He finally does, after first threatening to run me or my bag over. Then it's another hour waiting for the other car to fill up, followed by a half hour of driving around Bukhara in search of something. I had assumed we were looking for cargo, but after slowly driving past a few fuel stations where no fuel was being pumped but whose long lines of cars—some parked until the station started pumping again, others with driver asleep inside or nearby—at the entrance would make the 1973 oil crisis look minor in comparison,  I understood we needed to get some gas. This was followed by us starting our drive outside of town, then the car sputtering to a stop. After a few phone calls, another car shows up and hooks up a rope to tow us. We are then towed not into the city, but into the country, where we were taken to a fuel station that was open for service. There we popped the trunk and filled up the LP tank that so many cars in the region run on.

Finally fueled up and ready for the road, we set off on the bumpy hell-hole of a road (one would think a road through the desert would be fairly easy to maintain, but the potholes and eroded tarmac said otherwise) to Urgench. At about the halfway point we made a stop, and one of the ladies in the back who was traveling with her daughter (they were sharing a seat) asked to change places with me; I was in the coveted front seat, which the first passenger inevitably secures. I was kind of surprised, because everyone knows the front seat is the best and I've never seen it conceded, nor anyone ask for it if someone else was in it, but I relented and got to be squeezed in the back.

Between the time spent waiting, the time spent getting fuel, and the poor road, it was well after dark when we pulled into Urgench, and were deposited just north of the train station (a brand new and gleaming facility, though they don't get many trains out there). A bus pulled in at about the same time, and there were some taxis milling around. Not many were going to Khiva, which is about 35km away, but one woman who was going there teamed up with a driver to try and scam me. Well, really she's the one who tried to scam me, saying that we could split the cost of the car to Khiva, and that if we each paid 25,000 sum we could leave immediately. This was half as much as I had paid from Bukhara (which is over ten times further, on worse roads), and although she insisted she would have to pay the driver just as much (which he confirmed), it was clear that I would be paying for more than the car would cost and she would take a cut of the money after pretending to pay the driver. Oh, Uzbekistan, how predictable you're getting.

I refused, and ended up being taken to a nearby restaurant and guesthouse by a local. I was a little surprised they would let me stay (since they obviously weren't set up to take foreigners and didn't issue registration slips), but it was only $5 a night for pretty basic accommodation with a slightly grotty shared bathroom.

The next morning I set out to try and find the trolley bus that runs between Urgench and Khiva, which was actually fairly difficult since LP is predictably vague on the details of where to catch it. I ended up walking to the outskirts of town, and starting down the road to Khiva, thankfully ignoring one stretch of overhead lines near the center, as they didn't actually serve this trolley bus.  As I walked along the trolley line towards the stop I was able to get a closer look at cotton crops in the field: they were dry scraggly little plants in parched soil, quite unlike the steamy and humid conditions I associate with the American South, which is the place I most associate with cotton.


Khiva, like all Khorezm sites in this arid region, owes its existence to the Amu Darya (aka Oxus) river and the fertile delta it formed as it emptied into the nearby Aral Sea. The Amu Darya river is the product of the confluence of the Pyanj river (which we saw in the Wakhan valley, and which forms much of the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and the Vakhsh river (which is what the Kyzyl suu river that we first saw in Sary Mogol turns into in lower Tajikistan): it's amazing how these rivers we saw over a thousand kilometers away continue to shape and inform the cultures we see weeks later. The Amu Darya is also what led the Soviets to decide that intensive cultivation of cotton was a good idea, a decision which has disastrous consequences for the Aral Sea, whose eastern shoreline has receded by over a hundred kilometers and which now contains only 10% of the water it held only 50 or so years ago. I mean, cotton in a desert: who could have seen this coming?

Once on the slow little trolly bus from Urgench, the ride to Khiva took about an hour, during which time we trundled through these bizarre fields of cotton and other crops before being deposited next to the northern gate of the Ichon Qala, or walled city. This drop-off location allows for a pretty inspiring introduction to the city, as it's just inside the northern gate that you can climb the walls and walk along the ramparts, getting nice views of the old town.

Just inside the northern gate.

Looking south over the rooftops of the walled city towards the main monuments. The taller minaret of the Islam Khoja madressa is on the left, while on the right is the shorter minaret for the Juma (Friday) Mosque.

View south from the western ramparts.

The iconic, unfinished, Kalta Minor minaret over the walls of Khiva's Kuhna Ark.


A view from the northwest ramparts. The watchtower of the Ark is the tower on the right, and its walls are the limit of how far you can walk on the ramparts. On the left is the Kalta Minor, and next to it is the iwan of the Muhammed Amin Khan madressa.

From the northeastern ramparts.

It's interesting to look out over old-city rooftops, though I'm surprised they aren't used more extensively as living or sleeping spaces.

For some reason these minarets do nothing for me. The proportion and tapering just seem wrong, the crowns seem under-sized, and the decorative bands don't seem to complement the natural brick very well. Bukhara's Kalon Minaret, in comparison, feels so much more natural and elegant, and it's easy to see why it was so widely copied.

View of the Tash-Hovli palace on the right, and the Allah Kuli Khan caravanserai and bazaar on the left.

Traditional architecture. I suspect these houses have been refurbished and/or reconstructed like houses in Kashgar, with old windows and doors being reused and mud/straw covering modern brick.

Scraggly weeds grow on the northeastern corner of the walls.

During my time up on the ramparts I only saw one or two other tourists. In retrospect, this is pretty surprising given how touristy and popular Khiva was even in the off season, as it had by far the most tourists, vendors, and shops of the three Silk Road cities saw in Uzbekistan. But in many ways the old walled city was like the old walled city of Pingyao, in China: hordes of tourists and tourist shops along a few main streets, but substantially less traffic and even pretty normal life elsewhere within the walled city, even as somewhat traditional architecture is preserved within the walls.

Accommodations in Khiva aren't as budget friendly as in Bukhara or Samarkand, and the LP-recommended place with dorms (located just outside the west walls, opposite the Ark) wasn't interested in negotiating their price of $10 per bed in a shared dorm. There was only one other person sharing the room, though, and they had wi-fi so it wasn't bad. I dropped my stuff and set out to explore after a quick shower.

Looking up at the unfinished Kalta Minor and its gorgeous decorations. I bet it would be uglier if it were finished.

Welcome to touristy Khiva:  a few dozen meters inside the west gate, looking along the main road that runs to the east gate, a road dominated by the Juma minaret (well, aside from the Kalta Minor which is just to my right). In the background you can see the attractive monochrome Sayyid Niyaz Shalikarbay minaret, attached to a madressa just outside the east gate.

The Pakhlavan Mahmud mausoleum with the Islam Khoja minaret behind it. This mausoleum remains a popular religious site, with hundreds of Uzbekis filing into the complex's courtyard, which is surrounded by multiple mausoleums.

Kalta Minor towers over one of the Muhammed Amin Khan madressa's minarets.

View of the Islam Khoja minaret down one of the busier tourist streets, as it also contains the entrance to the  Pakhlavan Mahmud mausoleum.

Souvenirs and handicrafts everywhere you look.

The Juma minaret peeks over some of the mausoleum domes.

The big green dome marks the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud himself. The interior is richly decorated with majolica tiles covering all the walls, as a result of work done in 1825. You'll see the word "majolica" in guidebooks a lot, but basically all it means is that the tiles were painted and/or sculpted before being fired: any polychrome tile is majolica.

Mausoleum domes inside the complex.

Though Pakhlavan Mahmoud died in 1326, the mausoleum was rebuilt in the 19th century, and undoubtedly subject to Soviet restoration since then.

Souvenir vendor.

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One of the more attractive angles for viewing the Islam Khoja minaret. The lack of harmony on this minaret is somewhat surprising considering it was built in 1910.

A small dome and minaret from the Islam Khoja mausoleum adjacent to the towering minaret.

The south walls of the Ichon Qala.

Another flattering view of the Islam Khoja minaret.

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The simpler Juma minaret, whose crown also feels woefully under-sized.

Tomb markers.

Simple baked bricks behind the ornate mausoleum facades and iwans.


Engligh-language signs are never a good sign, nor are the benches (complete with plush tiger) for posing for souvenir pictures.

Interesting minaret—and heavily reconstructed based on the state of the brickrwok compared to the surrounding wall—with wooden beams sticking out of it. This seems to be a common design feature in Khiva, and I wonder if it has to do with earthquake-proofing, as the "shaking minarets" in Isfahan has similar construction.


Get even a little off the main street and suddenly everything is empty, as this street behind the Muhammed Rakhim Khan madressa is.

As you can see from this view down a side-street, the other side of the madressaruns along the main east-west road, with all its shops.

A small patch of greenery separates the madressa from the main drag.

Inside the Juma mosque is a large prayer hall filled with 213 wooden columns, the oldest of which are from the 10th century even though the current mosque dates from 1788.

I'm sure the more ornately carved columns are of much more recent provenance, but they're glorious all the same.

After visiting the mosque I headed through the Allah Kuli Khan tim (covered market) and into the modern covered market just outside the east gate. It was pretty much your typical Uzbek covered market, with neat rows of vendors behind brick stalls selling attractively-piled produce and other goods. I noticed that a bunch of the vendors were eating plates of plov, and although the food-runner I flagged down as he was delivering some wasn't able to sell me any, he pointed me to the cafeteria where he was getting it. They say that eating where taxi drivers eat is usually a god way to get decent food at a god price, but in Central Asia a better rule may be to eat where the market ladies eat. It was good stuff, but the market plov in Dushanbe's Green market remains my favourite.

You can climb the Juma minaret, but the views from the taller Islam Khoja minaret are arguably more impressive.

Looking northeast from the minaret at the Allah Kuli Khan enemble. The building with a modern roof is the caravnserai, which has been converted to a modern covered market, while the domed building below it is the "tim" (covered market), which is apparently where slaves were traded well into the 20th century. To the right is his madressa. Not the rooftop chairs and benches for tourist photos—eliminating unsightly street scenes and opening the opportunity for period dress.

Paul Nadar took this picture of a slave market in 1890. Though it isn't from Khiva, but from elsewhere in what is now Uzbekistan, it is Khiva that is most famous for its slave markets.

Looking west over Kalta Minor and modern Khiva beyond the old city walls.

Looking down at the Pakhlavan Mahmud mausoleum.

A bird's eye view of the tourist stalls across from the mausoleum complex, and a wedding procession.

Descending the minaret stairs.


Looking west.

Turkmen-style sheepskin hats sold along the road.

Madressa in the shade of Kalta Minor.

Madressa minaret.

Probably the most attractive complete minaret, in my opinion, is this stubby little tower across from the Ark entrance.

The entrance to the Muhamed Rakhim Khan madressa is itself surrounded by a courtyard. Note the earthen tandoors in the foreground, with two upright ovens in the middle and one tilted tandoor at the right.

The entrance to the Ark, with the Kalta Minor behind.

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View from outside the west gate.


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Things begin to quiet down in the late afternoon.

The Ark's "summer mosque" (an iwan-style mosque that is open on one side is referred to as a summer mosque—at least if there is also an enclosed "winter mosque" in the same complex) sports a gorgeously-tile mihrab and wall.

Shops, shops, and more shops.

View from the Juma minaret (the ticket for the minaret is separate than for the mosque).


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Looking south to the Islam Khoja minaret.

East towards the Allah Kuli Khan madressa, with covered markets behind.

One of the Qutlugh Murad Inaq madressa's corner minarets, as viewed through a portal in the Juma minaret.

The Islam Khoja madressa's cells have been connected and turned into the museum for applied arts.

The Juma minaret in the evening golden hour.


Pretty green tiles perfectly complement monochrome brick with geometric banding.


Although Khiva had the highest concentration of souvenir shops and was the most intensely commercial of all the places I visited in central Asia—despite it being low season—it was surprisingly easy to find solitude by even one minute off the beaten path. And, like in Bukhara, once off the beaten path it was easy to find mosques and madressas that were largely ignored (though in Khiva there weren't any that were the completely unrestored piles of bricks you might see in Bukhara). Near sunset I happened on the Amir Tura madressa, which is actually on the main street leading to the north gate (which isn't used by tourists). Despite being on a main road, there were no tourists there, and the yard in front of the madressa was used by kids playing soccer. There were no shops or vendors inside the madressa, and it was possible not only to climb to the second level of the madressa and explore the abandoned and crumbling cells rooms next to the pishtaq (only the pishtaq and main entrance has two stories—the rest of the building has only one level) but to also climb on the domed roof of the madressa, clambering over the roofs of the cells and taking in the rest of the city.

One of the Amir Tura madressa's iwans at dusk.

View from the roof of the Amir Tura madressa.

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View south to the Islam Khoja and Juma minarets.

One of the madressa's corner minarets, with the Ark's watchtower in the distance.

The sun sets over the city walls.

A view from the west ramparts at sunset.

The Bikajan Bika minaret through a loophole in the city walls.

The city at dusk.


The sun sets between minarets. The tin-roofed building is the Alibek guesthouse, just across from the city walls. I stayed at the Lali-Opa, which is just a couple doors to the right.

Why are TV antennas so much more aesthetically pleasing than satellite dishes?

While walking the ramparts around sunset I passed a tourist sitting and reading from a kindle. Despite being a fantastic device for travelers (much lighter than even a single book, with long battery life and free internet access around the world if you have a 3G version), you don't see many people reading from them—everyone loves their smartphones and iPads. It turned out that this guy was also staying at the Lali-Opa guesthouse, as I met him later that evening. He was an American doing an ambitious around-the-world trip, and would be meeting up with his girlfriend in North Africa in a couple of months. As an American, Iranian visas were impossible without a tour guide/escort (a restriction that has since been extended to most Anglophone countries), so he was doing the northern route through Kazakhstan, across the Caspian, then Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia before hitting Turkey (an ideal trip would combine those countries with Iran). We swapped stories, and I vented about how much I found unlikable about Uzbekistan, shocking him with my story about breaking the van window in Samarkand. Of course, that story is pretty shocking, but the interesting thing is that I later ran into him in Istanbul, and he told me he was reminded of my story when he was in Kazakhstan (I think), and tempted to behave similarly.

Final thoughts on Khiva

Khiva is very much doable in one day, if a bit cramped. If you arrive in Urgench by train, and get to Khiva in the early afternoon, you'll probably be comfortable with only one extra day in Khiva. Combining Khiva with a daytrip to the nearby desert fortresses collectively known as Elliq-Qala would be ideal, and if you do this daytrip on your last day you can be dropped off afterwards in urgench (if taking the train to Samarkand/Tashkent) or in Beruni (if heading to Nukus) instead of returning all the way to back Khiva and backtracking.


November 9, from Bukhara to Urgench: 62,000 som + $5
  • Marshrutka to market: 600 som
  • Taxi to Urgench: 50,000 som
  • Cola, bread, pumpkin: 2,700 som
  • Cookies: 2,400 som
  • Room in Urgench: $5
  • Lagman: 6,300 som
November 10, from Urgench to Khiva: 6,700 som + $10
  • Dorm bed: $10
  • Trolley Bus: 700 som
  • Hot dog: 2,000 som
  • Bread: 1,000 som
  • Minaret: 3,000 som

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