After a long drive across the yellow Kyzlkum desert from Bukhara, we finally crossed the mighty Oxus river (now called the Amu Darya) to arrive in the legendary city of Khiva.
For all its golden beauty and turquoise tiled domes, my first impression of Khiva is that it is a bit of a ghost town. It has been perfectly preserved by the Soviets and their successors but seems in many ways an exhibit retained only for tourists.
For tourists who are willing to travel a long way from anywhere to see where the Khans reigned with terror from behind their bulging fortifications.
The Khanate of Khiva ruled from 1511 to 1920, although it became a Russian protectorate in 1873, prefiguring incorporation into the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. Khiva was a point of contention during the “Great Game” as Britain and Russia vied for influence in Central Asia.
Despite the faintly museum-like atmosphere, in the end we were far from disappointed with the Islamic architecture and the hospitality of Khiva. For a start just take a look at the ramparts of the city:
Walking the darkened streets of Khiva in the evening, after the harsh sun of the day has receded, the bricks radiate their retained heat, tiny bats fly about your ears and then you can imagine the fearful subjects of the Khans living here.
Now all that remains are peaceful Medressahs and richly-ornamented royal courtyards. Khiva is a city of turquoise tiled domes and minarets. Watching the sunset bathe the walls and buildings in golden light from the terrace on the oldest part of the Ark.
A market stall of the huge, shaggy Turkmen-style telpek hat is an excuse for some photo opportunity laughs but apparently they wore them even during the heat of the Central Asian summer!
The summer palace and mosque inside the Ark fortress are beautiful. Pillared and facing away from the sun, the walls and balconies are completely covered in tiles. In the Tosh Kouli palace the interior roofs are lined with carved and painted wood.
Where to stay and eat in Khiva
We stayed at a very nice little B&B in Khiva – the Hotel Islambek – on the edge of Inchon Quola (the old town). And we found one of the few really good meals in Uzbekistan! At the Hotel Khiva they put on a good spread for the coach tour groups but independent travellers can eat here also. A table loaded with bread and many different types of salads, cheese, nuts, cold water and chay. Some very tasty plov and a savoury sauce with potato, carrot and rice meatballs. To finish, cake and a big dish of cherries. All served in a 19th-century vaulted dining room of cool, white-plastered stone. I have to admit we went a bit mad on it.
By Natasha von Geldern