Erkin and I left Bukhara around 9:00 a.m. for the 6 hour drive northwest to Khiva. I really wished I could stay longer in Bukhara. It was, hands down, my favourite place in Uzbekistan to date. My B&B, Amulet, was perhaps the best B&B I have ever stayed in. The service was unbelievable, the location perfect, the bed as comfortable as they come and the breakfast out of sight. Melons, bread, danish and raisin buns, cheese, sausage, yoghurt, tea, fruit basket and a main course all placed on your table. They served pumpkin samosas as the main course the last day of my stay that were off the charts delicious … flaky, flaky pastry filled with mashed pumpkin with little hints of clove, cinnamon and cardamon and just a bit of hot spice. They were so tasty and I was raving so much about them, they gave me two for the road. And every day I came back from my tours they served me tea on the terrace with sweats. Truly a special place.
Anyway, I unfortunately had to leave and I wish I could say the drive to Khiva was as nice as my B&B. In fact the drive to Khiva can only be described in one word: BORING. We had to drive through the Kizilkum Desert on the worst pot holed filled road through one big monotonous sand pit. And this was not a desert that was even remotely interesting. I have driven through deserts on past travels (Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia) and been entertained by herds of camels or the periodic oasis. This was six hours of nothing. Seriously. In fact, it wasn’t until hour 3 that we even passed a building. The biggest highlights came when we passed overloaded cars that were ready to tip over, the grayish sand turned to brownish sand, and I actually saw a herd of horses. And with a driver who did not speak a lot of English, it was pretty hard to stay awake.
Around 1:00 p.m. we finally reached a little desert town and stopped for lunch. Fortunately, the manti (dumplings with meat) I had for lunch along with a tomato and cucumber salad was delicious and took my mind off the remaining 2 hour drive to Khiva.
It wasn’t until around 2:30 that we finally reached the outlier city of Urgench, a heavy duty industrial town. I did not see any redeeming qualities in the town that would make me want to visit. Just lots and lots of oil tanker trucks, industrial buildings and gas stations. Fortunately, the drive to Khiva was only another 45 minutes and at this point we had left the sand behind.
We drove through the old mud brick city walls to the Ichon-Qala (inner walled city) where I would be staying in the converted manor house of an old artisan’s family. They still live there and have converted a portion of the home into a B&B. I was given a lovely little room with a balcony that overlooked the western city wall. And bonus: the B&B has a rooftop deck from which to view the city as the sun sets so of course, I took full advantage of the deck and was rewarded with a magnificent and peaceful sunset as I was the only one on the deck.
On Wednesday morning, my local guide Mohammad, met me at 10:00 a.m. for a tour of the Inchon-Quala (again, the inner city), which is a UNESCO world heritage site since the early 1990s. Now Khiva is believed to have existed since at least the 8th century, but remnants of Zoroastrian buildings have led people to believe that settlements have been her for over a thousand years or more. All of the buildings are made of mud brick and of covered in a mud and straw plaster that is replaced every six or so years. The uniformity of the buildings really enhanced the ancient look and made you feel like you were wandering through a bygone era.
Anyway, we walked through the old mud brick city to the west wall gate where we began our tour. As we walked to the west gate, we could hear music and singing. It turns out that Friday is the beginning of a large music festival in the old city and the local schools were practicing. I stood and watched for a bit as the kids repeated their moves over and over again under the watchful eye of their teacher.
So once we paid my entry fee for access to all the old city sites, we walked back through the west wall gate to the 19th-century Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa. Now the building was actually not that interesting as it had been turned into a hotel. And while the inner courtyard was lovely, the hotel had not done much to preserve the inner character of the madrassa. However, I will admit that the exterior remained lovely.
Perhaps the best feature of the madrassa was the Kalta Minor Minaret. Now this was not like any minaret I had ever seen. It was short, rotund and covered in turquoise tiles. Apparently, construction on the Kalta Minor Minaret began in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who according to Mohammed wanted to construct a minaret high enough to see Bukhara. When the Khan died unexpectedly in 1855 the minaret construction died with him so the squatty blob of a minaret survives.
We next walked along the VERY ragged cobblestones to the Kuhna Ark, which was originally constructed in the 12th century by Ok Shihbobo and then added to by rulers over the years with substantial expansion in the 17th century. The Ark included the Khans’ harem, mint, stables, arsenal, barracks, mosque and jail. Today, however, the only remains are 19th-century summer mosque, the mint and the open air throne room.
The summer mosque was really quite lovely with beautiful blue and white tiles and a spectacular painted roof. The mint was a converted museum that housed artifacts found in the Ark, including coins and pottery.
We left this side of the Ark and walked back towards the entrance through an open air courtyard and through another doorway to the open-air throne room. In the middle of the courtyard was circular platform on which the khans would keep a yurt. It was unclear to me why they used yurts since the people living in the Khiva area were not nomads.
Near the back side of the throne room was a watchtower that people could climb for 10,000 som for a view of the city. The view I had from my B&B wasn’t quite as high, but I figured I had seen the view the night before so no need to climb the tower.
We left the Ark and stopped in the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassa that had been turned into a little museum where I saw a replica of the khans’ throne as well as artifacts from various periods in history, including a book of laws, a real property deed, and a Khan’s headstone dating to 1642. It was all a bit of a hodge podge of stuff, but here and there I found some really interesting artifacts.
By now, I was a little hungry so we headed to Tea House Mirza Boshi. The walk took us past a camel. Now I presume the camel was there for picture taking, but I wanted no part of that camel. I have a history with camels as many of my friends and family know so I moved as fast as I could past that wretched beast. (But of course I snapped a picture. Fortunately, it did not come after me.)
Anyway, we reached the restaurant where I watched a woman make and bake bread in a tandoori oven. We then proceeded to have some of the bread, which had bits of vegetables and amazing spices, and then ate “shivit oshi”, which consisted of dill noodles served with a mixture of meat and carrots with yoghurt on the side. Apparently Khiva is the only place you can find this and it was spectacular!
After lunch, we walked out the tomb of Pahlavon Mahmud, who was a poet, philosopher and a wrestler of some stature. Mahmud became Khiva’s patron saint and in the 1800s, his 1326 tomb was rebuilt. The tomb looked similar to many domed madrassas and mosques I had seen throughout Uzbekistan with lots of blue azur and tile.
To the south of where we were standing was the Islom-Hoja Medressa and minaret both built in 1910. We did not to into the madrassa or minaret. Mohammed advised that although I could climb the minaret, the stairs are pretty rickety. OK then. No climbing of the minaret. I don’t want to be the one on the stairs when they crumble.
The next stop of the afternoon was a visit to the Juma Mosque. The mosque has not been used since before the Soviet takeover, but remains a holy site. The building was constructed in the 18th century and has 212 carved columns. The majority of the columns were carved in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there are 21 columns that date from the 10th to 12th century and have ancient writings carved into the wood.
In the middle of the room was a garden-house like building that is said to either be the location of the first Islamic lecture in Khiva or has some ancient Zoroastrian meaning. This was by far my favourite site in Khiva. The mosque was quiet and peaceful, had lots of history and had these amazing skylights cut into the building to fill the room with light. Really lovely.
We left the mosque and walked towards the east gate. The east gate contains a long, vaulted 19th-century passage. There were large carved doors and a number of vendors (as elsewhere in the old city) selling hats, clothing, jewelry, pottery and on and on. Just outside the east gate was the location of Khiva’s vaunted slave market. (Khiva was the center of the slave industry in the ancient times were captures prisoners where auctioned off to the highest bidder.)
Just before the gate on the right side was the Anusha Khan baths. I was super excited to see the baths when Mohammad pointed them out, but unfortunately my excitement was short lived once I found out that the site was closed. Bummer.
Our next stop was at the Allakuli Khan Madrassa, which is now home to artisans and workshops. We met two fellows who were potters and weavers, and frankly, pretty darn funny. When the potter found out I was an attorney and was travelling for four months, he wanted to know if I would become his second wife. Uh … that would be a big fat NO. However, it made for some good laughs.
The weaver wanted to show me his trade so we all went into the back where he showed me how he wove cloth on a loom. He is so good that the government has hired him to teach others the trade so that the weaving technique is not lost in the generations to come. (And yes, I did buy some a silk/cotton blend of cloth to be made into a new blouse for work.)
After the weaving demonstration and marriage proposal, we walked parallel to the eastern wall past the Allakuli Khan Bazaar & Caravanserai. The bazaar is a domed market, which opens onto Khiva’s modern Dekhon Bazaar at its east end. Most of the bazaar was closed for renovations.
The last building we visited was the Tosh-hovli Palace, which means ‘Stone House’ and was constructed by Allakuli Khan between 1832 and 1841. The only portion of the building that was open was the harem. Now the entrance we entered was not the original entrance since we entered directly into the harem, which is a no go when the harem was in use. The harem was divided into two sides, the side for the four wives and the side for the concubines. There were four doorways on the wives side: one used by the Khan, one used by the wives, one used by visitors and one used by the servants. Each portal was colourfully decorated and had beautiful tile work.
I was able to visit one of the rooms of a wife and it was lavishly decorated with a four poster bed and ornamental carvings. It was also interesting to contrast the two sides of the harem. On the family side the doorways and decorations were incredibly lavish while the concubine side was simple and without a lot of decoration.
So after the palace, it was time to call it a day. I thanked Mohammad for his fabulous guidance, said goodbye and then walked the short distance back to my B&B.
After a bit of a rest, the sun began to set and decided it was a good time to take another walk around the old town. By now the tour buses had all gone and only a few tourists stying in the limited number of B&Bs and hotels in the old city remained. And it was this time of night when the locals came out. Because the old city is occupied by hundreds and hundreds of residents, they are usually lost amongst the tourists.
However, as I wandered the streets I could hear people having dinner, people on terraces having tea, people simply wandering the streets and yes, hordes of little boys playing the beautiful game. As the sun disappeared the call to prayer echoed out through the old city and I decided that was the best way to end the day.