A Travellerspoint blog

Khiva - A slice of the Silk Route

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Being a lazy blogger means that this trip happened a few months ago and I am just getting around to write and share the wonderful memories from it. As always with our choice of destination, Uzbekistan (UZ) was not on the top of our list but got bumped up with recommendations from a cousin who travelled a few months ago and more importantly, it’s an e-visa to get there. Being an Indian passport holder means that I invest several months of planning to get a visa to most destinations and it’s hard to pass up on travelling to a country that welcomes you with an e-visa for $20!

That hurdle being overcome, we (my usual fellow travellers – husband and cousin) came up with an itinerary for 10 days that included Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva. Each place looked more gorgeous than the other and my school history (that failed me during exams) came back to me as I read about each of these places. We love travelling during the shoulder season whenever possible to avoid crowds and chose end November for this trip. It was definitely a colder time of the year to go but to have several places to oneself was an absolute bonus. Cold, crisp, sunny days characterized most of our stay in this country and coming from southern India, it was a welcome break from the heat.

I have a little topsy-turvy focus in life and usually do trips the opposite way to how most people plan a tour. In keeping with that spirit, we started our trip in Khiva and worked our way back to Tashkent. We are typically not travellers that favour organized tours and much prefer to explore places on our own, by car or foot. But Uzbekistan is not a place where this is easily accomplishable due to language barriers. Advantour (this is a personal recommendation of them and not a paid endorsement), an Uzbekistan based travel operator helped us plan this trip. Though they have several group packages, they did an absolutely fantastic job planning this private trip for us. Our travel coordinator, Anvar Kodirov, truly renewed my faith in organized travel.

Given the rich history in every little nook and cranny, it seemed easier to have a guide accompany us for city tours. It was my second experience with a guided tour, and I can honestly say that it was an excellent option for country such as this. Our English-speaking guides in Khiva and every city in UZ that we visited were excellent, well-read and professional. They could talk comparative history between UZ and India when relevant and it was such a pleasure having a conversation rather than listening to a by-rote narration. We learned that all guides are not just certified but re-certified each year to be able to work and the annual re-certification process includes updated content based on ongoing or recently completed excavations and/or studies.

Now, back to my favourite part of this wonderful trip – Khiva. We flew into Tashkent, rested the night and took an early morning flight to Khiva. An easy plane ride from Tashkent to Urgench and a half hour drive to the walled old city of Khiva. Should you choose to meander through the country, an overnight train is also available from Tashkent. Khiva is quieter, quainter and off the beaten track than Samarkand and Bukhara. And in the off season, Khiva is deserted and a perfect solitude getaway. Most of the hotels, especially in the inner city or Itchan Kala are closed and restaurants down to their skeleton menus.

Khiva is everything you could have imagined about a walled city – a charming maze of streets, a relic from the past, largely untouched by new-fangled changes. We stayed at the (Hotel Mallika Kheivak inside the walled city. The hotel was centrally located, and our room had a view of the spectacular Islam Khodja minaret. Being off season, the outdoor restaurant area was closed, so we limited ourselves to tasty and beautifully presented breakfast at our hotel. Despite limited availability of restaurants in the shoulder season, there was enough variety for us enjoy some excellent vegetarian fare. For our other meals we went to places such as the Terrassa Café. The restaurant was deserted, and menu limited to a few options. It was a quiet and warm place to wash down some dumplings with vodka. Bir Gumbaz was another option that offered some sumptuous vegetarian food. The friendly woman who runs it insisted we come back so she could whip us up other vegetarian choices of food and we did take her up on that offer and were not let down. We tried Café Zarafshon on our last night in Khiva. While the food was excellent, Zarafshon seems more geared to tourist groups than the other restaurants that we went to and it was both expensive and loud. The Shivit oshi, a dill pasted noodle dish is unique to this region and can be made with both vegetable and meat options. And the breads are to die for. The local breads are mouth-watering and look pleasing with their bread stamp patterns. The locally grown vegetables are fresh and a salad with every meal was delicious. Don’t forget to try the cold beer at Bir Gumbaz.
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Indian travellers are loved and welcomed, the ancient silk route connection with India and a more recent Bollywood connection seems to keep the bonds of fondness strong. It was our first experience being celebrities in a country where people wanted to have their photo taken with us in a not so creepy fashion! A Bollywood 101 was essential for us to contribute to several conversations on movies from the 70s until now.

Khiva was part of the famed silk route and slave trading post even before Uzbekistan became a country. It was an oasis for travellers as they traversed the dusty desert stretches of the silk route. The old walled city is an UNESCO protected site which helps retain its old-world charm but also imposes restrictions on its residents on what changes can be made. The old walled city is a made up of little streets that link or lead to the various gates of the city. A day is usually enough to check off the main sights of Khiva but we stayed an additional day and half to savour the town. A single ticket at the entrance to the city allows you access to almost all the sights in the city and is valid for two days.

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Walking through the labyrinth of streets reveals numerous madrassas each as or more beautiful as the previous one. Climb the walls of the city for gorgeous view of the towering minarets, the beautiful shades of blue breaking through the otherwise sandy landscape. The Kalta Minaret is the tallest in the city and promises you panoramic vistas of the city, but we chose to admire the minaret itself from its base and not huff our way up!! A visit to the Juma mosque, Citadel kunya-ark, Islam Khodja complex and the various madraasas with their large courtyards, rich history and the detailed workmanship leave you delighted and wanting more.

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Local shopping is a whole different experience here, vendors and local shops aren’t just a by-product here, it stares at you at every turn and twist in the street. I think that Khiva’s shopping options stem from it being a part of the Silk Route. Uzbekistan and particularly Khiva has been witness to various cultures and civilizations such as the Mongols, Turks and Arabs and this influence is distinct in the various facets of life. As the Silk Route gradually went away, the Soviets came into Uzbekistan and there is a significant Soviet influence in the secular nature of the country that we see today. The Soviets are also responsible for the preservation and repair of several iconic monuments in not just Khiva but all of Uzbekistan. Soviet Russia did not believe in religious symbols but they did not destroy the monuments associated with it either as we remembered from Poland and Czechia as well.

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The era we live in allows us the luxury of reading up about places and almost everything we need to know prior to travel and Uzbekistan is no exception. With the country promoting tourism, there is enough information available but one thing that I don’t recall reading about, possibly a new phenomenon, is the posse of tourist police available in all the major cities. Easily identifiable in their green uniforms, these individuals are available to help in most touristy areas. We wandered around Khiva at 9PM, which is not too late but in the off season, there is nary a soul in sight except for an occasional police guy walking by, giving you a sense of safety as you walk back from a restaurant.

November seemed to be a wedding season in Khiva. In the span of two and half days in Khiva, we saw close to ten wedding parties walk through town. A reasonably sized party of people accompany the bride and groom for a photo shoot around town. Near freezing temperatures and windy conditions were no deterrent for the bride displaying her gorgeous gown. A bevy of photographers orchestrate this shoot where foreign tourists are also invited to add what I’d like to think as an additional glam component!!! The Uzbekis have adapted some aspects of the western culture for the weddings and the brides are seen wearing white lacy gowns and walking through the city for a photo shoot, while the older ladies in the procession are flashing their gold teeth at you.

The hat sellers, the souvenir shops and pretty much all the city shuts down in the evening and we had the streets and courtyards to ourselves. An evening of uninterrupted wandering, reverentially soaking in the sights that seem especially available only to you. The lighted minaret and cobblestone alleyways make for a magical combination and perfect holiday.

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The following day, onward we went, on the slow train to Bukhara.

Posted by Harrypot 21:18 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged monuments central asia silk_route khiva Comments (0)

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