August 28, 2021: My 30th Birthday
I woke up a 30-year-old man in my hostel dorm in Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan. Yesterday I had arrived from Tajikistan and spent the day getting my bearings, obtaining a SIM card, local cash, and the all-important police registration form.
My Russian-speaking line-dancing friend from LA named Paul and I headed to the Tashkent airport for a domestic flight to Urgench, a medium-sized city in the western reaches of Uzbekistan.
The flight took 90 minutes, and we flew over pretty much nothing but sand. The Kyzylkum Desert.
Once we landed, we were met by a shuttle driver from the guesthouse I had booked online. Sacha, did not speak any English. However, like most Uzbek men, he speaks Russian and could communicate with Paul. They seemed to be having an awesome conversation…unfortunately, I could not understand any of it.
Sacha took us on a detour en-route to Khiva. First, we stopped at an ancient Turkmen-style fortress. Given the proximity of Khiva to Turkmenistan, it is unsurprising that some ethnic Turkmen live in the region.
The fortress is now a hotel run by the descendants of the former ruler. There is also a museum. Paul and I enjoyed trying on the wooly Turkmen-style hats that look like cavemen hats. The hats seem awfully silly in the summer, but I am sure they are useful in the winter.
We eventually reached Khiva by noon- two hours into what I imagined was going to be a 30-minute ride. Before checking into the guesthouse, Sacha insisted on taking us to see the new swanky train station. As of earlier this year, tourists can now catch a high-speed rail from here all the way to Tashkent.
Finally, we checked into our guesthouse, which is run by a man named Abdullah. Abdullah, a pious dad in his late 30´s, spoke fluent Russian and only limited English. Luckily, Paul was there to translate. We paid for the room in cash and arranged our logistics for transport to Bukhara. We were then free to explore.
Khiva has a wild and storied history. The legends say that Shem, the son of Noah, founded the city in the wake of the Great Flood. Based on an omen, he dug a well and was surprised by the pleasant taste of the water.
Khiva started to become a bustling town 1,000 years ago. It became the capital of a small independent Khanate (like a kingdom except its leader is called a khan). The khanate was under nearly constant attack from Turkmen, Russian and most notably Bukharan forces. In the 1700´s, the town developed into a Silk Road trading center. Caravans of exotic goods as well as slaves would be brought across the desert to Khiva to be sold. The Khans of Khiva were known to be exceedingly brutal and countless gruesome executions must have occurred here over the centuries.
In 1873, the Russians conquered Khiva and installed a puppet khan as ruler. That lasted until the Russian Revolution when the Communists along with the minority formally seized Khiva and stripped the city of both its monarchy and power.
Today, Khiva remains a perfectly preserved walled old town (called Itchan Kala) with relics from the year 1,000 all the way up to the early 20th century. There is a small modern city that surrounds Itchan Kala.
The Itchan Kala is often called a “living museum” due the large extent of the sights and perfect preservation. Even though they look similar, the buildings date from the 1200´s all the way up to the early 1900´s when the last khan was finally disposed. Unlike the other living museum I have visited, Bhaktapur, Nepal, very few locals live in Ichan Kala; its existence today purely serves the tourist. The tourists, historically a mix of older Westerners, fabric enthusiasts, and some locals have yet to return post-pandemic. So, Khiva today is a ghost town.
The Uzbek government knows that the ancient Silk Road cities are special and has been on a spending spree to turn them into global destinations for massive amounts of tourists. The infrastructure is almost there- workers are frantically replacing street tiles and restoring buildings. By 2022 or 2023, all the work should be done.
Entrance to Itchan Kala requires a ticket that costs 50,000 som (less than $5 USD). For an extra 100,000 you can visit all the 66 buildings open in the town (there is a lot of work being done, so its currently more like 40). These attractions include mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), palaces, homes, tombs and more! The number of attractions in Khiva is dizzying and you won´t get to visit (or find) them all. The ticket is good for 2 days if you want to spend an extra day here. Most people don´t, but you can and probably will not be bored.
Before exploring, we stopped for lunch. Despite having dozens of hotels and guesthouses, the Itchan Kala only has two restaurants. One of them has amazing reviews, so we went there. I ordered the local specialty shivit oshi, a green noodle made with dill and a glass of kompot, a mixed fruit juice popular in the Russian sphere of influence.
Finally, it was time to explore. I said it once before, but it is worth repeating: the number of buildings open to exploration in Khiva is astounding. Every time I would wander through an alley, I would stumble on a doorway and discover a secret museum.
We walked around for more than 7 hours. There were a few highlights for me. The first was the gigantic minaret in the center of town. The minaret can be climbed up the steepest staircase ever. At the top, you can get an amazing 360 degree view of town. While there, we witnessed an illegal chicken fight in a yard!
Another highlight was the Tosholvi Palace. The mazelike palace contained multiple ornate courtyards covered in blue tiles and the harem. The harem contained the khan´s preserved bedroom with all the furniture and the unfurnished bedrooms of his many wives and concubines.
A third highlight was the tomb of Pahlavan Mahmoud, a famous poet. While average (by Khiva standards) on the exterior, the interior has some of the prettiest tile displays in all of Uzbekistan. The domes are especially spectacular.
There are many many vendors selling souvenirs of mostly high quality. I held out until I found a suzani shop. The guy originally asked for $150. His final price was $48. You really must bargain hard here!
One of the funniest moments occurred early in the day. Paul wanted to exchange US dollars for Uzbek soms. Since there were no currency exchanges in town, we asked a hotel if they could help us out. The hotel referred us to a man in a nearby restaurant. Paul handed him the $200 and he walked away, saying that he needed to find the funds. I joked to Paul that his money was gone although realistically the chance of the man running off with the money was pretty low since we had his info and there were tourist police everywhere. In 10 minutes, the man returned with the cash: 2 million soms. Paul reveled in the fact that he was now a millionaire!
After a long and hot day of exploration, we watched the sunset from the Ark, a palace and fortress on the western wall of the city. There we watched the city glow!
I couldn´t help but think about the Aladdin song “A Whole New World” in this moment. I could not have imagined a more perfect way to celebrate my birthday.
For my birthday dinner, we ended up going back to the same restaurant where we drank a celebratory bottle of Uzbek wine. So far, my 30´s are off to a great start! I looked forward to our next day in Karkalpakstan.
Khiva is magical. Having seen many old cities in Europe, Khiva is right up there with the best of them. It reminds me of a larger Caceres but with a unique Uzbek touch. The city will get even better once all the restoration work is complete.
I have heard that the monuments here are less impressive than Bukhara and Samarkand. However, the assemblage of the monuments and general atmosphere of a completely intact old town in Khiva is unmatched. Therefore, I would highly recommend visiting Khiva before Bukhara and Samarkand. That way, as the monuments get larger, you are constantly impressed by what you see.