From Bukhara to Khiva on a Soviet train
The excitement of my trip to Khiva -the last stop in my silk road journey across Uzbekistan- started in Bukhara train station at 4.20 am when I was waiting at the platform to board my Soviet night train to Khiva. I was allowed to board the train after getting my documents checked by a male Uzbek conductor; walked calmly to my compartment trying not to wake sleeping passengers up, and arrived at my compartment to see a man profoundly sleeping and very loudly snoring. I found clean and fresh sheets, pillowcases, and a mattress on the seat/bed and I prepared myself for a good night’s sleep so I took a sleeping pill to help me fall asleep in this not gently-moving Soviet train and despite the loud snoring coming from my compartment mate, I managed to fall asleep in a few minutes, thanks to the sleeping pill. I probably started to dream about being in Khiva, a gorgeous town on the silk road which I always wanted to visit. In this blog, I will share my impressions about Khiva, a beautiful town on the silk road that is a bit out of the way and not so easy to visit as it’s about 6.5 hours away from Bukhara by train.
This blog is the last one in this Uzbekistan series and it’s a continuation of what I started in my previous blogs about other cities in Uzbekistan. If you want to get a complete picture of travelling across Uzbekistan, I highly recommend that you go through my previous blogs about Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara.
At around 9.30 am, 1 hour before arriving in Khiva, I woke up in disbelief that I managed to get about 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep on an old Soviet train. When I woke up, I found out that my neighbour was preparing himself to get off the train as we were approaching the next stop which was the city of Urgench. I also noticed something on my face when I woke up, I touched my face more hoping to solve the mystery and to find out what was on my face, it turned out to be sand coming from the desert. Even though the windows were shut but some sand managed to get inside the compartment. I had no idea how such a thing didn’t wake me up. I arrived in Khiva on time and met a cool taxi driver whom I made a deal with to pick me up from the same hotel the next day to drive me to Urgench airport where I flew back to Tashkent.
A hot welcome to Khiva
I arrived at my hotel which is called the new star boutique hotel. The hotel used to be a madrasah (religious school) and I believe that it’s one of the best places to stay in Khiva. One night’s stay cost me around $35 USD which was slightly more expensive than my hotel stays in Samarkand and Bukhara but still very affordable.
I checked in to the hotel, showered, took a quick nap and then went out to have my lunch. I read good reviews about a restaurant called Khiva moon restaurant so I headed there for lunch and it turned out to be another amazing food experience in Uzbekistan. On my way to Khiva moon restaurant, I walked in the sandy alleys between the houses and realized that I was already deep inside the desert of Uzbekistan and that even alleys are sandy. It was about 37 degrees that day and I was walking at noon time so the first thing I ordered at the restaurant to quench my thirst was a glass of fresh Kompot (Russian:Компот) and then ordered Kabob steak and a Samsa. Everything tasted great and the place was nice and comfortable; you get to sit on a sofa while food is served on a large tray so you need to take off your shoes before sitting. Once again, it was a lovely experience and didn’t feel that hot thanks to the shade.
Being in Khiva felt like being in another time
Ancient-looking buildings, blue domes, and elegant minarets decorated with blue-green tiles are everywhere. Walking inside the inner town felt like being in an open-air museum. Almost everything in this beautiful town is preserved so you don’t need to imagine what it looked like back then. Most of the buildings in the town aren’t as old as they look (They’re actually from the 19th century) but the town looks so old because architects continued to build in the same style over centuries without being influenced by any trends. One of the historical names of Khiva includes Khwarezm (Arabic: خوارزم), it’s the birthplace of al-Khawarizmi who is famous for his mathematical works, which introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and algebra to European mathematicians. In fact, the words algorithm and algebra come from his name and the title of one of his works, respectively. He is known as the “father of algebra”, a word derived from the title of his book, Kitab al-Jabr. He’s a true genius. Khwarezm is the birthplace of another famous Muslim scholar -Αl-Biruni- who was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, studying physics and natural sciences too. He was the first able to obtain a simple formula for measuring the Earth’s radius. Moreover, he is known as a pioneer in the field of comparative religion in his study of, among other creeds, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.
Exploring Khiva with a knowledgeable guide
Before heading to the inner town which was about 5 minutes walk from my hotel, I asked my hotel receptionist about English-speaking guides and the receptionist advised me to go to the gate and look for a guide there. I arrived at the Western gates of the inner town and was fortunate to meet a knowledgeable English-speaking guide. I agreed to hire him to show me around the inner town for 2 hours. In all honesty, I don’t remember how much I paid for his service but I believe it was a very affordable rate and I am so glad I did so. He informed me that I should buy a ticket to pass the inner town gates and that’s what I did so I got a ticket along with a map and then we started the tour.
The inner town of Khiva inside the gates is known as “Ichan-Kala”. It has been protected as a UNESCO heritage site since 1990. In the 20th century, and after many years of neglect, the town was in ruins before it got fascinatingly restored by the Soviets in the 1960s; The city walls were restored to their former glory and palaces and minarets were given a much-needed repair. The old town of Khiva never looked more glamorous, sparkling clean, and well-maintained than it did in the final days of The Soviet Union.
I spent two hours with the guide so I received tons of detailed information about the history of Khiva. It’s incredibly difficult to summarize everything I learned in one single blog so I will do my best to summarize it as much as possible. In the end, this is just a travel blog about my personal impressions of visiting certain places, not a history guide.
The tour started right next to Kalta Minor minaret, an unfinished minaret located near the west entrance to the Ichan Kala (old city). It was commissioned in 1851 and intended to rise over 70 meters. However, the Khan (King) of Khiva died before finishing this marvellous minaret, which ended the project when the minaret reached 26 meters. Even though it’s unfinished, the structure is still dazzling, covered from top to bottom with Khiva’s signature blue-green tiles and various geometric patterns.
We continued the guided tour and made a long stop at Juma Mosque, which was one of the most stunning sites I have seen in Khiva. The mosque was first documented in the 10th century but was rebuilt in 1788. The mosque is supported by 215 pillars, each one of which is decorated differently and was built in a different period.
The Khan’s Harem
The Khan’s Harem is another remarkable site that is worth sharing; this site was the residence of Khan’s wives, harems, and subjects. In addition, it was a symbol of their force and power over other states. There’re 4 major residents for the Khan’s official wives and countless rooms for the rest of his harem. The first resident is for his first wife, chosen by the Khan’s mother, the 2nd and 3rd residents are for his 2nd and 3rd wives, usually, princesses from other kingdoms and the 4th room belong to his 4th wife, chosen by the Khan himself. Women in the harem were brought from different slave markets and were carefully selected.
A gorgeous view of Khiva from a rooftop
After more than 2 hours of touring the inner town of Khiva and after endless entertaining conversations about the controversial history of this gorgeous town, we arrived at the last spot of the tour which is a rooftop where we could enjoy a panoramic view of the town. It was such a magical moment yet I had some conflicted feelings while being there; I felt content that I finally accomplished my silk road tour and I saw everything I wanted to see and that I created a tremendous amount of beautiful memories but at the same time, I realized that my magnificent trip was coming to an end and I will be heading back to Toronto to resume my robotic and predictable life.
The view from the rooftop was breathtaking and I remember that I spent more than half an hour there admiring the wonderful view of this beautiful and mysterious town and taking so many pictures.
Later in the evening
After the guided tour, it was time for dinner. The guide recommended to me a place called “Terrassa Cafe”. I checked the reviews on google maps and thought that it should be a good recommendation. A wonderful coincidence happened to me when I was at the restaurant and it’s related to the restaurant I had lunch at in Bukhara the day before but I’m not going to share the story here because, well, it is private and I don’t share everything here. They’re some travel stories which I either prefer to keep to myself or I share with a very limited number of people. You’re welcome to ask me about it privately and I may (or may not) tell you. It’s a wonderful coincidence though yet it’s unbelievable and unforgettable. Oh, by the way, I tried green noodles, a summer specialty in Khiva and once again, it was another delicious meal in Uzbekistan.
Leaving Khiva back to Tashkent the next morning
I informed the hotel that I would leave for the airport at 7 am. They normally serve breakfast at 7 am so the receptionist asked me, would you be able to be in the breakfast room at 6.30 am? I said yes, I believe so. She said, alright, we will serve you an early breakfast only for you then. It was an amazing gesture and it tells you once again about how hospitable and kind people I met in this trip are. Another hotel would simply tell me “We serve breakfast starting from 7 am so the maximum we can do for you is to give you a takeaway breakfast box” but people in my hotel in Khiva took an extra mile to show me how hospitable and kind they are.
The breakfast was very excellent; they were so many dishes in addition to fried eggs with some vegetables (not shown in the photo) and delicious tea and coffee. after breakfast, I took one last photo of the hotel courtyard. The hotel used to be a madrasah (religious school) in the past but it was turned into a hotel not a long time ago.
After saying goodbye to this nice hotel and to the friendly staff, I found my taxi driver waiting for me exactly at 7 am to drive me to Urgench airport which is located in another city (city of Urgench) and about 50 minutes drive. The flight was nice and quick, about an hour. After, I spent 2 more days in Tashkent before flying back to Toronto.
This is my last blog about my silk road trip across Uzbekistan. Prior to writing this blog about the gorgeous city of Khiva, I shared my impressions with my readers here about other silk road gems such as Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. I had a magnificent trip to this great country and created a tremendous amount of joyful moments. I had great experiences and met kind, humble, hospitable, and interesting people. Words can’t say how much I recommend visiting this country. Yes, it’s probably out of the way, it’s a bit far away, it’s a bit expensive to fly there but every place has its advantages and disadvantages, right?. Besides, A remote mysterious place is always more interesting than an obvious and predictable one. Uzbekistan is a country that is outside your comfort zone but it’s an incredibly safe country, extremely affordable, and with the kindest people. The food is delicious there and the infrastructure is good too (they have high-speed trains, something a rich country such as Canada will probably never have in the near future).
Back to the Khiva topic, let me tell you a secret here, Khiva wasn’t in my plans at the beginning as it’s really out of the way (more than 6 hours on the train from Bukhara and more than 10 hours from Tashkent) but after having a chat with a good friend and after watching some youtube videos about how charming and gorgeous the town is, I thought that I must have it in my Uzbekistan itinerary and honestly, you should do the same thing . If you’re planning to visit Uzbekistan, plan at least a day for Khiva. Yes, I understand that it’s a long train ride to reach it and I understand that not many people adore Soviet trains as much as I do but remember that Uzbekistan is a remote place and you won’t probably visit that country again so think twice before you plan an itinerary there and do your best to add Khiva to it, it is simply worth it.
It’s not only about the beautiful buildings, mosques, and minarets, and not only about the interesting history of the city. Rather, it’s about the whole experience to reach that magnificent place; the soviet train across the desert, the change of landscape, and the snoring compartment neighbours. All these reasons combine to make it an unforgettable experience and I’m so glad I had the chance to visit such an amazing place and to share my impressions about it here hoping that my words will inspire some people to explore all these “out of the way” destinations I visited, just like how the famous Youtuber -Bald and Bankrupt- inspired me to explore numerous places in the former Soviet Union. By the way, you should check out his youtube channel.
With this, this series about Uzbekistan has come to an end. As I said above, it’s a magnificent country and I am sure there are more places to see in Uzbekistan that I couldn’t visit due to lack of time such as Nukus, the dry Aral sea, Termez, Shahrisabz, and more.
About future blogs, with the current situation in Russia and Ukraine, it seems that it’s highly unlikely to visit any of these favourite countries of mine any time soon so probably there will not be any Soviet adventures for a little while. However, I want to visit Tajikistan and Armenia hopefully in 2023 to say that I visited 14 out of 15 ex-Soviet Republics. The remaining country will be Turkmenistan and it’s a very difficult country to travel to; many people call it “The light version of North Korea” 🙂
I’m also interested in a trip across former Yugoslavia so I hope it will happen in 2023 and will write many blogs about Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia here.
Thanks for reading and will update you about my new travel plans soon.