Part 15 of the Silk Road journey

Posted 25th May 2017 by David McGuinness

Unfortunately the Afrosiab train does not yet go to Khiva, meaning we needed to take 4 wheels. The drive through the flat scrub-land of the Kara Kum (“Black sand”) desert was not too exciting other than the odd glimpse of the Oxus (now called Amu Darya) river, which, for much of its length, demarcates the border with Turkmenistan. 

We stopped for a simple but tasty fish lunch near the river, a welcome change from plov and grilled meat. The road started off pretty poor for the first 100km, then good for 250km and then back to the poor road again for about 100km more. In total, it took us about 7 hours on the road whereas we could have trimmed about an hour and a half off had the whole road been in a good condition. This is due to happen by next spring. The Afrosiab train might also reach Khiva before too long.

Khiva town is a double-walled city with 2,000 people living within the inner walls, the most historic part known as Ichin Kala (“inner city”), and 30,000 living within the outer walls. Ichin Kala has been converted in its entirety to a UNESCO-listed museum, with all this entailed. While this means a steady stream of tourist dollars, it also means anyone living in Ichin Kala has to get UNESCO permission before they can fix a leaky roof.

The busiest thoroughfares of the town at the busiest times of day do also feel a bit like a Disneyland of the Orient, with lines of souvenir sellers and camels dressed to the nines ready to pose with you for photos in the town’s most picturesque spots. You can’t blame the locals, but it does rather spoil the effect – for me anyway. Away from the busiest streets there is a more romantic feel, and you can clamber onto the walls of Ichin Kala and walk along some sections, which I did before sunset.

The next day, before I met with my guide, I took an early morning wander through the streets that had been so busy the evening before. In the early morning they were transformed, quiet but for a small army of street sweepers going about their work. I met my guide Mahmud at 9. He explained a little of Khiva’s history and that the walls of Ichin Kala run 2.2km in circumference, 6-7m high and 5-6m wide. The current walls are from the 18th century. The town supposedly got its name when a trader searching in the desert found a well, causing him to exclaim “Kheivak” (“Oh, happiness” or something to that effect) which morphed in “Khiva”, while the region that Khiva is in is called Khorezm, meaning “sunny place”, earning its name with 340 days of sunshine per year. The town is famous for wood carving as can be seen from the stunning doors all over the town, and for its sheep’s wool hats as seen in old pictures of Khivan men, or more prosaically from the souvenir hat sellers throughout Ichin Kala. 

Despite the innumerable madrassas in Khiva, none function today. “We are modern muslims here”, Mahmud explained. “We drink alcohol 12 months a year!”. Madrassas were only really accessible to the elite and, as well as being places of religious learning, each had its own secular specialisation. One of the most famous sights of Khiva is the Kalta Minar or “short tower”. Started by Mohamad Amin Khan in 1853 and intended to be over 70m tall enabling him to see Bukhara, he died from decapitation 2 years into its construction so only a mere 26m were built. Decorated in green and turquoise, its width suggests it was certainly intended to be very high. His son refused to finish it, arguing that his name rather than his father’s would thus be attached to it.

We visited several more ornate and elaborately decorated madrassas and palaces, none more so than Tash Kauli Palace. Built by 1,000 slaves from 1830 to 1838 for the Khan and his 4 wives and 40 concubines (4 wives was a limit imposed by Islam, the concubine-to-wife ratio of 10:1 appears to have been a rule of thumb), the tilework here is probably the most accomplished in the whole town. We stopped in at a wood carving workshop to see the craftsmen at work and then the Khiva Silk Carpet Workshop that first set up by Englishman Chris Alexander, whose story is told in his book Carpet Ride to Khiva.

We stopped in at the tomb of renaissance man, Pahlavan Mahmud, an undefeated wrestler, a poet and later a holy man. Locals came to pay their respects and fill up on holy, and very salty, water. Our final site was the beautiful Islam Khoja mosque built by the grand vizier Islam Khoja in 1908, containing the Museum of Applied Arts exhibiting Khivan crafts. The elegant Islam Khoja minaret next to it stands almost 60m high and is the town’s tallest building. I said “goodbye” to Mahmud and wandered around the local market for a while and through the smaller streets of the old town.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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Five Stan Odyssey (along the Silk Road)

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan
Culture | Silk Road

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