Khiva: Uzbekistan’s Unique Desert Oasis City

This travel guide covers my visit to Khiva, one of the old Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.

Khiva visit

Having visited Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva would be the last Silk Road city on my Uzbekistan itinerary.

Following a comfortable train journey from Bukhara to Urgench and a short taxi ride, I found myself in front of the main entrance gate on the west side of Khiva’s walled old town.

I was absolutely looking forward to explore this historic Silk Road city – especially as I finally had clear blue skies after some days of overcast weather and rain.

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The taxi I took from Urgench dropped me off in front of the impressive city walls of Khiva. ©Paliparan
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Walking towards the main entrance gate to the old town. ©Paliparan


Khiva, which historically was also known as Khorasam or Khorezm, feels special from the moment you arrive, having a completely different atmosphere than both Bukhara and Samarkand.

The distinctive atmosphere and unique character of Khiva are primarily a result of its relatively isolated location in the Kyzylkum Desert.

Built within the Khorezm Oasis, Khiva functioned as a vital stopping point for trade caravans crossing the vast desert, bringing immense riches to the local rulers.

The harsh character of the desert was mirrored in the local character of the city, as Khiva served as the centre of a feared slave-trading Khanate.

Although you can still sense the historic ambiance, Khiva is now a highly peaceful and pleasant city to explore.

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The massive walls of ancient Khiva. ©Paliparan


The old town of Khiva, known as Ichon-Qala, is perfectly preserved and an absolutely delightful place to discover.

The entire old town of Khiva is encircled by imposing mud-brick walls, stretching approximately 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) in length.

Khiva’s old town is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which highlights the city’s harmonious and well-preserved Islamic architecture typical of Central Asia.

As all the sights in Khiva are located within the walled premises of Ichon-Qala, you can easily explore everything on foot.

Although the town isn’t that large, you do need a full day to do Khiva justice and to explore the sights at leisure.

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Entering the main gate of the walled old town of Khiva, which is also known as Ichon-Qala. ©Paliparan

Kalta Minor

Upon entering the old town of Khiva through the West Gate, you will instantly notice the Kalta Minor, a blue-tiled minaret which is one of the major landmarks of the city.

It’s possible that you may not immediately identify the Kalta Minor as a minaret.

After all, due to its cylindrical shape the Kalta Minor doesn’t really look like a minaret at all.

The minaret was commissioned by Mohammed Amin Khan in 1851, but construction ceased when he died.

The Kalta Minor therefore was never finished beyond its base, and one can only imagine how impressive the minaret would have looked if the workers had completed the remainder of the structure.

Nevertheless, the azure blue tilework of the Kalta Minor is magnificent and creates a striking presence amid the mud-brick buildings that surround it.

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The Kalta Minor in the Ichon-Qala (walled old town) of Khiva. ©Paliparan
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The Kalta Minor is an unfinished minaret. ©Paliparan


For approximately $15, you can purchase a combined entrance ticket to visit the sights and museums of Khiva.

The entrance ticket is valid for multiple days and will be stamped upon entering any of the museums or sights covered by it.

A couple of sights are not included in this combined ticket and necessitate a separate entrance fee of approximately $2 each.

After obtaining my entrance pass from a ticket office located just inside the old town, immediately after passing through the West Gate, I set off to explore the city in earnest.

I passed by the wonderful façade of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa, which now serves as a hotel, and headed toward the Kukhana Ark.

Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa
Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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Kalta Minor and the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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Walking by the Kalta Minor towards the Kukhana Ark. ©Paliparan

Kukhana Ark

The Kukhana Ark, an impressive fortress at the western edge of the old town, served as the residence of the Khans of Khiva.

Besides the palace residence, harem and an audience room where the Khan had meetings with his nobles or mere subjects, the Ark also featured military quarters, stables, a gorgeous mosque and a notorious jail.

The ramparts of the Kukhana Ark offer some decent views over Khiva.

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The fortress walls of the Kukhana Ark. ©Paliparan
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Buildings inside the fortress walls of the Kukhana Ark. ©Paliparan
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Wonderful blue tiles of the Kukhana Ark. ©Paliparan
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Throne of the Khan of Khiva. ©Paliparan
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Mihrab in the Summer Mosque of the Kukhana Ark. ©Paliparan


The Khans of Khiva accumulated their wealth through the slave trade and imposing high taxes on travellers and traders.

This was relatively easy, considering Khiva’s strategic location in the middle of the desert, where they controlled the only oasis for miles around.

However, life wasn’t exactly easy for most of the Khan’s own subjects, who also faced heavy taxes, with the ruling classes controlling irrigation and water supplies.

The Khanate of Khiva earned an especially fearsome reputation in the region due to their raids aimed at capturing slaves, whom they then sold at the city’s slave markets.

I can only imagine the thoughts travellers might have had upon seeing soldiers with the banner of the Khanate in the far distance – it must have been very similar to witnessing the black Islamic State banner in contemporary times.

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The banner of the Khanate of Khiva as seen in a local museum. ©Paliparan

End of the Khanate

When both the Russians and the British cast their eyes on Central Asia during the 19th century in a battle for influence and control over the region, a historical episode known as ‘the Great Game’, the power of the local Khanates slowly faded away.

While some of the Khanates initially resisted the early incursions into the region by the armies of Tsarist Russia, they ultimately fought a losing battle, unable to compete with the sheer power, resources, and technological advances of their opponents.

Nevertheless, it took the Russians a while to pacify the region, as the soldiers of the Khanate of Khiva, along with local brigands, posed a constant threat to settlers and Tsarist soldiers alike.

They frequently captured them and sold them off at the local slave markets in Khiva.

In what was seen at the time as a significant diplomatic PR coup for the British in the Great Game, an officer in the British-Indian Army named Richmond Shakespear successfully persuaded the Khan of Khiva in 1840 to release more than 400 Russian slaves.

As a recognition of his efforts, Shakespear was later knighted by Queen Victoria.

In the years leading up to the eventual fall of the Khanate of Khiva to the Russians in 1873, the Khan had already become no more than a vassal of the Tsar, and the slave markets were eventually disbanded.

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View from the Kukhana Ark over Khiva. ©Paliparan


In the old town of Khiva, you can find numerous madrassas (Islamic schools), and they typically boast some of the most impressive façades among all the buildings in town.

One of these madrassas, the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassa, is situated across a vast square from the Ark.

The square in front of the madrassa was originally used for executions, but now it is mostly empty aside from a few camels and souvenir stalls.

Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassa
Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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The beautiful façade of the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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Camel in the old town of Khiva. ©Paliparan

Old town streets

As the best-preserved of the three great Uzbek Silk Road cities, the main attraction of Khiva isn’t any individual sight within the city, but rather the harmonious ensemble of the entire old town.

Wandering through the old alleys of Khiva simply evokes images of centuries past.

At times Khiva can however feel a bit too much like an open air museum, as unlike Bukhara or Samarkand the old town felt a bit devoid of local life.

Apart from the few shops and stalls catering for tourists there wasn’t much activity going on.

However, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t enjoying my visit to Khiva as I absolutely loved every single minute that I was strolling the old town streets.

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Old town street. ©Paliparan
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Souvenir stalls in the old town. ©Paliparan

Islam Khoja Madrassa and Minaret

Next on my list of places to visit in Khiva was the Islam Khoja Madrassa, which now houses a museum.

With a combined entrance ticket, you can access almost all of these museums, and some of them are quite interesting, featuring exhibits about subjects such as local folklore and applied arts.

The most prominent sight in Khiva not included in the combined entrance ticket is the 45-metre-high (148 ft) Islam Kohja minaret, and accessing it requires an additional $2 entrance fee paid on the spot.

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Islam Khoja Madrassa. ©Paliparan
Islam Khoja Minaret
Islam Khoja Minaret. ©Paliparan

Climbing the minaret

The Islam Kohja Minaret towers high above the old town of Khiva and is undeniably an immensely impressive structure when you stand at the base and gaze upward towards the top.

It’s quite a climb to reach the top of the minaret as you have to overcome some narrow and steep steps.

However, once you reach the top of the Islam Kohja Minaret you will certainly enjoy the sweeping views over the old town of Khiva, so it’s well-worth it to make the climb up.

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Khiva’s Islam Khoja Minaret. ©Paliparan
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View from the minaret towards the old town walls and one of the entrance gates. ©Paliparan
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Looking down from the minaret over the old town streets. ©Paliparan
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View over Khiva. ©Paliparan
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View over the blue dome of the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, with Kalta Minor and the Kukhana Ark being visible in the background. ©Paliparan
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Panoramic view over the old town of Khiva. ©Paliparan


After descending the minaret steps, I decided it was time for a lunch break.

There was an appealing-looking restaurant nearby where you could dine in an authentic yurt set up in the inner courtyard.

I enjoyed some yummy laghman (noodles with potatoes, vegetables and meat in a flavourful broth) as well as some tea.

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Enjoying a cup of tea in a traditional yurt. ©Paliparan
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A bowl of laghman for lunch. ©Paliparan


The backstreets to the south of the Islam Kohja minaret were among my favourite, as they appear to have much local life, such as an operational tannery and carpet weaving workshop.

The Islam Kohja minaret towers high above all the buildings in this part of town.

The further south you walk, the more local life you will encounter, as many of the low-key houses here have been inhabited by townsfolk for centuries.

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Buildings in the old town. ©Paliparan
Shergazi Khan Madrassa
The Shergozi Khan Madrassa, with the Islam Khoja Minaret being visible in the background. ©Paliparan
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
The blue dome of the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. ©Paliparan

Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum

In the southern part of the old town, you can also find what I consider to be the most beautiful sight in Khiva.

I’m talking about the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, which houses the tomb of a man who was not only a renowned poet and philosopher but also a legendary wrestler.

Pahlavon Mahmud is considered to be some kind of a patron saint of Khiva, and his mausoleum is easily the most visited place in town, as it attracts quite a large number of locals.

The tomb was originally constructed in 1326, but was rebuilt during the 19th century.

While the tomb was only dimly lit during my visit, the Islamic tilework on the walls was highly impressive.

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The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum and the Islam Khoja Minaret as seen from a distance. ©Paliparan
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum Khiva
The entrance to the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. ©Paliparan
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Corridor inside the mausoleum. ©Paliparan
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The fabulous interior of the mausoleum. ©Paliparan
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Tomb inside the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. ©Paliparan
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The gorgeous tilework on the inside of the dome of Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. ©Paliparan

South Gate and walls

After my visit to the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, I continued walking through the backstreets until I reached the southern gate of the city.

No matter which side of the old town you view them from, the mudbrick walls of Khiva will never fail to impress.

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City walls of Khiva. ©Paliparan
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Khiva’s impressive mudbrick walls. ©Paliparan
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The South Gate of the old town. ©Paliparan

Climbing the walls

If you re-enter Khiva’s old town through the South Gate and immediately turn left towards the west, you will eventually come across a sandy slope built against the wall.

I did however had to dodge some cows and chickens wandering around the side of the road before I could reach the slope and climb up onto the wall.

If you wish, you can walk for almost a quarter of the length of the wall towards the West Gate from this point.

The views from the southern wall over Khiva were absolutely superb.

You also get an entirely different feel of the city, as most of the buildings in this part of the town are ordinary houses, with the impressive old town madrassas and mosques located a bit further away.

It is also possible to ascend the wall at the North Gate, using stone steps that are part of the structure, as opposed to a sandy slope.

However, the views from there are much less beautiful in my opinion.

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Cows and chickens wandering around the side of the road. ©Paliparan
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A close-up look of the walls. ©Paliparan
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View from the southern wall over some residential houses. ©Paliparan
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The old town of Khiva as seen from the southern wall. ©Paliparan
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Walking across the mudbrick walls. ©Paliparan
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View over Khiva from the southern wall. ©Paliparan

Juma Mosque

After the fun walk on the city walls, I headed back towards the heart of Khiva’s old town.

Another important sight you can visit in Khiva’s old town is the rather unusual Juma Mosque, renowned for its 218 wooden columns supporting the roof.

Some of these beautifully decorated wooden columns date back to the 10th century.

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The roof of the Juma Mosque is supported by wooden pillars. ©Paliparan
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Juma Mosque. ©Paliparan

Other Khiva sights

There were a couple of more sights and museums I had yet to explore.

In the small Qozi Kalon Madrassa you can find a museum featuring local music instruments.

Towards the east of the old town, you can admire the beautiful façade of the Allakuli Khan Madrassa, which was built in 1853.

The 19th century Toshhovli Palace is also well-worth a visit, especially for its fine mosaics.

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Allakuli Khan Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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Exhibit in a museum about local culture and folk art. ©Paliparan
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Wonderful blue tiles on the walls of the Toshhovli Palace. ©Paliparan
Toshhovli Palace
Toshhovli Palace. ©Paliparan


There aren’t too many restaurants within the walled city of Khiva, so after all the sightseeing I stopped at a random hotel restaurant in town, where the dining room was completely deserted.

The manti (dumplings) and shashlik I ordered were tasty enough, even though it was one of the least impressive meals I had on the trip.

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Shashlik and manti for dinner. ©Paliparan


I stayed the night in Khiva at the Arkanchi Hotel, where I paid $50 for a twin room, with breakfast included in the rate.

The hotel is located in the heart of the old town, just a one-minute walk away from the West Gate and the Kalta Minor.

Although my room was clean and comfortable (if only quite outdated in design!) and the hotel staff were friendly, the breakfast was disappointing.

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My room at the Arkanchi Hotel. ©Paliparan
hotel bathroom
Hotel bathroom. ©Paliparan
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The view from my room was somewhat obscured by the traditional wooden window frame. ©Paliparan

Night walk

One highly recommended activity in Khiva is to take a walk through the old town at night.

At night, the walled old town will be completely deserted, and all the grand mosques, minarets and madrassas look splendid in the darkness.

The nighttime atmosphere in the dimly lit streets really makes for a unique walk that you will not easily forget.

For what it’s worth, Khiva is a perfectly safe destination, even when you explore the dark alleys and streets late at night, although a torch might come in handy!

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The Islam Khoja Minaret at night. ©Paliparan
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Islam Khoja Madrassa. ©Paliparan
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Shergozi Khan Madrassa at night. ©Paliparan


I loved my trip to Khiva as it was an absolute delight to explore its beautiful old town with all its mosques and madrassas.

There is just something special about Khiva, whether it’s the harmonious character of the incredibly well-preserved old town or the imposing mudbrick walls and fortifications of this oasis town in the middle of the Kyzylkum Desert.

Although I do think that among Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities, Samarkand has easily the more impressive sights, and Bukhara has the most local charm, Khiva felt the most unique in some ways.

When you walk through the narrow streets and alleys of Khiva, you don’t need much imagination to make its rich history come alive.

If you plan a trip to Uzbekistan, by all means, include both Samarkand, Bukhara as well as Khiva on your itinerary, as even though they might look a bit alike, each of these Silk Road cities really has its own distinctive character.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘From Uzbekistan With Plov‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: Prietenia Night Train Bucharest to Chisinau
2. Chisinau Guide: A Visit to Moldova’s Capital
3. Istanbul Ataturk Airport and the Turkish Airlines Lounge
4. Review: Turkish Airlines Business Class Airbus A330
5. Tashkent Travels: A Day in the Capital of Uzbekistan
6. Tashkent to Samarkand by Uzbekistan Railways ‘Shark’ Train
7. Samarkand Visit Guide: Travelling Through Silk Road Splendour
8. Review: Afrosiyob High-Speed Train Samarkand to Bukhara
9. Bukhara: Exploring Unique Historic Sights and Timeless Charm
10. Bukhara to Khiva by Train: My Travel Experience
11. Khiva: Uzbekistan’s Unique Desert Oasis City (current chapter)
12. On a Night Train Across Uzbekistan: From Urgench to Tashkent
13. Guide: How to Travel From Tashkent to Shymkent
14. Shymkent: The Gateway to Southern Kazakhstan
15. Sukhoi Superjet: Flying Russia’s Homemade Plane

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Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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