Xiva Blues and Whites: A two-day Xiva travel guide
My trip to Xiva started off rather inauspiciously, with me as a solo traveller rather than in a group of four. So, if I couldn’t “guide” my nearest and dearest, I will at least write this Xiva travel guide… I had arrived in Tashkent just the previous night when I boarded a night train to Xiva. But when I got off the next morning, the sun was shining, and in a very good mood, I set off for the mile-long walk from the brand new Xiva Train station to the Ichon Qalʼа, the touristic heart of Xiva.
But before I was allowed to enter, I had to pay a tourist fee – so even the locals treat it like an open air museum. In all fairness, the fee was about 10Euro for two days and included some museums. And at some point, I would have to pay. Once inside the gates, the density of souvenir stalls hit me and I wondered whether this was worth the trek out here.
Table of Contents
Why visit Xiva?
Xiva is located in Khorezm, the westernmost part of Uzbekistan, and a long way from Tashkent, Buxoro and Samarkand. The town was founded in the 6th Century CE as a trading post between Europe and India. It became part of Arabia – which led to its inhabitants adopting the Islamic faith, was conquered by Genghis Khan, then by Timur’s troops, then became a self-governed Khanate in the 16th Century. Then followed relatively stable periods apart from Persia, then Russia having a go, and Khorezm fell under Russian Czarist regime in the late 19th Century, only to become a Soviet Republic about 40 years later. So, for the longest time in history, Xiva was a capital city, and the beautiful buildings bear witness to its role as a capital and an important trading post.
Xiva is an oasis city, with nice vegetations, although one doesn’t have to travel far to be back in the vast Khorezmian desert. It is also relatively compact and easy to navigate for visitors, with most of its distinctive clay- and wood architecture within easy walking distance of each other. While Samarkand has the most impressive singular buildings and ensembles and Buxoro is a perfect Gesamtkunstwerk of Silk Road architecture, Xiva is small, relatively homogenous and almost too perfect. It’s a town almost perfect for tourism.
I am going to be very honest with you here, Xiva may be a bit off the beaten track, but due to its size, central parts of the Ichan Qal’a, the historic walled city of Xiva, can feel somewhat artificial and like an open air museum at times. Even though I visited in October, towards the end of the tourist season, main through fares were well filed with people, popular restaurants booked, and so on.
Yes, at times I did manage to take nice photographs with very few people in, but in general the town fills up and it is in no way a “secret” destination. But like in other touristy places, veer 200m from the main attractions, or even leave the Ichon Qal’a and you leave the masses behind very quickly.
Xiva Travel Guide: How many days should you spend in Xiva?
I had two days in Xiva, which was just about enough for me, Ideally, I would have spent another night in my lovely caravansarai, but I wanted to be in Samarkand on Sunday for the Urgut Market. This would give you ample time to wander out of the sunny middle of the day, visit everything that’s included in the entrance ticket, and possibly visit some of the Khorezm Desert Castles outside Xiva. The Ichon Qalʼа is very small and easy to navigate. You do not need a guide to find your way around Xiva, but if you want some in depth history, you can hire one at one of the gates to the Ichon Qalʼа.
How to get to Xiva
If you are travelling from Tashkent, you might want to consider a flight to Urgench, the nearest city and then take the bus or a taxi for the remaining 30km.
However, since the completion of the Xiva train line a few years ago, and at least two daily direct trains to Tashkent, travelling by train is probably the most interesting and comfortable way to get there. The high-speed rail currently ends at Buxoro, so the trains trundle slowly the remaining 500-odd kilometres to the Xiva terminus.
Xiva Travel Guide: Day One
My little morning walk from train station from hotel meant I traversed the Ichon Qalʼа and passed many of its attractions – Kalta Minor, Juma Mosque, Kohna Ark. Also, the attractions were grossly outnumbered by temporary souvenir stalls with woollen socks, traditional clothing and, somewhat off-putting, furs.
The beautiful sand-coloured building with blue tile accents were beautiful, the souvenir stalls lining the main throughfare were a bit much. Just ten minutes later, I exited the Ichon Qalʼа through the Western Gate. It really is very compact!
Getting to know the Ichon Qalʼа
My hotel was thankfully a bit away from all that madness. I was grateful for my cool dark room and the peaceful courtyard. But I wouldn’t sit still long, and I was hungry.
I was wondering whether to head back into the Ichon Qal’a and “tick off” some of the major sights. It did look beautiful indeed. But it was also very hot and sunny – lunch first.
Time to head off in the opposite direction of Ichon Qalʼа, to a restaurant called Khiva Moon that came recommended.
It was early lunch time, but I wasn’t the first guest, and they very generously assigned me a shaded tapchan, the Uzbek daybed -with-a-table. And soon enough, small groups, decked out in ikat robes, turned up for lunch. I ordered quickly and had a very tasty aubergine salad and these “Shivit Oshi” noodles coloured with dill, available in a veggie version.
I felt so comfy, and ready to spread out on my little bed, had it not been for plates f food that kept arriving, accompanied by a cracking good watermelon juice. It was so comfortable, and I happily would have whiled away all afternoon. But in reality, I stayed a couple of hours, for the hottest part of the day, then strolled a little aimlessly around the Ichon Qalʼа. Despite being October, the sun was merciless, so where the souvenir vendors.
Once I turned into a smaller street, the souvenirs got better, in the form of beautiful kilims and suzanis, with cats lounging on them, and the pace was altogether slower.
The handicrafts were tempting, and there was a bit of everything – suzanis, bags, garments, woodcarvings…. very tempting but relatively fresh off the plane, I didn’t want to load up with stuff and there are only so many colourful textiles you can deck out your home with.
I visited the Khiva Silk Carpet work shop, one of many ateliers set up in old caravansarais or madrassahs that serve as workshops with showrooms for Khiva’s humongous souvenir output. If you read the book ” Carpet Ride to Khiva” , you might want to visit, too! Having been there made the book come more alive, and the carpets and embroidery they had were beautiful – and pricey, Perhaps a realistic price for good workmanship.
Palavan Mahmoud Mausoleum
Then I looped around slowly to the Palavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. It’s the one with the recognisable huge green emerald dome. One could say he was a pre-Renaissance Islamic Renaissance Man – poet, philosopher – and leather artisan. It is a notable Sufi pilgrimage place.
When I visited, it was very quiet, peaceful and contemplative. However, between me and all that was a fee that seemed a bit too high for me, so I moved on.
Islam Khoja Madrassah
Onwards towards the Islam Khoja Madrassah – the one with the highest minaret in Uzbekistan, a full 57m, that can be climbed for a fee.
As much as I love a good view, narrow staircase and height don’t work for me, so I left it to visit the empty madrassah instead, which houses an Arts and Crafts Museum which I found a bit dark and fusty. However, outside the madrassah was the biggest market of them all, and very busy in terms of tourist traffic, Quickly, quickly I moved on, wandered a bit with the light nicely fading, took a few pictures without the harsh lights that prevailed for most of the day, then opted for an early dinner.
Dinner with a view
And how lucky I was! I turned up on the roof terrace at Terrassa Restaurant , made some “please, I am a lone traveller” plea and was given the last non-reserved table on their roof terrace with the best view around.
And then, there was the priceless spectacle of the sunset behind the Ark and Kalta Minor. If there is one restaurant that I highly recommend, it would be Terrassa. YEs, it is touristy, but the food is fine, and you get more than you pay for in terms of atmosphere, views and service – and the food was good.
The food was fine, with vegetarian and vegan options clearly marked.
As the sun set, a clarinetist turned up, entertaining us with some classic tunes and soon entering a battle of musicians with the more traditional tunes on the rooftop next door. It was all slightly cheesy, but with a full stomach and a gorgeous view in front of you; who’s to nit pick?
Xiva Travel Guide: Day Two
I slept lovely in my caravanserai cell and got up in an excellent mood until I tasted my breakfast coffee. Honestly – if you are into coffee, it might be worth investing in some kind of brewing device. I got a tiny Kalita hand filter now that will travel with me – the coffee in Uzbekistan is instant and really not good. If the ubiquitous weak green tea gives you enough of a kick in the morning, good for you.
I ate a few things quickly that I hope would sustain me for a bit, then walked off, as the souvenir sellers were just setting up. An hour earlier, and I would have had a chance to not have the stalls in my photos, but of course I was way too lazy. I was one of the first to enter Tash Hovli Palace, which was great – I had the nicer of the to courtyards all to myself for ages until a couple very non -intrusive people came, No big groups, no nothing.
Tash Hovli Palace
Tash Hovli Palace wasbuilt as a royal residence under Allakuli Khan in the early 19th Century. I don’t know why the previous Khan Residence of Kohna Ark wasn’t good any more, but from what I read the Ark took more and more the function of a building for state administration, whereas Tash Hovli was to be a primary residence of the Khan.
One of the first structures I entered was the Ishrat Hovli, a huge courtyard leading to an ornate reception room past a very high ivan completely decked out in blue and white tiles.
The same courtyard is a yurt. Depending on sources, the Khan slept in the yurt sometimes, and sometimes he would receive nomadic guests in it.
Taking a closer look at the blue-and white decorations, these 19th Century Khorezmian buildings were made from clay bricks. Unlike earlier buildings in Samarkand and Buxoro, where the decoration is by smaller thicker tiles laid in mosaics, decorations here are rather large-format painted and glazed tiles. These tiles were traditionally painted in majolica technique with a natural colour derived from the ishkor plant. All tiles bear discreet numbers, so that the patters could be re assembled on site like a giant puzzle.
The palace’s darkish rooms are not much to shout about, but the two internal courtyards with extremely intricate centrepiece ivans are sublime and perhaps one of the best example of artistic tile work in Khorezm , along with Palavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. I sat there for ages admiring the tilework until the sun went higher, illuminating the town in a bright desert light.
Allakuli Khan Caravanserai Bazaar
More souvenirs, one might think upon entering. But there was shade, so I walked in and got pleasantly surprised.
The clothes seemed higher quality, the fabrics were cotton, not polyester, everything seemed … nicer. But if you are into ikat, and aren’t going to the Fergana Valley, this would be a nice place to buy the Uzbek chapan, which works well as a fun overcoat or evening coat, and a few metres of decent quality ikat fabric.
And while we are on the subject of shopping… these embroidered caps and knitted socks were everywhere. Caps and chapans were very popular with cosplaying tourists. I’ll take the socks, thanks.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to buy anything, but some nicely made coats and jackets really caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had 4 metres of ikat in my bag. Just in case I would not find enough of it in Fergana Valley.
Allakuli Khan and Kutlug Murad Inaq Madrassahs – the monumental twins
They strike an impressive picture when you enter the Ichon Qalʼа via the the Eastern Gate. Kutlug Murad Inaq Madrassah is an early 19th Century madrassah with simple and relatively restrained decor, and a public well for drinking water.
Allakuli Khan Madrassah is a tad newer and part of a huge complex. All its decorative elements face outwards, as I noticed when I visited the bare courtyard. The best way to admire these two monumental ensembles is probably in the late after noon or early evening.
Compared to the glazed tile overload, Juma Mosque is a rather simple structure of a mosque and assembly hall, with a simple flat roof held by just over 200 carved wooden columns.
Some of the columns date back to the 12th Century and belong to a previous mosque on this site; the mosque as we see it was probably built in the 18th Century. It looks very different to other traditional Xiva buildings, and is sometimes grandly dubbed the Mezquita of Central Asia… I do get the similar structure with the columns and all, but the Juma Mosque is rather small and intimate. It has the second-highest minaret in town that can be climbed for an extra fee.
Somewhat disproportionate, even stumpy- looking, this aborted minaret is a famous Xiva landmark. It belongs to the neighbouring madrassah named after Muhammad Amin Khan, once the largest madrassa in Central Asia. The minaret was also to be the largest ever in Central Asia, with a projected height between 80 to 110m.
Muhammad Amin was one of Xiva’s last Khans until the Russians occupied Xiva. He died in a battle in 1855 and the madrassah got finished butt he minaret didn’t, and there are several myths ranking about its completion failure completed, from the master architect taking off from the minaret and flying away to being hunted for wishing to build a larger minaret elsewhere, to simple lack of funds.
The madrassah, still the largest in Central Asia by size, is no longer a madrassah and has been converted into a hotel. Its large front terrace is always a good venue for some cosplay action or traditional dance, and the courtyard of the madrassah should be publicly accessible, to admire the tile work if you haven’t seen enough of it yet.
This fat blue beauty is best admired from the Kohna Ark or close up where you can see some of the beautiful tile work – and as usually, tons of shops at its foot, some recreating the exact blues and turquoise in tiles. This style of decoration is rather an exception – most Xiva ceramic decoration are painted tiles, I could say I now have a piece of Kalta Minor stuck to my fridge -only symbolically, of course, in the shape of a tiny butterfly-shaped tile. The design dates back to Zoroastrian belief, with the triangles representing good thoughts, and the narrow bridge between them good actions.
Lunching like a local
At this point I was getting a little tired of the tourist aspect of town and decided to venture out of the Ichon Qalʼа for lunch. What I had seen inside in terms of cafes and restaurants didn’t really entice me with their offers of plov, salad and overpriced cappuchino. I took an opposite turn from my hotel, towards the Nurullaboy Palace.
The Nurullaboy Palace is officially open and included in the Xiva “Entrance Fee”. It is the residence of the last Khan, and for the longest time, was a Soviet representation and assembly venue. Unlike anything within the Ichon Qalʼа, this one was fitted with the latest early 20th Century modern devices, and serves as a prime example for Asian ostentatious chic. But sadly, not to be seen by me, as it wasn’t open.
In fact, this part of town was so empty, I felt relieved when I spotted a restaurants with signs of life in it and a barbeque going. Of course, this being the land of mutton, I had to ask for vegetarian delicacies, to which the waiter who spoke good English, answered they can offer me kimchi and lagman (noodles). So I had that, and it was delicious and cost me the price of a tourist cappuccino. The restaurant is called Xiva Kafe Milliy Taomlar and will be wonderful for carnivores. There is another highly rated restaurant simply called “Cafe” along with some decent looking hotels.
Walking round a residential area
Now that I was already out of the tourist zone, I walked on a bit but is stayed quiet. perhaps people who weren’t dealing with tourists were on a siesta, as it was quite hot, even in October. So I followed the inner city walls, and walked back into the Ichon Qalʼа through the Bakcha Darvoza, the North Gate. This is also the place where you can access the city walls on foot. Apart from that, this is a residential and budget guesthouse area, with small local shops and a chilled bustle and no outstanding sights.
Houses here were smaller residential dwellings, made in a traditional mud and straw technique for some walls, while others were made from clay bricks. I think I would have been very happy to stay in this area, too. Guesthouses tend to be family run and have little gardens, and here’s a place in town that looks quite green.
Last not least, I wandered back towards the centre, and passed this beautiful simple Madrassah with very restrained decoration. It is the Amir Tura MAdrassah, completed in the early 20th Century. It also looked in really nice condition, so I was wondering whether that’s going to be another hotel over time.
My last itinerary item was the Kohna Ark. Normally I am not much into castles and fortresses and military history, but I heard it houses a beautiful open-air summer mosque. Kohna Ark hugs the inner city walls and is a 12th Century fortress and residence of the Khan. Between the mint, the jail the bastion and various other parts, I went just to the summer mosque and the throne room for a last glimpse of Xiva splendour before I would continue to Samarkand.
Another eyeful of stunning blues and whites before … more Silk Road splendour at my next destination, Samarkand.
I was quite astonished how empty both the Tash Hovli Palace and Kohna Ark were, despite the streets outside teeming with visitors and the restaurants and cafes being quite full, and was wondering whether people visit for one day only? Could it be? I would really advise against it – you might get unlucky with the weather, and Xiva at sunset is really beautiful.
And heading back – not too early, not too late
Come early evening, I picked up my case and boarded another sleeper train heading for Andijon. This time, I was amidst a party of matriarchs, full of food and smiles though golden teeth. Needless to say, it was a hoot, all politely flirting with the middle-aged conductor, all of us mending his uniform, piece by piece eating until we rolled in our berths, completely stuffed.
I just heard the alarm early enough to strip my bed quickly and gather my belongings -a tiny hand luggage case, this was before Kumtepe Bazaar– the next morning round 6 in Samarkand, waking the lovely people at my guesthouse in the process and quietly drinking coffee in the courtyard until it was suitable to go to Urgut.
Where to stay in Xiva
Despite its small centre, Xiva has absolutely no shortage of accommodations.
Those inside the Ichon Qalʼа offer atmosphere and short distances to tourist sites. I stayed at the Silk Road Caravan Sarai, a beautiful converted caravansarai, with its own mosque and minaret, no less, just outside the walls of the Ichon Q’ala. I recommend it for its beautiful reconstruction, peaceful courtyard and well appointed comfortable rooms. Also, the price was a real steal for the atmosphere and level of comfort. All rooms are on the ground floor but aren’t entirely barrier free due to the narrow doors and bathrooms.
If you plan to spend a lot of time on the room, note that the rooms are dark due to the architecture of the building, but really nice and cool in the heat. The rooms are on the smallish side and bathrooms are very small. The worst of all was the breakfast, but sadly there isn’t much in the way of breakfast cafes in town.
Close to the Northern Gate, there are smaller guest houses in a more residential area – but you will still be in the touristic centre in less than five minutes. This is probably the best area if you are on a budget. Most of them look quite nice, and the location is certainly lovely. The Khiva Muhamad Ali looks particularly nice.
There’s a glut of modern hotels in the very artificial-looking street between the train station and Ichon Qalʼа. Of these, The Madrasah Polyvon-Qori is a true historical building, done up very tastefully.
Where to Shop in Xiva
There is absolutely no shortage of souvenir stalls all over the Ichon Qal’a. Some of the quality is questionable, whereas others have excellent stuff – very hard to judge. Fact is, there are some gems.
I found the Allakuli Khan Caravansarai Bazaar quite nice for textiles and traditional garments. Also, there is a madrassah that houses some wood carvers, but I cannot remember it now…
A lot of what’s on offer in street stalls is imported from Turkey, especially textiles made from camel wool. Go to a big standard bazaar in Tashkent to find them at about half price. In short, there wasn’t anything in Xiva that could not be bought elsewhere, except perhaps the ubiquitous fur hats.
If you want the traditional blue and white “cotton flower” tea sets, go to any bog standard bazaar, they really are extremely cheap, no need to buy tourist prices. Ikat in Xiva – see above, but if you love ikat and fabrics, you can’t beat a trip to Fergana Valley.
Where to Eat in Xiva
All the places I visited I highly recommend.
I would say Khiva Moon was one of the best in terms of food quality. It was also super super friendly. It is outside the city walls, so not totally overrun, and you should find space there even without a reservation.
Terrassa Restaurant is a tourist stalwart in Xiva and I would say, definitely worth the little bit of extra expense. It can get booked out quickly, so reservations are recommended. They serve alcohol, and had perhaps the largest vegetarian menu in town.
Restaurant Xiva Kafe Milliy Tomlar is opposite Nurullaboy Palace and an airy outside BBQ place. As a vegetarian, let me say BBQ smelled great, it’s inexpensive and very pleasant and you will find something vegetarian there at a push .
Aside from Terrassa, I picked restaurants outside the walled Ichon Qal’a, as those were cheaper, and I hoped they would offer somewhat more authentic food. The local market is quite some way out in the Northwest of the town, and a bit tricky to access for self caterers.
The Small Print on Xiva travel guide
I visited Xiva in October 2022 on a self-organised solo trip, all of which was paid for my myself from my job salary All information is correct at the time of publication.
Right now I struggle with the appropriate spelling of place names a little and I guess it is impossible to keep everyone happy. While I try to use their Uzbek names, the English and sometimes even German spelling comes through. I understand that “international” spelling may bring this post up in searches better, so for now, I will keep using some anglicised spelling like “Uzbekistan” rather than the Uzbek ” Oʻzbekiston”. Names and spellings may change over time ( see: “Türkiye Cumhuriyeti“) and I do my best to keep track but it is not always possible, and last not least this remains an English-speaking blog so English it is in most cases.
I am very grateful for any comment of feedback.
Also, I would like to recommend a book on the art and history of the Silk Road. It is in German and called “Kunstreisefuehrer Zentralasien” by the German Dumont Verlag. I bought an ancient issue for something like 2,50 Euro – the art history stays the same, the “insider tips” of the LP or Rough Guide age at lightning speed. If you understand German, these vintage books are treasure troves – jus tbuy a cheap old issue and forget about the practical tips.
This post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com, meaning I may receive a small commission if you decide to book through any of these links. Thank you. Of all places I recommended, I stayed at the Silk Road Caravansaray only – the others are recommendations based on location and reviews from other travellers.