Uzbekistan is a country in Central Asia. Since it broke free of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has had to find its feet as an independent country, no longer under the control of others. And tourism is obviously a great way for an emerging nation to make some progress.
One of the most exciting places to visit in Uzbekistan is Khiva. The genesis of the city is commonly explained by a well known legend. Sam, one of the sons of the prophet Nuh (roughly analogous to the Shem and Noah of Jewish and Christian tradition) dug a well in the middle of the desert. This well is now to be found in the ancient ruins of Ichan-Kala, the walled inner town of Khiva.
Khiva has seen many twists and turns; while a popular trading stop for much of history, it has also been conquered and even sacked by numerous invaders, including the formidable Mongol horde. Khiva is an excellent example of a travel destination that has plenty to do and see, but that is not always first on the list of every traveller. It’s well worth catching a glimpse of the rich interplay of great empires, societies and cultures that have all added sploshes of light and shade to the haunting kanvas of this true pearl of Central Asia.
So, the city of Khiva is thousands of years old. And over time, the city eventually became a truly great metropolis. One of the most impressive things about the history of Khiva is its status as the capital of the Khanate of Khiva; although the latter situation itself only arose after the Mongols had captured the great Khwarezmid empire! Later on, in the 19th century, the Khanate became a protectorate of Russia; this was prior to being absorbed into the Soviet Union. As mentioned above, the dominance of Moscow ended when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the early 90s.
One of the first things people want to know about a tourist destination is the food. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to be disappointed! Khiva has a number of interesting restaurants.
Food highlights include Plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan. It’s made of lamb, spices and vegetable, although it seems to have lots of exciting local variations. Fortunately, many restaurants are vegetarian or vegan friendly too; so don’t worry if you don’t want to eat lamb! Laghman is similar to spaghetti bolognaise. Vodka is one exciting option for drinks; but make sure you twist the bottle around your hand. If your hand goes black, that’s actually a good sign! The grease is an indicator that it has gone through a proper industrial process; if not, it might be moonshine, which is very deadly.
And architecture is often a big priority for the intrepit tourist! Firstly, remember the ancient legend mentioned above? Well, one of the first thing tourists will want to do is to visit the Ichan-Kala. Caravans used to stay here as their final staging post on their way into Persia; but you may well find Ichan-Kala is the first of many exciting milestones on your journey into the heart of one of Uzbekistan’s most historically attractive cities. Still, pause for a moment to ponder on the ancient Djuma mosque, the ancient madrassahs where students conducted their studies, and many other untold wonders. Itchan-Kala Fortress is an absolutely stunning place! With as many as 51 ancient monumental structures you will, as a Victorian wag might say, lose no time at all to explore it!
And speaking of taking one’s time: the Tosh-Hovli Palace was built between 1832-1841 by Allakuli Khan. The Khan actually executed the first architect of the palace. Fortunately, however, you will not need to hurry while you’re here: savour the turquoise domes, the mellow brickwork and the resplendent calligraphy. All these features meld into a truly sumptuous banquet for the eyes of the sight-starved traveller. But this, however, is no mirage.
Nor, indeed, are the beautiful mausoleums. Going to see a burial place might seem a little morbid to some: however, many travellers will find they cannot help but fall in love with the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, with its soaring canopies of ceiling art; exquisite fancies fit to make Michaelangelo himself weep with rapture!
But if all must die, so also must all earthly vanity perish in the mists of Shelley’s Ozymandias. Now there is a legend about the the Kalta Minor Minaret; one which, if it lacks the venerable grey hairs of the well of Sam narrative, is no less evocative and enchanting. It is said that in 1851, Mohammed Amin Khan wanted to build a minaret that was so high, he would be able to see Bukhara without having to ever travel there. Sadly, like Nimrod’s tower of ancient lore, the great Khan suffered the penalty for his hubris, and died before the tower could ever be finished. Fortunately, however, there are many people around today to marvel at the greatness of his ambition, and perhaps mourn a little at the futility of his pride. You, of course, are one of these people.
But if you are really interested in taking a good long trip outside the city, there’s always Elliq-Qala. Unlike Shelley’s fabled tourist of ancient ruins, you must not despair! You’ve seen a wonderful place most people in the world will never be able to boast about in future years. Unlike you!
It is worth mentioning that just as England is hardly Ein Land Ohne Musik, and the United States of America is not Ein Land ohne Romane; so also is Uzbekistan very far from Ein Land Ohne Sportsart! If England is not short of exciting music, nor the USA of accomplished novels, Uzbekistan is by no means without its sporting attractions. You may visit the local football team, FK Khiva; next time someone tells you about their trip to AC Milan or Bayern Munich, you can go one better! As for music and novels, you can do your own research on that one.
The Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan is known for destroying many famous cities across the world. One city had the ill fortune to survive the predatory raid of the Universal Khan, only to fall to Timur not long afterwards. You can take a trip out of the city to Kunya-Urgench, to view the ruins. There is another marvellous sight you can see as well: one that is not so much a testament to inhumanity, as to the raw, unbridled power of nature. The Darvaza Gas Crater continually burns day and night, like the fires of Gehenna. After witnessing the futility of earthly pomp and splendour, and the helplessness of human beings in the hands of almighty Nature, you can return to human civilisation in the great city of Khiva; refreshed, redeemed and illuminated by the passion of the pilgrim.
At this point, you may be thirsting for some general advice.
As always, you need to be aware of the national currency: the Uzbekistani soʻm. Don’t forget! Make sure you arrange your visa well in advance as well. The language of Uzekistan is Uzbek: and yes, of course there are phrasebooks.
The easiest way to get to Khiva (for most travellers!) is simply to to Urgench international airport. From there, many travellers choose to use the trolleybus to get to Khiva, or else a taxi.
Some travellers note that accommodation in Uzbekistan can be plain but functional, which may be due to the old Soviet artistic heritage. If you want real beauty and architectural finesse, it’s better to explore some of the historical buildings and ruins. Tourists ahve also reported that hotels are sometimes a little bureaucratic, with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for those who are trying to get a drink of coffee.
If you want to buy some antiques, that’s great, but don’t forget that a lot of antiques may not be quite they seem. Don’t take everything at face value: authenticity is by no means universal.
The so’m is a very weak currency, compared to (say) the pound or the US dollar. You would be well advised to bring a backpack to carry the money, just in case there is too much for you to store in your wallet. Bear in mind the following risks also: ATMS are not always reliable, and you will often be unable to pay by card. Beware of anyone who offers you currency exchange services, as there is a substantial black market in Uzbekistan.
Make sure that any medication you are on is something you’re actually allowed to bring into the country; certain painkillers, for example, might get you into serious trouble. Uzbekistan is a mainly Muslim country. The form of Islam practiced there is fairly open and liberal. Women and men can wear moderately modest clothing. However, whenever visiting religious sites, do be careful to cover your legs and shoulders. In general, don’t behave in a rowdy or exuberant manner. Public displays of affection are generally met with disapproval, so it’s better to be affectionate in private. Also, you need to be aware that homosexuality is currently illegal in Uzbekistan.
Finally, be careful of the strict laws on narcotics. Like the authorities in many countries, the Uzbekistani police and judiciary will impose severe penalties on those who are in possession of illegal narcotics, or who supply them to others. You can enjoy some alcohol on your trip, but make sure that if you are travelling with anyone under the age of 20, they don’t have any. The same applies to tobacco.
If you are from a country with different laws on any of the matters mentioned above, be mindful of all these differences, and make sure you have a great time, while keeping yourself out of trouble. You’re going to love it!