Khiva is the most distant of the three cities forming the so-called Uzbekistan's "golden triangle", the other two being Samarkand and Bukhara; it is located 1119 km from Tashkent, in the Khorezm Province. And yet it is definitely worth paying a visit as one of the most unique cities of the legendary Silk Road. The easiest way of getting there is taking the slightly more than an hour long flight from Tashkent. Admittedly, the only airline that will fly you there is Uzbekistan Airways which employs a mixed fleet of American Boeings and airplanes of Russian make. To which of these categories will your plane belong - that's entirely a matter of luck. In case it turns out to be a TU-154, the air-born equivalent of an old Lada car (boasting a deceptively fresh coat of paint) complete with a light pong of petrol, you can only find solace in the thought that there are several flights a day and the airline is currently negotiating joining the SkyTeam alliance. As there is no airport in Khiva, you will have to travel to Urgench, a modern, industrial and thoroughly nondescript city located 35 km from Khiva. For the exotically inclined among travellers there is always the option of getting there by trolleybus: it will take an hour to drag itself to the airport.
The exact founding date of the city of Khiva can't be established; what we do know is that it used to not only a desert oasis of the Silk Road but also one of the centres of the Central Asian slave market. Between 1592 and 1920 when the city was captured by the Red Army General Mikhail Frunze, it was the capital of the Khanate of Khiva. Today it is a museum city protected by a belt of an impressive wall and fully restored to its original glory. An extensive conservation programme was launched as long ago as during the Soviet era, in the 1970s when any sort of construction was strictly forbidden inside the city wall - in the Old Town territory. It has to be said, however, that the results of the renovation work are so perfect that the whole thing feels a bit like an open-air museum - particularly at midday, roaming the maze of Khiva streets among the magnificently restored mosques, madrasas, minarets, tourist groups and newlyweds who often come here on their wedding day. And you may have to keep reminding yourself that everything you see here is the real thing, genuine and authentic.
Therefore it's best to enter Khiva through one of the three "back gates" each facing a different cardinal point, designed for the convenience of caravans, rather than choose the main entrance - South gate, where an eager ticket-collector will immediately ask you to purchase a pass (it is valid for two days and allows you to enter all the main museums; you are free to wander around the city free of charge). The tiny streets neighbouring the wall are the only ones filled with the vibration of a live city, although they are populated by a meagre several thousand people, mostly employees of the tourist industry.
For a few minutes, rambling along the narrow streets and watching scenes of everyday life, you may get this weird feeling of actually visiting a Himalayan mountain trek village. The moment will pass, however: during the tourist season Khiva is packed with French, British and German tourists who, having imagined Uzbekistan to be a severely exotic destination, now walk the streets of the ancient city in full mountain trek equipment... Most of them are only staying for a night, quickly ticking boxes in their lists of must-see destinations; if at all possible, Khiva is worth staying at least a couple of nights. Do make time to savour the unhurried waking of the ancient city when the first rays of the sunrise envelope the walls in rosy light - and the late night hours when the poorly lit streets become completely deserted and your only company are the stars one by one lighting up in the sky...
Keywords: Khiva, Uzbekistan