As the town of Urgench gives way to waving carpets of crops glistening in the morning sun the people we now find ourselves surrounded by are obviously different from the ones we left behind in Iran. Gone are the nose jobs, piercing stares and slim features. For the young Uzbek women hijabs have been replaced by pared down Amy Winehouse style beehives while the flowing chador is nowhere to be seen, replaced by knee length skirts, brightly coloured gold studded two piece outfits and pseudo courtier handbags. Faces have become rounder and the older women more stout and rotund. With their hair wrapped in a small scarf knotted at the nape of the neck they natter away catching up on gossip as the number two trolley bus trundles towards the polished jewel of the Khorezm state.
“Well if Khiva’s anything to go by then the rest of Uzbekistan must be pretty spectacular!”
we pondered as our bus dumps us off at the old city’s Northern Gate.
Restored under the Stalin regime Khiva can at first seem a little manufactured which, to an extent, it is. The lived in feel of a true Silk Road city is missing but in it’s place is a scrubbed up old mud city that’s withstood the test of desert winds and Soviet planning. Spend some time chatting to the store holders and soon enough a laid back air flows through the city.
Walking through the west gate among women in traditional dress whilst others seem scantily dressed in skirts and sleeveless tops (we had just arrived from Iran), the unfinished Kalta Minor minaret blasts its turquoise and green tiles back into the blinding sun, setting an impressive introduction to the centuries old slave trading centre.
Khiva is thankfully now a mecca for handicrafts and crafts of antiquity with many Madrassahs still teaching and turning out wood carvings, silk embroidery, ceramics and textiles that will give you a firsthand understanding of the skills and time needed to produce some of the most exquisite arts of the Central Asian region. This passion for traditional art and design is evident everywhere from the fabrics used on the day beds, crockery used in the restaurants and old Suzani embroideries adorning the walls.
We could go on about all the sights we saw though you can find this information anywhere so we’ll stick to plastering the page with some photos instead and a short list of where we ate, both good and bad, during our three days in town.
Food, coffee and beer
Khorezm Art Restaurant
We hit this place up twice as the food, ambiance and service were all good. Opt for the regional dishes of Shuvit Oshi (green spaghetti) and Tulum Barak (pirogi) and slosh it down with a dry white wine, superb. In the summer months they set up a terrace area on top that gives a romantic view to the adjacent madrassah lit up at night.
Rustamboy Tea House
Tea Houses in Uzbekistan are basically local restaurants and what this lacks in interior charm it makes up for in price and food quality. We ended up visiting here a few times as it was right next to our accommodation and very cheap, the below meal with tea cost UZS24,000 (under USD$3 at the black market rate). Try the manti (Uzbek dumplings), they’re some of the best in Uzbekistan!
Tea House Bir Gumbaz
This place served us the shittest coffee in the last two years of travelling, no lie. It’s in a great location on the main thoroughfare with three day beds and a minaret view. Opt for the tea and if they get this wrong go moan about it on Tripadvisor or whatever.
High vaulted ceilings and a chandelier that wouldn’t look out of place on a Game of Throne set, the food here is of Khivan affair and done well. It’s very popular with the Chinese tour groups so if you see a table full of them and they haven’t got any food on it, skip it in favour of the next place – the wait may be long.
Another one popular with tour groups the shady day beds on a grassy lawn are a great place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a cold beer and a good cheap meal. The pizza’s weren’t bad, the local carp fish was juicy and the service was good.
Honey so fresh the bees aren’t done with it, fruit and vegetables, and a traditional meat pie you Aussies will want to get your teeth into. If you’ve been missing the good old Four’n’Twenty or Mrs Macs back home this is the closest you’ll get. They’re hot and they’re tasty.
We met a friendly local with a Brummie accent (and some borrowed jokes to match) who introduced us to the owner of this place. We only went for some manti and beers though it was packed with locals and tourists at the time. Sit outside on the day beds at night only as during the day you’re dicing with sunstroke.
The Old Town
There’s tons of old madrassahs and mosques in the old city to duck in and out of so grab a ticket at the West gate for UZS35,000 and off you go. Most of them house sparsely clad museums that offer little information, except for the Nature Museum. Here you can find an ‘Ugly Sheep’ and a deformed human foetus in a jar labelled the ‘Boneless Baby’, supposedly caused by parental drug abuse along with some ‘don’t do drugs’ propaganda. There’s some great surrealist art by local artists just next to the entrance too.
The mosque is not included in the Old Town ticket so you’ll have to pay an additional fee but it’s worth it to stroll around and admire the hand carved wooden columns in traditional Khorezm style inside the semi darkness. Each column is unique and is replaced new for old in the same style when needed. Unlike any other mosque we’ve seen.
If you tire of the old town a short walk brings you to the Nurullaboy Complex where you can wander around the extravagantly decorated rooms. We had the place to ourselves and it makes a nice change from another mosque or madrassah. And it was a great chance for a little photo shoot.
We stayed at the Hotel Alibek for USD$20 a night which included a huge breakfast and private bathroom. It was a great place to watch the sunset turn the western walls a deep orange each evening from the first floor balcony.
Thanks for reading, if you’ve got any comments or questions on Khiva get in touch below!
For more pics of our time in Uzbekistan and Central Asia check out our Flickr page.