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Flash back a couple of hundred years, and the site of Khiva’s ancient walls would have struck abject terror into the heart of any visitor, such was the fearsome reputation of the city among friend and foe alike. The Khans of Khiva were well known for their brutality, whilst the city itself was infamous as a capital of slavery – with Russians in particular fetching the highest prices.
These days, the welcome is rather more civilised – travellers to Khiva are likely to be met with a friendly Russian-language greeting and a pot of green tea, with Uzbek hospitality becoming increasingly famous for its warmth and generosity. So it proved for us, as our hosts at Boyjon Ota were the prime example of how to run a small guest house – even inviting us to see how the local bread is made, and offering us vodka, fish and chicken on our final evening when we arrived back.
Khiva’s inner-city – known as the Ichon-Qala – is a beautifully surreal collection of dried-mud houses, alleyways, mosques and madrasas. Surrounding all of this are the old city walls, which we kept going back to time and time again. They offer an unparalleled perspective over the sights of the Ichon-Qala, and – despite being in various stages of restoration/disrepair – allow you to walk around at least three quarters of the city.
Do you have to pay?
As of October 2019, no – it was completely free. There was a reasonable effort underway to restore certain sections, so it wouldn’t surprise us if they introduced a fee to enter the walls at some point – à la the likes of Dubrovnik.
How long does it take to walk the walls?
With just over 2km of wall accessible to the public, the honest answer is that it really wouldn’t take you too long if all you wanted to do was cover the ground and take a few photos. However, the beauty of Khiva is discovering it at different times of day, or in different weather conditions, and there is nowhere better than the city walls to take it all in. We will have spent hours up there over the course of 3 days, and totalled up many thousands of steps!
It’s safe to say that trips with this much walking require a solid and reliable pair of shoes. Matt was trying out a pair of Aleader water shoes for the entire trip, and found them to be absolutely perfect for this sort of outdoor exploration – super lightweight, comfortable, and stylish enough to wear around town as well as on the trails. Having worn them constantly for over 2 weeks, averaging nearly 30,000 steps each day, we’re very happy to recommend these for an outdoor adventure – you can use the code TWOTICKETSTO15 at Aleader’s website to nab yourself 15% off.
The North section of the wall is probably the more popular among visitors to Khiva, providing the most ‘official’ route up through a steep, narrow staircase.
This part is definitely the best place to enjoy the Khiva sunset without having to pay for a viewpoint or restaurant terrace. We headed around in the direction of the Kalta Minor Minaret, with its iconic stumpy profile, to join a small group of travellers soaking up the last of the day’s rays and enjoying the golden light stretching out over the city.
As well as being the most popular route, the Kalta Minor section of the north wall is probably the best restored. Turning ‘left’ away from the Minaret as you emerge from the top of the stairs will introduce you to the less ‘polished’ side of Khiva’s walls, as you navigate uneven ground, littered with deep pot holes from years of erosion – these are just tightly packed mud walls, after all! Unless you’re particularly infirm, none of this should be a problem, and the obstacle course is well worth the effort to get a unique view of the city stretched out before you. In particular, it’s the only part of Khiva where you can see the sun setting directly over the whole of the Ichon-Qala.
If the North section of the wall provides the best sunsets and views of the city, the largely unrestored South section is perhaps the most interesting in its own right. It is only accessible – as far as we could tell – via a well trodden but not-so-obvious path between a collection of tombstones on the South Western corner of the Ichon-Qala.
Once you’ve made your way onto the walls, you can down walk the remainder of the Western side up to a steep drop from which the best views of the Khoja Minaret and Mukhamed Aminkhan madrasa (which now operates, disappointingly, as a large hotel) can be enjoyed. It offers another unique perspective at sunset, but is primarily a particularly great spot to watch the sun rise over the old city.
The tombstones among which you must walk to access this section are a frequent feature of the South side, both inside and outside the walls. These unmarked graves offer a grounded contrast to the grandeur of the many mausoleums which you’ll discover during your Uzbekistan trip, and are worth a short detour from Khiva’s main sites even if you don’t want to venture onto the walls.
The neighbourhood around the South section also offers a pleasant insight into the quieter side of life in the Ichon-Qala – less obviously surrounded by guest houses and hotels, with tourists outnumbered by locals, you could trick yourself for just a few seconds into thinking you were discovering the wonders of this oasis city for the first time.