My friend and former colleague, John Couper, has once again given me the honor of sharing a unique and fascinating blog post about his experience while living in Central Asia. I am excited to welcome John as a guest blogger because Central Asia isn’t featured on many travel blogs, nor is this region on many travelers’ radars or bucket list. But it’s on mine, and I appreciate the firsthand experience and information John shares in this post about Uzbekistan, and in all of his posts. He’s rarely on the beaten path, and like me, has an aversion to tour groups. He travels like no one else I know. I aspire to travel like John.
This particular post shares a unique firsthand insight into the city of Khiva, Uzbekistan and how it came to be what it is today. Khiva’s rich and somewhat forgotten history is beautifully explained in this post by John Couper. Thank you, John.
Visiting Uzbekistan’s Silk Road
Uzbekistan’s famed “Ikat” silk weaving, perhaps the most complex and sophisticated in the world, uses mathematical precision to dye and weave silk threads into fantastic designs. The 1,500 years of Khiva echoes this process, weaving something as delicate as silk into something as tough as hand-made fabric.
During my years in Central Asia, I had wanted to visit Uzbekistan for quite some time before the opportunity presented itself. Then, two Uzbek students led our small group of professors to the restored glories of a country that was once the hub of the silk Road.
Khiva is an accidental museum. Created by Persians, then taken over by Central Asian nomads, Turks, and Soviets, Khiva prospered and retained power for centuries. Most Silk Road caravans from Europe and China stopped there for trade, a little brutal R & R, and to replenish supplies. Descendants of Genghis Khan controlled this region.
The Demise of Khiva, but Not It’s History
Then, like some towns in America’s west, a new route bypassed the city and the trade dried up. Quickly. So Khiva did too, as Samarkand and Bukhara to the east got plump with tradegood profits.
For centuries it bided its time in the flat, hot plains of Uzbekistan within sight of the border with Turkmenistan. The city kept going, tinkering in the shadows over former greatness, doing what little regional trade it could. Rich and grandiose, then laid low by war and invasion, milked for its cotton and crops during the Soviet era, Uzbekistan was left in poverty.
Then, after the Soviet collapse, Uzbeks realized that their patrimony and future was also crumbling around them. Buildings that once anchored and dazzled an empire were turning to dust. Could they be renovated to attract tourists? Huge mosques and madrassahs were reconstructed based on ancient paintings, with magnificent success.
Even then, Kiva remained stuck in the margins of history. A long, bumpy bus trip from the nearest town, it draws fewer tourists than larger, more sumptuous cities like Samarkand and Bukhara. Much less money and effort was put into restoring Khiva than these other cities, but locals do all they can to maintain the traditional architecture of the city.
This neglect saved the city’s character, if not its economy, by thwarting modern development. In a sense, Khiva is the understated jewel in Uzbek’s historical crown— where visitors can peer back into its ancient mosques, mausoleums and marketplaces. A beautiful blue tower, begun by a Khan in 1851, unfinished after his death, now graces the low skyline.
My Memories of Khiva
In Khiva, sadness mingles with remembered dreams of grandeur and glory. Few people walk its streets now—especially during the late-winter frost as we did– but travelers are more likely to get a friendly greeting and offer of tea.
The city’s name has an unclear history, but many say that caravan travelers, passing through the city, drank its spring water, said “Khey vakh!” (What pleasure!) until the name stuck.
Khiva’s main square is open and airy; a few merchants at the edges sell enormous, fuzzy Turkmen hats and imported Chinese trinkets. This vibrant city survives with celebrations and festivals, as well as local and regional markets.
The northeast of the old city, called Itchan Kala, is still protected by a 10-century monumental wall, that now keeps out not raiding Mongols, but Soviet-era construction.
14th-century Pakhlavan Mahmoud had endless curiosity, which led him to not only run a fur-hat business, but to also become a poet, philosopher, and unbeaten wrestler. The mausoleum he built in 1326 was expanded by his decedents and now offers some of the most beautiful courtyards of Central Asia.
Experiencing Khiva Firsthand
We arrived just before a spring-welcoming festival where girls danced, boys sang, a row of government officials scowled…all a welcome change from the grinding daily life and near-desert of Uzbekistan’s neglected southwest.
A mosque still has pillars that laugh at the centuries, creating a dense atmosphere that any Hollywood director would kill to reproduce.
Around the city, a camel is tethered to a tree beside a small pond, the cafés often offer “plov” rice and other local delicacies.
Even one hour in Khiva demands that we reflect on the dramatic tides of world history, and the bright spaces of culture. It all creates—like ikat silk weavings– a place that naturally, quietly, organically, preserves its heritage and history.
If you’re interested in reading more about John’s experience in Central Asia, check out his other posts on Kyrgyzstan. He’s also traveled extensively and uniquely in South America and you can read about his travels through Choco, Colombia here.