In the remote southwest corner of Uzbekistan lies the spectacular town of Khiva. Surrounded by an imposing wall, and packed full of tile-encrusted mosques, minarets, madrasas, mansions, and mausoleums, the city is one of the world’s best-kept secrets.
But it won’t stay a secret for long. I recently spent two weeks traveling through the Silk Road cities of Bukara, Samarqand, and Khiva, and a tourist boom is looming on the horizon. Near the town center in Khiva, a new rail station recently opened, linking this sleepy corner of the country to the capital city of Tashkent by bullet train. Crews are busily erecting large hotels and shopping centers near the train station. Change is in the air.
For now, Khiva is a delight to visit and photograph. A combination of soft, autumnal light, clear desert skies, photogenic people, uncluttered backgrounds, and stately, robust architecture, made it a photography paradise. I walked an average of 10 miles per day in my two weeks in Uzbekistan, not only visiting the major sites, but also roaming the back streets, meeting the locals. It was one of the most enjoyable travel photography experiences of my life.
Khiva Travel Photos
The squat, unfinished Kalta Minor minaret. Construction began in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who wanted to build a minaret so high he could see all the way to Bukhara. He died in 1855, leaving the blue-tiled structure unfinished.
Two men playing backgammon in the city center.
Locals sharing bread at a wedding.
The view of Khiva from the city walls.
Girls hola-hooping at school. Just to the right, all the boys are playing soccer in a cloud of dust.
Cool old man chilling in front of his house.
Khiva silhouette at sunrise.
Khiva is surrounded by a big, beautiful wall.
Most of the city streets are unpaved, and the buildings are made of mud or bricks, creating an earth-tone aesthetic.
Locals waiting for a wedding ceremony to begin.
This woman and her grandchildren walked by, saw me with my camera, and struck this pose. Uzbeks are amiable people.
One of the opulent, tile-encrusted mansions in central Khiva.
The school kids in Uzbekistan dress formally, with dresses and suit coats.
I traveled to Uzbekistan in late October/early November, the peak of wedding season. I encountered many pre-wedding photoshoots and wedding parties.
At dusk, birds fill the sky, but unlike most Muslim countries, there was no call to prayer. Unfortunately, it is banned in Uzbekistan, which takes away from the atmosphere.
Khiva at night.
Children on a field trip entertained by a puppeteer.
A scene from the residential area outside the city walls. The old town areas consist of earthen homes, many of which are being repaired. Clearly, tourist cash is fueling a building boom.
Group of men playing cards after work. The pace of life is slow in Khiva, and it was easy for me to meet and photograph the locals.
Local woman just walking down the road with her cat, no big deal.
Have you been to Uzbekistan or Central Asia? Is it on your list?
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Lovely photo essay. I hope the tourism booms just enough to boost the economy, but not so much as to ruin the atmosphere.
Agreed. You can already see how an influx of cash is helping, but it runs the risk of being the next Hoi An or Telluride or Dubrovnik. Thanks for your comments.
Thank you for sharing. Beautiful.
I have never been in Central Asia, it is on my wish list. I particularly like that it remains undiscovered by mass tourism. You have captured it beautifuly.
I really enjoyed it. The people are very friendly and if you like red meat the food is delicious. Uzbekistan is an interesting blend of Soviet, Islamic, Asian, and European.
Thanks, Jeff for letting us travel with you via your amazing pictures of Khiva. Love your pictures and stories!
Thank you Marilyn.
Enjoyed this! Thanks.
Thank you Brian.
Uzbekistan has been increasingly on our radar. Thanks for sharing this find!
Go now! It is a great time to visit.
Amazing photos Jeff! Love the cat lady. I just entered a Lonely Planet contest for a trip to Uzbekistan.
I hope you win the trip! The cat lady was a lucky capture. She walked out of her house and I started snapping away!
Great post Jeff.
Is a guide recommended here or you can just be by yourself?
It is very easy to go solo, and I’d recommend doing it without a group. The best part of my trip was wandering the backstreets and meeting locals. The tour groups rush through everything and eat in big restaurants that cater to groups, and stay in big soulless hotels. As a solo traveler, you can stay in guesthouses, eat with the locals, and enjoy the country at your own pace.
Thanks so much for that great piece of advice. I am moving this location to the top of my list now 🙂
I’ve been thinking of going to Uzbekistan for more than five years now, and because of what you said about the imminent tourism boom I’m convinced that I really should go sooner than later. Quite a lot of people said that Khiva is their favorite place in the country, including you, so it must have a really special flair to be able to enchant even the most seasoned travelers. Really love this post!
Khiva was my favorite of the three main cities – Bukhara, Samarqand and Khiva. Samarqand did have the most impressive sites though, and Bukhara probably had better hotels and dining options. All three are great! Yes, now is the time to go. I’ll write about this in a future post, but just in the last year they have installed ATMs in the country (although only about 25% them were working). It is really set up for tourists but there aren’t many there yet.
Gorgeous gorgeous photos Jeff. I’ve long wanted to go to the Stans. This just confirms it even more.
You’d enjoy Uzbekistan. People are very friendly and photogenic.
Love the photos, Jeff, and I am insanely jealous of your whole itinerary!
Looks like a place with character (and characters). A place where being comfortable with street photography would be a plus. Nice shots.
Are you familiar with Fabrizio over at awtytravels? He’s been to the ‘Stans more than once, I think you might enjoy his posts.
Thanks Dave. I’m having a look at Fabrizio’s blog now – good stuff. Thanks for sharing. Uzbekistan is a photography paraside for sure. It is easy to do street photography and the settings and light are amazing.
Beautiful pictures. Love the woman with the cat. Did it make you miss your own cat(s)? Just curious, do you know why the ban the call to prayer?
They banned the call to prayer after a terrorist attack many years ago. Uzbekistan is a very moderate Muslim country – you can drink beer in bars next to mosques, for example. It would be so much more atmospheric with the call to prayer.
I always miss my cats when I’m away, but we met a lot of lovable kitties in Uzbekistan. They are fluffy and fat up there, designed to survive the hard winters, vs. my sleek tropical cats.
Hey Jeff, did you also have a chance to check out Bukhara? Admittedly I gave Khiva a miss, because I ended up staying in Bukhara a lot longer than I planned. It’s a bit like Khiva but with the added benefit that people still live downtown…
Yes, I did go to Bukhara, and I just posted about it. I liked both Bukhara and Khiva nearly the same but probably liked Khiva a little more for the small town vibes and friendly people. The sights and architecture are basically the same, so it is skippable if you’ve been to Bukhara.
Ah, great will check it out right away!
Jeff what a fabulous compilation of photos of Khiva, a location I have not even heard of. Too bad about the call to prayer not being allowed. I so enjoyed hearing it again on our trip to Jordan.
Now as to a favourite photo I think I shall pick #12. I am imagining for that creative angle you were doing some gymnastics.
I only became aware of it recently as well. You’d like it – there are plenty of places to ride a bike in the desert. There is a collection of abandoned forts you can cycle between.
For photo 12, I actually was standing up straight. The ceilings are so high, and supported by a carved wooden pole. The rooms are grand, but not cosy! Thanks for commenting.
Jeff, I had absolutely no idea you were in Uzbekistan until you posted that nighttime shot from Samarkand on Facebook – it made me do a double-take and just about gasp in envy! Uzbekistan has been on my travel wish list for the longest time. My super-adventurous aunt went maybe 10 years ago and raved about its historic Silk Road cities (one night, the caretaker at a madrasa in Samarkand turned on the lights just for her), though her favorite of the three was Khiva. Now that I’ve read your post and seen these fantastic photos, I totally get why.
Because Uzbekistan’s national airline recently started flying to Jakarta and the government has been granting visa-free access to a long list of countries (including Indonesia and Canada), Bama and I will likely be planning a trip there next year. Hopefully we’ll get to Khiva before the tourism boom really kicks in!
All three cities – Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand – are incredible, but I liked Khiva the best also. It is easily walkable and absolutely stunning. Plus, the people were extremely friendly. The only downside is the lack of places to eat as many of them only serve tour groups. Having said that, the restaurant with the best food, view, and service caters to independent travelers. I ate there 4 times.
You’d love it! The history and culture of Uzbekistan are fascinating, and it is just a delightful place to visit. If enough people show up to fill the new hotels, it will be a touristic apocalypse. But, I suspect it will get much more popular nonetheless. Now is the time to go!
I’ll write about it eventually, but Uzbekistan airlines…oh man, it has a long way to go 🙂
This looks an interesting place, lovely photos
Thank you. It is quite amazing.
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Fabulous! Interesting that it’s becoming a detination. Talk about remote! We had opportunity to visit in 1996, not long after Russia pulled out. That was the trip that turned me into a true world traveler. a friendly and fascinating culture. I remember that my sister-in-law refused to fly out on July 4th, because of threats from some guy we had never heard of – Osama bin Laden. Thank you for bringing me back!
I imagine in 1996 it was very remote and maybe a little ragged. They have clearly poured a lot of money into restoring the town and the new train station will zip people there on the bullet train in no time. Looks like your sister-in-law was eerily prescient.
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Obviously you had a great time on this trip, evidenced by the wonderful photos of local life. It looks like a place to go to, sooner rather than later.
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So beautiful capture, Jeff. Thanks for sharing 😊
Thank you Nasraul.
Mr: Jeffery Bell, I looked at your pictures and read some of your great articles. Your decriptions are so vivid that i feel as if i have been there. Stay safe and keep on with your journey.
Mr. Tim Bell. Thank you for your comments. I am happy that you enjoyed my blog.
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More fantastic photos. Khiva looks fascinating. Love the kids, the cool old man, the grandma, the wedding… you are great at telling stories with your photographs. 🙂