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Introducing Khiva (Xiva)

Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty and terrible journeys across deserts and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts. Nowadays it’s a mere 35km southwest of Urgench, past cotton bushes and fruit trees.

The historic heart of Khiva (Uzbek: Xiva), unlike that of other Central Asian cities, is preserved in its entirety – but so well preserved that the life has almost been squeezed out of it. As a result of a Soviet conservation programme in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s now a squeaky-clean official ‘city-museum’. Even among its densely packed mosques, tombs, palaces, alleys and at least 16 medressas, you need imagination to get a sense of its mystique, bustle and squalor.

A few of the historic buildings in Ichon-Qala are functioning mosques or shrines, but most are museums. You can see it all in a day trip from Urgench, but you’ll take it in better by staying longer. Khiva is at its best by night when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and medressas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic.