UZBEKISTAN: First stop, beautiful Khiva

Sunrise view of Khiva from the door to our 2-bedroom suite in the Orient Star Khiva Hotel, a former madrassa

A conversation with French friends put the idea of a trip to Uzbekistan in my head. My friends had visited some years ago and been impressed by the religious tolerance in Uzbekistan as well as the friendliness of the people and the unique beauty of the sights. I started researching and was hooked. My wonderfully agreeable husband gave the idea a thumbs up and I started planning.

Uzbekistan is very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, so peak tourism times are spring and fall. We have lots of guests coming to Paris this year, so I had to find a time that fit on our calendar and fell within periods of reasonable weather in Uzbekistan. Happily, that allowed me to book a ten-day trip to Uzbekistan that had my birthday landing right in the middle. Fun!

Although my friends had been on a group tour to Uzbekistan, David and I wanted a private trip. Unlike our usual travels of the past ten years, which have had us wandering for two to three months at a time, this one-country trip seemed to call for something a bit more organized. Research indicated that language and transportation between cities were going to be something of an issue. So, I checked with several Paris tour companies and researched the internet before settling on a private tour organized by Zokir of Silk Road Destinations. Zokir got great reviews on the internet, his prices were competitive, he was quick to respond, and his English was good.

Before I could commit to anything with Zokir, though, I needed to find flights. His packages did not include flights and I didn’t want a package with flights. For some reason, all the tours I found that did include flights from Paris to Uzbekistan seemed to use Turkish Airlines, which meant a layover in Istanbul and all the delay and attendant chance for lost luggage that a layover entails. I discovered that Uzbekistan Airways has non-stop flights from Paris (and London) to Uzbekistan at prices slightly less than Turkish Airlines. I knew nothing about Uzbekistan Airways, but they got decent reviews for timeliness and Zokir said they’d never had a problem with them canceling a flight (my main worry since I’d be committing to an itinerary that included hotels, drivers, guides, etc.).

All the tours I found also had international flights into and out of the capital city of Tashkent in the far east of Uzbekistan followed by an immediate hour-long flight back across the country to Urgench in the west where the typical tour begins in Khiva and then works back across to Tashkent to fly home. By sheer good luck, I was able to find a direct flight from Paris to Urgench and a return flight from Tashkent, eliminating that first flight and giving our trip a much simpler and less sleep-deprived start. [See bottom of this post for the full itinerary we settled on.]

Air Uzbekistan and an early arrival at Urgench

We left Paris at 8:30 pm (an hour late after a delay boarding and a delay on the tarmac that I’m not sure had anything to do with the airline) and arrived in Urgench in the dark around 5:30 am the following day. The plane was modern and clean, the staff pleasant, and the food almost laughably abundant as we tried to make room for it all on our trays. Uzbekistan is three hours ahead of Paris so the 6-hour flight really wasn’t bad and just felt like we stayed up really late. A driver was waiting as promised to take us the 45 minutes to our Khiva hotel.

Despite arriving to road closures due to the Ethnosport Festival going on in Khiva, we were soon settled in beautiful and historic Orient Star Khiva Hotel located in a former madrassa just inside the walled city (“Ichan Kala”) and beside its famous landmark blue-tiled Kalta-Minor Minaret. As promised, Zokir had arranged for an early check-in. The man at the front desk was funny as he surreptitiously slipped me the key and told me to keep it out of sight because he couldn’t do an early check-in for the French tour group that had also just arrived. Stuffed after the abundance of food offered on the flight, we skipped breakfast and enjoyed a 3-hour nap. We felt plenty rested and eager to go when it was time to meet our guide at 11 am.

Ethnosport model and photographer atop the Kunya Ark palace; beyond them is the Kalta-Minor Minaret and the former madrassa with the high arched entrance that was our hotel.

We’d heard loudspeaker announcements periodically outside our room and discovered that the weekend-long International Ethnosport Festival was in full swing with “mas-wrestling” happening just outside our hotel doorway. With guide nowhere in sight (we figured she was probably held up by the blocked roads we’d encountered earlier), I texted Zokir so he could coordinate with the guide, then we turned our attention to the sports.

Mas-wrestling consists of two competitors on a small “court” with a 12-16″ board stood on end between them. The wrestlers sit on either side of the board with their feet planted against the board just opposite each other. The referees give them a stick which, when the competition begins, they then try to wrestle away from each other. The competition tends to go pretty quickly with one wrestler sometimes being pulled up and over the board before the stick is fully jerked away from them. We watched pairs of men and of women compete. The athletes were very buff, the men competing shirtless in shorts and the women in shorts and t-shirts. Milling around the courts were competitors in team jackets from all the “stans” as well as from Mongolia, Turkey and other regional countries.

Mas-wrestling on the terrace just outside the front door of our hotel

Our guide, Ms. Zilola or “Lola,” arrived soon and we began our tour. We were eager to see this amazing “Arabian Knights” city we’d glimpsed from the balcony outside our hotel door. Unfortunately, Lola thought it best to walk us a short distance back outside the city walls to stand by a parked van to explain Uzbek history to us. Note to tour guides: Put yourself in the shoes of tourists and let them see the sights while you talk! We would have been so much happier if we could have walked the fascinating streets while she gave her lecture, but no such suggestions seemed to register. Oh well, the information she gave was useful and we made it past the lecture and past another lecture in the courtyard of our own hotel (a historic site) to finally (over an hour later) start actually exploring the city.

What can I say? Khiva is gorgeous, magical, everything we’d hoped for, and a perfect first stop in Uzbekistan. The lavishly tiled buildings and markets filled with colorful adras fabrics in ikat patterns, traditional chugirma fur hats, bright ceramics, embroidered suzani, knives, spices, souvenirs and more are a treat for the eyes. In Khiva, we had our first exposure to what we came to call Uzbekistan’s “Four M’s”: mosques, minarets, madrassas* and mausoleums. Tourist sites definitely lean heavily to these four and, while there are similarities, each offers its own history and beauty: intricate tiles, colorful paint, carved wooden or stone pillars. [* There are lots of spellings for “madrassa.” For the sake of consistency, I’ve picked this one and will stick with it, but it may appear differently in copied text as in the itinerary below.]

Munshid singing in Pahlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum

Khiva has been greatly restored to its current state as have many of the sites in Uzbekistan. Earthquakes, wars and the passage of time reduced many old buildings to ruins. While Russia and the Soviet Union were responsible for some of the destruction (both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union held dominion over the area), the Soviets also instigated some of the reconstruction. Much of it has been done by the Uzbek government as well since Uzbekistan gained its independence in 1991.

The Islom Khodja Minaret, the tallest in Uzbekistan

The name of the wide blue Kalta-Minor Minaret refers to its “short” stature. Although it is large, it is unfinished and was originally intended to be three times as high! It is an iconic symbol of not only Khiva, but of Uzbekistan itself and appears in pictures across the country and on the 100,000 sum bill.

Sum is the local currency and it was over 12,000 to the USD while we were there. This made for a bit of a shock on first viewing prices, but once the conversion was done, we found prices to be cheap nearly everywhere. Food was particularly inexpensive by western standards and we spent less than $10US for dinner for two most nights (including a large .5l beer shared). Dollars and euros are often, but not always, accepted in Uzbekistan. Credit cards are accepted in some places, but many do not. We found plenty of ATM’s with fair exchange rates in the cities we visited.

Market fun in Khiva, clockwise from top left: trying on chugirma fur hats, chess,
puppets, silk scarves, vendor stalls and multiple-position wooden bookstand
carved from a single piece of wood

Uzbeks are hearty eaters with a diet heavily focused on meat (usually beef or lamb), rice, onions, tomatoes and cucumber salads, and bread. Plov, a pilaf with regional variations, usually consisting of small beef slices served over rice simmered with julienned carrots, onions, raisins and chick peas, is ubiquitous as is a tomato, cucumber, onion and fresh dill salad. Samsas, fried or baked pastries stuffed most often with ground meat and onions and lagman, a meat and udon-type noodle dish are very popular. A round bread with a stamped flattened center is also a staple. Other small salads and fruit often round out a meal of generous proportions.

Rug makers and a kitten at the Khiva Silk Carpet Workshop

Some highlights of our Khiva tour included the 19th century Kunya Ark palace of the local khan with its extravagantly tiled open-air prayer areas, throne room and mint; the Juma mosque with its forest of 200 carved wooden pillars, some dating to the 10th century; the Islom Khodja Minaret, the tallest in Uzbekistan; and, of course, the Kalta-Minor Minaret and our own hotel. Our hotel room actually consisted of a two-bedroom suite that was once a dormitory room for students of the madrassa. We had a great view over the city from our front door and could see the Kalta-Minor Minaret standing just outside the main entrance to the hotel from the wide center courtyard.

The Juma Mosque

In addition to the usual sights, Khiva was bustling on our first day with Ethnosport events. In addition to the mas-wrestling, there was archery, weightlifting, traditional horseback games, performances with swords and even pistols by troupes of children in Ghengis Khan-type costumes and more. We lunched on the raised terrace of a restaurant overlooking a wide square where the children performed. We also watched some of the closing Ethnosport ceremonies in the evening when victorious athletes were honored by the playing of their national anthems. That evening, we climbed to the ramparts of the Kunya Ark palace to watch as sunset gave way to the lighting of the city. The following day gave us a chance to stroll Khiva in its more usual quiet state before leaving for a 6-hour drive across the desert to Bukhara.


Our full tailor-made itinerary (with names and phone numbers of guides and drivers redacted). Zokir provided this updated itinerary with contact info for guides and drivers the week before we left, something I really appreciated. Everyone was on WhatsApp and, with our American T-Mobile service offering included international internet, we were able to stay in touch save for the times we lost connection when traveling in the middle of the desert. There is a train from Khiva to Bukhara, but after watching a YouTube video of an old, uncomfortable, warm and dusty train, I opted for a driver and an air-conditioned car. A new high-speed train is slated to open next year, but locals expressed some skepticism about whether that was a realistic timeframe. We pushed back some of the start times as well since we often found that it wasn’t necessary to be up and out by 9 am and waiting until 10 am or later made for a more relaxed day.:

Day 1 __.09.2023 Arrival to Urgench and Khiva city tour
Flight from homeland to Urgench , Uzbekistan. Arrival in Urgench at 04:50
Welcome by driver at Urgench International Airport.
Driver _____
Transfer to hotel. Early check in and Breakfast included. Rest Until 11:00
.Meet your guide Mrs. ____
Sightseeing starts from entering the Ata gates at Itchan Kala
 Juma Mosque is 10th
-18th century mosque in Khiva.
 Kunya Ark fortress was Khiva rules residence and citadel.
 Kalta Minor is Khivas unfinished minaret clad in turquoise tiles
 Mohammed Amin Khan Madrasah was built in 1851 now it’s a hotel
 Tash-Kauli Palace is harem was built in 1832-1841
 Mausoleum of Pahlavan Mahmud is richly decorated
 Mausoleum of Sayid Allauddin The tomb of a famous Nakhshbandi
 Madrasah of Islam-Khodja and biggest minaret in Khiva
 Madrasah of AllaKuli Khan
Overnight at the hotel .( Orient Khiva)

Day 2 __.09.2023 Khiva – Bukhara (by car)
Breakfast at the hotel . Meet our driver at 09:00
Driver Mr. _____
Drive to Bukhara 435 km . Transfer to hotel .

Overnight at the hotel . ( Old Bukhara)
Tailor made program for ____

Day 3 __.09.2023 Bukhara
Breakfast at the hotel. Meet guide Ms _____ ( at 09:00)
Walking city tour
 Ismail Samani mausoleum is one of the oldest buildings ( 10th century)
 Chashma Ayub mausoleum also known as a Museum of water
 Bolo-Hauz mosque is built in 1712 looks elegant and splendid
 Ark Fortress where king khans use to live
 Poi-Kalyan complex ( madrasah,mosque,minaret)
 Ulug Beg Madrasah one of the first madrasa built in 1417
 Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is a medieval madrasah built in 1651
 Tim Abdullah Khan it is an old trading Dome
 Magok-I Attari Mosque the oldest building in Bukhara (12th century)

 Lyabi-Hauz locals favourite place to come and spent time
Overnight at the hotel . ( Old Bukhara)

Day 4 __.09.2023 Bukhara
Breakfast at the hotel . Meet your guide M. ____ at 09:00
Places to visit:
 Chor Minor Mosque has a unusual but unique look ( four minarets)
 Naqshbandi Complex is most religious place and always crowded
 Sitora-i-Mokhi-Khosa Palace summer residence of Bukharas Emir
 Chor-Bakr Complex ancient cemetery equal to 3 hectares.
Overnight at the hotel. ( Old Bukhara)
Tailor made program for ____

Day 5 __.09.2023 Bukhara-Nurata-Yangi Gazgan Yurtas
Breakfast at the hotel ( No guide this day)
Meet your driver at 09:00 Mr. _____
In the morning taking a ride to the Nurata.
 Rabat-i-Malik ancient caravansaray
 Sardoba medieval water keep

Lunch at the local house.
 Ruins of Citadel of Alexander the Great
 Yurt camp and Dinner in a desert around the fire.
Overnight in the Yurt.(no guide this day)
Day 6 14.09.2023 Yangi Gazgan Yurtas-Mitan village-Samarkand
Breakfast at yurts. Meet your driver . Mr. ______
Drive to Samarkand via Mitan village .
Arrive to Mitan village have lunch. See how locals live in the villages.
Drive to Samarkand.
Overnight at the hotel.( Zilol Baxt)

Day 7 __.09.2023 Samarkand-Shahrisabz-Samarkand ( by car)
Breakfast at the hotel . Meet guide at 09:00 Mr. _____
Taking ride from Samarkand to Shakrisabz (90km)
Places to visit:
 Palace Ak Saray it means “white palace “( Timurs residence)
 Dorut Tilovat is house of recitation was built in 1438s
 Statue of Amir Temur
 Ko”k gumbaz Mosque Blue dome mosque built by Ulugbek ( 1436)
 Dorus Saodat complex house of power was built Timirids dynasty

Drive back to Samarkand. Overnight at the hotel. ( Zilol Baxt)
Tailor made program for ______

Day 8 __.09.2023 Samarkand
Breakfast at the hotel . Meet guide Mr. _____ at 09:00
Starting the sightseeing from heart of old city.
 Guri Amir Mausoleum
 Registan square has three madrasahs
 Bibi Khanum Mosque was the biggest at that time (1399)
 Siab Bazaar oldest keep operating bazaar in Samarkand
 Shahi Zinda Complex
Overnight at the hotel( Zilol Baxt)

Day 9 __.09.2023 Samarkand –Tashkent(train)
Breakfast. Meet your guide at 09:00 Mr. _____
Places to visit:
 Ulugbek observatory
 Mausoleum of Hodja Daniyar
 Afrasiab museum
 Konigil village ancient paper factory

Transfer to train station at 16:45 and take train to Tashkenat at 17:30 Arrive to
Tashkent and transfer to hotel. Overnight at the hotel. ( Art Deluxe)

Day 10 __.09.2023 Tashkent city tour
Breakfast . Meet guide at the hotel 09:00 Ms. ______ +998932896002
Starting the sightseeing at the capital city.
 Khast Imam Complex Spiritual heart of Tashkent (16-20 century)
 Barak Khan madrasah has oldest extant copies of the Quran
 Chorsu bazaar one of the busiest bazaars in Tashkent
 Take a ride at metro soviet and modern designed underground
 Amir Temur Square
 Independence square favorite resting place for residents.
 Applied art Museum of Tashkent
Overnight at the hotel.( Art Deluxe)
Tailor made program for _______

Day 11 __.09.2023 Tashkent –Home town
Breakfast at the hotel. Our team will transfer you to airport at 11:00
Driver Mr ______
Take a flight at 13:50 Free time waiting for the flight. End of our service.
Drivers and guides may change due to personal
reasons but will be changed by others immediately.
24/7 Support Operator Mr Zokir
( I have whats app also )
Feel free to contact me at any time!

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