If there's one place you shouldn't miss on a trip to Uzbekistan it's Khiva. This tiny walled city lies a stones throw away from the border to Turkmenistan, and is serviced by the airport at Urgench and a new high-speed railway line. I took advantage of cheap flights to travel from Tashkent to Urgench, spent 3 nights in Khiva and then took the train to Bukhara on my way to Samarkand.
Khiva gives off serious vibes of places like Yazd in Iran and desert cities of Oman. A cobbled city protected on all sides by a mighty wall, small lanes leading to new discoveries, ornate mosques and tombs, towering spires, open markets and daily life intertwine in one of the most charming places you'll ever see.
As was the case with the rise of Covid-19, I had the entire town almost to myself which was every travellers dream. One slight downer were a few of the most famous restaurants were closed, but my taxi-driver and hotel owner made sure I was kept abreast of the local spots they frequented.
Here below are the sights worth dropping by, and the best restaurants in Khiva to visit. The Bukhara guide follows after:
Where to eat: khiva
khiva moon ($)
Derelictly deserted to the point of concern, fears swiftly allayed by the reason of virus-threats, table chosen achingly distanced from only other punters, food ordered, deliciousness ensued and friendly service to boot. A hot tip from my hotel owner, and rightly so: "Go to Khiva Moon, it's where we go to eat". "What should I order?". "Everything is delicious".
cafe zarafshon ($$)
The hiding place for the last remaining travellers in Khiva, shadowed by the mighty minaret, this obscenely decorated restaurant has good Uzbek cuisine, especially good Mante.
what to see
A truly dizzying complex of ornate intricacies, solemn tombs bathed in adornments, cool side-chambers exhuding reverence and a domed chamber coloured with gods paintbrush.
islam khoja minaret
My better judgement finally got the better of me and I refrained from climbing to the top, out of sheer laziness, veiled thinly under the guise of "social-distancing". The view from the surrounding streets was more than enough to appease my general sense of nonchalance towards such things.
Upon shedding the shadows of the main gate, your first view of Khiva is this impressive beast. Within a 300 meter radius are all the other sights, tucked behind walls and hidden in tombs, so this town is all about exploring by foot and letting your imagination lead.
Khiva city wall walk
As the sun sets over this magical dwelling, take to the ramparts and walk your way around the city spying on them from above.
Bukhara was visited by the high-speed train that rattled along at an average speed of 40 mph kissing the Turkmen border through dusty terrain and desolation.
I spent 3 nights in Bukara when the Coronavirus fears were beginning to shape the thoughts of the locals. I noticed a change from mild curiosity to avoidance and slight hostility. Maybe this coloured the lens through which I viewed this city, but apart from the exceptional sights the city held very little else. It was a rougher vibe than Khiva, and would not stack up compared to the atmosphere of Samarkand either.
Despite the challenges, I managed to see all that was worth seeing and again was blessed with some fantastic tips on where to eat.
So here is a list of the best restaurants in Bukhara, and some sights thrown in for good measure.
where to eat
chinor kebab ($$)
The taxi driver dropping me off at my hotel repeated this place 3 times, insisting that I did not go to the wrong Chinor, but had to make sure it was this one. I asked him to write it down in Uzbek to cover any lost-in-translation moments and the very next day was hurtling around town in a cab who's mouth began to water when I mentioned where I was going "No tourist! Only local! Best place Bukhara!".
He was right. The kebabs here are obscenely good and I lost all reigns of sanity and ordered enough for a small hit squad and was left begging for take-away boxes to cover up my stupidity.
ayvan restaurant ($$)
Like walking into some playboy mansion of central Asian persuasion, this hotel-restaurant boasts a fine menu and exemplary service.
cafe chorbakr ($$)
If they convince you to take a cab out to the impressive compound of Chor-Bakr, then you would be a complete donut if you didn't travel the extra 500 meters to visit this astoundingly good Shashlik place. Ask beforehand about the price because these "chors" have a taste for banknotes and will unscrupulously add on "taxes" and "services" until you're left washing dishes for the next year to pay it off.
Be firm, show them what you want, demand for them to punch it into a calculator, then sit back and enjoy a veritable feast, and accept that you still are being ripped off.
Dishonesty never tasted this good.
If only every meal ordered through a take-away window tasted this good. The best Somsa I tasted in all of Uzbekistan, hands down!
Old Bukara restaurant ($$)
A staple haunt for most of the tour groups passing through, luckily I avoided most due to the current crisis. This impressive restaurant with a delightful rooftop area serves warming, hearty Uzbek cuisine with good service and reasonable prices.
silk road teahouse ($$)
Seek refuge in here from the throngs of outside life, order the tea + snacks and sip your way through a local journey of desserts and sweets that compliment your teacup perfectly.
places to visit
chor bakr complex
Fields surrounding bursting forth in cherry blossom flatterings, wild peacocks cawing in empty doorways, the sound of your own astonishment bouncing off heavy doors. Truly a hidden maze of languid exploration.
Not entirely sure this is the official name, but that's what shows up on google maps. It's a run-down, ramshackle affair, and only worth doing if you really have the time. The best part of it was actually the journey back to the Kalan Mosque through the tiny alleyways.
kalan mosque / MIR-I-ARAB
Like two peas in a regal pod, these complexes kiss each others perimeters making visiting them simultaneous famously simple. Get drawn into the mystery of both places while avoiding the avid guides who want to talk your ear off about every profound stone in the wall. Head to the centre by the trees and enjoy some reflective moments of pondering how you ended up here, why, and why the hell not.
Yes it's touristy, but come on! You made it all the way to Bukhara, you have to order a pot of tea for less than a dollar and sit in the square counting the number of married couples out taking wedding photos.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored in the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"
CITIES / Places