Unusual things to do in Khiva – a cycling tour in the outskirts

Cycling along Khiva's outer city wall

Uzbekistan has seen an increase in tourist numbers over the last years. While most travellers visit the capital of Tashkent and the old Silk Road towns of Bukhara and Samarkand, less people make it to Khiva in the north of Uzbekistan. The old town of Khiva received UNESCO World Heritage status for its coherent and well-preserved Islamic architecture. But there are more unusual things to do in Khiva than strolling through the old town. If you like to go off the beaten path, this Khiva cycling tour is right for you.

Earlier this summer we spent 5 weeks in Uzbekistan in order to update our Uzbekistan guidebook. The German-language Reisehandbuch Usbekistan  is going into its 4th edition. Therefore, we travelled all over Uzbekistan to check hotels, restaurants, and sights. In Khiva we were keen to find out whether the cycling tour outside the city walls that we outline in the book still works.

The Old Town of Khiva – an oriental dream

The fortified Old Town of Khiva is the top attraction in Uzbekistan’s northern province of Khorezm. In the 19th century, Khiva’s mighty walls played a major role in the so-called Great Game, a geostrategic stand-off between Great Britain and Russia. The Khan of Khiva was a powerful and ruthless ruler and the city hosted the biggest slave market in Central Asia. Even European captives changed hands there. The town centre, or Itchan Kala, contains the palace, the mosques and the administrative buildings. Four heavy gates guard the entrances, one in each of the cardinal directions. The whole town was off-limits to Western travellers. And that was exactly what sparked considerable interest among explorers and adventurers. Today the touristic infrastructure as well as the hospitality have considerably improved. After exploring the old town of Khiva it is worth trying something more unusual, like renting a bicycle and exploring the surroundings.

Looking for bicycles in Khiva

Khiva city walls

As always it is not easy to secure a decent bicycle in Khiva. Just outside the West Gate, a row of (rental?) bicycles are lined up. A simple wire chain secures them. But where is the person in charge? We ask at the new tourist police box outside the main gate. Only a few years ago in Uzbekistan, everyone would have tried to avoid the notoriously corrupt policemen. By contrast, nowadays the tourist police are here to help travellers! One of the officers speaks English and gets out his phone to call the bike rental owner. “He’s out of town, but his sister will come!” he assures us.

Ten minutes later, a young woman arrives with the key to the bicycle chain. She doesn’t know anything about bicycles in general or specifically about the bicycles she rents out. But we manage to find two bikes that make only some worrying noises. Each has one working brake at least, but no working gears. The area is flat enough, though.

The outer city wall of Khiva

guidebook author cycling along Khiva's city walls

Off we go, northwards along the outer walls of the Itchan Kala (Khiva’s inner city) with their huge steep buttresses. Behind the lavish palace of one of the later Khans of Khiva, we cross a green park and encounter the second city wall.

In our days Khiva is steadily growing, but even during the time of the Khiva Khans, the city was bigger than just the Itchan Kala. It stretched outside the rectangular inner city walls. So, all around the settlement, there was a second line of defensive walls. Even today, the second wall is still similarly impressive.

On our cycling tour in Khiva’s Western outskirts, we pass through the second layer of city walls through a small modern archway.

A visit to the Ceramics factory

Uzbek workers in the ceramic factory of Khiva

Soon we are cycling on a kind of country lane and clearly off the beaten path. We pass an atmospheric cemetery and some cotton fields. Of course, the modern town of Khiva does extend beyond even the second layer of fortifications, but this area has a real out-of-town feeling. To our relief, the road remains tarmacked all the way – the rented bicycles are wobbling and clacking.

A bit further down the road, the big ceramics factory was an unusual highlight of our cycling tour in Khiva. The Soviet-era plant used to produce the characteristic Uzbek teapots. We recognize the building, but it is quite empty and in the process of major repair works. Is it still working? We relax when we find that there are more workshops behind the empty main building: There  we can visit the tile production with typical Khiva designs. But they stopped producing the teapots. Once the renovations are done, there will be a shop again, someone promises.

The summer residence of the last Khan of Khiva

Cycling in the Qibla Toza Bog summer palace in Khiva

The cycling tour finally leads to another old palace: The Qibla Toza Bogh was a summer residence of the last Khan of Khiva. The palace building dates from around 1900 and sits in lush gardens and fruit orchards. Since the palace is nowadays a restaurant it is a matter of luck whether we can enter on our cycling tour or not. Today we can’t.

Therefore we go back to the Itchan Kala, passing a disused Madrasa and a small Minaret on the way. By the time we reach the inner walls, one of the pedals is clacking insistently and seems likely to fall off for good. We are glad to return the bikes without complications.

An unusual cycling route along the walls of Khiva, Uzbekistan

For the remainder of the day, we explore Khiva’s Old Town, the Itchan Kala, on foot. The best view is from the tower of the Old Ark, the Khan’s palace and fortress inside the town walls. But the most mediaeval atmosphere is down in the cobbled streets, between adobe walls of dozens of Madrasas, some palaces, mosques, and historic bath houses. In the last evening light we walk along the top of Khiva’s city walls, which are open and accessible for tourists these days. We thought it would be rather crowded. But to our surprise, walking on the city walls seems to be among the more unusual things to do in Khiva – there’s only a furtive Uzbek couple hiding from their nosy families …

More unusual things to do in Khiva

Cooking class at the Khiva Moon Restaurant

A mother and five sons: All of them can cook and two of them speak English. And they offer affordable cooking classes. We learned how to cook Tukhum Barak, a local speciality of the Khorezm region. How do they get the liquid egg into the ravioli? Turned out it is not so difficult…It is enough to book a few hours before you want to start the class and you can choose the dishes according to your taste. The Khiva Moon Restaurant is 100 m outside the West Gate of Khiva.

Fish restaurants – unusual eating options in Khiva

There are several artificial lakes around Khiva, where you can eat fresh fried fish. It is best to go (or cycle) there for lunch as in the evening there are many mosquitoes. At the fish restaurants you order by kilo or half kilo – one kilo should be around 10 € (summer 2022). Most likely nobody will speak English and you will be the only foreigner among the guests. Ask at your hotel for directions to a fish restaurant that’s open on a given day. Ask at your accomodation about current locations.

Chodra Howli Palace

Another former Khan’s palace that is even more off the beaten path is Chodra Howli. It is more of a summer pavilion: The unusual building has four storeys, but each consisting of only one room. Every room is wide open to several sides, providing both shade and ventilation. Chodra Howli stands between fields and fish ponds about 10 km east of Khiva.

An excursion from Khiva: the remains of the Aral Sea

Khiva can also be a good alternative starting point for a trip to the Aral Sea. A huge undrained lake that used to be even bigger, the Aral Sea is a truly unusual beach destination. Tours from Khiva are usually cheaper than from Nukus, although you have longer driving hours.

Uzbek Imam at the Said Niyoz Sholikorboy Masjid / Madrasa

Where to rent a bicycle in Khiva

Unfortunately the bicycle rental situation in Khiva is unstable and a bit difficult. In summer 2022 you could rent wobbly bicycles in front of the West Gate. Some hotels also rent bicycles. It is worth asking at the Meros B&B, the Old Khiva Hotel or the Quosha Darvoza Hotel.

NB: We were not sponsored for our cycling tour around Khiva and paid for the bikes. It was part of our work as guidebook authors.

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  1. That seems amazing. I took Russian in highschool, and have since been interested in learning more about these smaller countries that were at one time part of the USSR. The people and cultures are all so different. Cycling seems a great place to get to know the area. I will hopefully get to do this one day.

    1. Dear Donna, Russian is still widely spoken in Central Asia. Although younger people learn English. We noticed that due to the Russian war in Europe, speaking Russian is not always the best.

  2. I have never even looked at visiting Uzbekistan. So every tale about places like Khiva brings this place to life for me. We probably would have visited Khiva for the UNESCO Islamic Architecture. But it was interesting to read about all you discovered when you finally got your bikes. We would certainly try one of the fish restaurants on our bike ride. Love all the things you found off the beaten path.

  3. Khiva looks so fascinating and is really somewhere I’d like to visit. The architecture is incredible and it’s good to know that more visitors are arriving here. A cooking class would be my kind of activity!

  4. My husband and I love to rent bikes (not as a tour) when we travel. It gives you a different perspective than any other transportation. I would enjoy your recommendation if I ever consider visiting Uzbekistan. It would be fun to go from site to site just as you have done to admire the UNESCO Islamic Architecture.

    1. Dear Renee, actually on this tour you would NOT see much UNESCO architecture. The UNESCO sites are within the walls of the old town and cycling there is not really an option. The old town is pretty small and perfectly walkable. This tour would bring you to some non-touristy places and outskirts in Khiva.

  5. I think renting a bike to explore Khiva was the best thing to do. You could see a lot and wasn’t that tired compared to walking. The cooking class sounds wonderful. Something that I want to do when in Khiva.

  6. I love how off the beaten path your day in Khiva was. Even if the bikes have seen better days, you still made it out of the city walls and discovered some really interesting places. You’ve also made me curious on how they add the liquid egg inside the ravioli. And does it stay liquid when you eat it, or it becomes hard?

  7. Khiva looks so lovely! I really enjoy exploring places via bike because it’s a great way to be able to move quickly while stopping where you want. Seeing the ceramics looks really interesting, too!

    1. Dear Jennifer, renting a bicycle in Khive definitely gives you a chance to see more of the city. While most tourists stay in the city center it is absolutely worthwhile to explore the outer town too! You will meet almost no tourists there.

  8. This is such a great idea! I ordinarily wouldn’t think of taking a biking tour when I’m out of the country, but I will take your recommendation on touring Khiva by bike. I love the various stops you made along the way – like the ceramics factory, the cooking class at Moon Restaurant, and exploring the historic old town. This is a great way to go!

  9. The Khiva cycling tour seems exciting. However, I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be too hot for me to bike in this climate. But I hope there is some shade in the old walls of Khiva. The architecture looks like a fairytale; it’s genuinely an oriental dream. I would love to visit the Ceramics factory, tower of the Old Ark, and more. Also, taking a cooking class at the Khiva Moon Restaurant seems to be a great idea.

    1. Dear Agnes, Khiva and Uzbekistan are really like an oriental dream. But to be fair – most of the architecture is heavily restored. And most of the time not according to the original.

  10. Khiva looks such a serene place. And the best way to go around couldn’t be better than cycling your day through. Always so interesting to learn about these countries which still have the Russian influence. Would love to visit someday.

  11. I have always been interested in cooking. I got that from my mother. Learning to cook at Khiva Moon Restaurant is something that would do and not mention cycling around Khiva would be an interesting journey where to exercise and see the beautiful architecture.

  12. I have been raring to get to Uzbekisthan and this post on Khiva has just pushed the destination up on my list. For one, I am a huge fan of history and to add to that the whole bit about cycling around to discover it all. Those Khan residences definitely are appealing with the amazing architecture and colors. Would not say no to the ceramic factory too – always good to learn about the traditional crafts from the locals

    1. Dear Ami, now is a very good time to visit Uzbekistan. There was so much development in the tourism sector and right now tourist number are not back to pre-corona times. Meaning you can enjoy the sights in a very relaxed pace

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