A day in Khiva: Our first ancient Silk Road city! (August 9, 2011)

By James Power

We hit three major Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan.  The first was Khiva, a former slave market town.  Its walled-in old city with its blue and green mosaic minarets housed dozens of museums, hotels, tourist shops and market stalls but managed to remain tasteful and un-Disneyfied, probably due to its remote location.  Khiva is about an hour and a half drive southeast of Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, the autonomous region of Western Uzbekistan.  Khiva, only a stone’s throw from the Turkmenistan border, is actually part of Khorezm province, a tiny sliver of the country with a rich culture and vibrant history.



Wandering the interior of the walled in city didn’t take much time, and after one loop we chose our first tourist destination: the Music Museum!  Not one of the major draws of this stunningly preserved city of magical architecture, the Music Museum nonetheless had a lot of charm in its own right.  After walking in, the visitor is led to a courtyard, off of which there are about a dozen or so small rooms.  Each room is dedicated to either a historical moment, a group, or a legendary musician from the region. There isn’t much text explaining the curators intentions for each room, but the helpful labels in Uzbek, Russian, and English under each photo or artifact helps the visitor get the general idea.


"The group of famous singers and musicians from Khorezm"


"Gavkhar Matyakubova with cotton pick uppers"

After touring each of the rooms, we entered a larger room featuring instruments behind glass, a television, and a DVD player. The friendly man working there asked in a mix of English and Russian if we would like to watch a film about the local music. We said yes, and sat down to enjoy it. The film looks like it was originally make in the 1970s, probably shot in 16mm. As we watched the film, the staff member told us the names of instruments that were featured, and pointed them out on the shelves in the room. We enjoyed the playful story, the traditional local costumes, the dancing, and the music so much, that afterward, we negotiated a reasonable price for a copy of the DVD. Rather than try to describe it to you, why don’t you watch it yourself! There are some great shots of the city, and you don’t need to speak the language to follow the story (although if any Russian speakers can translate the bit of narration, please do so in the comments). Look for the nay (flute), surnay (wind instrument), Khorezmian dutar (stringed instrument), and the Khiva rhubab (string instrument with decorative inlays).


We asked the man at the music museum if there might be a performance of Khorezm music that very evening somewhere in town. His eyes lit up, and he said “Follow me!” We were led down the alleys of Khiva to a large building. Inside the courtyard, he introduced us to a man who explained in elegant English that in fact a traditional family band would be performing that night at 6pm! We reserved a table and came back a couple hours later. For about $5, we were treated to unlimited tea, nuts and fruit, and an incredible show of traditional local music. The family – mother, father, two boys, and maybe an uncle (?) – were talented and gracious. I think the young boy is going to be a superstar one day.

A number of audio tracks from this performance are also available on SoundCloud.


After the concert, we strolled around the city. As the sun set, we climbed on top of the ancient wall to soak in the magic of the place. Darkness set in, and the city took on a supernatural glow. Children played in the courtyards before heading home for dinner.


Khiva by night

All in all, it was a good day off of driving!