A visit to Khorezm will have you flying down the time tunnel to an age of desert caravans, slave-driving Khans and lost empires. Get out of the fairly utilitarian capital Urgench and wander among the series of forts that dot the sands north and east of town. When you tire of castles in the sand head for Khiva, where the World heritage listed walled inner town contains many monuments built when this was the notorious Khanate of Khiva.
Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts. Nowadays it’s a friendly and welcoming Silk Road old town that’s very well set up for tourism, and a mere 35km southwest of the major transport hub of Urgench.
The historic heart of Khiva has been so well preserved that it’s often criticised as lifeless – a ‘museum city’. Even if you subscribe to that theory, you’ll have to admit that it’s one helluva museum. To walk through the walls and catch that first glimpse of the fabled Ichon-Qala (inner walled city) in all its monotoned, mud-walled glory is like stepping into another era.
You can see it all in a daytrip from Urgench, but you’ll absorb it better by staying longer. Khiva is at its best at dawn, sunset and by night, when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and medressas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic.