Trans Eurasia travel

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For all its monumental splendour, the Ichan Kala can leave one strangely cold. To see mosques function, deals struck, Turkmen tilpaks made and donkeys and arbas rather than camels ridden, the visitor must take the rare step out of the Ichan Kala into the Dishan Kala, from the royal city to the merchant suburbs.

The Dishon-Qala was old Khiva’s outer town, yet another creation of the ‘builder khan’ Allakuli, and surrounded by its own 6 km wall. Most of it is buried beneath the modern town now, but part of the Dishon-Qala’s wall remains, 300 m south of the South Gate.

Here, amongst the cobweb of aryks (canals) and crumbling outer city walls is where the medieval meets the Soviet and where the medieval stands in better shape. Although it rarely figures in tourist itineraries, its neglected sights still have much to offer. The outer walls date from 1842, built in response to relentless Turkmen raids.

Unlike the mud bricks of the Ichon Qala, these walls are made of clay mined north of Khiva at Ghovuk Kul. Local legend has it that clay from the same source was also used to build Medina, though there is no scientific or historical evidence to support this claim. Some 200,000 people purportedly worked on the walls' construction (many of them slaves), and there were once ten gateways, though today only three remain. Two of these gates, the Kosh Darvoza (Double Gate) and the Gandimyan Darvoza, have small domes atop their pillars, and attractively patterned tilework. The Kosh Darvaza is so-called because its forward-thinking architect designed it so that traffic could enter and leave the city simultaneously rather than creating a choke point on the road.

Seyid-Niyaz Shelikarbiy's mosqueClose to the Palvan Darvoza are the mosque and madrassa of Said Niaz Shalikarbai, a rice merchant (shalikar meaning 'rice grower') who endowed the building in the 1830s. It was completed in 1840. Still in use as a place of worship, it is Khiva's largest mosque after the Juma Mosque and the only place in the city where the muezzin still calls the faithful to prayer. Listen out for his dulcet tones in the early morning and at dusk. The mosque's nine domes shelter worshippers during the cold winter months; in summer they can pray in the courtyard and in the shade of the four-pillared veranda.

There are half-a-dozen or so madrassas in the Dishon Qala, including the beautiful Tort Shavaz Madrassa (1885) with its open-sided, columned hall, green chequered minaret and tree-lined garden. Four tombs belonging to Yafandiyar I and three of his generals are also within the complex, and this gives the site its name (tort shavaz meaning 'four brave ones'). The Hungarian traveller Armin Vambery stayed in the madrassas khanagha in 1863, dressed as a wandering dervish to avoid attracting attention. Following his time in central Asia, Vambery published a number of illuminating accounts including Sketches of Central Asia (1868) and Manners in Oriental Countries (1876).

Also of note are the Bikajan Bika Madrassa (1894), whose construction was halted for seven years following a dispute, believe it or not, over planning permission, and the robust-looking Palvan Kari Madrassa (1905), built by a Khivan merchant with profits from his trade with Russia and Turkey.

Keep an eye out for these important mausoleums: the Abd al Bobo Mausoleum holds the grave of Palvan Ahmad Zamchiy (known as Abd al Bobo), a supposed descendant of Ali and an Islamic missionary in the wake of the Arab invasion. This is also the site of Khiva's original, infamous slave market, though there's little sign of this history now. The Shakalandar Bobo Mausoleum's simple, mud-brick structure remembers the Sufi Sheikh Kalandar Bobo and his two dervish brothers. Muhammad Khan, Muhammad Rakhimkhan II, Isfandiyar, Islam Khoja and a number of royal wives, mothers and children are buried in the much later Sayyid Muhammad Makhiruy Mausoleum; although on the site of an earlier sheikh's tomb, it is, in essence, a 19th-century royal family crypt.

Nurullah Bai Palace, Khiva - one of the few palaces of the dishon qala (outer city)Muhammad Rakhimkhan II began building the vast Nurillabay Palace in 1906 following a visit to St Petersburg. He hoped that the palace, which was intended for his son, would incorporate many of the architectural features he'd seen in Russia. Behind the imposing defensive wall with its towers and buttresses were more than 100 rooms; the cost of construction nearly bankrupted the state. Parquet flooring was delivered from St Petersburg, fireplaces were installed in many of the rooms, and Tsar Nikolai II sent two chandeliers as a gift to mark the palaces completion.

What remains of the palace is languishing in despair, decaying metre by metre with every year that passes. The parts that remain intact, the courtyard, madrassa and reception hall, are largely conserved because of their importance to Soviet history: the last khan, Isfandiyar, was murdered here in 1918; the first people's government was established here in 1920; and the first statue of Lenin in central Asia was raised in the palace's courtyard. He has since been displaced by a modern statue of Mohammad Rahimkhan II.

IsfandiyarPalaceThe Isfandiyar Palace (working hours 9am-6pm) was built between 1906 and 1912, and like the Emir’s Summer Palace in Bukhara displays some fascinatingly overdone decorations in a messy collision of East and West. The rooms are largely bare, allowing one to fully appreciate the gold-embroidered ceilings and lavish touches such as 4m-high mirrors and a 50kg chandelier. The harem, in case you’re wondering, was behind the huge wall to the west of the palace. It’s undergoing renovation and may open some day.