Bukhara was, if not the exact opposite of new Tashkent, then at least a welcome change.
This extended even to our place of lodging. The Amelia Boutique Hotel had been recommended by our friends Kev and Nat. At US$60/night it was far beyond our usual budget (though still cheaper than the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent.) But it was absolutely worth the price to stay there for a few nights. The Amelia was one of the new crop of Boutique hotels and B&Bs that have sprung up to take advantage of the tourists who have started to discover the glories of Uzbekistan’s majestic and magical silk road cities (there were at least 10 or 12 of these in Bukhara alone!.) It was constructed in the former home of a Jewish merchant family. Its ten rooms were packed with charm and character. Each was individually decorated and themed (ours was the “white spirit” room, covered floor to ceiling with the wonderfully ornate carved plaster decorations we’d already seen used to great effect in the Khan’s palace in Kokand. Beyond that, the outdoor courtyards were fabulously constructed with carved wood columns and brightly coloured Uzbek tea beds, mats and embroidery. And the dining room where we ate our huge breakfasts (melon, peaches, grapes, french toast, crepes, omlette, pastries, tea, coffee, yogurt, bread…) was an absolute gem. Unrestored since the early 19th century when it was used by the home’s original occupants for the exact same purpose.
The portal to one of the Medressas on Lyabi Hauz, the main square in old Bukhara. Intriguingly it was originally constructed as a Caravanserai, but a later Emir thought it was a medressa, so ordered it restored then and returned to its supposed original purpose
Our room at the Amelia Hotel
But the charm of Bukhara went far beyond nice places to stay. On our first afternoon there we took a walk north into the old town. We’d decided not to head straight for the brilliant mosques and medressas, but first to have a look around the still-in-use residential areas and get a feel for what the city is like today. Which was a great choice. Although the main tourist sights in the city have been cleaned, restored and tidied up to a gleaming, tourist-friendly finish, mere metres away the old town is still very much alive, and it’s same old self. True, many of the ancient family homes have been replaced by modern concrete or masonry constructions, but the bustle of the ancient Emirate capital is still very much present. As the afternoon heat began to die, the streets started to fill with children shouting, running, riding bikes, with people selling bread from (clean, blanket-lined) wheelbarrows or melons from big piles under the trees and with old men just sitting and chatting on benches built for just this purpose on shady bits of street near their homes.
Residences stacked skyward in old Bukhara
It was a joy to see such life and vibrancy and such warm, friendly people in the town that is the nation’s second largest tourist attraction. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to see us, and even in the very centre of the tourist vortex, no one really seemed focussed on sucking cash from the pockets of the tourists. They just seemed happy that they had a way to make a fairly pleasant and easy living near to their homes. In this regard, Bukhara was perhaps the most pleasant major tourist town I’ve ever visited. We wandered aimlessly, stopping and talking for a few minutes here, pausing to buy a watermelon there, or confusing locals by taking photos of rickety old houses (“why are you bothering to take photos of this stuff!?” one man asked, “don’t you know how much beautiful old stuff there is in this town!?”)
Of course we did. And without really trying we stumbled upon plenty of it that afternoon and early evening. First came (what we later realized was the) ancient town prison. It had closed up for the day, and was far from the most impressive ancient structure in town, but I loved the fact that it was just sitting there in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, kids playing football in the small square below it.
The Emir’s prison. As explained when discussing the palace in Kokand, the wooden beams poking our of the walls are there to wick moisture out of the masonry and to hang lamps from at night
Not long after we came upon what is probably the most brightly shining gem of Bukhara: Kalon Minar and its associated mosques and medressas. The early evening light turned sandy-brown brick a golden colour. The sky was a brilliant, Lapis Blue (really! It was! I’m not just saying that!) and the suns last rays glimmered on the blue and turquoise glazed tiles. THIS was what I’d imagined central Asia to be like. Truly magical. It may have been polished-up and thoroughly restored. You may have been able to glimpse the odd souvenir stand or rooftop restaurant out of your corner of your eye. But there were next to no other tourists about (how!? why!?) and the only sound was of kids playing soccer in the next courtyard over. I’d dreamt of visiting the oasis cities of central Asia for years and finally, that afternoon, I experienced what I’d been dreaming of.
The Kalon (Great) Minar. It is one of the oldest remaining structures in central Asia, constructed in 1127. Virtually anything from before the early 13th century was destroyed when Ghengis Khan swept through, but he was so impressed by the Kalon Minar he spared it. It’s needed virtually no restoration in that whole time!
Mir-i-Arab Medressa seen from the door of the Kalon mosque
A Bukhara skyline
Residences stacked skyward in old Bukhara
After spending a good forty minutes in the square at the base of Kalon Minar we decided to head back home, lest we get lost and end up wandering through the maze of the old town in the dark (though upon reflection there was no real danger of this. Bukhara’s residents stayed out on the streets until late in the night, enjoying the one part of the day when the city wasn’t baking under the sun, and they were almost universally happy to point the direction to whatever hotel or major landmark you might be looking for.)
As we headed back we saw more of old town life: men adding water to piles of sand, cement and straw, preparing simple fibre reinforced concrete to make repairs or additions to their homes. We also found more of the glorious 15th and 16th century architecture that Bukhara is so famous for. Many of the gems really are just tucked away in small courtyards that you just wander into by accident. This is no surprise really, as in its heyday Bukhara was the most holy city in central Asia, with an astonishing XXX medressas and mosques. This was all due to the patronage of the Emirs of Bukhara.
Detail of the decoration on the Ulugbek Medressa
Some of the gorgeous deep blue tiled panels that cover the fronts of many of Bukhara’s monuments
Sarah and an old man on the way home. I was going to say an old UZBEK man, but this actually isn’t certain. A lot of Bukhara’s (and Samarkand’s) residents are actually ethnically Tajik, and we regularly heard snippets of Tajik spoken around town
Sadly, the Uzbek beers we tried on our first night in Bukhara were all pretty uninspiring. The next day Sarah had a rather better one on tap at a Samsa shop down the street
Impressive dining room and breakfast at the Amelia hotel
The next morning after our feast of a breakfast at Amelia, we decided to go have a look at the city’s northeast corner. On the way there we stopped at the Kalon Minar and took a look inside the adjacent mosque while the sun was still low but shining into the courtyard. The spectacular tiled facades belied the simple but peaceful and elegant interior: a simple brick courtyard with a persimmon tree growing in its centre, and seemingly endless simple white pointed arches under the roof. In its heyday, these spaces would have been filled by over 10,000 worshippers!
On our way out to the produce bazaar and the ark (the fortified castle that was home to the Emir) we also stumbled upon the “luxury goods” bazaar. So far we’d seen mostly daily use goods bazaars in Uzbekistan, but this one was different, featuring jewelry, furniture and, of course (this was central Asia, after all) carpets. It hustled and bustled just as much as the food bazaars, but given the bigger price tags, had lots more trying on, looking in mirrors and haggling over prices.
I’d seen a fair bit of this backgammon-like game played throughout the country. After watching these taxi drivers at it for a while I got the hang of the rules and was invited to sit down for a game myself, which I won handily (in large part due to some lucky rolls)
An impressive portal near Lyabi Hauz
The interior of its domes
Not all of Bukhara’s lovely architecture was grand and monumental in scale
One of Bukhara’s original covered bazaars. They still serve the same function today, though now they flog postcards, carpets, ceramics (from the Fergana Valley) and other tourist oriented goods
Sarah in the courtyard of the Kalon Mosque
The inside of the mosque. The roof is made of 218 individual domes
Decoration on the inside walls of the mosque. More subtle than the glazed tilework, but no less lovely
Looking out the door of Kalon Masjid towards Mir-i-Arab Medressa
In between the rows of jewelry sellers at the luxury goods bazaar
Modern, machine made carpets (not the hand made, geometric patterned ones that Bukhara is famous for.)
How you get your purchases home
We also stumbled upon (again) the Emir’s Zindor, or prison. This would be an entertaining place to visit anywhere, but in Bukhara it had special resonance. The 19th and early 20th centuries in the region were the battleground on which the Great Game was fought. This is the name given to the struggle for influence in central Asia between Russia and Britain, each keen on protecting (and perhaps expanding) their colonial possessions in Siberia and India respectively. Both countries sent out explorers and emissaries to parley and trade with the rulers of the independent states in the region. These rulers, the emir of Bukhara included, were used to having things their own way and were often fickle and capricious men. Which meant that they might greet one envoy with open arms, only to have a change of mind and then, a few years later, throw the next one into prison or worse.
This was exactly the fate of Stoddart and Connoly, two British envoys who came to visit the Emir of Bukhara. The Emir was displeased with the paucity of gifts Stoddart brought with him, and the fact that his official greeting came only from the Governor General of India and not from Queen Victoria. For these offences, Stoddart was tossed into the Bug Pit, a 6m deep home in the prison filled with lice, ants, scorpions and other vermin. Connoly, who came in an attempt to secure Stoddart’s release a few years later soon joined him. They languished there together for a further year until one day they were both marched out into the square in front of the Ark and beheaded. A grim story indeed, but one that served to give the Zindor in general and the bug pit in particular a strong resonance, despite the relative lack of explanation or interpretation within the building.
The Bug Pit. Not a great photo, but I HAD to include it
And me outside doing my bug pit impression
The walls of the Ark (the Emir’s fortress home.)
The Ark was closed for some reason, so we contented ourselves with a look at the front gate, then a visit to the Emir’s personal mosque across the street. It still functioned as a mosque, but we were showed inside by the friendly caretaker who was eager to show off the pretty restored interior.
A further stroll found two (more!) beautiful medressas, complete with towering portals absolutely crammed full of beautiful ornate tilework. Near these we wandered down a small alley to take a look at the carved stone lion we’d spotted at its end. On our way back to the main road, a small old man came hurrying down the alley in order to unlock his gate so that he could give us a look inside his home. It consisted of a couple of simple concrete rooms with mud brick and adobe walls. Next door was a similar building, but in far worse condition (ruins really.) Connecting both of these was a wonderful courtyard covered almost entirely by trellises of grape vines that were heavy with bunches of fruit. Before we left our host pulled one down off the trellis and sent us on our way with it in our bag as a gift. Once again, we marvelled at the friendliness and generosity of people in a major tourist town. It reminded us vividly of the time we were invited into a family garden in the modern oasis town of Tadmoor, near Palmyra in Syria.
Sitting in the garden courtyard. If you look closely you can see bunches of grapes overhead
We did eventually make it to the produce bazaar, where we picked up a big watermelon for that night’s dinner, then strolled back through the maze of the old town in the direction of our hotel, where we spent the afternoon resting in our air conditioned room, out of reach of the fiercest of the 40C+ afternoon heat.
That evening we went out for a short walk to Chor Minar, a unique little structure that used to be the entrance to a long-disappeared Medressa. Even more than most of Bukhara’s monuments, this one was stuck right in the middle of a residential area. When we arrived we were chatted up by a drunk man who seemed to be the caretaker, or the owner of a nearby souvenir shop or something. His intoxication didn’t help with the lack of common language, and it didn’t take too long before we began to feel a bit uncomfortable. True, he had invited us up the stairs of Chor Minar (we politely declined) and seemed to be asking that we go back to his house to watch the olympics on TV. But at one point he also said something or other about money and made a throat slitting gesture. I’ve little doubt that he was just as friendly as everyone we’d yet met in Uzbekistan, but still this was a bit too much, so we finally extricated ourselves and made our way home for (another) dinner of watermelon and bread.
The tomb of Ismail Somoni, founder of the 10th century Samanid Dynasty. This further illustrates the connection of Bukhara with Tajik people: Somoni is a heor of the Tajik nation, and Tajikistan’s currency is named after him
Chor Minar (which literally means four minarets) in the late afternoon light
Classic Bukhara carpets spread out for inspection and sale
Our second full day in Bukhara was spent getting out of town to see the sights on the outskirts. First we caught a marshrutka out to the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum (rather a mouthful, eh?) which we managed by going and standing at a major street intersection on the correct side of town and waiting until we heard people talking about going there themselves. The mausoleum was a busy place, but even here at a supposed religious site, very few people were dressed in a noticeably conservative fashion (plenty of knee length skirts and short sleeves) though everyone did stop and listen respectfully with their hands in front of them in a cupped position when older men were reciting prayers, and all made the customary face washing gesture on their completion. Just outside the mosque next to the tomb were drinking water taps where all and sundry filled bottles they’d brought along (or bought from vendors nearby.) I’d be curious to know what the attraction was, as it was very hard and rather icky tasting…
We’d been rather spoiled by the sights of Bukhara, so the mausoleum itself (and the Bakhautdin Naqshband’s mum’s mausoleum nearby) weren’t impressive sights per se, but the families out for walks in the rose gardens between the tombs, and the vast expanses of smaller tombs of the Naqshband family nearby made the trip a pleasant and memorable one.
Sarah with one of the charming recycled tire swans at the mausoleum. I suppose we ought to have included something more historical or architectural here, but they really were pretty cool
Some of the innumerable family tombs near the main mausoleum
The second half of the day, also visited by Marshrutka, was spent at the summer palace of the final Emirs of Bukhara in the early 20th century (when they were no longer really independent, but vassal states of the Tsar in Moscow.) This meant that the palace featured such items as crystal chandeliers and a Russian made refrigerator cabinet. It also meant that the interior design was a curious mix of oriental and Russian, tasteful and over-the-top. Also on the grounds were a neat wooden pavilion with attached minaret, and an outbuilding for the palace which contained a collection of lovely 19th century Uzbek embroidery. The number of individual stitches that must have gone into making some of the blankets and wall hangings was incredible!
Entrance hall to the Emir’s summer palace
I THINK this was the dining room. See what I mean about the interior design?
Beautiful XXXSaghis embroidery in the museum
Peafowl wandered free around the grounds of the palace, including (I think) the first peachicks I’d ever seen. Again not a great photo, but Sarah so loved these that I had to include them
We actually spent our final night in Bukhara not at the Amelia, but at the Komil, another boutique hotel ten or so minutes walk away (which was almost as far apart as hotels got in the tight confines of old Bukhara.) It wasn’t quite as nicely done as Amelia, but it was also located in an old family home in the Jewish quarter and (also) featured a unrestored (if not quite as well preserved)lovely dining room. Before bed I went out to pick up yet more bread from our usual bread guy in the main square of town, and yet another watermelon from one of the sellers in the narrow streets of the old town north of the square. Once again, I marvelled at how pleasant, friendly and welcoming place Bukhara was.
The next morning we caught a taxi out to the station and were soon aboard the Sharq once more, this time heading east along tracks we’d already covered towards perhaps the most famous Silk Road city of them all: Samarkand.
A “minor” but beautiful Medressa catches the last rays of the sun on my final wander around Bukhara
Tags: bokhara, bukhara, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Uzbekistan