Compact Bukhara

Sunday 19 to Wednesday 22 October

Tashkent and Samarkand are large cities with a population that goes about its business. The tourists come and go and probably make little impact on the lives of the residents, unless they are directly involved in tourism. 

Bukhara felt different. With an amazing array of sights in the centre of town, all within walking distance, it is a “tourist town” like so many European towns such as Ulm, Heidelberg and Seville. 

It was here that touting, or persuading tourists to buy, was at its most intense. The “tok” or ancient bazaars were a prime place to find all the souvenirs Uzbekistan has to offer.  These are pretty single level buildings, usually with four entrances and lots of domes. The entrances were for travellers coming from different directions and the domes were designed to ciculate and cool the air. The three remaining of the original five toks sold jewellery and hats and changed money. 

Our first place of visit was the Ark, a walled royal city within the city. Over time and invasions 80% of it has been destroyed however a mosque and a roofless coronation hall were outstanding. The president’s quarters and other remaining buildings housed miniature museums of ancient artefacts, stuffed animals and equine regalia.

Our guide stuck to her blurb, leaving us little time to absorb her stories and take photos. I am not sure if guide-school actually explains a tourist’s needs, including a guide’s ability to shrink into the background when cameras come out. 

We then visited the Bolo-Hauz mosques which was the emir’s official place of worship. Renovations were just completed and my feet sunk into the new thick carpet.

We wandered quickly through the Kolkhoz Bazaar where one spice trader mixed a delicious array of spices that I would have loved to take home. We were sold some of the extremely sweet candy, the sort that leaves your mouth gluggy. 

Birds are popular pets, especially small parrots. Cages of budgerigars were on sale, their squawking reminded me of home, such a long way in distance and in culture. 

From here we could view the tiny part of the original city wall that still remains. We then walked past a small lake to the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, completed in 905AD. He was the founder of the Saminid Dynasty. The mausoleum with its 2m thick walls has survived 11 centuries and numerous earthquakes. 

The Chashma Ayub mausoleum takes its name from the Spring of Job, which legend tells us, sprung when Job struck it with his staff. He must have travelled great distances because I thought Job’s Spring was in Israel. 

Carpets are made and sold here, along a wide street with lovely verandas. Although some of the larger ones looked distinctly machine made and perhaps not even locally made. 

However this lovely street led onto the iconic Kalon Square with its beautiful minaret, mausoleum and Mir-I-Arab Medressa. 

This medressa still has about 25 students and would be associated with a university. Medressas that just teach the Islamic Qu’ran are banned in Uzbekistan so prospective imams are studying through a university. 

Entry fees had become expensive and suddenly we were also paying camera fees. When entry to a Medressas is in fact a ticket to more souvenir shops, you have to wonder about its worth. Medressas are Islamic schools and the large central courtyard has tiny rooms leading off the ground level which were classrooms and the rooms leading off the first level colonnades which were sleeping quarters. 

So your entry fee to a Medressa is usually an opportunity to view the craft stalls that have taken over the classrooms. 

The mosque on the other hand was large enough to accommodate 10,000 worshippers in the open central courtyard and in the columned areas on either side. 

There are three styles of mosques in Uzbekistan, small everyday mosques, larger Friday mosques to accommodate the majority of Muslim men who attend the 4pm prayer session and the more important mosque used during feasts and Ramadan. 

There are more than one hundred Medressas in Bukhara. In the small city centre they are lined up one after another, built centuries ago, such as Ulugbek’s Medressa to more recent ones. 

We were actually staying in a small guest house near our last stop for the day,  Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza with a pond and some decent (overpriced) restaurants who knew how to keep beer and wine chilled. The plaza with numerous Medressas around it was the popular setting for bridal photographers and some brides were dressed in colourful Uzbek style rather than the traditional white gowns we had seen elsewhere. 

On the western side of the pond is the Nadir Divanbegin Khanak which was a rest place for dervishes, the nomadic people who brought the word of Islam using strange tales and trances. 

The building on the other side of the plaza was originally built as a caravanserai but the Khan mistook it for a Madressa, so that is that it was. 

And in front is the Afandi national hero on his donkey. He is Hoja Nasruddin or “the wise fool” in Sofi teaching-tales.

The following day we were shown the Char Minar which was a little out of town. It is the gatehouse of a now non-existent Medressa with four beautiful towers. They are said to represent the architect’s four daughters. 

We then visited the first of two mausoleums dedicated to Ismail Somoniy.

The highlight for the day was the Summer Palace of the last emirs, in particular Alim Khan who had studied in St Petersburg. This eclectic palace was designed by Russian and local architects.  Although small, the main building has 6 rooms, and the mirrors, wood carvings and gold leaf were glitzy beyond imagination. The red ceiling of the banquet hall would have had your eyes rolling quicker than if you’d consumed vodka. 

Legend has it that the separately built Drawing Room had been built for Nicholas II’s sister, but she rejected the emir’s proposal. 

The Harem House also provided accommodation for the emir’s mother upstairs. A pond beside it was a popular cooling off place for the ladies of the house. Further legends tell that the emir threw an apple into the pool and the lady who caught it was chosen to spend the night with him. 

A beautiful garden “Star and Moon” garden had been established around the palace, however it was used feed to stock during the Soviet occupation.  

The final place of interest in Chor Bakr included an avenue of mausoleums, much like we saw in Samarkand, however these had not been renovated, so we were able to peer inside and clamber over old gravestones, to get a feeling for how they were built and an understanding of what effort the Russians had put into renovating the similar avenue in Samarkand. 

We’d begged our tour operator to give us some free days, so our last day in Bukhara was relaxing. We started with coffee at the “Wishbone Cafe”., famous in Bukhara for its good espressos. There we met two groups of people. 

Two Australian women, paramedics from Melbourne, were cycling to Europe. They expect to reach Glasgow in August 2015 after more than two years on the road. They will then take up paramedic positions in London for a couple of years. One women’s father had flown over to spend a couple of weeks with them.

A couple from Sydney, who are doctors, had taken a year off to drive the London-to-Mongolia rally. They had driven through Kazakstan and Russia and were now returning to London through the countries they missed on their outward journey. 

It certainly makes our travels look soft!