Bukhara: Old and new treasures along an ancient Asian trade route







Sunday afternoon in Bukhara: An Uzbek band plays on the steps of a blue-tiled mosque where Sufi dervishes once slept. In the park next door, a young boy walks on a tightrope strung between two trees, while his father performs a strongman act, picking up iron cannon balls in his teeth. When I ask these Uzbek women if I can take their picture in their colorful outfits, they insist on taking mine. Bukhara has many treasures, but none as precious as its people.

Once a major stop on the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe, Bukhara draws bus loads of tourists from around the world who come to see its wealth of well-preserved mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), covered bazaars and caravanserais (hotels), dating from the 9th to the 17th centuries. But for some reason, apart from the souvenir sellers, Bukhara feels more like a place where local Uzbeks come to enjoy themselves, rather than a town built for tourists. 


Minzifa Hotel courtyard

We arrived after a three-hour ride on one of the new highs-speed trains linking Bukhara with the capital of Tashkent. In a country where many hotels still serve NescafĂ©, it was a surprise to find the train offering lattes - not in paper cups but in tall glasses - for $2! Bukhara, like all of Uzbekistan, is a great value. Our hotel, the Minzifa Boutique Hotel ($60 with breakfast), is a beautiful inn with spacious rooms, decorated with wood carvings, traditional artwork and textiles; new bathrooms; and excellent Wi-Fi. We generally enjoy eating the local food, but when we were ready for a break from pilaf and kabobs, we found Bella Italia, an Italian restaurant with an Uzbek twist. The waiter showed us to a table on the terrace under a tent-like canopy. The bill for two salads, two chicken entrees, vegetables, wine, bread and a steaming pot of cardamom tea came to $15. 

The town is filled with hundreds of restored mosques, covered markets, former and present-day madrassas and other libraries, many of which now house craft workshops, shops and museums. Minarets of all sizes sprout everywhere along with monuments topped with turquoise - tiled domes. The tallest is the Kalyan Minaret or Great Minaret, a tapering, mud-brick tower built in12th century. It was called the "Tower of Death," because criminals were led up its 105 steps, then tied in a sack and thrown off the top. Legend has it that Genghis Kahn saw the minaret from miles away as he road towards Bukhara, and was so impressed, he spared it while destroying  almost everything else.


Kalon Mosque



Kalon Minaret, the "Tower of Death"



Chor Minor (Four Minarets), gatehouse to a madrassah built in 1807


Uzbek women of all ages are always put-together. Head coverings are optional, but most older women wear them turban-style, usually in bright colors that match or contrast with long or mid-calf skirts and pants printed in traditional designs. Younger women wear updated versions of the same outfit, with our without a head scarf. If they do decide to cover their hair, there are lots of creative options.


Head scarves for sale in the market



The clothing has a practical side. Desert surrounds Bukhara. Few streets are paved. Cars and construction crews working on road and hotel construction constantly kick up dust. Head coverings help. 

Uzbeks have long been known for their embroidery (suzani), weaving (ikat), woodcarving and metal-smithing, crafts which the Soviets suppressed, and Bukhara artisans revived after independence.  

Ikat cotton scares for sale

Most women wear traditional designs printed onto cotton or synthetic materials instead of more expensive silk. I’ve seen ikat weavings in Southeast Asia, but the weavings from Uzbekistan blend many different colors, using a resist dye process.Vertical threads are bound and dyed by hand before being woven with horizontal threads. The scarves above were likely machine-made. They sell for around $4.





Blacksmith master Sayfullo Ikramov, above, runs a small shop in one of the covered markets. He makes all sorts of knives and scissors shaped Iike birds, female and male. He  keeps a wood fire burning in his shop to heat up his steel. 





House museum

We had an extra day to build into our trip due to an onward flight to Baku that leaves only on Mondays and Thursdays. We decided to spend it here, giving us more time to poke around the backstreets with no particular destination in mind. This man motioned to us while we were walking through his neighborhood. We followed a sign that said “House Museum,” apparently his house, a ramshackle but authentic old house built in the 1800s. He greeted us with a sprig of mint from his garden, then showed us around, pointing out traditional carved wooden ceilings and arched wall niches similar to the ones in our hotel displaying little pots and figurines. 



Lyabi Hauz complex

Having extra time meant we could become regulars at a cafe on the main square, the Lyabi Hauz complex, overlooking a reservoir fed by an ancient canal system. The Soviets drained, restored and refilled the pool in the 1960s, getting rid of stagnant water that was a breeding ground for diseases. The square is where everyone goes in the afternoon and evening to drink tea, have an ice cream, and let their kids play on inflatable bouncy toys or drive little electric cars.


New friends


Our favorite activity is to find a table in the shade, order ice tea, and people-watch. Before long, we’re swarmed by students trying to practice their English. They usually start by saying “Hello,” and then asking our names and ages and where we are from. Most people come here to get their picture taken next to a wooden camel, but these kids begged to get a picture of us posing with them. 
They took turns getting in the photos, then left and returned a few minutes later with prints. Everyone wanted us to sign their pictures. Suddenly, we were celebrities in Bukhara.


Autographing our photos

6 comments:

  1. How fabulous - just like a dream to me. I would have found it impossible to resist shopping (including carpets). A wonderful adventure.

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    1. Well, I have done a little shopping, mostly scarves so far and a nice drawing!

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  2. Carol, I love your reflections on the people and places, especially all the photos!!

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    1. Thanks, Cathy. Great to hear from you. We are having fun, that’s for sure. I still have to write about our night in a yurt camp!

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  3. Well you two are so cute who can blame the kids for wanting your autograph!?! Beautiful photos, looks like a very special place.

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    1. Tom thinks maybe people have never seen anyone with a white beard before...We noticed that none of he men have beards at all. But, yes, it’s an amazing country.

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