Getting under the skin of Bukhara

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Monday, April 2, 2012

The morning before we left Samarkand for Bukhara, we listened to the rain hammering down outside our window from the comfort of the bed. Now, we were running through the rain with our bags, along a large, fast dual carriageway. The little marshrutka minibus had dropped us at an intersection and pointed us towards a bus station which, due to the sheer power of the rain, we could barely see. Despite the rain, the cars and trucks sped past us, splashing our legs with grubby water as they went.

Arriving at the bus station and finding shelter, we spotted a bus waiting in the lay-by and I sprinted through the rain to check its destination. It was headed for Bukhara. I sprinted back, and collected Helen. We piled on board, dry on our top half but soaked from the waist down. Throwing off our waterproof jackets, we breathed a sigh of relief. The bus was another filthy, run-down specimen that probably failed to pass North Korean safety checks in 1978 and was carted out here for scrap, but we were on board nonetheless.

Having arrived in such a wet flurry of movement, although our bags were this time stowed safely below the bus, all eyes were on us. A large family group seemed to be all around us, and they were particularly interested in our presence. Throughout the entire six-hour journey, every move we made – every scratch of the nose, every thumb through the guidebook – generated excitement and mutterings amongst their party.

Arriving in Bukhara's out-of-town bus station, we were cast into the throng of bodies, marshrutkas, taxis and general noisy goings-on. A bazaar was located just behind the bus station, adding to the weight of people and noise significantly. Unable to find the right bus to the city centre or an English-speaking local, we were able to find a French-speaking local who could make sense of my iffy A-Level French. Unlike most of Uzbekistan, the areas around Samarkand and Bukhara are largely Tajik-speaking, making our elementary Uzbek largely useless in these situations.

Eventually finding the city centre, the old town for which Bukhara was famous seemed all rather new. Restoration efforts in recent years had been more than a little over-zealous, and the squeaky-clean renovation of Bukhara's main sights was highly controversial. It raised the question of when to stop and where to invest, and a five-minute walk outside of the touristy centre reveals a rather run-down side to this grand old Silk Road city.

Our accommodation was Mubinjon's guesthouse, an 18th Century wooden-framed building hidden in the tightly-knit roads that made up the old city. Struggling to find our bearings, we wandered the city for a short while before we wee accosted by a man who claimed to have worked for Mubinjon but now ran his own B&B, named Medina & Ilyos. Expecting a hard sell, we tentatively followed his lead, but he took us right to Mubinjon's door, hidden down a narrow alley. We thanked him profusely, not knowing that after a few days at Mubinjon's endearingly tumbledown property we would be moving to his guesthouse. As we entered the building, a beautiful courtyard opened up to us, with carved woodwork and a central Apricot tree with white blossom. Our room was basic, with traditional Uzbek beds on the floor, a draughty wooden door and no access to a shower, but for now, we basked in the peace of the courtyard and plotted our next moves.

We walked the dimly-lit streets in search of food, having been warned against the over-priced and poor quality eateries in the centre of town by Mubinjon, one of Bukhara's last few hundred Jews, of whom there were once several thousand. Outside the compact historical centre, only a few lights could be seen, most of which were leaking a diffuse white glow from inside the windows of homes. As we approached the limit of our patience, we saw some outdoor lights in the distance, and instinctively set off towards them down a narrow lane, but they were only illuminating a domestic garage. A young girl and two older men were outside, looking puzzled at our presence on their little residential street after dark.

We began chatting to them in a mix of English, Uzbek and Russian, trying to ask for good, cheap food nearby and generally making conversation. Expecting us to be the kind of tourists who usually visit Bukhara – on comfortable package holidays – they suggested we return to Lyabi Hauz, the central square around which the over-priced restaurants waited for us with glee. After emphasising that we wanted to keep away from tourists and eat where locals ate, we all warmed to one another even more.

At some point in the conversation, while we were talking about football to one of the older men, the young woman had a word with the other man, who turned out to be her father.

“Would you like to have lunch with us tomorrow?” she asked, somewhat out of the blue.

“Um, yes, that would be lovely,” we replied, stuttering in surprise at such an unexpected offer.

After a little while more, our hunger got the better of us, and we set off again in search of food, buoyed by the warmth of the people we had met. After this turn of fate, ten minutes walking in the other direction led us to a little fast food place, where we eagerly bought some tasty-looking somsas and headed home.

Already we began considering our next move, north to Khiva and the Kyzylkum desert, but conflicting stories about how we go about doing this were confusing and it was difficult to know whose story was the truth. Although we had only been in Uzbekistan around a week, the difficulty of travel in this country without resorting to expensive taxis was taking its toll, and there was little we wanted more than to sit and watch some British TV programmes that we had saved onto our computer. Curled up in blankets, we took great pleasure in a little escapism over a dinner of somsas and water.

The Ark of Bukhara is one of the country's best-preserved old forts. Now sitting awkwardly by a major crossroads at the edge of the city centre, it was our first destination the following morning. Made with beige bricks and mud, the Ark looked distinctly like a massive sandcastle, and barely looked any more effective at repelling invading armies. Its serpentine walls now contain largely ruins, but a circuit around the outer face of the wall gives the onlooker an impression of the vastness of its elegant bell-shaped cross-section.

Perhaps more effective against invaders were the regular dust storms that blew across this city that sits on the southern edge of the Kyzylkum desert. In an impressive show of force, nature demonstrated its power by whipping up one such dust storm for our benefit. The sky turned a murky brown as huge clouds of sand and dust whipped through the streets, covering all that stood in their path.

“Now I understand why camels have such long eyelashes,” I exclaimed to Helen, wiping sand from my irritated eyes as we tried to cross the busy road.

On the other side, a mosque with intricately carved and painted wooden pillars and roof stood in front of a dried-up fountain. Next to it was a tall Soviet-era water tower, its stilt-like legs and spherical storage tank making it look like an alien spacecraft had landed. We stood at its feet and looked up the rickety spiral staircase to the top, but the barbed wire and sign reading “DIKKAT” (danger) deterred us from going further. The peculiar contrast between the mediaeval mosque and the ultra-modernist water tower was striking. It was as if the Soviet government had sought to upset the pleasant balance between the mosque and the Ark on either side of the road, perhaps in a deliberate effort to de-beautify the feudal and religious icons of the past.

As we stood there, one of many tour groups arrived at the mosque and began looking around. Unlike Tashkent or Samarkand, it seemed that Bukhara had a real focus on tourism as a major source of income. Stalls with tourist goods lined the streets and eager shop and café owners beckoned people through their doors in a way we had not experienced since Turkey.

Our lunch with the local Bukharans began with a search for their house, as the dark streets of Bukhara by night looked remarkably different in the hazy light of the day. Luckily finding their home only a few minutes late, we were immediately welcomed inside.

In the traditional style, a little courtyard was surrounded by rooms. To one side, their dining room was also in a traditional style, with a low table and long mats for sitting on the floor. We kicked off our shoes at the door and sat down with the daughter and began talking. Her three siblings were all working in Russia in various jobs, and only occasionally came home. It meant that she was the only one able to help her father, a widower with heart problems. Despite the opportunities that work in Russia offered young Uzbeks, she liked life in Bukhara and enjoyed time with her father.

After some chai accompanied by sweets and nuts – including the delicious local speciality of roast apricot stones – we were given towers of plov and glasses of sweet wine. The father demonstrated the proper way to eat plov, with one's hand. He deftly squashed the rice into cupped fingers and popped a mouthful into his mouth without a problem. Our efforts to copy his technique were pitiful in comparison, and we both eventually resorted to using cutlery, even though he insisted that plov always tastes best when eaten with hands.

It transpired that every man must at some point undergo a year in the Uzbek army as part of a national conscription programme. In Soviet times, this period was two years, and the father served much of his time in Germany. It begged the question that had been on my mind since we arrived – what was life like as part of the USSR? After his daughter had translated my question for him, he paused in reflection. His answer was surprising, arguing that life was better because there was more security of income, fewer worries and stronger bonds between people than nowadays. He rustled his black, bristly moustache and nodded to emphasise his point. It was hard to know if he was in a majority, but the hardline style of government enacted by Karimov could not be considered particularly different from Soviet rule, aside from his economic reforms such as the deregulation of markets and privatisation of some services. There is no doubt that unemployment and underemployment are very high in Uzbekistan, but also that the Soviet regime was even more repressive and authoritarian than that of Karimov.

Two hours or so of fascinating conversation eventually ended, with full bellies and rich insight into Uzbek life and culture. We were taught the Islamic amin, which served much the same purpose as the Christian 'Grace', but said after a meal, rather than before it. Helen then took portraits of our hosts and we said fond goodbyes. We returned to the streets, where a warm sun beat its rays gently onto us as we headed towards Samani Park. Children played with kites, and teenagers awkwardly walked in pairs on what we speculated may be first dates, beneath the swelling buds in the trees that signified the onset of Spring proper.

Deep in the park, we heard music blaring from loudspeakers. Tipped off that there were Soviet era theme park rides somewhere nearby, we followed the music, and stumbled across an array of slightly worn-out children's rides. To one side, we spotted a spinning chair ride powered by propellers being enjoyed by a group of rowdy teenagers, and opposite sat a train ride for smaller children. Towering over the rest of the rides was a huge, partly rusted ferris wheel, which turned slowly and whose straggly metal girders leant the place a rather more industrial feeling.

The sun dipped in the sky, and shone slivers of light through the canopy of the trees in the park. We sat a while next to the 10th Century Ismail Samani mausoleum, almost hidden from view by the big amusement park nearby. A peaceful few minutes allowed the tinny loudspeakers to wash the old-fashioned, Indian-sounding music to wash over us, in the dimming light.

Our final day in Bukhara involved a tightly-packed marshrutka journey out of town to visit the 14th Century mausoleum of the Sufi mystic and evangelist Bakhautdin Naqshaband. Passing back through villages filled with run-down houses and battle-hardened women in the dusty fields, the entrance to the mausoleum leapt into our gaze by surprise. Its entrance gate was not particularly special, but within the complex a serene sense of meditative calm fills you with peace as you wander through the beautiful courtyard around the mystic's tomb. It was one of Uzbekistan's quietest monuments so far, and we sat for a while, watching pilgrims and locals filing through, stopping for a prayer, and then continuing their journey into the gardens at the rear of the complex.

We realised that we were the only tourists, and I beamed with happiness as an elderly pilgrim shook me by the hand with a warm “assalam aleykum” and a little chuckle. There was something very liberating about being far from the established tourist routes. The courtyard was a large rectangle, with dozens of huge, carved wooden pillars propping up a high, patterned ceiling. The white walls and meditative atmosphere were anathema to the touristy bustle of Bukhara itself, and we dwelt here for some time to soak up the atmosphere of peace.

Outside, groups of people were circling a large tree trunk. Legend has it that three anti-clockwise circles of the tree – which allegedly sprouted in the spot where the Sufi holyman placed his staff after a pilgrimage to Mecca – would provide the individual good luck and fertility. People devoutly touched the tree, tenderly and softly, as they ducked under its branches and brushed their hands and torsos past its stump.

Our return to Bukhara led us to reflect a little on the way things work (or don't) in Uzbekistan, and especially about our next journey 500km up to the desert town of Khiva.. The journey to Khiva was proving to be more difficult than expected, and for everyone we had spoken to, each one had a different story. Some had caught buses from Bukhara, while others claimed there were none and taxis were the only way. Some said even the taxis don't want to drive that poor road surface. The only strategy we could deploy was one that seemed to be the authentically Uzbek way of life: turn up early and hope for the best.
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