Bukhara: The Living City

After another long Central Asian drive and even longer Central Asian border crossing we were back in Uzbekistan, this time bound for Bukhara. We freshened up quickly at our hotel (necessary after the mile-long walk through no man’s land in the desert heat between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) before heading out for a night of Uzbek food, fashion, dancing and music. This dinner, at the madrasa Nodir Devon Begi at Lyabi Khauz complex, was a lovely welcome back, and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner (including a surprisingly not horrible Uzbek wine) while being entertained by a show alternating between fashion and traditional dance. (Very dorky) fun fact: the “madrasa” was built to be a caravanserai, but the king misidentified it as a madrasa at its unveiling, and the poor guy who built it couldn’t correct the king of course. So this is why it’s an atypical structure for a madrasa, and why you can walk straight into the courtyard (unlike other madrasas where you must go right or left upon entrance). Maybe it was that Uzbek wine, but I got inspired to shop. I’m kind of digging the Uzbek style. So much so, in fact, that I caved and bought my first “real” souvenir of the trip: a lovely Uzbek jacket.

Walking back through the old city after dinner it was immediately apparent that Bukhara is not the museum relic that Khiva is, but a living city. People are out and about everywhere, dining, drinking, shopping, laughing. It’s far more vibrant. Also more western and touristy, but overall a nice mix of activity. And we aren’t complaining about access to some of those “touristy” things we’d been missing, like ice (Alan loves his iced coffee). So enamored were we that we returned the following night to Lyabi Khauz, a plaza built around a pool shaded by some seriously old mulberry trees, for dinner at a nice restaurant on the water.

Bukhara is one of the seven holy cities of Islam because the religion developed so much here. Real religion or history buffs can have an absolute field day here, visiting as many of the 997 historic monuments as they can fit in. It’s all the more impressive when you realize that many of the buildings in Bukhara were destroyed when the Mongols invaded in 1220, and again when the (Russian) Red Army attacked and bombed the city in 1920. We had neither the time nor the attention span to see all of these, but we did get a good sampling, starting at the first building in Central Asia built of fired brick (the Ismail Samani Mausoleum) and which served as the prototype for India’s famed Taj Mahal.

The Bolo Khauz mosque, built in 1713, with an ayvan built in 1917, was particularly stunning, and we sat there on a Friday morning observing a group of old men waiting for the Friday services.

Alan and Ron got in touch with their roots for a change when we stumbled upon an old synagogue, which is home to the handful of remaining Bukhari Jews. (If you are interested in learning more, check out this New York Times article on the community in Queens.)

The gigantic fortress was impressive. It was here, of all places and all things, that bowling began when guards used to roll giant rock balls down the entrance to defend it! But what we enjoyed most was the impromptu flash mob of Uzbek ladies. (Funny enough, these are the same ladies from Fergana valley who we laughed with as the two groups of us stood around photographing each other).

Check out the video:

We executed our first black market money exchange here in Bukhara and you really feel like you’re doing something illicit when a guy your guide knows through a guy shows up with a black bag full of bills, crouches down all shady to count it out and then makes the exchange. I half expected to find a couple packets of smack in that bag. Just to be clear, this was the first black market exchange that we personally conducted. Earlier that same day, the driver who gathered us from the border crossing pulled over by what appeared to be a broken down car. Perhaps he was just a good Samaritan who received a five-gallon jug of petrol as a thank you, but the bag of cash suggested otherwise.

Perhaps the most impressive view is in the square surrounded by the Kalon Minaret, the huge Kalon Mosque and the prestigious Mir-i-Arab Madrassa. The minaret was likely the tallest building in Central Asia when it was built in the 12th Century. Genghis Khan was so impressed that he declined to destroy the minaret even as he razed everything else. By the way, I never knew that many spell Genghis as Chinggis or Jenghiz and pronounce it differently than we were taught.

This mosque (the oldest one, now home to a carpet museum) isn’t too shabby either.

Just outside the old city are even more historical sights. We checked out Chor Minor, which is a unique madrasa with four minarets. As Mansur drilled into our brains, building a madrasa kills two rabbits with one bullet 😉 : it satisfies the builder’s obligation to give charitably, while at the same time bringing him fame. This guy killed three rabbits, because the four minarets were a symbol to the world that his four daughters were, ahem, single.

Check out these doors with the double knockers – they each create a different sound so the people inside knew if a man or a woman was knocking and whether the woman answering the knock could show her face when she opened the door. Neat, eh?

Next stop was at a Sufi mausoleum. I learned that Sufism has something to do with silent meditation…something about all dervishes are Sufi but not all Sufi are dervishes…but mostly I kind of tuned out this stuff and thought about how we call my cat, Safari, Sufi for short. I know. Probably not the ideal candidate for this much historical immersion. I apologize to all our readers who were waiting patiently for my notes on Sufism.

Last stop on the tour was a visit to the Emir’s Summer Palace (the last emir, Alim Khan), an extremely pretty and intricately designed home with a lot of Russian influence. Our guide often asked us questions to keep us guessing and engaged in the course of our tours. At the summer palace he asked us to guess how the builders knew that this area would be cooler than the old city (hence the putting of the summer palace here). Our three or four guesses were dismissed before he finally gave us the answer. Linda smartly pointed out how hilarious it was that he let us keep guessing on this one like we might actually get there. The right answer? They cut a slaughtered sheep into four pieces and hung each on the four corners of the old city, waiting to see which direction spoiled the slowest, and then assumed that such direction was the coolest.

We learned a little bit, too, about Suzani embroidery. Apparently they are kind of like resumes of the girl making them, and she chooses figures that symbolize aspects of her personality. For example, the turtle symbolizes patience, the pomegranate means fertility, and the scorpion: tough. We opined on what we might sew on our own Suzanis to court each other, and we agreed neither of us would be needling any turtles. Dogs? Yes, definitely some of those. Loyal, cuddly, and super happy to see you at the end of every day. Sorry, total corn balls.

Mansur took us to his favorite spot for lamb, Chor Bakir, which was just outside of the city and certainly not touristy. The baked lamb was solid, if not incredible. But the special bread took the spotlight. It was like a super thick, flaky, buttery pie crust. Delicious.

For a little relaxation we decided to visit the Hammam. Now, being half Turkish and having visited Turkey several times you might think that I’d experienced a Turkish bath before, but no. I’d somehow avoided this experience until Uzbekistan. And it will most certainly be my last time. I’d say that it was one of the least comfortable experiences I’ve ever had. Not so much the vigorous scrubbing or the weird body contortions or the intense heat that was amplified by the ginger they rub on you, but the fact that it was a young man and I was, well, naked. Why couldn’t I get a fat old lady with a really big mole on her face? No, who am I kidding, I’d still be incredibly uncomfortable in that situation. The baths are not for me.

On the way out of town we happened upon a bird market and popped out of the van to explore. I’ve never seen so many birds in one place! My friend Jaimie has pretty severe ornithophobia, and I kept thinking this would be her nightmare.

Over on the prepared foods side of the market we picked up fixings for another picnic lunch. We ate so many dried fruits and nuts on this trip! I was able to fuel the fire that is my obsession with yellow raisins, and we even discovered a tasty new treat: apricot kernels.

Practical Info

You can walk to visit all the attractions in and around the old city, but you will need motorized transport to visit the Emir’s Summer Palace and/or the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum. If you like shopping, there are little domed bazaars at the crossroads of various streets and pedestrian paths. Today these seem pretty touristy, but markets have existed in this fashion for centuries. We saw many vendors with beautiful pottery near the Kalon Minaret and elsewhere.

Accommodation: We stayed at Karavan Hotel. The location seems pretty good, as it is right in between the different “old town” sites. There is free WiFi in the lobby, and they did our laundry for a reasonable price. That said, since Bukhara was the most lively and fun city we visited, I might prefer to stay closer to Lyabi Khauz. Which would put you further away from Bolo Khauz and the Mausoleum of Ismail Samani etc., but more in the middle of a fun little evening scene. A couple spots I noticed there were Hotel ASL and Hotel Asia.

Food: Our first night we went to the 6 pm dinner, folklore, music and fashion show at Madrasa Nodir Devon Begi (at Lyabi Khauz complex). It cost 230k UZS including a bottle of wine, i.e. not cheap but it was enjoyable and worth it. Another night we ate near the same place, right on the little water square at Lyabi Khauz. It was quite good and lively.

For lunches, we enjoyed Bolo Khauz Cafe (near the eponymous mosque), which had a nice mix of locals and some tourists. After our day trip to the Sufi shrine and Summer Palace, we had lunch at Chor Bakir, a non-touristy lamb spot outside the city. The baked lamb was solid if not incredible. The “special” bread we waited for out of the oven was incredible.

I finally got my iced coffee fix at Minor Coffee House. Well, actually it was a strange mix of espresso and Pepsi, but it had ice so I didn’t complain. Cafe Wishbone had a delicious iced coffee that was more like a frappuccino.

On our way out of town we stopped at the large market for picnic supplies. The variety and quantity of nuts and dried fruits are impressive (with combos like walnut-stuffed apricots). We bought outstanding apricot kernels…our guide said that Bukhara apricots are special which is why these kernels are better than most. They also sell chicken legs, apparently purchased from the US for their unnatural immensity. These are called Bush legs, no joke.

Activities: We covered most of this above, but I’ll list it out here. On our full day city tour we visited the Ismail Samani Mausoleum; the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum; Bolo Khauz Mosque; the Ark Fortress (similar to Kunya Ark in Khiva, this was the royal town within a town), within which is the reception and coronation court, another mosque and some small museums; Kalon Minaret and Mosque; Mir-i-Arab Madrassa; an old Jewish synagogue near Lyabi Khauz; and the oldest mosque (I forget the name) which is now a carpet museum.

The hammam that Jenni so enjoyed is called Bozori Kord. I did not experience quite the discomfort that she did, but I would drop it in the category of an experience rather than a supremely enjoyable experience. My dad and I suffered in the uber hot room for about 15 minutes too long before being doused and roughly massaged with our faces pressed against a marble slab. All while I’m fearing that the man contorting me isn’t quite as focused on my herniated discs as I am. And that ginger scrub combined with lying down on hot stones honestly made me feel like my back was on fire. It was astoundingly hot, relieved only somewhat after they threw buckets of cold water on us. The fee for this hour of bliss is a mere 60k UZS.

On our day trip outside the city, we visited the Bakhautdin Naqshband Mausoleum (the memorial complex of the Sufi saint Naqshbandi) and the Emir’s Summer Palace.

May 1-4, 2014 (Thursday-Sunday)

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