The conductor of the fully first class weekly train from Urgench to Bukhara only spoke one word throughout the evening and night whenever he passed our cabin. Hindiston! The train was only partially full with all the upper berths going vacant and so we had the cabin all to ourselves. Come the morning, in a significant departure from this, he yelled out for us to get ready gesturing "Bukhara!". It was a full hour before we arrived, so this was really quite unnecessary. The train station is quite a distance from Bukhara and we got the usual stampede from the taxi drivers, whom we dodged deftly and got on to a bus heading for town. It was standing room for the most part but quite a good way to experience a new city.
We had first encountered Bukharan magic on this trip several weeks ago in a market in Khujand, Tajikistan where excited breadsellers extolled the virtues of their "Bukhara" bread. Now, we were ready to finally see the city in person after thinking about it for months. October is the low season in these parts but even so we were surprised to see the place quite empty with only a handful of tourists (all foreigners) and local artists and shopkeepers in the old city area with the historic monuments.
Bukhara experienced several ups and downs through history. At times it was Central Asia's center of religion and culture. After the inevitable encounter with Ghengis Khan and Timur (when it fell under Samarqand's shadow), it experienced a revival in the 16th century when it became the capital of the Bukhara Khanate. Once the Silk Road fell into decline, Bukhara followed. There was a brief period of struggle during the tsar era and the bolshevik revolution but eventually it fell into the Uzbek SSR.
Unlike Khiva whose highlights are ensconced tightly inside the Ichon-Qala fortress, Bukhara has a more rambling layout. You do not get an immediate arresting panoramic view like you could get in Khiva atop one of its minarets. There is no shortage of high points to perch in Bukhara, but these were all closed to tourists during our visit. So we experienced the city in sequence, winding our way from Lyabi Hauz on the eastern edge, through the series of three covered bazaars which served as landmarks for our orientation. The triple turquoise domes (two in the Mir-i-Arab madrasa and one in the Kalon Mosque) and the majestic Kalon Minaret appear over the walls of the third covered bazaar (Toqi Zargaron). The area around the Kalon Minaret is like a magnet that attracts visitors (and their cameras) and we had to make two trips just to get photographs in a different time of day to chase away those unwelcome shadows. Even the notoriously unmovable personality like Genghis Khan was stunned by this minaret and chose to leave it alone.
The entire area is almost free of automobile traffic except for a roadway that ends in the parking lot of the Bukhara Asia Hotel. Walking through this labyrinth studded with historic mosques, madrasas and minarets was a great pleasure. We stopped at several galleries of miniature paintings and spoke with the artists themselves who shared the philosophy of their work which was based on the history of the city and its majestic monuments.
We got to learn a bit about Ulugh Begh in one of the three madrasas built by him. We hoped to learn a lot more in its counterpart in the Registan in Samarqand. The Abdul Aziz Khan madrasa opposite disappointed in that its chief point of interest - the depiction of Abdul Aziz Khan's face in the prayer room's mihrab - was not too evident. You can make up your own mind from the photograph in this blog. We were quite impressed with the Kalon Mosque with its large courtyard and detailed decorations on its walls.
The imposing Ark that lies at the end of the pedestrian-only area was also closed for renovation, denying us with perhaps the best panoramic view of the monuments. We did have an interesting encounter with an Uzbek tourist (one of the very few we met on this trip) who had surprisingly odd views on familiar topics. His English was extremely limited but he managed to convey something like "With Akbar, the Babur dynasty was finished". He clarified further that Akbar's descendants were of mixed birth involving non-Muslims and hence he did not consider them to be legitimate descendants. One certainly wished for the Woody Allen device of materializing someone from thin air so he could debate with the person in front of you while you sit back and enjoy the entertainment. It would have been great if Aurangazeb had appeared in person to sort this matter out with this smug gentleman.
We ventured beyond the Ark to a few more areas of interest including the 300 year old Bolo Hauz Mosque, the 10th century Ismail Somoni mausoleum and the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum (legend has it that Job visited here and made a well by striking the ground with his staff with the resulting healing waters) and the twin madrasas of Alladin Khan and Modori Khan. On the other side of the old city is the Chor Minor with 4 turquoise minarets, a colorful cousin to its Hyderabadi counterpart.
Apart from these mosques, madrasas and minarets, we also visited the SitaroMohi Khosa, the summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan and enjoyed the opulence of its interior decorations and suzani embroidery collection.
We also enjoyed a vegetarian meal at a Bukhara home whose owner spotted us outside one of the covered bazaars and invited us for a reasonable sum of Uzbek som. The food was ok but we had not accounted for the lengthy diatribes that the owner delivered to us (mostly in broken English and exaggerated grimaces and gestures) before and after the meal. The targets of his ire included the Uzbek government as well as European tourists who kept working their calculators for every transaction here while they would pay lots of Euros just for coffee in their home countries. We could have pointed out to him that you don't need calculators to multiply (or divide) by one, but we kept it in check. But he had a good word for Russians who he said threw their roubles around without care so long as they got some vodka. He ventured deep into controversial territory with some Merchant of Venice style ethnic slurs. He also had a good word for bin Laden for his charitable work for the poor. After the meal, we paid him the agreed sum which he started counting (as said before, Uzbek som require much counting) before aborting mid way with "Oh, you people seem good hearted, I won't count".
One of Bukhara's unique delights is the presence of the sufi figure, Hoja Nasruddin, the "wise fool" who is said to have lived in the middle ages. After encountering statues of political figures in the various cities we'd been to on this trip (and many many more before), it was great to see a statue of this comic figure seated on his donkey with his feet almost losing their slippers. His stories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasreddin) could be taken as jokes about a foolish man or a deceptively wise philosopher who likes to play the fool.
We knew beforehand that we should not expect to see people thrown over balconies in sacks filled with wild cats or emirs ordering the public beheading of enemies. We also knew that the history of the monuments is not a single big story but several individual stories spanning several centuries. After Khiva, we were wary of visiting yet another historical city that has been renovated "too much". But where exactly do we draw the line? Do we want to see just the ruined bricks around the skeleton monuments? Or do we want to see our own reflections on the polished surfaces reconstructed with great care? Can we really fault the renovators for doing too good a job? We are sure that the answers will vary widely based on who you ask, but our experience did match our expectations. We did get a feel of the stature of the place. The outside world of Bukhara with its modern preoccupations did not intrude into the old city. We had a fair amount of interaction with locals (artists, our opinionated lunch host, school children seeking foreign coins for their collections, youngsters seeking to be photographed with us just because we were from India etc.) and through them the thread of history that linked them to those that came and went before.
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Wonderful. A post to savour. The magic of Bukhara brought to the reader through your words and photos. After this, I have to follow in your footsteps.
Loved your posing the question of how much restoration is good. In some places, that might be a dilemma, but in a place like Bukhara or Samarqand, I would guess the spirit of Genghis or Timur will be there, no matter what. Actually, not those two brutal warlords. The people before them who made these two cities such great places. From , on Oct 20, 2012 at 06:21AM