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krisek Bukhara - A travel report by Krys
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Bukhara,  Uzbekistan - flag Uzbekistan -  Buxoro
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krisek's travel reports

Great Silk Road. Uzbekistan. Captivating Bukhara.

  9 votes
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Bukhara survived as a holy city even during the hostile Soviet times. It is endearing with its many medrassahs, mosques, mausolea and markets so unique in their form.

Chor Minor
Chor Minor
Bukhara is considered the third or the fourth holiest city in the Muslim world. Although there are a few of great places in Asia, which claim the same title. Bukhara is situated at the main branch of the Great Silk Road. It boasts flamboyant and superb architecture of the 140 medrassahs, mosques and mausolea. In Sanskrit, 'bukhara' means abbey.

Now, it is called 'city-museum'. The old town is full of very pretty sand-stone or mud-brick facades and buildings, including a huge fortress just outside the core centre. Its gigantic walls are not plain or straight. They are wavy, have countless circular bolts on them and conical watchtowers making the fort look pretty serious.

Bukhara's main attractions are confined within a 1 mile radius around the Maghoki-Attari Madrassah. The only slightly more remote attraction is the Faizabad Khanaka, located about 2 miles from the old town, but although interesting one, it is not the most photogenic amongst the rest of the buildings. And it is best viewed in the morning with its facade facing east.

UNESCO listed the historical centre of Bukhara in 1993. For really good reasons: "Bukhara, which is situated on the Silk Route, is more than 2,000 years old. It is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact. Monuments of particular interest include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th-century Muslim architecture, and a large number of 17th-century madrasas."

There is very limited traffic inside the centre, which makes exploring a true pleasure. It is like stepping back in time. Few trees provide little shade and temperature can climb over 40C in the summer, but there are a few little cafes scattered around selling cold drinks and domed markets are cool inside, too. During the Soviet times, some of the Islamic schools, including universities, were not maintained but remained open, unlike in other towns in Uzbekistan. This is how the centre survived.

Favourite spots:
Bukhara Fortress
Bukhara Fortress
The very unusual Chor Minor was my favourite monument. It dated back to the 19th century and was located within a relatively easy to navigate maze of the old town. A small boy, not older than five years, spotted me promptly as I was getting closer to the monument. He looked me straight in the eye and repeatedly questioned Chor Minor? I figured that he wanted to be my guide. I said yes, and he led me to the monument. Then, he said 'spasiba' (thank you) as we reached the little piazza there with Chor Minor in the middle. I gave him 1,000 sums ($0.75) for the service, which indeed made him very happy.

The small structure had four disproportionally thick towers. Or should I say towers of about right thickness that made this structure so special. This was the most lovely looking little mosque that I have ever seen, cute and petite. It was magical. And it was located there among regular households, standing tall but not glorified. In fact it was disused. Someone adapted it as a storage.

What's really great:
Bukhara toki at night
Bukhara toki at night
Normally I am not very fond of markets. Bukhara's little ones, based in multi-domed passages over main crossroads in the old town, called tokis, had something cozy about them, though. The three main ones had names: Toki Zargaron, Toki Telpak Furushon, and Toki Sarafon. They housed little craft-cum-souvenir shops, or just tiny manufacturing workshops making things out of iron, steel, bras or cloth. Their owners just sat there quietly rather being a nuisance, touting. They would say hello or welcome and smile - no insisting or dragging into their shops. The tokis' multiple domes resembled baths that I knew from Georgia, and that is why I found them intriguing.

I loved them particularly at night. They turned into mysterious structures resembling underground parts or secret passages of a castle. As they were built over regular crossings, one had to pass through them while walking about the town. The authorities had the tokis gently lit inside and that's what created the unforgettable mood.

Miri-Arab Madrassah
Miri-Arab Madrassah
The city offered plenty to see. The main photegenic attractions included: Faizabad Khanaka; Chor Minor; Namazgokh, Kalyan, Bola-Khaus Mosques; Kukeldash, Nadir Divanbegi, Maghoki-Attari, Ulugbek, Miri-Arab, Abdulla-Khan Madrassahs; Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka; Kalyan Minaret; Ark Fortress; Chashma Ayub; and Ismail Samani, Buyan-Khuli-Khan, Bakhoutdin Nakshbandi Mausolea. In the southern part of the historic centre, near the Namazgokh Mosque, and in the west, by the Chasma Ayub, parts of the old City Walls remained.

Remarkably, the majority of the structures were bare, free from plaster or tiles, exposing the incredible brick work. The combinations in which the bricks had been laid were beyond belief it was actually possible to use them to support the building and make it so pretty, and substituted for any colourful mosaics. The most remarkable example of that masterpiece was the mausoleum of Ismail Samani. The way the bricks were used to create motifs in the facade was fantastic.

Asia Bukhara Hotel
Asia Bukhara Hotel
Asia Bukhara ($45 for a double) hotel, bam slam in the heart of the old town, near the Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka, was one of several perfectly located sleeping options.  Other hotels nearby included: Zargaron, Omar Khayam, Gulistan, Semurg, Bukhara Palace, and Zarafshan. Local Bed & Breakfast places complemented those, the better looking were: Caravan, Grand Nodirbek, Siyavush, Sasha&Son, and Sasha&Lena. But there were many, many more small ones scattered around in the core historic centre. The facade of the Sultan Hotel looked particularly superb.

My room (#088) was just about right for size but it did not have any chairs or armchairs. The sole petite stool by the dressing table was the only alternative to the two single beds to sit down. Bathroom was new and well scrubbed. The hotel offered free toothbrushes and toothpaste. This is what probably earned it the fourth star. Yet, the room had a funny smell despite being located in the new wing. The hotel had small but deep pool.

Kalyan Minaret in the setting sun
Kalyan Minaret in the setting sun
At the Asia Bukhara Hotel, there were theoretically two places to party: the Bar Under The Moon and the Asia Underground Nightclub. However, none of them saw any customers but me, when I visited. I was indeed warned about this. The small terrace on the hotel's rooftop that was the Bar Under The Moon would only accommodate about 14 people, as this was how many seats were provided at the three small round tables. The club played disco music from the ancient 1980s.

I loved Bukhara at night in a different way, though. To wander around! The main sights were gently illuminated. The main quality was in the city's tranquility. The dark alleys saw no living souls. Walking around was like stepping several centuries back. No streetlights were on. The only hue of lightbulbs came from houses inside, through the windows, and from subdued spotlights pointing at the mosques' and madrassahs' domes. Mysterious! As if set in a one of the 1001 nights' fairy-tales about old lamps' gins and flying carpets.

Ismali Samani Mausoleum
Ismali Samani Mausoleum
The Samani Park with the Ismali Samani Mausoleum had a play ground for kids, so naturally families hang there. It had a few bushes and trees giving shade. The Bukharians just sat on the lawns or high curbs and chatted. Some ate ice-cream or candy floss from the nearby fair.

The little fabulous park between Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah and Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka, surrounding a square pond enjoyed by three white ducks and two everhungry geese, was the best place to relax and adjust bodily liquid levels. The birds lived in wooden miniatures of three most remarkable buildings in Bukhara floating in the pond, which in the afternoon converted into a fountain. The park, perhaps 150 yards square, boasted ten little cafes with tables under little trees surrounding the water that served cold drinks, ice-cream and simple but delicious dishes. Chicken shashlik was particularly yummy. They were extremely popular amongst the locals and visitors alike. The Lyabi House was the best with best service.

Shakhristan Cafe
Shakhristan Cafe
Near the Toki Telpak Furushon, next to the Omar Khayam Hotel, I dropped to a local open-air cafe for lunch, the Shakhristan. I had pielmeni, an Uzbek style won-ton soup with meat dumplings, full of chives, dill and baby onions. With black pepper it was nearing perfection. For the main dish I picked chicken shashlik, which was good. It was an unsophisticated spot, locally owned with relaxed service. It was delightfully breezy and shaded from the sun by reed-woven sheets. I really liked it there and the owners were very friendly and welcoming and truly appreciated your custom. They invited me back and went there again for those pielmieni!

The old town had several other eateries, some with spectacular views. On the approach to the Samani Park there were a few street vendors grilling shashliks for few hundreds sums and selling fruit and traditional bread.

A few great shashlik places were flanking the pond at Lyabi Khaus. The quality of the food was only challenged by the location.

Other recommendations:
Bukhara's carpet market
Bukhara's carpet market
The train station is very far from the centre. Much farther than the airport. It is in fact in a different town. I did not manage to establish what public transport did the trip or how frequent it was. On the way, I spotted one minibus with a number, which might have run from Bukhara. For the duration of 20 minutes that it took in a taxi from the town that was the only public transport looking vehicle.

About 200 yards from the station there was an ivory palace with the most elaborate facade I had seen for months. It was about 100 yards wide and the delicate and intricate reliefs-like and lace-like decorations were mindboggling. Had I had time I would have checked it out. Most definitely!

The train left on time. Yet, the boarding was not free from shenanigans. The train personnel sold a few 'own' tickets on the officially full service. It looked like a regular practice, actually as a few locals, including guides trying to accommodate tourists, kept approaching them for that purpose.

Published on Saturday September 27th, 2008

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Sun, Oct 12 2008 - 11:45 PM rating by magsalex

Great to read a good report on somewhere new to me.

Fri, Oct 03 2008 - 05:09 PM rating by rangutan

Great always to read about the small details and secret corners too!

Tue, Sep 30 2008 - 08:42 AM rating by eirekay

Just what I need - another excuse to go carpet shopping! Great report with marvelous insight!

Sun, Sep 28 2008 - 11:21 PM rating by gloriajames

a wonderful report and insight to a place rarely visited.

Sun, Sep 28 2008 - 05:33 AM rating by jorgesanchez

wonderful text and pictures

Sat, Sep 27 2008 - 11:30 PM rating by plancarpin

Krys, this is really a great report! very documented! thank you for sharing your experience

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