Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Modern Adventures on the Ancient Silk Road
By Jessica Hayden
I should have known things weren’t going to go quite as planned as soon as we exited the Tashkent airport into the night air. We were heading to Bukhara and our car, which I had arranged prior to arrival, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were attacked by a mad throng of would-be taxi drivers.
“Madam, madam, taxi, taxi?”
“Ne nada,” I shouted back in my meager Russian. Don’t need. But the problem was we did need a ride and sooner rather than later. As we walked around aimlessly, in our bright orange and yellow North Face jackets, we simply couldn’t have looked more foreign or out of place in the sea of local black leather jackets.
With help from a quasi-official airport employee, we finally located a car, yet as we walked towards the taxi, the other drivers persisted. “Please, please, I am cheaper,” one younger man urged as another eyed our luggage with an unsettling interest.
With speed usually practiced only by Olympic tri-athletes, we jammed our luggage into the trunk of a very old, very beat-up Soviet Volga and jumped into the back seat. As we began our fruitless search for seatbelts, a sickening, crunching sound emerged from the rear of the car. Everyone jumped out to inspect the damage.
We hadn’t been in the country for more than 30 minutes had managed to get ourselves into a fender bender. Yet if our travels to Bukhara sound fraught with challenge, they’re nothing when you consider what other foreigners have endured.
History: On the Road of Silk
There are few places in the world that have captured the imagination of so many travelers, traders, adventurers, and spies quite like the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara. From Marco Polo to Genghis Khan, visitors (and conquerors) have marveled at the unspeakably blue madrassa domes and mesmerizing tile work that adorns the walls of some of the most historic and holy mosques in the world.
For most of the 19th century, the British and Russian governments covertly struggled to control this region, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the Russians eventually came to power. In the 20th century, Uzbekistan became part of the Soviet Union.
It was here in Bukhara that one of the most renowned (and tragic) incidents, involving foreign visitors occurred. Outside of the Ark Citadel, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly of the British military were forced to dig their own graves before they were beheaded by the order of Bukhara’s Emir.
Stoddart was the first to arrive, sent by the Queen to discuss the British invasion of Afghanistan. When he failed to deliver gifts, the Emir felt slighted and had him jailed. Later, Conolly failed to secure his release and he too was thrown into “bug pit,” fated to die in Bukhara.
Today, visitors need not worry about losing one’s head by irking the local authorities. In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Government of Uzbekistan has invested serious money into promoting tourism along the Silk Road to attract foreign tourism, improving both infrastructure and refurbishing the historical mosques and madrassas. While you won’t find five star hotels in Bukhara, the local B&Bs and guest houses are more than adequate (or at least better than the bug pit!).
Unlike Samarkand which is in many ways an average city with extraordinary and historical architecture sprinkled through it, Bukhara is a stroll back into history. The Old Town, a seemingly unchanged tangle of winding alleys and open pools, sits in the center of Bukhara and here you will find few cars, fewer modern amenities and a unique perspective into what life must have been like on the Silk Road.
Lyabi-Hauz is book-ended by two madrassas, dating from the 16 th and 17 th centuries. Upon entering the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa, you will be greeted by an array of stalls, selling everything from silk scarves to musical instruments. Large benches line the interior walls and it’s a nice place to sit and watch the commerce in action. Nearby is the Kukeldash Madrassa, which dates from 1417 and is the largest of Central Asia ‘s Islamic schools.
Most of the sites in Bukhara can be visited on foot. We started our day at the Lyabi-Hauz, a pleasant plaza, with ancient mulberry trees hanging over an open pool. Before the Soviets gained control of Uzbekistan, Bukhara was built around a series of pools in which residents did their wash, bathed and drew their drinking water.
Not surprisingly, the plague found a fertile population. The Soviets covered many of the open pools for health reasons, but a few remain.
After exploring the historical sites around Lyabi-Hauz, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the numerous mosques, madrassas and covered markets that populate Bukhara. While it is easy to get turned around, Bukhara is small enough that you won’t get irreparably lost if you wander a bit — so spend some time exploring the back alleys and roads that weave throughout the city.
Some of the off-the-tourist-map streets can be your best opportunities to see how Bukharans live today: we watched as Uzbek school children played during recess and later in the afternoon, we happened upon small boys playing soccer and my husband jumped into the game.
Following lunch, we toured the Ark Citadel and tried to imagine how Stoddart and Conolly must have felt those many years ago as they faced their death. There is a nice historical exhibit inside the citadel that is free with admission. In addition, English speaking guides often hang out in the entrance, so if you are traveling on your own they can be hired for about $10.
Serene CityProtecting Bukhara from rival neighbors was always a priority for both the Emir and residents. And for a good reason. Genghis Khan razed Bukhara in the 11th century, taking out most of the city.
Interestingly, he was unable to destroy the now famous Kalan Minaret, also referred to as the ” Tower of Death.” Its strength befuddled the feared conqueror. Today, it still stands tall and speaks of a resilient Uzbek history. For a small fee you can climb the minaret and get a bird’s eye view of the city, which will leave you breathless both literally and figuratively.
It’s hard not to feel a bit languorous in Bukhara. Serenity seems to embrace the city. Even in the marketplace, bargaining is done with an element of grace. Nowhere in Bukhara evinces this magical tranquility quite like the Kalan Mosque. I sat
I sat inside the courtyard of the mosque late in the afternoon, just as the call to prayer began. With nowhere to be and nothing to do, I watched as Muslims came and went to pray.
I don’t know if it was the religion or the history or that I was growing tired from my long journey, but for that hour or so, I felt calm and at peace – an elusive state of mind in this modern and hectic world.
When to Go
As the sun set that day, we made our way back to our B&B. I thought about how so much had changed in the years since the Great Game was played out in Bukhara between the British and the Russians, yet this little city still seemed frozen in time. But then again, I was staying in a room with my own private bath – what Stoddart and Conolly would have given for that!
Anytime! The spring and fall are the nicest times to visit if you’re looking for nice weather. A visit during the harvest season adds a bonus of great produce and the chance to see how cotton is harvested as your drive to Bukhara. Summer months are hot and you’ll encounter more tourists, but still not an awful time to visit.
Where to Stay
Lyabi House – located in the heart of the Old Town, this guest house has modern accommodations, private bathrooms and an excellent breakfast. Rooms go for $25/night. Telephone: (998-65) 224-8424. Website: www.lyabi-house.com
Sasha & Son B&B – rooms run from $35 to $55 in this nicely appointed Bukhara-style house. Located at 3 Eshoni Pir and on the web at www.sacholga.narod.ru/. Call for reservations: (998-65) 224-49-66.
Sasha & Lena’s B&B – this nice little bed and breakfast is often used by MIR Corporation for its customers. Located at: 13 Molodezhnaya Street. Telephone: (998-65) 223-3890. Fax: (998 65) 223-5593.
Where to Eat
Chaihanas – numerous tea houses are located across the city. Choices are generally limited to local fare, but a meal here will be a truly local experience. There are two convenient chaihanas overlooking the pool at Lyabi-Hauz and one in the park across the street from the Citadel.
Sarrafon – cavernous former bathhouse which has been fabulously restored as a restaurant. Serves local and European fare. Generally reserved for tour groups, but individuals can call ahead and make reservations. Located at 1 Arabon, phone: (998 65) 223-7919.
Most Unusual Attraction
A nice way to end a day of sight seeing in Bukhara is to stop by the unique (if not a bit odd) puppet show which is put on in the Lyabi-Hauz at 6pm and 7pm. Performances are in both French and English. Here you’ll witness a traditional Uzbek wedding, albeit held by puppets.
What to Buy
Carpets – the most famous Central Asian carpet designs is known as the “Bukharan.” While they are actually Turkmen in origin, scholars believe that travelers first came across these rugs in the markets of Bukhara and mistakenly thought they originated in Bukhara. Today, the covered markets across town are filled with carpet dealers offering a range of styles and sizes. If one catches your eye, be sure to bargain!
Uzbek Silk Scarves – sold in almost every market, these traditional Uzbek scarves sometimes are reminiscent of 1960’s tie-dye, but are also sold in single, more subdued colors. They can be purchased for as little as $4 and make excellent gifts.
Spices – “the spice guy” as he’s known around town has a stall just outside the walls of the Kalan Mosque. He has befriended more than a Peace Corps volunteer or two and will happily help you pick out exotic spices for your kitchen.
MIR Corporation – a highly regarded travel corporation based in Seattle, Washington that specializes in Russia and Central Asia. MIR can organize small group trips, custom trips and also can aid the independent traveler. Also can assist with visas and other travel documents. Visit them online at http://www.mircorp.com/ or by phone at 206-624-7289 or 800-424-7298
Stantours – operates regionally and can provide visa support as well as arrange guided city tours, culture and art tours and trekking expeditions. A good option if you plan on visiting other countries in the region. Learn more about their tours at www.stantours.com or call 49 (89) 1488-241-382.
Emir Travel – contact Mila Akhmedovna at firstname.lastname@example.org or (998 65) 224-4965. They are located on 17 N. Husainov Street and on the web at www.emirtravel.com
Suggested Reading List
I’ve always found that the more you know about a place before you show up, the better your experience will be. The following books will provide a good background so you can hit the ground running in Bukhara:
- The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk (Kodansha Globe, 1994) – great historical account of the Russian/British battle for Central Asia
- Chasing the Sea, Tom Bissell (Pantheon) – a gripping tale about life in Central Asia and the ecological disasters Uzbekistan faces, namely the disappearing Aral Sea.
- Lost Heart of Central Asia, Colin Thurbon (Harpercollins, 1994)
- Uzbekista : Tashkent, Bukhara, Khiva and the Golden Road to Samarkand, Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew (Odyssey Publications, 2004)
- Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Peter Hopkirk (University of Massachusettes Press, 1984)
Jessica P. Hayden is a freelance writer who covers a range of issues including travel, politics, foreign affairs and law. Her work has appeared in Slate, Transitions Abroad, TravelMag, and numerous other publications. She also contributed to a book on investing for teens published by the Motley Fool. Visit her website at www.jesshayden.com.