Central Asia Travel Diary

I suspected that our visit to Bukhara would be one of the highlights of our trip, and this proved to be so – one of many highlights, though, I hasten to add.

We began the day with another great breakfast – actually with the exception of our frozen hard boiled eggs in Mary, all our breakfasts have been good.  This morning we had cheese, pressed meat, porridge, watermelon, bread with jam, assorted fruits, fruit juice and tea/coffee; not bad for a hotel that also provides good rooms with the breakfast included for just $US10 per night.

We set off at 9 am, starting our walk through the old town at the north-western corner, where two beautiful madrassas faced each other – the Abdulla Khan Madrassa (named after a ruler) and the Modari Khan madrassa (named after his mother).  The exquisite turquoise and blue geometric tile patterns set a high standard of visual splendour that was perpetuated for the rest of the day.

A short walk to the north-east, through a pleasant little park, brought us to the Ark, a royal town within a town.  It is Bukhara's oldest structure and was occupied from the 5th century up until 1920.  Andy and I enjoyed exploring the complex, including a 17th century mosque which now houses a collection of beautiful hand-done calligraphic manuscripts of the Koran, as well as other rooms with various museum exhibits.  The Ark is set on a high artificial hill and is surrounded by high walls.

After spending almost an hour in the Ark, we descended down to street level, and after a welcome stop for a cool drink (because the day was already becoming quite hot), we walked a few blocks to the Zindon, which was used as a prison in past centuries.  In addition to the cells and displays of various instruments of torture, we saw the infamous "bug pit" where prisoners were kept underground, sometimes for years, with rats, scorpions, cockroaches and so on.  It was here that the British soldiers Stoddart and Conolly were kept for several years before their famous beheadings in front of the Ark in 1842.

A 10 minute walk from the Zondon through narrow streets with small, old houses brought us to the wondrous sight of a large open space, flanked on the left (east) by the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, on the right (west) by the kalon Mosque, and in front of us (to the south) by the Kalon Minaret.  Each of these structures was magnificent in its own right, but together they were absolutely spectacular!

The Mir-i-Arab had a brilliant façade of turquoise and blue tiles, displayed in intricate geometrical patterns to conform to the Islamic prohibition of creating images showing living things.  It was closed to visitors as it was a functioning madrassa (Koranic school), but we were able to look inside to the central courtyard through a carved window.

The Kalon Mosque opposite also had a brilliant tiled façade that matched the deep blue of the cloudless sky perfectly.  The Kalon was a huge, functioning mosque, able to accommodate 10,000 people, and it was quite an awesome experience to walk through its magnificently decorated open courtyard.  Both the madrassa and the mosque dated from the 16th century, but were in excellent condition.

Perhaps the highlight of the visit to this area of Bukhara was a climb up to the top of the Kalon Minaret.  Built in 1127, it was the tallest building in Central Asia at the time at 47 metres in height.  It also had an additional 10 metres of underground foundations, including reeds stacked for earthquake protection, which must have been effective because the minaret has never needed substantial repairs in its history of almost 900 years.  When Genghis Khan invaded Bukhara in 1220 and levelled the city, he was so impressed with the Kalon Minaret that he approved its preservation as the only building in the city allowed to remain standing.

The view from the top of the minaret after the steep climb of 105 steps was fantastic, giving a clear view of the entire old town and the newer Soviet-era urban development beyond.  In fact, Andy and I were so impressed with the view that returned late in the afternoon at a little before 6 pm to enjoy the view in the golden afternoon sunlight.

After another cool drink to quench our growing thirst and a visit to a carpet weaving workshop where carpets were being made by hand, we walked east through one of Bukhara's many covered markets (the Taqi-Zararon Bazaar), past Central Asia's oldest madrassa (the Ulughbek Madrassa, built in 1417), through another very pretty covered market (the Taqi-Telpak Furushon) and back to our hotel room where we rested for an hour and a half with some cold water while the heat of the day passed.

To be honest, it was still fairly hot when we ventured out again at 3 pm.  Our first stop was the post office to send a postcard.  It was an interesting exercise to locate the post office because it was situated in such an obscure little laneway, and marked by a tiny little sign in white letters on a pale blue background.

After successfully mailing the postcard, we set off on a walk through some parts of the old town that we had not visited during our morning walk.  We began by heading south from our hotel and we soon came to the town's synagogue.  We were lucky to be passing as the rabbi was returning, so he invited us inside for a look.  This was a great experience to see both the room used today for worship and also an older room with many old copies of the torah.  Apparently, 7% of Bukharans were Jewish when the USSR collapsed in 1991, but this figure has now fallen to less than 1%.

We continued our walk to the UNESCO carpet weaving workshop hoping to see inside, but unfortunately it was closed, so we followed the highly inaccurate map in the Lonely Planet Guide, eventually taking a very long and hot route past the town's indoor tennis courts past the Turki Jandi Mausoleum back into the old town.

After another cool drink (it was a very hot day!), we began our walk to the west of the Museum of Art when we were approached by two small boys, one of whom (Ibrahim) spoke excellent English.  He offered to take up to the top of a minaret just to the west of the Museum (none of the maps I have name the mosque), and sure enough, he had a key to unlock the huge padlock on the door (which he may have placed on the door, of course).

The mosque itself had been totally destroyed by the Russians, although I do know when, and was totally in ruins with rubble everywhere, and even a wild dog to attack us.  The view from the minaret, while not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, was pleasant enough, and certainly worth the effort of the climb.

We continued our walk west and then north-west along Bakhautdin Naqshband, soon reaching the Ark, which looked magnificent bathed in the afternoon sunlight compared with the shadows of the morning.  Our walk continued with our second ascent of the Kalon Minaret before we returned to Lyabi-Hauz, the pond that marked the centre of the old town.

We stopped there to enjoy a great dinner of chicken shashlik with bread, salad and Coke, a superb meal for the two of us at just 9000 sum (about $US8.50).  It was wonderful to rest beside the pond over a great meal as the day cooled down following a brilliant day of sightseeing in this great city.

Thursday 20 July 2006

In Bukhara

Entrance to The Ark, Bukhara
Heavily loaded car, Bukhara
Kalon Mosque, Bukhara
Dome of the Mir-i-Arab madrassa
Mir-i-Arab Madrassa from the Kalon Minaret