Friday, 9 August 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 3d: Bukhara

world-map bukhara


And so, as my favourite cricket team win the Ashes in the rain in the present day, back in 2002 I journeyed on with the Lowlander to the fabled city of Bukhara, once one of the foremost centres of learning in the Islamic World, now one of the foremost centres of, well… mosques turned into carpet shops.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna



17th August, 2002 – Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara's railway station turned out to be a whopping fifteen kilometres from the town centre. That apparently was due to the last Emir who was wary of these new iron monsters polluting his holy city. The Soviets thoughtfully however, built a spur from the main line into the city itself, but for reasons unknown, (and most probably completely Central Asian in logic), services on this were now suspended. That's why we were crowded into the back of a Lada taxi with a talkative driver and two young ladies whom he was trying to chat up. They left us in one of the first suburbs that we reached. “Sexy, eh?” he commented with a grin, before slapping a tape of Aqua's Barbie Girl on at full volume.

The modern city looked depressing. Not only had God failed to bless the region with any scenery whatsoever, but Man had done nothing to improve matters either, creating a settlement of dusty-grey apartment blocks, cracking roads and rusting factories, the only splash of colour being provided by the few Ladas and Daewoos on the streets and propaganda posters of the omni-scient and omni-present President Karimov. The only impressive feature of the town that I noticed, were the trolleybuses, but there again, these days, even trolleybuses aren't considered to be that cool.

We were dropped off in the centre, right next to the Taki-Telpak Furushon, an old covered bazaar or 'trade dome' that would have reeked of Arabian Nights had it not been full of carpet sellers and vendors of tourist kitsch. We however, were not buying but bathing, heading up the street to where the guidebook informed us there was a bath house. Like in Almaty, we were dirty after a night on the rails and we wished to freshen up before aught else.

The Misgaron Baths were certainly more atmospheric than the Arasan complex in Almaty. Although recently renovated, they dated from the sixteenth century and were a veritable, unlit by electricity, rabbit warren of dark steamy passages and hot sweaty chambers with tiny hexagonal skylights through which rays of sunlight streamed. It certainly was a trip back in time, but it did not compare with the Arasan as a bathing experience. The rooms simply weren't hot enough, nor as clean. Perhaps the good old days were not quite so good after all?

Freshened up, we then went out to seek our travel agent, Salom Travel, with whom we had arranged our visa support letters, and with whom we hoped to sort out some accommodation for the night and tickets onwards. We soon located them, a very professional outfit situated down a sidestreet near to the Labi Haus ensemble; a troika of medrassahs set around a pool.

We spent a good deal of time organising and paying for our letters, accommodation for the night in a pleasant guesthouse situated next-door, train tickets on to Samarkand and two plane tickets from Urgench to Tashkent.[1] And thus, after depositing our luggage in the guesthouse and most of our carrier bag full of cash in the travel agents, we were ready to set out and see the sights.

Bukhara, or at least the old part of it, is essentially a museum city. A whole Silk Road town in tact, or at least, largely so. One does not visit it to see a particular building, but to experience the whole. Therefore, it is hard to remember what exactly we saw and in what order we saw it, but since it is a rather small place, it will suffice to say that we saw most of what the city has to offer.

And most of those sights were medrassahs, the religious schools of Islam, and mosques. Bukhara, sometimes known as 'Bukhara I-Sharif' (Holy Bukhara). It is Central Asia's holy city, a centre of Islamic piety for centuries.

Or so the guidebook said. We alas, could not see it. Sure, there are lots of religious buildings there, almost too many to count, but the spiritual aspect that I'd hoped to find had obviously gone on holiday when the Soviets came to town and hasn't returned yet. Take the first building that we entered for example. The Magoki-Attan Camii, a small plain structure, set down below street-level. It is Central Asia's oldest mosque being built between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries over the remains of the earlier Mokh Mosque, and before that, a Zoroastrian fire temple. For millennia people have worshipped there. It is arguably Central Asia's holiest site. And what does one find inside? Local Muslims deep in prayer and meditation? Zoroastrian's from Iran reclaiming their ancient place of worship? Err, maybe not. Try a pushy carpet salesman. We were shocked.

bukhara00 Magoki-Attan Camii

And it was the same in every medrassah bar one, (the Miri Arab), and every mosque bar two, (the Kalyan and the Bolo-Hauz). Go inside and you'll find carpets, trinkets, paintings, soft drinks and photo films for sale. It was sad. These buildings were overwhelmingly beautiful with fine tilework and intricately-patterned ceilings, graceful arches and inside the medrassahs, beautiful gardens. But without a religious feeling it all seemed a bit hollow and empty somehow. Bukhara, the museum town, was well, a bit too museum-like for my tastes.

But back to the buildings themselves, and pride of place has to go to the ensemble of the Miri-Arab Medrassah, Kalyan Minaret and Kalyan Mosque. This is Bukhara's showpiece and rightly so. The symmetry and decoration of the buildings was exquisite and the minaret which stands at forty-five metres is easily the tallest structure of ancient Central Asia. So huge is it in fact, that when Genghis Khan took the city in 1219, he was so impressed that he ordered it to be spared. For everything else however, he reverted to his usual policy. Razed to the ground.

bukhara02 The Kalyan Mosque and Minaret

But Bukhara is a whole city, and cities consist of much more than just religious buildings. In her centre lies the huge Ark; the fortress and palace of the Emir with imposing mud walls. We went inside to have a look at the old despot's residence, but it was disappointing. Most was in complete ruin, more like waste ground than a historical site, and the buildings that remained dated largely from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

bukhara04 The Ark

Around the town can be found several large stagnant pools lined with stone steps. These were once the city's main source of water and it is unsurprising that disease was rife. We however, having no need to drink from them, instead opted to sit in a cafe by the famous Labi Haus pool, (the one surrounded by a trio of medrassahs), eating shashlik and supping tea.

Perhaps the only place where the unbelievable amount of vendors, (considering that there weren't that many tourists), seemed at home were the 'trade domes' or covered bazaars, of which the city boasts four, each one of which was once dedicated to a particular trade, (e.g. hats or jewellery). Although the wares were hardly fitting for a Sheherezade tale, these cavernous structures still evoked feelings of old Arabia.

And ancient cities were not only for the living. Around Bukhara were dotted several mausoleums of religious or political notables. We visited the Chashma Mausoleum, dedicated to an ancient saint of renown and reputedly built over a spring commanded to appear from the earth by Job. It was a haunting place where a young boy sat praying to the long gone saint. Next-door was a museum dedicated to Chashma's life and works. We were treated to a guided tour full of the usual Uzbeki government tirades against Muslim fundamentalists who according to our guide are 'warlike terrorists who completely pervert the Word of Allah.' And to back this up, he pointed to a saying by the Prophet which I quite liked. A scholar had just asked Mohammed 'Are any wars justified?' And his answer?

“Yes, those with yourself.”

That evening after shashlik and tea under the trees by the Bolo-Hauz Pool, we returned to the guesthouse and I did some emailing from Salom Travel's office next-door. Leaving the office, we were accosted by some English-speaking schoolgirls who asked us if we wanted to see their school. 'Why, of course! So we followed them as they unlocked the stout wooden door to the Jewish school and synagogue.

There has been a Jewish community in the city for centuries although these days it has largely disappeared due to migration to Israel.[2] There are obviously still some remnants left however, which is nice, although I have to say that if I was Jewish I don't think that I'd stay in Uzbekistan. We went into the classroom and had a chuckle at the painting of Israeli and Uzbeki children holding hands above the blackboard, and the quotations all over the walls by Karimov extolling Jewish and Uzbeki friendship. “Do you want to go to Israel?” I asked the lively girl who had opened up for us.

“Me? No, I'm Muslim. We all are here.” Oh. So why study at the Jewish school then? Perhaps like the Catholics in Britain, the Jews have a reputation for providing a good education? I know not.

Next part: 3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

[1]Ok, so this was a bit of a cop out since we'd said that we'd do the entire trip by land and sea alone, but we were getting worried about the time and besides, we'd have covered that particular journey by rail anyway, albeit only in one direction.

[2]The only Uzbeki that I have ever met outside the former USSR was a Jew who had emigrated to the Holy Land and was studying Hebrew on the kibbutz in the Negev Desert where the Lowlander and I were volunteering at the time.

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