Arrival in Bukhara
The high-speed and modern train squealed to a stop. Darkness engulfed us as we stepped out into the warm, dry air. The train station, antiquated with chipped dusty tiles and grand arches, nodded to Bukhara’s rich history and silk road charm. Passengers stumbled out of the luxury cabins onto the platform, causing a disruption in the night. A few groggy travelers shuffled their feet boarding the train to replace those leaving before the train zoomed off to its next destination. As locals gathered their belongings and stray family members, they walked off to the side of the station casting shadows under harsh floodlight. We followed blindly because that seemed like our best option.
On the other side of the iron wrung gates, we were swallowed into a mass of people. As soon as the taxi drivers noticed two foreigners, they began to fight their way to offer us a ride into the city. Each one listening to the offers made before them, testing the limits to see how much we would pay for a trip. “Five USD, it is an excellent deal.” We were not fooled. We had done our research and wouldn’t pay more than a dollar. Thankfully, Ganesh knows how to handle these situations. After spending more than a year living in SE Asia and traveling India with his bartering whizz of a grandmother, he was a pro. I, on the other hand, was the dead weight pulling the team down. Suddenly anxious in the crowd, I bit at almost any offer that came our way. They could sense it too, like predators isolating the weak. I finally put my head down and hurried along to where Ganesh was negotiating a fair deal. He would never stand to be ripped off, and he was willing to isolate me to make his point to both me and the driver.
In Uzbekistan, tourist policies closely monitor taxis ripping off foreigners and generally keep an eye on things to ensure the safety of travlers. We saw them actively patrolling in Tashkent and in other areas, but it seems in moments of chaos, such as a train arrival, some locals still try to push their luck. Finally, we reached an agreement with a driver and began the journey to our hotel.
As we pulled into a cul de sac in downtown Bukhara, we had reached the cusp of the road and the pedestrian-only zone. Beautiful and ancient buildings surrounded us, lit up by the carefully placed floodlights. The brick domes of old bazaars were split down the middle with harsh light on one side and darkness on the other. I could just barely make out the tiles that would soon glitter with daybreak on the arches of madrassahs towering in the distance. I was excited about tomorrow. We paid our taxi driver with local currency and followed his directions down an old cobbled road, turning right down an alley before we came to our hotel.
Two men greeted us at the counter – the rest of the hotel was dark and quiet. We handed the passports over to the hotel employees. They would begin the process of copying our passports and filling out government forms to inform the Uzbeki government where we stayed each night while in the country. Several years ago, you would have to present these forms while leaving the country. This is no longer as strictly enforced because Uzbekistan is finally emerging from an isolated period in their history and are welcoming tourists with fewer restrictions. In fact, just weeks before we arrived Australians no longer had to apply for a visa, and we assume Ganesh was one of first few to use the no visa policy. People from the U.S. still needed a visa, so I made sure to hand that over as well.
We were given our key, a heavy metal object that was to be handed over every time we left the hotel. To reach our room, we exited the side of the hotel to an outdoor courtyard and crossed through to a row of rooms. The urge to collapse into the luxurious bed was intense since we had been up since we landed in Tashkent at 5 am, but stomachs growled even louder, and we knew we had to venture out and find food.
After getting a recommendation for late-night eats, we ventured out – hopeful of finding vegetarian food. Just up the road from our hotel on the edge of the town, we found a cozy terrace restaurant with colorful patterned curtains loosely blowing in the wind. I could see the faces of the servers light up as soon as it was clear we were headed in their direction. They warmly welcomed us with an eager conversation asking where we were from and how we came to visit Uzbekistan. We sat at the edge of the terrace, with the hot night air burning our cheeks, but the wind was not too far behind to cool them. Our servers pointed to their huge section of vegetarian food and helped us navigate the menu. Relieved to not be stuck eating horse meat or soggy veggies, we eagerly ordered eggplant rolls, pumpkin dumplings, Uzbeki bread, pumpkin samsas, and, of course, local beer. The cold beer was a welcome escape from the long day in the sun, and we sunk into the colorful bench seats and soaked in the reality of where we were. We would return to this restaurants a few times befriending the owners.
Hot Tea to Make You Sweat – to Keep You Cool
The thick curtains blocked out the upcoming sun, so we managed to sleep in a bit later than we hoped. But, after rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we left our room and found the breakfast spot at our hotel. Again, there were plenty of vegetarian options among the platters of fruit, veggies, and omelet station. Having never thought about what Uzbeki food was really like, each time I ate, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and healthy options. Based on every blog and guidebook I read, I was fully prepared to eat meat for every meal, whether I ordered it or not. The service was so attentive, with servers fussing over us every minute topping off our juice or asking us to please eat more food. After navigating some awkward encounters and finally turning down hospitality, we eagerly departed to start our first day in Bukhara.
Our first order of business was to find a spot for tea. One of the top recommendations of things to do in Bukhara and Uzbekistan is to enjoy the tea culture. We meandered to one of the city’s centers, the Lab-in Hauz, or the gathering place around the pond. Man-made ponds, such as this, were once a central vein in Uzbeki life. These ponds provided water and a cool place to relax. Most of them were removed by the Soviets, but you can still see empty depressions with buildings surrounding them strewn throughout the city – husks of the city’s former glory days. Lab-in Hauz is one of the only remaining ponds and still provides a popular place to relax and socialize.
The green water shimmered in the sunlight as a fountain jet shot a water stream into the air. Mist droplets rained down on those around the pond, providing relief from the heat. Stepping down into the upper part of the pond’s depression, we walked around, passing ice cream carts and bronze flower pots and statues. Little effort had been made to keep the flowers alive, but the flower pots were beautifully crafted metalwork. They were large half circles with 5 large pots perched along the arch. Carved into the iron was flowers and intricate lacework, which made them look delicate, yet sturdy. Accompanying them were statues and images of desert animals. It felt as if we came upon a true oasis in a scorching desert.
We settled at one of the outdoor 2 person tables closest to the water’s edge and ordered tea. A father and his five children sat at a large table next to us. In the center of the table, a massive platter of meat, dwarfing the children, was surrounded by fresh bread, cola, and tea. The youngest girl with greasy fingers reached in and grabbed a chunk of meat off the platter while intensely staring at us. She was listening carefully to the foreign language we were speaking. Many children were starting to learn English in the region as their government became more progressive, and it was exciting to hear us speak. Her father looked over at us and gave us a warm smile, which we returned just as the tea showed up.
The sun had burned off all the morning air and was now boring down on our heads. I looked down at the steaming hot tea and then around to all the other tables. Yes, everyone was drinking tea in this heat. Well, when in Uzbekistan. As soon as we took the first sip, beads of sweat formed at our hairline and dripped into our eyes. Suddenly, a breeze picked up and brushed against our moist foreheads. We felt a cool wave wash over us. Huh, so that was the point of drinking hot tea in hot weather, you sweat and then the wind has an easier job when cooling you off. It worked, but not enough to stop me from ordering ice cream after the tea.
Saying goodbye to the family making progress on their meat platter, we ventured off, excited to explore Bukhara. Even without a purpose or direction, we immediately stumbled on our first architectural wonder, the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah.
A Journey Through History & Architectural Wonders
Madrasah is the Arabic word for a school or an education center. They once filled the Silk Road as ideas and thoughts in science, astronomy, maths, and culture journeyed from city to city. The entrance is a massive rectangular pillar with ornate arches decreasing in size until a regular human size wooden arched door appears. On either side of the entrance, two rows of arches stacked on top of each other. Every free space is covered in tiles of striking blues, greens, oranges, and gold. They come together to form beautiful Islamic script, images such as suns and moons, birds, and decorative patterns. At the very top of the Nadir Divan-Begi entrance, two large birds face the sun, with their long tail feathers streaming out behind them.
As we approached, a group of kids giggled and waved at us. Ganesh continued on his way, snapping photos as the stunning building. I stopped and talked to the kids, who spoke a bit of English as they were proud to be learning it in school. We exchanged names, and I told them a bit about where I was from before trotting off to find Ganesh. The kids remembered my name, and for the rest of the day, I would hear, “SUSANNA!” shouted from a distance and know it was them. Once I met up with Ganesh, we were approached by people selling postcards and other items. English speakers are so rare in Uzbekistan most people tried speaking French, Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese, or German first before attempting any English. People that sell items on the street learned key phrases in each of those languages. Everyone thought Ganesh was from France – since they are such a diverse country, and most people assumed I was German to French – and certainly, no one expected us to be together or from Australia and the U.S. In the end we actually used more German than English in Uzbekistan.
After declining the cheap postcards, we entered the madrasah. The old wooden door was carved with star patterns and creaked with age. Inside was a wide-open space under the sun with a dirt floor. The same two rows of arches we saw on the outside surrounded us in here as well. The second story historically provided room for students, and now they lay empty and crumbling. The open air space was bustling, though with artisans and craft workers. We perused the items making a note of quality metal, wood, and ink craftwork we might want to return to buy.
Taking the Side Roads
One of the best pieces of advice I received before visiting Bukhara was to keep away from the main streets and explore the side roads. So, we moved away from the central hub and ventured down the dusty roads. They seemed empty and abandoned. Along the side streets away from the tiled architecture of the silk road, everything looked the same – dirty brown. Old brown houses were held up by wooden support beams that were also covered in dust. We passed a small, simple mosque, a few individuals were hurrying inside as to not be late to prayer, and then we were alone again.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of bright turquoise peeking out above a narrow monotone alley. Instantly drawn to the color, we turned and headed straight for it. Standing alone in a dirty open space was a four-pillar structure. At the top of each pillar, a turquoise dome rested. It was a small and relatively simple structure compared to some of the madrases, but it was lovely.
The Chor Minor was an old gate for a madrasah that no longer exists, and each pillar has a different motif representing the four religions known in Central Asia at the time, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Zoroastrian. One pillar had a fake stork nest on top, a common sight on many of the mosques, madrases, bazaars, and structures. Storks were a familiar and regal bird in the area and often made nests on high structures. Sadly and somewhat oddly, we didn’t see any real nests. It was almost as if the storks have long been gone, and the fake nests are an attempt to remember the days of rich biodiversity. A woman was selling her wares out front, but we just admired the building from a distance before cutting back toward the tourist highlights.
We continued our back alley adventure. The roads seemed to become narrower and narrower, but they were still hauntingly quiet. A lone older man sitting against a cement wall flashed a golden toothed smile at us, encouraging us to stop to talk to him. He knew his geography quite well, naming all of Australia’s major cities. When I told him I was from Alaska his eyes lit up in awe. I could tell he wanted to talk to me to find out more about Alaska, but his English vocabulary was minimal, and instead, he just put his arms around his body and began to shiver and exclaimed, “SNOW!” I laughed, saying, “yes, it is cold and snowy in Alaska.” After exhausting our hand gesture dictionary, we continued on our way, wishing him well.
Older Is Better?
Just as the street was barely wide enough for two people and buildings seemed to crumble around us, we began to wonder if we were going the right way. Miraculously a large truck came around the corner, swerved to avoid us, and rumbled along. We stopped to marvel at how a truck managed to fit down the road, but it reassured us we were not at a dead end. A few steps further, we stepped into the wide-open square, and on either side of us were huge madrasahs and a building ahead of us with dozens of domes in various shapes and sizes signaling a bazaar.
We ventured left and headed toward one of the madrasahs. The colors were different from the typical shades of Islamic blue. Vibrant pinks, yellows, golds, and oranges adorned the tiles. It was in various states of decay contrasted with perfect new additions. A half-assed effort was being made to restore something on its last breath. There was a beauty to the older parts, and I found myself admiring the faded colors and shapes of this madrasah just as much as the new additions. As if she read my mind, a local woman came out and began to talk to us about how their new president was undergoing a massive restoration project across Uzbekistan. She could not be more unhappy with the project, saying, “older is better, no?”
She welcomed us into the madrasah, which was set up as part antique market and part museum. We paid her 5,000 UZS to enter the museum, which was just a small corner room. Our host excitedly told us to stare at the back wall as she turned off the lights. The sunlight streaming in took the shape of a turbaned man, a prominent historical figure I am sure. According to the woman, it was a completely serendipitous miracle that the sun shone in his likeness.
We crossed the empty outdoor space to the other madrasah, which had not yet undergone any restoration. I could barely make out any of the faded colors in the ancient paint. Inside was a mostly abandoned courtyard with some broken furniture and old rugs hanging in the corners. We found a hidden museum and paid a 6,000 UZS to enter. Ancient Islamic calligraphy was on display covering old pots, broken tiles, and musty manuscripts. I stopped to think about how beautiful and lavish Arabic culture was during the days of the Silk Road, and still is, and how modern opinions of it are so tainted by America’s Islamaphobia.
Back in the outdoor square, we decided to head for the domed bazaar. The clever design provided us relief from the heat from the burning sun. The domed ceilings were designed to trap the rising hot air and release it outside through vents. The complex was vast, with dozens of storefronts, hidden nooks, and grand displays of goods. There were plenty of metal plates, hand-painted ceramics, tiles, scarves, and jewelry. I was so impressed that no one harassed us, so we were able to relax and shop at our own pace.
We emerged into the blistering hot sun of the afternoon. It was getting too hot, and we still hadn’t seen the main sights, so we decided to head straight for them. This was much harder in theory as our path was filled with amazing architecture and open invites to drink iced coffee on a fan-cooled terrace. I was thankful that I was able to wear a cool outfit. Uzbekistan was much more liberal than I anticipated. While I still wore modest clothing, it was ok to have some of my shoulders showing and I didn’t need to cover up when entering buildings. Uzbekistan is actually a secular country. I never heard the call to prayer, as they were not allowed to blast it over the city. It seemed that while traveling Uzbekistan my expectations would be off time and time again, as my perceptions changed to view it as an up and coming moderate country.
We walked down increasingly grand pedestrian roads lined with simple but elegant brick architecture. In the distance, a substantial lone minaret appeared accompanied by a blue dome that would occasionally pop up. With such amazing sights waiting ahead of us, it was easy to miss the beauty around. The sandy colored bricks covered everything from the pathway to the towering walls. They were broken up only by simple designed blue tiles. Everything seemed to be in such pristine condition the dirt and grim of overtourism had not yet reached it claws to this area. Part of me knew they were ready for tourism – the economy, the people, the infrastructure – but part of me also hoped this place would never change and the bricks would always be pure sand in color.
Finally we burst into the main square, Kalon Square. One of the most jaw-dropping areas I’ve ever been to, looking back it is still unbelievable I was able to travel to such a wonderful place. Being from Alaska, where most buildings were built in the 1970s or 80s on a budget and to withstand an earthquake, I was nearly moved to tears. Even the grotesque castles of Germany looked barbaric in comparison to the beauty of Islamic architecture. To one side, the most beautiful madrasah loomed the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah. Behind the arch entrance, two turquoise domes dominated the skyline behind it. It was still in operation after all these years, and students came and went talking with each other in excited tones. We were not able to enter this madrasah but its near-perfect condition forced me to crank my neck back to see the blooming domes of ceramic tiles and the archways that towered above me.
On the other side, a stunning yet more understated mosque, the Kalon Mosque, stood with its door ajar. We peaked out heads in and went down the stairs into the large courtyard in the middle. Instead of old furniture and crumbling tiles like many of the other courtyards, every corner was decorated with color and detail. A lone tree stood in the middle next to what appeared to be an old well. A few German and French tourists were our only company as we ran down empty hallways inside the building and burst back into the courtyard, exploring every nook and cranny and taking in every fine detail of this masterful piece of art.
After taking a midday siesta to avoid the sweltering heat, we once again emerged. A dusty pink hue appeared on the horizon and slowly began to swallow the bright blue sky. We slowly explored watching the light change the sights we had seen earlier in the day. Eventually we found a viewing tower on the outskirts of the city. It was clearly a tourist trap because they were charging 8 Euro per person when most things cost us around a Euro or less. Since everything else was so cheap, we decided to climb to the top anyway. Overlooking Bukhara in the golden fading light was magical. The colorful ceramic domes of madrasah towered over the mud and cement buildings.
It was almost time for sunset, and I had a rooftop bar picked out near the main square and it was calling our name. Just off a small alley to the side of Kalon Square, we entered a restaurant and climbed up three flights of narrow metal spiral stairs until we emerged back out under the night sky. Of course, we choose a table by the edge for a view to the show. We ordered a round of cocktails and watched the colors and light change. With every passing minute as the air got a little cooler and the sun a little lower, more people began to emerge. For the first time since we arrived in Bukhara, the city seemed to come alive. Couples took evening walks hand in hand, focused on each other, and oblivious to the architectural grandeur as a backdrop. Parents chased after kids wobbling on colorful bikes. Teenagers filmed parkour action videos on the stairs of the grand buildings. A photographer with a large light trailed behind a couple on their engagement shoots. Of course, we were the only tourists and or locals crazy enough to saunter about in the middle of a summer Sunday, that is why it was so empty.
Buzzed on cocktails, we found a restaurant with an open sky terrace that had vegetarian Laghman. Laghman is a Central Asian dish made with noodles cooked in fat with horse or red meat. However, this was filled with roasted veggies and a tasty sauce. We paired it with the local wine, and you know what? It wasn’t half bad. I read a blog telling me to never drink the wine in Central Asia and stick to the beer. Good thing I never listen to advice because then you miss out on new experiences. On our way back to the hotel, we journeyed through the pond where we started our day. Hundreds of people were out enjoying the night with light-up toys, street food, and more. Even Munich is much quieter on a Sunday night.
Our feeble attempt to wake in the morning to take a long afternoon, siesta out of the sun, started off rocky. We somehow managed to get up at breakfast by 7 am. We had a lot of walking to do and wanted the fresh morning air to make it easier. Today we were venturing off to the outer city wall ruins.
On our way, we saw a lot more people than in the previous two days. It was Monday, so kids were off to school, and adults were off to work. Everyone stopped to say “Salom” or hello with a friendly smile. We entered a more developed residential area. Yesterday the neighborhoods we explored were much more simple, but today we saw larger homes with small gardens out front and small children watering the plants. Many houses had giant cement beehive-shaped ovens in their yard. They were just heating them up as we got a whiff of samsas cooking. People would grab some to-go food on their way to work or school.
One of my favorite things about traveling in Bukhara or Uzbekistan is you don’t need a guide or a map, you can simply walk, and these impressive buildings emerge before you. Coming across an open courtyard with a monument and temple on either side, we stopped to ponder the meaning of them. Two women joined us in the space, and we saw them huddle together in front of the temple and bow their heads before slipping money under the door. We later learned that this was a mausoleum, and it is regarded as a holy site, which is why the women placed money under the door as an offering.
Just on the other side of the quiet square, we stumbled into a chaotic narrow side road. Parallel to the road was a massive open and closed air market. People were coming and going with shopping carts and crates of supplies. We walked up a dirt road to stares of awe and disbelief. The feeling of uncertainty over whether we were supposed to be there or not loomed, but according to our map, the old city wall ruins were just at the end of the road. Everyone seemed to notice we were out of place picking up their head as they heard English, and staring in disbelief as they tried to make sense of the mixed couple invading their market Monday.
People sat out with their vegetables displayed as locals came to buy eggplant, pepper, zucchini, carrots, and onion by weights. We came to the conclusion that more than likely, tourists didn’t take this road, but we enjoyed the look into the daily market life of locals and slowly continued on our way. No one seemed bothered by us, just curious and probably wondering why we chose the side market to explore.
I’m not really sure what we were expecting, but at the end of the road, we found a dried mud foundation with wooden support beams jutting out. There wasn’t a single tourist around the view of the wall, in fact there weren’t even any locals. Perhaps it was just a long forgotten wall that just exists. The mud structure followed a long path toward gated doors. As we followed it, we heard a horse neighing… was it inside the wall? We moved closer, and sure enough, there was a horse in the wall. I was ready to bust through the wall and free the beast when I realized there was an opening for air, and a man entered the wall from the far end. Apparently, this old walled fortress doubled as someone’s stable.
We reached the entrance or exit of the wall and found it had been patched over the years with bits of hay, wood, and mud. This wall built in the 1500s was in fact neglected – destined to death when compared to the wondrous madrasahs. We explored a bit before heading back the way we came, to a more modern walled fortress that was now a museum. Paying just pennies – including our tourist tax to enter, we learned about Uzbekistan’s culture and history in a humble museum.
Near the museum was one of Bukhara’s few operating mosques. Having been to Turkey to see the Hagia Sofia and the sprawling mosques with towering minarets, this wooden mosque with hand-carved pillars, intricately cut and painted was almost refreshing. Since Islam hasn’t grown or overextended in recent years, many of the mosques are older, and their construction reflects that. Many people were gathering outside, ready to go in for the call to prayer.
I had made a mental note of everything I wanted to buy, and we returned to a few bazaars to purchase some items as gifts for family and myself. Ganesh and I got in a bit of a spat because once again, I was ruining his haggling game and trying to overpay for everything. I have this notion that we make enough money. I want to ensure everyone is well paid for their handiwork. Ganesh also agrees, but he also knows when someone is massively inflating the price and ripping us off.
Unfortunately, our time in Bukhara was coming to an end. We journeyed back to the hotel and asked our hotel to book us a car to the train station. We would pay more this way, but we wouldn’t need to go find and barter with a taxi.
Back at the train station, we began the long process of entering the station. First, we would go to a police booth, show our passports and printed train tickets. Then we would go through a metal detector and get out tickets checked once again. Finding some seats, we sat down to wait for our train, hoping we wouldn’t miss it with the Russian and Uzbeki writing and announcements. Thankfully, every departure someone came over to us and asked if our destination was Khiva or Tashkent. Finally, the train to Samarkand approached, and we went outside to the platform. Showing our tickets to the proper cabin conductor, we boarded and found our seats. The large reclining seats had power outlets, plenty of room, a work table, and even cup holders. We settled in as the hostesses came around and provided us with complimentary snacks. These trains and the service were equally comparable to the ICE first class in Europe but at a fraction of the cost. I watched the dry landscape speed by as the sun began to fade. Soon we would be in Samarkand for another adventure in Uzbekistan.
I hope you enjoyed my travel stories from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. I’m still in awe at how perfect our time in this city was. From the friendly and engaging locals to the literal mind-blowing architecture that filled the streets. I would go back in a heart beat and as soon as we are able to travel once again – after COVID – 19. Until then enjoy these images and virtual tour of Bukhara.
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