Samarkand to Bukhara, Sunday April 16th, 2017

Aziza excelled herself again with breakfast, despite the fact she had a full house last night, and we even had pace eggs in celebration of Easter!

The taxi ride to the station was more exciting than others we’ve had here – the driver seemed keen to create his own, personal third lane between any two lines of traffic. We assume that the gas canister half filling the boot means the car runs on LPG rather than anything more lethal…

We are at the station in plenty of time, again, but there was a bit of hassle trying to get on the train as the carriages weren’t in numerical order and people kept sending us back and forth along the platform.  We’ve also realised that the reason the train seems so comfortable and spacious is that we are travelling business class, though we didn’t ask for that! The landscape we pass through today is very flat and the mud brick compounds remind us a lot of northern Nigeria.  The large fields look dry and obviously rely heavily on irrigation.  As we travel further west the conditions become drier still and we can see the damaging effects of over-irrigation as a white, saline crust on the soil.

The station for Bukhara is actually 10 km to the east, in Kagan, but it’s easy to get a taxi to the hotel.  Yet again, Hotel Amelia has a beautiful ambience and a great location, a few minutes walk from Lyabi Hauz square.  It occupies the site of a late 18th Century Jewish merchant’s house.

Courtyard of the Amelia hotel

Our room is decorated with a copy of a wall fresco from the 7th Century Sogdian Varahsha Palace – we hope to get to see the original in the Ark museum later.

Bukhara has a long history, steeped in myth and legend, as a welcome oasis in the vast Kyzylkum desert. It was flourishing as a trading post on the Silk Road by the 6th Century BC.  Its pivotal location and obvious wealth mean Bukhara has been the target of wave after wave of invaders, with Islam arriving in force in the 7th Century AD.  Genghis Khan put an end to something of a golden age in the 9th and 10th Centuries when he arrived in 1220 and razed the city to the ground, butchering its inhabitants.  Almost all that the remains of the architecture prior to the Mongols’ arrival is the Kalyon minaret – apparently Genghis Kahn let this stand because it had helped him find the city in the desert! Later, as trade along the Silk Road declined, Bukhara became famous as a centre of Islamic teaching and this is still true today, after the end of Soviet rule.

Bukhara has a very different feel to Samarkand – lots of plain coloured brickwork walls and domes.  With the dusty wind blowing today it reminds us both of Kano, in northern Nigeria, in the Harmattan season.  Maybe that’s why we feel at home so quickly.  We drop off our bags and enjoy a welcome pot of tea before heading out in search of the Ark Fortress, the earliest incarnations of which were built in the 5th and 6th Centuries AD to protect the inhabitants of the oasis in case of attack.  However we are waylaid by the wonders of Lyabi Hauz square, five minutes walk away, not least because of an enthusiastic bunch of 9th grade students on a school trip from Samarkand who want to talk and have their photos taken with us.

The square is focussed on a reservoir built around 1620 by the Grand Vizier, which is surrounded by even more ancient mulberry trees.  This makes it a lovely cool, shady spot for people to congregate.  There are mulberry trees everywhere in Bukhara – the leaves are used to feed silkworms, the fruit is made into jam and the trees themselves provide shade when it’s much hotter than today.

Mulberry trees surround the reservoir, Khanakha in the background

Two buildings with impressive tiled porticos flank the square.  Khanakha was built as a place for Sufi mystics to stay and meditate and the Nadir Divan Beghi Madrassa, opposite, was originally built as a caravanserai, before being appropriated as a madrassa.  It has some very odd mythical creatures decorating the portico – they look to me like giant birds carrying flying pigs, which seems unlikely on so many levels.

The front and portico of Nadir Divan Beghi Madrassa

Inside, as is so often the case, the former student cells are now full of crafts for sale.

It’s fascinating to watch the craftsmen at work decorating brassware with tiny chisels.  They wrok their way very fast round a pattern marked onto the metal.

We wander into the older and less decorated Kulkedash Madrassa, set a little back from the square, and find a tiny museum showing how life was lived in the madrassa.  A group of four to six students occupied a set of rooms or hujras.  One room was for eating, another for sleeping and a third for study.

Living quarters in Kulkedash Madrassa

We decide we just want a snack for lunch so enjoy somsa, which turn out to be stuffed flatbreads, and the usual bottomless pot of green tea for around £1.50 between us.  I’m impressed that even at the outdoor eatery beside the reservoir we get real leaf tea.

We decide it’s time to have another go at finding the Ark, so set off through the backstreets in what we think is the right direction.  It’s all very interesting and we meet more friendly people wanting photos with us but we don’t end up at the Ark.

Many of the mud brick buildings have beautifully-patterned wooden doors.

We don’t find the Ark but we do wander through several of the restored medieval trading domes – these are now filled with traders again, though mostly selling tourist goods, and we find two more madrassas.

Medieval trading domes

The Ulug Beg Madrassa is in obvious need of renovation – the inscription over the main door which stated that, ‘Aspiration to knowledge is the duty of each Muslim man and woman’ has long gone.

When Colin Thubron visited Bukhara in the early 1990s, this madrassa was still in use but now it has the usual craft stalls inside.  We find a lady making traditional Suzane embroidery who shows us how she works.

We just admire the façade of the more colourful Abd al-Aziz Khan Madrassa opposite.

At this stage we decide we aren’t going to find the Ark today and turn our attentions to the nearby Poi Kalyon square.  This houses the huge Kalyon Minar, which escaped Ghengis Khan in one corner and the main ‘Friday’ Kalyon Mosque on one side and the Mir-i Arab Madrassa on the other.

Kalyon Minar and Mosque

The Mir-i Arab Madrassa is still in use, with around 180 students today so we can only wonder at the amazing façade of the portico and peer through into the courtyard.  It’s sobering to think that all this beauty was created with the profits from the sale of 3000 Persian slaves in 1535.



Front of the Mir-i Arab Madrassa (top) and inner courtyard (below)

The mosque is beautiful too.

Portico of the Kalyon Mosque

Inside the vast courtyard, the many niches all have their own, individual tiled pattern. We wonder whether each was made by a different craftsman.

Mammon and God seem very close together when we walk back out into Poi Kalyon Square!

Fur hats for sale, outside the mosque

We dine at a restaurant called Saroy, rather smarter than the greasy spoons we’ve mostly been to recently, and enjoy the chance to eat salads rather than meat, for a change.  The walls are covered with Suzane work.  These are for you, Helen MacGillivray!

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