Bukhara: first impressions.

We drove into the city centre where we stayed in the large Asia Bukhara, which meant that almost everywhere of interest was within walking distance. While Hilary settled into our room, one so large we were reminded of motel rooms in the USA, I went for a walk.

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Around Lyabi Hauz, Bukhara
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Around Lyabi Hauz, Bukhara

Because the hotel was close to Lyabi Hauz, the plaza built around a pool in 1620 which local people and visitors gravitate to at almost all times of the day or night, my walk began there. It is around the pool that structures such as Nadir Divanbegi Medressa, Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka and Kukeldash Medressa cluster, as well as a large statue of Hoja Nasruddin riding a donkey. Hoja Nasruddin is a legendary figure we encountered many years ago in Aksehir in Turkey, and in Bukhara local people and Uzbek tourists, newly-wed couples included, take delight in being photographed in front of him. Not far away are two small covered bazaars, but today they sell nothing but souvenirs for tourists. Also nearby is the Maghoki Attar Mosque, the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia. The mosque combines a 9th century façade with a 16th century reconstruction behind. Although not now used for worship (instead, it houses an excellent carpet museum. One of the exhibits is a very unusual item of Armenian design), archaeologists in the 1930s established that the mosque had been built on the site of a Zoroastrian temple ruined by the Arabs and an even earlier Buddhist temple.

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Around Lyabi Hauz, Bukhara
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Around Lyabi Hauz, Bukhara
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Maghoki Attar Mosque, Bukhara

To briefly evade the tourists, I walked south along Arabon Street into what I later realised was the old Jewish quarter. Here the narrow streets were mainly residential and the houses old and not-so-old. Some houses were made with mudbrick and others with fired brick. Most of the fired brick houses seemed to date from the tsarist era.

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On/near Arabon Street, Bukhara
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On/near Arabon Street, Bukhara
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On/near Arabon Street, Bukhara

I meandered in a roughly westerly direction before encountering a canal overlooked by what appeared to be yet another medressa, then began walking roughly north through yet more narrow streets and old houses. I eventually arrived just to the south-west of Bukhara’s single most remarkable ensemble of buildings, those around the very tall Kalon Minaret. The overcast conditions that had blighted our arrival in Bukhara had cleared after a brief shower and the sky was now almost completely cloudless. It was about 6.00pm and, because the sun was quite low in the sky, the excellent visibility was filling the view with seductive colours, especially on the patterned brick and the ceramic tiles. The delightful ensemble of domes, towers, minarets and pishtaks leading into large courtyards detained me for about half an hour. Although, because of its remarkable tilework, the exterior of Mir-i-Arab Medressa is perhaps the most astounding achievement of all, I enjoyed all aspects of my visit because there were only two or three other tourists. A lively game of football took place on a large patch of flat ground just south of Kalon Mosque.

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Canal, Bukhara
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Medressa, Bukhara
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Kalon Minaret, etc. Bukhara
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Near Kalon Minaret, Bukhara
Near Kalon Minaret, Bukhara
Near Kalon Minaret, Bukhara

Somewhat reluctantly, I navigated my way through the side streets to the hotel, on the way encountering more monuments of importance. As I did so I thought about the many people in the old parts of Bukhara who are very poor and live in houses with inadequate facilities. Such people are surrounded by awe-inspiring monuments, most of which are religious in purpose. The religious monuments were conceived on a very grand scale and have benefited from enormous sums of money to restore them to their former glory, but very little is done to improve life for the people who live in their shadow.

I made the mistake in the covered bazaar nearest the hotel of showing interest in some embroidered fabric displayed in a shop supervised by a very pretty young woman in traditional dress, and, because she was keen to make at least one sale (she alleged that nothing had been sold all day), the price for one attractive item almost instantly dropped from 80 to 50 US dollars. This was the first time information about the cost of embroidered fabric had been shared, but we did not need/want such fabric, beautiful though many of the items were, so I resisted her sales’ skills. As we found out the following day, embroidered fabric is sold in many shops in Bukhara. Lower prices must exist somewhere because otherwise most local people, the people most likely to buy such fabric, will find the cost prohibitive.

After a good evening meal in the hotel, Hilary and I went for a walk that duplicated some of where I had gone earlier. Although it was now dark, many people, most of whom were Uzbeks, took advantage of the facilities around Lyabi Hauz, but it was much, much quieter when we walked beside the canal. Our walk suggested that there were too many hotels, B and Bs, restaurants and souvenir shops in Bukhara for everyone to make enough money to live on comfortably, and that the hotels and B and Bs made life difficult for restaurants because many of them offered their guests half-board.

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