Saturday, 16 March 2019

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Pardon me for the inevitable delay in publishing this final chapter of my Uzbekistan trip. I was backpacking in Sri Lanka for good two weeks, and soon enough you'll get to see myriad colorful collages of the erstwhile Ceylon. In the earlier post I had narrated a fair bit of our day trip to Samarkand. Today I'll introduce you with Bukhara, another historical city located about 600 kilometers west of Tashkent, prominent on the ancient Silk Road map, and also popular among tourists for being one of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Uzbekistan. It was the fifth day of our itinerary. We had a return flight to board that midnight. We could either spend the day lazily exploring market areas of Tashkent, or hop onto an early morning high-speed train to Bukhara for a whirlwind guided tour. By now, you already know which button we had pressed. Well, it wasn't an easy call. Just understand the mathematics first. Afrosiyob dropped us at Bukhara railway station by 11:15 AM and we had to catch the train back for Tashkent right at 3:45 PM. So, practically we had less than 4 hours to get a decent glimpse of the city. Was that time slot sufficient to explore Bukhara? Hell no! Was it worthy for us? A big 'yes'!

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
A Soviet architecture near the Bukhara Railway Station.
Shakhnoza, our guide was waiting with her car outside the rail station. Well aware of our narrow travel window, she did her very best to utilize every minute of our stay and sprinkle us with the essence of Bukhara. It turned out to be our most satisfying day in Uzbekistan. I can only thank universe for letting me pick the right card. Although, Samarkand is more popular among tourists possibly owing to its vicinity to the capital, I found Bukhara to be much more appealing and gifted as a historical destination. If I've to be totally honest to you, there can be another rationale for preferring Bukhara over Samarkand. City ambiance puts me off, and despite all its majestic monuments Samarkand is too urbanized for my taste. On the other hand, in my humble opinion, the old town of Bukhara has better balanced modernization with archaic charms, and successfully preserved its sanctity as a cultural mirror of Uzbekistan. The city center is at least 15 minutes taxi ride away from the railway station. Once you reach there, your feet are most ideal mode of transport for getting around various tourist attractions. Our first stopover was at Samanid Mausoleum, the oldest monument of Bukhara.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
The Samanid Mausoleum.
The Samanid Mausoleum is one of the greatest works of the ancient architecture of Central Asia which has completely survived to the present day as a testimony to the rich cultural past of the Islamic world. The mausoleum was constructed by the initiative of the great Ismail Samani, the founder of the powerful Samanid state, whose territory comprised the lands of Persia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, where his father was buried. Later, Ismail Samani was also buried there. There is an amusement park with a small lake adjacent to the mausoleum. Walk past that to discover remains of the mighty fortification and one of the gateways which used to fence the ancient city of Bukhara in its heydays. Then we visited a beautiful seventeenth century mosque located opposite to the Ark Citadel. Apart from its vibrant colors on the facade its uniqueness lies on its multiple, slender, delicately carved wooden pillars. I do not remember its name as briefed by our guide, but according to Google Maps it is probably Bolo Hauz Mosque. A polygonal pond in front of majority of monuments is typical of Bukhara. Unfortunately, they are either dry or filled with turbid water.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Bolo Hauz Mosque.
The day was quite cold, equally sunny and pleasantly windy. Everything was in favor except the ticking watch. The Ark Citadel is one of the largest monuments of the cultural heritage of ancient Bukhara whose foundation was laid back in 6th-3rd centuries BC. It is assumed that this grand fortress was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. There is a sad legend around this citadel. In ancient times, Siavush, the son of an Iranian ruler, was killed by the king of Turan Afrosiab and buried in the citadel at the eastern gate. The fire-worshipers of Bukhara with great reverence used to worship this place. It was customary for every man to sacrifice a cock on the new year holiday, shedding its blood on the ground. The inhabitants of Bukhara had composed a lyrics with the title "Mourning tears", to express sorrow over the irretrievable loss of Siavush. Mind it, entry to each of these beautiful monuments is associated with a fee for foreigners, which ranges from 1-3 USD, preferably in local currency (1 USD= 8,390 Uzbekiastani So'm as per today's exchange rate). But, when you've spent much few hundred times more on your flight tickets, it'll be a shame to step back from exploring those architectural masterpieces.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
The Ark Citadel.
It was quite fascinating how Shakhnoza had already given us in-depth glimpses of four historical attractions of Bukhara in such short time. Next she piloted us towards a tall tower, Kalyan Minaret. Kalyan minaret was erected in twelfth century on the initiative of the ruler of the dynasty of Karakhanids Arslan Khan Muhammad and the architect Barno. With a respectable height of over 152 feet it is the highest construction of ancient Bukhara and is a part of the architectural ensemble Poi-Kalyan. Poi-Kalyan is the main ensemble at the heart of old Bukhara, comprising four monuments, located on the way to trade crossing of four traditional market complexes, more popularly refereed to as 'Bazaar'. The minaret stands in between Kalyan Mosque and Mir Arab Madrasah. The smallest member of the ensemble- Amir Alim Khan Madrasah is located south of Mir Arab Madrasah. Although Kalyan minaret is no more accessible to tourists, whoever took the pain of climbing up to its top, poetically 'heart' of this ancient beacon for weary caravans of the Great Silk Road, could get an amazing panoramic view of the modern as well as ancient Bukhara lying side by side.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Poi-Kalyan ensemble.
Apart from the beautiful photo opportunity it offers from its inside courtyard, the acoustic of the Kalyan Mosque is really quite intriguing. Prayers uttered in the inner chamber in normal human voice gets amplified and can be heard from anywhere of the huge complex! An old devotee was praying which acquainted us to that phenomenon. The presence of two blue domes over the top makes Mir Arab Madrasah unique from other Madrasahs. The interior of this madrasah is artistically designed, with four huge arches dividing rooms with patterns, decorated with ornaments in the form of stars. Many handwritten and stone-printed books are stored in its library which are regarded as cultural and spiritual heritage of the country. The two-story building consists of 114 rooms, according to the number of surahs in the Quran. This madrasah is not only an architectural heritage but also an active educational center that makes substantial contribution to the development of Islamic religion and culture, training qualified religious personnel from neighboring countries of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan, relentlessly for nearly last 500 years.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Mir Arab Madrasah with its unique blue domes, as visible from the Kalyan Mosque.
Lyabi-Khauz is the heart of the urban and social life of ancient Bukhara. This area was once a place for active trade, which also housed the main source of water for the city's inhabitants. Lyabi-Khauz is still very popular among tourists. You'll find a lot of eateries cooking authentic Uzbek cuisines around that area. If you're too tired of the long walk or scorching Uzbeki sun overhead, there are few Harems nearby where you can rejuvenate your travel vigor with highly satisfying body massage. I know you'd love reading more about the harem experience, and that's the very reason I'll jot down the rest of it with my special invisible ink. You'll find Nadir Divanbegi Madrasah in Lyabi Khauz which is quite popular among foreigners as it hosts Uzbek cultural dance show every evening during tourist seasons. Folklore performances are held under the open sky. You'll have ample opportunity to dive into the cultural treasure of Uzbekistan, taste national dishes and enjoy properly choreographed national dances from every region of the country along with classical music. Were were there in a January afternoon. Obviously, the time wasn't ripe for music and salsa!

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Remains of the mighty fortification, and one of the gateways of the ancient Bukhara.
Our guide asked us if we were too inclined to have Indian food for lunch! No dear, we were starving for steamy Uzbek cuisines. As I had mentioned in my earlier blogs, your food hunt in Uzbekistan hasn't taken off from the ground yet if you haven't tasted pilaf. Every region of this country has its own way of preparing pilaf. Bukhara pilaf is considered as nutritious and easily digestible. It is said that the great Avicenna, a renowned Persian philosopher of 10th century used to recommend his patients to savor Bukhara pilaf as a cure for their ailments since he was confident of its healing properties. Gijduvan Shashlik is considered most delicious among all shish kebabs found in Uzbekistan! You can also try fried fish and the famous Gijduvan samsa, one of the yummiest and unique-most preparations that are actually served as two dishes in one- soup and fragrant meat with vegetables. Our satiety centers were pampered to their satisfaction. It was hard to part with the old city of Bukhara. We wished we had a longer itinerary. According to my friend who has traveled half of the world, Bukhara possess the same historical mysticism which travelers discover in Egypt.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Bukhara
Uzbek Bazaars are just too vibrant with colors!
Despite our faintest wish, we boarded the Afrosiyob one last time to get back to Tashkent. There are plenty of accommodation options in Bukhara, suiting wallet of every category of travelers. If you're reserving online, make sure that your hotel is located in the old town area. Have a look at my recommended 7 days Uzbekistan itinerary. It covers the third important city Khiva as well, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which we were compelled to miss due to sheer paucity of time. After I returned home, a lot of people have expressed their doubts on Uzbekistan as a travel destination. Their common reaction was like- What was there to see? I understand, most of the Central Asian countries had survived few tough decades in remodeling phase, post the collapse of USSR. It is natural that it took them some time to boost up their rankings in the global tourist map. What I saw, Uzbekistan is working on strengthening its tourist infrastructure pretty rigorously. Do you need valid reasons to tour Uzbekistan? Well, then go through this earlier article- 7 reasons for backpackers to visit Uzbekistan. If you encounter any doubt while planning your trip do shoot me a mail. In the upcoming post I'll unfold the preface of my Sri Lankan sojourn. Sri Lankan diary is bit lengthy as it contains two weeks of backpacking experience, along with reminiscence of my earlier short trips. See you in a couple of days.

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