Silk Road: Bukhara, Uzbekistan – October 2019

Wednesday 9 October 2019: Sylvia

We left Khiva at 9am this morning to drive the ~480kms to Bukhara. The first part of the trip was quite interesting, driving through the city of Urgench and passing areas of intensive agriculture with rice paddies and fields of corn, carrots and cotton. There is an incredible irrigation system with water from the Amu Darya river being fed via large and then small canals into the fields. Most of these canals were developed during the Soviet era when the focus was on maximising agricultural output but the earliest canals were developed in this area over 2,000 years ago. We crossed over the largest canal at one point but were not allowed to take photos. We did get a reasonable photo of the river though.

At one point we stopped to take photos of some people picking cotton. Three men, the bosses, wandered over to chat to us. Apparently the harvest has gone well and they have already exceeded their target. They are having a big party at midday to celebrate and invited us to join – but unfortunately we had a long way to go and couldn’t join in.

After about 90 minutes we hit the Kyzylkum desert. Like the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan it stretches on for miles – two thirds of Uzbekistan is desert. There is a fairly new, good quality road for most of the way and we trundled along quite comfortably at about 120kmph. At one point we came across a big area of pipeworks. Apparently this is part of the pipeline the Chinese are building to get the gas from Turkmenistan to China.

A little further on we stopped at a large lake that forms part of the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to Nazira we were lucky today as the soldier on duty let us take photographs. I must admit I wonder sometimes about the things we are not allowed to photograph! The lake is formed by one of the seventeen dams on the Amu Darya river that provide 21% of the electricity in Uzbekistan. The rest is provided by gas.

We passed a convoy of five trucks carrying massive cylindrical vessels, nearly blocking both lanes of the road. We were told they were reactors but were not convinced.

We also drove through the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan. Apparently this region has its own government and president but open borders with Uzbekistan. It doesn’t show up in our world map as a separate state so must not be officially recognised outside of Uzbekistan.

About halfway into the trip we stopped for shashlik along with many other tourists at a roadside restaurant. I was again reminded never to book a bus tour as hordes of European tourists took a table at the back of the garden and unpacked their sandwiches while we feasted on fresh salads, freshly baked bread and cooked skewers of lamb.

One hundred or so kilometres out of Bukhara the good road ran out and we were back onto a narrow, bumpy, potholed road at a much slower speed. The scenery though stayed the same – scrubby desert on both sides of the road as far as we could see. At least we were in a comfortable air-conditioned car. Back in the day they did this trip on the back of a camel!

As we got closer to Bukhara the irrigation and agriculture started again with small towns dotted around. Groves of apricot and pomegranate trees broke up the cotton plantations.

On arrival in Bukhara we checked into Hotel Volida and set out to stretch our legs and explore a bit of the city. Not far from our hotel we came across Lyabi Hauz, a charming area built around a reservoir and surrounded by old mulberry trees. It is full of character and both locals and tourists frequent the bars and restaurants flanking the reservoir.

Nearby there are enticing bazaars, madrassas, and loads of old domed, brick buildings. We enjoyed wandering around and getting a general sense of the area.

Eventually we headed back to Lyabi Hauz for drinks and dinner, while being entertained by the many cats scavenging around the tables.

Thursday 10 October 2019: Roger

After an as expected not too flash but better than yesterday’s breakfast, Nazira picked us up at 0900 and we drove to the start point of our tour for today,  a few kms from our hotel, the plan being to walk back and look at the many many buildings of interest. Arriving at the start point, the Ismail Samoniy Mausoleum, we discovered that we were not the only people with this plan. Originally built in the 9th to 10th century the mausoleum has survived well as by the time Genghis Khan rocked up in the 12th century it had been buried, either deliberately or by the elements. It survived his rampage through the area relatively unscathed and, when uncovered in 1934, it was restored with a new dome.

Most of the buildings in this city are restored to some extent or another. Many are, I think, completely rebuilt, not surprisingly as over the last 50 years they have had 3 earthquakes of over 7 magnitude and numerous ones of 4+. I did notice on our drive that new buildings being built, of which there are many, have concrete columns and beams, the voids filled with brick.


Picking up the pace we headed off through the park to get a bit ahead of the crowd. We stopped to have a look at some coppersmiths making rather picturesque and well-crafted trays and bowls, a craft the area is apparently famous for.

In a kind of cot or bassinet on display was a doll with an ingenious wooden device designed to fit on the baby boy’s penis and another device for the baby girls that had a tube attached to drain the urine into a vessel under the mattress.

Then we came to the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum, built in the 12th century and added to in the 16th century. It now houses a museum telling the story of water in the district. Interestingly for centuries there were 114 water points or small basins around the city for people to collect water from, fed by the many canals. In the 1920’s under Soviet rule people started contracting bilharzia (a long worm that eventually pops out through the shin and has to be sort of wound out of the body leaving an infected wound), hence the Soviets had all the basins filled in. In the late 20’s piped water was put into the city, fed by a large tank on a tower.

The other interesting piece of info here was about the Aral Sea. In 1960 water in the sea covered 68,900 km2, by 2017 it had dropped to 8,600 km2. During the Soviet era in the 60’s and 70‘s thousands more kilometres of canals were put in. Unfortunately these are soft-sided canals so large amounts of water seeped into the ground before even making it to irrigating the fields.

Next was the Boloi Hovus Mosque, built in the  19th century and dedicated to the last Emir (leader of the region) mostly restored with its miniature minaret.

Next was the observation tower, which once held the water tank I spoke of earlier until it was destroyed by fire in 1975. Once again, like most old cities, the old part is quite small so as one looks from the tower the real city extends as far as one can see. There are great views of the new and the old from here.

Across the road is the Ark  Citadel, the last photo above. I don’t really think anyone has a real idea of the history of this place but as best as we can establish it has been around in many forms for some 1500 years, built and razed numerous times. Some say the mound it sits on has been created from the remnants of what has been destroyed in the past. Prior to the Russians bombing it in the 3-day war of September 1920 the whole 3.9 hectares had buildings on it. Most were destroyed and, since the forming of Uzbekistan in 1991, part has been restored or rebuilt. The brick outer walls are a new feature, only being added in the past few years. Prior to that it was just dirt with a wall around the top and entrance gates. Back in the day it contained dungeons, stables, a mosque, reception rooms and all the other things that went with a king type leader. Now different parts are different little museums with some artefacts going back to 5000 BC dug up in the area.

One can see by the locks on this door that the practice of cutting off hands for theft has now been banned.

The Kalon Mosque built in 1514 was next. This huge indoor – outdoor building is quite impressive with hundreds of columns with small domes on top.  It is built around a courtyard with an area at one end where the imam would say his bit from. Nazira told us that the acoustics were so good that even the person in the far corner could hear the words. “Not quite sure I believe that one!” The well in the small building in the second photo is where Genghis used to throw the bodies of the people that he didn’t like and the mosque was built around it as a mark of respect to those that died during his rule, apparently many thousand. As far as we could establish when Genghis arrived he destroyed everything in the area but for some reason the minaret, also in the second photo, survived. This was one of the few buildings we went into that was not full of stalls.

Across the courtyard is the Mir Arab Madrassa (university) built in the 14th century and still operational so we were only allowed a look in the entrance.

Just down the road we were lead into a carpet or rug shop. Sabine, with her perfect English and great knowledge of rug making, gave us a run down on the process with a helper holding up different rugs as she explained the quality, material and how long it took to make. The cheapest wool rug started at about 300 USD and they went up from there. A double knotted silk magic carpet with a different pattern each side was around 12k and took over a year for two people to make. The big 4x5m ones on the wall ran to 78k. The really interesting bit was when she took us out the back where a number of women sat making rugs, some on the floor, some on chairs, some even with head phones on and music videos playing on their phone as they worked. She showed us the difference between a double and a single knotted rug and how the maker picks up the back and front thread with a fine tool then knots the fine silk she has in her hand around it. We really got to appreciate the time and effort that goes into one small rug, which one girl may work on for over a year. In Uzbekistan nowadays everyone must attend school from 8 to 18 years and in the rug business people usually stop working when they reach 40 as their eyes fail and the flexibility goes from their fingers. There is no child labour used here as in Afghanistan and some other places.

After a nice lunch at one of the many local restaurants, where a guy strummed or picked away on a rubob, we headed off to look at Abdulazizkhan Madrassa, built in the 15th century. This one was very interesting as it is only partially restored and a look around the side gave me a good appreciation of how these were built. Nazria insisted that all the buildings were built of mud bricks made with mud and straw. I wasn’t convinced. With the unrestored part of the building revealed it seems that they were very similar in style to Rome, where concrete is laid with stone and other rubble. This appeared to be the same although I am not sure if it was concrete but it looked similar. Basically a pile of stones finished with a veneer of brick stone, or in some cases a plaster made from mud and straw. A stroll down a back street the previous evening had also revealed that some local houses are built in a similar way.

One last Madrassa, where a very serious couple in wedding garb were strutting around, as just now it’s wedding season for the locals, then we left our guide and headed to the  Chashmai Mirob Bar overlooking the Kalon minaret and mosque, where we enjoyed a drink as the sun went down.

Warning: Do not trust the compass in your iPhone. As we were sitting chatting I decided to check the compass in my phone as I had been a bit suspicious a couple of days ago that it wasn’t correct, As the sun was setting we knew where west was and the phone was 180 degrees out. Despite waving it around a bit nothing changed. Checking Sylvia’s phone, hers was right.

Friday 11 October 2019: Sylvia

We met Nazira at about 10am and headed about 15km outside the city to the huge complex of Bahauddin Nakshbandi, a great Sufi saint. This vast area contains several mosques, a Madrassah, a higher education centre and the mausoleum of the man himself, as well as those of many other prominent religious leaders. A separate area has his mother’s tomb and those of other family members. He founded the Naqshbandi Brotherhood, a religious order that encourages followers to become diligent farmers, artisans, traders and politicians. This area attracts huge numbers of pilgrims every year and despite encountering many while we were here it still seems a fairly peaceful place. Many people come to pray and pay their respects.

During our visit I reflected that it was probably good today was my day to write and not Roger’s although he did manage to maintain a fairly neutral expression throughout. I imagined he was wondering how he could attract so many visitors to see him once he has been buried in his stainless steel coffin.

Our next stop was the Sitorai Mohi-Khiva, the Palace of the Moon and Stars, which was the Summer Palace of the last emir of this area. He lived the rest of the year in the Ark Citadel that we visited yesterday. The place is immense and ornately decorated. It was built in the late 19th century by teams of architects from Russia and Europe as well as locals. The emir, Abdulahad Khan, really wanted to ensure his great wealth would be on display and no expense was spared. During Soviet times much of the palace was used as a sanitarium, but the main area was kept as a museum so is still in it’s natural state and has not been restored. Many of the valuables were taken to Russia and are apparently now in the Hermitage museum but there are still many large Japanese and Chinese vases on display.

What was the guest house now holds a small museum dedicated to clothing and shoes for the everyday locals and for the emir himself. The robes of the latter are all embroidered with real gold and weighed up to 10kg.

The old harem is now a museum showcasing the traditional suzani, or embroidery, which is one of the items most commonly for sale in all the small stalls around the tourist areas. There were many such stalls in the grounds of the palace and one group of tourists was making several purchases as we passed through.

Just after midday we stopped at Chor Bakr, a large mosque and necropolis dating back to the 16th century, where a number of religious leaders are buried. Today, being Friday, the mosque was in session. While Roger was allowed to roam freely, Nazira and I had to hold back. We decided not to wait for the preaching to finish to look inside. By now Roger is nearly as done with mosques as he was with Ethiopian churches last year.

Our last official stop for the day was Chor Minor, a charming Madrassah built in 1806. Most of the small chambers have since been destroyed and all that remains is the small central building with its four turquoise domed mini minarets. We were able to climb up on to the roof for a look around the surrounding area.

After dropping our things back in the hotel we headed out again through the bazaars to get some lunch and then wandered through some of the back streets of this incredible city finding more old Madrassahs and mosques in various stages of renovation.

Later in the afternoon Roger visited the local Bozori Kord Hammam, dating from the 15th century, for a massage. He wrapped himself in a cloth, headed into a tunnel and was directed into a steam dome with granite slabs to sit on in the alcoves. He sat for about 10 minutes, then stood for about 10 minutes to work up a good sweat. Then he went into the main room and sat on a slab while a guy threw water on him, washed his hair and and then gave him a massage. Then a combination of honey and ginger was rubbed into his body. He went to another dome and lay on a marble slab, wondering why he was getting so warm and then realised it was the ginger seeping into his body and working its magic. Then the guy came back and threw more water over him, after which he headed to another dome to dry off, get dressed and enjoy some tea. Apparently it was a great experience.


3 thoughts on “Silk Road: Bukhara, Uzbekistan – October 2019

  1. Roger James says:

    This comment made me laugh out loud Judy ? (Sylvia)

  2. Rosie and Lardy says:

    Another fantastic account and photos. Thank you so much. Beautiful architecture. Love the turquoise.
    The massage sounds amazing Roger. Xxx

  3. judy says:

    Only Roger would ‘enjoy’ this experience of having water thrown at him..and being wrapped in ginger !! Glad you chose not to indulge Sylvia!!!

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