In Samarkand, I got up early, took the city bus to the bus station, bought a ticket and left around 9:00 AM. That's what adventure is about nowadays, just getting up early to get a seat on a bus. There is no chance of a nomad raid, no danger of bandits (except perhaps the police), no real hardship. That is only something I can dream about as I cross the Kyzylkum desert and imagine how exciting it must have been to do this trip 10 centuries ago...
These are all very nice dream feelings but I admit I have the huge advantage over my predecessors of surviving these imaginary dangers and being able to write about it in the decadent comfort of my air-conditioned Montreal condominium.
Bukhara is an oasis in the desert. The first agricultural settlements in this area date back to the 8th century BC and Alexander the Great took a fortified city by siege on this site in 328 BC but nothing is left of it now.
Modern Bukhara surrounds the old city which has undergone extensive restoration. The oasis once had several small lakes like this Samani lake and scores of ponds and pools of stagnant water called "Hauz", that bred bugs, frogs, storks and disease. The storks left when most of the hauz were filled up but health improved. Ancient city walls can be seen beyond the water.
This handsome ancient building in the old city now houses a cobbler's shop.
Parts of the old city have fortunately been spared restoration and real people still live there.
Considerable investment that has gone into restoring Bukhara's architectural treasures and into building large hotels like this Hotel Bukhara to attract tourist dollars. Unfortunately, Uzbekistan has acquired a reputation of administrative and police harassment that is discouraging all but the more audacious from coming. It's a pity for I have found the people to be friendly and the country has so much to offer that tourism could be a big industry if the government chose to encourage it.
Naturally I did not stay at the expensive Bukhara Hotel. I rented a room by e-mail from the independent, free enterprise travel agent Raisa Gareyeva who also provided me the invitation required to obtain a visa. She was most helpful to me and I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending her services to whoever wants to travel in Uzbekistan. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
I was really lucky to meet Raisa, her daughter Elmira and her friend Lena showed me all over the place until my feet could take no more. My charming guides practiced their English and I learned oodles about post soviet life in this part of the world.
Sometimes I think it isn't fair that I should be so lucky. Maybe its not fair but I don't complain. Anyhow, chance had it that this bearded French engineer was living in the same building I did and that I should meet him. We both had graduated from the French Petroleum Institute in Paris so we got along fine. Flavien invited his colleague Christian and we had a ball with a great spaghetti, good wine and cheese!
The 25 kilometer city walls have dissapeared but Bukhara's odest structure, its citadel or "Ark" has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over at least a dozen centuries. There is a lot of history on this site, the Arabs took it in 709, it was the citadel of the Samanid Dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was ravaged by Genghis Khan in 1220, liberated from the Mongols by Tamerlane in 1363 and re-taken by the mongol Sheybanid Uzbeks who made it their capital in the 16th century.
Juma Mosque inside the Ark.
After the sea trade routes eclipsed the silk route in the 18th century, Bukhara became one of the three decadent feodal city-states that fought each other for the control of Central Asia until the Russians overcame them one by one in the late 19th century (the other two being Khiva and Kokand).
This Ismail Samani Mausoleum is Bukhara's odest monument after the Ark. Built around 900 to be the final resting place of the Samanid Dynasty it is considered to be one of the finest architectural monuments of Central Asia for its delicate baked terracotta brickwork.
Not far from the Samanid mausoleum, the ageless Chasma Ayub houses an ancient spring created, according to the legend, by the biblical character Job during a draught.
Most of the fine buildings still standing in the old city date from Timurid and later times such as the Nadir Divan Begi Medressa across Labi Hauz which was built in 1620
The Ulugh Beg Medressa (school), was completed in 1417 by Tamerlane's grandson, Ulugh Beg, who also built a great Medressa on Samarkand's Registan Square in 1420.
Inside the Ulugh Beg Medressa. People used to live here but now, tourist shops occupy the lower tier of the old student quarters and the upper tier is left vacant.
In Sheybanid times the city center was a vast warren of market lanes, arcades and crossroad bazaars but now only three of these remain; the Taqi Sarrafon (moneychangers), Telpak Furoshon (cap-makers) and the Taki Zargaron (jewellers) bazaar shown here.
The 16th century Mir-i-Arab Medressa operated as a Muslim school of higher learning until the communist takeover in 1920. It was re-opened by Stalin in 1944 to gain Muslim support for the war effort. It is located on Kalan Square in front of Kalan Mosque and Kalan Minaret shown below.
The 47 meter Kalan Minaret, built in 1127, is no doubt the most impressive of Bukhara's monuments. It is seen here from inside the Kalan Mosque built in 1514 on the site of an earlier mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan (who spared the minaret so impressed was he).
Here we see the domed Prayer Hall of Kalan Mosque from the minaret side of the courtyard which can hold 100 000 faithful at one time.
Looking down one of the double rows of arches surrounding the Mosque's great courtyard.
I had gone by Kokand but had not bothered to stop because all monuments of historical value had been destroyed by the Tashkent Soviet in the 1918 repression of a Muslim rebellion during which 10 000 Kokandis were slaughtered. Now that I had seen Bukhara, I had to have a look at the third city-state of the Great Game, Khiva in the ancient land of Khorezm south of the Aral Sea.