Cultural overload. (October 2014)


We left Samarkand early, it was a long drive to Bukhara and our driver wanted to stop at Shakhrisabz on the way.

Shakhrisabz is the home of Amir Timur, the national hero of the Uzbeks. It is not hard to understand why he is so adored, especially by Islam Karimov. Timur ruled in the time after Ghenghis Kaan and although he was no softy he was benign compared to Khan, who devastated cities and massacred countless populations in his quest to control Central Asia.

Within Shakhrisabz is Amir Timur’s castle which currently stands at the end of a vast building site.

The entire town is being turned into a shrine in honour of the national hero and as a memorial to Karimov, the current prime minister.

This is yet another beautification program, initiated by Karimov that involves leveling vast areas of the old town and building boulevards and parks.

The resilient locals, displaced from their homes and businesses, carry on as usual. The market stretched along a raised dirt road, with construction on either side and heavy machinery racing from one end of the site to the other.

Just as we were about to leave it started to rain, then a dust storm came in from the surrounding desert.

All this was exacerbated by the dirt and dust from construction site.

We managed to see a few sites like the Blue Dome at the Dorut-Tilovat Complex and the local market area. However many of the old buildings were part of the reconstruction programme and off limits.

As we drove on towards Bukhara there was another downpour and it was literally raining dirt.

Sometimes a city is defined by headwear.

Bukhara has cloth caps and since we met our driver, who continually wore one, I have seen them on the men of the city.

The last time I encountered a community of cloth caps was in Pamplona, Spain in 2012.

Before Islam there was Buddhism and fire worshiping Zoroastrianism, so there is a rich culture and history in Bukhara, which is believed to be 2,500 to 4,000 years old. The locals believe it’s the latter, while archeologists favour the former. It was the centre of the Silk Road and an important trading point between east and west.

Bukhara is an open air museum, with its historic centre, containing many mosques and madrassahs, listed as a UNESCO World heritage Site.

The city is surrounded by a 12km of wall containing 11 gates. The gates are named by the direction from which the caravans arrived into the city.

This is a small city compared to the others we have visited in Uzbekistan. It’s also one of the most tastefully reconstructed, with less of the glitz and a far more authentic feel. It’s easy to walk around the narrow streets and get lost in the back alleys.

Like most of these ancient cities, they are divided into distinctly different parts. With Bukhara the old part has charm while the new has vast parks and decaying Soviet era buildings.

The old part of the city is very compact and it’s easy to walk from one ancient edifice to the next. We spent an entire day doing just that.

The Arc and Registan Square, the Bolo-Hauz or Friday Mosque and then into the main market. This was a modern market, compared to some we had seen, but still had wonderful produce and interesting faces.

Adjacent to the market is part of the original city wall of mud bricks and straw.

We continued walking and exploring, visiting Ismoil Samoniy and Chashma Ayub Mausoleums, Kalon Minaret and Mosque and Mir-i-Arab and Kokaldosh Medressas. Kokaldosh is the largest one in Bukhara.

On the way we passed Magoki Attori, a Mosque that appears to be in a pit, as it has entrances on two levels. One is at the current ground level while the other is several meters lower. When it was excavated some years ago archeologists discovered that there was another temple below the current one. This was Buddhist, a religion that preceded Islam in Bukhara. It was then back to Lyabi-Hauz, the wonderful square that was near our hotel.

In the middle of all this we also went to Job’s Well, named after the Prophet from the Old Testament.

This is only a legend as the original Well of Job is in Jerusalem.

We crammed so much into the day that I have to check my snaps to actually follow what we did. Our guide, Dilafruz, was on a mission and wanted to get through as much as possible, as quickly as she could.

Our heads were spinning and we had cultural overload.

Bukhara is an oasis with many ponds that are interconnected. In ancient times the quality of water in these reservoirs was so poor that the average age of the Bukharise was only 39 years.

Apart from a number of Caravansaries in Bukhara there is also accommodation for Dervishes or travelling Islamic pilgrims. One such building is the Nodir Devon Begi that was built in 1620.

The Dervishes are best known in Turkey and Egypt where, in a religious fervor, they would spin and whirl.

Because Bukhara is on the Silk Road it’s also the centre of a well worn tourist track, best illustrated by the Coffee Gallery that serves an excellent cup of Segafredo.

After a hard day of sightseeing the Europeans gather to enjoy an espresso.

There were five trading domes built in Bukhara during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Each one specialised in a particular range of merchandise. There are now only three left and their specialities are hats (many of the cloth cap variety), jewellery and money changing.

The last we visited on our final day as we were running short of Som.

The next day we were off again, our first stop being the tiny Chor-Minor Madrasa, built between 1806 and 1807. Only the entrance portal remains, with its four towers or minarets. Apparently these represent the builder’s four ‘beautiful’ daughters. Supposedly this rather small building is based on a much larger one in India.

Next was Ismail Somoniy Mausoleum, celebrating the sons of Somoniy, the founders of the Samanid Dynasty, who renounced Zoroastrianism and embraced Islam around 900 AD.

Another stop was Chor-Bakr Mausoleum built over the burial place of Abu-Bakr-Said, who died in 970 AD and was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

We also visited some more contemporary sites like the Russian Summer Palace, with the old part being built in the 1860s and the new section in 1913. This had a diversity of styles, featuring both Uzbek and Tsarist Russian architecture.

Cotton and wheat are the staple crops of Uzbekistan. The harvesting of the cotton happens three times a year and as nothing is mechanised everyone needs to help.

The universities give students time off and everyone is expected to give up some time. Our guide, Dilafruz, still spends a few days each season bringing in the crop.

Late in the afternoon, after another exhausting day of sites, and over a couple of cups of coffee we watched the locals pass by, many on bicycles.

I couldn’t resist trying to capture a few on my camera.

Our last day in Bukhara was only our second full day off and we just went wandering. The tourists had been packed into their coaches and cars and were off visiting the sites, as we had done on previous days.

We felt we had the place to ourselves.

One of the bi-products of time off is that you can write a few postcards over a cup of coffee  You then have to find somewhere to post them and this took us into the new part of the city.

In the afternoon we went wandering around the back streets of the old city. I then had time to take photos of things that weren’t tourist sites.

Yet another benefit of time off.

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