Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Our driver, Mr. Timur, picked us up at our Khiva hotel at 9am to start the 6-7 hour drive to Bukhara. Hopefully, there will be a fast train between the two cities available next year, but for now an air-conditioned private car appealed a lot more than the old train currently connecting Khiva and Bukhara.

Potholes and construction make the going less than smooth for the first part of the trip and it was nice to sit back and let Mr. Timur navigate. Near Khiva, we passed fields where groups of people picked cotton by hand. Roadside fields and greenery soon gave way to desolate desert.

Looking across the Amu Darya (river) into Turkmenistan

We paused at a barren overlook to gaze across the Amu Darya (darya=river) to Turkmenistan before continuing on for some hours until we reached a truck stop with gasoline, toilets and a small restaurant. Opting to buy stuffed meat-and-onion samsa pastries to eat on the road, lunch put us back all of $1.05.

Good luck had us arriving at a shared auto-and-train bridge just as a short train passed. In his limited English, Mr. Timur explained other cars had been waiting for half an hour while the bridge was in train mode, but we were able to cross quickly as the bridge was opened to auto traffic as soon as the train crossed. With our quick lunch and bridge crossing, we arrived in Bukhara a mere 6 hours after leaving Khiva.

We got our first glimpse of the Ark Fortress as we drove into Bukhara.

The Old Bukhara Hotel is a small hotel on a narrow residential street a block away from the main Kalon Mosque and minaret in Bukhara and a wide street lined on one side with high-end brick-and-mortar shops and with souvenir market stalls on the other. Our host welcomed us in the paved courtyard of the two-story hotel where three people chatted in Russian at a table while sipping tea and nibbling sweets. Leaving our luggage in our first-floor room, we headed back out to explore on our own.

In five minutes, we were in the plaza of the Kalon Mosque complex with its 12th century Kalon Minaret and facing madrassa [lead photo above]. We knew we’d visit the interior with a guide on the following day, so only snapped a few photos before strolling along the vendor stalls to a domed covered market over an intersection of four wide pedestrian roads. There, a skillful musician playing a sequence of exquisite hand-made instruments captured my attention. I ended up talking to him several times over our stay in Bukhara and eventually contented myself with buying one of his CD’s. The beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid string instruments, particularly a long-necked “tor” called to me, but the price was high and I struggled to imagine how I’d get it safely back to Paris and then home to my musician son in Wisconsin.

Traditional Uzbek instruments along with others including an Indian sitar and a Russian balalaika (The tor is second from the right on the lower row, first on the right of the instruments on that row.)

Short video of musician (no idea why it refuses to embed): https://youtube.com/shorts/9UZlMwMfnxw

Bukhara, much larger than Khiva, proved to have an abundance of markets and shops in its sprawling and picturesque old town and we spent much of our free time browsing the beautiful goods and bargaining for a few items. We bought our favorite souvenir in Bukhara, a beautiful Damascus steel knife with ornamental handle destined for our kitchen. We enjoyed talking to the knife maker who is a fifth generation blacksmith and who travels yearly to a handcrafts festival in Santa Fe.

Bukhara blacksmith and that gorgeous knife

We met the guide that Zokir had arranged for us in Bukhara the following morning. Niso, a friendly young woman, took us on a walking tour of the city starting with the Kalon Mosque and continuing on the the raised Ark Fortress, former home of khans. We spent a busy morning exploring the city focusing on the Four M’s (mosques, minarets, madrassas and mausoleums)–which on further thought I’ve decided should be the Five M’s, adding “markets” to the mix. Niso was happy to add a stop when we spotted an old synagogue. The woman proudly showed us her small synagogue’s treasures including an ancient Torah, a mini scrolling Torah and photographs of visiting dignitaries including Hillary Clinton.

A perfect lunch spot at Layb-i Hauz

Left to our own devices for a late lunch, David and I walked back to the Layb-i Hauz area, a beautiful open square bracketed by tiled madrassas and centered on a “hauz” the Persian word for a pool. A pretty indoor/outdoor restaurant with tables circled the pool and we claimed a spot on the water’s edge. As always, the cheap price of a lovely lunch surprised us. A .5l beer, enough to split, cost just over a dollar. We enjoyed the meal so much we returned the next day.

The following day brought driver Umid into our lives. We were to spend the next five days together and he was a font of local history (some of it wrong, but highly entertaining) and customs. A stoutly built former military man with a round head and short crewcut, Umid spoke enough English to allow us to communicate a fair bit and even to joke, something we found to be rare among the other drivers we encountered as we crossed paths with other travelers. Several times, others would use Umid to translate their questions and needs to their own drivers. Even though we had guides along sometime whose job included speaking English, our trip would have been so much less enjoyable if we’d had no way to communicate directly with Umid.

Umid drove us and Niso out of town to Naqshbandi, a sprawling Islamic complex and then to Sitora-i-Mokhi-Khosa Palace, the ornate and somewhat westernized summer residence of Bukhara’s last emir. We made a brief stop at Chor-Bakr, an ancient cemetery covering 3 hectares (7.4 acres). Back in Bukhara proper, we parted ways with Niso at a final stop at Chor Minor Mosque with its unique four minarets and former caravanserai.

We had fun in the evenings searching out rooftop restaurants to enjoy views of Bukhara as the sun set and lights came on. Even a posh spot atop a boutique hotel cost us just $10.55 for dinner. [The lead photo above is of that view at dusk.] Paris prices are going to seem steeper than ever when we return!

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