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On the ancient Silk Road

Uzbekistan introduction


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Inspired by recent blogs from my TP friend Bob, I have decided that it is time that I reproduced my Virtual Tourist write-up of my own visit to Uzbekistan back in 2007.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah, Khiva

In the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, ancient and modern meet and intertwine. In the old trading domes of Bukhara, the sun-baked madrassahs of Khiva, the riot of colours that surround the wide expanse of the Registan Square in Samarkand you can step back into the past and feel the weight of history around you.

But (with the possible exception of Khiva’s old town) this isn’t simply a museum or movie set, with its splendours paraded before you behind a screen. Its people live and work among these riches, and those people too are one of the joys of travelling here – eager to welcome you and to share their country and its treasures.

Following the Silk Road

There is something magical in those words – The Silk Road. The sense of a place not quite real, a place of legend or fairy tale. One of those places you might dream of when you first begin to travel, but not understand that you might actually one day find yourself there.

It is said that the secret of silk was smuggled out of China by a princess unable to face married life in the barbarian lands to the west without this one luxury. Through trade it reached Rome and became the textile of choice for the very best togas. What the richest citizens of the Roman Empire demanded, they usually found a way to procure, and the Silk Road was born.

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Domes of the Shah-i-Zindah, Samarkand

For hundreds of years traders faced the dangers of mountains, deserts, hostile climates and even more hostile bandits in their efforts to bring the riches of the east to an eager west – not just silk but spices, paper, even gunpowder. And in the opposite direction went the exotic fruits of central Asia, peaches and pomegranates; wonderfully worked textiles; saffron and even ostriches. To help them cope with the dangers the merchants would travel in large bands, up to 1,000 camels in a train. Caravanserai sprang up in the desert at intervals of about 25 kilometres (a day’s journey by camel) to offer accommodation for men and beasts, and around some of these grew great cities, built on trade and on servicing the caravans. At night stories were swapped, bargains struck, intrigues plotted.

In fact though, this was not one road but several. A network of different routes eventually crossed the continents, but the main ones converged in certain places where trade was best developed or the physical terrain dictated it. And it was not just goods that were traded, but the perhaps even more valuable commodities of information and knowledge. The Silk Road enabled an unprecedented exchange of cultures and ideas, philosophies and religious beliefs, artistic styles and inventions.

The Silk Road flourished for centuries, but in the 13th century the Emperor Ming built the Great Wall and China was cut off from the west. Meanwhile silk production had started in Byzantium, and a maritime route for the spice trade had developed. The Silk Road fell into disuse, and the great cities of Central Asia were left marooned and isolated from the world. Today it is that very sense of isolation that resonates and gives them their magical atmosphere.

Our short tour took us to a number of places, each with its own character and attractions:
~ Tashkent, a largely modern city, thanks to the devastation caused by the impact of the 1966 earthquake, but with some hidden gems.
~ Khiva, the most compact and intact of the Silk Road cities., It can feel more like museum than living city, though people do live there. But this was the place where I found it most easy to imagine myself back in the days when the caravans of traders and camels would arrive after their long and weary journey through the desert, to revive themselves in some green oasis or welcoming caravanserai.
~ Bukhara, my favourite of the cities we visited, retaining a strong sense of the past but as a backdrop for daily life. It is a place where it is easy to realise that our yesterdays are part of today and will still be with us tomorrow.
~ Nurata, smaller and less visited than the other destinations we went to, but worth a stop for its hill-top fortress (said to date from the time of Alexander the Great), a couple of interesting mosques and the sacred pools of fish.
~ A yurt camp in the Kyzyl Kum Desert.
~ Samarkand, larger and less intimate, but home to the most impressive and dramatic of monuments at the Registan and the stunning Shah-i-Zinda.

On a group tour

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With new friends Sue, Georgina and Els

Generally we are not ‘tour group’ people, but we do make an exception occasionally, and this was one of those trips. We chose an Explore tour because we’d travelled with them before and knew that their approach was rather different from the ‘herded like cattle’ sensation that comes with some tours! They have a strong belief in supporting the local economy (so you stay in locally-run accommodation rather than global chains, for instance) and treat customers like adults who have ideas of their own and may want to do their own thing from time to time. They also attract like-minded people, so we found ourselves in a friendly group who on the whole were interested in the same things as us.

So why did we choose a tour? It was partly a case of not having a lot of time available for this trip – doing things yourself in a non-westernised country in particular, where you speak very little if any of the language, always takes longer than travelling with an organised group. Plus, we knew from past experience that an Explore tour would be an acceptable compromise because of their particular approach. The pluses for us were:
- having someone to take care of the practical matters like flights and other transport
- travelling with a local guide who really knew his job and imparted lots of information while not being offended if we wanted to drift off from the group for a while
- getting to know some great travelling companions and swap stories of other trips with them (twelve years on I am still in touch with two of them, Sue and Georgina, and we meet up from time to time in London)

On the other hand, the minuses were:
- having to fit into a pre-arranged schedule (in particular not having long enough in Bukhara)
- probably paying more for the trip than if we’d arranged it all ourselves
- for a ‘small group’ tour, as Explore promote their trips, the group was a bit big, and we did inevitably feel that we were too ‘visible’ at times
- one guy in our group who was very insensitive to the needs of others, and also to the local culture
- occasionally too we felt over-protected by our guide who looked after us almost too well!

Impressions of Uzbekistan

One of the old Virtual Tourist tip categories was ‘Local customs’ and I found Uzbekistan particularly interesting in that respect so wrote quite a bit about the things that had struck me while travelling there.

A warm welcome

Wherever we went in Uzbekistan we were welcomed warmly by the local people. They seemed to really value our interest in their country. For instance, in the Karimbek restaurant in Samarkand a group of women on the table next to ours took great interest in us and one of them came over to say hello and practice her very limited English. They were all full of smiles and greetings. Also in Samarkand, when we visited the Ulug Beg Observatory a local man standing near the entrance broke off his conversation with a friend to welcome us to the city and to his country.

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Sue and me with a group of local tourists at the Kukhna Ark, Khiva

In Khiva a waiter from a B & B where we had dinner came running after us. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home! It was also in Khiva that a group of women were eager to pose with us for their souvenir photo, presenting Chris with a great photo opportunity too!

Photographing people

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Shop-keeper in Khiva

Talking of photo opps, I found that people in Uzbekistan love to have their photo taken – and they don’t expect payment or reward for it. One evening in Bukhara Chris and I were trailed by a small crowd of young children clamouring to be photographed. As soon as we gave in and agreed they arranged themselves in a tiered group in front of a nearby wall and posed laughing and waving. The only reward they sought was to see the photos afterwards (oh the joys of digital photography that allow this) and to follow us giggling to the end of the street.

Adults too were almost uniformly happy to be photographed – the only down-side of this was that they sometimes posed very stiffly, and the resulting images seemed a little artificial. But this was balanced by the fact that the photography ‘session’ gave me a great opportunity to connect and share a moment of pleasure with a local person despite the language difficulties that would normally divide us.

Community spirit

One of the things I admired as I learnt more about Uzbek society was the strong emphasis put on the importance of community, or malhalla. The community is there almost as an extended family, and can be called on to support people when needed, e.g. in times of illness or bereavement. This could be financial, practical and emotional support. The older people in society are accorded particular respect, especially the old men, known as aksakal or ‘white beards’. The knowledge and experience they have acquired over the years are valued, and they have earned the right now to spend their days sitting in the shade, sipping tea and talking quietly among themselves.

Traditional architecture

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Chor Minor, Bukhara

It probably goes without saying that one of the main attractions of a visit to Uzbekistan is the wealth of traditional Islamic architecture on display. I found that learning a little bit about the types of buildings and styles of decoration helped me to appreciate it even more, although faced with the splendour of the Shah-i-Zindah or Registan Square in Samarkand, the intense colours of the Kalta Minor in Khiva, the sheer number of ancient buildings in Bukhara I often simply stood and marvelled at the sights – before of course whipping out my camera!

There were four main types of buildings which we saw wherever we went – mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs, caravanserai. Although Uzbekistan is slowly rediscovering Islam after years of secularism under the Soviet rule, many of the buildings originally built for religious use are now decommissioned which in some ways seemed to me a shame but did make them easier to visit for a non-Muslim woman. Many of the mosques are simply monuments to be admired but not used, though others are used, and there are only a few functioning madrassahs (including the one at the Poi Kalon complex in Bukhara); others are now tourist bazaars, venues for folklore shows or, in one case in Khiva, a hotel.

The wonderful riot of colour that adorns many of these buildings was at times overwhelming and I got little sense at first of the variety of decorative styles and crafts that have been used. Gradually though I came to distinguish between mosaic and majolica – the patterns of the former are made from small pieces of different coloured tiles while the latter has its colours painted directly on to the ceramic surface. There are also relief patterns carved into the tiles, and ganch, almost lace-like carvings in alabaster. Another distinction that became apparent is that between the different colours of each city – jade green is common in Khiva, while in Bukhara a more turquoise green is seen and in Samarkand a riot of blues stuns the eye at the Shah-i-Zinda.

Within the buildings too there were architectural features to note and learn names for: the iwan, a portico with decorative pillars; the mihrab or decorative niche within a mosque, and so on.

One debate we had several times on our trip was, to restore or not to restore? There are those who feel the Soviets went too far in restoring all these buildings as they have layered modern tiles on old stones, rebuilt walls with traditional techniques but new materials. I for one though am grateful to them – my imagination could never have conjured up some of the wonders I saw.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:33 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings people architecture history city tour uzbekistan customs silk_road Comments (13)

‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (13)

A city frozen in time

Uzbekistan day two


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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View of Khiva from the Ark

‘Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.’

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The old town of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is a city frozen in time. The sun-baked clay of its walls encircles a wealth of ancient buildings which, more than any other destination in Uzbekistan, preserve intact the images of the Silk Road.

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Khiva street scene

The city is truly ancient; an historic resting point for caravans since biblical times – there are stories of visits by Shem, son of Noah, and by Mohammed. One legend tells how the latter gave the city its name, when he drank from the well here and exclaimed ‘khiva’, meaning sweet water.

Khiva rose to prominence in the region during the 16th century and for several hundred years was seen as a place of lawlessness where brigands, slave traders, and later spies operated within the seclusion offered by the surrounding desert. One story I loved was that of Robert Jefferson, an eccentric Englishman (why is there always an eccentric Englishman?!) who in the late 19th century rode his bicycle from Catford in South London to Khiva, surviving en route an encounter with Kazakh witches and creating terror among local tribes who viewed his means of transport with horror and suspicion.

For me Khiva proved to be a wonderful place to start our exploration of the Silk Road as it enabled me to get a strong sense of its history and visualise its past. The downside though is that this very intactness, and the thoroughness of the restoration work, meant that it did feel more like a museum or film-set than a living city, lacking the ‘realness’ of Bukhara or Samarkand.

One plus for us was that at that time at least (summer of 2007) it was much less visited than either of these, and in the intense heat of July we found only a small group of French tourists and a few Uzbek family groups exploring the city at the same time as ourselves. It was easy therefore to find myself for a moment or two at least the only person in a sun-baked lane, and to visualise myself back in those days of caravans and sultans.

Getting to Khiva

Khiva is rather a long way from anywhere else on the tourist route in Uzbekistan – a full and dusty day’s drive from Bukhara, for instance. Most tourists do as we did, flying to Urgench from Tashkent and then driving the 35 kilometres to Khiva by bus or taxi.

Our flight on Uzbekistan Airlines left Tashkent’s domestic terminal at 7.00 AM, meaning an early start for the 6.00 AM check-in (no joke when we’d only arrived in the country just over 24 hours earlier and had only 3 hours sleep the previous night!) The one hour flight was in a Tupolev 154 plane, which was very noisy and smelled disconcertingly of petrol. Carry-on luggage was stowed in overhead racks rather than lockers (i.e. without any doors), but somewhat to my amazement stayed in place throughout the flight, including take-off and landing. A small breakfast was served (roll with cheese and apricot jam, a soft drink and pack of salted nuts). There were views of the desert from both sides of the plane but no spectacular scenery that would make one side better than another as far as I could see. The landing was smooth and we were quite impressed with our flight despite the plane’s appearance – until, that is, we got off and saw the fire-truck frantically spraying water into the under-carriage to prevent the overheated tyres from catching fire!

At the airport it was a relatively short drive by bus to Khiva, where we arrived still quite early in the morning – time to check into our hotel, dump our bags, and set out on a walking tour of the city. But first, a few words about our hotel as it was certainly the most interesting of those we stayed in on this trip. And I use the word ‘interesting’ advisedly!

Hotel Khiva Madrassah

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Entrance portal, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah

I start my comments on our hotel with a disclaimer: we stayed here as I have said in 2007 and I have two friends who have stayed here more recently, one of whom had a great experience and the other who, while not enthusing about the hotel, found only minor shortcomings.

Somewhat controversially, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (built by Mohammed Amin Khan in the 1850s), just inside the west gate of the old city, has been converted during its restoration into a hotel, and this is where we stayed.

The controversy concerns whether this use of an ancient Madrassah as a hotel is appropriate. UNESCO say no, and that it should be restored to its original purity, but to be honest I can’t see that happening. Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan the madrassahs are in use for different purposes – museums, bazaars etc. Only a very few are still used as religious seminaries, their original role. For me, this use seems no less appropriate than others, and maybe closer to the spirit of the original than some others. After all, these hajiras, or cells, were designed to be slept in, and the restoration hasn’t resulted in major re-design or destruction of character.

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Our hajira

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The rather basic bathroom

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As for our stay here, I found plusses and minuses to this hotel. One obvious plus is the location, just inside the old city walls. There is a stunning entrance gate (see photo above) which, coupled with the adjoining Kalta Minor, makes this a dramatic and a romantic pace to stay. The thick walls of the cells mean they stay relatively cool in the baking heat of summer, without the need for air-conditioning. The downsides back in 2007, however, included rather primitive plumbing, chipped and grubby-looking tiles in the bathroom, and an erratic water supply: we could get almost nothing from our hot tap, though others in our group did better. This latter however was a downside I can live with in temperatures of almost 50 degrees! More of a concern for me was that the beds felt damp, possibly a natural side-effect of those same thick walls, or possibly simply due to poor airing after laundering.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah - architectural details

Anyway, check-in completed it was time for that tour. This was sensibly divided into two segments, with a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch and a siesta – or at least that was the plan!

Kalta Minor

We started our walk right by the hotel, as the Kalta Minor is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah. The name means ‘short minaret’ but it was not intended to be a short minaret at all, quite the opposite. It is said that it was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to be the tallest in the Islamic world, but that when he found out that the architect had secretly agreed to build an even taller one for the emir of Bukhara, the khan had him killed by being thrown off the minaret and it was never finished.

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The Kalta Minor

Whatever the truth of this legend, the reality is that this is 26 metres of stunning architecture. Its walls are totally covered with amazing tilework in a shade of rich jade typical of the Khivan style but seen much less in other parts of the country, and with bands of other shades that serve merely to make the jade look even more vibrant. As the sun moved around during the day I noticed that the colours shifted, and at night it was wonderfully illuminated.

Khiva’s city walls

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The Western Gate

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Khiva's walls

From the Kalta Minor we headed back to the entrance to the city through which we had come on our arrival an hour or so beforehand, the West Gate or Father Gate, Ota Darvoza. The old city of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is surrounded by ochre-coloured walls of sun-baked clay which form an effective barrier between the present-day world outside and the magical recreation of the past within. These walls change in appearance with the light at different times of day, and look at their best in the early morning or evening, when the clay glows warmly. At times they reminded me of the classic seaside sandcastle!

The walls are 2.2 kilometres in length (so you can see that this old city is not very large), strengthened along that length by forty bastions. They are truly ancient, dating in places from the 5th century. There are four gates, one in the centre of each side; the western gate, Ota Darvoza (meaning Father Gate); the northern, Bakcha Darvoza; the eastern, Palvan Darvoza; and the southern Tash Darvoza (Stone Gate). The first of these, the Ota Darvoza, is where most tourists enter the city, and is the most heavily restored, having been more or less completely rebuilt forty years ago (after having previous been pulled down to allow motor traffic to enter the city, something not now permitted except in a small area to the south of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah).

I found it interesting to go outside this gate – it jolted me back into the modern world from the film set that is Ichan Kala, and reminded me what real life looks like! Outside the walls was also a good place from which to get a sense of their solidity and structure, although I was to get an even better view shortly from the Kukhna Ark (the photo alongside).

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Outside the walls

Near the gate is a huge statue of Al-Khorezmi. If you’ve always hated algebra, here’s the man to blame! Mukhammad ibn Musa Al-Khorezmi lived about 780-850 AD and was the chief mathematician in an academy of sciences in Baghdad, though he came originally from Khorezm province. He is credited with introducing a decimal-based numbering system in the Arab world, and his name, corrupted by western attempts at pronunciation, gave rise to our word ‘algorithm’. He also wrote what is thought to be possibly the first book introducing the notion of algebra, which he called ‘al-jabr’, an Arabic word which I have found variously translated as ‘filling in’, ‘restoration’ or ‘calculation’. He also excelled in astronomy, producing tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time, and geography, reworking Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography and correcting several major miscalculations such as the length of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Statue of Al-Khorezmi

Kukhna Ark

Back inside the gates and a short walk along the main street, Polvon Qori, we came to the impressive Kukhna (also spelled variously as Kunya or Kuhna) Ark or fortress. This was the original residence of the khan, first built on this site in the 12th century by one Ok Shaykh Bobo. It was rebuilt and expanded by Arang Khan in the 17th century, and at the end of the 18th century, Kunya Ark became a ‘city within a city’, separated from Ichan Kala by a high wall. It was restored in the early 19th century.

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Entrance gate, Kukhna Ark

Entering through the old gate with its intricately carved wooden door and twin towers decorated with turquoise tilework, we found ourselves in the main courtyard, with the khan’s summer mosque, and the old mint, now a museum.

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The summer mosque

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Exhibit in the mint, showing how coins were minted

Beyond the first courtyard is another with the beautiful blue iwan of the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room.

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The iwan
- right-hand photo taken by my friend Sue

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Iwan detail

Here the khan would hold his royal audience – on the iwan itself during the summer, and in a yurt set up in the centre of the courtyard in the winter. The decoration of this small space is wonderful, with delicate tilework and ganch (carving in alabaster). Behind the iwan is the room that would originally have housed the throne itself – the one in place today is a replica, as the original is now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

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The replica throne

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The steep steps

In the north western corner of the Kurinish Khana is the entrance to the Ark’s watch tower. For a small additional fee you can climb its 33 steps for a view of the fortress and the city beyond. My photo at the top of this page was taken here, as was the one Chris took of me with a group of Uzbek tourists which I included on my Uzbekistan introduction page.

Be warned though – these are ‘Khivan’ steps, i.e. very tall and steep, and they are very badly lit, so this isn’t a climb for the infirm or nervous. It is worth doing however, though when we went up in the morning the sun was shining from the wrong direction to get the very best views of the city. We planned to return later, but unfortunately the heat got the better of us before we got around to it, and a rest in our hotel room seemed the better option for our remaining free time this afternoon.

Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

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Window, Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah

Opposite the Kukhna Ark we visited the history museum in this large madrassah. Although I found some of the exhibits tired and frankly dull, it was worth a look for the old photos of Khiva and the camera with which they were taken, and some interesting traditional musical instruments. There are also items of pottery, armour and clothing.

Also on this large square is the city’s jail, or Zindan, with a gruesome display of instruments of torture which is supplemented by graphic images showing them in use. The excellent guidebook I read as background to this trip, ‘Uzbekistan: the Golden Road to Samarkand’ (written by Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew, published by Odyssey) describes some of most unpleasant Khivan forms of justice in some detail, quoting from Arminius Vambery’s ‘Travels in Central Asia’ (1864):

‘To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjin according as religion directs. The man is hung and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.’

Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

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Zoroastrian symbol

Walking back along Polvon Qori we turned south roughly halfway along its length and found ourselves on a smaller and less frequented street which lead us past several madrassahs, a number of which were in use as workshops.

We spotted a number of unusually shaped tiles set in the wall of one madrassah, just by the entrance. Our guide pointed out that this is a Zoroastrian symbol; we saw several such reminders of this ancient religion on our travels and were told that its beliefs have had a strong influence on Uzbek architecture.

We were disappointed not to be able to visit the silk- weaving one, which by the time we arrived had closed for lunch, but we were luckier at the Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah, where a wood-carving school operates. The young boys here were using their school holidays to learn a craft and were mainly engaged in carving the traditional wooden Koran stands that you find in all the tourist souvenir shops here. It would be a good place to buy one of these if you’re looking for one, but we focused instead on getting some photos of the boys as they worked, all of whom were very happy to pose.

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Young woodcarvers, Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah

Lunch break

After visiting the wood-carving school we were free for a few hours to seek some lunch and a break in the shade. Along with some others from our group we headed to the Chaikhana Zarafshan, in a small madrassah near the Museum of Applied Arts, choosing it because it had been recommended by our guide as having good food and air-conditioning; in the July heat even the shade in Khiva had become too much to bear by midday and we needed to cool down somewhere. We weren’t disappointed – we found an attractive large room, friendly service, tasty food and very reasonable prices. We drank a cold beer each in addition to the green tea, shared a couple of salads, some non (bread) and a single shashlik.

After lunch it was officially siesta time – our tour would resume in a couple of hours when it would be a little less hot. The sensible thing to do would have been to retire to the relative cool of our hajira back at the Hotel Khiva Madrassah, or to remain in this cool spot with another beer. But our time in Khiva was so limited that Chris and I decided to brave the burning sun to have a bit of a look around on our own.

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On Polvan Qori, the main street

It proved to be a hot but rewarding hour. As we wandered through the sun-baked streets and lanes, I enjoyed picking out all the details to add variety and atmosphere to my photos. A carved door, an especially beautiful piece of tile work, a small window letting in a shaft of light – all these helped to paint a vivid picture of this gem of a city. And the tranquillity of the side streets in particular made it seem as if nothing has changed here for centuries.

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Sun-baked street in Khiva

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Carved door

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Hats for sale

Even more so did my images of the people add to the story I hoped my photos would tell. As was the case everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, most were very happy to have their pictures taken – friendly shopkeepers, smiling children and Uzbek families visiting the sights.

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Shop-keeper

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Young tourists happy to pose

In several spots in the old town we saw these ‘photo opportunities’, where tourists could dress up in traditional costume and pose in elaborate settings. It was far too hot though for us to want to put on layers of heavy clothing or thick furry hats, even if we’d wanted to pay for the privilege of looking a bit silly! There was also a place where you could be photographed with a camel (who was called Misha according to my guidebook) but I’m fond of camels and it didn’t seem to me that he was very happy with his lot so I kept away in order not to encourage this practice.

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Khivan photo opportunity (by Chris)

The Juma Mosque

We knew we were going to be visiting Khiva’s old Friday mosque later when our walking tour recommenced, but we had been told by our guide that if we wanted to, we could also visit alone this afternoon, and that if we gave her name at the entrance we could avoid paying an entrance fee as those looking after the mosque would know that our fee has been paid already. This proved to be the case, and I was very grateful for her advice, as it meant that we could soak up the special atmosphere of this unique building when it was almost empty (there was just one other visitor here) before later returning with the group to benefit from the guide’s expert knowledge and interpretation of what we were seeing.

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In the Juma Mosque

I found this a magical space, unlike any other building I saw in Uzbekistan (or have seen anywhere, though others in the group who’d travelled in Turkey said they’d visited similar mosques there). It is almost completely unadorned, apart from the small mihrab (niche) and central pool, but derives its special atmosphere from the forest of wooden pillars that support its roof. I use the word ‘forest’ with care, for that is exactly the sensation I had – of being in a small forest or wood, the light diffused and filtered by the trees, and the possibility of magic just around the corner. What must it have been like to have worshipped here in the days when it was the main Friday mosque of the city? And in fact there are trees, two of them, growing up through the building almost organically, as if it is slowly returning to the nature that provided the wood for all those other stately columns.

Leaving the mosque we went to see if the silk carpet weaving workshop had reopened but it hadn’t although we were able to get some photos in the courtyard outside.

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In the courtyard outside the carpet workshop

At this point the heat defeated us, and we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest and cold drink.

Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum

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The Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

When our tour resumed later in the afternoon, our first stop was here, the holiest spot in all of Khiva, the tomb of its patron saint known variously as Palvan Pir the wrestler saint, Pirar Vali the Persian poet, Mahmoud the furrier. This hero of local folklore died in 1325, and a small mausoleum was built on the site of his furrier shop which later grew to become the imposing and beautiful structure we can see here today.

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Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum: entrance to the mosque

We entered through a gate on the south side to find ourselves in a smallish courtyard with the main mosque on the far side. We were surrounded by colour – an intense blue that mimics the Khivan sky. We took off our shoes to enter the mosque – unlike many of the decommissioned mosques we visited on our travels in Uzbekistan, this is a holy place. There were several sarcophagi in the first room we came to but the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is in a separate room, beautifully decorated and protected by a screen.

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The tomb

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In the Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum

Another room on the west side of the courtyard was intended to hold the tomb of one of the khans, Isfandyer, but he was assassinated outside the city walls so by local law couldn’t be buried within them. His son suffered a similar fate, so only his mother lies here out of the three for whom it was originally constructed. The room was in a poor state of repair, so we couldn’t enter, but peering in gave me a sense of what the restorers of Khiva (and elsewhere in the country) had rescued for us to appreciate today. I wonder if this room too has since been restored?

From outside the complex, especially from the street that skirts its eastern edge, we could see the large number of small tombs scattered around it. People believed that to be buried close to a holy man was to buried closer to heaven, so many holy sites are surrounded in this way (the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, which we were to visit a few days later, is another good example).

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The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, surrounded by other tombs

Islam Khodja Minaret & Madrassah

Almost everywhere we went in Khiva we could see the tall slim Islam Khodja minaret, its more subtle bands of colour and elegant shape the perfect foil for the squat and spectacularly coloured Kalta Minor. At nearly 45 metres, and dating from 1910, this is by far the youngest, as well as the tallest, of the city’s three minarets, and affords a wonderful view for those who have the stamina to climb it. I regret to say that, in 45 degrees of heat, I was not among them!

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The Islam Khodja Minaret

The madrassah that bears the same name was home then (it has since moved I believe) to the Museum of Applied Arts, which I found to be the most interesting by far of Khiva’s small museums. The route led us from one small hajira to the next to see a diverse collection of costume (some of them with really stunning embroidery work), ceramics, wood carving etc.

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Mosaics in the Applied Arts Museum

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Colourful shop near the Applied Arts Museum

Juma Mosque: group visit

As expected, our tour took in the Juma Mosque which we had already visited earlier in the afternoon, but I was happy to have the chance to return to this magical space and learn more about it.

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In the Juma Mosque

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Column details

We were told that while the mosque was built in the late 18th century (rebuilding the 10th century one which stood on this site), some of its 213 columns are truly ancient. The four oldest were taken from an earlier building in Kath (the one-time capital of Khorezm) in the 10th century, and another seventeen are only 100 years younger. On the other hand, a few are very new, replacing older ones during the restoration process in the latter half of the 20th century. And in accordance with Islamic beliefs, the carving on each is different – only God should be allowed the perfection of symmetry.

Tash Hauli Palace

Towards the eastern end of the old town lies the Tash Hauli, or Stone, Palace, the final stop on our walk through the past. We entered through the imposing stone gatehouse to visit the impressive reception courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli, its walls covered with beautiful blue and white tile work, and a raised platform at its centre for the yurt that would have sheltered the khan and his royal guests in winter months. This courtyard is apparently now used for occasional musical performances and we saw some of the performers relaxing there and posing for photos.

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In the Ishrat Hauli

To see the even more impressive harem courtyard it was necessary to leave the palace and re-enter on the far side as the secret corridor linking it to the main complex (to be used only by the khan) was currently closed off. This harem court, lying somnolent in the hot sun, is redolent of past intrigue and a very different world. Standing at its centre I tried to imagine what life must have been like for these women: sheltered totally from the world, given all the basic necessities of life apart from one – the freedom to leave. And of course, there only to ‘serve’ the khan. In the oppressive heat of a July afternoon it was easy to feel as they must have done, enclosed and stifled.

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The harem court

The rooms to our right as we entered the courtyard (on its the northern side) are those that would have been occupied by these women (or more likely girls), while the more luxurious ones on the left were for the khan’s four legal wives. There would also have been a couple of servants here to look after the girls: an old woman and a eunuch. We climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the girls’ quarter to get a closer look at the beautifully decorated ceilings of the rooms and a bird’s eye view of the courtyard.

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Colourful ceiling

This was as I said our last visit of the afternoon, and after it we walked back to the hotel to cool off over a soft drink in the courtyard with some others from our group, before getting ready for dinner.

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The 'bar' in the Hotel Khiva Madrassah

Mizorboshi B&B restaurant

There aren’t (or at least weren’t back then) a lot of restaurants in Khiva, but it was possible by booking in advance to arrange to have dinner at one of the several homes in the old city which provided bed & breakfast. Most of our group adopted our guide Marat’s suggestion to do this at the Mizorboshi B&B and we had a very pleasant evening here.

We ate in the courtyard of this old house, still a little hot even at 7.00 pm but generally a relaxing place to sit, and were well served by the son and daughter of the family. We started with non and a good variety of salads – as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber, and eggplant, there were slices of fried courgette and a juicy beetroot dish. These were followed by a plate of mixed stuffed vegetables – cabbage, courgette and green pepper, each filled with the standard mutton and onion mix (though the one vegetarian in our group was catered for with a suitable alternative). As one of our number had a birthday that day, the family provided a cake, complete with candles, for our dessert.

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Table set for dinner

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Stuffed vegetables

We had a rather nice encounter after the meal too. The teenage son who’d served us at dinner came running after us when we left. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home!

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The Kalta Minor at night

We then continued our walk back to the hotel, finding that strolling the streets after dark in an atmosphere so redolent of past wonders was a special pleasure, making our overnight stay here far more rewarding than visiting on a day trip from nearby Urgench, even if it did mean sleeping on slight damp mattresses!

But before that we needed a night-cap, and found one in the 'bar' in the courtyard of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah / hotel which was totally in keeping with the special night-time atmosphere here. There was no menu; instead the choice of drinks was set out on a low wall (soft drinks, beer, wine or vodka - see photo above taken earlier in the day) and were retrieved from the cool of the room below by a willing ‘bar tender’. We sat then in the cool of this pretty courtyard, surrounded by the old stones and cells of the madrassah, with the stars overhead and little in the way of noise or bustle to disturb our tranquillity.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:09 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque restaurant history hotel fort flight palace city museum crafts uzbekistan khiva street_photography Comments (8)

The beauty of the spirit

Uzbekistan day four


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A traditional saying tells us that:
‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’
and another that:
‘In all other parts of the globe light descends upon the earth, from holy Bukhara it ascends’

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

Certainly, this is where Uzbekistan really came to life for me. In the ancient streets of Bukhara history weaves itself effortlessly around the present-day lives of its people. Here you get a real sense of continuity – the world of the Silk Road caravans isn’t preserved in the aspic of Khiva, nor tucked into islands among the modern-day bustle of Samarkand, but is an ever-present backdrop to daily life. To walk these streets, duck through the low arches of the caravanserai and trading domes, sit for a while over green tea by the pool of Lyab-i-Huaz; this is what people of this city have done for centuries.

We had a very full day here, sightseeing mainly with our group but also exploring a little bit on our own. I would have welcomed a second day, in order to go back to some of the most interesting sights and also simply to wander the streets or sit for a while in a Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana to absorb the special atmosphere which for me was one of the main highlights of Bukhara.

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The breakfast room at the Hotel Mosque Baland

Our day started with breakfast which was served in the same lovely room where we had enjoyed tea and cake the previous evening. Unfortunately, I was suffering a little with ‘Uzbek tummy’, although not as badly as some travelling companions had done or were doing. I was very careful about what I ate and felt well enough to go out on the tour. In fact, my stomach settled pretty quickly once we were out and about, and I snacked on some bread saved from breakfast an hour or so later!

Ismael Samani Mausoleum

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The Ishmail Somani Mausoleum from Pioneer Park

The first stop on our tour was at this striking small mausoleum set in a park to the west of the old town – striking because of its simplicity and perfect symmetry. Built at the beginning of the tenth century, it is the first known example of the use of fired bricks in Central Asia. And these bricks are used to stunning advantage, to produce eighteen different types of decorative effect. The patterns of light and shade thus created are the building’s only adornment – there is no sign here of the rich colourful tile-work seen elsewhere in the country.

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum

The design of the mausoleum is strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, a religion which was practiced in this part of the world before the days of Islam, and also by the mathematical discoveries of al-Khorezmi, whose story is told in my Khiva entry. Its almost two-metre thick walls form a 10.8 metre cube with identical sides, topped by a small dome. The cube is considered to symbolise the earth, and the dome heaven.

The mausoleum was built originally for Ismail Samani’s father but was used also for Samani himself and thus bears his name. A legend tells that he ruled for more than 40 years even after his death, and that even after his death he would still come to the aid of his people when they needed justice. They would come to his mausoleum, pray and put their statements on his tomb. The next day they would receive the answer and their problems would be solved. It seems some people must still believe this legend, because I saw several notes left on the tomb with a small sum of money.

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Inside the Ishmail Somani Mausoleum

Pioneer Park

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum lies in a small park, which we were told was the Pioneer Park but which present-day maps name as Samonids Recreation Park. We had a little time to wander around here. It was still quite early in the day, but it struck me that this is a good place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play.

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Boating in Pioneer Park

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The lake with city walls beyond

There were some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, which I thought unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK! Beyond these was the lake, popular with families and couples already out enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that we saw a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.

Bolo Hauz

From the Pioneer Park we drove the short distance to Bolo Hauz, after which our tour would be on foot for the rest of the morning.

Bolo Hauz, the ‘mosque near the pool’, is Bukhara’s Friday mosque and is again being used as such after the years of Soviet rule when it served as a workers’ club and a warehouse, having been restored to its former (1712) glory.

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

The exterior is adorned with a beautiful 12 metre high iwan, one of the highest in Central Asia. The shape of this echoes that of the mosque in the Ark which we were headed to after this, and was designed to form a beautiful reflection in the pool opposite, though on our visit this was sadly too murky to produce the desired effect. The colours are vibrant, and the many wooden pillars are all different, as is usual in Islamic architecture – only God is allowed the perfection that would be created by making them all alike.

The interior is relatively simple, as is usual in Suni mosques, with only the mihrab showing rich colours. Incidentally, the upper part of this mihrab is original. I loved the relative simplicity of the cobweb-like design on the ceiling.

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Inside Bolo Hauz Mosque

I was surprised, but pleased, to find that in Uzbekistan there seem to be no restrictions on entering practising mosques, providing you show respect and remove your shoes. Unlike in other Muslim countries there is no requirement to be especially modest in your dress, and in most places photography is allowed. In return for this welcome, we left a small donation – the state here recognises Islam and allows its practice but doesn’t support it financially, so tourist contributions are important.

The man who had shown us around was keen to pose for us, as was the imam outside as we left.

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In Bolo Hauz Mosque

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Imam outside Bolo Hauz Mosque

The Ark

The Ark or fortress of Bukhara lies immediately east of Bolo Hauz. There has been a fortress on this site for as long as the city of Bukhara has existed, though the one we see now dates largely from the 16th century. It was considerably destroyed in 1920 – at first when attacked during the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army, under Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, and then by fire, burned either by the attacking forces or by the retreating emir. Today, therefore, it consists of a mixture of old elements from various periods and other parts that have been restored fairly recently. At its height it would have housed the emir, his family and servants, and over 3,000 other inhabitants in its palace, harem, treasury, barracks, dungeon and slave quarters.

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Entrance to the Ark

We ascended a stone ramp, which climbs from the empty expanse of the Registan square, and entered through the western gateway, which dates from 1742. From here the dolom, a winding passageway tall enough to allow a man on horseback to enter without dismounting, leads past a row of prison cells and torture chambers, and today’s inevitable tourist souvenir stalls. Climbing up here I found it easy, despite these modern-day trappings, to imagine how hard this fortress would have been to attack, and how this sombre entrance might have struck terror in those who had reason to fear the emir’s power.

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The mosque in the Ark

We emerged by the Ark’s only remaining mosque built at the end 18th century. Although partly ruined, the pillars of rare sycamore are impressive and its shape echoes that of the Bolo Hauz Mosque opposite. It now houses an interesting display of calligraphy. In Tashkent we had seen the ancient Koran displayed in the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, so I was pleased to find here its replica which (unlike the original) can be photographed. On my Tashkent page you can read the story of how Chris came to photograph the original!

A little further into the complex we came to the Throne Room, the kurinesh khana. This is largely ruined, due to the 1920 fire, but you can still see the iwan where coronations took place and the remnants of the impressive tilework on the gate.

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The throne room

A number of museums are to be found in the different buildings that still stand within the Ark, including a good local history museum and a very unremarkable (unless you like moth-eaten stuffed animals!) natural history one. In the main courtyard were stables for the horses – apparently when the horses and their stalls were washed down each day the dirty water was swept down the slope of the courtyard and down into the prison cells directly below. Also off this courtyard is the viewing platform that the women of the emir’s court would use to look out over the Registan below without themselves being seen.

And why would they want to look out over the Registan? This once-great square which surrounded the Ark was the heart and soul of Bukhara. pokes led out from the Registan to the four corners of the globe and a seething mass of hawkers, barbers, beggars, butchers, bakers, dervishes and courtiers thronged the bustling square.

In this vast square, under the emir’s reign, tortures and executions would be carried out, and, under the Soviets, mass rallies took place. In those earlier days of executions and flogging the Registan would have looked more like that in Samarkand, surrounded by madrassahs and mosques. All these were cleared away by the Soviets to create the wide-open space we see now, where until 1992 a statue of Lenin took pride of place.

My guidebook described the present-day Registan as ‘leafy’ and an ‘island of green’ but what we saw was anything but – an empty paved expanse baking in the hot sun and crossed swiftly by women shaded by colourful parasols and tourists eager to reach the shade of the Ark’s great gateway.

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The walls of the Ark from the Registan

This is a place though in which to pause and remember all those who were tortured and executed – the dark side to Bukhara’s beauty. The British pair of Connolly and Stoddart for instance, whose lack of deference (as exhibited by not dismounting in his presence and offering too few expensive gifts) offended the emir. After years of suffering in the nearby gaol, the Zindan, they were finally beheaded in this square, but not before they had been forced to dig their own graves.

Up to this point on our tour I had been suffering a little with the after-effects of my earlier attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’ which maybe explains why I took fewer photos than I would normally do. But as I started to feel better I also started to feel hungry, and as we stood in the shade of the Ark listening to our guide I ate the bread salvaged from breakfast. Revitalised by this I started to take in my surroundings more thoroughly and the spell of Bukhara captivated me.

Just as well, as we had a lot more to see, starting with the nearby Poi Kalon complex

Poi Kalon

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Poi Kalon complex

In terms of scale at least, the Poi Kalon complex is probably the most impressive of Bukhara’s sights. A great Friday mosque and working madrassah face each other across the square, both dwarfed, in height at least, by the elegant 48 metre high minaret.

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The Kalon Minaret

This has stood here since 1127, having survived an onslaught on the city by Ghengis Khan (who was so awed by the minaret he spared it from destruction), attack by a Soviet shell in 1920 and an earthquake in 1976. One reason for its durability is the care that went into its construction: its foundations go down to a depth of 13 metres and the architect devised a special mortar mixed from camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood!

In addition to its main purpose, namely the call to Friday prayer at the great Kalon Mosque, the minaret has served as a lookout tower in times of war and as a beacon – a ‘lighthouse’ for those ships of the desert, the camel trains. Its darkest purpose though was to serve as a ‘Tower of Death’, when the city’s worst criminals would be led up the 105 steps to the top, tied up in a sack and thrown to their deaths – a form of punishment that persisted here until the mid 19th century and, like the tortures that took place in the Registan square, a graphic reminder that Bukhara, for all its charm, has been for much of its existence a desperate place.

Today the minaret has been restored (the aforementioned Soviet shell had clipped one corner) and stands almost as a symbol of the city. It is decorated quite simply but beautifully in bands of patterned brickwork. Near the top a ring of turquoise tiles is thought to be probably the first use of coloured majolica tilework in the region. It is possible to climb the tower on payment of a small fee inside the mosque, and I rather regret that we didn’t have time to do this (like so many other things in Bukhara), although the heat would have made it a daunting climb perhaps.

Kalon Mosque

This is the largest mosque in Uzbekistan, and the second largest in central Asia with a capacity in its huge courtyard for up to 12,000 worshippers. Unlike its minaret, the 8th century original was destroyed by Ghengis Khan on his invasion of Bukhara in 1219, when he stood on this spot to order that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the whole of Bukhara (with the exception only of the Kalon Minar) be destroyed.

This present-day building then dates ‘only’ from 1514. When completed it could hold 10,000 worshippers, the entire male population of the city at the time. Although it is a working mosque, visitors are welcome, for a small charge (and an additional fee if you wish to take photos which you will!)

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Entrance to the Poi Kalon courtyard

We entered through the magnificent portal, passed through a cool lobby area and emerged into the bright light and heat of the huge central courtyard.

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The courtyard

On the four sides of the courtyard are colonnades of arches and in the centre of each a further portal allows entry to the cool stone interior with its rows of stone columns and vaulted ceilings that reminded us of a western cathedral. As in Khiva’s mosque, a sense of tranquillity and isolation from the bustle of the city pervades these walls.

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In the mosque
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Looking out from the colonnades

Back in the courtyard, our guide pointed out the central octagonal pavilion, a 19th century addition designed to improve the acoustics and amplify the voice of the Imam as he delivers his Friday sermon.

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Octagonal pavilion, with entrance to courtyard beyond

Above the mihrab in the western section is the beautiful turquoise dome, the Kok Gumbaz. An inscription around its base reads ‘Immortality belongs to Allah’.

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The dome of the mosque

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

Immediately opposite the Kalon Mosque, and with it and its minaret forming the complex known collectively as Poi Kalon or ‘Pedestal of the Great’, lies a madrassah. This was then (2007), and is still as far as I know, one of only three working madrassah in the country – a religious seminary in a country only just rediscovering its Islamic roots after years of Soviet secularism.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The building dates from the mid 16th century and has been in use for most of that time, only closing from 1925-1946 under the Soviets, who in the later part of their rule reopened it as a concession to the region. Today roughly 125 students live and study here, so the madrassah is firmly closed to tourists. You are however permitted to step just inside the impressive portal and may catch a glimpse of the working life of the seminary as we did; my photo shows students in the courtyard who appeared to be taking time off from their studies to clean rugs spread out on the paving stones.

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Peeking into Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

But even if this peek inside is denied you, the madrassah repays your visit with its beautiful façade (best seen in the late afternoon so my morning photo doesn’t really do it justice) and the rich jade of its twin domes.

Carpet weaving shop

Crossing the road from the Poi Kalon complex we visited this UNESCO-sponsored carpet weaving shop. Although we weren’t interested in buying, I found this a worthwhile visit. We were welcomed with green tea and given an explanation of the techniques used in creating the beautiful silk carpets and also the traditional suzanni made and sold here. We were told how a girl would include different motifs in the design of her embroideries to give prospective suitors an indication of her character, such as a snake for cleverness.

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Carpet weaver

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Weaving technique

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Silks for carpet making

No one minded us taking photos, and as a bonus there were clean toilets for visitors’ use – not something to be taken for granted in Uzbekistan!

Ulug Beg Madrassah

Bukhara has two sets of what are known as kosh madrassah, a facing pair of madrassahs (kosh means double). The pair we visited was that on the northern edge of the old town (the other is in the west near the Ismael Samani Mausoleum) where they face each other across Khodja Nurobod Street.

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

On the north side of the street is the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the older of the two by over 200 years. It is a Sunni madrassah (unlike its Shia companion) and was built in 1417, one of three in the country to be commissioned by Ulug Beg (the others are at the Registan in Samarkand and in Gijduvan to the east of Bukhara). The rich blue of its tilework, although incomplete, includes a scattering of stars to reflect the ruler’s passion for astronomy, and a beautiful twisted rope design framing the arch.

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At the Ulug Beg Madrassah

Inside, in the mosque to the right of the entrance, is a small museum devoted to the story of restoration work in Bukhara. I was interested to see some old photos showing the Kalon Minaret before restoration, with its top damaged by the Soviet shell, as well as several good examples of original tilework.

Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah on the south side of the road is the newer Abdul Aziz Madrassah (built in 1652). Unfortunately (perhaps because of the poor light) I don’t appear to have taken any photos of its exterior, which is unrestored but shows clearly the use of different colours in addition to the usual blues and greens, such as yellows introduced to this region by the Iranians.

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Ceiling of the mosque in Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Another departure from the usual practice is the use of floral motifs, especially in the mosque, as my photo of its ceiling shows. This is a Shia madrassah and the ban on images of living creatures was not so strictly observed as it would usually be in a Sunni building. This mosque, on the right-hand side as you enter, is the chief attraction here as its decoration is quite breath-taking, but you can also visit a first floor room on the far right-hand side of the courtyard which shows more intricate floral patterns and the traditional Uzbek niche decorations.

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Detail of frieze in a first floor room, Abdul Aziz Madrassah

The trading domes

More than any other sight or historical building, it was seeing and learning about the trading domes that brought ancient Bukhara to life for me. At the height of its powers as a centre of trade, Bukhara had five great bazaars or toks. These vaulted stone buildings straddled the intersections of the various trading routes that converged on the city. Their great arched entrances were high enough to allow a laden pack camel to enter, and each was devoted to a particular trade.

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The Tok-i-Zargaron

The Tok-i-Zargaron, or Jewellers’ Trading Dome, is the largest and most northerly of the three that remain. The building dates from 1570 and was the centre for the trade in gold and other precious metals, gems and coral. Nowadays, like the other two bazaars to the south, it houses a number of stalls selling tourist souvenirs; nevertheless it isn’t difficult to imagine it in the days when merchants haggled here and deals were struck, while camels and donkeys waited patiently as their heavy bundles were unloaded.

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The domes of the Tok-i-Zargaron

Seen from a distance you can appreciate the complexity of the arrangement of domes that makes up this building, with the large central one surrounded by many smaller ones, as though they had been breeding!

Among the souvenir stalls we found a wonderful stall selling spices and herbs. The smell that wafted towards us as we approached was truly enticing, and the display a photographer’s, and cook’s, delight! We were offered what the owner, Mirfayz, described as ‘magic tea’ to taste, and it was so delicious we bought some – two large bags in fact. The tea was made from six spices: cardamom, cloves, oregano, star anise, mint, and cinnamon. When brewing it himself Mirfayz told us that he always adds a little saffron, as he had to ours. What a wonderful, reviving drink in that heat!

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Saffron at the Silk Road Spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron

To the south of the Tok-i-Zargaron lies the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon or Cap Makers’ Bazaar. This is of a more complex construction than the others as it straddles not a simple crossroads but a meeting of five routes. Its irregular corners and arches once sheltered stalls displaying the various styles of headgear favoured here – gold-embroidered hats, colourful skull caps, fur hats for the cold desert winters. Now like its neighbours to the north and south it houses craft and souvenir stalls.

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In the the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon

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Scissors shaped like a stork

There are also several blacksmiths’ workshops and stalls, selling the traditional Bukharan scissors in the shape of a stork. Not all are of the quality of those sold in the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, just to the south of the bazaar, but the prices are lower and haggling encouraged, so we returned later to buy a pair as a gift for Chris’s father who had set up a sort of mini-museum displaying various objects we had bought him or acquired on our travels. After my in-laws died these scissors were one of the objects we kept from their house and they now hang in our kitchen among many other souvenirs from all over the world.

Just north of the entrance to the bazaar was a smithy. The blacksmith was working outside on his anvil and happy to pose for photos.

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The blacksmith

The Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, is the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes. We didn’t visit this on our tour, but Chris and I had seen and photographed it the previous evening without realising its significance. As the name suggests, this bazaar was home to the Punjabi money-changers, whose activities were critical to the trade of Bukhara. Here traders from many lands would exchange their money for the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that made up the currency in use here. Also here would have been the stalls of the money-lenders, no doubt no less essential to Bukhara’s success as a centre of trade.

Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Walking towards Lyab-i-Hauz we passed the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, which I had also photographed last night. There has been a place of worship on this site for 2,000 years. Today’s mosque was built in the 12th century on top of a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn had been built on a Buddhist monastery and that on a heathen shrine.

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Magok-i-Attari Mosque

My photo shows the main southern portal, rich in elaborate brickwork but with touches too of other decorative styles – carved turquoise tiles still cling to the arch and either side are panels of ornate ganch. This portal, still used as the main entrance, dates back to the original 12th century building, while the eastern façade was added in the 16th century and the two small domes restored in the 20th following their collapse in an earthquake a century earlier. Nowadays the mosque serves as a carpet museum, which we didn’t have time to visit unfortunately.

By the time we reached the pool it was lunch-time. It had been a long morning and we were ready for a break, as no doubt are you! So I will continue this tour on a separate page, after lunch ...

Posted by ToonSarah 18:11 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque history fort market shopping city spices crafts bukhara Comments (18)

‘Hot dog, jumping frog’

New Mexico day five continued


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Albuquerque

As we drove into Albuquerque after a fascinating morning spent visiting Acoma Pueblo, we had two things on our minds. One was lunch; the other a song by one of our favourite bands, Prefab Sprout:

All my lazy teenage boasts are now high precision ghosts
And they're coming round the track to haunt me.
When she looks at me and laughs I remind her of the facts
I'm the king of rock 'n' roll completely
Up from suede shoes to my baby blues
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque
Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque …
[The King of Rock and Roll]

While the song has nothing to do with Albuquerque beyond the frequent repetition of the line ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’, it was naturally stuck in our heads as the only thing we had ever heard about the city prior to visiting!

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Downtown car, Albuquerque

Although it is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque surprises by not being the state capital – Santa Fe has that honour. The city was established as the Villa de San Felipe de Alburquerque in 1706. Initially a small farming community clustered around the church of San Felipe de Neri, it expanded rapidly when the Camino Real, the main trade route north from Mexico, was developed to run through the area just a few decades later. Later came the railroad, which triggered expansion to the eastern side of the Old Town, in what then was known as New Town but today is Downtown. This was followed by Route 66, which ran through the city on its Central Avenue, and later still further expansion out into the surrounding desert.

Thus Albuquerque has always been a city for travellers, a stopping point on a journey, and so it was for us. Despite its many attractions, we decided to spend only one night here, preferring to have more of our limited time in more scenic parts of the state. Nevertheless we had time to explore the Old Town and see something of the Art Deco style of the Downtown area too.

Perhaps inevitably we were to leave the next morning wishing we had stayed longer, but Santa Fe beckoned, and that did indeed deserve more of our time ...

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Chilies for sale

Meanwhile, here we are on I40 heading into the city with lunch top of our agenda. We found parking near the compact old town and set off to explore.

At first it seemed to us that most of the places around the Plaza were more suited to a large dinner than the sort of light meal we were after. But then we spotted the sign for the Bebe Café (now closed down, I believe) and followed the trail into a pretty courtyard surrounded by interesting little shops, and in one corner a small café with just a few tables outside.

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The Bebe Café

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Turkey wrap

There was one other customer there, waiting for his lunch, and with just the one server we had to wait a short while as all the sandwiches are made freshly to order. But we didn’t mind as it was very pleasant sitting in the courtyard with our cold drinks, and the sandwiches when they came (the day's special of turkey and mango salsa wrap) were very good. The server explained that she had to get to class (clearly a student working to pay her way through college) so would have to lock up the café, but the owner would be along soon – or if we finished our meal before then we could just leave plates etc. on our outside table – very casual and friendly.

After lunch we had a look around the little shops off the courtyard, especially a very good photography gallery opposite the café, and then set out to explore the Old Town area.

The Old Town Plaza

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Gazebo in the Old Town Plaza

As in any Spanish colonial city, the heart of Albuquerque’s Old Town is its Plaza. The town was founded in 1706 and as it grew settlers built their houses near the church and around a defensible centre, which eventually became the plaza.

Shaded with trees it is a very pleasant place in which to take a rest between sightseeing and shopping (the two main activities in the Old Town). Children play, and both locals and tourists relax on the benches. At the centre is a gazebo which apparently is a popular place for wedding photos to be taken after ceremonies in the church. Also on the plaza are two replicas of cannons which were buried by retreating Confederate troops during a Civil War skirmish on April 8 – 9, 1862. The original cannons are in the Albuquerque Museum.

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Jewellery seller, Old Town Plaza

The Plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops with high tourist-appeal and under the porticos of some of these Native American traders sell jewellery and other crafts. We didn’t buy anything here (although were to do so a couple of days later in a similar setting in Santa Fe) but it looked a good option if you are shopping – it’s always nice to buy direct rather than pay shop overheads!

San Felipe de Neri

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San Felipe de Neri

The most striking building in Albuquerque’s Old Town is the church of San Felipe de Neri on the north side of the Plaza, the oldest building in the city. With its slightly incongruous white wooden spires gleaming against the blue sky it is very hard to miss. These spires are a later addition to the late 18th century adobe structure, which itself was built to replace the original (1706) building that collapsed after the particularly rainy summer of 1792. The spires were added under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom we were to encounter again later in our trip, in Santa Fe. This French bishop came to the area with very European ideas of what a place of worship should look like – and it wasn’t built of mud!

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San Felipe de Neri, outside and in

The bulk of San Felipe de Neri is adobe however, with five foot thick walls. Its cool interior would have been welcoming in the heat of the afternoon even if we hadn’t been interested to explore within. It isn’t large but is quite grand in appearance, with an ornate Baroque altar and an elaborate pressed-tin ceiling (added in 1916).

Capilla de Nostra Senora de Guadelupe

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Patio Escondido, Albuquerque

This tiny cross-shaped chapel is a hidden gem of the Old Town, and I’m sure many tourists pass by without realising that is there – we certainly would have done so if it were not for our trusty Moon Handbook, as it isn’t visible from the road and neither is it signposted. It is tucked away in the pretty Patio Escondido and is dedicated to the first saint of Mexico.

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Our Lady of Guadelupe

It is clear by the votive candles burning here, the flowers and the little prayer messages that it is an active place of devotion. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates one arm of the cross, to your right as you enter, and opposite it is a colourful stained glass circular window which acts as perpetual calendar, showing the Feasts of the Virgin and the phases of the moon. Opposite the entrance is a small altar.

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Inside the chapel

After our visit I found a story associated with the chapel, which claims that it is haunted by a lady in black. She has apparently often been seen seated on the far right bench of the chapel, weeping copiously. She wears a long black dress and her face is concealed by a dark veil. She is often mistaken for a real person, until she mysteriously vanishes, at which point the observer realises that she cannot after all be real. The lady is not menacing or threatening, but those who have seen her say that there is a deep sense of sadness emulating from her.

The chapel is not old, having been built in 1975 by a Dominican nun, Sister Giotto, as part of the establishment of a school of sacred art in Albuquerque, the Sagrada. Outside the chapel a wall is decorated with a number of small ceramic tiles set in at intervals, portraying various saints.

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Decorative tile of St Francis

Meeting a medallist!

Our warm sunny afternoon spent exploring the Old Town certainly called for an ice cream at some point, and we found a few places to choose from to the west of the Plaza, opting for Romero House Ices (also now closed down) because it had plenty of seating outside. It is located in an old house, Romero House, which was built in 1915 and was the last major home built on the plaza. Today it has been converted into a sort of mini mall, with a couple of galleries/shops opening off its central corridor and this small café tucked away at the back. As well as a good selection of ice cream and frozen yoghurt, as promised outside, they also sell cakes and fast food savoury treats such as nachos and grilled sandwiches.

While perusing the different flavours on offer we got talking to the woman selling behind the counter and asked if we could take a few photos. She agreed, and suggested that her father should be in them. It turned out that he was one of two older men sitting at a table in the corner, and as she explained, he is a bit of a local celebrity, having won medals at the Senior Olympics for race-walking. Slightly bashfully he agreed to pose – to be honest, I think he really rather liked the attention even while protesting that he wasn’t worth a photo!

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A Senior Olympian and his medals!

Photography over, we turned back to the display of ices. I had a mango sorbet and pistachio, and Chris chose chocolate and strawberry. We ate them outside in the shade of the flowering bushes on the patio and they were fine – not as good as those we had enjoyed a few days earlier in Silver City, but pretty good just the same.

Staying in Albuquerque

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The Hotel Blue, Albuquerque

After our ices we decided to go and check into our hotel. The ones in the Old Town were pretty pricey so I had reserved a room in the Hotel Blue, which had been recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Gillian. This is located in the downtown business area on a stretch of Route 66, here known as Central Avenue.

The hotel is a modernised 1930s cross between a motel and hotel – the shape, lobby, parking lot etc are more like a hotel in feel, but you access your room from an outside walkway. This may not suit everyone (I saw a few reviews expressing concerns about security) but we had no issues with it, and rather enjoyed the expansive views of the city from our fifth floor room. We were lucky to have been given one in the north east corner as these have views of the mountains beyond the city.

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The lobby of the Hotel Blue

The hotel lobby is very impressive and really reflects the Art Deco style of much of this Downtown district. Staff at reception were friendly and helpful, and there was the nice touch of a plate of cookies on the desk for guests to help themselves!

The décor in the rooms was a lot plainer and the external areas (e.g. the walkways) were not up to the standard of the interiors, but on the whole we felt the facilities and overall appearance exceeded what we would expect for this price and were very happy with our choice.

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Our room at the Hotel Blue

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View from the walkway outside our door

Exploring Central Avenue

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Signs on Central Avenue

In the early evening we had a walk along part of Central Avenue, near the hotel. Had we not been staying in the Downtown area we might never have explored beyond Albuquerque’s touristy Old Town, and that would have been a mistake. We really liked the ‘vibe’ around here, even though it might be considered a little edgy by some.

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The KiMo Theatre

We spent some time wandering up and down the road, checking out a few shops (there was a fascinating large one with a huge range of Native American items, from the kitsch to high-end crafts) and taking photos of the wonderful KiMo Theatre. This is a 1920’s cinema whose ornate ‘Pueblo Deco’ style was inspired by Native American iconography in the same way that cinemas of that era elsewhere were built in the style of Moorish mosques or Chinese pagodas. You can tour the interior, which I would have loved to have done, but it’s only open for tours during the day unfortunately. It sounds amazing, according to the cinema’s website, with ‘plaster ceiling beams textured to look like logs and painted with dance and hunt scenes, air vents disguised as Navajo rugs, chandeliers shaped like war drums and Native American funeral canoes, wrought iron birds descending the stairs and rows of garlanded buffalo skulls with eerie, glowing amber eyes.’

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On Central Avenue

This area was once the city’s ‘New Town’, developed in the early years of the last century on either side of Central Avenue (which is in fact a stretch of iconic Route 66), and was the commercial hub. But as the city grew, new shopping plazas opened in outlying districts and the centre declined and became ever scruffier, with boarded up shops and unused office buildings. Then at the turn of this century a movement started to revitalise it, following the principles of New Urbanism. These don’t seem very revolutionary to me, as a European and Londoner, but in the US possibly only New York and few other older cities would recognise what the planners are attempting here. The idea is to create mixed-use neighbourhoods where people can live, work and play without relying on cars. Everything they need – shops, restaurants, bars – should be within a ten minute walk. In a typical American city, where going out means getting in the car and pedestrians are a novelty (we know, we have been those pedestrians!), this is a radical concept – and a marvellous one.

Some redevelopment had already happened in the 1990s, with bars and restaurants springing up on Central Avenue, but the idea that Downtown could be a place to live was a fairly new one when we visited in 2011.

Downtown dining

One reason for choosing the Hotel Blue was the free shuttle service offered to take guests to the Old Town, which we thought would be useful when it came to going out for dinner, but my research had thrown up a few options in the immediate area, so in the end we didn’t take advantage of this. Instead we went to the Flying Star Café, recommended in our Moon Handbook. This is a small local chain with a handful of branches in the city. The one we visited seems to have since closed down but there are still several in the city.

The branch we visited was located in an interesting and rather striking building – which I completely failed to take any photos of! It was originally the Southern Union Gas Company and was designed in 1950 by a regionally famous architect, John Gaw Meem. The gas company stopped using it about 17 years ago and the building was restored for use by the café. It has been granted the status of a National Historic Place, and today is occupied by an IT company, Rural Sourcing (see https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2016/09/07/how-this-tech-company-turned-a-downtown-restaurant.html).

On the evening we visited the café was busy with a wide variety of diners – students making a coffee last for hours while working on laptops (there is free wifi), groups of friends evidently on the first leg of a night out, tourists like ourselves, family groups, business people etc etc. This was clearly a popular spot.

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In the Flying Star Café

We went to the counter to order (no table service here) and found several tempting dishes on the menu. We decided to keep with the casual vibe and go for sandwiches – Chris’s the Turkey and Swiss on rye, and mine the “MOO-ve Over Meat” veggie burger, which was delicious (I’m not a vegetarian but I do like anything spicy, which this promised to be: a ‘grilled, spicy southwest black bean patty with melted cheddar & Cajun dressing’). Both our sandwiches came with a choice of sides – I opted for the homemade BBQ potato chips while Chris had the French fries.

To go with our meals we ordered a couple of bottles of Santa Fe pale ale – and thus began one of the more amusing incidents of our trip. It is New Mexico state law that anyone drinking alcohol must be over 21 years of age. Neither Chris nor I are under any delusions that we look anything like that age for decades! Consequently we were not surprised to be able to buy beer and other drinks in a number of places during the first few days of our trip. The friendly Buffalo Bar in Silver City happily served us beer and Jack Daniels; the Socorro Springs Brewery had no problem with us enjoying their brews both with and after our meal; and our hotel in Grants served us without a quibble. So imagine our surprise, and initial amusement, when we were asked to show ID here. It was, even back then, a very long while since anyone questioned whether I was over 21! But the server was adamant – no ID, no beer. She did offer to see if her manager would waive the rule, but the manager too was insistent. According to her, state laws meant that anyone serving alcohol to anyone had to ask for and see evidence that they were of legal drinking age. We pointed out that no one else had so far done so, but she said that she could lose her job if the police were to raid the restaurant and find anyone drinking without ID, so Chris popped back to the hotel (thankfully only a few minutes away) to get our passports.

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Chris with passport and hard-won beer!

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Key lime pie on the house

To be fair the manager was only doing her job and we certainly didn’t want her to lose it because of us! And she obviously felt a bit bad because when I went up to the counter to order dessert (Key Lime pie to share and a decaf latte for Chris) she came over to tell the server that it was on the house – how kind!

After this incident we made a point of taking our passports out each evening, but hardly anywhere else apart from Albuquerque did we come across anyone who bothered about this law, if law it was. In the end, only one other place asked for ID, and that was a small family-run restaurant in Alamogordo which had only recently got its license and was presumably being very carefully to do the right thing.

After dinner we again strolled along Central Avenue, and saw for ourselves how the area was becoming more lively when we stopped off for a night-cap.

There were a couple of bars on this stretch of road; one had a live band and therefore a cover charge, but the other, although it had a DJ playing records in one corner, was free to enter. The Blackbird Buvette (now closed down, it appears) was quite a dark and old-fashioned bar and on this warm evening it seemed a shame to sit inside, especially as the music would also have made conversation difficult, so we were pleased to see a table available on the pavement outside. The tables though were carefully roped off and to reach them you had to go into the bar, passing the bouncer who, like the server in the Flying Star, asked us for ID – we were ready for the question this time!

We bought our drinks (a Sodbuster Pale Ale for Chris and a Jack Daniels for me) and grabbed the free table. We then passed a very pleasant half hour or so watching the late evening activity of Downtown – dog-walkers, late-night shoppers, sporty gym-goers, a few tourists, groups of girls clearly on their way home from the gym, young people and older couples on a night out and a handful of business people who had perhaps stayed late at the office that night. It felt much more urban than most US cities do to me, with their sprawling suburbs and often hard-to-identify centres, and we really enjoyed sitting there.

Posted by ToonSarah 14:35 Archived in USA Tagged churches buildings people architecture beer road_trip history restaurants city new_mexico Comments (9)

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