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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)

On the road to Bukhara

Uzbekistan day three


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Breakfast in Khiva

Breakfast was served not in our Khiva hotel but in a restaurant in a nearby madrassah. No complaints about that though – the breakfast was fine, accompanied by pretty good coffee, and served in a striking interior which seemed to combine traditional styles of décor with Soviet-style exhortations celebrating the contribution of Khorezm province to the world of science!

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Our group at breakfast in the Matinya Madrassah

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Chris at breakfast

We ate bread, cheese, sausage, pancakes and jam, with drinking yoghurt, tea and the aforementioned coffee, plus some rather amusingly decorated biscuits with an image of the cartoon character Shrek embossed on each!

Today we had a long drive in front of us, but I was excited at the chance to travel by road and see something more of Uzbekistan than had been possible so far on this trip. We spent most of the day on the bus, so this will be a shorter entry - I can sense the relief of those of you who have waded through the previous one on Khiva

Talking of the bus, I was pleased when we climbed on board to find that it was air-conditioned, but that’s a relative term. This was a rather elderly European bus and having been designed for European summers it really struggled to cope with the 52 degrees we experienced on this drive!

In the heat of the day

Just as the bus was at its hottest, and we hit the day’s high of 52 degrees (according to Marat, our guide), we stopped in front of a small roadside chaikhana shaded (thankfully!) by trees – lunch-time!

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Roadside stop on the way to Bukhara

We scuttled across the sun-baked forecourt and into the shade, made use of the rather primitive ‘facilities’ and then lunched under the trees on non, salads and cold drinks. There was also an opportunity for a few photos of these local women who were happy to pose for me.

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Women at the roadside chaikhana

Crossing the Oxus

Soon after leaving our lunch place the road crossed the Oxus. This river flows to the north and east of Khiva and cuts off this corner of Khorezm province from the rest of Uzbekistan. It is properly known by the name of Amu Darya, but in ancient times it was the Oxus, one of those places you’ve heard of in old history lessons but never dreamed you would see (another was the Euphrates which we had seen some years previously in Syria). So I was thrilled to realise that to leave Khiva and drive to Bukhara we would have to cross the Oxus, and as we did so I grabbed a couple of photos.

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Crossing the Oxus

The bridge itself was unusual and thus also worth mentioning here. Our guide in fact told us it’s the only one of its kind in the world though I have no way of checking that. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is single track for both road vehicles and trains (i.e. one track for each).

We stopped a bit further down the road where there was a view of the river from above, although I would have welcomed a chance for a closer look than this.

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The Oxus

Arrival in Bukhara

We arrived in Bukhara late in the afternoon and were warmly welcomed at the Hotel Mosque Baland. This was probably my favourite of the hotels we stayed in during our trip round Uzbekistan. It’s a small, family-run affair, not much more than a B&B despite its grand name, situated in a residential street on the south western fringes of the old town, about 15 minutes’ walk from the Lyab-i-Hauz. Rooms are grouped around the typical Uzbek central courtyard. Ours was a good size, nicely decorated, clean and with a comfortable large double bed. We had a fridge to keep our water chilled, efficient air-conditioning and a TV we never got around to switching on.

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Courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

One feature that both amused and slightly horrified me was to be found in the bathroom. The toilet had the most unusual seat I’ve come across, covered in a soft slightly fluffy fabric (such as you might use for a child’s pyjamas) adorned with cute cartoon mice (ditto). It seemed perfectly clean, but didn’t strike us as the most hygienic of decorative touches, especially in a country where regrettably foreign tourists do often have to spend more time than they would like in its vicinity ;)

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Our bedroom, and toilet!

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The family who ran the hotel were friendly and keen to be helpful although they spoke little English. They happily changed money for us, served green tea whenever it was wanted at no charge, and other drinks, including beer, at very reasonable ones.

Soon after arriving our group was invited to drink tea in the beautiful dining room of the hotel. This was decorated in typical Uzbek style, with ganch (carved alabaster) and niches displaying colourful ceramics, and was truly stunning. The family produced a beautiful cake for Georgina, whose birthday it was, to accompany our tea – somewhat to her embarrassment, as of course we then all sang ‘Happy Birthday’!

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Birthday cake for Georgina

Lyab-i-Hauz

Life in the old town of Bukhara centres around the Lyab-i-Hauz, both by day and at night. If you want to sense the heartbeat of this special city and immerse yourself in its soul, this is the place to be. Here you can for a while feel part of a way of life that stretches back through the centuries and defines Central Asian society and culture. For centuries people have come here to relax, drink tea at the chaikhanas, meet friends, do business, play backgammon – in short, to live. Nowadays the regular locals, in particular the aksakal or ‘white beards’, have been joined of course by groups of tourists, and the two cultures seemed to me to be mixing and enjoying the pleasures of Lyab-i-Hauz in harmony.

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Lyab-i-Hauz at night

The pool is an ancient one, dating back to 1629, and many of the mulberry trees which surround it are even older, having been planted in 1477. It was built as a reservoir of fresh water for the city, and water carriers would deliver large leather bags of its water to those citizens who could afford the service. It fell into disuse however, and for years was stagnant and infected with disease. We have the Soviets to thank for its restoration to the pleasant and tranquil waters we see today.

So we carefully followed the directions we had been given and found our way to this enchanting spot, which was to become one of my favourite memories of Bukhara. We were in search of dinner, but there was no hurry, and the light on some of the buildings around the pool was perfect for photography so that was my first priority.

Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha

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Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha

The building on the western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha. A khanagha was a hostel for dervishes, with a mosque and cells for these holy men to live in, although you won’t be surprised to learn that this one now houses souvenir stalls.

It was built at the same time as the pool, early in the 17th century, by (as the name suggests) Nadir Divanbegi – a divanbegi being a sort of finance minister. There is a cautionary tale attached to the origins of the khanagha which our guide told us the next morning, but I include it here alongside my photos:

The Divanbegi’s wife complained that he went away too often and the presents he brought her were not valuable enough. On one occasion he brought earrings which she dismissed as a very poor gift. He asked his architect to take one of the earrings, sell it, and build whatever he could with the proceeds; this was the result. He then brought his wife to see it and said ‘See what I was able to build with just one of your earrings. Do you now still say it was worthless?’ And, according to our guide, the next thing he said, repeated three times as was necessary by law, was ‘I divorce you’.

The other buildings I photographed were the Magok-i-Attari Mosque and the Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes of Bukhara. We were to learn all about these tomorrow so I will say more about them then.

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Tok-i-Sarrafon

Dinner by Lyab-i-Hauz

Bukhara isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a place for fancy restaurants but what its eating places lacked in the quality of their cuisine, they made up for in their setting and atmosphere. The place to eat was in one of the chaikhanas and restaurants that surround the pool of the Lyab-i-Hauz, which at night was especially lovely – the coloured lights strung in the trees were reflected in its waters and locals and tourists alike relaxed over a green tea or a cold beer, an ice cream or a grilled shashlik.

This first evening we ate in the chaikhana on the eastern side of the pool. The setting was great, the large beers refreshing after our hot day in the bus crossing the desert, and the bread excellent (more of a flaky pastry than what we could call bread, and different from any we had elsewhere in the country).

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Bukhara non and chicken shashlik

The chicken shashliks we both chose however were disappointing – they looked good but were fatty and bony, with very little meat on them. The price was reasonable but given how little we ate was not such good value as other meals we had in Uzbekistan. And I should mention that it was the morning after this meal that I experienced my first attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’, though I can’t be sure I caught it here of course.

Caravanserai Nughay

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Bukhara at night

After dinner I attempted a few night shots and we popped into the Caravanserai Nughay just south of Lyab-i-Hauz. This attractive old caravanserai now, inevitably, houses a number of handicraft and souvenir shops. We didn’t buy anything but enjoyed browsing around. The owners of the shops were welcoming without being too pushy (something that I found was generally the case in Uzbekistan). I was also really taken with the lovely appearance of the courtyard with each of the small shops glowing in the twilight and showing off the colourful textiles to great advantage.

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Caravanserai Nughay at night

As we strolled back to the hotel along quiet residential streets we 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.

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Group of children in Bukhara

Back at the hotel we joined a few others from our group sitting on the dais in the courtyard, where we chatted about the day over a vodka (me) or beer (Chris).

Posted by ToonSarah 02:03 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged bridges night road_trip restaurant history hotel river uzbekistan bukhara khiva Comments (9)

More tales from Bukhara

Uzbekistan day four continued


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Carpet shop near Lyab-i-Hauz
- a reminder of Soviet times

I finished my previous post just as we arrived at the Lyab-i-Hauz during our tour of Bukhara. It was lunch-time, and as the meal wasn’t included in the tour, we split up to eat, or at least that was the plan. As it happened quite a few of us headed for the same restaurant, a chaikana on the north-western side of the pool. We found a table in the rather grandly decorated but cool interior, where air-conditioning providing welcome relief from the intense sun. We shared some salads, a basket full of great bread (both the flaky pastry and more usual varieties), sparkling water and Sprite.

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Our group in the restaurant

Khodja

We met up again with our guide by the statue of Khodja on the eastern side of the Lyab-i-Hauz. This bronze statue stands among the trees (so hard to photograph, or so I found) and depicts Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool who features in so many stories of this region, riding his donkey. The donkey’s ears are shiny where children have clutched them as they scramble up to ‘ride’ with Khodja.

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Statue of Khodja, Lyab-i-Hauz

Our guide Marat loved to tell us Khodja stories to while away the long bus journeys between the Silk Road cities. Here’s one I remember:

One day a man tried to steal Khodja’s donkey, but he threatened the thief: ‘If you steal my donkey, I’ll have to do what my father did when someone stole his.’ The thief was frightened and ran away. Some bystanders asked Khodja, ‘What did your father do when someone stole his donkey?’ And Khodja replied, ‘He walked home.’

And another:

Khodja borrowed a cauldron from his neighbour. When he didn't return it for a long time, the neighbour came to ask for its return. When Khodja handed him the cauldron, the neighbour noticed that there was a small pot in it. ‘What is this?’, he asked.

‘Congratulations neighbour, your cauldron gave birth to a baby pot,’ replied Khodja. The neighbour, incredulous but delighted, thanked Khodja and took his cauldron and the new little pot home. A few weeks later Khodja came to ask again if he might borrow the cauldron. The neighbour didn't hesitate to lend it, however, again Khodja failed to return it. The neighbour had no choice but to go asking for it again.

‘Khodja, have you finished with my cauldron?’

‘Ah neighbour,’ bemoaned Khodja, ‘I am afraid your cauldron is dead.’

‘But that's not possible, a cauldron cannot die!’, exclaimed the neighbour. But Khodja had his answer ready: ‘My friend, you can believe that a cauldron can give birth; why than can't you believe that it can also die?’

Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Last night Chris and I had seen the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha, which our guide now pointed out, telling us the story of the finance minister and his ungrateful wife. On the opposite side of Lyab-i-Hauz, a few years later, Nadir Divanbegi built a madrassah to complement the khanagha. Or so it appears, but our guide explained that this was not his original plan. This building was intended as a caravanserai, where trade would provide a good income for him. But soon after its completion the Khan was passing and commended the divanbegi on his great religious devotion, having taken it to be a madrassah. You didn’t argue with a khan, who was considered Allah’s representative, so the divanbegi had to change his plans and adjust the building to be used as a seminary, although without the usual accompanying mosque.

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Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Perhaps this story explains the dramatic departure from Islamic tradition in the use of images of living creatures in the decoration on its portal. Admittedly these can be taken as mythological beasts – they certainly don’t resemble any real birds – but even so they are an unusual sight, as are the white does clasped in their claws (these are not pigs by the way, despite a slight resemblance, as this would certainly be unacceptable on an Islamic building of any sort, let alone a religious one).

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On the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

As in so many of Uzbekistan’s former religious buildings this one is now devoted to the sale of handicrafts and souvenirs. We didn’t go inside but I imagine that they are of a similar quality to elsewhere. The main attraction for me was this striking façade with its total and flamboyant break with tradition.

Chor Minor

For our last sights of the afternoon we were back in the bus. We stopped first at the Chor Minor, one of Bukhara’s best known and most idiosyncratic sights, tucked away in its back streets east of Lyab-i-Hauz. I have seen it described as resembling an upside-down chair thrust deep into the ground!

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The Chor Minor

Chor Minor means four minarets, but to use that term for the four small turrets at the corners of this one-time madrassah gatehouse is perhaps stretching things. None of them has a gallery and they wouldn’t have been used to call anyone to prayer, being mainly decorative. I loved the way that, at first glance, they seem all the same, only for a closer look to reveal a host of difference in the decoration of each.

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The Chor Minor's minarets

Today very little remains of the 1870 madrassah to which this would once have given entry, but if you look either side of the building you can see still some remains. My photos were taken from the south side which would have been the madrassah’s courtyard.

This must in its day have been quite a grand building, with a mosque and pool incorporated, and its seclusion in these sleepy back streets really emphasises how its fortunes have changed. It is unique among all the buildings of Uzbekistan, although it was possibly inspired by the Char Minar Mosque in Hyderabad, where its patron, the merchant Khalif Niyazkul, is thought to have travelled.

Sitorai Makhi Khosa

We drove north a little way out of the old town into a more rural area to visit our final sight. This palace, the Summer Residence of the Emir, was built by the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan, who had close links to Russia, making frequent visits to St Petersburg and living an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. In some ways he epitomised this period of 20th century history in the region, as the modern world collided with the medieval and trying to balance the two worlds he straddled. The architectural style of his palace reflects this – a weird mix between traditional Islamic influences and the tastes he had acquired from his visits to the great cities of Russia. He employed Russian architects to design the facades and external structures, while local artisans decorated the inside. The fine line between art and kitsch was often blurred as these artists competed to present the best of their cultural traditions.

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The entrance to Sitorai Makhi Khosa

The first thing that struck me after being in Uzbekistan just for a couple of days, growing used to the favoured blues, turquoises and jade colours of the tile-work, was the shock of the deep red majolica on the entrance portal here. Passing through here we came to the courtyard of the main palace building.

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Main courtyard

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Traditional Uzbek cradle

Part of the palace houses a museum of applied art. This was very interesting to visit, both for the artefacts it houses and the building itself.

The former include an excellent example of the traditional Uzbek cradle. We were told that these are still in use and assured that they are both practical and cause no discomfort to the baby, but they seem strange to western eyes. The baby is tightly bound and carefully positioned above a hole in the cradle’s base, below which a small terracotta receptacle (differently shaped for a boy or a girl) catches what in the west a nappy would absorb.

The decoration of some of the rooms in palace is striking, to say the least, not least the ganch and mirror-encrusted White Hall. It is lit by a huge chandelier imported from Poland; the door locks and door handles came from England and most of the furniture from Russia. The mirrors are of Venetian glass and the tiles for fireplaces were brought from Germany.

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The White Hall

Another room had coloured skylights which lit it up almost like a disco.

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Coloured skylights

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Decoration in the guest quarters

Outside we had a short stroll in the grounds. On this hot summer’s day the temperature here was a welcome few degrees lower and there was more breeze than in the city, so it made a pleasant break.

We saw (but I mysteriously failed to photograph!) the harem, and by it a pool where the concubines would swim, naked of course. A nearby platform apparently allowed the emir to watch this spectacle, and to indicate which one he wished to have sent to his chambers by tossing her an apple. The chosen girl would then be washed in donkey’s milk (one of the emir’s eccentricities!) and delivered to his bedroom.

We also went into a small octagonal building, used to accommodate guests, which now houses a small collection of traditional costumes, with beautifully embroidered robes – one completely covered in gold, and another woman’s robe with the sleeves sewn together as a sign that she was married.

Silk Road Spices Café

The Sitorai Makhi Khosa was the last sight on our tour. It was now mid-afternoon and the bus turned back towards the city and our hotel. On this very hot day some siesta time would have made sense, but you know what they say about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’! We would be leaving Bukhara tomorrow and it seemed to me and Chris that we should make the most of our short time here, so we asked to be dropped off in the centre. My Virtual Tourist friend Ingrid, who had been in Bukhara the previous year, had recommended a café which I was keen to check out – the Silk Road Spices Café, run by the same family who own the spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron (Jewellers' Trading Dome) where we’d earlier bought the six-spice tea. We found it to be a real gem, which definitely lived up to the expectations Ingrid had raised!

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At the Silk Road Spices Café

As soon as we stepped into the cool shady courtyard we knew we were in for a treat. We sat on cushioned benches at one of the long wooden tables and immediately a friendly waitress came to ask if we’d like the fans turned on (‘yes please!!’) and give us the small menu. The choice of drinks wasn’t huge but everything was excellent. Chris had the cardamom coffee while I chose ginger tea. Our waitress explained that the latter is made with several spices, including star anise, black and white pepper, and would be quite hot – sounded good to me, and was! With our drinks we were served a selection of sweetmeats: halva, raisins and nuts.

The family who run the café have been involved in the spice trade for hundreds of years, so I couldn’t think of anywhere more appropriate to sample these drinks while on our Silk Road journey!

We had planned to walk around a bit more and take photos, but after a quick visit to the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon to buy a pair of the scissors we had seen earlier we walked slowly back to the hotel to relax in the shady courtyard and catch up with some of the others from our group over a cold drink.

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Relaxing in the courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

Last evening in Bukhara

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In the courtyard of the
Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai

For dinner this evening we decided to return to the restaurant on the north-western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz, where we had eaten such a good lunch. On the way we stopped off at the Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai near the Tok-i-Sarrafon, as we’d spotted a notice announcing that it was the centre for an organisation called the Development of Creative Photography. As keen photographers we couldn’t resist going inside to check it out and found it was well worth the visit. We met this local man in the courtyard who greeted us and agreed to pose for photos - even though he doesn't look super happy about it in this one!

Inside there was an interesting exhibition of images by local (I assume) photographers, most of a very high standard. It was wonderful to see Bukhara and the surrounding region through their eyes. Some of the best were of local people, reflecting what we had discovered for ourselves – a genuine sense of interest in others that pervades the culture here and an openness of expression echoing the openness of their welcome. I was also particularly fascinated by some photos of Bukhara in the snow – visiting in July’s red-hot temperatures it was hard, even faced with these images, to conceive of what the street outside would look and feel like under those conditions.

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My 'Special dish'

From there we continued our walk to Lyab-i-Hauz and secured a table right by the water’s edge. We chose a couple of salads from a selection brought to our table (so no need to worry about any language difficulties) and the same excellent bread we had enjoyed at lunch time. Chris followed this with a dish of noodles topped with a fried egg (a little odd but he liked it) and I had what was called the ‘special dish’ – layers of meat (mutton), potato, tomatoes and onions cooked and served in the one pot. This was quite tasty and very filling. We washed our meal down with the usual cold local beers and took our time, enjoying the setting and watching all the activity around the pool.

The bonus was a sweet little kitten who stopped by to say hello, climbing up on the next-door table to pose for me!

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Little cat at dinner

After our meal I took a few more night shots on the walk back to the hotel where again we settled on the dais in the courtyard to enjoy a night-cap with some of the others. There was a power-cut in this part of town but the family who ran the hotel were clearly used to these and were quick to bring candles so we could continue to enjoy our final drink in Bukhara.

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Bukhara by night

Posted by ToonSarah 11:41 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged night food architecture mosque history palace restaurants cats spices uzbekistan bukhara Comments (9)

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