Daylight and our first city tour on a very chilly morning gave us our first real sighting of Bukhara. I think it looks how I expected Samarkand to be. Sandy domes mark street junctions and a number of madrassah courtyards house craftsmen in small shops in the old school rooms arranged around a central garden.
The town square is large and sports some very aged mulberry trees which shade a large pool in its centre. It was probably this pool and the other large pools like it (there were originally 114!) that were scattered around the old town and formed its water storage system that gave rise to Bakhura’s reputation as a plague city. Luckily these have now been overtaken by a modern water system introduced by the Russians during their period of tenure.
Bakhura is thought to be 2,500 years old and although now built on desert, was originally very verdant and a great hunting area. It was once the capital of Central Asia. Alexander the Great passed through and introduced a coin system which in turn gave a basis for trade. Genghis Khan did his usual demolition job and murdered all the children when he passed by, but Bukhara’s fortunes improved during Timor’s time. In the 17th century it formed part of the Persian dynasty. The Red Army demolished a lot of the old city again in the 1920’s. It is now heavily restored, but it’s sandstone facades continue and I find them much more pleasing and perhaps a relief from the highly decorated tile work we have seen.
The main square had two large madrassah buildings on it. They all take the same form – a large portal leading into an enclosed courtyard. The third building in the square would have accommodated the dervishes or holy men who would have lived off the city as the keepers of the faith. We wandered on out of the square under the small dome where the stall holders were setting up their stalls. We passed the site of a Caravanserai, where business men or traders would have been housed and set up their stalls in the past, with an area for their camels and donkeys in the central courtyard.
We came to the old Registan which would have been the original town square and execution site. We saw mosques and minarets – the tallest towering over us and previously used not only for the call to prayer, but as a look out post and lighthouse for those arriving across the desert. It was also used to push people off the top – I can only imagine that they had been particularly naughty to meet this rather nasty end. We visited a carpet museum and carpet warehouse, the gold market and the only ATM in town. It looked very new and dispensed only crisp, new dollar bills – the local Som being far too cumbersome! Eventually Bukhara prison came into view – a particularly nasty spot incorporating a deep prison pit in the centre that once accommodated two British chaps who fell foul of the Emir and were ultimately beheaded.
We drew a close to the day’s perambulations, parched but enchanted with Bukhara. The gentle domes and sandstone have charmed us all. By now it was very hot again, so a shady lunch spot was found and then we retired to our room for a rejuvenating snooze.
The evening saw us out for another rooftop meal. It turned out to be the worst meal of the trip so far – it was freezing cold, we were eclipsed by a full coach load of Germans demanding vodka, the food for the majority of our little party was grim and we were overcharged by 40,000 Som on the bill. It took over an hour to sort this out, by which time the bill had been halved by the management who acknowledged their mistake and I, for one, was nearly in tears. The moral of the story? Beware of Lonely Planet recommendations!