The fascinating dusty desert town of the Silk Road.
Reading about the Silk Road paints the picture of the busy, bustling trading posts along the way; the organised chaos caused by travellers making their way along the thousands of miles of trade routes and selling wares from distant countries. It’s a fascinating piece of history and is still played out in some of the better preserved cities of Asia and the Middle East. Bukhara is a prime example.
I found Bukhara took a bit of getting used to. Having been looking forward to visiting so much, the main square being filled with a few tacky shops, neon signs and a tourist trap restaurant made me think it was perhaps a place taken over by the need to cater for visitors rather than tending towards authenticity. But the more I wandered the better it got.
I arrived on a slow train from Samarkand, spending a couple of hours watching the desert go by on the way. The train arrived into Kogon station, which is around seven miles from Bukhara and is the passenger station for the city. Negotiating a taxi into town resulted in me nearly halving the driver’s initial price but still feeling he was getting a better deal from it.
The route into the city is open road, busy, with businesses, people travelling, plenty of traffic. And then the old town starts to appear.
If you look at a tourist map, website or TripAdvisor for Bukhara then it shows a lot centred around a small area in the centre of the city; in the oldest part of the town. This is slightly misleading and may give the impression that Bukhara can be “seen” in a day with a wander around much of the old town. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
The old part of Bukhara itself is a gem; a trip back in time. Parts of it have been rebuilt from ruins but it’s done using the same methods and much of the same tools that the original city would have been built with, plus a small army of people to carry out the work. That kind of restoration may feel false but it’s not really much different from a well-preserved city when it’s done in a traditional way.
A wander through the bazaars or through the narrow winding streets brings about something else to admire almost every time. The main square is enclosed by the Kukeldash and Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasahs and the Magoki Attor Mosque. It’s imposing and interesting but with a bit of touristy feel to it.
From here, a walk to the north west through the Taki-Telpak bazaar will bring you out at a fantastic open square with trading domes and the Ulugbeg Madrassah. It’s well kept, with a variety of little businesses on the streets and people wandering around. Continuing a little further west from here takes you to one of Bukhara’s best spots.
The Kalon Minaret towers over a square fronted by the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, a college which is still in use, the Emir-Alim-Khan Madrasah, and the wonderfully peaceful Kalyan Mosque. This area was occasionally busy with some tourist groups, many of whom seemed to be visiting on bus trips, and had some street traders setting up. But for much of the day it was a relaxing spot to sit in the sun and enjoy the view, with the only other people around those visiting the mosque or the college.
In days gone by it would have been very different. The Kalon Minaret was built too high to serve its purpose as a podium from which people would speak, and instead became a spot from which criminals were dropped to their death as a detterent to others.
On the north side of the square is a coffee shop and restaurant, with the latter having a fantastic view – albeit one from what feels like a slightly haphazardly built platform. And just a short stroll further to the west of this spot is my favourite place in Bukhara.
The Ark Citadel stands as an imposing structure over the edge of the old town, conjuring up images of what Bukhara may have been like during the peak of the Silk Road. There are still traders continuing the tradition their ancestors set out generations ago, but the area around the Ark would have been chaotic with travellers and local traders alike. It’s a structure which is partially still standing, partially ruined and partially rebuilt and one which is a must see. Inside doesn’t quite live up to the imposing surroundings but is also worth visiting, if only for the view back over towards the centre of the city.
Bukhara manages to throw up many places to visit for anyone with the appetite to explore. A short drive from the centre of the old town is the Palace of the Moon-like Stars, the Bakhautdin Naqsband Mausoleum, and Chor-Bakr Necropolis. If you don’t have a car then negotiate a day rate with a taxi driver.
Even wandering around the outskirts of the old town will uncover plenty more to see. The little alleyways to the north east lead to the slightly underwhelming Chor Minor. And Zindan sits in a back street on the quieter side of the Ark Citadel, a bit of history in amongst a quieter residential area. The Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum is one of the oldest buildings in the city, and is only a stroll away from the Bolo Hauz Mosque with its wooden column entrance, and near to the ruined fortress wall of Vorota Talipach. This area is where Bukhara feels far less touristy. Even the massive market nearby quite obviously catered only for locals and was bereft of visitors.
Many parts of the old town are not particularly well preserved but can still prove interesting. The residential streets, which not particularly welcoming given the high concrete walls hiding the lovely courtyards, often have interesting ruined madrasas or old mosques. They don’t have the same allure as the main parts of Bukhara but can still set the mind wandering as to what old Bukhara may have been like.
All in all, Bukhara is a gem of a place to visit, almost a living museum. It’s a throwback to a fascinating part of history. On my visit I found friendly people, tasty food and had a great few days wandering the old town, the streets and straying fairly far to see what else I could find a little off the beaten path.
Leaving Bukhara likely means heading north west to Khiva or taking a train on the Samarkand/Tashkent line. For me it was the latter, which meant another negotiated taxi ride back to Kogon station, and this time the fast, newer train to Tashkent. I was leaving the scorching, dusty desert to head back to the capital.