Leaving Samarkand’s grand monuments and stately streets at dawn, we drove five hours through a stubborn stretch of Uzbekistan’s desert, which eventually gave in to cotton fields and heaps of musk melons leading to the historic, old town of Bukhara, “the holiest Islamic site in Central Asia”. With its strategic location on the crossroads of the Silk Road, Bukhara once was a vibrant centre of commerce, scholarly studies, culture and religion. The Mulberry-shaded Labi-hauz, an ancient water body, was the perfect place to stop for lunch as we got our bearings, surrounded by the first of the ancient mosques, minarets, caravan-serais and domed bazaars we would explore.
There was pleasure in the instant familiarity with Bukhara, as all the places we hoped to see were not just a walk away, but were practically touching each other.
Our small but charming hotel, Minzifa, was hidden in the backstreet of a neighbourhood which looked rather down-at-the-heel at first sight, but we soon realised that hidden behind the faceless walls were beautiful homes, museums and galleries worth discovering. Tall, carved wooden pillars surrounded open courtyards and rooms with dozens of small niches and piles of printed velvet blankets. The deep-red Bukhara carpets, and textiles with gold-embroidery, were the handiwork of local craftsmen. Given, this had been a major link in the Silk Road, awash with influences, objects and ideas from afar, current day Bukhara has a provincial feel with thriving native traditions.
The people wear traditional dress for the most part, they speak Uzbeki and Russian, and the marketplace is flush with locally- made ikat yardages, suzani textiles, ceramics and metal crafts. I loved the visuals of the gold-capped teeth and ladies’ eyebrows joined with usma (a herbal dye), the pleasant aroma of fluffy round nans rolled around on wheelbarrows, baked samsas (samosas) freshly out of the tandoor, time-honoured tea breaks at chaikhanas, dinners of shorpa broth, lamb and pulav followed by sliced melons. Genuine old-world hospitality was palpable everywhere.
Bukhara’s architectural gems number well over a hundred and it is protected as a World Heritage Site. The Ark fortress, with its dramatic curving buttresses was once a royal palace and the museum within showcases the Golden Age of Islam that spanned from the 8th to the 11th centuries. We learned about the discoveries made by Al Khwarizmi in algebra, Biruni in physics and geography, Ibn Sina in medicine, Ulug Beg in astronomy and had vignettes into the works of philosophers, poets and architects of the era. While the visuals of the Char Minar and Bolo Hauz Mosque were enticing, I was particularly captured by the intricate, geometric brickwork of Ismail Samony, the resting place of a Zoroastrian, Samanid king. Genghis Khan, who stormed by in 1220 destroying everything, famously spared the Kalyan minaret, as it was too impressive.
Bukhara has a good selection of restaurants, and on our last eve we booked dinner at Rahman’s House as his sesame-oil infused Bukhara pulov (pulao) is particularly famed. It was ready just in time for serving, and along with it Rahman doled out wonderful stories. We felt steeped in the essence of Bukhara, and the moment could easily have belonged to a bygone era.