The Kalyon Minar is the only structure of the Poi Kalyon square that Genghis Khan spared from destruction
The Kalyon Minar is the only structure of the Poi Kalyon square that Genghis Khan spared from destruction

Travel: Bukhara tales…Hoja Nasreddin and other stories!

In the fabled days of the Silk Road, this city in Uzbekistan was the lighthouse of knowledge. It still has lots to teach today.
By Saubhadra Chatterji | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 29, 2019 12:17 AM IST

Imagine a land where every step forward takes you a few hundred years back. A land that’s deeply traditional but exudes invigorating freshness. It’s the powerhouse of Sufismand a place where overgrown fat on a lamb’s bum is as coveted as its meat. 

If Amazon and Flipkart have not rusted away your bargaining prowess at old bazaars, Bukhara – actually, the whole of Uzbekistan – could well be your next travel destination.

Hoja Nasreddin’s statue depicts a famous story related to Bukhara
Hoja Nasreddin’s statue depicts a famous story related to Bukhara

From taxis to traders, everyone will test your negotiating skills. Even if, like my wife, you can’t strike a deal (she turns philosophical after every failed attempt) you should still be happy because the Uzbek som is extremely cheap compared to the Indian rupee. We have a sumptuous three-course lunch for less than Rs 800. An airport shuttle from a downtown hotel makes us poorer by just Rs 200.

Donkey Kong

But suggesting that you to go to Bukhara because it’s inexpensive is like visiting Agra to explore the Loha Mandi. Bukhara, a fabled oasis on the taxing Silk Road, is steeped in history and rich in heritage. It was one of the old world’s most important centres of spirituality and theology. It was the lighthouse of learning. For many, Bukhara was to the Islamic world what Banaras was for Hinduism. 

Lyabi Hauz became a breeding ground for diseases before the Soviets restored the pond
Lyabi Hauz became a breeding ground for diseases before the Soviets restored the pond

I missed the spiritual heydays of Bukhara just by a few hundred years. But this bright afternoon, when I see a dance performance and a fashion show in the crowded courtyard of the erstwhile Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah complex, I have an inkling that Bukhara will be a different experience.

And it’s not a long wait for the next surprise. Just outside the lavishly-decorated former madrasah, a large crowd surrounds a statue of a man riding an amused donkey. The orange light of a fading sun pierces through the fat trees and old houses to brighten his smile. This is Bukhara’s beloved Hoja Nasreddin, whose entertaining stories have travelled from Central Asia to amuse several parts of this planet. (If you want to see his tomb, go to Turkey’s Aksehir.)

Samavars remind visitors of a close connection between Uzbekistan and Kashmir
Samavars remind visitors of a close connection between Uzbekistan and Kashmir

Nasreddin overlooks the heart of Bukhara, a leafy area full of historic buildings, restaurants, and bazaars with not-so-intrusive vendors. The lanes, the canals and the houses are meticulously stored, creating an unforgettable 3D slice of history that has no interest in catching up with the fast, modern world. I sit down in a corner, soaking up this vintage charm while Ruchira dashes off to buy puppets.

Pond life

Like an oasis in the middle of a desert, the Lyabi Hauz is a small pond right in the centre of this ageless antiquity. (Next time you visit Delhi’s Hauz Khas, please remember the Central Asian connections in our history.)

Five old men are busy playing a board game nearby, oblivious of the flow of tourists and the merchants on this busy working day. I ask my guide, Nemat, a bright young Bukharan, “Would you like to play?”

The functioning synagogue of Bukhara is more than 500 years old
The functioning synagogue of Bukhara is more than 500 years old

“This game? It’s very easy to play,” Nemat retorts. 

“Why don’t you play it for me?” I ask him.

“Okay. I will win it for you.”

He takes off his shoes, sits in the middle of the topchan (a cot-like piece of furniture mostly used for relaxing) with full confidence, and starts quickly. A couple of minutes later he loses all his dice and sits haplessly defeated. Efficacy is no substitute for experience.

To let go of our dejection, Nemat takes me to the city’s most authentic hamam, next to the Toqi Telpak Bazaar. I try my best to remember the name but I fail. For it is written in Uzbek and in flickering red and green lights at that.

Salads are an integral part of any Uzbek meal. The country produces delicious fruits and vegetables!
Salads are an integral part of any Uzbek meal. The country produces delicious fruits and vegetables!

I lock my clothes in a wooden cabinet, cover my modesty with a flimsy cotton towel and travel under a few domes to reach a ‘hot chamber’– a room a couple of hundred years old with thick stone walls. It’s as hot as Delhi in summer, but why do I find it exceptionally hot? I turn my head and notice that, like a fool, I am sitting right in front of the heartless blower that is pumping air like a cruel joke. And before I can change my ‘seat’, a Slovak businessman comes in and takes the corner I was eyeing.

As there’s nothing to do except sweat like pigs, we talk about life in our respective countries. He, somehow, considers this to be the best moment to describe Bratislava’s cold weather.

The locals always welcome visitors to play board games with them in Bukhara
The locals always welcome visitors to play board games with them in Bukhara

After a few minutes, a young masseur (wearing a similar flimsy towel) comes and takes me to the main bathing area and starts on a promising note. I am almost asleep on the slippery stone platform when he decides to stretch my limbs as if I am a Chinese Olympics-aspirant gymnast. I have never disturbed my fish-curry and biryani nourished Bong body for the sake of better fitness and flexibility. So I try to stop his experiments. It’s no use. He understands English just as well as I speak Uzbek.

Teacher and the taught

Behind the well-preserved historical centre, the narrow lanes and the residential houses present almost a photocopy of old Srinagar. The cobbled stone roads, spread like veins, spotlessly clean, present a different world of Bukhara.

The old town is teeming with artists who paint landscapes of Bukhara
The old town is teeming with artists who paint landscapes of Bukhara

A short walk along a lane brings me to the famous 400-year-old synagogue of Bukhara. Abram Iskhakov, the president of the Bukhara Jewish community, loves to share stories of this significant part of his city’s history. “During the Soviet occupation, we were not allowed to pray here. But Uzbek Muslims and Jews have always been like brothers,” says Abram.

Some three kilometres away is the revered Bahauddin Naqshband mausoleum and madrasah, one of the greatest symbols of Sufism. Plaques on the wall say, “The heart with God, the hands at work” and a smiling old imam, possibly the most important religious figure of Bukhara, tells me why doing good is important in life. 

As he finishes his riveting remarks, I can’t help but ask him, “What’s your age, sir?”

He laughs like a child: “My son, don’t count your life in years. See it through your work.”

Our hotel near Char Minor (influenced by the Hyderabadi original) is a traditional house, owned by a family. The owner and his wife only speak Uzbek and

Bahauddin Naqshband mausoleum is another jewel in Bukhara’s crown
Bahauddin Naqshband mausoleum is another jewel in Bukhara’s crown

Russian, and leave it to their daughter to cope with English-speaking guests. The owner, a jovial guy, seeks a few selfies and quips, “This is the best place on earth. There’s so much to learn in Bukhara.”

That evening, our last in Bukhara, we join a dinner hosted in our honour by the tourism ministry top brass. Plates of salad are spread on the table when the waiter brings in a big bottle of vodka. Royal Elite, reads the label. My years of training in cheap bars tell me to mix any doubtful brand of vodka with a generous dose of water and lime cordial.

The waiter serves the drink in shot glasses. And before I can ask for additional resources, my Uzbek hosts lift their glasses: “cheers!”

For the first time in my life, I gulp the poison neat.They are right. Bukhara never fails to teach its guests a thing or two.

Author bio: Saubhadra Chatterji is a senior editor with Hindustan Times.

Follow @SaubhadraC on Twitter

From HT Brunch, December 29, 2019

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch

Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

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