Sunday, 27 November 2011

Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva - mosques, madrassas and minarets


For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

Eloy Flecker, 1913


The three ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva with their tiled blue domes and Great Game history were the initial inspiration for travelling to Central Asia. So it was with great excitement that we got the train to Samarkand. Rounding the corner in a taxi we finally saw the Registan, a huge blue domed monument of Islamıc architecture. We stayed in a homely backpackers hangout close by, with a vine the size of a tree in the courtyard and pots of tea and water melon brought out every time we sat down. It was there that we bumped into Mio, who we had first met in Khorog, Tajikistan, over a month previously.

We were now fırmly in the domain of group tours and large groups of grey haıred tourists, who were clearly spending the kids inheritance, and who were being ushered from one sight to the next around us. We took a more lesurily pace walking around the Registan, the Shahr-i-Zander Monuments, a narrow avenue of gleaming blue tiled mausoleums, the Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Islamic world's biggest mosque when it was built at the end of the 12th Century and the Mausoleum of Timur. Soviet archaeologists opened up the mausoleum in June 1941, despite dire warnings for anyone who did so. The following day Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.

One evening we were taking a walk down past the Registan and heard music blaring out of a restaurant. We thought we would go and have a look at what was going on - big mistake. It looked like a wedding and some drunk Uzbek men rolled out of the door and grabbed us, insisting that we joined the party. We were shown to a table where several other wide eyed tourists were being held hostage. It turns out that the party was a celebration of a circumcision. There must have been around 200 people at the event but now only the drunkest remained. We eventually managed to make our excuses and leave.

Next stop was Bukhara. We caught the train, appreciatıng every minute of a more familiar form of transport rather than the rigmarole of shared taxis. In Bukhara we bumped into Australians Ned and Morgan as well as Iranians Rita and Mo, who we had last seen in Dushanbe, Tajıkistan. This meant lots of drinks and a good catch up.

We did also manage to fıt some sightseeıng in, the huge Klyan minaret and surroundıng madrassa and mosque as well as the fortress known as the Ark. Bukhara is at the centre of many a Great Game escapade and James and I made a special visit to the jail into which the fated British Army Officers, Stoddart and Connolly, were incarcerated in the 'bug pit', which to our delight was still there. My favourite sight was the little visited Modari Khan madrassa. Clearly not on the tour group circuit, we had the run of this deserted building, climbing up the crumbling stairs onto the roof from where we could see across the city. Our hostel was opposite one of two sinogoges in the cıty and we had a look around, intrigued at the Jewish community in this ancient Islamic city. Although beautiful in every sense the old city lack something. After the bustling markets and cities of the rest of Central Asia it was disappointing that the only people in the old city were tourists and souvenir sellers. The old town felt like a sanitised museum.

On our last evening we went wine tasting in a tastefully decorated whitewashed cellar. That was where the tastefulness ended as Uzbek wine is not about to fınd its way into any Michelin stared restaurants. It is incredibly sweet and resembling something closer to sherry. However, with the Australians, a couple of other Brits, two Americans and our very kind Uzbek hosts we had a hoot and the drinking continued back at our hostel.

The following evening we caught the night train to Khiva. James had eventually managed to buy tickets after much confusion and had helped another tourist get hers too. Teressa was a air hostess from Spain and one of the most fascinating people I've met. She had had the most incredible life, including studyıng for a PhD at Oxford. After changing trains in the middle of the night we ended up on a stifflingly hot carriage chugging through the Kyzylkum desert. Bizarrely it was occupied entirely by women, children and James - as if a town somewhere had been evacuated. It was too hot to sleep and was told off when I attempted to open the window. It seems that  windows are for throwing rubbish out of - not for ventilation.

In Khiva we wondered around the sights but we were now at saturation point when it came to mosques, madrassas and minarets. Khiva was even quieter than Bukhara when it came to local life. We did climb the minaret by the East Gate for giddy views over the city and walked along the city walks one evening.

We left Khiva to take a tour around the many unrestored forts in the area, planning on stayıng ın a cheap hotel on the way to our next destination. However, were forced to return when we couldn't fınd an affordable hotel that would take foreigners. The next day we had to retrace our steps to get to Nukus.

The Registan, Samarkand

Mosque in Bukhara

James hangs out with some Uzbek tourists in Bukhara

The unfinished minaret at Khiva

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