Uzbekistan 2000 – Bukhara

Bukhara – Monday, September 4

Shortly after arriving in Bukhara I went looking for the Char Minar. I had seen pictures of this building in my travel guide and it seemed like a good place to start my sightseeing. It was only about a 10-minute walk from my hotel.

The day was hot – the kind of scorcher that forces you to slow down – and I tried to stay in what little shade there was. After a short walk I found the building. It sits in a little square just off one of the main streets in Bukhara.

The building is constructed of beige brick and there are four minaret-like structures that rise from the roof – the top of each is covered with blue tile. It’s actually the gatehouse of a long disappeared medressa. It is really a lovely little building and in my travels I have never seen anything quite like it.

Inside, as with most monuments in Uzbekistan, was a little shop selling tourist stuff: ceramic, silk and the little square hats that many Uzbeki men wear. I climbed to the roof and from there into one of the towers. They weren’t very high, but still provide an interesting view of the neighborhood.

When I got back down to the shop I was told I needed to buy an admission ticket. I found this to be the standard procedure at monuments in Bukhara. They let you in for free, but you have to pay to get out. It only cost a couple of hundred Sum ($0.25), but it does get a little annoying after awhile.

After taking a few pictures of the outside, I headed back toward my hotel. In one of the nearby dirt lanes I passed a group of men having lunch in the shade of a mud wall. I slowed down to take a look at them. I was curious what they were eating. As I got close one of the men called out, “Where are you from?” When I answered, he invited me to sit with them. I immediately accepted.

The table was covered with dishes: raisins, nuts, bread and of course, tea. That’s what they offered me first, a bowl of tea – no cups or mugs used here. As we talked, other foods were offered until finally I had one of each dish in front of me.

Only one of my hosts spoke English. He told me that he worked as a waiter at the Bukhara hotel. He made a special point of introducing me to his father – the other men, he said, were his uncles.

We sat drinking and eating for a while. I told them about my travels: that I had just come from Tashkent and was heading to Samarkand. Everyone was very friendly and continued to offer me more food and tea. I asked if I could take their picture and they all sat up a little as I did. After half an hour, I said good-bye and headed off to see more sights. What a great introduction to Bukhara that was.

As I walked around I realized that Bukhara was doubly blessed: it’s small enough to be managed on foot plus there is an unusually large number of interesting medressas – Islamic schools – to visit. These schools have lovely tile-covered entrances and inside there are a number of small rooms arranged around a courtyard. Sometimes the courtyard has a small garden or pool. Most of the medressas are no longer used as schools and the small room – student cells – have been converted into shops selling more tourist stuff: rugs, jewelry and Persian miniatures. There are enough madressas in Bukhara to keep you busy for days.

As if the medressas weren’t enough shopping, I also visited a couple of the domed bazaars. These covered markets are full of more tourist shops and merchants who are anxious to sell. As I walked through the vendors would call out, “Mister, please look.” They would then lead me into their tiny shops where the walls were covered with woven silk, hammered copper and hand embroidery. After walking for a few hours in the relentless heat and visiting countless shops, I decided to head back to the hotel for a nap.

I was staying at Sasha & Son, a bed and breakfast in a converted merchant’s house. The rooms were arranged around a plant-filled courtyard. When I arrived I had been taken to my room on the second floor. I opened the door and looked into a tiny cell about the size of a bathroom. I stood there for a moment. I have stayed in some pretty small rooms, but this place wasn’t even big enough to lie down in. Then I noticed a short door off to the left – I opened it and it led to my room. The little room was just the entrance.

In the late afternoon I walked over to Labi-hauz, about 5 minutes away from my hotel. There is a tree-lined pool there and it’s a place where locals and tourists collect. On two opposite sides are magnificent medressas and on a third are a number of shops, including a couple of places to buy food and bottled water. On the other side are three or four cafes where you can relax in the shade.

You can sit at a regular table, but it’s more fun to sit on a chaikhanas. It’s a raised platform with a pad to sit on and a small table in the middle. The nice thing is that you can take your shoes off and stretch out your legs. The cafes play a steady stream of delightful Uzbek and Asian music.

I spent hours at Labi-hauz watching the ducks and geese. Old men with white beards sat most of the day playing dominos. After school young boys come to swim. A couple times a day the nozzles around the edge spray water into the pool filling the air with a cool mist. It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant place to hang out.

It was also a great place to meet other travelers. The first evening I met Take, a young Japanese law professor. I had seen him earlier at one of the medressas and when he walked by, I invited him to join me. After a short time a young Uzbeki he knew stopped by too. His name was Amin and he was a local guide. After talking for a while, Take and I decided we wanted to have dinner and we asked Amin for a suggestion. He recommended a place he knew just outside of town – he said it was a “special place.” Take and I decided to take a look and had Amin write the name down to show the taxi driver.

It was just getting dark when the taxi dropped us off. The restaurant wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but when we walked inside we found it was open to the night sky. It was strung with colored lights and there was a two-piece band playing. As soon as we entered all eyes were on us: the tall American and the short Japanese. Clearly we were a novelty.

A waiter seated us and gave us menus written in Russian. I told Take that I thought that was a good sign. Places with English menus usually cater to tourists. (Later I found out that there were rarely English menus in Uzbekistan.) We tried to talk to the waiter and explain what we wanted, but he didn’t speak English. I could see that this difficulty in communicating was making the waiter a little uncomfortable, so I suggested he take us to the kitchen. I did this by pointing to my eyes and then to the kitchen. When the waiter saw that he immediately smiled.

The kitchen wasn’t much to look at: there was a long, narrow tray of glowing charcoal to cook kebabs and a few pots of soup boiling. Take and I pointed to the kind of soup and kebabs we wanted. We also asked for some bread and a couple of beers. We returned to our table. Families and groups of men filled the other tables and they nodded at us. Everyone seemed as interested in us as we were in them.

A few minutes later we saw the waiter heading our way with an armload of beer. “Did we order that much?” Take asked in alarm. “No,” I replied, “I think he’s just giving us a choice.” Sure enough, he sat them all down and we picked the ones we wanted – they were all Russian beer. In fact, I never had an Uzbeki beer the whole time I was there. Whenever I asked for one I was told either that they didn’t have any or that Uzbek beer wasn’t any good. I consider this a serious omission on my part.

The food came soon. It was interesting, but like all the meals I had in Uzbekistan, it wasn’t one I was dying to have a second time. All the travelers I met complained about how greasy the food was. I found the endless kebab meals tedious. I also had a couple of bouts of intestinal upset. The best I can say about Uzbeki food is that it was boring.

The restaurant was starting to empty out. We were done too and waved for our bill. I asked Take, “Are we expected to tip?” We discussed this a little and decided that a service charge had already been added in the bill, so I got out a huge wad of Sum. Paying for things in Uzbekistan always involves a lot of counting. The largest bank note I saw was 200 Sum – about $0.25. The bill for dinner was 3100 Sum ($4.00), so I laid out 16-200 Sum notes. The waiter picked them up and counted them. He then put one note back, smiling. “Look, Take,” I exclaimed, “He just tipped us.”

Next morning I had breakfast with a Japanese couple – Mitsuo and Kumiko – who were staying at my hotel. They had been in Bukhara for several days and offered me some tips on what to see. We headed in different directions after breakfast, but I figured I would see them again later – Bukhara isn’t a very big place.

I took a taxi out to the Bakhautdin Naqshband mausoleum – it’s the tomb of a famous sufi saint just outside Bukhara. There was a mosque, a tomb and a bunch of other buildings on the grounds – even a little museum. The most interesting thing was the outdoor kitchen where several groups of women were preparing food. In a nearby grove there were chaikhanas where people were eating. I learned later that families came there to celebrate and give thanks. They give part of the food they prepare to the needy.

Back in Bukhara I went shopping for rugs – well, actually I was looking for a kilim. I had seen rugs in many of the souvenir places, but when I asked for kilims, I found there weren’t many. In fact, the few I did see were either way too big or of very poor quality. My heart sank – I really wanted one as a remembrance of my trip to Bukhara. Anyway, I met a lot of merchants that day. They were all quite anxious to sell. It looked to me like there were way too many merchants chasing too few tourists.

I also walked over to the Friday mosque. It’s a working mosque so there were no vendors inside. First, I climbed the minaret – there was a fine view of the city from there. Then, as I was walking around the courtyard, a young woman who was sweeping came over to talk to me. When we discovered we had no common language she asked me to take her picture instead. She pointed at herself and said, “Photo, photo.” So I got out my camera and took her picture. It turned out wonderful – she really was quite lovely. Uzbekis are a marvelously unspoiled people – they are very open and friendly. It made traveling there a real joy. I didn’t feel like just another stupid tourist.

Outside the mosque a girl of about eight years old came over and introduced herself as Roxanne. I told her that her name was famous – Alexander the Great had married a princess from somewhere around here who was named Roxanne. It was the only time he married. Anyway, she was more interested in trying to sell me something than in my history lesson.

She pulled a hand-woven purse from a plastic bag she was carrying. “Four dollars,” she informed me, “Perfect for a wife or daughter, if you have one.” When I said I wasn’t interested she pulled out a three dollar hat, then a two dollar glass case and finally a one dollar coin purse. After I had rejected them all she stomped her foot and demanded, “Why not?” as only an exasperated eight-year-old can. She was so charming I darn near bought something just to make her happy.

Next, I stopped by the post office to get some stamps – it was at the end of a dark alley and not at all easy to find. Before they would sell me any stamps they tried to sell me more postcards. When that failed they tried to get me to change some money. Only after that did they get the stamps out. The problem was that they only had 9 Sum stamps and each card needed 7 stamps. Back at the hotel I sat in the courtyard and pasted stamps on cards for half an hour wondering why the heck I was doing it. Then I remembered: I had promised my friends a card and couldn’t go home without sending them.

Finally, the heat got to me and I took a nap. In the evening I headed back over to Labi-hauz where I ran into Amin again. We spent some time taking about his religion. He had recently started going to the mosque. He told me his father and grandfather didn’t go. I could see that he was happy with his newfound religion.

We also talked a little business: he knew I wanted to go to Samarkand on Thursday and he told me about an Italian woman, Laura, who wanted to go then too. The only complication was that Laura wanted to see some other sight along the way which would make for a longer trip. Still I thought that it sounded interesting, but wanted to meet the woman before deciding. Amin ran off for a few minutes, but Laura wasn’t at her hotel.

I also talked to the Japanese couple from my hotel. Kumiko, the wife, showed me her new digital camera. You could review the pictures on a display on the back, so she showed Amin and I what she had shot that day. It was fun sitting at Labi-hauz, all crowded around the tiny display looking at her pictures.

Evening was always a pleasant time in Uzbekistan – the heat of the day was gone and there always seemed to be interesting travelers around to talk to. In fact, I think I met more interesting people on this trip than on any other. Uzbekistan, after all, isn’t the kind of place you would go on your first trip and the people I met all had some pretty interesting tales to tell.

Later, I walked back to the hotel with the Japanese couple, and Kumiko offered to show me the computer she carried to store her pictures. It was a little Libretto. We sat in the courtyard of the hotel and looked at more of her photos. We talked more about photography and she confessed that she also carried two other cameras – one for slide film and one for prints. Wow, what a load.

The next day’s breakfast held a surprise. I could see from the lump in my omelet that something was hiding in there. When I dug inside I found a hot dog. Now, I’m not a big fan of what we in the States call “tube steak.” I just don’t regard it as “real” food – I think of it as something to eat when nothing better is available. I solved the problem by just pushing the “dog” aside but it did strike me as an odd thing to put in an omelet. This is why I travel: new experiences.

After breakfast I took a taxi over to the bazaar. It was smaller than the one in Tashkent, but still very interesting. As I was walking around taking pictures I ran into two of the waiters from the café I frequented at Labi-hauz. They seemed genuinely pleased to see me. They were brothers and told me that their family owned the café.

Later, as I was walking through an area where they sold nuts and dried fruit, three vendors stopped me wanting their pictures taken. Then they insisted that they take my picture. It became infectious and other vendors started waving at me to take their picture too. Slowly I realized what was going on. They also wanted me to send them the pictures. I hadn’t been roped in by this trick since I was in India.

The bazaar was piled high with produce – apples, pears, grapes and melons. The melons stands in particular were interesting because the vendors brought their beds along and apparently stayed at the bazaar until they were all sold. I saw whole families at the melon stands.

From the bazaar, I walked back toward the center of town. There were a few mosques and mausoleums to visit on the way back. It was hot and I stopped at a little tree-covered café in front of the Ark – a huge, old fortification. I sat on a chaikhanas and had a lukewarm bottle of Sprite. It was truly rare to get a cold drink outside of the 4-star hotels. I longed for one the whole trip – it was hot and I was always thirsty.

I shopped a little more, but had no luck looking for kilims and finally ended up at Labi-hauz again. I sat and watched a man fishing in the pool. Whenever the ducks got too close he would chase them away. Then a couple of young boys came by with plastic bags. They swept them through the water, shrieking with delight when they caught any minions. A group of noisy German tourists came by and stood in the sun listening to their guide. They took a few pictures and left. I drank another Sprite, wrote in my journal and was glad to be in Bukhara.

In the evening I ran into Amin again and we went to look for Laura, the other passenger for tomorrow’s proposed trip to Samarkand. When we didn’t find her, I agreed to go with them anyway. We decided to leave at 7:00 the next morning. I was sorry to be leaving Bukhara, but glad to be off on another leg of my journey.

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