Saturday, November 24, 2007

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

If Samarkand was built on Timur's skill at arms then Bukhara was built on the more generic foundation of human gullibility. Religion is what made Bukhara so worth a peek.

There are many grandiose sights here and I am now one of the many folk to give it the thumbs up. Some of it's monuments were spared the usual Mongol destruction allegedly because Genghis took a shine to the Kalon Minaret. Being a steppe tent dwelling oik he was a bit gobsmacked by Arslan Khan's massive erection. So am I. It's very big indeed.

Over the centuries the Karakhnids, Shaybanids, Astrakhanids and other easily mispelt dynasties have chipped in their own share of mosques, madrassas and caravanserais (even the faithful need some income) to the beautiful jumble that is Uzbekistan's holy city. The caravanserais are now tourist gift emporiums but many of the religious buildings are still in use. Mosques are full of pilgrims from Uzbekistan and a few from other Muslim countries. Some madrassas are still educating the youth in the ways of Allah as I deduced by the drying laundry in the courtyard and the very polite way they tell infidels like me to fuck off.

What distinguishes this place from Smarkand is the great strolling it offers. I enjoyed getting lost in the old town. Any random walk will throw up some old building and there is plenty of scutty alleys to compensate for the excessive tweeness of some of the beaatified parts of Bukhara. In 5 minutes I went from a kitschy plaza with a large pool and statues of camels to a dcrepit plaza with communal water pump and tethered goats.

The not so quaint part of the old town is also where I found some signs of life. Bukhara is remarkably empty. The tourist season is definitely over which has pros and cons. The good side is that I am in a position to negotiate nearly everything just by looking at the vast amount of competitors for any given good and service. The flip side is that I can't hover around French tour groups (France is Uzbekistan's main source of paunchy sightseers wearing bush jackets) getting the service of their guide for free.

The best I get is cops trying to solicit a bribe in exchange for access to locked areas. Karimov has declared that the usual Central Asian of police extortion is something that displeases him (not a good thing in this neck of the woods) so rozzers have branched out to offering something for cash instead of just stealing it.

The other activity here is locating the few backpackers, drinking cheap beer and whining about the crapness of the Lonely Planet maps of Uzbekistan's cities. In my case the maps are one of the main reasons to get the guide in the first place so I get particularly irate at the way LP's resident cartographer has decided that scale is somewhat passe and old-fashioned. I accept that the names of streets tend to change a lot as a result of de-sovietisation and personality cults but I do think that the backpackers holy scripture should be written by those aware that there is a connection between cardinal points and the way the arrow points on those trendy compass thingies.

Anyways I tore myself away from this place and headed to my next stop: Khiva

My first impression of the walled city of Ichon Qala was a mixed one. I got there at night after a long drive through the desert. The guesthouses are located inside the old city so I made my way to the place and entered through a very large gate. Inside it was like some sort of film set of Sheherazade. The visible humans consisted of me, 2 babushkas on their way out and a cop with what looked like a rifle wrapped inside a rug. I then walked about the place under brilliant moonlight (cool and useful has there is no public lighting 50 yards away from the main monumnets) to find a still open hostel.

If Bukhara was feeling a bit empty then Khiva by night redefines deserted. A lot of the hostels are closed but some are there to pick up the strays like me. The notion of having an entire walled city to yourself might sound fun and to a certain extent it is but the joy gets killed off by hunger. I tried to find a chaikhana without success within the old town then expanded my search towards the modern part of Khiva. No luck. I decided to settle for a shop but still no joy. the only places open were hairdressers. I could starve but I could get a perm while I was doing so. Hooray.

At day some life is breathed into the place though not in the way I expected. I started to get curious after my 3rd encounter with some Uzbek hottie in full bridal dress. Khiva was swarming with brides, grooms and the usual cohort that follows. Apparently it's a very nice place to get married here and the best season is now. The absence of tourists means that nothing will spoil that video of the newlyweds walking through the scenic old streets. Except for the other wedding parties doing the same thing.

I have decided that Khiva also has my favourite minaret of all. It's unfinished, very fat and very turquoise. I like it because it sticks out and has a great story about it. Granted this is one of the many, many legends about Uzbekistan's many, many monuments but I choose to believe this one. The thing is unfinished because the architect snuffed it before completion. It was going to be the greatest in all Central Asia but legend has it he was ready to do the same job for the Emir of Bukhara. The local Khan got wind of this and, being a bit of a rival of Bukhara's boss, had the architect sentenced to death by being thrown off his own unfinished minaret. The building was tall but not tall enough to guarantee a kill so they had to lob him off the thing a few times before the poor sod died.

This tale is very Khivaesque in the sense that the city was known for nasty stuff. Khiva pissed off the Russkies no end by being the best place to buy a Russian slave. They alos have a perverse pride in the various horrors committed by the degenerate rulers that sometimes had the run of this place. The Zindon (jail) hasn't got a bug pit like Bukhara but they compensate by piccies of the various nasty ways the Khans of Khiva punished people. To contrast, Bukhara's Zindon is sort of out the way and the only pictures they have are photos of people who were imprisoned or whipped for trifling religious infractions.

The downside of Khiva, beyond difficulty of finding food, is that internet is non existant and electricity infrequent. Transport is also apain in the arse to acquire. I spent some time trying to work out a way of getting to the Aral sea and back in time but eventually gave up after missing buses and one wonderful occasion where me and another chap curious about ecological disasters set up a 6am meet with a car only for some guy to turn up 3 hours later to say he couldn't be bothered.

For the first time in a long while I am under obligation to be at a certain place in a certain time and it's playing havoc with my custom of going somewhere because it sounds fun. I decided to play it safe and backtrack to the Bukhara.

My next stop and the last one in Central Asia will then be Tashkent.

Take care,



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