A Night in the Gobi then Bukhara, Uzbekistan (July 16 – 19)

You have two options to reach Bukhara from Samarkand.  You can drive 4 to 5 hours on an awful road.  Or, you can take a modern high-speed train that makes the trip in comfort in an hour and a half.  We made the road trip to stop at Nurata to visit the Chashma Springs and Mosque and spend the night at a Yurt camp in the Gobi Desert.

The new President of Uzbekistan is making tourism a priority and is working hard to build the infrastructure to support it.  About a third of the drive is on a new comfortable four-lane highway but the rest remains barely more than a gravel track thru the desert.  The good news is that the government is working to complete the entire stretch of road between the two ancient cities and it shouldn’t be too long until the time required for the road trip is cut in half and a car can breeze along at 100k per hour without jarring the passengers’ fillings loose.

I took the train back from Bukhara to Samarkand and Uzbeki trains are as comfortable as most trains in Europe and much cheaper.  I think my business class fare was less than $20.  So, you can take the train and save a lot of time but you will miss a couple of pretty cool experiences between the two cities.

Our first stop was in Nurata to visit the Chashma Springs, a 16th-century mosque and 9th-century mausoleum.  There are competing legends as to the origins of the springs.  The devout followers of Islam believe that the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground and the springs of healing waters rose-up.  The competing legend is that a meteorite radiating light fell from the sky and crashed into the ground on this spot and a spring of healing water spurted upon impact.

Regardless of which legend you believe, the fact is, the springs are quite remarkable.  The year-round 19 degree waters are infused with health generating minerals and the locals bring their jugs and bottles daily to fill for drinking.  The springs are also teeming with hundreds of holy fish (taboo to eat) that thrive on the minerals brought up from the depths of the earth.  Photos of the springs and fish are attached.

The mosque complex was also interesting but the springs and fish are the major attraction here for the non-Muslim.  Also above the springs perched high atop a hill are the remains of Alexander the Great’s Nur Fortress.  The fortress is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Central Asia and in its day, was said to be impenetrable.  Little remains of the adobe construction after 2500 years of some of the harshest weather on the planet. 

From the Springs, we drove on to our overnight destination – a Yurt Camp.  The idea of sleeping in a yurt under a full moon might seem romantic – and maybe if the temperature wasn’t hovering around 40 centigrade it might have been.  But sleeping in a felt and camel hair tent with one small door with no screen, no windows, and no circulation will sweat the romance right out of you as the mosquitoes and flies suck the blood out.  In fact, I think I was the only one to actually sleep in the Yurt.

I woke up early to climb the hill behind the camp to get some photos of the sunrise over the Gobi – and found that everyone else had drug their blankets and even beds out into the open air to sleep.  Still the experience pretty cool.  Upon arriving Shira suggested we drive over to a huge lake and swim to cool off.  And though the water was warm it still felt nice and I spent an hour just relaxing in the world’s biggest bathtub.

After drying off and returning to the Yurt Camp I took the opportunity to take a little spin around the camp on a camel.  It wasn’t my first camel ride, but it was my first since I had eaten one of his cousin’s hooves for dinner in China.  I took the “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to eating camel toe and didn’t mention it to him.  

moon GIFDinner was grilled lamb, rice, potatoes, a salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and flatbread all washed down with a nice cold beer.  Dessert was freshly harvested watermelon and an assortment of nuts.  After dinner, we were serenaded under the full moon by a local shepherd singing traditional Tajiki folk songs.  Shira informed me that I had a second chance at making a wish.

Apparently making a wish upon a full moon is also a lucky charm.  My wish hasn’t come true yet but who knows maybe it wasn’t considered time-sensitive by the man in the moon.  So, maybe he will get around to granting my wish in February or March.

Day 2

Next morning after I snapped my sunrise photos and had a quick breakfast we were off to Bukhara.  On the way, Shira shared more local traditions, legends and historical facts with me.  The Silk Road and the caravans that traversed the 10,000 kilometers from Bejing to the seaports of Turkey and Lebanon have always fascinated me and I love learning about life on the road. 

I had always assumed a caravan would only consist of a couple dozen or so camels, a few horses and donkeys and one or two merchants with their goods.  In fact, according to Shira, these caravans were 3 kilometers long and with thousands of merchants, camel wranglers, and camels.  Another misconception I had was they traveled during the day.  Nope, they traveled at night to conserve energy and the need for water by traveling once the sun went down and things cooled off.

Shira says a Central Asian camel can drink up to 40 liters of water and can then walk for up to 24 days without a fill-up!  A camel can also smell water from 2 kilometers away. 

Another interesting factoid concerns the headgear that many Central Asian men wore in the day.  In movies, Central Asians always wore turbans.  In reality, they wore a scull cap with a white cotton or linen cloth called a kafan wound around the head.  This cloth was a size prescribed in the Quran and was worn as a precaution. 

According to the dictates of the Quran a deceased person must be buried within a prescribed time after death and he/she must be buried in a white burial shroud of a specific set of dimensions.  Central Asia was a dangerous place and death could occur at any time.  So, to be prepared the men wore their burial shroud wound around their head to always be ready to meet their maker.

The Bukhara Old Town is like nothing I have seen in all my travels.  The buildings and vibe seem to spring from the pages of a fairy tale.  I couldn’t help but think that many of the exotic desert cities and settlement scenes in Star Wars and other fantasy movies have been modeled after this unbelievable Shangri-la. 

Beautiful sand-colored buildings and minarets trimmed with shimmering geometric patterns of blue tiles are topped by domes of all sizes and designs.  Graceful eastern arches, intricately patterned carpets, silk textiles, and pottery are on display throughout every trading dome.  And many of the older people still dress in the traditional way with beautifully embroidered dresses, tunics and robes, and richly colored silk scarves and headdresses.

Our first stop after checking into my hotel was to visit the Lyabi Haus Complex.  The complex was built around a central pool surrounded by large trees and statues.  The impressive structures include the 16th-century Madrassah Kukeldash, 17th-century Madrassah Nadir Divan-Begi, and the 12th and 16th-century Magoki Attorrri Mosque – the oldest mosque in central Asia.

As you can see from the accompanying photos the architecture of ancient Bukhara is beautiful and I will let the photos speak for themselves but I will tell you the photos do not do the craftsmanship and beauty of the intricate tile work on the buildings justice.  You really need to see them in person to fully appreciate the beauty and artistry.

A quick word about the statue of Hodji riding his donkeyHodji was a figure created in stories during the 12th century to comment on cultural, social and political matters of the time.  Free speech and social commentary was a quick way to get imprisoned or worse in those days so some inventive social wag wrote critical but humorous stories critiquing the rulers, the elites and the many social injustices and thru this comical figure the commentary was allowed.  Over the centuries his stories have become beloved throughout not only Central Asia but the middle east as well.

In addition to the beautiful madrassahs, mosques, and minarets – you will also see photos of a structure unique to Bakharatrading domes.  These four domes were created for the sole purpose of providing merchants a covered place to sell their wares.  At the same time merchants and customers were either freezing, soaking, or sweating in the snow, rain, wind or blazing sun throughout the middle ages in Europe and the rest of Asia the rulers of Bukhara had come up with the idea of the world’s first Mall.  They built these huge domed structures with stalls for various merchants to sell their silks, carpets, leather, jewelry, food, and money changing.

And to think, we in America thought we invented the indoor mall in the 1970s as a place for teenagers to hang out and old people to walk.  The rulers of Bakhara beat us by over 500 years.

Trading domes:

The 16th century Toki Sarrafon Trading Dome is the smallest and most beautifully decorated.  It was originally the dome of the money changers during the era of the Silk Road but today it is lined with souvenir sellers.  The photo with the giant modern wall ad for “Silk and Spice Fashion Days” shows off this Dome’s blue-domed entrance arch.

The 16th century Toki Tepak-Furushon Dome was perfectly situated at a city crossroads with 5 separate important roads leading to it.  The dome sold primarily fur hats and turbans. Today this massive hexagonal structure houses merchants selling knives, books, musical instruments, souvenirs, and jewelry.

The 16th century Dome of Abdullakhan was built along a street and specialized in silks, carpets, and other fabrics.  You can still buy fine Bukhara carpets, silk clothing and other Bukhara clothes from the stalls of this Dome.

Toki Zargaron Dome is the largest of all the domes. And was also known as the Dome of Jewelers. Today you can still buy Bukhara jewelry here as well as handkerchiefs, door handles, bells, good luck charms, and other household items.  I met a seller of music instruments while shopping in this dome and purchased one of his own DVDs of traditional music.

After touring the various trading domes and purchasing a few things that I just could not live without but will probably never look at again I next visited the 15th century Madrassah Ulugbek, the Kalyan Minaret and the 17th century Madrassah Abdulazizkhan before calling it a day.

My second day in Bukhara began at the Complex of Poi Kalon and included visits to the Kalyan Minaret, Kalyan Mosque, and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The Kalyan Minaret built in 1127 stands a massive 46.5 meters tall (152 feet), 9 meters across at the base and 6 meters at the top, with a foundation over 30 feet deep.  There is an interior spiral staircase that was used to march convicted criminals to the top then throw them down to the courtyard below (guess they didn’t have a liberal supreme court whining about cruel and unusual punishment for scumbags).  The minaret could be seen across the desert for miles and Silk Road Caravans used it for navigation thru the centuries.  Genghis Kahn was so taken by the engineering feat that he left it standing when he destroyed the rest of the city as he swept across the Central Asian desert.

The Kalyan Mosque next to the minaret was built in the 16th century and is the largest congregational mosque in Central Asia. The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah completes the Poi Kalan complex.  Built in 1536 as both an educational institution and mausoleum for Ubaydulla-khan still serves as an educational institution today hosting lectures on Islamic religion.

Next, we visited the Ark Fortress and CItadel built in the 1st century ad.  The Ark served as a residence for the rulers of Bukhara thru the ages.  The fortress actually contained a small city within its massive walls.  In addition to lodgings for the emir, his wives, relatives, and advisors the fortress contained stores for clothes, carpets, armory, jewelers, smiths, leather workers and other workshops, mosques, stables, jail, and food storage rooms. 

After touring the Ark we visited the 18th century Bolo Haus Mosque.   The mosque construction was actually initiated under emir Shahmurad late in the 17th century but completed in the next century.  The emir wanted to show his people he was no different than they so he built a public mosque that he himself would visit with the masses for Friday prayers.

Directly in front of the Mosque is a pool of water that in older times was used by the people of Bakhara for drinking water.  There were pools like the Bolo Haus pond situated throughout Bakhara and they were the sole source for the city’s water.  The Boko Haus as well as the other 16 ponds were used for drinking water up until the Soviets dried up most of the ponds in the early 20th century to prevent epidemics from stagnant water.

The public mosque has an elegant and pleasing design fit for an emir which makes sense since the public mosque would be hosting the emir every Friday.  There are 20 wooden carved pillars that hold up the ceiling.  The locals also call the Boko Haus mosque the 40 pillar mosque because when you look at the mosque from across the pond you see not 20 pillars but 40 with the ones reflecting from the pool.

The 300 year old mosque is still used every day for prayers.

We next visited the Mausoleum of Samanids built in the late 9th and early 10th centuries to house the burial tomb of Ismoil Samoniy.  This is the oldest brick building in all Central Asia and was constructed using baked clay bricks with a compound of egg-yokes and camel milk as mortar. 

You might remember from my Tajiki blog that Samoniy was the father of a unified Tajikistan and may wonder why his mausoleum is in southern Uzbekistan.  The answer is simple – all southern Uzbekistan was part of Samoniy’s domain.  In fact, as many Tajiks live in southern Uzbekistan as live in all Tajikistan.  The Russians split the Tajik people into different countries to better control them from Moscow.

This Mausoleum survived destruction at the hands of the Mongol invaders because Samoniy was so beloved as a ruler the locals covered the entire mausoleum in the sand to hide it from the Mongols.  An interesting fact is that Samoniy’s rule was so popular with the people that he continued to rule for 40 years after his death.  His advisors continued to rule in his name after he died and just didn’t tell the people.

Next stop was the 14th century Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum which contains the well of Job.  Yep, you guessed it! The same Job from the Bible.  The legend is that during an extreme drought the people prayed for water.  God sent the prophet Job who struck the ground with his staff and water appeared.  I’m not sure I buy the legend but the water still flows from the well today and people from all around come to drink the water and make a wish.  And while we were there dozens of people were crowding around filling bottles and jugs of all shapes and sizes between praying and kissing the tomb.

And finally, we also visited the Summer Palace of emir Sitorai Mokhi Khossa of the early 20th century, the 16th century Complex of Bhautdin Nakshband, and the 19th century Monument Chor Minor.  Photos are attached.  I have one more item to share about my purchase of two silk carpets after a few beers, a bottle of vodka, and some incredible grilled lamb but will save that for my next blog.

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