If you are thinking of taking a trip around Uzbekistan, you cannot miss one of the jewels of the Silk Road, Bukhara.
As I mentioned in previous posts, I was finally able to get to know this city together with Tashkent and Samarkand. Bukhara was the one I liked the most. It leaves you speechless in more than one occasion. It has definitely been one of the most magical destinations I’ve ever visited. While walking through its narrow streets, images of Aladdin came to my mind and I imagined him flying over the rooftops of the city on his magic carpet.
This town is an oasis of golden and blue domes, minarets, madrasas and mosques. The historical center of Bukhara was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. Also, this city has been, after Mecca, the second center of Muslim pilgrimage and also assumed the role of cultural and religious center of the Islamic in Central Asia.
It has had more than 100 madrasas, which are schools where the Koran was taught, since the city was formerly a center of famous doctrine in the Islamic world, with about 10,000 students and about 300 mosques. All of them built during the reign of Timur, also known as Tamerlán, which ruled the country for almost two centuries, from the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Bukhara has passed through various hands throughout its history, from having been the capital of the Samánidas, to falling under the power of the Timur dynasty. It has also been part of Russia and the Soviet Union until it finally became independent in 1991.
One of the things that caught my attention throughout Uzbekistan is that you don’t feel so harassed for being a Westerner in a Muslim country. Usually, I am self-conscious when it comes to behaving or how to dress in a Muslim country. For example, when I traveled to places like Turkey or Dubai, they tend to look at you differently because you are not Muslim and sometimes, not in a comfortable way because of that. These countries might claim to be open, but in reality, they aren’t, at least from my experience, in particular in Istanbul.
However, this did not happen to me in Uzbekistan. I thought that the country would be much more conservative, partly because it is not as touristic as the countries mentioned before above, but curiously, it turned out to be a surprise and the country was very open-minded.
Tolerance is breathed, perhaps because it has always been a city that, being on the Silk Road, was used to receive foreigners. So many invasions from all directions have made the country open and welcoming.
As for the clothing, we indeed wore long dresses that covered the legs and shoulders but I didn’t feel out of place, not even for a moment. We even saw local people dressing very western style and some women even without veils. In fact, in places of worship, women are not even required to cover their heads.
The people were very friendly, welcoming and always helping you in whatever way they could and they smile at you constantly. You could tell that they were delighted that tourism began to arrive in their country, and they welcome you the best they can. At least I am saying all this from my own experience.
Another thing to highlight about the city is that it has a prominent Jewish community that coexists without tension with Muslims.
Bukhara surprises at every corner with centuries of history, culture and its impressive Islamic architecture. The whole city is like a museum where you feel like traveling back in time. In addition, unlike Samarkand, it is possible to walk between most of the spotlight places because of the short distance. I recommend you to spend here two whole days.
How to arrive to Bukhara?
Bukhara is located between Samarkand and Khiva.
We arrived by fast train from Samarkand. The Spanish company Talgo has made possible better communication between various cities in Uzbekistan. If you take this fast train it will take just under two hours from Samarkand to Bukhara. But you need to buy the tickets in advance because they are sold out very quickly or you will end up in the slow old trains.
From Bukhara to Taskhent, we did not buy the train tickets in advance, only around a month before, therefore, we had no other option but to take the only possible train that took 6 hours to arrive at the capital. As a recommendation, I advise you to buy the train tickets at least 3-4 months before going. The Talgo fast train takes 4 hours, therefore you will save two hours.
The train back to Tashhent left Bukhara at 4 pm so we arrived in Tashkent at 10 pm having to spend the night in the capital. But thanks to this, we were able to visit Tashkent the next day since our flight did not leave until the afternoon.
What to see in Bukhara?
Lyab-i-Hauz Square and Madrasa Nodir Devon Begi
It is one of the squares around which Bukhara’s life revolves and the nerve center of the city. It is surrounded by what once were three madrasas, the most significant of those three is Nodir Devon Begi, which has two beautiful birds of happiness, also called Simurg. Currently they are used as a market with stalls where they sell different types of souvenirs, crafts and rugs.
This square has a pond in the middle, formerly used for irrigation. In fact, its name literally means “by the pond”. Bukhara came to have more than 120 ponds and a large network of canals through which engineers brought water to these ponds. However, sometimes when water was stagnant it brought epidemics, so when Uzbekistan passed into Soviet hands, they renewed the entire irrigation system and removed many of these ponds.
This square comes alive at sunset and when night falls and the temperature finally drops a little and the Uzbeks dare to leave their houses.
It becomes a very lively place full of banches where the locals sit to hang out, where a couple of restaurants in the surroundings put some tables out and people have their teas and even beers. Another thing that caught my attention, that despite being a Muslim country, the Uzbeks, perhaps by inheritance from the Soviet Union, drink alcohol.
Vendors also put their stalls in the same plaza to sell local products. In short, it is worth taking a walk around.
Madrasa Chor Minor
It was the first place we visited in Bukhara. It took us a while to find this mosque, despite being only 15 minutes from the previous square. The name itself means “four minarets” although they never really fulfilled the function of minarets, but rather, a decorative feature.
It is a small building with four minarets topped with blue glazed ceramic. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Indian construction style. It dates from the early 19th century and was built by a city merchant to accommodate 59 students. The interior currently houses a store with local products.
Abdulaziz Khan Madrasa
It consists of an interior courtyard with four terraces, the entrance portal and the housing niches for students studying subjects such as astronomy, mathematics and Arabic. The main facade has some birds and flower details as decoration.
One of the things that attracted attention was that, despite the fact that Islam expressly prohibits the representation of human and animal figures in religious buildings and in objects of worship, animals appear represented on the facades of mosques and madrasas in Uzbekistan several times.
This madrasa was built two centuries after the Ulugbek Madrasa which is opposite, both forming part of the same complex. Although the latter has a fairly simple architectural style, comparing with the Abdulaziz Khan that is grandiose and of very elaborate architecture.
The walls and portals show almost all the decoration techniques used in those times, such as reliefs, tiles, mosaics or muqarnas, called in Timur architecture, which decorate the entire arch of the facade portal. Also noteworthy are the images of Chinese dragons and the Simurg birds of happiness, which is due to the city’s relationship with other countries on the Silk Road.
Ulugbek was the grandson of Timur, also called Tamerlán and he ordered the construction of this mosque in the 15th century, smaller in size than those we will see later in Bukhara. Ulugbek was an enlightened and intellectual ruler, concerned with the development of science in Uzbekistan. While living in Bukhara, back then, it was a strict and conservative city since it was the Muslim capital of Central Asia.
Ulubek decided to build this madrasa in the hope that the city would become a science and education center instead of being so conservative.
There is an inscription that decorates its facade, taken from the Koran that says “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of all Muslim, men and women” and it has geometric and astral decoration since Ulugbek became famous throughout the World for his research in the field of astronomy.
Today the Museum of the History of Restoration of Bukhara Monuments is located here.
Taqi Safarron Bazaar
The buildings of the bazaars will not leave you indifferent either. Some are old caravanserai, a type of building that emerged along the main roads where travellers or merchants who came from afar, such as those on the Silk Road, with their caravans, could spend the night, rest and recover from the trip, both them like the animals they brought with them.
They were built as vaulted passages and always protected their inhabitants from the snow and cold of the winter and from the heat of the summer. Here you will find all kinds of local products, but above all, countless tapestries, silk scarves and rugs, handicrafts and the typical Uzbek porcelain with which I fell in love and and which I bought several pieces.
This bazar in particular means “souk of the money changers” due to the function that for centuries was carried out by those who were in charge of changing the currency. Vendors came out to greet you and smiling showing you their golden teeth, something typical in Uzbekistan, where it is a sign of beauty, in both men and women, and a sign of wealth.
This fortress stands out for its impressive walls. In the center of the Ark is a large complex of buildings, including the City Museum, and one of the best preserved is the Ul’dukhtón Mosque, which is linked to legends of forty tortured girls thrown into a well. We, however, did not enter the fortress because we they were about to close.
This enormous citadel was once a military fort and symbol of state power. It is one of the oldest structures in Bukhara although it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was used as a royal fortress until 1920.
I recommend that you to go at sunset, because you’ll see how the walls are bathed in the golden sun and with pinkish sky, which is a wonderful sight.
Bolo Hauz Mosque
This mosque is practically opposite to the Ark Fortress. It is characterized by the 20 wooden columns of its portico. Many people refer to it as the mosque with the 40 columns because there is a pond just in front of it, which thanks to the reflection of them in the water, makes the columns multiply.
It is curious because it differs from all the ones we had seen until then. The reason why this mosque is so particular is because Uzbekistan is an arid territory and trees are hard to find, in particular of big dimensions. The wooden pillars of this mosque came from huge trees that must have been sourced from a very far distance. We arrived just as the worship began, so we could hear the call to prayer, which, regardless if you are Muslim or not, invites you to spiritual introspection.
This mosque is located in the Poi-Kalon square, next to the minaret of the same name. This square is the most beautiful in Bukhara. It is said to have a capacity for 12,000 persons. It is the second largest mosque in Central Asia after the Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand.
You can go inside and see its large patio surrounded by arcades. The two domes decorated with blue mosaics are so impressive.
It is the highest minaret in Uzbekistan with 47 meters high. Its primary use was to call to prayer, to watch the city for possible invasions, and even to get prisoners thrown down. It was built in the 12th century and it has different hand-carved reliefs.
This madrasa is located just in front of the Kalon Mosque, in Poi-Kalon Square. It has a façade with a portico with vaulted niches, muqarnas, two large vaults with blue mosaics and all fully decorated with reliefs and sacred texts.
It has 114 cells for students, the same number as suras or chapters the Koran has. It belongs to one of the most renowned Islamic Teaching Centers in the region. Today, it is still active, training students who want to learn Islamic dogma and the Koran.
Silk Road Tea House-tea house-
In Uzbekistan there are typical places called Chaihona of which I was already familiar with after been living in Moscow.
They are tea houses, places to rest along the legendary Silk Road. A place where travelers rested, had tea, socialized with each other and sang together. Tea in Asia is more important than just a drink to quench your thirst. It is a way of life, it is part of social life. People go to the chaihona to tell their stories, to chat, to celebrate something. Formerly it was a place where only men could go.
Tea opens and closes any meal, guests are greeted with tea, and if rejected it is considered rude. It is always served freshly made and a whole ceremony that revolves around tea.
We, in particular, visited this one, very close to the Poi Kalon square, in an alley, so you have to point it out on the map because if you don’t, you won’t get there by chance. I imagine they are all more or less similar, but to me, this one was amazing.
Everything in Bukhara was like being in an Ali Baba story, like being part of the Thousand and One Nights or in Aladdin’s set movie, and that place added to the list. All the walls were full of colorful tapestries and around them, a patio covered with wooden tables and chairs. In the entrance area were wide wooden benches with a table in the middle. We chose this one because it was prettier and bigger so the six of us fit without problem.
There we went to rest for a while, to have tea and to try some typical Uzbek sweets.
Chor Bakr Memorial Complex
Its name literally means “Four Brothers” and its construction began in the 11th century. However, it is known as “the city of the dead” and is included in the list of World Heritage Sites. It is located about 20 minutes from the city so you have to go by taxi. We took a mini van because there were 6 of us. The driver waited for us during the hour we were visiting the Memorial. It was under reconstruction when we went.
The site really lacks the grandeur of other sites we have visited before. The complex consists of three buildings, the madrasa, the mosque and the khanako that form a harmonious architectural ensemble. There are mausoleums of important people such as Abu Bakr Saad, descendant of the prophet Muhammad, but beyond that, I don’t think it’s especially worth the visit.
Here I have an anecdote and that is that it was the first time in my life that a bee stung me. I was walking around the Memorial Complex and it seems that in the old remaining muqarnas, the bees have found the perfect place to nest. I was walking with sandals that are not tied with the bad luck that I got just one between the foot and the sandal. Of course, when I put my foot down to walk I got stung. It was an act of defense but I felt like a pin was stuck in me. At first I thought I wish I wasn’t one of those people who were allergic to bee stings because we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Thank God, in half an hour it didn’t hurt anymore.
Last Emir’s Summer Palace
I’m glad I discovered it, because it’s not a place that usually appears among the places to visit in Bukhara. It is about a 20 minute drive from the city, so you should take a taxi to arrive there.
Once there, the colorful buildings are striking. There is a costume museum and a museum of decorative arts, with lots of silk carpets, ceramics or Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Inside, the ancient palace was so beautiful, full of mosaics and tiles from walls to ceiling and colourful stained glass.
These are modern buildings, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I must say that it worth the visit.
When to go to Bukhara?
We went on the second week of May and especially in Bukhara we had temperatures that were close to 40 degrees Celsius, so it was often hard to walk in all the heat. After 12 pm and until 4 pm the city was a real oven.
When people see my photos, they ask me “How did you do to be alone in the photos? Did you have to get up early so that there was no one there?” . To which I replied that not at all. You only have to go there at 2pm with almost 40 degrees C. You will be alone too.
I, therefore, recommend going in the months of April-May or September-October. In summer, it is very boiling, about 50 degrees C in the shade and from November to February it is very cold and it snows a lot.
This famous 10th-century doctor was born near Bukhara and he lived in the city for a while. He was also a philosopher and scientist and wrote about three hundred books about philosophy and medicine, mainly. He was one of the leading doctors of all time.
He mixed Aristotelian doctrine with Neoplatonic thought. He had a significant influence on later thinkers and also raised long before Descartes a thought similar to this one: the undoubted knowledge of his own existence. It opened the way to a branch of Islamic philosophy, the Wisdom of Enlightenment.
He also wrote a canon of medicine, known as the Avicenna Canon, written in 1020 and is currently one of the most famous books in the history of medicine.
Where to eat?
As for the typical food to try:
- Plov is the most typical food in Uzbekistan. It is rice with meat, usually lamb, carrots, onion and garlic.
- Laghman soup with noodles and meat.
- Pelmeni, they are like ravioli stuffed with meat.
- Kebab or Shashlik. They are skewers of meat, usually lamb, but also chicken.
- Tomato and cucumber salads will put you with everything you ask for. But watch out! Uzbek tomatoes are some of the tastiest I’ve ever had.
Please note that you will not find pork here because Muslims do not eat pork. However, regarding alcohol, I was surprised that you can find beer in all restaurants.
And for restaurants I recommend the following:
- Chayxana Chinar
- Mavrigri Restaurant – Chicha Bar
- Old Bukhara Restaurant
- Chasmai Mirob Terrace
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Bibi-Khanym Hotel. The buildings in Uzbekistan have a central courtyard and all the rooms are around. Our hotel was close to the Lyab-i-Hauz Square. Taking the street that leads to the synagogue and walking about 5 minutes you arrive at this hotel.
We had already booked it in advance on Booking.com because we had been told that May is when Uzbekistan has many visitors and we did not want to stay anywhere. For us, part of the travel experience also includes the type of accommodation.
I found it very beautiful and the perfect place to stay. It is decorated in Uzbek style. We were in what they call the family suite, and it was huge. In fact, the lady of the hotel told us, as all the Uzbeks were very friendly, that our room was one of the originals of the building. They had restored the essentials on it, leaving the original structure as the beams, among other things.
The price of two nights with breakfast included, -us with our 3-year-old daughter., came out at 166€. It has a score of 9.5 on booking.com. I leave here the link to the hotel in case you are interested in booking here.
If you have any questions or questions, you can send me an email or write it in comments.
Thank you so much for reading me.
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