Article by João Pedro Fernandes
The region’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia, Uzbekistan is the proud home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the fascinating history of the Silk Road. In terms of sights alone, Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s biggest draw and most impressive showstopper.
Riding out from the Turkmen city Turkmenabat at first light, attempting to beat the scorching sun, I couldn’t wait to get across the border. The trip from Turkmenabatto Bukhara used to be like travelling from one country to another in Europe. Back in the Soviet times to go from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan was like travelling from any country in Europe to another, you just got in your car and drove. There might have been a sign along the road, but it was basically an administrative line, with no consequences for the traveller. It is no longer like that. In fact, the border between two of the world’s most repressive dictatorships reflects the suspicions of both xenophobic neighbours. Today, the road is in a state of disrepair, used mostly by trucks transiting from Iran to Kazakhstan via Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
But I made it. I cleared immigration with no problem. The process was similar to entering Iran, except that there was an additional step. I had to pay $12 to open a police report so that they could mark any violations during my visit. This is the only country I’ve been to that assumes you are going to break the law when you enter, so they open up a separate police report!
While heading to Bukhara, a never-ending stream of lorries kicked up dust, reducing visibility to nothing, and I had to contend with patches of sand and occasional piles of rubble left to block the path made for a cautious, perilous and fun ride.
No sooner had I rocked up at LabiHauz, the centre point of Bukhara that comprises of a historic pool (one of two that remain of the many that served the town’s washing, drinking and laundry needs in the 17th century), than I was approached with an accommodation offer. I decided earlier that I would jump at the first place with a shower for under $10. I grinned upon hearing the words ‘Air con… lovely breakfast… quiet location… off road parking… ten dollars’! Never had finding a place to stay been so easy! (Not so easy was getting the bike into the courtyard…) Bukhara turned out to be an absolutely delightful town – dusty yet beautiful, bustling but chilled out – I couldn’t ask for more and I settled in for a much-needed break off the bike.
My B&B was a cute little family run place, centred on a cool shady courtyard, and I was ushered to sit down for watermelon, chai and biscuits as soon as I crossed the threshold. The owner’s son, Abdul, spoke great English and was able to advise me on where to find petrol the next day – I had passed many abandoned gas stations in the 60km from the border to Bukhara, and the one place open for business was sporting a queue of at least 100 cars. I definitely needed insider knowledge on that one! He also arranged for me to change some money on the black market at a rate of 2200 sum for your dollar, as opposed to the 1600 sum offered at the official rate!! The currency here is ridiculous – the biggest note is 1000 sum (about 30p!) so you are forced to carry round great wads of cash just for a trip to the minimart. (Makes you feel pretty flashy though!)
The next morning, I had a fantastic, and huge, breakfast comprising of chai, fresh figs and grapes, bread, muffins, fried egg, sausage, and a strange concoction of what looked like curd-like cheese that you add milky yoghurt and sugar to (absolutely delicious, thank goodness!). I headed out for a leisurely wander around the historic city. The place is filled with stunning mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools) and with the perfect blue sky as a backdrop to the intricately tiled facades. I was in photographer heaven!
One key monument is the minaret of the Kaylon mosque; a launching pad for criminals back in the day. Legend has it that the only person to have survived the fall was a young, recently married woman. Her last request to the executioner was to wear the dress her husband bought her for her wedding day. Not knowing which was the favoured garment, her servant brought all forty dresses from her wardrobe, which the lady subsequently donned one by one before being pushed to her death. The padding cushioned her fall and she survived, prompting the impressed emir to spare her life. It is now a Bukharan tradition that a man must give his bride forty dresses on their wedding day – just in case!
A week later when the time came, I really didn’t want to leave Bukhara and could have easily spent another few weeks chilling under the ancient mulberry trees surrounding LabiHauz and chatting with the friendly locals and travellers. However, Iwas all too aware that my Uzbekistan visa would expire in three weeks and there was still a lot to see, so I reluctantly packed up to Khiva, and with help from some guests, managed to get the bike back into the street and away. Goodbye Bukhara, I’ll be back one day.
Natalya and Crystle-Day are two ladies who love cats but are not “cat ladies”. There is a difference