Monday, April 21, 2008


ahhh, Bukhara. An oasis city, Central Asia's holiest, and now a tourist hotspot. Despite the high volume of French tour groups wandering the streets of the old town, the friendly locals have no problem guessing where we are from. "Aleman?" It's a bit of a shock after the last few days, but we are not complaining - a comfortable room with a comfortable bed and a comfortable pillow plus a great breakfast of fried eggs, stewed green apricots, apricot jam and lashings of apricot tea. Okay, green tea. There are old tiled mosques and medressas aplenty, in various states of repair, although only one or two mosques are still used for their original purpose. Many others are given over to handicraft stalls selling carpets, all kinds of embroidered textiles, miniature paintings, instruments and jewellery. Smoke billows from shashlyk stalls in the shade of mulberry trees.

Bukhara grew in the 9th century into a centre of Persian culture and Islamic learning. After suffering a setback at the hands of ol' Ghenghis, it recovered slowly in the shadow of Samarkand and by the 16th century had more than 100 medressas and 300 mosques. At this point it was the capital of the Bukhara khanate, but by this time the trade routes of the Silk Road were dying out. The Russians were not very sympathetic to its religious heritage during their time here, and since independence the Uzbek government have continued to develop it for tourism. The phrase "living museum" has been used. But the old city is still lived in and not all the bazaars are for tourists. At the weekend the centre is full of locals all dressed up and out for a good time.

We meet James, our compatriot, who has detoured through Pakistan and Afghanistan since we last met in Iran. He looks remarkably well on it. We spend the day sight-seeing, catching up on each other's journey, and discussing onward plans. You can climb an old Russian water tower (it looks like something I made out of Meccano once) for a view over the citadel and the blue-tiled domes of the mosques. Gayle resists, but James and I brave the spiral staircase to the top. The city spreads out, and there are trees as far as the eye can see. The city used to be supplied from springs by a series of canals and pools that have been reopened. Water looks a bit ropey mind. In the evening we consider the "Central Asia visa mind melt", as James describes it, with an aperitif of vodka. In theory it should be simple to get a visa for the next country you want to visit in each
capital city. But prices, application criteria, visa durations, starting dates and permissions vary country to country, and depend upon your nationality and route. We move on to a main course of vodka as we discuss potential routes through Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan, which interlock with Uzbekistan like those really unusual pieces you get on a 50,000-piece jigsaw. We move onto a dessert of vodka sat in the park under a full moon, theorising on the merits of travel by Land Rover, bactrian camel, bicycle, Soyu Space capsule, Tajik Airlines, Shanks' Pony with some fella called Stan. It gets a bit blurry after this...........

The sufi movement is big stuff in these parts. Sufis were extremely successful at introducing Islam to Central Asia and particular sufi teachers are still venerated. There are shrines dotted around everywhere and we visit that of Bakhautdin Naqshband, close by. A brotherhood was formed by his followers to defend the faith and it was foremost in resisiting Russian occupation in the Caucasus. As well as inspiring and leading guerilla groups over the years, the Naqshbandi were also able to keep Islamic religious practice alive in Central Asia throughout the Soviet era of repression. It is interesting to see that the current president is possibly as repressive as his predecessors when it comes to political and religious freedoms. The brotherhoods remain clandestine. The shrine itself is a collection of mosques around two courtyards containing a holy well and the tomb. A talismanic hoses' tail hangs from a flagpole over the tomb for protection. Many of the visitors circle around a holy tree three times anti-clockwise, tie prayer ribbons. These are pre-islamic rituals. It's fascinating to see........

never mind the quality, feel the width

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