Best known today for its rugs, the Uzbek city of Bukhara has been admired for centuries for its holy architecture and acclaimed seats of learning. It was a centre of religion and education from the 17th century until the communists clamped down on the majority of its mosques and madrassas.
Nowadays, it’s one of the Silk Route’s most atmospheric cities, with small, characterful boutique hotels, traditional restaurants and dozens of photo-worthy buildings covered in glittering blue tiles or decorated with ornamental brickwork.It’s more laid-back than the busy Samarkand and it feels more authentic than the museum city of Khiva.
Lyabi House Hotel is on a tiny alley in the heart of the old Jewish Quarter, in easy walking distance of the main sights. A typical traditional 19th-century Uzbek house, complete with inner courtyard, it has 40 simple guestrooms, each full of character and decorated differently, with suzani (embroidered wall hangings) wall hangings and exposed beams. The restaurant not only serves traditional Uzbek salads, plov (pilau) and kebabs, but also has a wall displaying Oriental brassware and Russian crockery.
Malika Bukhara has a more-modern style, with cable television, air-conditioning and a pretty summer teahouse to relax in during the warmer months.
Start at the city’s most atmospheric spot, Lyab-i Hauz (Holy Pool), a plaza built in 1620. It’s surrounded by shady mulberry trees and small cafes selling tea. Next, head west into the covered bazaars, with their cooling whitewashed domed roofs and merchants who sell spices, jewellery, bolts of ikat fabric and suzanis.
From there, look up and follow your eyes to the city’s most famous landmark, the 47-metre-tall, 12th-century Kalon Tower. Enemies and prisoners were once thrown from the top (hence its other name, Tower of Death) and men would keep watch from the rotunda at the top at times of war.
Cross the street to the Bolo Hauz Mosque, built in 1712, to admire its carved wooden pillars and vaulted iwan.
Students, tourists and budding photographers all congregate in the subterranean Photo Gallery, near Gaukushan Madrassa, run by Iranian photographer Shavkat Boltaev. Inside, you can buy prints of Bukhara through the seasons and gritty city scenes of gypsy quarters. There’s also a display of ageing cameras and tripods.
New to Bukhara’s restaurant scene is Budreddin (Bahovadin Nakshbandi Street), a one-minute walk from Lyab-i-Hauz. It has a distinct Silk Route vibe, but exposed brick walls, retro typewriters and black-and-white prints are a departure from the usual kitsch scene. Vegetarians are catered for: lentil soup or vegetable manti (dumplings) with sour cream are great value.
The bazaars are full of embroideries, but quality doesn’t come cheap and you need to know where to go. One of the masters of suzani textiles is Toshev Rakhmon (Lbabaxanov Street). He has been weaving all his life and his home doubles as a shop and gallery. Expect to pay about $500 for a detailed wall-hanging about a metre-and-a-half wide.
Don’t book into Bukhara’s larger hotels, because the city has a great range of boutique-style accommodation. Some are veritable museums.
Silk Road Spices Tea House is a cafe legendary for its wide range of herbal teas and atmospheric decor – think Arabian Nights, Uzbek-style. Tourists come here to cool off with free refills of ginger, mint and saffron tea, all served with delicious honey and sesame brittle, raisins and walnuts. It’s easy to find, right next to the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, with its distinctive pair of blue domes.
Article: Caroline Eden
Copyrights: Abu Dhabi Media (via The National), Getty Images.
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