Bukhara

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Bukhara
Population: 263,400
Main industries: tourism, agriculture, textile production, oil and gas, mining
Mayor: (Acting) Farhod Latipov
Founded in 6th century, BC
Interesting fact №1: St. Job is supposed to have passed through Bukhara, summoning a spring to alleviate the people's suffering.
Interesting fact №2: The ancient astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg built a madrassa here in 1417, making it the oldest in Central Asia, although there's a matching one in Samarkand.
Sister cities: Balkh, Afghanistan; Barisal, Bangladesh; Cordoba, Spain; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Khudjand, Tajikistan; Lahore, Pakistan; Malatya, Turkey; Nishapur, Iran; Philadelphia, U.S.; Rueil-Malmaison, France; Santa Fe, U.S.; Samarkand, Uzbekistan; West Kanpur, India.
Website: buxoro.uz (under construction)

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan — It was June 17, 1842, when two British army officers, Captain Charles Conolly and Lieutenant Colonel Stoddart, were dragged from the Emir's citadel in Bukhara through the baying mob.

There, in the shadow of the giant sandstone fortress, they were forced to dig their own graves. Painfully malnourished, their clothing and hair riddled with vermin and lice, both men were unrecognizable as the heroes of Victorian Britain as they had once been feted.

Both had spent the preceding years housed in the citadel's legendary Bug Pit, a six-meter-deep hole into which buckets of scorpions, maggots and whatever filth the jailors could lay their hands on would be poured daily. Stoddart's offense was just that — a violation of protocol. He had made the mistake four years earlier of riding his horse into the Emir's fortress to deliver a letter signed by India's Governor General — instead of by the Emir's equal, Queen Victoria. Conolly's mistake was to think he might rescue Stoddart.

Thankfully, Bukhara now offers a more civilized welcome to international travelers. Woefully neglected by various Soviet leaders, either unwilling or unable to compete with Bukhara's reputation as the most holy of cities, the ancient former Uzbek capital has been restored to much of its former glory.

One of the seven holy cities of Islam, Bukhara is perhaps to Muslim minds what Constantinople was once to Christian ones. Within its towering city walls stand 48 mosques, 24 madrassas, or Muslim schools, and nine mausoleums. The wonders of ancient Bukhara can appear near limitless and, wandering its hot summer streets, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history. There is little in the collective experience that prepares the visitor for Bukhara. Its soaring minarets and perfectly preserved historical structures seem to jar with the 21st century, appearing more at home in legend than the modern day.

However, to make too much of Bukhara's past is to overlook its present, which certainly bears consideration. The Bukhara authorities reported an increase in gross regional product of 109.6 percent in 2009 and 2010, the most recent figures available. An impressive achievement, but one that has to be balanced against Uzbekistan's corresponding rise in Time Magazine's list of the most corrupt countries in the world, from 68th in 2002 to sixth last year.

Major Local Businesses

Agromir (fruit production). Aligandum Residential Area, Bukhara District. +998-98-774-1404. agromir.uz. A group of companies responsible for the development, production and distribution of healthy food and vegetables.
Daewoo Bukhara (textiles). Alpomish Ulitsa Bukhara city, 200100. +998-65-222-2251. daewoobukhara.com. A joint venture between the South Korean Cherboel and the Uzbek government focused on cotton and textile production.
Uzbekneftgaz (refinery). Head office: 100047 Ulitsa Istiqbol, Tashkent. +998-71-233-5757. ung.uz. The country's national holding company for oil and gas production.
Tour Operators:
Advantours. Mirobod kochasi-1, 47A, Tashkent. Tel: +998-71-150-3020. advantour.com
Dolores Travel Services. 27 Makhmud Tarabi Ulitsa, Tashkent. Tel: +998-71-120-8883. dolores.uz
Uzbek Travel. Navruz Ulitsa, 8, Tashkent. Tel: +998-71-227-0293. uzbek-travel.com

Similarly, concerns over the level of corruption within Uzbekistan as well as the country's human rights record are also pretty grave. Government sponsorship of forced child labor to collect the region's rich cotton harvest is an issue that doesn't appear to be going away. New York-based Human Rights Watch has described torture as "endemic."

All the same, foreign investment does appear to be flowing into the region — $195 million in 2009, the latest year for which the government has released figures — with companies such as LUKoil and Korean Daewoo's textile division having established plants in the region. Agriculture, principally cotton but increasingly cattle, makes up about 30 percent of the economy. And heavy industry — specifically that focused on harvesting Bukhara's rich natural resources — is playing an ever increasing role.

Crippled by graft, much of the area's natural resources lie uncultivated and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the resource-rich country has yet to transform itself into the Central Asian economic miracle it has the potential to be.

What to see if you have two hours

Towering above the old city's skyline is the Kalyan Minaret (Old city center, adjacent to the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex; no entry allowed at any time). Standing at 46 meters, the minaret dominates its surroundings. Dating back to 1127, the perfectly preserved tower is the remaining remnant of an adjoining mosque that has long since gone the way of history. Such is its capacity to impress that Genghis Khan ordered the minaret to be spared when his army leveled the majority of the city in 1220. Like much in Central Asia, while the minaret stands testament to all that is best in humanity, it also serves to remind us of what can be its worst. The 20th-century adventurer Fitzroy Maclean, who surreptitiously visited the city in 1938 after shaking his Soviet handlers, later wrote, "For centuries before 1870, and again in the troubled years between 1917 and 1920, men were cast down to their death from the delicately ornamented gallery which crowns it."

Another survivor of Genghis Khan's conquest of Asia, though one that fared less well, is the Ark (Registan Square; +65-224-13-49; open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entry costs 2,400 SUM ($1.50); a guide: $1.60), the enormous fortress and citadel whose huge walls offered the terrified citizens of Bukhara short-lived sanctuary against the invading Mongols. The current Ark is actually the latest survivor of many such citadels, having been built, repaired and rebuilt on this spot since about 500 AD, making its current incarnation difficult to date with any certainty.

The sheer scale of Bukhara's Ark confounds expectation as much now as it has for centuries. The ceremonial entrance to the Ark, through the enormous 18th-century towers that stand sentinel on either side of the passage leading to the interior, remains unchanged since the day Lieutenant Colonel Stoddart first made the regrettable decision to ride his horse up it.

Inside, the picture is less complete. Attack by Soviet aircraft and cannon in 1920 marked not only the end of the emirs of Bukhara but also the end of the Ark's role as a military structure. Much of the damage from that encounter remains to this day. The rear of the Ark is largely rubble and the roof of what was once the Emir's enormous reception hall is also notably absent.

To those of a grizzly disposition, the Zindan Jail, resting place of Conolly, Stoddart, plus countless others, remains largely intact and is now open to visitors. Vermin are not provided.

What to do if you have two days

The causes for Bukhara's historical fame are many. However, looming large amongst them has to be the ancient traditions of Hammam, or baths, and massage. Two Hammams have been operating continuously in Bukhara since medieval times and will always make for a welcome break.

The Bozori Kord Hammam, (Taqi-Telpak Furushon, Old Town; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., reservations required thereafter) has been in continual use since the 14th century, something its muted ambience and ancient stone walls more than attest to. A trip to the Bozori Kord is an experience that few visitors will likely forget, particularly those not paying close attention when asked to specify the strength of massage required. The Bozori Kord is largely a male-only affair. However, women can reserve places in the evening after the hammam's usual business hours. Entrance, scrub and massage will cost about $25.

Hammam Kunjak, (4 Ibodov, Old Town; near the Kalyan Minaret) is an equally ancient affair. Providing exclusively for women, visitors can access the Hammam for a more modest $1.50.

Standing in the center of one of the city center's public parks is one of the hidden treasures of the Muslim world, the Samanid, or Ismail Samani Mausoleum (Samanid Recreational Park, Ashrafi Ulitsa). Built by the Emir Ismail Samani in 905 to mark the grave of his father — though the emir was to later join him there — the mausoleum is one of the oldest-preserved monuments in Bukhara. Though quite small, the mausoleum is generally considered one of the most elegant constructions in all of Central Asia, its terra-cotta brickwork appearing to change design depending upon the position of the sun.

Prior to its annexation by the Soviet Union, Bukhara's center was once home to many ponds by which locals could drink and relax. However, with water came disease and most of the ponds were filled in shortly after Soviet annexation. The one survivor of this period being the Lab-i Hauz Ensemble, rightly regarded as simply too valuable a sacrifice for the demanding gods of civil improvement. The cool waters of Lab-i still make for a welcome relief from what can in summer be a fierce heat. Surrounded by a quite stunning architectural ensemble dating from 1568 to 1622, the Lab-i Hauz maintains the same capacity to awe as it has done for centuries. To the north of the ensemble, stands the ancient Kukeldash Madrassa, the largest in the city, dating from 1568. To the west and east, a relatively more modern madrassa and a purpose-built lodging house for traveling Sufis can be seen, all dating from the 1620s.

Nightlife

The majority of foreign visitors to Bukhara come for the culture, rather than the nightlife so, for those uncomfortable already being an object of curiosity in the street, some caution should be shown when considering an evening at a "dance bar," as the nightclubs are termed, which are almost exclusively local affairs.

Alyans (33 Muminova, Small Farmer's Market Area) and El Dorado (Small Farmer's Market Area) are two of the more notable dance bars and are within easy walking distance of each other.

Alternatively, if the bacchanalian pleasures of Bukhara's dance bars are not to your liking, you could do worse than stop by the pithily titled Regional Theater of Bukhara of Musical and Dramatic Pieces Named After Sadriddin Ayni, (3 Teatr Ulitsa; +365-224-3070). Alternatively, The Regional Puppet Theater (25 Mustakillik Ulitsa; +365-222-3286) has nightly showings of traditional Uzbek dramas. Be warned, the acting is wooden.

Where to eat

Bukara offers a wide range of Central Asian dishes, catering for every taste and every budget. From chebureki to plov, the adventurous gastronaut is sure to find something to surprise.

Minfiza, (Old Town 1st Trading Dome; +998-93-589-6666; minzifa.com) is probably the most popular restaurant amongst visitors to the city. Doubling as a boutique hotel, Minfiza offers diners one of the best views in the region. Serving solid, though not necessarily inspired, Uzbek dishes such as piping hot samsas and with a wide range of vegetarian and vegan dishes, diners can relax and enjoy unrivaled views of Bukhara's many domes and bazaars. A meal for one, without alcohol, will cost about $10. Bear in mind that Minfiza does get busy, so it is probably best to book in advance.

The Silk Road Tea House (5 Halim Ibodov; +998-65-224-2268 / +998-65-306-2520 teahouse.silkroadspices.org) is a heavily scented oasis of calm, which offers tired travelers a welcome sanctuary from the hustle of Bukhara's city center. A mere $6 will buy you unlimited servings of the many varieties of teas on offer, all accompanied by traditional Uzbek sweets and snacks. The ginger and saffron teas in particular will always reward the trip.

If location is your priority, any of the restaurants competing for space around Lab-i Hauz will exceed your expectations. The food there is sanitary but not exceptional.

Where to stay

If opulence is your watchword, then the Zargaron Plaza Hotel (256 Bakhouddin Nakshbandi Ulitsa; +998-65-223-0352) should more than satisfy. Translated from the Uzbek as Jewelers House, the Zargaron Plaza's high ornamental ceilings and cavernous lobby all provide enough bling to justify the title. Offering large, spacious rooms and a generous breakfast buffet, prices start at $90 per night for a single.

On a more intimate scale than the Zargaron Plaza and closer to the old town is the highly recommended Amelia Hotel, (1 Bozor Hoja Ulitsa; +998-65-224-1263; hotelamelia.com) Everything about the Amelia is original, with each room decorated individually in traditional Bukhari styles. The staff is generally very friendly and keen to do all they can to ensure your visit is a success. Rooms start at $65.

Hidden away on a sand-covered street in the old city lies Sasha and Sons, (3 Eshoni Pir Ulitsa; +998-65-224-4966; sashasonhotels.com). A renovated 16th-century Jewish merchant's house, Sasha and Sons offers guests a truly Uzbek experience. Again, each room is individually decorated making sure that no two stays at this boutique hotel will ever be the same. A single room with breakfast will cost $70 and a double $80.

Culture tips

After Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, many international observers expected a return to the Islamic rule of antiquity. However, confounding such expectations, Uzbekistan remains a secular state. That notwithstanding, it is probably best to remember about half the population are Muslim — and their numbers are increasing — and visitors are best advised to dress and act accordingly. For example, when visiting holy places, all visitors are expected to dress conservatively. Men should avoid sleeveless shirts and shorts, women should wear long skirts or pants and ensure both their heads and shoulders are covered. All visitors should remove their footwear before entering.

Conversation starters

Like everywhere in Uzbekistan, talk of politics is to be avoided. However, sports, and soccer in particular, remain an acceptable topic. While Tashkent's Pakhtaker soccer club tend to dominate Uzbekistan's popular league, FC Bukhara are currently holding a respectable eighth position. Wrestling remains a popular sport, most notably Kurash, a form of upright wrestling native in origin.

How to get there

There is no visa requirement for citizens of the former Soviet Union. However, quite strict visa regulations apply for Western visitors. Visa forms can be completed online at: evisa.mfa.uz/evisa_en/

Bukhara has its own airport, code: BHK, with direct flights available from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for about $700 round-trip. Flights from St. Petersburg leave on Saturdays with tickets available for $750 for a direct flight. For those already in Uzbekistan, or wanting to transfer, flights run relatively regularly from the capital, Tashkent, with round-trip tickets costing $99.

Bukhara airport is about 6 kilometers from the city center, so a taxi shouldn't cost much more than a dollar, if you tip. Should you wish a more native experience, fixed route shuttle bus No. 100 and bus No. 10 both run to the city center.

For the more adventurous, Bukhara can be reached indirectly by rail. Trains leave Moscow for Tashkent from Kazansky Station, arriving three nights later, on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday (advantour.com/uzbekistan/uzbekistan_railways.htm). Then an overnight train will take you from Tashkent to Bukhara. One-way travel from Russia starts at $285 — prices vary dramatically depending on your seating and sleeping options.

Contact the author at bizreporter@imedia.ru