You’ll have heard me speak often of “The Golden Road to Samarkand”. It’s a phrase and a concept which has inspired generations of travellers, poets, and artists to make their way across Asia along the Great Silk Road. But what many of them fail to realise is that there is a greater treasure still. It’s the city of Bukhara, a World Heritage Site every bit as spectacular as Samarkand, but somehow more complete, more perfect than its more famous neighbour.
Bukhara’s UNESCO-listed Old City is every bit as vibrant, as impressive, as the much-trodden streets of Istanbul or Rome. But in this strange time of COVID, I almost have the streets and squares to myself.
Picture me here. I am sat beneath the shade of a tree in Lyabi Hauz, a picturesque square which l surrounds the city’s original drinking water reservoir. A few elderly gentlemen are playing backgammon and drinking tea; a couple of ladies are strolling by, dazzling in their rainbow coloured silks. When I look up, I see the most graceful of historic monuments. The Nadir Divan Beghi Madrassa was originally a religious school, its elegant facade decorated inspiringly with mosaics depicting two soaring simurghs, mythical birds rather like phoenixes.
Every day, late in the afternoon when the temperature starts to cool, I take a walk (and, more often than not, stop for a drink or a snack) in another part of Bukhara. Much of the time I feel as if I am wandering in an open air museum, but the fact that people still live here, their homes squeezed into labyrinthine streets between the countless historic monuments, means that there is still a living, breathing community. If there are ghosts of the past here, they are competing for space and attention with the school girls running down the street, the women taking a break from shopping to gossip on the street, two old men sitting quietly watching the world go by, and a street dog rolling on her back to have her tummy tickled.
In the very centre of Bukhara is the Poi Kalon, the square I walk through nearly every day. The Kalon Minaret crowning the plaza was built in 1127 and it has always been the tallest structure in the city. It is said that when Genghis Khan approached Bukhara with his Mongol horde, he saw this tower from a distance and admired its beauty. When he finally reached the city, he ordered his troops to spare it, even as they laid everything else to waste. I look up at it and am reminded how much of survival is down to luck.
Talking of good fortune, I’ve fallen on my feet with accommodation. I am staying at Komil Boutique Hotel, the most extraordinary property in the Old City, a stone’s throw from the tourist sites. Through the gateway in an otherwise unremarkable wall is an open courtyard, the centrepiece of a spectacular 19th-century house.
There are many such houses in Bukhara. A number of them are still family homes. Some have been renovated and modernised in haste, but here they have got the balance between contemporary comforts and the preservation of history just right.
This house belonged to one of Bukhara’s wealthiest merchants. He must have been so proud of his home. You can see it in the weight of the carved wooden doors, the tiers of balconies around the central courtyard, and the exquisitely decorated dining room. It still has the original plasterwork and painting on the walls, the work of master craftsmen long since departed from this earth. I sit each morning by the window, drinking tea and eating fresh bread with homemade jam, and thinking about the effort they made, the skill they showed, in every single brush stroke.
I know that I will find it hard to leave Bukhara. It’s such an easy and rewarding place to be. Wherever I wander, there’s always something fascinating to see, a friendly new face welcoming me, and, more often than not, the unparalleled smell of freshly baked bread wafting in the air. What I am sure of is that my absence won’t be long. Bukhara will call me back. Will you join me here next time? You certainly won’t regret it.
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