Whenever you are in Uzbekistan, make sure you visit Bukhara.
I wish that someone had advised me on that point earlier. I had indeed visited Tashkent with the obligatory side trip to Samarkand, but I had never heard of Bukhara until chancing upon a news article discussing its history, etc.
I have a fascination with Uzbek history, most specifically with a inexplicable interest in Amir Timur that outshines my interest in almost any other historical figure. But the truth is I went to Bukhara not for the history. I went for the Bath. But in the end I found much more.
The entrance to the main mosque of Bukhara that they say can fit 20,000 worshipers at one time.
I arrived in early morning on the overnight train from Tashkent. I was put in a luxury compartment. The cost? About $30. Well, I must say here that the train doesn’t actually arrive in Bukhara. It arrives in Kagan. I found out later that this was because although Russia offered to build a railroad to Bukhara, the Bukharate Emir declined, citing the fact that Bukhara is a holy city. It was here that I learned that Bukhara is one of the Seven Holy Cities of Islam.
It is only about 5 kilometers to Bukhara from the Kagan train station and a taxi ride is just a few dollars. I was armed with the address of my hotel in Bukhara. The taxi driver dropped me off in the middle of a square, shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s somewhere over there.” As I stumbled out of the car into the dark morning, I realized I was in for a real treat.
Ornate hand carved wooden door in Old Bukhara
The architecture I was now surrounded by was more impressive than anything else I had seen in Central Asia, and there was a lot more of it. After plodding around in the shallow snow that morning unsuccessful in my search for any type of street sign, I walked into a hotel and managed to convince them to call the hotel I was staying at. It turned out to be a simple bed and breakfast and the owner walked over to find me and guide me to my room.
I waited for the sun to come up, ate my breakfast, and immediately set out looking for the ancient Bath of Bukhara. More on that later.
After the bath, I explored some more and soon began to understand that there was a lot more to this city than I had ever imagined. Since it was now lunch time, I went into a Chaihona and was immediately invited by the owner to sit down at a table with three men, who were celebrating a birthday, all in various states of inebriation. This was a clever and friendly gesture by the owner because they fed with me with shashlik and then casually mentioned that they were tour guides. I have been to 35 nations in my life, but Bukhara is the only place that I have ever hired a tour guide. And I am glad that I did.
The Bukhara fortress known as “the Ark” was seen by Alexander the Great, Amir Timur, and Genghis Khan
It is said that when Bukhara was suffering from drought, the people prayed to the Almighty for water. It was at that time that the prophet Job was traveling in that area and he struck the ground and pure water sprung out of the ground. This shrine marks the spot of that spring.
Don’t make the mistake I made of visiting Bukhara for just one day. You will want to spend time observing more of the wood carving. These wooden pillars in front of a mosque are each carved from single elm trees.
Here is the minbar in one of the mosques. My guide told me that the imam never preaches from the top step as that is reserved for the Prophet who is to come who will lead us into all truth.
Legend has it that when Genghis Khan looked up at the top of this minaret his hat fell off. When he bent down to pick it up, he realized that he had never knelt before anyone or anything in the world until then. He then ordered that the city be leveled, but the minaret saved.
Beyond those things I learned much more, including the significance of Bukhara in the Silk Road and the importance of the Bukharate Emirate and its relation to Russia over the centuries.
And, yes, I have also been to many baths around the world. That includes the Baths of Budapest, Turkish Baths, and of course, the Russian Banya. But the most ancient bath I have visited is the Bath of Bukhara.
They led me into a cave steam room where I was to relax. Then a man came to torture my back with various massage techniques. He then had me lay on my stomach with my knees bent and my feet in the air. He then stood up and somehow wrapped the calf of his legs around mine and bent forward. This caused my legs to lift in the air, as he somehow lifted himself into the air putting both his weight and mine on my upper chest which was now being jammed into the hot stone surface I was laying on. He then gave me a ginger type substance and told me to rub it on my skin everywhere. Since his Russian wasn’t very good and my Uzbek is non-existent I used sign language to indicate that he really meant everywhere. I saw no sense in this, but when in the Bukhara Bath, one must do as the Bukharite Bathers do. So I did. I never knew before that ginger would create a burning effect on one’s skin, especially when applied everywhere. Now I know. And it requires a surprising amount of water to rinse off ginger. Now I know.
It was the Bath that first lured me to Bukhara, but it was the history that makes me want to visit again.