23 Dec Bukhara – city guide
The final stop on our Uzbekistan holiday was Bukhara. Like Samarkand it was a major Silk Road stop leaving historical sites on virtually every corner. You can’t help but bump into bazaars, madrassas and mosques. Of the three cities we visited Bukhara was the most obviously touristy but perhaps that is because it’s smaller and most of the historical sites are concentrated in the centre. There is a fascinating dichotemy between groups of bumbling tourists and traditional Uzbek life – we saw one man trying to fit a dead lamb into the boot of his car in preparation for the night’s Eid feast!
I will be honest and say Bukhara is not an obvious food hotspot. Its main attractions are the ancient and iconic buildings. Unless you are fortunate enough to make friends with locals and get invited to eat at their home, options for good food can be hit and miss. The places we enjoyed were off the main streets, it’s worth exploring away from the bright lights of the central squares. Do not be put off though, to miss out Bukhara on an Uzbekistan trip would be a great shame so do save a couple of days for it. With all its character and history you won’t regret it!
One of the most famous Bukharan buildings is the Minaret of Kalon. Genghis Khan was supposedly so taken with the beauty and architecture of the structure that he ordered it be untouched while the rest of the city was ransacked. Until the early twentieth century it was known as the Tower of Death as criminals were thrown from its height, a ruthless fifty metres! Each of the fourteen bands has its own unique pattern which is highlighted at night by a series of spotlights. The minaret glows against the dark sky, visible for miles around. The neighbouring mosque is lovely to walk around and if you catch the call to prayer it is truly special. I was amazed at the man’s voice (non vibrato goals) with its purity of tone and the volume he got simply by singing into a tiled concave wall.
At the western end of town you’ll find the Ark, a fifth century fortress. It now houses various small museums and artefacts. While it’s interesting to walk around, there’s not a great deal there and you’ll be done in fifteen minutes. However it has my favourite typo of all time. In the room with ancient texts and Quran editions, there is a circular amulet whose Russian and Uzbek label translates as ‘necklace’. Hilariously the English label says ‘cervical amulet’… ?Brilliant.
My favourite moment occurred during our visit to Chor Bakr Memorial Complex. The first family tombs were placed here in the tenth century. The fact that I was casually wandering around ten thousand year old graves completely blew my mind. As it was said to be the burial place of Prophet Muhammed’s descendants, many relatives of rulers over the centuries have also been laid to rest here. We were one of a handful of tourists here which is surprising for a UNESCO cultural site. Admittedly this is a twenty minute cab drive out of town over dirt roads (our cab had zero suspension!) but it is a hundred percent worth it to feel the atmosphere of such an ancient place which local people still have a deep connection to.
Getting to Chor Bakr from town is easy. Finding your way back is not so obvious. It’s out in the sticks so cars don’t go past very often, let alone taxis (though in Uzbekistan you can flag down any car and they’ll be your taxi for you). We waited for a bit and were wondering whether we’d have better luck walking further on when we got hooted by a bus. I say bus, think mini-bus or even better, a seven seater van. With help from a friendly guy who spoke English we managed to communicate to the driver that we wanted to go to Kolkhoznyy Rynok (a market) and it would cost us £1. In we hopped with a nice lady and her son and off we went. As we drove the ‘system’ eventually became clear – these buses drive you wherever you need to go and pick people up on the way. There is no route as such, it’s dictated by where you need to go! So what should have been a ten minute direct drive from Chor Bakr to the market ended up being forty minutes round a very scenic route and squeezing in way more people than should really fit in a seven seater car. I was holding strangers’ babies, toddlers, helping old people climb into the back – it was great fun! Mr Munch was sitting in comparative luxury in the front passenger seat while people shoved money at him to put in the glove box to pay for their trip. Incidentally, we got ‘ripped off’ as they only pay 20p per journey but I’m not going to complain about it ?
Eventually we got to Kolkhoznyy Rynok, a bazaar selling food and day to day necessities. There are wonderful displays of melons and watermelons as well as piles of plums, perfectly ripe figs and other soft fruit. Behind the market is Talipach Gate, the last remnants of Bukhara’s defensive walls. This used to be where caravans met and taxes were collected. Similar in construction to the Ark, you can get a glimpse into how imposing and impenetrable the walls would have seemed in their heyday.
Our first meal in Bukhara was plov, Uzbekistan’s national dish. I did a post on the Plov Centre in Samarkand so have a read of that for some ridiculously delicious food! The version here had more carrots instead of green peppers which made it slightly sweeter. It had more oil and was therefore heavier than the Plov Centre but still tasted good. As an extra we had a small bowl of noodles in a tomatoey beef and vegetable stew. Sitting on the upstairs terrace gives you a nice view across the city as well as the occasional breeze – very important when it’s forty degrees outside!
Another tip is to try hotel restaurants. On one of our wanders we came across Lyab-i Hauz down a side street from the similarly named Lyabi Khause, a popular open square with a large pond and fun water jets. The restaurant itself is set in a lovely central courtyard, quiet and relaxing. As it was Eid we had to book a table a day ahead. There are a mixture of European and Uzbek dishes to cater for a wide spread of tourist tastes. Mr Munch had spinach ravioli while I chose lamb and veg stew. I love the use of herbs in this part of the world and the dishes were seasoned well too. One of the better places to eat in Bukhara for sure.
Our room at the Hotel As-Salam was a great surprise. We lucked out with a family room – double height ceiling, two double beds and a blueprint the size of my flat! Definitely the most comfortable hotel thus far on our trip. Breakfast is also good, especially the ever ripe melons and if you fancy something savoury there are somsaas (pastries filled with potatoes, veg or minced meat). English is widely spoken in Bukhara so you won’t have trouble with language barriers. Driving to the train station takes 25 minutes while the airport is even closer at 15 minutes. The main attractions are easy to walk to so all in all this hotel is very well placed. I’d definitely stay here again!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Bukhara post – do check out my city guides on Tashkent and Samarkand if you haven’t already! Please give it a thumbs up below and follow me on instagram for more munchtime adventures!