The March Nawruz holiday (Persian New Year), timed with the Spring Solstice in Central Asia, meant I finally had a chance to visit Bukhara, one of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan which sat along the Silk Road. Luckily, I also had a friend living there, so after a three-hour sleeper train ride from Samarkand, I emerged into the warm spring day at the Old City.

The first sight which hit me was the enormous Nadir Divan-Begi Madrassa (a Muslim school). The front of it, with its elaborate tiles and coloring, was impressive and as I waited for my friend to arrive, I wandered inside the ancient structure. The individual rooms for students to live and study in were still visible but blocked by the dozens of tables selling various handicrafts. One booth, front and center, advertised a live nightly traditional Uzbek dance show, which was tempting, but I knew my time was limited.

Gathering at the Waterhole

My friend arrived then, and I followed her back out to the Lyabi Khauz courtyard. Right next to the madrassa, the plaza’s name of “Lyabi Khauz” refers to the name of a still-existent pond which used to be the water supply for weary travelers coming from the Silk Road. It still seemed, to me, to be a massively popular gathering center, with cafes and restaurants all around the pond. Life-size replicas of camels and traders standing next to tables and models of bakers with traditional tandoors paid homage to the history of the area.

Farther down the street, I led the way towards the multiple trading domes. Just as centuries passed, various vendors hawked their goods to customers from numerous nations. Each set of domes had their specialty; I browsed, letting my eyes take in all the patterns, colors and designs. One large shop had hanging carpets and rugs from hooks as well as spread out all over the ground. Another featured painted gourds, varying in shapes and sizes, with leather tassels blocking the small hole on top, which the seller explained used to be a container for oils and spices. The woodshop was stacked full with slated bookholders which unfolded from one piece of wood.

At the blacksmith, I paused to investigate the oddly shaped scissors I’d been seeing repeatedly. Upon closer inspection, I discovered they were in the shapes of animals, primarily birds. I made out a stork, kingfishers, seagulls, an assortment of fish, and even multi-colored unicorns. The blacksmith came out and introduced himself as Mohsin. “My grandfather taught me, this skill has been in our family for generations!” he puffed up proudly.

The Historic and Architectural Center

Before I knew it, we turned a corner and the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex came into view. I had intentionally avoided doing extensive research before my trip, for the joy of being surprised in-person, and the trio of structures did not disappoint. On the left, the Mir-i Arab Madrassa had a grand entrance gate (an iwan) with intricate tile designs and bright blue domes.

In the center of the open space, the Kalyan Minaret towered 150 feet tall. Built in the 12th century, legend goes that even Genghis Khan was so impressed with the brick tower that he commanded it be preserved. On the right, the Kalyan Mosque, the second largest and third tallest in Central Asia, is arguably the architectural and religious center of the city. Its construction dates back to the 16th century, and after borrowing a headscarf at the entrance, I entered, spinning in a few circles to take it all in.

On the way to the final stop of the day, I had to pick up a gift for a friend that I knew loved to bake. The traditional round flat bread, kulcha, is always stamped in the center with a handcrafted wooden stamp that uses nails to create the pattern. I spotted a young boy with a sign announcing “Free Spicy Tea!” and a large table filled with the stamps. After haggling for a few, I dared to ask about how spicy his tea was. He started pointing out the various types of ingredients which go into it, sitting in a long row of small canvas sacks, and my friend nudged me, “I think he means spiced tea”.

Puppeteering

After finishing our samples and thanking the boy, we continued on our way but I stopped again outside a window display with an entire king’s court display made of puppets. I entered the Puppet Museum, a slow smile spreading across my face, at the walls covered with marionettes dressed as clowns, dancers, old fruit venders and young brides. The head scarves and facial hair were just some of the mixed-medium elements. The puppet master wandered over to point out some favorites; one was a dead ringer for Einstein, another sported a Charlie-Chaplin-esque mustache, and a third represented a local comedic character, Nazriddin of Bukhara.

At the far side of the wall, he slowly pulled back a curtain to reveal another row of court characters, including an old witch (called Baba Yaga, like the Slavic Boogey Man who eats children and lives in a hut with chicken legs) and the king’s harem. A worker beside the puppet stage walked us through the process of creating the puppets, starting with a hand-carved wooden mold, and then the 12 layers of paper mache needed to make the base of the head. The time required to create one puppet, not to mention all the clothing, jewelry, and other details involved in the finished product, was mind-boggling.

A Town Within A Town

I barely managed to pull myself away in order to visit the Ark before it closed for the day. The 4th century fortress served as the royal residence to the emir (the leader or commander) and, as I discovered walking through the compound, was essentially another small town within the town. A stone ramp leads in through an enormous gate, and an old mosque with wooden columns and square painted ceilings is right by the opening. I peeked into the former stables, which now display artifacts from the past and one section even had stuffed animals in glass cases from the natural history of the region.

The open excavation site and ruins from a fire in 1920 were a wide, flat space to the side of the Ark. From there, I could see the cityscape, with all the domes and minarets creating a unique view. My friend called me over to the far side where an observation tower had been remodeled out of the water tower from 1929. It was an interesting metal structure to look at, but I was confident that the Ark still had the superior view of the city.

A Ramadan and Birthday and Nawruz Feast

Drained after a long, packed day, I was very much looking forward to the evening’s meal. My friend’s colleague had invited us to their family iftar, the meal breaking the fast during Ramadan. At a local restaurant, I was surprised to find the family’s private room had been divided into two long tables by gender. At the women’s table, the hostess seated us next to Shahzoda, her English-speaking niece, who helpfully explained the spread of dishes on the table.

I devoured plates of dates, vegetable soup, fried eggplants, arugula salad, and shashlik (beef kebabs) while Shahzoda regaled us with stories about everything from the trends in media (“Years ago, it was all about Mexican telenovelas, then Korean dramas and Bollywood movies were all the rage, but now it’s all about Turkish series”) to her family’s mantra about fasting (“it kills cancer cells”). AfterI figured out the dinner was a joint Nawruz celebration with the grandfather’s birthday, the men started making speeches and giving toast after toast. I joined in, clinking my glass of juice, and when the birthday cake came out, I sang along loudly and proudly, as if they were my Uzbek family.

Written by: Annie Elle

 Annie Elle picture Annie is originally from Los Angeles, although she’s been working and living abroad continuously since 2011. Currently living in Tajikistan, she’s traveled to over 110 countries and enjoys playing volleyball when she can.

Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01

 

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