This is the second day in Bukhara.
There was a rather tedious all-day drive from Khiva to Bukhara yesterday mostly through a scrubby desert. It is some 400km from one to the other, and since camels can only walk about 30 – 40km in a day, it must have taken the traders of old some 10 – 14 days to do the trip. I suspect that on Silk Road scales that the journey of 10 – 14 days is considered short, but it still seems quite a feat to have walked across such a dry and inhospitable environment. The car journey was pretty inhospitable too, with three security checks along the very reasonable motorway. When we asked the guide about the reason for the security checks – which were in the middle of nowhere – she replied airily that they were “just” security checks.
Bukhara though is completely different in style to Khiva. Where Khiva is compact and located within city walls, Bukhara is spread out and sprawling. Where Khiva is “renovated” Bukhara has a much more authentic feel. Both cities have lots of “M”s – museums, madrassas, and mausoleums, but the “M”s in Bukhara are much older, and have not been renovated. Tiles in Khiva are only blue green and white, whilst in Bukhara there are gold coloured tile, brown tiles, and yellow tiles, with different architectural styles for each of the mosques and mausoleums. The location of the “M”s in Bukhara is also stunning – frequently they face each other. Each building has a 50 metre facade with a central design of majolica tiles dedicated to the Koran, and Islam, each with a massive central arch. These facades compete for attention, attention from the faithful who come to pray, and from the tourists who come to gawp in slack jawed amazement. Each corner that one rounds, the next set of buildings are even more extraordinary. Although enormous the buildings are graceful, and perfectly balanced. The colouring matches the deep blue sky perfectly, so that the soaring buildings seem part of heaven itself.
Where there aren’t “M”s, there are traders – of all sorts and flavours. Carpets, metalwork, knives, food, and all sorts of silk and clothing. It is clear that Bukhara has always been a trading centre and as Bruce pointed out, the only new commodity now are the tourists. Otherwise nothing has changed – trading continues unabated.
One unique aspect of Bukhara is the Jewish community. There is a synagogue that goes back to the 14th/15th century. The Jewish population of Bukhara was at least 20,000, but now numbers no more than 500. They population after independence emigrated to New York (mostly Queens), Israel and Germany. A very old gentleman who only spoke Russian showed us around, and when he heard that we were Cohenim, he very proudly showed us the Torah. Equally proudly he showed us the photos of Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton when they visited the synagogue. We also had the opportunity to visit the home of a local Jew. It transpired that the Jewish family had left some 28 years ago, but the new residents had lovingly renovated the house. It was certainly very interesting to see Hebrew script painted on to the walls. More interesting was the collection of the new owner. He had three Torah, and the one on display was written on what appeared to be leather it was so old. Talking to the owner’s wife, she said that all the Torah were like that, and that she had not had them assessed by any academic or historian. It seems such a shame that they weren’t more cared for as clearly they were very old.
The other addition to this blog is to admit to the children that we have spent more of their inheritance (SKI – spending the kids inheritance). We bought a silk carpet. The process was interesting; first we were taken to a show room where an articulate and intelligent woman named Sabina explained about carpets, what the patterns meant, and the difference between the wools and silk, the number of knots per inch, etc etc. We saw “her girls” making carpets, and there was something rather idiosyncratic about the girls sitting cross legged in front of a half-made carpet, weaving the thread you hand, and listening to their iPods. We left for lunch, and after the meal, Elaine and I discussed our negotiating strategy. We agreed an upper limit which absolutely we would not exceed. We returned expectantly and spent a pleasant half hour finding the perfect two or three carpets that we really liked. We opened negotiation. Within the first 30 seconds we (actually I – Elaine decided that it was my responsibility) had exceeded our upper limit by 50%. We returned to the hotel the proud owner of a truly fantastic pure silk rug, 320 knots per inch, and hand dyed colours. We agreed with Sabina, that it probably didn’t need to be declared at customs, and would work really well in our baggage close to the dirty washing…..
Next stop Samarkand.