Approaching Bukhara by train through the dry countryside the landscape is lumpy earth and sand with scrubby sage-green vegetation. After the green mountains of Kyrgyzstan the deserts of Uzbekistan seemed hard to bear.
But the Oases, oh the oases! I was amazed to suddenly see roses and great clumps of pink and red hollyhocks, as well as long lines of mulberry trees. The oases and desert fortresses here preserved the remnants of a great flowering of Islamic architecture, art and culture. This is a land truly rich with historical ambience.
The people of Uzbekistan and the Tajiks have more Aryan features than the Kyrgyz, almost a Mediterranean look, and some aspects of the culture remind me of how I imagine ancient Persia: red rose bushes blowing everywhere and dishes piled with yellow plums and luscious cherries – some so sweet they almost taste like jam.
The Ark is the old royal citadel, with magnificently bulging ramparts casting crenellated shadows on the gold brick stone. This is the fortress into which early players in the ‘Great Game’ – Connolly and Stoddart – rode to their doom.
With thoughts of verminous dungeons and torture we wandered the grand coronation court and played dress ups in courtiers robes. Bukhara is so peaceful and beautiful, in some ways it is difficult to imagine as the setting of such acts of barbaric cruelty as were used to frighten the small children of Victorian Britain.
The buildings rest in soft golden splendour around serene tanks of green water. Ancient mulberry trees surround the Lyabi Hauz, making purple splotches on the paving stones. Sitting beneath their shade sipping a cold beer is one of the true rewards of Bukhara travel. This area is where you will find the best Bukhara food options.
The art of Bukhara is astounding. Brilliant majolica tiles make pictures of swooping birds and a golden phoenix (it is unusual to see animals depicted in Islamic art).
The tiny exquisite Char Minar, a mere gatehouse of a long gone Medressah. We visited in the early morning and I surreptitiously watched a man sitting outside drinking tea and wearing the typical bulbous cap of Uzbekistan.
In the main complex of Medressahs students gather, children loiter and a lone skateboarder cruises past. A group of students emerges from a school and want to have their picture taken with us. From the top of the Kalon Tower we could see the whole set, from the majolica-tiled facades to the domed roofs of the covered bazaars.
In the late afternoon the rabbit warren of high brick and mud-walled streets in the old town are silent, apart from a few playing children and a strolling white-capped gentleman. Occasionally a door is left slightly ajar, allowing a glimpse of grapevine-shaded domestic courtyards, as cool and calm in the middle of the day as it has been for hundreds of years in Uzbekistan.
Have you visited Bukhara?