Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the three grand pearls on Uzbekistan’s necklace, and are quintessential Silk Road destinations. The mud walls, colorfully tiled medressas and tapered minarets have become iconic — after all, this had been the center of the medieval Islamic world for centuries. Many of the most famous scholars of the Muslim era, such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), whose book on medicine had been the standard textbook for medical students until the 18th century, and Al-Khorezmi, who gave the name to the algorithm, have come from these parts, and studied and taught in these very medressas. Nowadays these humbling structures stand as remainders of a glorious past, many used as souvenir shops, hinting at a less than glorious present.
We made a quick run through these cities, mostly because of the heat — it’s 40 C and beyond here at this time of year. The hours around noon are useless for sightseeing, and are best spent in the hostel under the air conditioner, as unromantic as that sounds.
Khiva’s old city, Ichon Qala, is a small walled compound which houses almost all the city’s architectural sights, and except for its fringes, seems reserved for the use of tourism. This takes some fun out of it but the awesome sights themselves make up for that.
We made the way from Khiva to Bukhara in a taxi which we shared with a local woman and her baby. The baby sat on her lap on the front seat, except when we passed the four police checkpoints on the way, during which she handed us the baby and we placed it between us on the back seat. This seemed to be good enough for the police; less so for the baby of course, separated from its mother and flanked by two strangers — the poor boy cried his lungs out during those long minutes. Meanwhile, the mother and the driver quickly made best friends, and by the end of the six-hour-long journey they were a bona-fide couple, slapping each other and giggling like teenagers, which in fact they probably were.
Bukhara itself is a large city, chugging along rather obliviously of its past. One medressa in Bukhara is in actual use; the rest live out their lonely life, ignored by the locals, as fodder for the cameras of hordes of Japanese tourists, as well as for my own. Despite the tourism people are generally very friendly, just like elsewhere in this country: as we were walking through an alley in the old city, a young woman was standing at the door of her house, and upon seeing us, ran into the house and reappeared with a plate of fried sweets which she insisted we take. It’s hard to oblige but impossible to refuse.
Samarkand is different: very proud of its past, it has put a lot of effort in restoring and glorifying its monuments, sometimes too much effort, as the old city was walled off from the touristy central areas so as not to be an “eyesore” for the medressa-seeking happy snapper. Of course this makes walking around the old city anyway all the more satisfying. The old Jewish quarter was interesting to visit; it is now occupied by no more than 10 Jewish families, so there isn’t even always a “minyan” at the local synagogue, which one of those 10 men was proud to show us.
The monuments themselves are mind-blowing. It feels like being inside a postcard. We went as far as waking up at 5 AM in order to see them at sunrise, something not very characteristic of us to do, but the heat makes you do strange things. We visited the market, and came back to our hostel for the hot noon hours. The hostel, like virtually every house we’ve seen here, is arranged around a central courtyard, this one shaded by a giant vine and some fruit trees, creating a genuinely pleasant atmosphere. The crowd was multinational but almost entirely French-speaking, as there were people from France, the francophone parts of Switzerland, and a French-speaking Portuguese couple. Most of them were traveling on bicycles; a bike trip through Central Asia is apparently a very French thing to do. There were a few Israelis too — the most we’ve seen on this trip so far. On the day we left they were busily preparing shakshuka. After two days we were satisfied with what we’ve seen and moved on to Tashkent.