From Samarkand we headed north into the desert heading towards the ancient city of Bhukara, a nine hour bus ride away.
In order to break up the journey we stopped to spend the night in a Yurt camp near the village of Navoiy. While a novelty for the newbie, the veterans among us knew that the desert tended to be cold and lack most basic provisions.
The weather had also turned against us, with a heavy drizzle turning the dusty camp into mud. While several members of the group opted for camel rides in the wet, the remainder of us settled into the communal dining area where we were fed and plied with free wine and vodka. With several of the group not drinking, my table seemed to acquire the leftovers and as the numbers thinned it got left to Oli, German law student Marc, Emma, Mira and myself to ensure nothing went to waste.
Thankfully we were soon joined by some jovial locals from the camp, including ‘Big Boss’ the owner who we managed to get paralytic. Soon we were tucking into our fifth bottle of red wine and fourth bottle of vodka and the arm wrestling contests began!
With a population of 300,000 it is the third largest city after Samarkand and Tashkent and home to 45 nationalities, a melting pot of cultures.
The city is located in the centre of the Bhukara region – one of biggest and richest of 12 provinces and is known locally as a fairytale city due to its almost 140 ancient monuments and over 900 in whole Bhukara region.
The city originated in 6th century with a Chinese influence being called Bootarat meaning ‘beautiful place of idols’ before being changed to Bhukara from Indian sandscript India meaning ‘cloister or monastery’.
Despite its beauty and culture, the Bhukara region can be an inhospitable place with average summer temperatures reaching 45-50c, while in winter the can plummet to +5c to -5c.
After checking in to our hotel – an old Jewish family home – we headed out to the local bazaar which was illuminated by a brilliant red sky lighting up the night. The contrasts of colours was simply breathtaking.
Inside the markets we visited several small craft shops – the area is famed for its silk painting, metal work and textiles. After exploring for over an hour we made our way to dinner – enjoying sish kebab and local salads and fruits.
The next day we started out walking tour by visiting the mausoleum of Islamic luminary Ismail Somani which was the countries first World Heritage Site in 1994. From the mausoleum we visited several madrasah and historical buildings. It was interesting to note that in order to suppress the spread of more traditional strict adherence to Islam, no call to prayer is allowed within the city and no boy under the age of 18 is allowed in a mosque – although unlike Tajikistan, beards are allowed.
Our last stop was the ‘Ark’ Fort, a 3.9 hectare citadel fortress that served as the residence of the governors of Bhukara until 1920. Like many of the historical sites in the region the Fort has been extensively reconstructed, giving it an impressive scale but detracting from its historical value.
The boys went first, entering through the small, almost secret door, off the main market street into an old authentic domed building. After stripping off and putting on what can only be described as a thin kilt – were taken down a narrow passage into a small domed steam room where we were instructed to each stand in an alcove.
Whilst the room started off warm, within ten minutes we were all heavily perspiring, pools of sweat forming beneath us. The alcohol from the Yurt night was well and truly flushed out by the time Chris and I were summoned for our massages. We were guided by two locals, who were dressed in kilts like ours, to a central domed room where we lay on hard granite slabs and proceeded to get scrubbed, rubbed, beaten, bashed and twisted for thirty minutes.
Apparently Marc and George back in the steam room could hear our continual groans and the regular cracking of bones and backs. When the massage was complete we were then scrubbed head to toe in a coarse abrasive ginger and honey body scrub that left my whole body tingling and numb. We were left to stew in the paste for a few minutes before our masseur returned and through several buckets of cold water over us and said we could leave.
It was quite the experience and we deserved our cup of tea after. As the girls arrived it was hard not to chuckle knowing what they’d got themselves into!
After a quick shower and change at the hotel, I headed out to get some shopping before joining Oli and some Israeli travellers he’d met, for dinner. After a few beers it was time for bed before our 500km trek across the desert to Khiva.