In Issue 7.5, Gaya Travel introduced two destinations in Uzbekistan, which were Tashkent and Khiva. In this issue, we continue our travel in this Central Asian country by bringing two more destinations: Bukhara and Samarkand. Being the beacons of Islamic knowledge during the mediaeval ages, both destinations offer inspiring vestiges and monuments from their past heydays, particularly during the rule of Amir Timur.
The bus ride from Khiva to Bukhara, which was 490 kilometres long, took ten hours. Throughout the journey, we saw fields of cotton crops grown on the land, farm houses built from clay and glimpses of locals going about their lives. The scenery then gave way to the desolate desert, which was scattered with sand, rocks and shrubs.
Throughout the first four hours of the entire journey (covering around 200 kilometres), our bus had to negotiate with countless potholes, gravels and uneven road along the way because almost half of the highway was still under construction then.
We suppose that after over eight months since our last visit, the road from Khiva to Bukhara should already have improved. We were glad to have finally arrived in Bukhara in the evening. Due to the city’s popularity, it is noticeably more touristy than Khiva. Interestingly, rather than Uzbek, the local language here is Tajik.
This 2,500 year-old city had been conquered by different powers throughout the ages. During the 1st Century A.D., it was the centre of Buddhism in Central Asia, thus its name is believed to have been derived from the word ‘Vihara’, which means ‘Buddhist monastery’. Islam then arrived in Central Asia in the 8th century and left indelible marks throughout Bukhara’s history ever since.
In 1220 A.D., Genghiz Khan ransacked Bukhara. Then in 1365 A.D., it came under the control of Amir Timur. During its height, Bukhara served as one of the major centres of learning in the Islamic world. With such rich history, it would require visitors to take at least up to three days to cover all of the vestiges and historical monuments in Bukhara alone.
The city is also inhabited by Jews and has two synagogues, 450 and 150 years old respectively. The majority of Jews in Uzbekistan reside in Bukhara. To truly experience Bukhara, visitors should try staying within the atmospheric Bukhara Old City in order to soak in the area’s old world charm that harks back to the times of the ancient and splendorous Spice Route.
What to see in Bukhara
Ismail Samani Mausoleum
Ismail Samani, born in 810 A.D., was a Tajik national hero. He was a powerful and influential Amir from the Samanid dynasty, one of the Persian dynasties that ruled Central Asia. His mausoleum, which was built between 892 and 943 A.D., sports Zoroastrian temple architectural styles – once indigenous to the area – with domes built using burnt bricks, making it one of the best examples of well preserved Zoroastrian-inspired architecture.
Chashmash Ayoub means the spring of Ayoub (the prophet Job). Legend has it that when the prophet visited the area, the people who resided there at that time requested him to pray to Allah to provide them with water. In response, he took his staff and struck its end onto the ground and water suddenly sprung.
The water have been considered blessed and holy ever since. Due to its hallowed status, this is also the place where a local saint, Hassan Bashir, was laid to rest. His tomb, built in the 11th century, was erected during the time of Kalaxani, the ruler of the region prior to Amir Timur.
Bolo Hauz & Citadel Arch
Built in the 18th century, Bolo Hauz is a wondrously beautiful mosque, built in 1721 but is still in use today for Friday prayers. Visitors are sure to be in awe of its sheer splendour, with its prominently intricate detailing on its grand pillars and walls at the terraced entrance (called ayvan), serving as one of the best examples of traditional Bukharan artisanship.
The ornate decorations in the mihrab – the niche where the imam (the leader of the congregation) stands to lead the jemaah (congregation) during solat (prayers) – are still retained, allowing visitors to marvel at its original beauty. Bolo Hauz did fall into disrepair during Soviet rule, but now had been restored to its former glory after Uzbekistan gained its independence.
A stone’s throw away, the Ark Citadel looms, which is a fortress that had been in service from the 5th century A.D. until 1920 (during the rule of the last Amir of Bukhara), when the territory fell under Soviet and compelled the Amir to flee. The citadel was under maintenance when we were there, thus we were unable to access it.
Future travellers might be lucky enough to enter the citadel should its restoration has already been completed.
Poi Kalon Square
This complex comprises the majestic Masjidi Kalon (the Great Mosque that was built in 1530s and has 288 domes); the Kalon minaret (which was built by Ruslan Khan in 1127 A.D. and stands at the height of 46 metres with 114 step, similar to the number of surah or chapters of the Quran), believed to be among the first minarets ever to be built in Uzbekistan; a former hammam (bathhouse) that has now been converted into a children’s library; and a still functioning madrassah (religious school). Close to the square is an atelier called the Bukhara Silk Carpets, where visitors can buy authentic Uzbek-made carpets and learn about carpet production, including several bazaars that sell interesting goods like souvenirs and straw art pieces.
Do not miss to also drop by the Bukhara gold market, which bustles with people (mostly women) peddling, haggling and selling, reminiscent to the times when the ancient Spice Route traders convened and traded in such a space.
Bahaouddin Naqshbandi Complex
This complex, restored back in 2003, is known as the Sufi Centre, important to philosophers and thinkers from all over the world. The whole complex invokes calm and serenity, truly apt for those seeking tranquillity and spiritual enlightenment.
Sufism is considered as the heart of Islam, whereby to become a Sufi, one must be well educated and devoted to Allah. The Sufi order, called the Naqshbandiya, was founded by Bahaouddin, a master weaver. Naqsh means ‘woven pattern’ while bandi means ‘maker’. The order is revered as the protector of or patron to artisans and craftsmen.
Based on Gaya Travel’s quick research, we found that the basic principle of Naqshbandi’s teachings is the necessity to follow the examples of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The order believes that man must be contented with only what he earns through the work done using his own hands, thus providing the man with strong sense of independence and freedom of thought and actions.
Sheikh Naqshbandi himself led a very modest life: he slept on a simple plain mat during summer and on straw during winter. He also grew wheat and beans on a small patch of land for food. After Bahouddin Naqshbandi died in 1389, he was so much venerated that his tomb has been receiving numerous pilgrims ever since, not only devotees from Bukhara but also throughout the entire Islamic world.
Chor Minar (4 minarets)
This iconic four-minaret structure, situated within a simple and unassuming neighbourhood, was completed in 1807 by a Turkish merchant, who had four daughters whom he wanted to marry off. To lure and impress suitors, he built the minarets to commemorate his daughters and to signify his economic standing.
It had been previously used as a mosque and madrasah. Now it houses a souvenir shop at the base and visitors can climb up to its roof.
The distance between Bukhara and Shakhrisabz is 290 kilometres while Shakhrisabz to Samarkand is another 110 kilometres. We first stopped for lunch at Karshi, the capital of Qashqadaryo, which offered us the chance to witness the lifestyle of Uzbek’s grassroots. We then broke our journey in Shakhrisabz (which means ‘green city’ in Persian), the place where Amir Timur was born in 1336, located at the foothills of the Pamir mountains. Along the way between Bukhara and Samarkand, we passed by a nature reserve and Mubarak, Uzbekistan’s hub for natural gas processing.
Speaking of Amir Timur, the word ‘Timur’ means earth-shaking or groundbreaking. Being the symbol of Uzbek pride, Amir Timur (known as Tamerlane in the West) ruled the whole of Central Asia, then known as Transoxiana, from 1370 until 1405 A.D. He has always supported the master craftsmen, scholars and people of various skills and expertise.
His rule was guided by the Islamic principle of using power to enforce justice; to assist the poor, the needy and the marginalised; and to punish the wicked. Amir Timur died in 1405 when he was 65 years old. In Shakhrisabz, we visited the impressive 38-metre high gateway of what used to be the Ak-Saray or White Palace. Visitors will be able to admire the marvellous tileworks that are still intact and grace the walls of what used to be the entrance gate of the palace.
Ak-Saray, with foundations that go in more than 12 metres deep, was built between 1380 and 1404. According to a chronicle called ‘La Route de Samarkand’ by Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador to Timur’s court from 1403 until 1405, the magnificence of Ak-Saray rivalled the grandeur of King Charlemagne’s Palace of Aachen.
The palace was destroyed by Abdullakhan of Bukhara in the late 16th century because the city of Shakhrisabz refused to submit to the rule of the Shaybanid dynasty who ruled Bukhara from 1505 until 1598.
Near to the Ak-Saray ruins are the Dor Us-Siyodat, which means ‘the seat of power’ (the place where educated people and the Sufis convened to run the court of Amir Timur), including the mausoleum of Timur’s beloved son Jahangir who died at the age of 22 in 1404 A.D., the resplendent domed mosque built by Ulugbegh called Kok-Gumbaz, completed in 1435 A.D. and the well-restored and calming mosque of Hazrati Imam that offers a good lesson on the quaint Uzbek vernacular architecture that gives the destination a special sense of place.
As we approached Samarkand territory from Shakhrisabz, we passed by scenic villages dotted with burnt clay farmhouses, verdant farmlands and orchards that cover the region’s hilly terrains. Samarkand, which means ‘meeting point’, is located at the centre of the Silk Route.
This 2,750-year old city is the second largest in Uzbekistan after Tashkent and sits on a higher plateau that is between 450 and 700 metres above sea level, thus enjoys cooler air compared to the other cities. It was even considered as the centre of the universe during its heyday due to the influence and power it wielded.
Situated 350 kilometres from Tashkent, it takes five hours to get there by road, which is comparatively better than other highways throughout Uzbekistan, including the rest and recuperate stops in the form of AS Service petrol pump stations. Alternatively, visitors could also get to Samarkand from Tashkent by rail, using the speed train service that links both cities in just two hours.
What to see in Samarkand
Imam Bukhari Mausoleum
Located 25 kilometres out of Samarkand city centre lies the mausoleum beautifully adorned by local craftsmanship, belonging to one of the most revered Islamic scholars, Imam Bukhari, who spent his entire life relentlessly searching and compiling the authentic sayings of Prophet Muhammad (called hadith), thus travelled throughout the Middle East for forty years in accomplishing his mission, beginning since his first trip to Makkah at the age of 16.
Born as Muhammad ibn Isma
il al- Bukhari al-Jufi in Bukhara in 810 A.D., he memorised the entire Al Quran at the tender age of nine. The collection of the hadiths that he compiled, called Sahih Bukhari (which means authentic hadiths compiled by Imam Bukhari) is still in use to this day as a highly valuable source of reference in Islamic jurisprudence after the holy book, Al Quran, by Sunni Muslims.
He moved to Samarkand after being ousted from Bukhara by the ruler of that time for refusing to indulge the ruler’s request in having Imam Bukhari to come and personally educate his children at the ruler’s own palace. Imam Bukhari was banished from Bukhara for insisting that a person should go out and seek education instead of summoning education to be brought to the person, which was what the ruler demanded.
He finally settled at the outskirts of Samarkand where his relatives lived and remained there until he passed away.
Ulugbek is the grandson of Amir Timur and was the ruler of Samarkand from the age of 11 until 54, when he was assassinated. Ulugbek was a scientist, particularly an astronomer, apart from being a ruler.
Together with his team of scientists, Ulugbek calculated the movement of stars and planets with great accuracy. The observatory museum educationally displays the replicas of instruments and apparatuses used by Ulugbek and his team of astronomers, showing how astronomy was studied during ancient times.
The museum signifies astronomy’s importance to the Muslims to determine the direction of Makkah from wherever they are on the globe and to accurately determine the important dates on the Islamic calendar such the Eid ul Fitri and Eid ul Adha.
This complex is actually a remarkably photogenic necropolis where Amir Timur’s family members were buried, including the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, Kusam ibnu Abbas, who was believed to be either killed by one of his compatriots or beheaded by the Zoroastrians. Since the place is the mausoleum for Amir Timur’s family, the place invites visitors to come in for respite and contemplation, whereby each finely decorated arch, muqarnas (domed niche decorated with corbels that resemble stalactites), tombstone and structure was beautifully built to commemorate the deceased.
Bibi Khanum Mosque
Located next to the Siyob market, the Bibi Khanum Mosque, named after one of Amir Timur’s wives, is not anymore in use for Friday prayers but now conserved as a museum. As visitors pass through its marvellously magnificent archway and step into its inner courtyard, they would instantly realise that the place offers remarkable tranquillity and respite from the bustle of the adjacent market that sells interesting local produce.
It is recommended that visitors simply find a place to sit in the inner courtyard and admire the place’s peaceful atmosphere, ornately tiled archways, walls and domes – one could have imagined how amazing the entire place must have been like during the rule of the Timurids.
Mausoleum Gur-i Emir
To those who want to pay tribute to Amir Timur can make way to Mausoleum Gur-i Emir (which means ‘Tomb of the King’ in Persian). The 36-metre high double domed chamber houses the remains of Amir Timur, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugbek and Muhammad Sultan, including Sayyid Bakara, Amir Timur’s teacher. The interior of the mausoleum is resplendently cladded with dark green nephrite and onyx marble.
The Registan was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and witness public executions. ‘Regi’ means centre while ‘stan’ means a place. It is framed by distinctive Islamic architecture comprising three madrasahs that are all now converted into museums and contain shops and stalls selling souvenir items: the elegant Ulugbek madrasah (built in the 15th century during the same period as the Ulugbek observatory); Sher Dor madrasah (formerly a madrasah for the Shi’a sect, completed in 1636); and Tillya Kori madrasah (formerly a caravanserai but then converted into a madrasah, which interior is furnished in gold and completed in 1660).
The complex was considered as the heart of Samarkand and the main centre of learning for the Central Asian region and the entire Silk Route that stretched from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey all the way to Beijing and Hangzhou in China during ancient times.
In conclusion, Gaya Travel team’s visit to Uzbekistan, particularly to the destinations located along the Silk Route like Bukhara and Samarkand, was truly memorable and eye-opening. We miss Uzbekistan and hope to set foot on this amazing country again soon.
TIPS WHEN TRAVELLING IN UZBEKISTAN
- For a more temperate weather experience, the best times to visit the country are in Spring (April and May) and Autumn (October till November).
- Be sure that you always have your Customs Declaration form with you at all times when in Uzbekistan, including hotel registration slip for each property you stay in as proof that you are a genuine tourist. Apart from filling up two copies of the Customs Declaration form upon your arrival that requires you to state how much money you bring in with you, you also need to declare again how much money you have with you before you depart from Uzbekistan on one copy of a new Custom Declaration form at the airport before passing through immigration. Be sure to completely fill up your form and declare all currency that you currently hold, otherwise be ready to get entangled at the immigration, which could be a harrowing experience.
- Travellers should bring along hard currencies like the USD or EUR, the only ones that can be converted to the local currency, Soum, once arrived in Uzbekistan.
- The amount of money to bring depends greatly on their budget, but it is advisable not to exchange entirely all of the money into Soum since it is not exchangeable back to USD or any other currency. Travellers should start by exchanging USD100.
- When tipping, start at 2,000 Soum.
- Just in case, travellers, should not forget to bring along with them their own:
- Facial and toilet tissues
- Wet wipes
- Hand sanitisers
- Moisturing lotion and lip balm
- First aid kit that includes analgesics, antacids, and ointments
- Bottled water, not just for drinking but could also be used for washing just in case the places you stop for toilet breaks do not have water
- Travellers should be discerning when consuming Uzbek melons –watermelons and rock melons –since they could prove diuretic and can lead to stomach upset, negatively affecting your travel experience in Uzbekistan. If you are still interested to try the rock melons, which are indeed tempting and fragrant, be sure to wash them down with green tea instead of plain water because rock melons react negatively to water.
- Dress practically and modestly during the long road journeys such as comfortable and loose top with pants or at least knee-length skirt, including appropriate footwear like sport shoes, walking shoes or sandals.