The day’s done, the sun has gone beddy byes and after a 7am start we’re finally in Bukhara keen for a good night’s sleep, only we can’t find our hostel. Renovation works at Rustam & Zukhra’s means we’re walking around (and past) the entrance door in the pitch dark. Finally finding the side door we are greeted with a warm reception by the family who are sitting around chatting and they soon have cold beers and hot food on the table.
Next morning we rise to a huge breakfast that’s becoming standard in Uzbekistan with eggs, sausage, rice, yoghurt and pastries providing the energy for a days sightseeing. Stepping out into the already hot temperature Bukhara, with it’s closer proximity to the capital, instantly feels more geared towards the tourist than it’s western sister of Khiva. Here there’s an instant pressure to take a taxi, tour, meal or souvenir before you’ve even left the alleyway. Whilst Bukhara is not as compact as Khiva it still has many sights, restaurants and a bar or two to visit. Here’s our list.
The centerpiece of town is the Lyab-i Hauz area. A large central pond built in the 16th and 17th centuries is hemmed in by restaurants backed by an impressive architectural ensemble including the Kukeldash Madrassah, the Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrassah and the Nadir Divan-Beghi Khanaka.
The Museum of Art Photo Gallery
Set up by a local resident the small cavernous white washed space covers people, landmarks and seasons including some great old photos of the local Jewish and Gypsy populations. Most of the photos are available in various sizes and the postcards make for an alternative perspective on Bukhara for your family. You can also purchase CD’s of local music. Entrance is free but donations are welcome, though we were told the owner did snob a Belgian photographer who visited for a chat.
Po-i-Kalyan Mosque area
The impressive facade, teal tiled domes and the brick Kalyan minaret are all impressive sites for a photo stop. Although when we tried to enter one the mosque we watched as local tourists waltzed straight on in and we were stopped and told to pay UZS6,000 each plus UZS2,000 for the camera with no ticket or receipt being offered. There was also no posted prices as we found elsewhere and as nobody else was paying we walked out.
Located in the back streets east of the Lyab-i Hauz Chor minor with it’s four minarets is worth a visit for its understatement. Apparently Ghengis Khan was so impressed with the little square building he saved it when he razed most of the rest of the city. Like most of the Madrassahs it’s now converted into a shop selling the usual tourist stuff half of which is imported from nearby China. Across the way though there are a few stalls selling old Soviet memorabilia that could be of interest to some. This is one of the only places we found that you can buy an Uzbek policeman’s hat.
Dating from the 5th century AD this massive fortress dominates the western part of town. From here you also get one of the better views back onto the old town. We didn’t pay to go inside but the size of the slanting walls is impressive enough to make a visit worthwhile. While here visit the Bolo Hauz Mosque just across the road. The architecture on the external facade and ceiling is different to anything else in town. The Samonids Recreation Park nearby has the standard Ferris wheel (a requirement of all old Soviet cities) and some retro rides that look like they should have been put out of use years ago.
Food in the belly
Yes it’s a guidebook favourite though don’t let this put you off. Located just outside the main area the prices are reasonable and the food is delicious (we visited here four times). The young male staff are a bunch of fun especially when they are serving you free ‘Uzbek Mojitos’ of an evening. Salads are huge and the waiter will bring all of them out on a tray for you to choose from. Try the oyster mushroom and cucumber ones. The rooftop eating area can get unbearably hot in the midday heat though the air conditioned room adjacent takes care of that. At night it’s a great place to be.
Stumbling down the restaurants stairs after a few beers one night with a German friend in tow, we hit up the first shops we pass for some takeaway beers and are dragged behind the counter for an impromptu photo shoot. We’re then happily greeted the next morning with laughs all round.
Stumbling across this place late one night we’re enticed in by the cozy courtyard and live violinist. The place was quite busy yet service was fast and friendly and the food was traditional and tasty. There’s a decently priced wine list and the violinist roamed the restaurant taking turns to serenade each table, including ours.
Somsa street food
You can get some cheap street food in the form of somsa, a small meat or potato filled parcel a bit like a pastie. However avoid these guys who set up near the Lyab-i Hauz of an evening and will try and charge you 10 times what you should pay. And their somsas are shit anyway.
Wet your whistle
You’d be forgiven for thinking that being in a Muslim country it’d be difficult to find a place for a brew or two. Wrong. Remember the Russians were here for a good fifty years or so and you know what that means? Vodka. And boy do the men know how to drink the stuff.
Around Lyab-i Hauz
There are two places here around the centrally located pond and the on the first occasion we took to one of the day beds for some thirst quenching in the late afternoon sun as the fountain splashes into the water with the back drop of the Nоdir Dеvоnbеg Madrassah. The first time we visited the actual restaurant Lyab-i Hauz. It’s not long until Matt (who goes off to take a few photos) is commandeered by a half dozen local men to come drink vodka, unbeknown to Sarah.
‘There was a long wait for a piss’
he claims upon his return. After two massive shots with the guys, a dance off with the crowd cheering followed with a departing kiss (on the lips) it was a little hard for him to disguise the beef shashlik in his hand, which the guys had given him as a departing gift, and the truth soon came out. Watch out for the mulberries bombarding you from the trees above if you’re here during the season and do keep count of the beers and food you consume as they tried a swift one by adding on a few too many extra beers which we happily pulled them up on.
Draft Beer Bar
On the south side of Lyabi Hauz down a side street there is a draft beer place where it’s cheap, cool and cheesey. A little dark and drab with terrible Russian pop blaring from the TV it’s good for one or two if the side ‘beer garden’ isn’t open. If you’ve recently come from Iran the skimpy outfits in the music videos might shock you. Look for the chalk board sign out on Lyabi Hauz.
We bet you didn’t you know that Uzbekistan produces a good drop or two of the plonk? Believe us there’s some strange blends that will twist even the biggest wine snobs palate. Keen? Head to the Nughay Caravanserai where a lovely elderly couple will quash any misconceptions. With owner Djamal holding his arm in a sling it’s his wife, who used to head up one of the largest wine producing companies in Bukhara, who takes us through the offerings as we’re treated to some of the finest wines from the country.
Wine tasting in Bukhara
Being the first customers after recent renovations they really made us feel welcome and even though minimal English was spoken we managed to taste seven wines and a Madeira whilst conversing in Russian, Uzbek, German and English. Obscure blends that involve Georgian and French grapes along with local varieties will turn your taste buds upside down.
Not to be missed if that’s your thing.
Close to the Lyabi Hauz (most of it’s close) under the Fatima Hotel is a small Sega Freddo café. Turning out decent espresso coffee and excellent iced coffee varieties it’s great for a recharge from the heat. You can choose a milkshake style frappuccino or a straight up iced espresso served in a martini glass. A good coffee will set you back under USD$2.50. WiFi is a bit in and out but still better than the hostel.
And the rest
Feel like a big spender
Once you’ve worked out how to carry your Uzbek Som without looking like a drug dealer, learning to count it in that quick flick of the wrist / notes folded over motion is the next step. Paying a bill of USD$10 involves the counting of huge stack of cash which will make you feel gangster.And don’t be surprised if your shared taxi pulls over for a family member to throw a wad of cash through the window at another passenger. In any other country this would look super dodgy, in Uzbekistan it’s probably just five bucks.
Meet the locals
We found the locals of Uzbekistan really friendly and always willing to have a friendly chat. From the fat lady sitting behind her small street side table waving at us and begging us to buy a banana or a deck of cards or whatever she had on offer that day to the shop keeper and his friend who invited Matt to share some beer with them while they were working, we had great experience everywhere in town.
Thanks for reading guys, if you want to check out more pics of our time in Uzbekistan and Central Asia head over to our Flickr page!
Tips for Bukhara
*** Due the vast difference between the ‘official’ and the ‘black market’ exchange rates, we’ve given our costs in USD at the ‘black market’ rate.
- A dorm bed at Rustam & Zukhra hostel costs USD$10 on Booking.com including a huge breakfast. A filling traditional dinner is also available for USD$5.
- A taxi from town to the train station cost us UZS15,000. It’s a long way so allow plenty of time.
- When buying train tickets directly from the office ensure you have your passport with you. The train from Bukhara to Samarkand cost about USD$5 each.