And then I was invited to tea.

Bukhara the holy, Bukhara the saint, Bukhara the erudite, Bukhara the city where light floods from the ground up and not from the heavens down. Or perhaps the Bukhara, in the words of traveller and linguist Ármin Vámbéry, ”whose whole society was crippled by boundless hypocrisy, crass ignorance, drunk in the swamp of immorality”?
Which one was true? The city that boasted 150 madrassahs at Abdullah Khan’s time, or the decadent shadow of that self, described by the Great Game players, where people were slowly poisoned by the filthy water they drank and abandoned themselves to “all the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah”, in the words of a German-Russian doctor called Eversmann that managed to wriggle his way in?
It’s probably both, for it’s not that hard to change and evolve – or regress, depending on one’s opinions – when you’ve been around so long to have been already a few centuries old when Alexander the Great rode into town on horseback. Bukhara has been erudite, saintly, lurid, decadent and positively promiscuous, all before some 1970s rockstar carved a career out of having been the one to explore all that.
Today, perhaps, it’s Bukhara the peaceful. Crocodiles of bus tourists are shepherded around the handful of pedestrianised, restored roads linking all the major sights. Despite all my idiosyncrasies about going where other camera-toting people go, especially when in mobs, we joined in. Yet, after having sampled these sights to our heart’s content – Labi Hauz, Po-i-Kalyon, the Ark, Chor Minor – it was hard not to yearn for more, not to swim into that sea of tightly knitted roofs that stretch from landmark to landmark, within the boundaries once described by destroyed city walls. So, one day in our permanence I set off, a glass bottle of Borjomi bouncing about in my backpack.
I began easily enough, choosing a side road leading south from Sarrafon bazaar. It led past a small square where schoolchildren played at the end of a day’s lessons: boys set up an impromptu football match – their backpacks acting as goalposts, whilst girls settled for some sort of dodgeball. We were doing the same when I was their age, I thought with a smile.
A labyrinth of alleys unravelled from there. I had a hand-drawn map in my notebook, but it was by now useless, so I navigated using whatever landmark I could find or, more simply, rambled at random. A dusty corner store, complete with sun-bleached advert for RC Cola. A sighting of Kalyon Minaret, glowing in the blue cloudless sky. The dome of a nearby mosque, casting a shadow so neat to look almost unreal. It felt as if I’d walked into a Sicilian village on a sleepy summer afternoon: nothing moved, nothing stirred in the heat; no cars honked, no engine whirred and the only vehicles I saw were parked, looking abandoned, covered in dust.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
As I ventured deeper in the streets, building started changing. Baked bricks slowly gave way to the millennial tradition of mud walls, held together by a framework of wood. Thick planks, meticulously planed, ran parallel to the ground, above the stone foundations: I’d been told it was a trick to collect all the moisture and humidity from the above structure. Homes were in various statuses of upkeep: some shone, thanks to majolica-tiled driveways, metal gates enthusiastically sprayed with glitter and new windows still decorated with the adverts of the companies that’d made them. Some were a little worse for wear: old, wooden windows painted blue, clear runoff signs where rainwater had ruined the mud, thus needing a new coating (much like the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, older than Jericho, were our ancestors lived 9,000 years ago). And in some other cases, decay had firmly taken hold.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
A mosque was as clear an example of this latter stage than any other place. The dome sagged under the weight of many winters without repair, surmounted – like all the other abandoned places I’d so far seen – by a massive, and empty, stork nest. Inside, a chair lied next to the cenotaph of an unnamed holy man, in the shadow of a tree. A door closed the access to the mosque, but spying through a crack I caught glimpses of nude walls, rubble and detritus where prayers once were proffered. Dust particles danced in silent Brownian motion in the beams of light flooding in from the windows. The only thing that wasn’t sagging, cracking or askew was the carved pole, terminating with an outstretched metal hand. The horsehair banner dangled in the faint breeze.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Bukhara’s backroads were quiet but not deserted. Men and women sat on tiny stools outside their gates, lifting hands to their hearts and wishing me “As salaam alaikum” as I passed. A woman, wrapped in a kaleidoscope of colours fashioned into a dress, flashed a smile as she taught a toddler to walk. Two children were definitely more adventurous, chirping “Hello” to this goofy foreigner only to then hide behind their giggling mother. An impromptu game of peek-a-boo then started as we walked down the same road, ending only when we arrived at their home. I continued on, their laughs echoing from behind the gate, in a courtyard I could only guess was there. In that moment, it struck me how different this all was from London, where one needed permission from the other parents to film his own child at his sports’ day.
Every now and then I’d chance upon some place I knew, for I’d written a note about it in my book. Khoresm ko’chasi was one such place, even though I somehow failed to find what made it noteworthy. Yet, it was only 20 meters long. Thinking that, perhaps, the road sneaked around I took one corner, then another. Then, to my surprise, the road sort of… ended.
I stood on the edge of a man-made cliff. To my right the path continued, losing itself in a stream of goat trails leading to somebody’s houses; far ahead in the distance I could distinguish the renovated beauty of Zargon bazaar, with visitors buzzing in and out like bees, and the café of the German lady, Gertrude or some other oldfashioned name. But the behemoth to my right was rather more eye-catching, and what had happened to it even more so.
Somebody had amputated Abdul Aziz Madrassah’s east wing. A road, descending deep into a trench, had cut through the madrassah’s flank and in the nearby buildings, much like a loggers’ trail would do to a tropical rainforest. A venerably old truck dived into it, belching exhaust smoke and dust. I followed it after a while, sinking deeper and deeper into Bukhara’s strata of history.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The road had been driven through the students’ cells, opening them to the outside world. Frescoed walls eyed me accusingly, the small niches the used to hold books – so similar to the ones we saw in Jewish houses now turned into hotels – now lying empty but for dust or the occasional stray brick. Why had the road been opened? I didn’t know, and had no one to ask. I emerged on the other side amidst stacks of bricks, evidently salvaged from the madrassah. I picked one up, flat and thick, sensing the centuries of history it contained, a time-capsule from the past, moulded and baked by somebody since long turned into dust. I weighted it up in my hand, and then returned it to its place.
A little later I stumbled into something unexpected: a freshly paved road, large enough for two cars to drive abreast. Samarkand ko’chasi. On the corner, a guzar, or neighbourhood mosque, glistened in its post-refurbishment splendour. I entered the courtyard, surprised to see that it hadn’t been turned into a shop, or museum on carpet-weaving, but had remained a place of worship. Two men sat under the portico, whilst another two – at least judging by the fake-leather loafers left on the shoe-rack by the entrance – prayed inside. The guys chilling out smiled and saluted. One of them introduced himself as Michael, and showed me around. When I mentioned how surprising it was to see one mosque still doing its original function, he smiled and commented “This masjid always was a masjid. Even in Soviet times. People came in at night”.
I returned to the street after having shaken hands with Michael, thinking about the Islamic renaissance that was going on here. Many, especially in the media, felt threatened about it, but I didn’t feel that way. In fact, come think of it, I was surprised to find myself more troubled by the fact of seeing so many mosques turned into shops peddling tat.
Samarkand ko’chasi continued on as I ruminated about it. Corner stores dotted the right-hand side, each complete with the sun-baked carcass of an old soft drink vending machine that still had a slot for coins. Metal money had been an early victim of the hyper-inflation that led, and kept on leading, people to go shopping with plastic bags filled with cash. I stopped again soon after, distracted by the relic of a madrassah that was quietly crumbling away on the other side of the road.
It had to be quite a thing in its prime, whenever that had been. Perhaps not as grand as Mir-i-Arab, but definitely a worthy adversary of the one built by Ulug Beg, or of the ones in Labi Hauz, I thought at first sight. Was there a sort of a race to get the best students, back in XV century Bukhara, much like there is today in the Anglo-Saxon world? Still, whatever the truth, its prime had come and gone a long time ago. The front gate opened on a parvis of rubble and dust; the wooden portals had been lifted a long time ago, pitifully replaced by two large sheets of rusting metal, left slightly ajar. No sign was hung on the walls, prohibiting access, and there was no one around to tell me off. Moving in what I thought was a silent and sly way, but knowing that I looked absurd, I slipped in.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The first mental image I had of the courtyard was of old, B&W photos of Stalingrad. Or Dresden. Or Berlin after the Red Army’s lead diet. The courtyard stood filled with rubble and rubbish – bricks, metal pipes, rusting sheets of iron, two tyres, old shoes, discarded implements. All around eyed the old cells of the students, now a masterclass of decay and abandonment. Staircases ran upstairs, tilted at an angle of 20 degrees, whilst the upper floors had been reduced only to the arches of the door frames, the rest having been pillaged or spirited away. A modest attempt at reconstruction had started, with new industrial bricks being erected on one of the wings, before even that had been abandoned. The madrassah, I reflected, was a worthy metaphor of Bukhara’s history. An origin of study, enlightenment, culture, then a long period of decline as the student ranks dwindled, ideas dried up and innovators fled, chased away by a wind of parochialism, xenophobia and obscurantism. Then neglect and decay.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I walked back to Samarkand ko’chasi, wondering, after all this, what defined Bukhara today. The enlightenment was the past, and so was the decay and the oblivion. What was Bukhara now, and what was going to define it tomorrow? What sort of adjective would travel writers and journos use, much in the same way that Fergana valley is “fertile” and 1960s London “swinging”? I had originally settled for “peaceful”, but it didn’t taste satisfying.
Suddenly a cry distracted me from my label-making thoughts. “Mister, mister”. I looked around, then realised that the call came from high up. Above me a balcony opened: a mosque, its portico blackened by time. Framed between the ceiling and the parapet were two heads, one with a skullcap and the other without, both beaming with smiles so golden to be the envy of a pirate. “Chai, mister, chai!” they said, waving me in.
I smiled and accepted the invite to tea. As I was climbing the stairs to the portico where, sitting on a topchan, I’d be drinking tea, chatting and watching this group of mates play backgammon for a few hours, it occurred to me. After Bukhara the learned, Bukhara the saintly, Bukhara the corrupted came Bukhara the friendly.

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22 Responses to And then I was invited to tea.

  1. Anna says:

    I always enjoy reading your tales, especially after a brain numbing day playing “barbies” with the 6 year old. It’s nice to feel ‘adult’ for a fleeting moment! Lol

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lexklein says:

    As cliched as a cup of tea can be as a symbol of friendship or connection, I’ve also found that it is the real deal! I had a similar encounter in the midst of a chaotic street in Kathmandu one time, and though I was skeptical at first, the 20 minutes I spent with a stranger that day remain one of my strongest memories of that trip. Yours is even better, a just reward at the end of your physical and philosophical rambling around this multi-faceted and exotic place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. J.D. Riso says:

    What an outstanding account, Fabrizio. I felt right there with you, wandering that monochrome labyrinth, savoring every sensation. Monochrome exterior, but with so many vibrant layers. How to define such a place in a word? It almost seems insulting. Central Asia seems to be your geographical soulmate. As happy as I am where I’m at, your tales always revive a little of my wanderlust.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie, glad I could convey a little bit of Old Bukhara. It’s a jewel. Central Asia is indeed my geographical soulmate, and I’m waiting for September with a little trepidation, for that’s when I’ll be introducing it to my *real* soulmate. Let’s see how it goes.
      If you’re considering another trip – old habits die hard, don’t they? – do think about Central Asia. It’s really that good.


  4. Thank you for another mini book from a place I’ll most probably never visit. I’m glad for the adjective you found. And in Slovenia, you’d be invited to čaj as well. 🙂 (Pronounced chai.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so rich and beautiful! I love going on your journeys — grateful for every detail and moment you capture. What a place! Sitting in Connecticut on a cold Spring day, I am reminded how vast and extraordinary the world is. Thank you for bringing me there on a Sunday morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Brad Nixon says:

    Lavishly described. A place I’d like to see. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bama says:

    Such a fascinating journey through Bukhara’s less-explored corners, Fabrizio — not that Bukhara itself is that much explored like Rome or Barcelona. Hopefully your real soulmate will love Central Asia as much as you do. Unfortunately I have to postpone my plan to go to Uzbekistan due to a sudden announcement by the government about a week-long national holiday in Indonesia this June which affects my annual leave. In the meantime, I’ll travel vicariously through your blog posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Oh no, annual leave ruining your leave? How strange is that? I hope you’ll be able to go and see Central Asia soon, government or not! And thanks a lot for reading, Bama.


  8. What a wonderful amble through Bukhara it was for me this morning, as your words and photographs combined to entice all my senses. Delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

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