Breathtaking Bukhara: Your Guide to Uzbekistan’s UNESCO-listed Oasis
Born and raised in Samarkand, Abdu Samadov is full of inside information about Uzbekistan. He has studied in England and the U.S. and is fluent in English, Farsi, and Russian. Abdu guides MIR travelers throughout Central Asia and enjoys sharing his knowledge with other travelers.
Here, Abdu offers his tips for how to spend a day of sightseeing in Bukhara, Uzbekistan’s timeless oasis in the desert.
Spanning over 2,000 years of history, UNESCO-listed Bukhara offers cool shade and rest to the modern traveler as it did to the camel caravans that plied the Silk Road hundreds of years ago.
The Old Town, with its maze of handsome medieval mud-brick buildings, ornately patterned madrassahs, and billowing turquoise domes, has a unified and authentic feel, and is often said to paint the most complete picture of life along the Silk Road before the turn of the century. Add in dozens of authentic caravanserais and teahouses, some of the best artisans and craft workshops in the country, and Uzbekistan’s unique brand of hospitality, and Bukhara’s great history and cultural significance truly comes alive.
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Bukhara’s riches can be overwhelming for first-time travelers to take in. Rather than trying to cram everything into one day, I recommend approaching it with a slower pace, combining several must-see highlights with plenty of time to get lost in the city’s fascinating backstreets.
Here are my favorite ideas for how to spend a full day of exploration in this legendary desert oasis.
Take a Sunrise Stroll Through the Old Town
I like to start my day early in the morning with a sunrise walk through the Old Town. This is an ideal time to capture beautiful photographs of Bukhara’s brilliant architecture, as the morning sunlight makes the mud bricks and gorgeous tilework pop against the blue sky. It also offers a great opportunity to walk among the centuries-old quarters of the city before most of the tourist groups arrive, allowing you to capture the real life of Bukhara, and perhaps discover some fantastic hidden corners of your own.
The women at the bread bazaars near Pojarka and Tillo Bozor will often be making their first stacks of fresh round Bukhara non in the morning. Cyclists will then transport these morning goods in huge boxes attached to the back of their bicycles, carrying the scent of fresh-baked bread as they pedal through the narrow, zigzagging streets of Bukhara. City residents traditionally eat these warm breads with fresh kaymak (thick clotted cream) for breakfast.
You’ll also likely find local men and women cleaning the streets early in the mornings, sweeping and watering the mud bricks to settle the dust of the old backstreets. Cleanliness has always been an important tradition to the people of Bukhara — they take great pride in showing off their homes and neighborhoods to visitors passing through.
I also like to walk to the Lyabi-Hauz Plaza or Poi Kalon Mosque (also called the Bukhara Forum). Both places allow you to take in the city at its most peaceful, and may also afford an opportunity to observe men at the mosques during their morning prayers, or playing chess and chatting about the daily news in the central plaza.
Wind Your Way to the Jewish Quarter
While I’m at Lyabi-Hauz, I like to step a little off the well-trodden tourist path to Bukhara’s old Jewish Quarter in the heart of the Old Town, where in the mid-19th century 2,500 families of prosperous merchants were estimated to have been living. Though relatively small, the quarter offers a chance to learn about this very unique pocket of culture in the Jewish diaspora.
Cut off in the 15th century from contact with other Jews, the Bukharan Jews developed their own dialect of the Tajik-Persian language that incorporates many Hebrew words, their own style of dress, and their own unique form of Judaism.
Much of their culture disappeared during Soviet times, however, you can still find traces of Jewish life throughout the quarter, especially at Bukhara’s sole remaining synagogue near the Lyabi-Hauz pool. Though located in an unassuming building, the synagogue is the center of life for Bukhara’s Jewish community.
Meander Through the Green Market
As you continue to walk through the Jewish Quarter of the city, you’ll find a hidden gem called the Zelen, or “Green,” Bazaar. It is an amazing place to spot some of the incredibly fresh produce that Uzbekistan is known for, as well as local meats, bread, and dairy, and of course overflowing stacks of leafy greens that give this bazaar its colorful name.
Zelen only operates early in the mornings, and is busiest on Sundays. The bounty of vegetables, fruits, and spices on display are a favorite with many photographers, but those who like taking portraits of people should also definitely visit here, as it offers a wonderful opportunity to meet and chat with the friendly locals. It is easy to spend an hour, simply taking in the sights and sounds of the market, and you won’t realize how time flies.
Cycle to Bahauddin Naqshband
If you want a unique and adventurous alternative to walking around, I recommend taking a bike ride to the Bahauddin Naqshband Mausoleum. It’s a satisfying way to immerse yourself in real city street life as you pass through the neighborhoods.
Bahauddin Naqshband was a 14th century Sufi mystic and founder of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis. His mausoleum complex grew from a simple tomb over his grave to a large spiritual complex in the 17th century. The complex was restored in 1993 for the celebration of the 675th anniversary of the saint’s birth. Locals believe that visiting the complex equals a small pilgrimage to Mecca.
The distance from Bukhara city to the holy shrine of Bahauddin Naqshband is approximately 14 miles round-trip, and will take about 1.5 hours. You can rent bicycles from the Malika Bukhara Hotel in the center of town; I find that it’s best to ride early in the morning well before the heat of the day sets in.
Once you arrive at the mausoleum, you can take a break under the elm trees in the peaceful courtyard, and observe local people, young and old, visiting the complex with family. Since this is a little off the usual beaten tourist track, it is highly likely that you could be approached by curious locals wanting to chat or get a photo op with you.
Marvel at Must-See Photogenic Sights
Bukhara is one of the most photogenic destinations in Central Asia. There are a number of places where you can get great shots of the city. Here are a few of my favorite spots:
Lyabi-Hauz Plaza: With the feel of a true oasis in an oasis town, Lyabi-Hauz is at the center of Bukhara’s old town and is – as it has been throughout history – a place to meet friends, eat, drink, and relax in the shade. This is a great starting point for exploring Bukhara’s rich architectural treasures, and a wonderful spot to visit if you enjoy snapping shots of everyday local life.
Seated on the east side of the Lyabi-Hauz pool is the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrassah, built in 1622. It’s well-known for its beautifully tiled archway, which shows two phoenixes spreading their wings on each side of a shining sun. Evening performances of Uzbek folk music and dances often take place in the courtyard, offering an opportunity to capture the vivid costumes and whirling, exotic dances of Central Asia.
Poi Kalon (Bukhara Forum): Located adjacent to Lyabi-Hauz is the Poi Kalon. The 12th century Kalon assembly, including the Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah, surrounds an open plaza teeming with merchants and local vendors. It’s one of the most iconic places in Bukhara, and particularly striking at sunset.
The minaret, which has stood for almost nine centuries, towers over the dusty square, looking down from a height of more than 150 feet. 14 distinct and unique bands of brickwork circle the tower at intervals, and at the top of the minaret resolve into a traditional stalactite formation.
Chor Minor Madrassah: Also located in close proximity to Lyabi-Hauz is Chor Minor, an early 19th century madrassah whose four slender, blue-domed minarets give it its name. Its architectural style is unlike any other you’ll find in Bukhara — each minaret is topped with a uniquely patterned decorative band of tilework. Its turquoise domes look particularly pretty against a backdrop of blue sky.
The Ark Citadel: This is the original fortress of Bukhara, and likely dates back 2,000 years or more, making it the oldest structure in the city. Like the medieval castle complexes of Europe, the Bukhara Ark served the emirs as a residence, audience hall, and as protection from neighboring enemies.
I prefer visiting the Ark late in the afternoon — the golden sunlight creates wonderful lighting and contrast against the ancient city walls. If you climb to the top of the walls surrounding the citadel, you can capture a very beautiful sunset panorama of the Poi Kalon assembly.
Bolo Hauz Mosque: Just opposite the entrance gate to the Ark is the Bolo Hauz Mosque, built in 1718 as the official place of prayer for Bukhara’s emirs. I love Bolo Hauz not just for its lovely tilework, but also because it features some of the best-preserved examples of traditional Bukharan woodcarving. Be sure to arrive here in time for sunrise or sunset for a beautiful shot of the mosque and its reflection pool.
Kolkhoz Bazaar: Just outside of the city walls near the Chashma Ayub Mosque (or Job’s Well) is the Kolkhoz Bazaar. Another of Bukhara’s excellent food markets, this bright, light space is perfect for snapping shots of the beautiful produce, spices, dried fruits, and nuts so common along the Silk Road, as well as the vendors who produce and sell them.
Bukhara’s Backstreets: Photographing the backstreets of Bukhara is a must. Bukhara’s architectural sights illustrate the creative achievements of Uzbek culture, but you’ll get a much more authentic sense of real life along the Silk Road when you make time to wander through the side streets and alleyways, interacting with the locals you meet along the way.
The golden rule when taking portraits of locals is to take photos of people with due respect and sensitivity. Remember to please only take photos of people, their homes, their family and friends, and their surroundings when invited to do so. Some people will find it a great honor to pose for you – others, especially if they are working or not in their finest outfits, may want to avoid being in photos.
Another good tip: While you can certainly take photos with your smartphone, using a digital camera shows the locals that you are serious about taking high-quality photos. Your chosen subjects, particularly if they are among the older generation, may end up being more willing to pose for you if you shoot with the latter type of camera.
Shopping the Silk Road in Bukhara
While you’re exploring Bukhara’s gorgeous mosques, minarets, and madrassahs, be sure to set aside some time to shop at the bazaars and perhaps converse with the local merchants and artisans. Bukhara is one of the best shopping centers in Uzbekistan not just because of the variety of traditionally produced handicrafts, but also because of the sheer amount of artisans who live in the city. There are many places where you could buy inexpensive souvenirs, and the market stalls are everywhere.
The trading domes of Bukhara – Toki Sarrofon, Toki Telpakfurushon, and Toki Zargaron – are the largest and best-known of Bukhara’s markets, and have been in existence since the 16th century. Wander among the covered market lanes, admiring deep stacks of vivid handwoven carpets, silk scarves, miniatures, felt hats, exotic jewelry, and gorgeous embroidered suzani. While here, you can visit the workshops of masters to talk with them, observe their craft, and purchase any of their handicrafts for sale.
Enjoy Tea or Lunch at Lyabi-Hauz
Once I’ve finished touring the city and taking photos, I like to end my day relaxing under the shade of the mulberry trees by the pool at Lyabi-Hauz. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a moment of calm and wind down from the excitement of the day.
If you’re craving a pick-me-up, you can grab a tea or coffee, or even a late lunch, at one of the cafes nearby, or you could simply read a book and enjoy socializing with your traveling companions. I usually like to find a quiet spot to read through my notes and write down my reflections, contemplating the influence and importance of Bukhara in the history of Central Asia and the Great Silk Road.
Travel to Old Town Bukhara & Uzbekistan with MIR
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(Top Photo: Bukhara’s medieval trade domes at sunset. Photo credit: Peter Guttman.)
PUBLISHED: June 14, 2017