Medrassas, marriage and mulberries: Bukhara

All thousand-year-old tombs need a bonus big wheel.

At the moment I am passing my time with my attempts to navigate my way through the forest of suffixes and particles which is the Uzbek language, picking up on the way jolly little sentences such as “Malika and Karima are silkworm breeders” and “Does your elder brother labour in the cotton fields today?”. I cannot but seriously respect a language which not only contains a “future tense of doubt” but also a “past tense of hearsay”. It is also full of sounds that English-speakers (well, me, anyway) appear to be quite incapable of producing (mostly extremely guttural variants of the letter K) that leave one with a very sore throat after a two-hour lesson. I am however in no position to complain to my friends here about the quirks of Uzbek, since they communicate with me primarily in English or French (now there’s a language the knowledge of which I did not think would come in handy in Uzbekistan, but the most plentiful breed of tourist here is indeed French, which make it popular for Uzbeks to learn) which in many cases is their fourth language (the other three generally being Uzbek, Tajik and Russian). Apparently I need to man up and reach for the strepsils.

Even Jenghiz Khan was impressed.

To make my language problems worse, I’ve spent the past few days in Bukhara, 600 km south-west of Tashkent, in a part of the country where locals primarily speak Tajik (a Persian language very similar to Farsi), thus rendering my efforts largely useless. This is fine, though, since Bukhara itself is fantastical enough not to require very many words, and one need merely wander around in a happy haze of architectural pleasure and satisfaction that some places exist that live up to, and even surpass, their hype. It was once said that while everywhere else on earth light shone down from heaven, from Bukhara it shone up, and even now you can almost believe it. Bukhara was an oasis along the Silk Road and for hundreds of years one of the centres of the Islamic world. It shows in the extravagance of the architecture, and the skyline of the old town is a mass of blue domes and intricately decorated medrassas against a background of mud brick, dominated by the 48m high Kalon minaret, from the top of which condemned criminals were sewn into a sack before being thrown to their deaths (unnecessarily messy, I should’ve thought, but I suppose that was why they used the sack), and where at night a fire was lit to guide the camel caravans in. 19th century players of the Great Game seemed divided over whether Bukhara was a den of iniquity and vice or a wonder of the world, but I tend to come down on the latter side. I think the buildings here are the most beautiful I have ever seen.

Almost as good as new.

Many of the monuments are undergoing extensive restoration, a process which seems to involve covering them with scaffolding and then leaving one solitary bloke to vigorously attack what looks to my untrained eye like a beautiful and irreplaceable piece of tilework with a sledgehammer. Given that the results are universally impressive and shiny, I assume there is a bit more to it than that, but I think it’s a bit of a shame that almost everywhere seems to have received this treatment. It’s almost a disappointment to approach a beautifully restored medrassa only to realise that all it contains is the 47th carpet shop you have encountered that day plus a one-room museum to which you will be charged $1 entry and your camera $3; much more atmospheric are the ruined and empty medrassas and mausoleums which dot the back streets of the old town, or the lively and vigorous bazaars that still operate in the ancient covered markets. In spite of this, though, there really aren’t that many tourists, and sitting at a tea house by one of the ancient pools that used to provide water (plus accompanying plagues) to the city eating fresh mulberries from the trees that are shading you, you could almost believe that nothing had changed for the past four hundred years. It would have been even better if there had been a token camel or two around, though.

Classy tiling. Also, laundry.

My experience of Bukhara was made several times better by the fact that I was staying with a friend and his family, and thus got my first chance to experience what I had been told many times was the legendary hospitality of the Uzbek people first hand – something else that lives up to its reputation. Suffice it to say that I don’t think I need to eat again for a month or two. I was enthusiastically fed, watered (well, tea’d, which seems to be the equivalent here) and guided around town by a large selection of friends and relatives all of whom were unfailingly friendly, welcoming and immediately invited me to their homes too. I also got a chance to dwell at length on a subject which appears to be dear to the hearts of many Uzbeks. Regardless of whether an encounter takes place in the bazaar, someone’s home or on the top of a deeply rickety and vertiginous water tower (don‘t ask), and depending on the level of my communicant’s English or French, the conversation always goes more or less as follows: who are you, where are you from, how old are you, where’s your husband, what do you mean you‘re not married, why not, what about your sisters, they aren’t either, dear me, doesn’t your mother want grandchildren (Dear Mum, please do not get any ideas), have you thought about marrying an Uzbek man, what about my son/my nephew/me etc. People marry young in this country – girls at 17 to 20 and guys about three to five years older – so I’m rapidly reaching my sell-by date in that regard, hence many people’s surprise at my single status. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to living a kind of “Lost in Austen” existence here, with my primary goal not to end up married to somebody’s cousin by the end of the year. I have to admit that a certain amount of my motivation to learn Uzbek stems from a fear that I might accidentally agree to something like this simply by nodding too enthusiastically at the wrong moment.

I’m back now in Tashkent, which, bless it, is no Bukhara; thus I am again plotting my next expedition out of town. During my time in Bukhara the weather back here has veered abruptly from monsoon to oven, and I’m seriously considering making burnt offerings to my air conditioning unit if that will encourage it to secrete even a small quantity of genuinely cold air from its increasingly creaky innards . I am reliably informed that things are only going to get worse come June. “Even”, said a student of mine with a certain gloomy relish, “the Tashkent Aquapark will not save you then”. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find a fountain to camp out in.

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