Beds of Sickness, Bug Pits and Boiling Hot in Bukhara
- Categorized in: July 2011
We reckoned on a two day ride to Bukhara from Samarqand. It was around 250km which averages out as two longish days on the road.
The first day went very well. Growing more accustomed to the heat and how to handle it, and settling into our routine of taking turns “on the front”. We continually were expecting the agriculture to drop behind us and for the desert to take over, but we were a little ahead of ourselves. Although we passed through some very dry places, with scorched grass and scrub (and even saw our first camel), the cotton fields and green irrigated land would soon resume, with trees and bushes along the roadside providing occasional shade from the sun.
The first day out from Samarqand, passing cotton fields in the late afternoon
Stopping again at a chaikhana for a long break to shelter from the hottest part of the day, I began to feel perhaps we’d manage OK, at least for a while. By the time the sun was dropping, we already passed 150km done for the day and had only 100km to go to Bukhara, our next break.
We stopped to get some food at a little shop, and once off our bikes we were a little reluctant to climb back on them in the dark to try to find a likely camping spot. Instead we asked the owner of the shop, a local businessmen who’d sat down with us to chat, if we could bed down behind his shop. He had a better idea. He told us he had a second home in the centre of the town of Navoy (where we’d come to) and we could camp in his garden there.
Meanwhile our stomachs were taking a turn for the worse. We reckon we’ve pinpointed a dodgy watermelon as the culprit. I stood up and for about 5 minutes had horrible stomach cramps, which then just as quickly went away. The others weren’t so fortunate.
Forget the shashlyk, that watermelon is very suspicious...
Despite the kindness of our host, who set us up on yet another tapchan in his rather idyllic little garden, filled with apple trees, grapevines, chickens and little goats roving around in the undergrowth, both Kellen and Cory had a terrible night, feeling worse and worse as they had to succumb to quite severe food poisoning.
Lying next to them on the tapchan I was merrily oblivious to this as they didn't tell me how bad they were feeling, and I was once again enjoying the warm night air on my face and the spreading stars overhead, while the music of a local wedding celebration filled the evening darkness with joy and laughter. All very good, but once I was up and awake in the morning and doing my best to rouse them, they were not in a happy state.
Cory could at least get up, but Kellen just had to lie on his side clutching his stomach. He kept getting up, standing up, and then immediately lying back down to resume his position.
Kellen assuming the foetal position
Trying to figure what was the best thing to do, I was sure that if we possibly could, we should all make it to Bukhara, where there would be a comfortable hostel and I would be in a much better position to help them if necessary, and the two of them could collapse while the food poisoning ran its course. But this was easier said than done – for them far more so than me.
In the end, slowly slowly, Kellen got his stuff together and climbed on his bike. We never got very far before we had to stop again for a drink and for him to be stationary. So began an agonising day for them, covering the last 100km to Bukhara in painful stages, along a road that was particularly empty and hot. To their amazing credit, Kellen and Cory both put up with it almost passing out at each chaikhana under the shade while I sat and watched them lying there, debating with myself how long a rest was long enough if we were still to make it to Bukhara.
The day was made no easier by the heat which was certainly more intense here than it had been in either Samarqand or Tashkent. Eventually, mercifully, we arrived at the outskirts of the city and zoned in slowly on the guesthouse in which we meant to stay. My expectations that Bukhara would be something like a small version of Samarqand were quite wrong. Samarqand is one of the main cities of Uzbekistan, whereas Bukhara is in fact much smaller.
One had the sensation of heat, dry mud, and paleness. The sky was pale, the dusty roads were pale, the buildings were pale. Even the faces of my riding companions were pale. The grander of the monuments of Bukhara were not immediately obvious, and I was struck by how low the city was. Instead of the high kupals of Samarqand, there were the rounded sandy rooftops of much smaller mosques and bazaars and houses, which, if I can draw of a movie metaphor for a moment, reminded me of the structures of Tatooine in Star Wars. (Of course, the metaphor is exactly wrong.)
Typical Bukharan rooftops
At last, with a little local direction, we found our hostel – a quaint and simple building, entered through a low battered blue wooden door into an inner courtyard decorated with a slightly different shade of light blue and gave the impression of being at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.
Our hostel in Bukhara
The host and hostess greeted us warmly and laid out some mattresses for Kellen and Cory to collapse onto in the shade while I sorted out our passports. These two – our hosts – were an odd couple. In fact we weren’t even sure they were a couple. They didn’t act like one, yet we figured they must have been one. They reminded me of that old children’s nursery rhyme:
Jack Sprat would eat no fat,
His wife would eat no lean,
And so between them both you see,
They licked the platter clean.
Ilyos, the man, was painfully thin with bright active eyes, never seen wearing anything but a very small yet loose-fitting white vest, and a pair jeans pulled half way up his torso and bound tight around his stomach with a leather belt to prevent them falling down. Madina the woman, an imperious keeper of house, was always dressed in a brightly coloured Uzbek patterned dress that would have served as a maternity dress on any other woman. She steered about the place like a galley carrying a look that would cause even the most free-spirited of travellers to fall into line at a word from her.
For all this, they looked after us well. They only had three rooms and these were all occupied, but they offered us very comfortable bedding on their roof. Each night (we stayed there for three) Ilyos would go up there and recreate a sort of triple divan laid out under the stars, which I found delightful. During our stay in Bukhara the moon was waxing towards fullness, which gave an unforgettable atmosphere on those clear nights, looking out across the shadowy rooftops, casting silhouettes that could only come from the Orient, as a gentle wind blew from the east, and turned one’s imagination to tales of genies and scimitars and crescent moons and veiled princesses and cut-throat brigands and impudent pick-pockets with a knavish twinkle in their eye.
Full moon rising over Bukharan minarets
On the first morning of our “day off” I left my two friends to get as much rest as possible (they needed it after all) and I went off for a sort of dawn recce to see what Bukhara was all about and also get some good pictures before the heat of the day descended like a fire-breathing demon.
Morning preparations for today's sales
There are of course many sights to see in Bukhara, just as in the other ancient cities of Uzbekistan. Perhaps the grandest and most striking is the Ark. This is the old citadel of the Amir of Bukhara, a heavily fortified palace that now lies empty, some of its walls lying in ruins damaged by the guns of the Bolsheviks who shelled Bukhara and its ancient buildings during the Russian Civil War.
The Ark, its wall battered by Bolshevik shells
The Ark is the site of one of the more grizzly of the stories I recalled from my studies some years ago about the Great Game – the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires through the 19th century for control and influence through the region of Central Asia.
To set the scene, during the mid-19th century, the city state of Bukhara was ruled by the Amir Nasrullah Khan – and a more perfect depiction of a depraved and despotic Oriental tyrant there can hardly have been. Legendary for the most imaginative devices of cruelty with which he would enjoy tormenting his foes, it was into his hands that the luckless British officer Colonel Charles Stoddart placed himself on a mission from the Governor-General of India in 1839. Charged with the delivery of a letter from the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, addressed to the Amir with the intention of reassuring him about the intentions of the Indian government in their invasion of Afghanistan that same year, it seems that Colonel Stoddart ignored local protocol and rode into the Ark instead of walking as was proper. Feeling slighted by this and the fact that the letter only came from the Governor-General and not the Empress Victoria herself, Nasrullah Khan threw Colonel Stoddart into jail, or more specifically into the so-called “Bug Pit” – a rank dungeon of pitch blackness where he would have only insects, slimy creatures, rodents and all sorts of other nasties for company.
What the Ark used to look like...
And there he stayed for three years. Two years later a second British Officer arrived, Captain Arthur Conolly, in an attempt to secure Stoddart’s release. The paranoid Amir believed Conolly to be part of a plot with the Khan of Khiva and the Khan of Khokand against him, so Conolly too joined Stoddart in the Bug Pit. When Nasrullah then heard about the British Army’s disastrous Retreat from Kabul in January of 1842 – in which an army of 16,000 all told was reduced to just one man who made it to safety – he decided this nation of Britons were a pretty hapless bunch and decided to be done with his captives.
On June 24, 1842 the two unfortunate officers were marched out from their odious cell before a huge crowd in front of the Ark, ordered to dig their own graves, and were then beheaded.
When news of this got back to England, the public were outraged but the British Government decided to drop the matter. However, the relatives of the two men engaged the services of an eccentric and adventurous evangelical preacher, Dr. Joseph Wolff, who went to Bukhara to verify the rumours of their execution. This he duly did, later relating that he himself only escaped with his life because the Amir found his clergyman’s regalia highly amusing.
Wolff was himself a tireless adventurer for the Gospel – his travels taking him all over the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. His journeys were later retraced by none other than Fitzroy McLean when he was a young diplomat – McLean being Ian Fleming’s alleged model for the character of James Bond.
(All this information could come in handy one day in a game of Trivial Pursuit or a pub quiz so be sure to take note!)
As for the general impression of Bukhara, it really does not disappoint. The sights of the Ark, the Kalon Minaret, the Kalon Madrassa, and various other madrassas and bazaars around the centre of the old city, as well as the rabbit warren of sun-baked streets and the array of characteristic local faces all serve to make a lasting impression.
The minarets and madrassas of Bukhara
The best place of all though is the little square of Lyabi-Hauz, flanked by two smaller madrassas, in the centre of which is a little pond, lined with mulberry trees and surrounded by small cafés. You can enjoy the standard fare of shashlyk (delicious roasted chunks of lamb or beef), salad (which means tomatoes and cucumbers in Central Asia), salt (very important for sweaty cyclists) and bread, lounging under the shade of the trees and cooling off with a local Sarbast beer. Very sedate, and much more fun than enduring the noon day sun pounding on your head as you shuffle around the tourist trail.
Lyabi-Hauz, the central square in the old town of Bukhara
Our one day off turned into two. When we got up in the pre-dawn darkness on the second morning, it was obvious that Kellen was still not completely well. His stomach was still feeling awful and he looked so thin even I was beginning to worry what his mother would say when she next sees him.
So we postponed for 24 hours. And this meant we spent a much more relaxed day, catching up on rest, food and trying to stay out of the heat.
The delay was wise. We’d heard that the 400km leg between Bukhara and Khiva, our next real destination had the worst road of any between Tashkent and the Caspian Sea.
I’m not sure this is actually true, but it certainly was the beginning of the toughest section of riding I have had to endure from Hong Kong to the edge of Europe.
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