Russia has been hiding things. A lot of things. Okay, maybe not Russia. It was really the Soviet Union. Since the republic dissolved in 1991, the world has slowly—ever so slowly—been learning about places that were once cloaked in secrecy. New countries with hard-to-pronounce names—like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—emerged. They’re full of cities, historical sites, and museums you’ve never heard of, much less dreamed of visiting. That’s about to change. It’s time for a crash course in Central Asian places you’ll start hearing a lot about in the next few years.
Like Bukhara. Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city is known as the “city of museums.” The area has been inhabited for five millennia. Trade, scholarship, art, and religion flourished due to its position along the Silk Road. It’s historic center is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the most ancient part of the city, you’ll find the Ark. Bukhara rulers lived in this massive fortress from the 5th century until the city fell to Russia in 1920. Everything the emirs needed—from living quarters and stables to a mosque and a harem—were behind these walls. Small portions are now open as a museum, while archaeological excavations continue in others.
The Poi Kalyan complex, which features a minaret, a mosque, and a madrasah, is nearby. The Kalyan minaret, a circular tower made of carved bricks, was once the tallest building in Central Asia. It was known as the Tower of Death; people were executed by being thrown off the top. Kalyan Mosque, at the foot of the tower, holds 10,000 worshippers. And the Mir-i Arab Madrasah’s massive blue cupola is striking, particularly at sunset, against the surrounding earth-colored buildings.
Visit Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza surrounding the few ponds that remain in the city. Once the city’s main source of water, most of these ponds were filled in by the Soviets. Today, the plaza is filled with mulberry trees, a statue of Nasreddin from children’s folk stories, and old men playing chess and sipping tea. Ready for your own break? Eat lunch on the verandah at Minzifa, where you’ll have a view of Old Town. Then visit Central Asia’s oldest-surviving mosque, Maghoki-Attar. See 20th-century Bukharan paintings at the Museum of Art. Buy wool carpets, silks, and embroidery at the covered bazaars. Walk to the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum. The water from its well is supposed to have healing properties. And sip saffron-and-ginger tea at the Silk Road Teahouse.
All set with Bukhara? Good. Now you won’t have a quizzical look on your face when a friend announces he’s heading to Uzbekistan. Maybe you’ll even volunteer to join him.