After the bright lights and big attractions of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are welcome transitions to another time and place. The fact that you arrive off the train into Bukhara (no high speed fancy train this time, just a regular one) to find the station still under construction tells you you’re not in Samarkand any more and that things move at a different pace here.
Thanks to the day’s downpour, the old town in Bukhara, where we find our courtyard hotel, Hotel Minzifa, is a mess of lake like puddles that even the locals struggle to cross. They have placed planks and large rocks across the most menacing in an attempt not to drown.
Ironically, despite trying to avoid such bodies of water, life in Bukhara revolves around just that – the Lyabi Hauz pool that is the last of the numerous bathing pools that used to be dotted around the city but were drained after they were found responsible for spreading the dreaded Bukhara plague. Now the Lyabi Hauz is home to two tea houses that serve delicious samsa and shazhlyk, and by night the square around it transforms into a family carnival complete with bouncy castle and singer belting out Uzbek pop songs.
Unlike Samarkand, where sights and local people are divided by fences, here the lines blur and they are one and the same. The old town is a rabbit’s warren of houses, cafes and hotels, as well as mosques, medressas, minarets, the Ark, and of course, the commercial hub of every Central Asian town, the bazaar (Bukhara’s includes a particularly impressive jewellery market that is worth a look). Immersing yourself in these sights and getting lost in Bukhara can, and does, take all day.
We reward our tired feet at the Old Bukhara restaurant, where we sit on the upper deck sipping tea and eating ice cream.
From the constantly wet Bukhara, a driver takes us on the six hour journey to the desert town of Khiva, complete with lunch break at a local truck stop (samsa, of course, which has come to be our standard travelling food) and spotting a meerkat en route.
Finally we are welcomed to the Qosha Darvoza hotel by Mansour, who despite the searing heat, is successfully and cheerfully observing Ramadan, fuelled by the plov he made and ate at 4am, only to break the fast at sundown.
Sunset is the most beautiful part of the day not just for Mansour but for those who’ve already conquered the walled city of Khiva in the heat of the day, popping in and out of the medressas that have been converted into workshops, museums and art galleries, (your single ticket to the whole city, minus a few select monuments, acts as a kind of passport that lists each sight and you can tick off as you explore).
At sunset, as if by a magic spell, the walled city of Khiva is transformed from a series of sand coloured buildings that are so scorching hot that even stray cats dare not lift their heads until the dazzling yet all defeating sun starts to go down.
Ironically this magical time is, save for a few Chinese tourists with huge lenses and lingering souvenir sellers optimistic for a final sale, one of the most quiet. If you choose the right spot you can savour the spell binding transformation all by yourself or with someone appropriately special.
Suddenly, the setting sun becomes on overripe peach, painting the city with its juice, lighting up the concrete with a soft, golden rose glow. Now, you are an Arabian princess surveying your kingdom, walking arm in arm with your prince and greeting your subjects humbly, wishing them ‘salom aleykom’.