Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Kebab with a Side of History

By Kelly Raftery

Many times, when traveling in Russia, the places that you like seem to make a statement about who you are. The immediate example that comes to mind is that my preference for European St. Petersburg, over quintessentially Russian Moscow was always interpreted as an inability on my part to truly appreciate the Russian soul.

The Registan, Samarkand.  Photo by Dmitriy Pitirimov, via Wikimedia Commons
When it came to Central Asia, Uzbeks never understood my preference for drab (and somewhat too  Persian for their tastes) Bukhara over that Silk Road showpiece, Samarkand. Samarkand’s main square, The Registan, was lovingly restored to its former glory during the Soviet era and is truly a breath-taking architectural ensemble. Standing at these ancient crossroads, one cannot help but feel completely awed and dwarfed by the ancient madrasahs (traditional Islamic center of learning) that flank the square, each covered in intricate blue and green mosaic tile designs. But, to be quite honest, I always felt like Samarkand, as beautiful as it was, resembled a Hollywood movie set of New York City–a bit too clean and sanitized to be the real thing.  

Bukhara's Covered Bazaar, Photo by Anatoly Terentiev,via Wikimedia Commons
As a history junkie and a writer, I like a bit more grit and realism in my surroundings. I want to be able to see the ghosts who once lived, loved and died there. In Central Asia, Bukhara is that sort of place for me. Bukhara is old. It is believed that Bukhara sits on a sacred hill used by pre-Christian fire worshippers for springtime sacrificial rites.  The city itself was well established by 400-500 A.D. Unlike Samarkand, all seemingly shiny and new, Bukhara wears its age. People live and work still in these ancient places, as they have for millennia. I have happily lost myself in the streets near the old covered bazaar countless times. On one trip, I started my wanderings late in the day, the sinking sun throwing long shadows across my path, causing me to spend more time than usual watching my footing. I emerged from the narrow streets of the bazaar into the growing dark, where a man led a solitary camel across my path. At that moment the air around me became alive with the imaginary spirits of Silk Road traders. 

Lyab-i Hauz,
Photo by F. Eveleens from Wikimedia Commons
My favorite restaurant abroad is an open air café, which I love more for the history than the food.   Bukhara, until Soviet times, was a city of ponds and giant storks. One of Bukhara’s main squares is called Lyab-i Hauz, or “by the pond” in Persian. Lyab-i Hauz’s core is the large square pond at its center, ringed with gnarled and ancient trees and a stone staircase which descends into the water. This pond is one of the few remaining in modern Bukhara, the rest having been filled in by the Soviets for public health reasons. Not far from the pond is an outdoor café with traditional raised seating. In Central Asia, this means large platforms, not unlike sizable day beds, lined with cushions and pillows, with a low table set in the middle. Friends lounge comfortably or sit with legs tucked beneath the table, tailor style. The food at the café that bears the same name as the square is simple and Uzbek, the quality varies depending on what was available at the market that day. Salads of all kinds, plov, (Uzbekistan’s national pilaf of lamb, onion, carrots and rice) and shashlyk (kebabs) form the base of the menu and a basket of naan, or flatbread always accompanies the meal.  

A Phoenix in Flight. Photo by Alaexis, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are there on a hot afternoon, children’s laughter is punctuated by an occasional loud splash and shouts of joy indicating a particularly spectacular jump from a tree into the nearby pond. You take your time in Uzbekistan, particularly on those hot days, so sit a while, have another piala of green tea and watch the kids play as your food takes its time arriving at the table. Close your eyes and take in the scents of grilling meat skewers, pungent hot pepper infused vinegar and freshly baked bread.      
Open your eyes and look around the square. On the north side of the pond is the Kukeldah Madrasah, the largest madrasah in the city. Opposite each other are two spectacularly decorated structures, built by Nadir Divan-Beghi, a khanaka, or lodging house for wandering Sufis, and a madrasah. The madrasah bears beautiful mosaics of Phoenixes in flight.

Nasruddin Hodja.  Photo by By Faqscl via Wikimedia Commons
Once you have finished your meal, get up and wander the square a bit, visit the small statue of Nasruddin Hodja, the warm-hearted trickster of the Islamic world, who is immortalized here riding a donkey, one hand over his heart. Wander a bit further and find artists and craftsman selling their wares. Look around at the rooftops and trees and see if you can spot any of the few remaining giant stork nests, or if you are truly lucky, a stork. Then, in time, return to a nearby guesthouse where you can lay your head and dream of days gone by along the Silk Road. 

A wonderful series of photos of Bukhara can be found here.

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