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Bukharan Backstreets

In streets that were silent under the stars pleasure soon returned, contentment with being where I was, and I remembered the phrase of the Kashmiri, Mohun Lai, who had travelled with Burnes to this remote and dangerous city: "When the day is closed and the drum is beaten, none dare venture to walk in the streets of Bokhara the Holy."

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook

At the turn of the century Bukhara boasted 127 working madrassahs and a mosque for every day of the year. Many are still standing, in varying states of disrepair and disregard, hardly touched since they were locked up after the fall of the emirate. Most are unfortunately still locked and the best views you will get of them is through padlocked wooden doors. Many are hidden deep in Bukharan backstreets where, unlike Khiva, Central Asian life reveals itself. Dogs yap, goats wander, children play in the dust and a whirling dervish lies hidden behind every corner.

None of the sights compare to the grandeur of the more famous monuments of Bukhara, all are on a far more personal scale, but the timeless alleyways offer a valuable insight into the character of the city and the life of its people. You will get lost (in the words of Tom Bissel, 'Bukhara is no place to deliver a pizza'), but that is part of the fun. Recognisable sights are never far away and you might even get invited to dinner.

The following is divided into four sections arranged purely by geography, each starting from the Lyab-i-Hauz for convenience.

EAST from the Kukeldash Madrassah lies a collection of religious buildings with with secular functions. The bristling dome of the Kokuli Khurt Mosque rises over the Zebiniso cultural centre Domlo Hassan Madrassah (18th century), which until recently sold a curious mix of holy texts and car parts. Next door are two perpetually shut museums but with good timing and persistence you may gain access to the Bronze Museum in the Oibinok Mosque (1894) and the Varakhsha Museum in the Ibraghim Okhund Madrassah (1854). Behind them lurks the 19th-century Isteza Madrassah, now home to the Centre Francais 'Caravan Saray' (, which teaches French language and renovates architectural gems across the city. Further east, former Lenin St has been transformed into Nakhshbandi St, from godless revolutionary to Sufic mystic, but still leads to the tiny Attor Madrassah (Said Kamol), whose student cells now receive hotel guests after transformation similar to the nearby Mekhtar Ambar Madrassah. Cross over to Ambar St and continue further east to the small Imam Kazikhan shrine, then north to the Chor, and west to the local Khoja Taband Mosque. This thriving local mosque is the centre of the makhallya neighbourhood council and on Fridays is awash with striped cloaks and pampered beards.

NORTH from the Lyab-i-Hauz, following Samarkand Street, leads to the dilapidated but refreshingly unrestored Poi Ostana Mosque and Madrassah, whose faded paintwork points to a past beauty and to a Bukhara before the renovation teams moved in. Just before the mosque turn left and left again to a madrassah courtyard, whose saint's tomb is one of the most popular places in the city for young women to pray for plentiful children. Two hundred metres north along Khorezm Street lies the concealed madrassah, mosque and tomb of the Mavlana Sharif ensemble and behind it the ruined Chukor Caravanserai, whose name means 'deep' and refers to the sunken ground level of its courtyard. Both are tricky to find, but are visible from behind the Abdul Aziz Madrassah. Close by is the Tok-i-Zargaron and the Mir Kemal Madrassah (1707) to the north. This part of the old town is one of the oldest in the city and the site of the original core shakhristan. Return eastwards to Samarkand Street and further north lies the fortress-like Tash Serai (Stone Palace) Madrassah and the recently re-opened Sheikh Aksavi (Shayakhsi) Mosque. On the way to Lyab-i-Hauz pop into the Ibraghim Mosque (19 Samarkand St) to see if the Qariyalar Chaikhana is still operating. The somewhat dilapidated teahouse is normally home to a friendly and characterful band of chess- playing retirees.

SOUTH from the Lyab-i-Hauz, past the Jewish Synagogue and Mubinjon homestay, turn right into the heart of the Eshoni Pir district and the Eshoni Pir local mosque and madrassah, where UNESCO sponsors carpet weavers to work with traditional, natural dyes. Nearby on a triangular crossroads is the shrine of a local saint adorned with pre-Islamic motifs such as a silver hand and sun, and the Islamic crescent and star. From here continue south down Arabon Street to the local Arabon Mosque and Salakhana Complex, where rich merchants from India and Persia would set up shop, working out of caravanserai hotel rooms, much the same as modern foreign businesses do today in Tashkent. Further south, outside the rebuilt city gate, lies the Jewish cemetery and the Vabayi Poroduz Mausoleum, a well-attended 16th-century tomb under a high dome and horsehair tassel, next door to Buhoro Telecom. From here, follow Abdulla Toqay Street westwards. At the crossroads with Nomozgokh Street, turn right for the beautifully inscribed entrance to a rich merchant's house on the left and the high dome of the popular Turki Zhandi Mausoleum on the right, where the local imam will say a brief prayer for you before you take a deep breath and dive back into the town labyrinth. Look for the hand symbol and tuft of horsehair atop a wooden pole-the medieval symbols of Sufism and sainthood. Retrace your steps and continue along Abdulla Tukay Street, skirting the edge of the old town, to reach the House of Faizullah Khodjaev, Uzbekistan's first president, now an interesting museum. At the next junction turn right up Jubor Street to the 17th century Mirzoi Sharif Gaziyon Madrassah, with its impressive main recessed iwan and the modern but functioning mixed baths opposite. Jubor St finally emerges into central Bukhara by the Gaukushan Madrassah.

WEST from here, Nakhshbandi Street passes the 19th century Pocho Kul Khoja Mosque on the left, now a butcher's store, and the empty Emir Rashid Madrassah to the right. The large madrassah further up the street to the right with the characteristic green pillar tilework is the Tursanjon Madrassah (1796), presently used by potters who make huge tandyr ovens here out of straw and clay. The madrassah is in good condition and lies open for exploration. Behind the maclrassah lies the Khoja Zainuddin Mosque and also the functioning sixteenth century Khunjak women's baths where women can receive a cheap massage in the diffused natural light of a warm, sunken chamber and enjoy a rare opportunity to meet Uzbek and Tajik women away from family and male pressures.