All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan


After Samarkand, we took a train to Bukhara. If Samarkand was Temur’s political capital, Bukhara was the educational and religious center. You can’t walk a block in the old city center without running into another 15th century medrassah. Here Ulug Beg built his first medrassah, and inscribed over its entrance the scandalous message, “Learning is the duty of both men and women.”

The minaret pictured above is called the Kalon Minaret, which just means “large.” Apparently Genghis Khan was so impressed with  it he decided not to destroy it. It is the only remnant of pre-Mongol Invasion Bukhara left standing, besides the Ismaili Somoni Mausoleum, which stands a ways outside the old city.

Bukhara became home to some of the most renowned scholars of the Islamic world, including Al-Bukhari, who compiled and authenticated the official collection of the Hadith, the stories about Muhammed’s life.

The successive waves of Turkic invaders to the region more or less preserved Bukhara’s status as a center of learning. By the 19th century it was the capital of its own independent Emirate, which encompassed most of Eastern Uzbekistan and modern-day Tajikistan. It wasn’t until after the Communist Revolution that Russia (which had annexed most of the surrounding territory) finally orchestrated the fall of the Amir of Bukhara.

(photo courtesy of

Conspiring with local communists and intellectuals, the Russians managed to topple Amir Alim Khan’s regime, then proceeded to carve up what had been Russian Turkestan into various soviet socialist republics. It was this process, overseen by Stalin himself, which gave us the current borders of the Central Asian nations. This history still provokes resentment here in Tajikistan because both Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik-speaking cities, though they fall within the borders of Tajikistan. The reality is that both are polyglot cities whose citizens were so ethnically mixed that the iron-clad titles “Tajik” and “Uzbek” were no more than official fictions. Nationality can be a tricky subject.

Regardless, I found it easy to communicate in Samarkand and Bukhara using Tajik. This made it much easier to negotiate local prices for taxi cabs and ask for directions. It also made it possible for me to talk with this man:

Who I met on the street and invited us to his house for some plov. His family makes extra money this way. His name is Murmin. Over tea he waxed philosophical about peace, friendship and the war in Afghanistan. A fascinating evening.

Here we are, reclining at the table (these 2 photos come from my friend Bethany).

Bukhara is a great place to just soak up the atmosphere, try to meet locals and wander aimlessly through the ancient, crooked streets.

Things I recommend in Bukhara: try on the costume’s in the Amir’s throne room (it just costs a dollar), try the saffron tea at the Silk Road Teahouse, ask around at the merchant’s stalls for someone like Murmin, check out the Komil Inn (great 19th century house-turned-B&B), and watch the sun set from inside the Kalon Medrassa.


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