I reached the only hotel I knew of in Bukhara. It looked tall, modern and totally deserted. My pack and I walked up to the big glass front doors. They were locked. I peered inside. Deserted and dark. I didn’t know what to do. I presumed that there were other places to stay in Bukhara but I had no idea where they were. It would be dark soon and a night on the streets of a strange, apparently empty city was not appealing.
I walked around the hotel in search of alternatives and ran straight into a thoughtful man. He said nothing when I collided with him but kept his chin in his hand and his brow furrowed. After a minute of analytical noises, he told me that the hotel was being fumigated because of an unspecified infestation and nobody was allowed in for the next four days.
I began to ask him about other hotels. He held up his hand and resumed his pensive pose. I watched the sun set and my options dwindle. Finally, the thoughtful man came to a decision and strode purposefully away, beckoning me to follow.
He jumped into the driver’s seat of an old white Lada and threw open the passenger door. I wedged myself in with my pack on my lap. He was off before I had the door closed. We sped away from the hotel and through a labyrinth of identical back streets. This appeared to be a residential district but all the houses were enclosed by high walls. There were no landmarks; just more smooth, round-topped mud walls.
At length, we stopped at one of these walls. The driver got out, strode across the road and knocked at a heavy wooden door set into a wall. He motioned me out of the car. I manhandled my pack onto my back and joined him at the door.
The door was opened by a small, round woman in a highly-coloured Uzbek dress. The driver jerked his thumb at me, walked back to his car and drove off. When I turned back to the woman, she had disappeared along a passageway inside the house. Her head appeared from a doorway and motioned me in impatiently.
I followed her up the corridor to a small room. Against one wall was a divan bed covered with cushions. The far wall was covered by thick curtains. The walls were bare but every horizontal surface was covered with floral fabric.
The woman looked at me, gave me a little push into the room and closed the door behind her. I took my pack off and leaned it against the bed, then walked to the curtains and pulled them aside. There was a door with a small window at eye level. I could see a small compound enclosed by the whitewashed mud walls that I had seen from outside. Fruit trees lined the courtyard whose centerpiece was a rectangular pool into which water trickled from a pipe hidden beneath a small fern. I could not see over the walls.
I turned a small key in the lock of the door. It turned. I let myself into the courtyard. A slight breeze was rustling the fruit trees. Noises filtered over the wall from the street outside. I could hear distant sounds of children playing. Water trickled musically into the little pool. I looked to see if there were any fish. No.
I had no idea where I was in the city. I had been hungry for some time. The Germans with whom I had hitched a ride to Bukhara had seemed in a hurry to get as much distance between them and Tajikistan as possible. They had told me that they had left suddenly because the civil war had reached Dushanbe and that shells were falling close to their building. They had said very little else on the trip. Especially about stopping for food.
I tried to see over the wall. It seemed doubtful that I would find a shop or a restaurant around here. As far as I had seen on the journey here, nothing was open. I stood near the wall and jumped, trying to see what was outside the compound. It was the road on which I had arrived. It was getting dark so I could see very little beyond an empty road lined with uniform white walls.
I was jumping again when I heard a sound behind me. My landlady was standing in the doorway, holding a plate. I began to smell very welcome food odours. She motioned me inside rather crossly. I gathered that I should have stayed in the room and waited patiently. She closed the door to the courtyard, then swept out of the other door, shutting it firmly behind her.
I looked at the plate on the table. The food seemed to be based on eggs but smelled wonderful. I sat on the bad and tucked in. It tasted like Turkish menemen, a form of omelette with a variety of spicy ingredients. I lapped it up greedily, washing it down with several glasses of dusty water from the jug on the dresser.
I finished, and wondered what to do. I opened my pack and found my toothbrush and shaving gear. I opened the door cautiously and peered down the passageway. At one end was the door through which I had entered the house. Three doors were visible in the other direction. I slipped out of my room and peered through the only open one of the three. It contained a toilet and sink, cause for rejoicing.
After a minimal body maintenance session, I crept back to my room and wondered what to do. Clearly, I was supposed to remain here until someone came to get me at some appointed hour of the morning that conformed with the routine of the house.
I sat on the bed and leafed through stories of late Soviet indiscretions. The magazines looked depressingly like Hello without the restraining influence of libel laws. I paced up and down and opened the courtyard door again.
Outside the dust had settled and the desert chill settled over the night. I could hear nothing outside but I could smell the spices of neighbours’ food in the air. I was in fabled Bukhara and had seen nothing of it except for a recently infested hotel and a series of walls.
I had to get out and see something. I went back into the room opened the inside door and crept up to the front door. I tried the handle. The door would not open. I looked for a key. Nothing. I slunk back into my room.
Two minutes later, I was back in the courtyard trying to see over the wall. I jumped but again saw nothing happening in a dimly lit street. Here I was in one of the greatest architectural treasure troves of the world and nothing was happening.
My first attempt to climb the wall resulted in me sliding back noisily into the compound with my hands covered in dry flakes of whitewash. Someone must have heard me. I took a run-up and threw myself at the wall. My desperately scrabbling fingers found purchase on the top of the wall and I triumphantly hauled myself up and over to the street.
I brushed myself down and hoped that I hadn’t damaged the wall enough for it to be noticeable in the morning. I stood still and listened, my heart thumping loudly in the still darkness. Nothing. I had escaped.
I walked to the nearest crossroad and peered in all four directions. I couldn’t see much. There was no street lighting here. I could see a few lights in one direction with some taller buildings so I headed that way, hoping that I would remember enough landmarks to find my way back.
Nobody was out on the street and no cars passed me as I made my way blindly towards the distant lights. I wondered if there was some kind of curfew and whether I was breaking some laws by being there.
Eventually, I reached the lit area. It was where a large canal crossed the road. The canal flowed down the centre of the larger street that now stretched to my left and right. To the right, I could see only darkness. I walked to the left. The buildings were now two-storey or more and I could see a larger one ahead.
I entered a large square in which the canal spread out to form a square pool. In front of me were about twenty wooden beds, spread evenly across the dusty ground. On the other side of the square was a large building with a façade like one of the medrese in the centre of Samarkand. The blue and white tilework looked exquisite in the dim yellow light. I resolved to come this way the next morning. It looked like a promising neighbourhood.
I felt tired. A lot seemed to have happened today and a good sleep was beginning to seem like a good idea. I decided to head back to my room but to go a slightly different way in case there was something else to see and to give the city a fair chance of getting me hopelessly lost.
I walked back to where the canal street crossed the road back to my belongings. I paused and looked again in all four directions. There was a vague flickering light in the direction opposite to the way home. I thought I could hear some music.
I shrugged off the tiredness and walked towards the light. The music grew louder. It was a kind of wild double-reed instrument with the sort of sound associated with snake-charmers in 1930s black-and-white films about the mystic east. I walked around a corner into a National Geographic scene.
A bonfire blazed in the middle of the road outside a house illuminated by flaring torches. A weird procession made its way towards me. Tumblers led the way, leaping in gymnastic flips and cartwheels. Behind them were torch-bearers. They were followed by men wearing costumes of a sort that I once saw at a Morris Dancing festival in Winchester, which made them look as though they were riding horses.
Then came a milling crowd of men, bearing in their midst a tall, obviously drunk young man who was being pushed from person to person in a teasing sort of way. I stood at the bonfire and watched.
As the procession of men approached, I noticed two young women outside the torch-lit house race inside shouting happily. Immediately, a crowd of women emerged, squealing and laughing at the men. The males responded and a joyful slanging exchange began between the sexes.
At close range, the tumblers became small boys who clustered around me, wondering what this foreign apparition was doing here. The torch-bearers stood to one side, ensuring that everyone could clearly see the target of their good-natured insults. The tall young man looked more and more confused as he was buffeted about from friend to friend. Everyone was waiting for something.
Eventually, a door near the top of the two-storey illuminated building opened. An older woman ushered a veiled girl onto an iron staircase and led her to the ground. The crowd fell silent.
The tall man was propelled to the front of the male crowd as the girl was brought towards the bonfire. It began to dawn on me that this was a wedding. The veiled girl was led to the man. A cheer erupted from the crowd. The man reached for the girl’s hand. They clasped each other. They were pushed towards the house and up the staircase from which the girl and the older woman had recently emerged. As they entered the room and closed the door, the gathering gave a fresh cheer.
The crowd stood around dividing into groups and making small talk before moving across the road and into a yard where several trestle tables were set up. I looked into the enclosure and saw a group of men with musical instruments similar in some ways to ones I had heard played in Turkish classical music groups.
My curiosity was off the scale by this stage and I went into the yard to have a closer look at the band and its instruments. There were several of the flared double-reed snake-charmer instruments, but most of the orchestra was made up of stringed and percussion instruments. There were some long-necked lute-type things and something that looked like a metal banjo with a double-humped body.
They began to play. It was a type of music I have never heard except on that night, although it shared many elements of Turkish traditional music. As I listened, I felt an arm around my shoulder. I was drawn towards the trestle tables, where the wedding feast was beginning. Apparently, I was invited.
My broken Turkish proved to be acceptable as a means of communication, although I was unable to understand or articulate several key concepts so I never did find out why the bride and groom were not attending their own wedding reception. However, I remembered that they had not looked at all unhappy about having to go into a room together while the party was in full swing.
The night passed in an orgy of grilled meats, Russian champagne and Stolichnaya. I remember joining in a riotous dance that started off slowly and finished with everyone moving so fast that they fell over each other and ended up in a giggling pile on the ground. I do not remember getting back to my bedroom, but I do remember the expression on my landlady’s face as she shook my dusty, snoring, fully-clothed form awake in the morning for another eggy breakfast.