Bukhara - All the Presidents’ Men
We arrived in Bukhara on Sunday 29th April and checked in to a hotel a day before our rendezvous with Nora the next day. Sunday night in downtown Bukhara was very busy, with people checking out the many shops. These were selling clothes from locally woven and dyed cloth and scarves and many other things besides.
Some very small children were whizzing around in battery operated flashing cars, live music was playing in the main square and there were any number of flashing signs for cafes and hotels, not far from some of the best buildings from the Islamic Golden Age imaginable.
We were billeted at the As-Salom hotel, small and family run, which was a considerable step up from the two star variety in Iran and it was a delight to return to clean sheets and a good bathroom after our tour of the town.
What we had not anticipated was that the historic heart of Bukhara was about to receive a Presidential visitation, comprising the Presidents of Turkey and, of course, Uzbekistan. This meant that everything in sight was being watered, planted, painted, filled, sprayed or decorated long into the night. The amount of sweeping and pavement cleaning was second only to the teams of women deployed in Ashgabat. The upside was that the town was looking its Presidential best. The downside is that many of the historic buildings were closed to the public having been requisitioned for the visit. As the visit drew closer, tourists were replaced with hundreds or thousands of police. Some plain clothed in black suits or leather jackets and uniformed police outside every establishment and lining the public spaces. Incongruously, teams of musicians, young and old in national dress festooned every open space. There were dancers and acrobats and the whole place shimmered with brightly coloured flags fair flapping in the mounting breezes.
Whilst we could find a tea shop, most of the restaurants on the day of the visit had been commandeered to feed the vast entourages of two heads of State. A small number of tourists, billeted in the main town centre, were permitted to continue to mill around the highly polished sidewalks and public squares, but all the usual day trippers and visitors had been excluded beyond a cordon. In our case we were in, but our car was out. This meant being knocked up at 6am to relocate it out of town.
Excitement and tension in equal measure mounted as the time came for the arrivals. We were offered an Uzbekistan version of Kentucky Fried Chicken to share, by a small cafe who said that all their normal lunchtime food was off. When we emerged back into the fresh air we could see that something had happened. There were TV cameras interviewing and we sensed that the main entourage was being fed behind the large wooden gates of the Nodir Devin Begi madrasah. Square jawed men glared at our cameras and asked us to put them away. Then suddenly it was over. The doors burst open and the party streamed out towards us. The Presidents were spotted and the Uzbek President waved over the heads of the security contingent, vaguely in our direction, much to the joy of our young guide. A vast posse of sleek black limousines roared into life and swallowed up the main contingent and multiple camera men and journalists and they were off.
We followed our guide into the vacated building and the remains of a sumptuous state banquet lay in tatters on flower bedecked tables. The security detail had lost interest and we were permitted to take the uneaten fruit, nuts and biscuits from the laden tables, with some local store holders pouring large amounts of fruit into their handbags.
The Presidents had eaten in a vacated private dais in the centre of the Courtyard. For fun Christine and I slid into the warm seats as the gold decorated tumblers and food was transported off by waiters and table arrangements of flowers were distributed to outstretched hands.
Photos were taken playfully by the, by now relaxed, Police Lieutenant.
We marvelled at how quickly the tension dissipated and the town returned to normal as huge quantities of chairs and tables returned to their former locations and the flags lining the streets were artfully removed and packed away.