Bukhara was once the unlikely southern terminus for mainline traffic from Russia’s boreal Empire. The lines hopscotched rivers, skirted giant lakes, and bored through soft desert sandstone to empty into the salty rangeland of the Bukharan Emirate. The railroad was built late here and it never actually reached Bukhara, stopping, instead, miles away in the dusty suburb of Kogon. Bowing to the sensibilities of the reticent Bukharans, the Tatar traders and Russian envoys built their settlement at the railhead, making the railroad station, like modernity, a sort of diplomatic outpost. Thus was Bukhara’s splendid historical isolation formally ensured, and the Bukharan Emir… (otherwise, ruler by name only…he had been largely raised in Russia and wore imperial epaulets over his traditional ikat robes)…ensured his throne until 1918.
The train that arrived in this little outpost from the capital was also a strange and formalistic nod to modernity…a speed train faster than any in Central Asia meant to ferry tourists from the capital. We headed downtown through a thin tunnel of rising infrastructure (Bukhara was expanding to meet the train station by official fiat) and stopped a few hundred meters from our hotel…an old house in the Jewish quarter that was situated on the low side of an old cobblestone square. Just off through the hallway from our room the roof-hatch was hanging open and so I climbed up to see the city, but the fog was thick and the main city was only visible as a series of phosphorescent blotches slanting towards the night sky.
In front of the hotel, the Lyab-i Haus, a collection of madrassas and public fountains took on a neon hue as it was being festooned in anticipation of the New Year. Papier-mâché snowflakes dangled from trees heavy with nesting crows and the blue majolica tiles of the ancient madrassas were mounted with cascading rows of neon icicles. In the dark tenements behind the hotel the hulking adobe frames of the old city trapped the ambulating light from the street, reclaiming for furtive Bukhara the privacy that it prefered.