Silk Road Treasures – Souvenir Shopping in Samarkand and Bukhara
If you have read a few of my posts, you may know that I am a big fan of bringing back a souvenir or two, but they have to be either edible, useful, or of a high quality. Before I visited Uzbekistan pretty much on a whim, I wondered what Shopping in Samarkand and Bukhara might be like.
I love the organic single-estate olive oil from Jaen, use spices from Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market, and drink Greek Mountain Tea. Occasionally, a trinket or two finds its way into our house, but with most travel souvenirs they have to be either practical, sewing-related, old and beautiful and, above all useful and wherever possible, ethically produced.
In Uzbekistan, I had severe difficulties not to hoard because some of the items for sale there are just so beautiful – or are hard to find anywhere else. Unless you go to Istanbul – I’ve seen loads of Central Asian handicrafts in Istanbul. Arasta Bazaar is a good place to look, by the way.
To get your Shopping in Samarkand and Bukhara started, look in the less obvious places. If you see the famous madrassahs, mosques and mausoleums of Samarkand and Bukhara, you will inevitably come across loads of souvenir shops. What’s for sale isn’t always the greatest quality or a good price, so here is my handy guide for some good and useful souvenirs from the two cities.
Shopping in Samarkand and Bukhara: Samarkand
Samarkand is an odd one – overly touristified and sanitised in its ancient core, almost like a theme park near the big sights. A lot of the old madrassahs are occupied by souvenir sellers, but I found very little there that I wanted to take home. But then, there are pockets if authenticity that you don’t want to miss.
Where to shop in Samarkand – and where not
Samarkand is a large city, the second largest of Uzbekistan, and as such, its majority away from the tourist area is buzzing. But to be honest, other than a ton pf pharmacies and travel agents and clothes shops for Western clothes I did not see many shops that might appeal to the visitor on my trips through the modern city. Local bazaars are a different matter.
One is right next tot the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in the form of the sprawling Siyob Bazaar. Many people don’t bother so much with is and continue to Shah-i-Zinda from the homogenized Tashkent Road, but here are definitely some great (authentic) bargains to be had!
A lot of what you might see as the casual visitor is shops aimed at tourists. Ancient madrassahs, even parts of mosques, have been converted into souvenir shops. In the cells where once religious students lived and studied, you can now buy puppets, fridge magnets, clothes, ikat and tons of other souvenirs. I looked at a few but knowing my way round silk and fabric a little, I did not find them that impressive. I think a lot of the merchandise was mass produced.
Tashkent Road in Samarkand has large tourist shops, too. You will inevitably come across it if you walk from the Registan to Shah-i-Zinda and Bibi Khanym Mosque. Some of the shop windows did actually lookk nice, with clithes and bags made from traditional ikat fabric. However, I found the street really sanitized and not terribly appealing devoid of any local life. You can skip the walk by taking one of the oversized gold cats that shuttle visitors between the two complexes.
There weren’t many restaurants and cafes in Tashkent Road either. A notable exception was the Bibi Khanym Tea House. I really loved that place, and finding not much vegetarian food around, I went there about three times! It is friendly, has ample outdoor seating and lots of Uzbek food as well as some Russian and Western staples.
On my first day, having arrived on the red eye flight from Moscow, I rolled in there at lunch time, bleary eyed and still fighting off a nasty cold, and devoured some manty, assorted salads and a huge pot of green tea. I returned and even though my bill was sometimes small (tea and a salad), they let me sit there for hours. Certainly touristy with its pictorial menus, but I think one of the better places and yes, a section for vegetarians which is a rarity in Uzbekistan.
Okay, this looked more like an introductory chapter of where NOT to shop, so let’s check out the good shopping options!
Uzbekistan is exemplary when it comes to championing seasonal food. While I browsed in the Siyob BAzaar, I found almost exclusively seasonal produce as well as preserved foods, in this case… pickles! Now I do not advocate bringing some local sauerkraut home, but the array of foods that can be preserved is baffling.
East as much as you can while there. There were also some dried nuts and fruits (cherries and apricots) for sale.
What I did buy, though is some of the local bread. Called “non” in Uzbek or “lepyoshka (flatbread) in Russian, this is a wonderfully dense bread baked in a clay oven and sold everywhere almost any time of the day. It comes plain or decorated into shapes and adorned with seeds and stamps.
I did buy a couple breads on my last day in Siyob Bazaar and carried them home in my suitcase, then froze them… almost a year later they still tasted wonderful. I know this is not the standard souvenir, but once I had given up finding a restaurant that served veggie food, I had just resorted to buying apples, pickles cabbage and a loaf of bread, and loved the bread so much!
They also come in really interesting styles. The bread I saw for sale in the street and on the market in Bukhara was usually a round shiny loaf decorated with a stamped pattern and Nigella seeds. The bread below I got in Bukhara, shaped like a flower.
Let’s move on to some more durable souvenirs, but still related to food! Staying in the Siyob Bazaar, I decided to go for a wander on my last day in Uzbekistan, to see whether I might find a traditional Uzbek “cotton flower” pattern tea set that my welcome tea had been served in, and that I had grown to like a lot.
Here is a particularly nice and voluminous one at the Bibi Khanym Tea House, obviously not for sale… You can find them also in souvenir shops, however… I noticed their quality wasn’t amazing. I mena, I wasn’t looking for Meissen porcelain here but paying about 1o-20 Euro for a rather wonky tea set didn’t seem like good value either.
So imagine my delight when I found an array of tea pots, plates and bowls in various sizes in a household goods shop in Siyob Bazaar. That Siob Bazaar turned out to be a treasure trove. Yes, there were a few shops with textiles and souvenirs if questionable provenance too, but the section facing the Hazrat Khidr Mosque are the real deal.
I bought the tea pot, a few saucers and bowls of varying sizes. The quality isn’t amazing but the pattern is lovely and they are durable and have withstood plenty of hand washes. For durable quality, look for more upmarket department stores or buy some (much more expensive) vintage ones. They cost very little – about 5000 Som for the tea pot, and about 2000-3000 Som for the smaller items – so that’ll be about 3 Euro for the entire set.
I had already loaded up on fine fabrics from the Margilan Valley in Bukhara, and wasn’t looking for any more. It was just a coincidence that I saw the household goods shop in Siyob Bazaar had a large rolls of cotton on display – at ridiculous prices. I cannot remember how much everything cost, I just kept becoming more and more wide-eyed as I had the salesman pull metre andfter metre off the roll.
The household store fabric is a relatively thin cotton, not extremely high quality, but decent looking with a crisp pattern. It also drapes nicely. But at less than 0,50 Euro per metre… who am I to complain? I have not cut into it yet but I think they will eventually turn into everyday summer dresses or cover-ups.
If they really aren’t that great (don’t wash well or get holes quickly), I shall update this post.
All three are very much Uzbek/Central Asian designs. Given that many local ladies wear either a longish tunic top and either jeans or wide-legged trousers in a mathcing fabric, these fabrics are obviously used for dress making and should endure a bit or washing and wearing.
Shopping in Samarkand and Bukhara: Bukhara
When it comes to quality shopping, I found Bukhara the easier place to go on a shopping excursion. Not only is Bukhara a much smaller city, but the toursistic attractions are embedded in the old city which is almost exclusively pedestrianized and dotted with ancient bazaar buildings and trading domes, making Bukhara an almost natural shopping city.
Where to Shop in Bukhara
Starting near the Lyabi Hauz Complex, you will encounter an ancient route of trading domes given over mostly to souvenir and handicraft shops, with the rather popular pedestrian route between them full of tourist shops, too. The closest to Lyabi Hauz is the Toqi Sarrafon, followed by the Toqui Telpak Furushon, up to the Toqi Zargaron neaer the Kalyon Complex.
They are completely taken over by tourist-oriented shops,but there are some great shops in there. In quality of the merchandise, I liked the middle one, Toqi Telpak Furushon, the most. It is architecturally pleasing, cool, and a pleasure to browse.
A lot of the sellers here are friendly, knowledgeable and not intrusive at all. I found the prices very reasonable too, but leaving a little room for negotiation especially if you are buying multiple items and paying cash in Uzbek Som. I found shopping here pretty straightforward, easy, and without pressure.
Ikat and other fabrics
The real piece de resistance for me.
Uzbekistan was and is a major producer of cotton and silk. Uzbekistan is the worlds third-largest producer of silk and while production is concentrated in the Fergana Valley, you can buy it all over Uzbekistan. They are not far behind with cotton, a major cash crop and export. Even though I try to use less silk for animal welfare reason, I cannot deny loving it as a fabric – luxurious, colourful and strong. So I had no doubts I would bring at least one piece back.
I got my first look at traditional hand-loomed ikat fabric at the Tim Abdullah Khan. The true ikat silk fabrics are very narrow, about 40 to 60cm. Which puts a bit of a dampener on wanting to sew dresses and shirts. There wasn’t much in the way of assistance at the Tim Abdullah Khan, so I moved on.
Next, the well-known Feruza’s Ikat Store. It is conveniently located between Lyabi Hauz and the Toqi Sarrafon. It does get consistently good write-ups on the internet, and you may have heard of it if you are a sewist but its not marked on any maps online. Don’t be disheartened, it really is quite easy to find and well signposted. And the great reviews are justified!
The first time I visited, I met the owner in the store, presiding over shelves full of the most beautiful fabrics in various qualities. The ones on display outside the store are the cheaper cotton ikat fabrics. They felt quite rough, so don’t be discouraged and walk into the store and ask to see different qualities. Feruza herself would help you find what you are looking for. She speaks good English and welcomed visitors heartily, even those just browsing. And of course, soon enough, with a few sewists gathering in the shop, small talk about what fabric works best for what ensued, and most people walked out with a piece of beautiful fabric.
Another great shop for textiles is Minzifa in the second Trading Dome, Toqi Telpak Furushon. The shop is bigger than Feruza and offers a somewhat wider range of different qualities, and the shopkeeper was just as friendly and helpful.
In the end, it will be a matter of which fabric is available on the day and which you love!
Types of fabric available
For ikat, it is basically cotton, cotton-silk mix and silk. Cotton is the cheapest, at about 5-6 Euro per metre, with silk the most expensive at around 15-18 Euro per metre. Also bear in mind that some of this are made on traditional looms and are typically 40cm wide, sometimes 60cm if you are lucky. A real challenge if you want to sew clothes unless you are stick thin. But they are so beautiful. and it was hard to resist. Even though they contain silk, which I do not buy tons of, because obviously the silkworms get killed in the process, and as a quasi-vegetarian I try to really restrict my usage of leather and silk.
There are some other very nice fabrics too, all made in Uzbekistan – see more detail below.
Below are two silk ikat fabrics from Feruza’s Ikat store, along with a cute little silk purse she threw in.
I also bought this very pretty ikat-style cotton fabric, which is a more manageable 140cm width. It is also Uzbek cotton, and feels thick and very soft. I bought it as a pre-cut piece, great to make clothing.
Prices in this shop are fixed, although there was leeway for a little negotiation when paying in cash in Uzbek Som and when buying multiple items. I am also rubbish at haggling especially in nice local-run shops like this, especially when prices appeared this reasonable. I paid the Som equivalent of 110 Euro for 4 metres of narrow silk ikat and the 3m pre-cut cotton piece. If I remember right, the silk was between 15 and 20 Euro per metre.
Below is my haul from Minzifa textiles. First up a slightly wider (60cm) cotton ikat. Isn’t the combination of blue hues wonderful?
When asking about wider fabrics, the shopkeeper also showed me some pre-cut pieces of vintage machine-loom Soviet silk. It is at least 30 years old, probably older, really thick yet draps wonderfully, and in excellent condition. I expect it to be really durable, and the weight is suitable for clothing, so I bought it. About 25 Euro for just over 3 metres.
In Minzifa Textiles I paid 70 Euro altogether for 8 metres of the somewhat wider cotton ikat and 3m of silk fabric. The cotton ikat was about 6 Euro per metre, the silk piece was 30 Euro – for rough orientation, as there was a little price negotiation, too.
What about Suzani?
I admit a big omission here – Suzani textiles. They are somewhat in fashion and I do like the pretty flower-covered embroideries, but they are not usually my style, no can they be turned into garments. So I did not buy any. I saw at least two shops in the Toqi Telpak Furushon that sold exclusively Suzani textiles, so that might be a good bet. Minzifa textiles also had some vintage Suzani for sale, and although not a huge choice, I think their wares are genuine and high quality.
With the country neighbouring classic carpet countries like Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, you can expect a decent choice of carpets in Uzbekistan, too. Again, the intricately detailed mostly red-black-white patterns are not my usual decorating style, so I wasn’t looking for carpets here so much.
There are several show rooms with new Uzbek carpets between the trading domes mentioned above. Prices are quite high – think 1000 US-dollars for a medium sized 2x3m carpet. If you really are into carpets, I suggest you pay a visit to the Tim Abdullah Khan, on the major “tourist route” between the Lyabi Hauz and Kalyon Complex. Not only is the building a beautiful old trading place, the choice of (vintage) carpets there is baffling.
And that’s as far as I will go on carpets… All my recent carpets are vintage ones and I had no need for another carpet. There is a carpet factory in Samarkand that does tours and also sells to visitors but Bukhara won hands down on carpet showrooms.
Kitchenware, Knifes and Scissors
Having just moved from a tiny galley to a normal-sized kitchen, I had a cupboard or two to fill with useful implements. I liked these pretty copper and brass coffee pots, but whoah! the prices asked from the street vendors were quite steep. I think I have seen something very similar in Armenia, and my suspicion is they were not hand made. Which is fine as long as they work, but being told something is hand made when it isn’t didn’t actually entice me.
Similarly, the prices for these really striking vintage Soviet bowls sold in the street just outside Mir-i-Arab Madrassah were beyond comprehension. Really strong porcelain, crisp colours and some simple bold patterns. I really wanted one, but 15-20 US-Dollars for one? No thanks. If you want to see more, the usual online market places, especially those selling “handmade” have a lot of these for sale for even more. Pretty but somewhat overpriced for something industrially made. Anyway, they are extremely pretty and much in line with the modernist aesthetic.
Then again, some other things appeared to be hand made and a lot cheaper, and just as charming. I always wanted some embroidery scissors in the shape of a bird. Traditionally shaped like storks, they were first midwife tools in the 19th Century Europe and USA, to clamp umbilical chords – and for needlework while waiting for the delivery… They are not that rare, even Victorinox and Prym make modern ones these days. But in Bukhara, they were taken to a new level – we still have a lot of stork birds here, but other birds get a look in, too.
I got two, one for myself and one fot my friend. Looking at the detail, they are at least hand-finished, and I actually went to a work shop to observe them being assembled and the beaks sharpened.
There were also some beautiful knifes, but I did not want to push my luck too far with Aeroflot. Also, these birdies caused me a nice delay in Sheremetyevo. We arrived over an hour late, and I ran like crazy for my connection, with people even being really nice and letting me jump queues… when I arrived at my gate, I could have gotten on, but the gate agent informed me “you luggage won’t make it dear, so I already booked you on the next flight, let’s just leave it as it is”.
I paid approcimately 6-9 Euro for each of these. They look very pretty and cut alright, but let’s say they are not Victorinox-like. They are pretty special and I have only seen them in Bukhara.
Every place in the ex-Soviet Union and even former Socialist countries has its fair share of Soviet memorabilia. Even in Berlin you still find the “shapka” fur caps for sale, although I highly doubt they are really vintage Soviet.
So it was no surprise to find the Soviet souvenirs in Bukhara en masse. First, these lapel pins, which often have striking 1970s design and are usually good quality enamel and age well. They make a nice souvenir if you are into wearing lapel pins and badges. A lot of them are really inoffensive, usually sporting events and the like, rarely you find the Lenin bust ones now. They were the bees knees in my early 1980’s school days, so I amassed a little collection already. They should not cost more than 1 Euro apiece
Moving on to somewhat more expensive stuff – watches! The Soviet Union actually had a decent reputation for quality watches, and many vintage models have been cast off and are now being sold to memorabilia-loving tourists. Some of the designs, especially from the 1960s and 1970s are really cool.
Depending on where you visit, they can range from super low prices to ridiculous rip-off. The price also depends on quality, design and functionality of the watch. Good ones to watch out for are by Raketa (Petrodvorez/St Petersburg Watch Factory) , Vostok (Second Moscow Watch Factory, now in Tschistopol), Sturmanskie and Poljot (First Moscow Watch Factory, dissolved). The calibers are often sturdy, keep good time and are easy to service
Depending on the popularity of a model, they cost about 80-100 Euro if purchased online, so if you find one you like, consider some light haggling as they should cost well under 100 Euro. These vintage watches are souvenirs you will find in many ex-Soviet countries, often at very cheap prices.
Food, Spices and tea
Again, Bukhara has many spice stalls among its souvenir shops. Bear in mind none of these spices are grown in Uzbekistan, but are imported, so may not always be the best deal. What a lot of these spice stalls sold were pretty little spice containers and bread stamps.
For some quality spices and tea, I recommend a visit to the “Silk Road Tea House”. Unashamedly touristy, the large tea house is a cool oasis on a hot day, allowing for a leisurely break with tea, sweets and a bit of shopping. The menu is small, consisting basically of tea, coffee and sweets costing 5 US-Dollars per person for the whole lot, with some free refill. And that’s it. It is a lovely place to linger and have a break. There is a small sales stall where they sell their tea blends and spices. I thought the spices were a bit expensive – when compared to the Middle East. But given the quality of the tea, probably still a good bet.
I hope you enjoyed my little shopping trip to Samarkand and Bukhara! Remember, Samarkand might be better for everyday local things, Bukhara has some high-quality handicraft outlets. Shopping in both cities is a delight and unless you want a carpet, you will spend relatively little money for some really nice souvenirs.
Enjoy and if you have a shopping tip for these cities, I would love to know!
I highly recommend early spring to visit – apart from very little seasonal produce being available for vegetarians, and the many hotels and restaurants just about to open for the tourist season.
While out sightseeing I saw ONE tourist group, and that was it! A few individual travellers who spoke Russians, and what appeared to be visitors from the Far and Middle East in families or couples. The major sights were really quiet, and I could just walk into restaurants without having a reservation and book hotels on the day or one night in advance. The temperatures were a balmy 20-27 Celsius, and there were clear skies all through my visit, and it still got very cool at night – but with central heating pretty much in even the simplest guest house, it was not a problem.
I flew from Berlin to Samarkand on Aeroflot, which operate modern aircraft and transferring in Sheremetyevo Airport was pain-free and efficient – highly recommended.
I stayed at then Hotel Rahmon in Samarkand. It was ultra spartan and accordingly cheap, but amazingly friendly, central and they served a huge cooked breakfast lovingly cooked by a family member. Read my full review here. Prior to my flight home, I wanted to stay in another area of the city and stayed at the Antica B&B. It was also relatively spartan, but their breakfast was the very best – read my full review here.
When I was in Bukhara, I stayed at the Minzifa Boutique Hotel, which definitely fits the “boutique” in the title. I then cheapskated it to another online special offer at the Chor Minor Hotel in a residential area – both hotels were extremely clean, comfy, welcoming and I would stay in both again.
One thing I found a complete pain on arrival was changing my cash (Euro) onto Uzbek Som or obtaining cash from an ATM. The Uzbek Som is the national currency, and at present 10 Euro will convert into approximately 13000 Som, and you will end up with a pile of bank notes. There is some inflation, as I remember 1 Euro converting into about 9000 Som.
I did not find it expensive at all, paying about 11-40 Euro for a hotel room including breakfast, 12 Euro for the return trip to Bukhara on the high-speed train and 5-8 Euro for a sit-down meal with non-alcoholic drinks and coffee. Some prices, for example the silk ikat, were quoted in US-Dollars but often vendors preferred payment in Uzbek Som in cash although they would accept Euro or US-Dollars when asked.
Samarkand Airport has no such facilities, so I paid my taxi with some dollar bills. Tashkent Road, full of touristy stuff, did not have a single ATM… I finally found one money changer in the Siyob Bazaar. There is definitely a money changer in the Samarkand Train Station, and possibly an ATM too.
Bukhara was a lot easier – lots of ATM all over the tourist parts of the city, for example multiple ATMS around Lyabi Hauz and near the Ark. The smaller hotels and guesthouses I stayed in tend not to change money, but I understand big hotels do, I am unsure of the rate. ATM’s are safe and reliable and I used them once or twice but stuck to my stash of Euro and exchanged cash. Since nothing cost much while there, I did not really need much money once in the country, and even paid all my hotels in cash or prepaid on Booking,com where possible.
The Small Print
I visited Uzbekistan in March 2019, planning and paying for this trip from my own funds. I did not receive any monetary or non-monetary rewards for making any recommendations here. Some of my accommodation links are affiliate links to Booking.com, which means that I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a booking through any of these links. I stayed in all the places I recommend.