Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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I prescribe... The route once travelled

Caroline Vu-Nguyen is a family physician living in Ottawa and practising medicine in Hull, Quebec. While she navigates different cultures everyday, she prefers to do so in more exotic destinations such as the Middle East, South America and Asia. Bitten by the travel bug at age 18, she hasn't stopped travelling since.

"Do not eat shashliks from street vendors," Sonia warned us as we finished off our breakfast of crêpes and melons. "In this heat the meat rots very fast. I had a couple of very sick tourists last week, luckily their neighbour was a nurse from Canada."

Seeing our consternation, Sonia quickly added, "But the chai — the tea — is very safe. You should visit the chaihanas to refresh yourself often, warm tea can actually cool you off in the heat."

Despite living in a remote part of Central Asia, Sonia, a Penelope Cruz look-alike, is thoroughly modern. She wears a mini-skirt and can discuss the merits of traditional Islamic architecture in the former Soviet republics. Aside from being fluent in English, French and German, she speaks Russian and Uzbek. She has spent the morning clicking away on the Internet, confirming hotel reservations from around the world.

Yet the hotel that employs her does not appear in any travel guides or tourist pamphlets. Even the locals have difficulty pointing to its location. The town where the hotel is located is yet another mystery to most people outside the country. Mention the city to experienced travel agents back home and chances are they will only shrug. Mention the country and they will wrongly assume that you are referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

But for initiated travellers who rely more on word of mouth than guidebooks, the Lyabi House Bed and Breakfast in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (N. Khusainov Street 7, Bukhara; tel: 011-998-65-224- 2484; fax: 011-998-65-224-2177; is a well-known home away from home. Located in a traditional mansion at the end of an anonymous alley, the B&B was completely renovated in 1999. As the city basks under a 40°C sun, guests enjoy cold beers in the restaurant-cum-mosque or nap in air-conditioned rooms complete with en-suite baths and hand-knotted carpets on every wall.

Lyabi House is not the only interesting inn in Buhkara. There is a growing bed-and-breakfast trade in town to accommodate independent travellers wary of Soviet-style hotel chains. Increasingly aware of the cultural importance of this former Silk Road centre, many families are opening up their traditional adobe homes to tourists. Sasha, a former Intourist guide who founded Sasha and Son Bed and Breakfast (Eshoni Pyr kochasi 3, Bukhara; tel: 011-998-65-223-3890; fax: 011-998-65-223-5593;, started this trend in the mid-1990s. Less than a year after opening, his place had become so popular that visitors had to reserve months in advance for a room that barely had a view. Nowadays, Sasha's, like Lyabi House, is available for booking on the Internet, simplifying the process of overseas reservation.

But why Uzbekistan and why Bukhara? For adventurous globetrotters who can't stay put even in times of uncertainty, politically stable and secular Uzbekistan may be the next hot spot. Located in the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan will not disappoint those in search of history and culture. Among its four UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand which showcase exquisite examples of Islamic architecture in a safe and hassle- free environment. While sharing a border with both Iran and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan remains free of the religious fanaticism that plagues its neighbours.


Skirting the great Kizilkum Desert of Central Asia, Bukhara, like its twin sister Samarkand, thrives on its legendary status as an ancient Silk Road outpost. Here one can stand in the footsteps of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Nature is unforgiving and extreme in this part of the world, but the marvels built by human hands more than make up for the inconveniences.

The monuments of Bukhara are outstanding; there is supposedly one mosque or madrassa (religious school) for every day of the year. Many of these are still standing and in excellent condition despite years of disuse during the Soviet era. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see some of the religious monuments being discretely converted into restaurants or shops to accommodate foreign tourists.

But unlike Samarkand, where drab Soviet-style buildings intermingle with older structures, Bukhara's old town is uniformly medieval. Walking past blue-tiled mosques and domed bazaars through a maze of narrow alleyways and carless streets is pure joy. Each street corner offers a different perspective on the main mosque tower.

At 47-metres tall, the finely decorated Kalyan minaret is not only the highest in Uzbekistan but also the oldest. Built in 1127, this elegant tower so impressed Genghis Khan that he spared its destruction as his troops razed the rest of the city. The structure is also famous for a form of corporal punishment once popularly accepted in Central Asia. Known as jaculation, the practice consisted of hurling accused criminals off the top of minarets, wrapped in cloth sacks to minimize the mess below.

As a refuge from the sun, nothing beats the coolness of a traditional bazaar with its many domed roofs above colourful shops. All manner of goods can be found here, but since fine quality, handmade silk carpets can be bought for a fraction of the price paid at home, carpet shops offer the most allure for travellers. The tradition of carpet weaving in Central Asia dates back hundreds of years; there is even a rug motif named after this city. The Bukhara carpet design, a form of stylized lozenges often mistakenly associated with Indian rugs, is in fact original to Central Asia. As in souks everywhere, bargaining is expected for all merchandise big or small. But unlike most shops in North Africa or the Middle East, there is no pressure to buy here.

At the end of the day, when sightseeing or shopping becomes a burden, it's time to stop for tea at a chaihana. There are many such teahouses around the Lyabi-Khauz Plaza, the town's social hub. With its large reflecting pool surrounded by mosques, parks and restaurants, this is the ideal spot for people watching. Local children come here to share the cool water with ducks, while their elders gather to play chess or smoke water pipes. Groups of Russian tourists can be seen keeping low profiles in the restaurants while boisterous Uzbek matrons haggle over the prices of melons in the adjacent shops. The smell of barbecued meat fills the air, beckoning the most reticent stomachs. Here the pace of life has not changed in centuries, and it is this languor, sorely missing in our times, that gives Bukhara its romance.

When we got back to the B&B, Sonia had set up chairs in front of the TV for guests to catch the World Cup. It was a makeshift drawing room, casually set up in the hotel's outdoor courtyard. Besides myself, there was a Russian emigré, a couple from France and another from Australia — all of us watching TV under a starlit sky. In this informal atmosphere, conversation flowed, switching from soccer to travel then back to soccer in less time than it took to score a goal. We sat under the open sky, bemoaning the fate of tourist-infested places and thanking our lucky stars to be in unspoilt Bukhara.

In late evening, I left the group to email my family from Sonia's desk. She had gone home a while ago, but had thoughtfully left instructions on her desk for guests to use her computer. From a small, mostly forgotten Oriental town, I sent out these words: "Hello everyone from Bukhara, Central Asia, where I saw our soccer team lose three to one on CNN."


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