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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ancient Bukhara Beckons to Seniors

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- "Why did you come here? "

"The salt".

Salt may seem like a strange motivation for Western senior citizens to pack up and move to the middle of Central Asia. Then again, the magical city of Bukhara has been attracting people for all sorts of reasons for 2, 500 years.

Nick Mellerish, a retiree from Winchester, England, came to Bukhara after, his brother-in-law, a geologist with the University of London, told him the ancient city's monuments were being eroded by salt. Mellerish joined his sister Sally Mellerish, who was in Bukhara helping the city save the historic sites.

Bukhara, one of the world's oldest cities, was considered one of the former Soviet Union's greatest treasures. Though Uzbekistan was taken by the Red Army in 1920, the Soviets left intact most of the 400 monuments that make up this city on the silk route.

The city's fortified walls and gates, made of packed clay and adobe brick, face the biggest risk.

"There is a direct link between Soviet irrigation of cotton and flooding of fields and erosion of our city", said Robert Almeyev, general director for Bukhara's monuments and museums. In the most simple terms, the salt content in the ground-water leads to gradual erosion.

Seventy years of agricultural abuse and excessive irrigation have taken a toll. Without money from Moscow and lacking international recognition, the city is ailing. Its survival now depends on the kindness of strangers.

Though the Mellerishes are working to raise international awareness about the monuments, they still have to earn a living. They contacted a British organization which sends retired English speakers throughout Uzbekistan to teach English.

"We can live here for nothing and save our pensions", said Mellerish, who used to write computer manuals for IBM and now lives on a ruble salary equal to $15 a month. Though it might sound like a rough lifestyle for two senior citizens, the Mellerishes live the high life compared to the three other full-time English teachers working in Bukhara who live with local families.

The Mellerishes, who do not speak Russian or Uzbek, live in the Intourist hotel, with luxuries such as running hot water, electricity and maid service, and only teach two to three hours a day.

They said their students include hotel employees, Uzbeks preparing to immigrate and even some KGB agents. The Mellerishes love their work and are rewarded when young Uzbek children greet them in English.

A retired 78-year-old Swede named Brigitta also said she came to Bukhara to teach English because it was "something to do". The only setback to her adventure, she said, was the mandatory AIDS test imposed by the Uzbek authorities on all foreigners living in the country.

Sitting around a table with a homemade cake, cognac and frozen peas, the five foreigners celebrated Christmas in the deserted huge dining hall of the Intourist hotel.

After a bit too much Christmas cheer, Bruce Matthews, an American from Jackson, Mississippi who speaks, strangely enough, with a perfect Glaswegian lilt and is the only non-senior of the quintet, was more cynical than the others about his mission.

"The Soviet mentality robbed people here of working for something", he said. "People here don't know what it means to work".

The Mellerishes are committed to fulfilling the 11 months left in their contract, although it means leaving loved ones behind. Nick Mellerish's children and grandchildren seem to be proud of their adventurous relatives.

"My son is so impressed", he said. "He thinks Bukhara sounds so foreign".