- 10 September
- 21 April next year
- 8 September.
The legendary ‘Silk Road’ occupies a mythical place in the imaginations of western travelers, a remote region in the center of the Eurasian landmass through which countless traders journeyed on their voyages between Europe and the Far East. As well as commerce, the exchange of ideas and cultures flowed through the various arteries of the Silk Road, resulting in an incredible flowering of architecture, education and religion. Tucked away between the Indian subcontinent and Russia lay the legacies and monuments of numerous civilizations, and a warm and friendly people with intriguing cultural traditions. This tour takes you on a journey through the enigmatic sites and unique cultures of this mystical region. We visit the truly astounding sites of Khiva and central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara and of course take in the spectacular architecture of Samarkand’s Registan – one of the most stunning collections of architecture to be found anywhere.
We also take you a little bit further on this Silk Road discovery, visiting the remarkable Buddhist monuments of Termez as well as Shakhrisabz, birthplace of Tamerlane with its palace and mausoleums. Stepping further afield we travel to Turkmenistan and the ancient capital of Konye-Urgench as well as the splendid site of Merv, and cross the border to Tajikistan with its stunning mountain scenery. Finally we top it off with a visit to the lovely village of Farish, where we stay in a local guesthouse and are welcomed by the community. This breathtaking region has often been at the centre of world history, its strategic routes fought over by Mongols, Russians, British and many more and its treasures long coveted by others. Those who travel here will understand why.
Day 1: Tashkent. Arrive in Tashkent and transfer to the hotel. Depending on your time of arrival, you may have time to explore the city. Overnight at Shodlik Palace or similar.
Tashkent: Uzbekistan’s capital displays its Silk Road heritage even today. An ancient city dating back 2000 years it is the largest in Central Asia and probably its most cosmopolitan. Although much of it has been rebuilt following an earthquake in the 1960s, its old quarters still retain their charm with narrow streets and 500 year old mosques, medressas and other religious buildings. Tashkent has always been a center of commerce – with trading links established with Russia it became wealthy during the Middle Ages.
In the middle of the 19th century it was a focus of rivalry between the Emir of Bukhara and the city of Khokand, to which Tashkent paid tribute, and seizing the opportunity to take advantage of the regional turmoil the Russian army was able to gain control of Tashkent, bringing it under the Tsar’s rule in a gradual process of imperial expansion throughout Central Asia. Tashkent became the capital of Russian Turkestan and attracted great number of immigrants – today there are sizeable Russian and Korean communities within the city.
Day 2: Khiva. Fly to Urgench and transfer to Khiva, a stunning city with a wealth of ancient monuments. We spend the afternoon exploring its sites, including its many mosques, medressas and mausoleums of former rulers. Overnight Malika Khiva Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Khiva: Khiva is one of the true highlights of this astounding region – its ancient monuments have been superbly preserved and its historic centre contains more than fifty of them, along with around 250 old houses dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The inner town, or Ichon Qala, is encircled by 18th century mud walls and holds the cream of Khiva’s sites, a collection of remarkable palaces, mosques and mausoleums capped with bright blue domes and bedecked with stunning decoration.
Minarets poke into the sky while its graceful archways betray links with Moghul India, and it is easy to visualize what this city once looked like when it was one of the most important in the region. Khiva was once an independent khanate renowned as a center of the slave trade – raiders from Khiva would set off to vulnerable communities bringing back slaves to live in tortuous conditions or be sold to end up somewhere else along the Silk Road. Peter the Great first sought to bring Khiva under his control in 1717, but it was not to be – Russian forces were tricked and then massacred, humiliating the Tsar. In following years a number of attempts were made to free Russian slaves and take Khiva but it was not until 1873 that it fell.
Day 3: Khiva. Continue our exploration of this marvelous city, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Later there will be time for you to explore on your own. Overnight Malika Khiva Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Day 4: Konye-Urgench - Ashgabat. We cross the border into little known Turkmenistan and head for the site of Konye-Urgench, an ancient capital of the land of Khorezm with beautiful mausoleums. After visiting its key sites we fly to Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. Overnight Ak Altyn Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Konye-Urgench: Konye-Urgench was the capital of the ancient land of Khorezm in the 10th century, but has not had the easiest time since then. Falling first to the Seljuks and then falling under the control of their successors the Khorezmshahs, it enjoyed a brief period as the center of Islamic Central Asia, replete with numerous beautiful mosques and medressas. This was not to last long however. In 1221 it was attacked by the armies of Genghis Khan, who besieged the city for six months before destroying it, leaving little but ashes and bodies. ‘Konye-Urgench became the abode of the jackal and the haunt of the owl and the kite’, wrote one local historian. Having rebuilt itself it was then sacked by Timur (Tamerlane), adding to its woes. Fortunately, a few architectural monuments survived this tragedy, notably the impressive mausoleums of former sultans as well as arched gates and fortresses which stand as testament to the former glories of this remote corner of Asia.
Day 5: Ashgabat - Mary. Spend the morning exploring the sites of Ashgabat, a modern city that has been the focus of extensive and some would say eccentric building projects. We then fly to Mary, an oasis town close to the ancient city of Merv. On arrival we visit the museum for an insight into Turkmen history. Overnight Yrsgal Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Ashgabat: Ashgabat was a fairly insignificant town before the arrival of the Russians, who chose it as an administrative centre and began to develop it in the late 19th century. In 1948 it was hit by a powerful earthquake which all but destroyed the city, and the city had to be completely rebuilt. Although reconstruction occurred during the Soviet era, it is Ashgabat’s development since independence in 1991 which has given the city its very unusual character. A pet project of the then dictator Niyazov, Ashgabat was the focus of his ‘nation building’ efforts and as such is home to a bewildering array of monuments, most of them faced with white marble tiles that give the city an almost glittering effect. There are few cities in the world that are so linked to one man, and Ashgabat is a striking and unusual place, at odds with other Central Asian cities but fascinating in its own right.
Day 6: Merv - Bukhara. This morning we visit the ancient site of Merv, the most important in Turkmenistan and dating back 2500 years with an array of old mosques, citadels and Buddhist stupas. After exploring Merv we cross the border back into Uzbekistan and head to Bukhara, Central Asia’s holiest city. Overnight Caravan Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Merv: The site of Merv spreads over one hundred square kilometers and holds the remains of a number of ancient cities spread over centuries. At various times it has been home to Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Christians and Moslems and has been controlled by a number of dynasties including the Timurids. Merv’s attractions are wide and varied – mausoleums of former rulers and Sufi scholars, old Seleucid citadels, traditional ‘ice houses’ and the remains of ancient walls. Merv was comprehensively sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century but rose to prominence again under the Timurids two hundred years later. With so many influences, Merv is a microcosm of Central Asian history and a delight to explore.
Day 7: Bukhara. We spend today exploring Bukhara, one of the most spectacular cities in the region and with a superbly preserved old quarter. Overnight Caravan Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Bukhara: Mighty Bukhara is renowned as the holiest of Central Asia’s cities and is said to have been in existence when Alexander the Great passed through the region, more than two thousand years ago. Its old center is exceptionally well preserved and contains old medressas and mosques, ancient minarets and protected buildings dating back as far as the 10th century. The independent khanate of Bukhara was one of the focal points of the ‘Great Game’ – a period of imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries that saw each seek to expand their influence. The British sent Alexander Burnes to the city in 1832 in an attempt to bring the city into their sphere of influence, but this was inconclusive and although Burnes was treated well, later emissaries were to fare far worse – two English officers were kept captive there for some time before eventually being executed in Bukhara’s Registan square.
Day 8: Shakhrisabz. Drive to Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of the famed leader Timur (Tamerlane). Shakhrisabz is home to numerous breathtaking mausoleums and monuments, and we spend time delving into the history of this once glorious town. Overnight Orient Star Shakhrisabz or similar. Includes: (B).
Shakhrisabz: Shakhrisabz is a small town on the edge of the Pamir Mountains that is best known for being the birthplace of that formidable warrior Timur. Rising from humble beginnings it became an important city and home to scholars and artists as Timur’s influence spread throughout the region. The town today is home to numerous monuments and mausoleums dating back to this time – many of Timur’s family built tombs for themselves here. Also to be found here is a giant statue of the man himself under which newly wed couples come to seek blessing on their wedding day.
Day 9: Termez. Drive to Termez, situated on the border with Afghanistan. Termez presents a different side of Uzbekistan and is home to its only Buddhist monuments, harking back to a time when there were great Buddhist cities in the region. Overnight Meridian Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Termez: Perched on the border with Afghanistan, Termez is unusual in that it contains the only evidence of past Buddhist civilization in Uzbekistan, with some old monasteries and a Buddhist stupa that date back to between the 1st and 3rd centuries still remaining today. In the 7th century the city was conquered by Arab forces and became a major center of Islam. In the 13th century Genghis Khan stormed through here and razed much of the city to dust, but was rebuilt under the Timurids. Its position meant that it had a particular strategic significance when it was under Russian control, and it was one of the further outposts of the Russian and Soviet empires.
Day 10: Dushanbe. Cross the border into Tajikistan and drive to Dushanbe, the capital. On arrival we explore Dushanbe’s sites and soak up the atmosphere of this little visited Central Asian city. Overnight Hotel Avesto or similar. Includes: (B).
Dushanbe: Dushanbe is a relatively modern town that rose to prominence during the Soviet era, when it was made the capital of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and named Stalinabad. Its name means ‘Monday in the Tajik language, arising from the fact that this was the day that the market was held when Dushanbe was still a small and fairly insignificant village. The ousted Emir of Bukhara, fleeing from the Bolsheviks, stayed in Dushanbe and cooperated with Enver Pasha’s Basmachis until he had to leave the region. From Dushanbe, he fled to Afghanistan in 1921, the year the town was freed from the Basmachis as well.
Day 11: Iskander Kul. Drive through stunning scenery to Lake Iskander Kul in the Fann Mountains, where we have opportunities to hike around the lake shore. Overnight camping. Includes: (B).
Day 12: Penjikent – Samarkand. Head west, stopping first at the ancient Sogdian town of Penjikent with its 5th century ruins. We then cross the border with Uzbekistan and drive to Samarkand, an awe-inspiring city and on of the true highlights of our journey. Overnight Malika Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Penjikent: Penjikent, not far from the border with Uzbekistan is a small town that was built by the Sogdians in the 5th century, growing wealthy until the arrival of the forces of Islam in the 8th century. Many ancient ruins of the old city, particularly the city architecture and works of art remain today. Many of the remains are still under excavation and archaeologists continue to find wonderful frescoes among the remains of old Sogdian temples.
Day 13: Samarkand. A full day exploring glorious Samarkand, with its spectacular collection of traditional buildings. Samarkand is most famous for its Registan Square, which contains perhaps the most stunning and well preserved architecture in the whole region. Long held in awe by early western travelers, it is easy to lose yourself in wonder at the incredible mosques and medressas, elaborately decorated in blue tiles and traditional Islamic art. Overnight Malika Hotel or similar. Includes: (B).
Samarkand: Samarkand is perhaps the most atmospheric of all of Uzbekistan’s and indeed the whole region’s cities, a glorious collection of immaculately preserved monuments that reach their climax in the superb Registan square, renowned as the finest architectural ensemble in Central Asia. Founded in the 8th century BC by the Persians, Samarkand has always been an important center for the various forces passing through and has at times been controlled by Arabs, Sogdians and the armies of Alexander the Great.
It was Timur who left the greatest mark on the city, designating it as his capital and embarking on a program of building that was continued after his death to produce one of the most startling sights in Asia. Vivid blue capped minarets jostle for space with tiled medressas, enormous arched gateways decorated with Islamic art and numerous mosques and mausoleums of the great and the good, as well as a marvelous observatory built by the ruler and astronomer Ulug Beg. Samarkand takes your breath away – there is no other place like it.
Days 14-15: Farish. We spend these days in Farish, a small village in the Nurata mountains which provides us with a contrast from the cities and gives us an insight into life in rural Uzbekistan. Staying in a guesthouse within a small community, we are able to take hikes or donkey rides in the surrounding area, participate in traditional activities like baking bread, and meet the people of the village. Overnight village guesthouse. Includes: (B).
Day 16: Tashkent. Drive back to Tashkent, arriving around lunchtime. This afternoon we explore the sights of Uzbekistan’s capital and have time for some last minute shopping. Overnight Shodlik Palace or similar. Includes: (B).
Day 17: Tashkent. Tour ends with a transfer to the airport. Includes: (B).
Also see tour packages in:
Asia Uzbekistan Turkmenistan History Whiz Archeology/History Cultural Journey