Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan — May 17 - June 5, 2017
Join a group of like-minded travelers on a modern-day caravan along the old Silk Road through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The cities on this journey are visual feasts of color and charisma – it’s difficult for even a novice to take a bad photo here. The geometric mudbrick Islamic architecture is adorned with vivid ceramic tiles, the textiles shimmer in the desert sun, and the ordinary people on the street or at the bazaar are liable to be wearing brilliantly-patterned robes and dresses.
Enjoy six different UNESCO Sites, and walk thru the dust of Muynak, where the disappeared Aral Sea used to lap the hulls of now-abandoned fishing boats.
Detailed Daily Itinerary
Day 1, Wed, May 17 Arrive Bishkek
Arrive in Bishkek late at night. Transfer to the centrally located hotel for check-in and overnight.
Bishkek was founded as the Russian garrison of Pishpek. The city is set before a backdrop of the northern edge of the Ala-Too mountain range, and was originally a heavily forested rest stop on the Silk Road. Appropriated by the Russians in 1877, the city was eventually re- named Bishkek when Kyrgyzstan achieved its independence at the breakup of the Soviet Union. Bishkek is graced with large boulevards, friendly people and more trees than any other Central Asian city. On clear days, the permanently snow-capped mountains looming over the city provide spectacular views.
Start a bit later today to have time to rest from the long flight to Bishkek.
Visits today include: Victory Park, Ala-Too Square, Oak Park, the Village of Manas, and the monument "Manas on the Horse".
Later this afternoon, browse the State Museum of Fine Arts, featuring Kyrgyz embroidery, jewelry and unique felt rugs.
Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
Meals: B, D
Plaza Hotel or similar
Located in the city center within walking distance of the main square, the four star Plaza Hotel features a gourmet restaurant and bar, as well as a fitness center with lap pool and sauna. Rooms include satellite TV, minifridge, in-room safe, WiFi and coffeemaker.
Day 2, Thu, May 18 Bishkek
Following breakfast at the hotel, visit the Osh Bazaar. The sights, smells and sounds of bazaars are part of the sensory experience of Bishkek, and there are several within the city; the largest is called Osh Bazaar. Travelers can purchase local crafts, dried fruit, fermented milk, rice, grains, and of course the brightly colored Kyrgyz textiles, by haggling with the traders in these markets.
Following lunch at a local restaurant visit Ala Archa National Park, centered on the steep forested gorge of the Ala Archa River and the mountains that surround it. An alpine park, Ala Archa includes over 20 glaciers and 50 peaks, which range from 12,000 to 15,000 feet. Soviet alpinists used to train at a camp here.
On the way back to Bishkek, stop at the Ata Beiit Memorial Complex. Ata Beiit (Cemetery of the Fathers) is a memorial complex honoring the victims of the 1937-38 Stalinist repressions. The memorial was built close to the spot where 137 bodies were discovered in a mass grave. An estimated 10,000 people were killed in Kyrgyzstan during the 1930s, including the founders of the original Kyrgyz Soviet State. The complex has been given even more relevance with the burial here of 20 of the people killed in the mass revolt of April 2010.
Dinner is at a local restaurant.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 3, Fri, May 19 Bishkek — drive to Chon-Kemin
After breakfast this morning drive to Chon-Kemin, stopping en route at the Burana Tower. Built in the 11th century, it is one of the only existing watch towers on the ancient Silk Road that traversed Kyrgyzstan. It is possible to climb up to the platform from inside the tower – while the steps are steep, the view from the top is rewarding. The area was historically a settlement called Balasagun, the birthplace of the poet Jusup Balasagun, whose surviving work consists of a long epic poem called “Kutadgy Bilig” or “the knowledge which brings happiness.” The settlement was an important seat of power, and was so celebrated that Genghis Khan's Mongol horde spared the city from destruction when it began to conquer the region in the early 13th-century. The Mongols renamed the city Gobalik, meaning “good city.” Visit the small museum and the collection of ancient bal-bals, carved stone figures used as monuments.
Continue to Don-Aryk village where you will attend a demonstration of Kyrgyz horse games, such as Ulak Tartysh, a sort of polo played with a goat carcass, and kurosh, which is wrestling on horseback. This is a great place to catch the traditional games on film.
Following lunch at home of a local family, observe traditional Kyrgyz felt-making techniques this afternoon at a felt-maker’s workshop.
Arrive in Chon-Kemin later this afternoon and enjoy dinner and overnight at a guesthouse. Meals: B, L, D
Ashu Guesthouse or similar
The rustic Ashu Guesthouse combines local color with western comfort. Rooms in the log guesthouse are furnished with wooden beds and local Kyrgyz fabrics, and include bathrooms with showers, TV and cell phone coverage. Located in the beautiful Chon-Kemin Valley, Ashu Guesthouse includes a dining room and conference hall.
Day 4, Sat, May 20 Chon Kemin — drive to Bishkek
This morning explore the beautiful steep-sided Chon (Big) Kemin Valley that runs parallel to the border of Kazakhstan between two mountain ranges. The valley’s population is mostly Kyrgyz, of the Sary Bagysh tribe, and many traditions are still practiced here.
Enjoy lunch in a guesthouse followed by a demonstration of making a traditional tandoor bread or “nan”.
Return to the capital in the afternoon. Dinner is independent.
Meals: B, L
Plaza Hotel or similar
Day 5, Sun, May 21 Bishkek — fly to Osh — drive to Fergana
Transfer to the airport for a morning departure flight to Osh. Upon arrival in Osh, transfer to the city center for an introductory exploration. Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s oldest and second-largest city, set in the fertile Fergana Valley near the border with Uzbekistan. The city was a center of silk production along the old Silk Road, and celebrated its 3,000th anniversary in 2000.
Visit the Jayma Bazaar that is said to be the best market west of Kashgar, and has been in the same spot for 2,000 years.
Visit the Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain. Nicknamed Kichik-Mecca (Little Mecca), Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain is one of the holiest Islamic sites in Central Asia, though even before the prophet Sulaiman was said to have been buried here, it was known as a peaceful retreat and was called Bara-Kuh (Beautiful Mountain). Pilgrims travel to the hill from all over the world to meditate and to undertake the climb up to Babur’s House. The small stone shelter is where Babur, the 14th century Muslim leader who founded the Mughal Dynasty in India, came at 14 years of age to perform his chilla, a forty day fast for meditation. The sacred mountain was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
Late this afternoon, cross the border into Uzbekistan and drive to the city of Fergana. Fergana is the newest settlement in the Fergana Valley, established in 1876 as a Russian garrison town under General Mikhail Skobolev. Located in the southern Fergana valley near the 16,000-foot Alai Mountains, Fergana is more Russian than Uzbek. Its first settlers were encouraged to plant trees, and today it has the reputation of being one of the greenest cities in Uzbekistan. The first building was the fortress, which still stands in the downtown part of the city.
Patience is required for this border crossing. Arrive in Fergana this afternoon and check in to the hotel.
Meals: B, L, D
Asia Fergana Hotel or similar
Located within walking distance of the town center, the pleasant modern Asia Fergana Hotel features an indoor and outdoor restaurant serving Uzbek and European cuisine, WiFi in the public areas and a swimming pool. Rooms include air conditioning, satellite TV and minibar.
Day 6, Mon, May 22 Fergana
Following breakfast at the hotel, depart on an exploration of the Fergana Valley. Surrounded by the Tien Shan mountain range and watered by tributaries of the Syr Darya River, the Fergana Valley is the most fertile part of Central Asia.
Continue to Margilan for a visit to its daily market, said to be one of the most authentic in the valley. The old town of Margilan has been known as a center of silk production since the 9th century. Tour the workshop of a silk master, where silk is prepared from silkworm cocoons in the ancient way, and woven in the traditional patterns of the Fergana Valley.
Then continue on to the old village of Rishtan, famous for its ceramics produced by skillful local crafts people. There is evidence of earthenware in the foothills of the Alai Range dating back one thousand years. Pottery came to prominence in this region due to the unusual amount and excellent quality of locally accessible raw materials; red clay and pigments made of minerals and mountain grasses.
Modern Rishtan ceramics are characterized by elaborate floral and geometric designs in bright blue and green hues painted on a creamy-white background. The skills used to produce Uzbek ceramics have been passed down father-to-son for countless generations. Enjoy lunch at the home of a master artist, and tour his private studio to learn more about the process of making these lovely ceramics.
Drive toward the Tajik border to the city of Kokand. First mentioned by Arab travelers in the 10th century as an oasis town on the trade route between India and China, Kokand was known throughout history as a prosperous trading and religious center. During the 19th century, it was the centerpiece of a powerful khanate stretching from the Fergana Valley to the southern Kazakh steppe.
Spend time exploring the ruins of the Palace of Khudayar-Khan, built in 1873. Restoration efforts continue today as Muslim artisans work to return the 113-room palace to its former glory. See the Juma Mosque, a remnant from the time when Kokand was filled with 600 mosques and 15 madrassahs (Islamic religious schools). Visit the Amin Beg Madrassah and Dakhma-i-Shohon tombs, or Grave of Kings, where the khan and his family are buried.
Dinner and overnight at the hotel in Fergana.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 7, Tue, May 23 Fergana — drive to Tashkent
With an early breakfast set out for Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.
Mid-day arrival to Tashkent. Located at the foot of the Tien Shan Mountains, Tashkent dates back to the first century BC. Unfortunately, most of the city’s architectural history was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1966. Today, the city is an odd mix of wide tree-lined boulevards, oversized 20th-century Soviet buildings and reconstructed traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques and madrassahs.
The exploration today includes Independence Square, the Navoi Theater, the Friendship of Peoples Palace and the Tillya Sheikh Mosque, to see one of the oldest Korans in the world. Time permitting this afternoon, visit to the studio of a master miniature painter.
The history of Independence Square (Mustakillik Maydoni) is revealed in the different names it has borne throughout its existence. First named Cathedral Square in honor of the Orthodox cathedral built here by Konstanin Kaufman, the first Russian Governor-General of Turkestan, it became Red Square in 1917. In 1966 it was designated Lenin Square, and it was not until 1992 that it became Independence Square.
Alisher Navoi, who lived and wrote at the end of the 15th century, is Uzbekistan’s most beloved poet. The Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater was built in 1947 by Japanese prisoners of war, and includes six foyers representing the main cities of Uzbekistan. Each foyer is decorated differently, using carved and painted plaster (ganche), woodcarving and frescoes. The repertory of the theater includes Uzbek music and dance, and international operas and ballets.
The Uthman Koran, considered by Sunni Muslims to be the oldest Koran in the world, is safeguarded in the library of the Tillya Sheikh Mosque in the Muy Muborok Madrassah, where several of Mohammed's hairs are said to have been enshrined. Written on deerskin 19 years after the death of Mohammed, the manuscript was compiled in Medina by Uthman, the third caliph of Islam. (Shi’a Muslims believe that Uthman’s successor Ali, was the first true caliph, and his version of the Koran is held to be the only true version.) It has been inscribed onto the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The experience of viewing this 7th century sacred document is a powerful one.
Visit the studio of an Uzbek miniature painter and learn about his life and craft. Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
Meals: B, L, D
Shodlik Palace Hotel or similar
Large and centrally located, the Shodlik Palace Hotel has rooms furnished with a minibar, safe, satellite TV, complimentary WiFi and individually-controlled air-conditioning. Two onsite restaurants serve local and European cuisine and the bar offers a wide array of beverages and cocktails.
Day 8, Wed, May 24 Tashkent — drive to Samarkand
This morning, depart Tashkent and head overland to the ancient city of Samarkand, a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the “Crossroads of Culture.” Make photo stops en route.
The drive to Samarkand should take about five hours. Modern Samarkand is built on the ruins of ancient Afrosiab, and once went by the name of Marakanda. Its location between China and the Western world secured its importance as a trade center and a clearinghouse for cultural exchange. Islamic beliefs from the Near East crossed paths with spices from Southeast Asia and silk from the Middle Kingdom. Its strategic location, cultural wealth and worldly riches made Samarkand an attractive target for the world’s most famous conquerors. Alexander the Great, upon his arrival in the 4th century BC said, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined.”
After a long period of Arab rule, the region came under the control of Genghis Khan, whose empire stretched from Beijing to Moscow at its height and encompassed much of modern-day Central Asia. The hundred-year rule of the Golden Horde set the stage for Tamerlane’s conquest, which brought Samarkand to its apex.
Tamerlane was born in Shakhrisabze, outside of Samarkand, and made Samarkand the capital of his empire. He worked to improve the city, which had suffered under the Mongols, and he and his grandson, Ulug Bek, oversaw a flourishing of architecture and decorative art unmatched in the ancient world. Tamerlane built the world’s largest mosque, while Ulug Bek constructed the world’s most accurate observatory of the time. Tamerlane and Ulug Bek had access to the best building and decorative materials, the finest architects and the most skilled artisans ever assembled in one place at one time. The modern city bears the indelible stamp of these two men and is a treasure trove today, just as it was in ancient times.
Depending on the timing and traffic today, enjoy a picnic lunch en route from Tashkent to Samarkand or at a local restaurant on arrival. Upon arrival in Tamerlane’s great city, drive to the hotel for check-in and an independent dinner.
Meals: B, L
Sultan Hotel or similar
Opened in 2014, the modern Sultan Hotel has a great location near the Gur Emir Mausoleum and rooms feature air conditioning, minifridge and satellite TV. The beautifully carved wood ceilings and the open-air rooftop seating add to the distinctive charm of this small property.
Day 9, Thu, May 25 Samarkand
This morning, exploration begins with the centerpiece of old Samarkand, Registan Square. This grand public square contains an incredible collection of Timurid architecture, including the Ulug Bek, Tillya-Kori and Shir Dor madrassahs.
“The Registan of Samarkand was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world. I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe...which can even aspire to enter the competition. No European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared to it, in our inability to point to an open space in any western city that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order.” (George Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1899) Enjoy lunch at a home of a local family. Explore the Gur-Emir Mausoleum where Tamerlane and his three sons are buried, Tamerlane beneath one solid slab of green jade. Admire the superb tile work which uses every motif permitted in Islamic art – floral images, geometric patterns, spirals and bands of Kufic calligraphy.
Visit internationally recognized fashion designer Valentina Romanenko’s studio. Moscow- trained Romanenko has transformed her traditional Uzbek home into a workshop and display area. In this intimate setting, decorated with brilliant Uzbek carpets and wall hangings, she creates and shows her elegant modern fashions made with traditional fabrics and techniques. Enjoy a short presentation with graceful Uzbek women modeling Romanenko’s sophisticated creations as exotic music plays.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 10, Fri, May 26 Samarkand
Today get started with visits to Bibi Khanum Mosque and the lane of mosques and tombs known as Shah-i-Zinde.
Visit the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built by Tamerlane to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world, and dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife. Architects from India and Persia were brought in to build the mosque, and it is said that 95 elephants were used to transport the marble and other building materials from India to Samarkand.
The row of tombs and mausoleums collectively called Shah-i-Zinde, or “place of a living king,” stretches between the present and the past. At its front is living Samarkand, and at its back the dusty slopes at the edge of ancient Afrosiab. Even on hot summer days the mausoleums remain shady and cool, and seem to lure the traveler to approach the oldest tomb at the far end. Behind the complex and set into the hill lies an active cemetery with gravesites dating back as far as the 9th century, and as recently as the
Browse the animated Syab Bazaar, just across the street from the Bibi Khanum Mosque. Vividly-dressed women oversee neat stacks of brilliant produce and burlap sacks of nuts and spices. Uzbek and Tajik men in black and white skullcaps, called doppe, sell cabbage rolls and shashlik. For a pittance, an entrepreneur with a brazier of special incense will cleanse you of all bad luck.
After lunch make a stop at Ulug Bek Observatory. Though concerned with
conquest, politics and other matters of terrestrial importance, Tamerlane’s grandson Ulug Bek found his true interest in the heavens. The astronomer-king was fascinated by the stars and the cosmos and built one of the most advanced observatories of the Ancient World. The observations, which he undertook with the naked eye only, predated the telescope by over 150 years. They were aided by the building itself, which housed a large vertical half-circle, only a quarter of which remains today. By using careful methods, rigorous observation and meticulous recording, Ulug Bek calculated the length of the year to within a minute of the modern accepted value. He also created the most comprehensive (to that date) catalog of the heavens, earning his place in history.
Next visit the local Carpet Factory Workshop. Observe the entire process of dying the thread and weaving carpets.
Meals: B, L
Day 11, Sat, May 27 Samarkand — drive to Bukhara
This morning, depart for Bukhara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stop en route at the biggest and best bazaar in the vicinity of Samarkand, the labyrinthine Urgut Market, located in the town of Urgut, about an hour's drive away. Stalls spill from the covered area to form wandering lanes way out in the open air, where women draped in the melting colors of ikat robes and men in black and white tubeteika caps sell their handcrafted wares. This is old Samarkand, where merchants and shoppers alike may greet you with surprise and delight simply because you’re a foreigner. Sumptuous suzani, the finely embroidered coverlets that Uzbek women have designed and created for hundreds of years, are handed down for inspection with long poles. Nearby, hundreds of brilliant quilted, tasseled, beaded and embroidered caps display themselves like flowers, in clumps and drifts.
A fabulous place to people-watch, the Urgut Market draws local people, and a few foreigners, from miles around. Yes, cheap plastic ware and synthetic clothing from China is available if that’s what you need, but hidden away behind these everyday items are the wonderful textiles and adornments of the Silk Road.
Continue on to Bukhara. After checking in to the hotel this evening, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
Meals: B, L, D
Amelia B&B Hotel or similar
This small, privately owned hotel used to be a Jewish merchant's home and then a bakery. Located in the old part of Bukhara, near the Labi-Hauz monument, the hotel serves traditional and European cuisine in its 18th century aivan, or open porch. Each room is individually decorated in authentic Central Asian style and includes air conditioning, satellite TV, minibar and hairdryer.
Day 12, Sun, May 28 Bukhara
Spend today exploring Central Asia’s most ancient living city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Historic Center of Bukhara.” An oasis in the desert, Bukhara offers cool shade and rest to the modern traveler as it did to the camel caravans that plied the Silk Road hundreds of years ago. Bukhara is as old as Samarkand, and has preserved its ancient architecture and design to an arguably larger extent than that city. The Old Town in Bukhara has a unified feel, drawn together by a central reflecting pool and plaza, by commonality in the structure of the domed bazaars and by the major monuments ringing the Old Town, the Kalon Assembly, the Zindan Prison, and the Ark Citadel.
Begin this morning at Lyabi-Hauz Plaza, located in the heart of the old town. With the feel of a true oasis in an oasis town, the plaza is at the center of Bukhara’s old town and is – as it has been throughout history – a place to meet friends, to eat, to drink, and to relax in the shade. The atmosphere is cooled by the long rectangular reflecting pool that makes up the center of the plaza, and by the shade of the trees that ring the plaza. The mulberry trees here are hundreds of years old and frame the 16th and 17th century madrassahs that make up three of the four edges of the ensemble.
Visit the Ismael Samani Mausoleum. The 10th century resting place of Ismael Samani, founder of the Persian Samanid Dynasty, is detailed with sixteen different styles of brickwork. The little mausoleum was buried under centuries of sand and not discovered until the 20th century.
The Chashma Ayub Mausoleum, visited next, is not a true mausoleum, but a qadamdjoy, or site visited by a holy person. The Koranic prophet, Ayub – the Biblical prophet, Job – reportedly struck the ground with his staff here, and water immediately bubbled up from a spring. The oldest part of this multi-domed building was probably built in the 12th century. Under its many roofs are the sacred spring and the Water Supply History Museum of Bukhara.
Investigate Zindan Prison, with its infamous ‘’bug pit’’ where two British spies were brutally imprisoned as part of the 19th century struggle in the Great Game between Britain and Russia for influence over this strategic oasis town.
Visit the nearby Kukeldash Madrassah, the largest of Central Asia’s Koran schools, which dates from 1417. Stroll through the capmaker and spice bazaars and past street-level mosques and madrassahs, before moving on to the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, the second largest mosque in Central Asia, after the Bibi Khanum in Samarkand.
The 12th century Kalon assembly, including the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, and the Mir-i- Arab Madrassah, surrounds an open plaza that teems with merchants and local vendors. The minaret towers over the dusty square, looking down from a height of more than 150 feet, and casting its shadow between the mosque and the madrassah. The minaret can be seen from all over the old town, as it is easily the tallest structure in the old part of Bukhara. When seen up close the detailed brickwork becomes apparent; fourteen distinct bands of brickwork circle the tower at intervals, and at the top of the minaret resolve into a traditional stalactite formation.
After lunch, visit the Ark Citadel, the ancient fortress and seat of government for the Emirate of Bukhara for over one thousand years, and now a collection of museums and mosques. The current structure has been built and rebuilt on the same site throughout its history, and has preserved something of the form, purpose and function of the first Ark. Like the medieval castle complexes of Europe, the Bukhara Ark served the emirs of Bukhara as a residence, audience hall, as protection from neighboring enemies and for more mundane purposes, such as a trade center and a police station.
Meals: B, L
Day 13, Mon, May 29 Bukhara
Today start with the Bahuaddin Naqshband Mausoleum. Bahauddin Naqshband was a 14th century Sufi mystic and founder of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis. His mausoleum complex grew from a simple tomb over his grave to a 16th century hostel for visiting dervishes, then to a spiritual complex in the 17th century with a mosque added in the 18th century. The complex was restored in 1993 for the celebration of the 675th anniversary of the saint’s birth.
Visit the Summer Palace of the last emir and stop at its Museum of National Crafts to admire the vivid suzani, embroidered coverlets that Uzbekistan is known for. A short distance outside of the city sits the emir’s Palace of Moon and Stars, built at the turn of the century after the Russians took control of Bukhara. The palace itself is something of a showpiece, as it was designed to keep the emir in luxury, but removed from the city, in isolation and political impotence. The main palace is a mixture of local materials, regional influences, and Russian style. Western furniture abounds, but design choices reflect traditional Uzbek decorations.
Admire the early 19th century Chor Minor Madrassah, whose four slender, blue-topped minarets give it its name.
Dinner at a private house today includes a master class in the art of making plov, Central Asia’s most ubiquitous dish. Learn how the freshest ingredients are combined to create the savory concoction that you will then consume.
Meals: B, D
Day 14, Tue, May 30 Bukhara — drive to Khiva
This morning head for the last great city on the Uzbek itinerary, Khiva. The drive today traverses long stretches of the Kyzyl Kum, or Red Sand, Desert. This is the same route taken by loaded Silk Road camel caravans and once plagued by brigands on hand to plunder their riches. Stop en route to take a look at the Amu Darya River, once called the Oxus, and loosely parallels the Uzbek-Turkmen border.
Arrive in Khiva in time for dinner and overnight.
Meals: B, L, D
Asia Khiva Hotel or similar
Located just outside of Ichon Qala and a two-minute walk from the city wall, Hotel Asia Khiva offers a beautiful lobby, a restaurant with its own bakery, bar, conference hall, Internet, pool and sauna. All rooms have air-conditioning, satellite TV, phone and minibar.
Day 15, Wed, May 31 Khiva
Legend says that the ancient Silk Road oasis of Khiva was founded at the place where Shem, son of Noah, discovered water in the desert, and that the city got its name from Shem’s joyful shout, “Hey va!” at the discovery. Today the UNESCO-listed living city is part museum town, part re-creation of life hundreds of years ago.
Spend the day exploring Khiva on foot. Highlights include the Tash Hauli Palace, once the home of the khan and his four legal wives, and an open courtyard for enthroning the khans. Also see the 9th century Dzhuma Mosque with an unusual wood ceiling and 115 carved wood columns, creating a forest-like effect.
The khans had several residences, including the Tash Hauli Palace, but the Kunya Ark (Old Fortress) dates back to the 5th century as the original residence. The view from the watchtower of the Kunya Ark encompasses an ensemble of architectural masterpieces.
This evening a colorful Khalfi performance of Khorezmian music and dance.
Meals: B, L
Day 16, Thu, Jun 1 Khiva — drive to Nukus
Depart today for the small city of Nukus in western Uzbekistan. Nukus is the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, home to the Karakalpaks, a Turkic people more closely related to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks. A modern city, Nukus is at the center of an area crisscrossed by old caravan routes and dotted with ancient ruins. The surrounding cotton fields testify to the monoculture that stole the water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, the rivers that fed the Aral Sea. About 230 km north is Muynak and the former seashore. Learn about the environmental impact of the shrinking Aral Sea from a local expert.
Visit the incredible Savitsky Art Museum, whose founder, Igor Savitsky, was able to amass a wonderful collection of banned avant-garde Russian art pieces without interference from the Soviets. The story of this collection has been told in the award-winning documentary, Desert of Forbidden Art. The collection is the second-largest gathering of Russian avant-garde art after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Dine this evening at a private home including Karakalpak throat singing performance.
Meals: B, L, D
Jipek Joli Hotel or similar
The Jipek Joli, or "Silk Road," hotel is a small and centrally located hotel decorated in the traditional Karakalpak national style. The rooms feature wooden beds, handmade silk curtains, and ornamental carpets. The hotel features a restaurant serving international cuisine and a small patio where the traditional Karakalpakistan lifestyle is recreated.
Day 17, Fri, Jun 2 Nukus
Following breakfast at the hotel, depart for Muynak. Formerly the Aral Sea’s biggest fishing port, Muynak today is a ghost town, scattered with the hulks of rusted fishing boats and freighters. Once the fourth-largest inland sea in the world, the Aral Sea barely exists today, and what remains is too salty to support life. From the 60s on, in an attempt to force the arid land to produce cotton, Soviet planners diverted the flow of the sea’s two feeder rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, and it began inexorably to shrink. Alarmed, the people of Muynak dug a canal from the port to the receding shore, but the water disappeared too fast for them to keep up with the gargantuan task. As the body of water shrank, it became more and more salty, and its fish began to die. The surrounding cotton fields became more saline and less productive.
Today, there are few jobs left in Muynak, and chemicals from the cotton fields are often swept into the clouds of salt that blow across the region.
Meals: B, L, D
Day 18, Sat, Jun 3 Nukus — drive to Kunya Urgench — Darvaza, Turkmenistan
Depart by coach from Nukus to the Turkmen border. Customs formalities can be time consuming, so patience is a virtue this morning.
After the crossing, visit Kunya Urgench, an agricultural center of about 30,000 near the Uzbek border. It is the site of the ancient capital of Khorezm, which was razed by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. About half a mile south of the town lie the remains of the UNESCO-listed old city, including the 11th-century Kutlug-Timur Minaret, ringed with 18 bands of decorative mud brick and blue majolica tiles. Also admire the domed hall of the Turabek Khanym Mausoleum. Notable for the interlocking design of its remarkably-preserved ceiling, the mausoleum was built for the daughter of one of the leaders of the Golden Horde.
Drive to Darvaza, a tiny town of about 350 semi-nomadic Teke tribal people just outside the “Door to Hell.” Located about 160 miles north of Ashkhabad in the Kara Kum Desert, Darvaza was a site of natural gas exploration in the 1970s.
The story goes that the drilling equipment was swallowed up by a huge sinkhole, which was filled with gas. Engineers decided to burn off the gas to make the cavern safe for more drilling. It has been burning ever since. Visit two of the craters here, and take stunning pictures as the light lowers this evening.
Dinner tonight will be al fresco barbecue style, and overnight will be in tents near the Darvaza gas crater.
Meals: B, L, D
Tented Camp — Tent camping is near Darvaza in the Kara Kum desert. Admire the desert landscape and the glowing gas vent while the guide sets up your tent and cooks your meal for you.
Day 19, Sun, Jun 4 Darvaza — drive to Ashkabad
Following breakfast, depart for Ashkhabad. The route to Ashkhabad goes via Erbent, a tribal desert village. The little oasis at Erbent village, surrounded by desert dunes, is the home of Teke tribal people, who live here in their traditional yurts, baking flatbread in clay ovens and milking camels.
Begin touring the capital city today. In spite of its location on a trade route, Ashkhabad never achieved the status and influence of other Silk Road cities like Khiva or Bukhara. Originally known as Konjikala, the city was destroyed by Mongols in the 13th century. In 1881 the Russians built a fortress on the site as a buffer against English-dominated Persia, and by the early 20th century Ashkhabad was a prosperous and flourishing city. In 1948 a massive earthquake leveled the city, killing over two-thirds of the population. Recently Ashkhabad has seen a boom in new construction, which has had a major impact on the look of the city.
Touring includes the Lenin Monument, new mosque, Turkmen-Turkish Cultural Center, Turkmenbashi statue, Independence Park, and the National Museum.
This afternoon, operating schedules permitting, see the enormous $100- million-dollar Kipchak Mosque in former Turkmen President Niyazov’s hometown of Kipchak. Inaugurated in 2004, the mosque is big enough to hold 10,000 people, and its 164-foot golden dome had to be lowered in place by helicopter. Verses from Niyazov’s own spiritual book, the Ruhnama, are etched on the walls alongside Koranic verses. Niyazov was buried here in the family mausoleum that he built, along with the mosque, with government funds.
Meals: B, L, D
Ashgabat Hotel or similar — Opened in 2012, the 16-story Ashgabat Hotel features a restaurant serving international cuisine, a lobby bar and the Sky Bar, an indoor swimming pool and fitness center, currency exchange and souvenir shops. Rooms include air conditioning, satellite TV, windows that open, and complimentary WiFi.
Day 20, Mon, Jun 5 Ashkhabad
Following breakfast at the hotel, venture outside the city to visit a horse-breeding farm devoted to the renowned Akhal-Teke horse, arguably the oldest cultured breed of horse in the world. The owner accompanies you on the tour to talk about the workings of the farm and about the breed. These elegant horses have long, slender necks, small heads, long legs and narrow chests. They are said to have lent their genes to both the Arabian horse and the American Quarter Horse.
Next, visit the UNESCO site of the ancient Parthian Kingdom of Nisa. The beautiful Kopet- Dag Mountains rise up around Nisa, a site 15 miles outside of Ashkabad that was once a major center of the ancient Parthian Kingdom. More than two thousand years ago the Parthian Empire spread out from Nisa and took its place among such kingdoms as the Achaemenid under Cyrus the Great and the Macedonian under Alexander the Great. Though Nisa was ruled by a succession of dynasties, it remained an important center of the ancient world until the 13th century, when the Mongols sacked it. Today archaeological work continues at Nisa.
Also visit the Russian Bazaar in the center of Ashkabad is a large covered market selling all kind of foodstuffs, including prepared foods, fruits, nuts, vodka, high quality caviar and traditional breads. Before independence, this was where most ethnic Russians would shop, but today anyone is welcome. Turkmen women in traditional dress make up the majority of the sales force.
After returning to Ashkabad, enjoy farewell lunch and cultural performance.
Meals: B, L
Day 21, Tue, Jun 6 Depart Ashkabad
Most departures are very early this morning, in which case travelers may be transferred to the airport on Saturday night. For those with later flights, the tour will conclude with departure transfers after breakfast today.
May 17 -June 5, 2017
FULL – WAITING LIST
Single supplement $900
Tip Kitty $300