Day 1 Arrive in Almaty, Kazakhstan
In the late evening we arrive in the lush and vibrant city of Almaty (Alma Ata) and transfer to our hotel to rest up before our ambitious sightseeing schedule. Situated on the far eastern edge of Kazakhstan on the site of the former Silk Road oasis called Almatu, Almaty is a fairly new city owing to the several attacks and earthquakes since it’s beginning as a Russian fort, in 1854 established after the Russians solidified their hold on the area and abolished the Khanates. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the town became a place of exile where Trotsky, among others, was banished. When the city became the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1927, it was renamed Alma Ata, Father of Apples, for the orchards that still exist on the outskirts. After independence in 1991, the president decided to move the capital 1,300 km (800 miles) to the northwest to a city now renamed Astana. Almaty, however remains, some say, the most important city in Kazakhstan and, perhaps, Central Asia
Day 2 Almaty
After breakfast, we’ll embark on a full day of sightseeing in Almaty. The city is the commercial heart of the area and a business and transportation hub for the entire region, with all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city. Our tour begins in the middle of Panfilow Park, a rectangle of greenery in the middle of which is the brightly colored and beautiful Zenkov Cathedral. This landmark, one of the world’s tallest all wood buildings with no evidence of nails, was designed in 1904 and is one of Almaty’s only Tsarist buildings that survived the 1911 earthquake. After many incarnations during the Soviet time, in 1995 it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and is once again a house of worship. As we wander through the church we can admire the numerous stunning icons and murals that adorn the beautiful interior. We will then walk across the park to the Central State Museum where we will be able to get an overview of Kazakhstan’s history, as well as its geology, and early history. After lunch in the city we will board a cable car to a ride 1700 meters to the top of the Koektyube Mountain for the spectacular views of Almaty, the surrounding mountains and the Medeo sports stadium and skating rink. Returning once again to the city, we will visit the fascinating Museum of Kazakhstan National Musical Instruments, housed in another charming wooden building not far from the park. This unique collection includes wooden harps and horns, bagpipes, the two-stringed dumbra, similar to the lute, and the three-stringed kabiz, somewhat like the viola, which we may be able to hear as we tour the museum. In the late afternoon we will enjoy a special folklore program before returning to our hotel for dinner and the night.
Day 3 Almaty – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
We will breakfast at our hotel and then drive into the magnificent nearby snow-capped mountains to marvel at the 8th century petroglyphs at Tamgaly-Tas and perhaps have time to stroll around the area admiring the lovely scenery. Having developed an appetite in the fresh mountain air, at lunchtime we will enjoy a hearty picnic surrounded by exquisite peaks. This afternoon we will travel through more beautiful scenery on our way to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan and to our hotel for dinner and overnight.
Day 4 Bishkek
After breakfast we will drive 47 miles (75km) outside of Bishkek
through small villages and magnificent mountain scenery to the
11th century Burana tower, the remnant of the Karakhanid
minaret. Karakhanids were Turkic usurpers who were given credit
for finally converting the Cental Asia to Islam. Briefly we will visit
the small museum inside the minaret and climb the mound
behind to get a better look at the old city walls. The mound is the
remnant of an ancient citadel that was founded by the Sogdians
and in the 11th century became the capital of the Karakhanids.
On the back side of the mound is an interesting collection of
Turkish grave stones. In the valley, many pieces of Scythian
treasure, including a heavy gold burial mask, were unearthed
but, sadly, are now either in St. Petersburg or in storage in the
Bishkek’s State Historical Museum. We will have the chance to
see more of the rural life as we drive to a nearby village for a
good lunch and then make our way back to Bishkek for dinner
Day 5 Bishkek
This morning we will visit the Children’s Craft Center where we
will see short performance arranged by litttle ones and shop
beauty created by Kyrgyz boys and girls. Continue to Central
square: the Kyrgyz White House, the seat of the government, the
president’s office and the parliament. Visit large, white marble
cube that is the Historical Museum just steps from White house.
In the museum we will learn more about the culture from the
exhibits, including Kyrgyz carpets, yurt, many lovely
embroideries, clothing, implements and other beautiful crafts,
and a small archaeology exhibit. A short stroll down Chuy
Prospekt, the city’s broad main avenue, will bring us to the Fine
Arts Museum with its fine collection of Soviet paintings. After a
typical Kyrgyz lunch we will continue for Elechek show. Elechek is
Kyrgyz traditional female head dress, which may contain up to 40
metres of fabric. After dinner, followed full day in a city we will
return to our hotel for our final night in Bishkek.
Day 6 Bishkek – Osh – Fergana, Uzbekistan
This morning we will transfer to the airport for the flight to Osh, one of Central Asia’s oldest and most important crossroads on the storied “Silk Road”. On our way to the bustling and colorful Osh market we will be able to see that, somewhat inconveniently, the town is built on two sides of Solomon’s Throne, a small craggy mountain that seems to loom up wherever we go. For centuries, the mountain has been a pilgrimage destination because, it is said, the Prophet Mohammed once prayed there. Because it looks like a recumbent pregnant woman, it is also favored by women who have been unable to have children. In 1497 the adolescent king Zahiriddin Babur, founder of India’s Mogul Dynasty, built a shelter and private mosque a long, steep climb high on the eastern side. Saying goodbye to Kyrgyzstan, we will drive to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border and, after completing border formalities, we will continue to Margilan for dinner and overnight.
Day 7 Margilan – Tashkent
After breakfast we will visit the silk IKAT-weaving center of Marghilan to learn how the weavers bind and dye the warps for the magnificent ikat patterns. We may also have a chance to purchase brilliant, shimmering, silk ikat scarves or fabric lengths.
After visiting the factory we will drive towards Rishtan town one of the most important ceramic centers in Central Asia, where we will have lunch at a local potter’s home and perhaps see his assistants throwing and delicately painting pots and plates in the traditional blue and green patterns.
Then we will continue to Kokand city (40 minutes to drive) the capital of the Kokand Khanate in the 18th and 19th centuries with scores of mosques and madrassahs, was one of the main religious centers in Central Asia. In 1918 the Tashkent Soviet laid wastes the religious building and slaughtered 14,000 inhabitants in response to the declaration of a rival administration. Most of the surviving mosques are once again viable places of worship. In Kokand we will visit the Khan’s palace. There are two courtyards, all that remain of the original seven and some of the only 19 remaining rooms of the original 113.
Inside is a Museum of Local Studies where we will see jewelry and musical instruments as well as Uzbek furniture and oriental porcelain, and a small art gallery.
Then we will drive to Tashkent through the Kamchik mountain pass where you can enjoy magnificent scenery of the mountainous areas and snow kept peaks. The journey will take 4 hours.
Dinner and overnight in Tashkent.
Day 8 Tashkent
A city sightseeing tour today will give us an overview of this capital city of more than 2.3 million that owing to the 1966 massive earthquake left the city in ruins and left 300,000 homeless. Now the city is visibly divided between the old and the new.
Our tour takes us to the architectural complex Khazrati Imam (Hast Imam). It is a religious center of Tashkent. Hast Imam complex is located in the old part of Tashkent city. We will visit old Uzbek living quarter where you will be acquainted with the style of life of Uzbek people who lived there for centuries. One of the specially built constructions houses the 8th century Uthman Qoran which was brought in Samarkand by Temur the Great in the 14th century from one his military campaigns to Middle East.
After that we will pay a visit to the Museum of Applied Art situated in a splendid house commissioned by a wealthy Tsarist diplomat wonderfully decorated by the country’s finest artisans. Over there you will be able to see the beautiful collection of Uzbek crafts.
Lunch at a local restaurant.
Continuing our introduction to Uzbekistan at the Abdul Khasim Medrassah we will visit artisans making traditional Uzbek crafts in former student cells, including metal chasers, woodcarvers, miniature-painters, jewelers, mosaic artists, embroiderers, etc.
On the edge of the section of Tashkent that survived the earthquake we will visit the large and exciting Chorsu Bazaar. People from all over, some in traditional dress, are drawn to this huge bazaar to find things unavailable elsewhere in the country. Here we will see typical Uzbek cradles specially outfitted for swaddled infants, hand-made musical instruments, hope chests, carpets, tea sets and a variety of other needs. We will also visit the large fruit and vegetable market with its splendid displays of neatly stacked, colorful fruits and vegetables, bags of spices, bowls of nuts and raisins, varieties of milk products and hanging carcases.
After our visit to the market we will drive to the workshop of Akbar Rakhimov, a local potter and one of the most noted ceramic artists in the country. We will be able to see the colorful traditional ceramics in his museum.
Dinner at a local restaurant.
Day 9 Tashkent – Samarkand
This morning after breakfast, our bus will take us through a variety of lovely and mountainous landscapes to Samarkand that fabled city on the ancient Silk Road. There, we will check into our hotel in the late afternoon in time to freshen up before dinner. Later, on your own, you may wish to stroll around and see some of the glorious buildings and beautiful turquoise-tiled domes lighted like an exotic stage set.
Day 10 Samarkand
This morning we will view the dramatic tile facades and domes of the madrassahs in the Registan, Samarkand’s legendary central square. Only a few years ago these sumptuous buildings, erected by Tamerlane and his grandson, Ulug Beg, had decayed into ruins. However, in honor of the 2,500th anniversary of Bukhara in 1997, the Registan was restored to its original splendor described in a special exhibit. As we stroll around the three famous monuments we can gaze up at the turquoise domes, the towering entrances, and the minarets designed to appear of uniform diameter from top to bottom. We will see the numerous student cells (hujras), now housing gift shops.
A short way down the street we will see the legendary Gur-Emir, Tamerlane’s mausoleum with a huge, but now broken, slab of jade as his cenotaph. With luck we will be able to see the actual tomb beneath the building.
Returning past the Registan we will visit the Bibi-Khanum Mosque welcomed by a giant stone Koran rest in the entrance courtyard. The mosque was built close to the end of Temur’s life. During many centuries it was the biggest mosque in Central Asia.
Then we will visit the bustling neighboring market, with its fascinating products and colorful displays of food, just before lunch will certainly whet our appetites.
After lunch we will visit the Shaki-Zinda (Tomb of the Living King) ensemble of 14th and 15th century mausoleums with their exquisite and varied examples of polychromatic faience tile work reflecting the development of the Timurid Dynasty’s monumental art and architecture. Most of Timur’s family and favorites are interred here. Behind is a modern-day cemetery with fascinating etched granite monuments and wonderful views of the city and distant mountains.
This evening we will try more traditional Uzbek dishes at a local restaurant and overnight in Samarkand.
Day 11 Samarkand – Shakrisabz – Samarkand
This morning we will prepare for a full-day excursion. Our day will take us to visit the once-magnificent Shakrisabz, the 1336 birth place of Tamerlane, where we will inspect the remains of the Ak Saray White Palace, Tamerlane’s monumental summer residence complex which took 24 years to build. All that is now left are bits of the 130-foot (40 meter) high entrance covered with filigree-like mosaics. We will then move on to Tamerlane’s son, Jehangir’s, mausoleum, one of the few remaining remnants of the Kok-Gumbaz ensemble which some say was even grander than the AkSaray White Palace. Then, a few streets further we will come to the Kok–Gumbaz (Blue Dome) Friday mosque completed by Ulug Beg in 1437 in honor of his father, Shah Rukh (Timur’s son). We will then visit the Dorut Tilavet (House of Meditation) Madrassah and Shamseddin Kulyal Mausoleum which was completed by Timur in 1374.
We will have lunch at a local restaurant after which we will spend the afternoon visiting the region’s craft centers noted for their many colorful and neatly embroidered items, such as pillow covers and bags of all sizes, and carpets.
When we come back to Samarkand we will enjoy dinner at a local restaurant and once more overnight in Samarkand.
Day 12 Samarkand
This morning, after breakfast, we will further our knowledge of Uzbek culture and history at Marakanda the actual site of the ancient city of Afrosiab and visit the Afrosiab Museum with its excellent collection of treasures unearthed from the site. The core of museum collection is amazing wall paintings from pre-Islamic period found during road reconstruction in 1969. We will also see the exhibits on regional archaeology, including vessels and ossuaries from the site of the ancient city of Afrosiab.
After an enriching morning, we will drive out to examine the remains of the medieval world’s best and most remarkable observatory developed by Tamerlane‘s brilliant and learned grandson, Ulugbek. Although originally part of a three-story observatory and a 30-meter-high (foot) marble astrolabe for observing the positions of the stars, only the astrolabe’s below-ground semicircular track remains. Ulugbeg discovered 200 previously unknown stars with this instrument, and his calculations as to the length of the year have been shown to be amazingly accurate. In the little museum next door we’ll learn more about Uzbek astronomers.
Dinner and overnight in Samarkand
Day 13 Samarkand – Bukhara
This morning we will head for the ancient museum city of Bukhara, stopping enroute in Gizhduvan, the most important ceramic center in the Bukhara region. There we will see local master potters at work and possibly even the tireless donkeys turning huge stone wheels to grind natural glazes, and a working traditional wood-fired kiln. Lunch will be served as a master potter’s where we will learn more about the revival of this craft and its local traditions once threatened with extinction in this area.
In the afternoon we will continue our drive to Bukhara arriving late in the afternoon. We will have dinner at our hotel situated in the old Jewish quarter and decorated with contemporary and antique traditional Uzbek crafts from throughout the country. Some of us may wish to stroll around the area after dinner to view some of the small craft studios tucked into ancient madrassahs and trading domes near the hotel.
Day 14 Bukhara
Today we will have a full day of visiting the myriad historic sites and monuments in this museum town, including a visit to the considerably restored 2000 year-old Fortress Ark, where Emirs once lived. During the Great Game, two British emissaries were held captive here and beheaded, ostensibly because they defied etiquette. We will then visit the great 12th century, 154-foot high Poi-Kalon minaret, the city’s focal point that once also served as a beacon on the Silk Road, guiding traders to this important trading market between Asia and the West. It so impressed Genghis Khan that he ordered it spared. See if you can spot storks’ nests along the way.
After lunch we will explore Lyabi-Khaus, Tajik for “around the pool”, an architectural complex composed of 16th century medrassahs and a mosque surrounding a, now restored pool and shaded by equally old mulberry trees. On the east side is a statue of the “wise fool” Hoja Nasruddin from Sufi teaching tales and a favorite of children. Along our route we will note that Bukhara is truly the craft capital of Uzbekistan with myriad mast craftsmen, tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the city showing a wide variety of fine traditional crafts produced by master local craftsmen and those from throughout Uzbekistan.
In the evening, during dinner in the courtyard of one of the old medrassahs, we will enjoy a folk program and a fashion show by one of Bukhara’s master designers and then return to our hotel for the night.
Day 15 Bukhara
Today we will drive into the countryside to begin our sightseeing at the Sitorai Mohi Hosa, (Palace of moon-like stars), the former summer residence of the last ruler, situated beside a wooden pavilion and pool where women of the harem played and frolicked. Designed by Russian architects outside and local artisans inside, we will observe interesting examples of the delicate traditional filigreed plaster designs over mirrored walls and dainty painted floral interior plaster decorations, as well as huge banquet halls. Of particular interest is a large collection of historic costumes, including those face screens (paranjas) and heavy outer garments decreed to preserve the modesty of women, as well as a fine collection of Ming china and lovely silver. Returning to our vehicle we will travel a short distance to the 16th century Chor-Bakries necropolis of rather decrepit mausoleums of some of Bukhara’s aristocracy, as well as a Friday Mosque and a former kanaka, a building with mosque and a shelter for dervishes. After we arrive back in Bukhara we may have some free time before dinner and overnight at our hotel.
Day 16 Bukhara
Today we will visit one of Bukhara’s oldest monuments, and one of the most elegant structures in Central Asia, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, dating from the early 10th century during the Samanid dynasty. The two-meter thick walls of delicate and varied brickwork, although from Islamic times bears a few Zoroastrian signs such as a circle within squares above the door symbolizing eternity. As the sun moves across the sky and the shadows shift during the day, the structure appears gradually to change personality. Sometime it appears like basket weaving, sometimes like carving. Probably because it was partly buried the Mausoleum escaped the wrath of Genghis Khan’s warriors who otherwise destroyed most of the town. Behind, we will catch a glimpse of a small section of the eroded 9th century town wall and a restored Tali-Pach gate. A short distance away, at the edge of the big farmer’s market, we will visit Chashma Ayub – the Spring of Job, where according to the Old Testament, Job caused water to gush from the desert. After lunch, we will get a better view of the remains of the ancient city walls and visit the 12th century Magoki-Attori mosque. We will continue on to the Madrassah of Ulug Beg (1417), the earliest of three he commissioned featuring star motifs reflecting his interest in astronomy, the facing unrestored Abdul-Asis Khan (1652) Madrassah, and the nearby dome covered markets so important on the Silk Road. A special farewell dinner at our hotel or a restaurant and a good night’s rest will cap our last day in Bukhara.
Day 17 Bukhara – Khiva
This morning, after breakfast we will see another aspect of Uzbekistan’s endlessly varied landscape as we drive through the Kizyl-Kum desert on our way to Khiva, the most intact and remote city in Central Asia.
We will have a lunch stop on the road. After lunch we will continue on to Khiva, the name that evokes thoughts of former slave caravans, barbarism, and deadly marches across barren landscapes and fierce tribesmen so feared by 19th century soldiers and spies. Arriving late in the afternoon in this combination of a seemingly lifeless perfectly preserved museum city packed with mosques, madrasahs, tombs and palaces, and a normal, busy Soviet-influenced town we will be struck by the turquoise tiles and plant motifs brought into favor with the Persian invasion in the 18th century. There we will have dinner at our hotel and overnight.
Day 18 Khiva
Today we will spend the day in Khiva, the remotest city in Central Asia with its most homogenous collection of architecture in the Islamic world. One of the first building we will see is the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah which now serves as a hotel beside we will see a squat, rotund turquoise-tiled minaret appearing in need of at least 50 more feet in height – or taller than the Kalon minaret in Bukhara. Across the way we will see the partly restored 12th century Kuhna Ark, the residence and fortress of Khiva rulers. The squat bump-out on the side is the Zindon or Khan’s jail, replete with chains, and weapons and pictures of people being tossed off the minaret and stuffed into a sack of wild cats – a favorite form of execution. Inside we will feast our eyes on the Summer Mosque, an open air area with gorgeous tile and gold roof. Ahead of us is a restored building; some say it is the harem; others the throne room with its raised circular platform for the royal yurt, a holdover from the nomadic days. Outside stands Khiva’s one camel, a favorite of shutterbug tourists and children of all ages. At noon we will lunch with a local family or at the hotel restaurant. Our afternoon we will have free time to enjoy strolling around the town, trying on the preposterously long haired but warm hats, and visiting monuments too numerous to mention. We will rejoin the group for dinner at the hotel restaurant and overnight in Khiva.
Day 19 Khiva – Tashauz – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
This morning after breakfast we will drive to Kunya Urgench, the original capital of the Khorezm Kingdom which, after having been attacked by Genghis Khan and five times by Tamerlane, the town was in ruins. It was finally abandoned when the Amu-Darya changed course leaving its inhabitants without water and town little more than a mud brick ghost town. In the southern part of the area we will have the opportunity to see the 220-foot high Kutlug Timur minaret, the tallest in Central Asia, erected in the1320s. Across the road we will visit the beautiful mid-14th century blue-tile mosaic- domed Turabek Mausoleum, one of Central Asia’s most perfect buildings erected after the Mongols destroyed the area. Turabek Khanym, for whom it was named, was the daughter of Khan Uzbek who is credited with converting the Golden Horde to Islam and is considered the father of the Uzbek peoples. Our next stop will be to visit the12th century tomb of Sultan Tekesh and the huge portal of the Dash Kalas Caravanserai. As we drive on we will stop on the way for a picnic and then continue on to Tashauz for a late afternoon flight to Ashgabad very close to the Persian border. There we will have dinner and spend the night.
Day 20 Ashgabat
Today we will spend the day seeing many interesting sights in Ashgabat, especially the vast, colorful, and exciting Sunday market with crafts and other items of a kind and colors we have not seen in Uzbekistan. This fairly new city was demolished by a powerful earthquake in 1948 that killed 110,000 people and subsequently rebuilt in the soviet style with wide, straight streets. Seeing believes so we will visit the 250-foot Arch of Neutrality topped by a 40-foot golden statue of President Niyazov that rotates with the sun. Adjacent we can see the new marble and gold Palace of Turkmenbashi and the government buildings facing a large plaza. At noon we will have lunch in a local craftsman’s family home. After lunch we will visit The Textile and Carpet Museum with guides dressed in lovely embroidered traditional costumes pointing out a stunning collection of hand-made carpets. There we will see the world’s second largest hand-woven rug — the largest being in one of Niyazov’s palaces. At the History Museum we will feast our eyes on a superb collection of carved ivory drinking horns from the 1st and 2nd century BC Nisa, and then, at the Fine Arts Museum, we will be treated to some great Soviet-Turkmen paintings of happy peasants and busy factories, as well as a collection of Western European painting, including a Caravaggio, and a stunning collection of unique Turkmen jewelry. A traditional folklore program will give us a better glimpse of Turkmen folk culture after which we will have dinner and overnight in Ashgabat.
Day 21 Ashgabat
Today we will have breakfast and then drive out to the site of ancient Nisa, going back to the time of the Parthians in the third century B.C. who repulsed Alexander to build an empire. This ancient grassy site, looking much like a green, wave-decimated sand castle, is located at the foot of the Kopet Dag Mountains which divide Turkmenistan from Iran and is what remains of this fabled city as it existed 2300 years ago. Originally, it was reinforced with 43 towers that guarded the royal palace as well as a couple of temples. Then thriving city was ruled by succeeding dynasties until the arrival of the Mongol Hordes who razed the city in the 13th century. Later we will stop at the famous stud farm of the Akhal Teke horses. Tonight we will have a very special farewell dinner before our last night in Ashgabat.
Day 23 Ashgabat – home
After a good breakfast we will head for the airport to catch our plane to…