21 day Classic Tour of Central Asia
Day 1. Almaty, (Kazakhsta).
Late evening arrival in Almaty. After being met in the airport you will be transferred to your hotel for an overnight in Almaty. (1st of 2 nights).
KAZAKHSTAN. We begin our adventure in the Lost Cities of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan, a country which reaches from Siberia to the Tian Shan Mountains and from China to the Caspian Sea. This area is more than twice the size of the four other Central Asian Republics combined, or about the size of Europe, but with one of the world’s lowest population densities. Its vast, empty grasslands provided an unobstructed highway for a succession of conquering warriors, including Genghis Khan, and ideal grazing lands for the nomads on horseback who, for millennia, grazed their herds across this central steppe valiantly attempting to repulse succeeding waves of intruders.
Kazakhstan’s history goes back as far as 500 BC when the Saka, a nomadic people of Scythian cultures inhabited the area. The most well-known material remnant of their culture is the “Golden Man”, a fabulous warrior’s costume made of 4.000 pieces of gold, now Kazakhstan’s most prized treasure but considered too fragile to display. Turkic peoples from today’s Mongolia and Northern China began moving into the area circa 550 AD. Then in 1219 Genghis Khan, having sacked Bukhara, Samarkand and lands in Europe and the Middle East, added Kazakhstan to his empire. From the descendants of the Mongols, plus the Turkic and other peoples who were the Uzbek forebears, the Kazakhs emerged. Gradually Kazakhstan was taken into the iron grip of the Russians, a stormy grip that ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
ALMATY. 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 in 1854 as a Russian fort. This fort was 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 which was named Astana. This capital has recently been renamed Nursultan (in honor of the first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazrbaev). Although it is not the capital of the country, Almaty, remains, some say, the most important city in Kazakhstan and, perhaps, Central Asia.
Day 2. Almaty.
After breakfast, you’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. Almaty has all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city. Your 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 buildings made exclusively of wood with no evidence of nails. This cathedral 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 you wander through the church you will notice the numerous stunning icons and murals that adorn the beautiful interior. Walking across the park to the Central State Museum where you will have an overview of Kazakhstan’s history, as well as its geology, and early history. After lunch in the city board a cable car to a ride 1.700 meters (5.100 feet) to the top of the Koektyube Mountain for spectacular views of Almaty, the surrounding mountains, the Medeo sports stadium and skating rink. Returning once again to the city, you 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 dumbras, (similar to lutes), and the three-stringed kabiz, (somewhat like the viola), Listen to examples of music played on these instruments as you tour the museum. In the late afternoon we will enjoy a special folklore program before returning to our hotel for dinner and the overnight. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 3. Almaty – Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).
A drive if offered today 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 you will enjoy a hearty picnic surrounded by exquisite peaks. This afternoon you will travel through more beautiful scenery on your way to Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan and to your hotel for dinner and overnight. (1st of 2 nights).
KYRGYZSTAN. Kyrgyzstan is often called the future Switzerland and is a bit larger than Austria and Hungary. It is known for its wealth of nomadic traditions, its laid-back hospitality and its stunning natural beauty. In Kyrgyzstan one can overdose on thousands of rushing rivers and sparkling alpine lakes, as well as lush grassy steppes and the most spectacular parts of Central Asia’s towering, forested and snow-covered mountains of the Pamir Altay and Tian Shan Ranges which rise to an average elevation of almost 3.000 meters (9.000 feet). A 700 meter (2,100 feet) depression forms the sparkling unspoiled Lake Issyk-Kul which, owing to its depth and mild salinity, never freezes.
Although the Soviets left the Kyrgyz seemingly without the means for survival, the people are moving ahead with creativity, good humor, and industriousness. Western nations are helping too and a supportive liberal government is doing more than any of the Central Asian countries to invite and simplify tourism. The hospitable local people are helping by opening their homes and yurts to foreigners providing a fascinating glimpse of daily lives. Owing to a dearth of jobs, people of all backgrounds are learning felt making. With this skill and an artistic sense they are making the traditional hand-pieced felt shyrdak carpets, and developing a seemingly endless array of appealing, internationally-lauded felt crafts, such as charming ethnic dolls, fashionable clothing adorable toys, and a variety creative and colorful bags and slippers.
The Saka (Scythian) were among the earliest peoples in the region. These warrior clans, noted for the bronze and gold relics found in burial mounds from the 6th century BC near the great alpine Issyk-kul Lake, as well as in southern Kazakhstan. Beginning about the 6th century BC, various Turkic alliances controlled the area and in 751 the Turks (aided by Arab and Tibetan allies), repelled the Tang Chinese invaders. The Turkic Karakhanids, ruled the area from the 10th to the 12th centuries. In the 13th century, the area that is today’s Kyrgyzstan, was most likely populated with people the Mongols drove out of Siberia, an area that was part of Genghis Khan’s bequest to his second son at his death.
In 1685 another group of Mongols, themselves later defeated by the Manchu (Ching Dynasty), drove the Kyrgyz south into present day Tajikistan. After much territorial manipulation among clans and Khanates in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Russians, after a revolt in 1916, took control. In 1936, Kyrgyzstan became a full Soviet Socialist Republic. The current president, Akaev, a physicist, president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, and a liberal reformer was elected in 1990 and reelected after independence in 1991. Since then Kyrgyzstan has ratified a new constitution, revamped the government structure, and given Akaev a solid vote of confidence in a referendum he called for his economic program.
A small fort was built in 1825, near a silk road settlement along a caravan route through the Tian Shan mountains, on a Chuy River tributary. Inhabitants were the Uzbek clan of Kokand. This fort became Bishkek. In 1862, the Russians set up their own garrison which then became the town of Pishpek later becoming the capital of the new Kyrgyz social republic in 1926. Only in 1991 was it named Bishkek, the Kyrgyz version of Pishpek, the word for a kumis (fermented mare’s milk) churn. Today the city is the political and industrial capital of the independent Kyrgyzstan with an obviously relaxed atmosphere and a casual attitude toward its Soviet history and monuments. There is very little that is old in the city, and despite its economic problems, it has a growing middle class, well stocked shops, good restaurants and an influx of business people, aid workers and tourists who find friendly people and considerably simplified travel.
Day 4. Bishkek.
After breakfast you will be driven 190 km (140 miles) outside of Bishkek through small villages and magnificent mountain scenery to the 11th century Burana tower, the remnant of a Karakhanid minaret. The Karakhanids were Turkic usurpers who were given credit for finally converting Central 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 State Historical Museum. You will have a chance to see more of the rural life as you are driven to a nearby village for a good lunch and then make our way back to Bishkek for dinner and overnight. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 5. Bishkek.
This morning you will see the large, white marble cube that has long been the Historical Museum just steps from the Kyrgyz White House, the seat of the government, the president’s office and the parliament. By the time of your arrival, it is hoped that the museum which is currently under renovation, will be completed and reopened. You will be presented a lecture on the history and culture of the region’s nomadic peoples.
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 pay a visit to a local pottery workshop where we can get acquainted with the local ceramic’s style and history. After your full day, followed by dinner you will return to your hotel for your last night in Bishkek. (3rd of 3 nights).
Day 6. Bishkek – Osh (Kyrgyzstan) to Margilan (Uzbekistan).
This morning will include a 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 your way to the bustling and colorful Osh market you 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 for Muslims because it is said, the Prophet Muhammad 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 Zahiruddin 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, drive to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border and, after completing border formalities, continue a short distance to Margilan for dinner and overnight. (1st of 2 nights).
Day 7. Margilan.
The whole day will be devoted to visiting Margilan, well-known for its silk factories. Margilan is rightfully considered to be the center of silk production for the whole of Central Asia. You will visit the Yodgorlik silk weaving workshop and have a chance to see the age-old process of silk production and learn more from the masters about the distinctive colors and patterns historically coveted by Chinese and Persian merchants. You will be acquainted with the ikat technique. Ikat (literally means “to tie” and in the Malay language it means “to bind”) is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles. It employs resist dyeing on the yarn prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric. The ikat technique has about 37 separate steps and each of them is carried out by an individual craftsperson.
In Margilan you will meet a master of ikat – weaver Fazlitdin Dadajanov. Lunch will be served at his workshop.
Visit the craft center of Margilan run by another famous weaver of the Fergana Valley – Rasuljon Mirzaakhmedov. The craft center is located in a madrassah (Islamic school) of the 19th century. Dinner and overnight in Margilan. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 7. Margina – Rishtan – Kokand – Tashkent.
This morning after breakfast you will begin a drive in private cars to the Western part of Uzbekistan towards Tashkent. There will be 3 passengers in each car as the route goes through mountains and police do not allow the use of large passenger vehicles.
The first stop will be Rishtan – one of the most important ceramic centers in Central Asia. You will visit the private studio of master ceramic artist Rustam Usmanov and learn about the traditional blue and green floral designs native to the region.
Continue 40 minutes to Kokand, the capital of the Kokand Khanate in the 18th and 19th centuries when it, like Bukhara, with scores of mosques and madrassahs, was a main religious center in Central Asia. In 1918 the Tashkent Soviets laid waste on 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 although not all welcome non-Muslims. In Kokand we will visit the Khan’s palace and Museum. At the palace we will see the two courtyards, which are all that remain of the original seven and some of the only 19 remaining rooms of the original 113. Inside is a Museum where you will see jewelry, musical instruments as well as Uzbek furniture, oriental porcelain and a small art gallery.
After lunch in Kokand, on our way to Tashkent, we will cross the Tian-Shan mountains. It will be a beautiful scenic drive through snow-capped mountains. Kamchik Pass will be a perfect photo stop offering mountain views in the background. This mountain route was a part of the actual Silk Road.
In the late evening you will arrive in Tashkent for overnight. (1st of 2 nights).
TASHKENT. It is believed that Tashkent dates to the second or first century BC. By the 8th century, when the Arabs arrived, it had become a major caravan crossroads but it was not until the 11th century that it acquired the name Toshkent or Tashkent (‘City of Stone’ in Turkic). Although in the 13th century the Khorezm Shahs and Genghis Khan destroyed the city, it slowly recovered under the Mongols, and then under Timur (Tamerlane), eventually becoming prosperous in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of the architectural monuments we can see today were erected during this period. In the 19th century, as Bukhara was planning to capture the city a Russian general, in defiance of orders, outmaneuvered them and took possession. From this base the Russians slowly overtook the surrounding khanates and during the Great Game for imperial power with Britain, Tashkent became the Tsarists’, and later the Soviets’, main center for espionage. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 it became the capital of Turkistan SSR.
Day 8. Tashkent.
This morning you will visit the Khast-Imam Square, the old quarter of Tashkent where you will see an 8th century Koran which was brought to Central Asia by Tamerlane in the 15th century. On the square you will also see some glorious buildings and beautiful turquoise-tiled domes lighted like an exotic stage set.
Later you will visit the Museum of Applied Arts to see magnificent suzanis (embroidered panels) and other fine crafts, the Abdul-Khasim Madrassah (Islamic school) with its hujra (student dormitories) which are now as metalwork craft workshops producing jewelry, miniature paintings, papier-mâché lacquered boxes and other goods.
After lunch at an excellent local restaurant, you’ll visit the Chor-Su Market – the biggest market in Tashkent. You will walk through the market and see rows of artisans making craft items for daily needs, the place where dairy products and dry cheese are sold, the butchers’ area, the market for fresh fruits and vegetables, the bread bakeries, and the “food court” of freshly made lunches where people can order their meal and eat on site.
Later you will experience the Tashkent subway (Metro). Tashkent metro stations are among the most beautiful in the world and are among the top attractions in the city. Tashkent’s metro was the seventh in the USSR, built after the 1966 earthquake. The first line opened in 1977 and two more lines followed. For years you could not take pictures of the interior of metro stations, because of their military and strategic functions. In fact, some of the Tashkent metro stations serve as a nuclear bomb shelters as well. Almost every subway station in Tashkent is fascinating. They all have their own unique architectural features and artistic elements. Some look like ballrooms with huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling while others look like film sets from science fiction movies. Dinner and overnight in Tashkent. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 9. Tashkent – Samarkand.
In the morning you will drive to Samarkand, the grand capital of the emperor Tamerlane (the brilliant and great 15th century ruler who created a huge empire which spanned from Western China to Eastern Europe, including Persia, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Tamerlane made Samarkand as his Imperial Capital).
The famous Silk Road went through Tashkent, the Sirdarya regions and the mountainous countryside of the Jizzah region. You will have lunch in a picturesque roadside choi-khona (Tea House/Café).
After arriving and checking into the hotel, the sightseeing program in Samarkand will begin.
You will be driven out to see the Shaki-Zinda ensemble of the Mausoleums. This unusual necropolis has monuments from the 14th and 15th centuries, reflecting the development of the monumental art and architecture of the Timurid dynasty.
The name Shakhi-Zinda (meaning “The living king”) is connected with the legend that Kusam-ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, is buried here. He came to Samarkand with the Arab invasion in the 7th century to preach Islam. Popular legends recount that he was beheaded for his faith, but he didn’t die. It is believed that he took his head and went into a deep well (the Garden of Paradise), where he’s still living now.
The Shakhi-Zinda complex was formed over eight centuries (from the 11th till 19th) and now includes more than twenty buildings. The ensemble comprises three groups of structures: the lower, middle and upper, connected by four-arched domed passages locally called chartak. The earliest buildings date back to the 11-12th centuries. Of the tombstones, mainly their bases and headstones have remained. The majority of the monuments date back to the 14-15th centuries. Dinner and overnight in Samarkand. (1st of 4 nights).
SAMARKAND. The very name of Samarkand evokes romantic visions of Silk Road camel caravans with cargoes of sumptuous goods destined for fairytale places. Founded in the 5th century BC, it was a prosperous city by the time Alexander arrived saying, “Everything I have heard about (it) is true except it is more beautiful than I ever imagined”. By the 13th century it was larger than today and, despite a seeming constant change of hands, it prospered until Genghis Khan arrived and obliterated the city. In 1370, however, Timur, decided to make Samarkand his capital and rebuilt it into an almost ‘fairyland’ city. He employed the finest artisans available anywhere and turned it into Central Asia’s economic and cultural center. His grandson, Ulugbek, later transformed it into an intellectual center as well. The city declined when, following a series of earthquakes, the Uzbek Shaybanids, in the 16th century, moved their capital to Bukhara. Not until the arrival of the Russians and the Trans Caspian Railway did the city again prosper.
Day 10. Samarkand.
After breakfast a visit will be paid to the most magnificent architectural complex in the whole of Uzbekistan – Registan Square. It is a breath-taking masterpiece construction, comprised of three sparkling tile madrassahs built in the 14th – 16th centuries. Tamerlane is quoted as having said “Let our enemies know our strength by witnessing the supremacy of our architecture”. Continue the sightseeing program to the glistening Gur-Emir Mausoleum, where Tamerlane is buried. The beauty and elegance of the interior of this mausoleum will astound you.
You will then visit a paper making workshop located in a nearby village. The paper is made from the bark of mulberry trees. This craft was widespread in the Samarkand area in 16th – 19th centuries. When factory made paper arrived at the end of 19th century however, this craft died and was nearly forgotten.
After a delicious lunch you will visit Bibi-Khanum, the remains of the largest and most magnificent mosque in Samarkand, and once the entire Islamic world. Built in the 16th century this mosque is one of the most important monuments of Samarkand. By the mid 20th century however, only a grandiose ruined bit of it still survived. Fortunately, major parts of the mosque were restored during the Soviet period.
After his Indian campaign in 1399 Timur (Tamerlane) decided to undertake the construction of a gigantic mosque in his new capital, Samarkand. From the beginning of the construction, problems of structural integrity revealed themselves. Various reconstructions and reinforcements were undertaken in order to save the mosque. However, after just a few years, the first bricks had begun to fall out of the huge dome over the mikhrab (the niche indicating the direction to Mecca). The scale of Timur’s plans pushed the building techniques of the time over their limit, and the building’s integrity was not helped by the rushed nature of its construction.
Continue to the nearby Siyob Market (or Bazaar) adjacent to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It is the largest bazaar in Samarkand. All daily necessities, such as “Samarkand naan” (bread), are sold in this bazaar which is visited not only by local people but also by domestic and foreign tourists.
Then you will see 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 (90 feet) marble astrolabe for observing the positions of the stars, only the astrolabe’s under-ground semicircular track remains.
Ulugbek 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 small museum next door you will learn more about Uzbek astronomers.
In the early evening you’ll visit a silk carpet weaving workshop run by an Afghan family. See how local craftspeople create age-old, colorful and complex patterns using silk and wool yarns. Dinner and overnight in Samarkand. (2nd of 4 nights).
Day 11. Samarkand – Shakhrisabz – Samarkand.
This morning be prepared for a full-day excursion which will take you to the once-magnificent Shakhrisabz, the 1336 birthplace of Tamerlane. Here you will visit the remains of the Ak Saray (White Palace), Tamerlane’s monumental summer residence complex which took 24 years to build. Unfortunately, all that is now left of this complex are remnants of the 40 meters (120 feet) high entrance covered with filigree-like mosaics. Continue to the mausoleum of Jehangir, Tamerlane’s son, one of the few remaining remnants of the Kok-Gumbaz ensemble which some say was even grander than the Ak-Saray (White Palace). A few streets further you will come to the Kok-Gumbaz (Blue Dome) Friday mosque completed by Ulugbeg in 1437 in honor of his father, Shakhrukh (Timur’s son). You will then visit the Dorut Tilavat (House of Meditation) Madrassah and the Shamseddin Kulyal Mausoleum which was completed by Tamelane in 1374.
After lunch you will visit the workshop of Gulnara Odilova noted for her many colorful and carefully embroidered items, such as pillow covers, bags of all sizes, and carpets. She uses a very traditional and authentic needle-point technique which is typical for the Shakhrisabz area. Return to Samarkand for dinner and overnight. (3rd of 4 nights).
Day 12. Samarkand – Pendjikent – Samarkand.
Today will include a day trip to Penjikent (Tajikistan) – the gateway to the beautiful Fan Mountains of Tajikistan. Ancient Pendjikent was a small but flourishing town of the Sogdians (the ancient name of people living in the territory of current Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) in pre-Islamic Central Asia. The name of town could be translated as “five towns” in Persian.
By the 5th century AD Penjikent became a very well developed place. In 722 AD the Arab forces besieged and took the town. The last ruler of the town Divashtich fled into upper Zarafshan but he was captured and sentenced to death. For around 50 years, ancient Pendjikent was ruled by new administrators but towards the end of the 8th century the town was depopulated and relocated. Many ancient ruins of the old city, particularly the city architecture and works of art remain today. The original town’s ruins have never been built upon, leaving an intriguing excavation site for travelers. Dinner and overnight in Samarkand. (4th of 4 nights).
Day 13. Samarkand – Bukhara.
After breakfast depart Samarkand as you continue tracing the Silk Route to holy Bukhara by the Royal Road (one of the most important parts of the Silk Route connecting Samarkand and Bukhara).
On the way you will see the ruins of the Rabat-Malik Caravansaray (an Inn for caravans); constructed along the Silk road in 11th century according to the orders of a son of one of Samarkand’s rulers. The portal of the caravansaray is one of the most ancient among the Central Asia portals. It has an inscription engraved by unknown masters which reads “the monument was built by the Sultan of the World and this ruinous place (the Malik Steppe territory) became well-furnished…”.
100 meters (300 feet) from the caravansaray there is a giant dome covered tank named Sardoba Malik. This is a 13 meters (40 feet) diameter storage reservoir which was built in the 11th century specifically to supply the Rabat-Malik Caravansaray with water. Water to the tank was fed by the Zaravshan River through an underground canal and was kept there for the whole summer. The water there was clean and cold owing to the dome, protecting it from the heat of the sun.
Stop in Gijduvan to visit the most important ceramic center of the Bukhara region. If you are lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to see the centuries old tradition of using a donkey for turning the millstones during the process of grinding natural dyes. Lunch at a local potter’s home. Continue on an afternoon drive to Bukhara for a late afternoon arrival. Dinner and overnight in Bukhara. (1st of 3 nights).
BUKHARA. When the Arabs, who brought Islam with them, arrived in the area in 709 they found a prosperous trading center and so many revolts that they soon left. In the 9th and 10th centuries it was the capital of the Samanids and Bukhara (Bukhoro-i-sharif – Noble Bukhara) became the religious and Persian influenced art and cultural center of Central Asia. It was said that instead of the heavens lighting Bukhara, the light radiated upward from Bukhara, lighting the heavens. However, in 1220, as with other towns in Central Asia, Genghis Khan and his marauders sacked the town leaving only the Kalon minaret standing. In the 16th century however, it became the capital of what became known as the Bukhara khanate under the Uzbek Shaybanids.
Khiva was soon added to this khanate and eventually most of Central Asia and adjacent lands were added too. It was during this time (the 16th century) that the old part of the city took on its present appearance. The town center featured a huge marketplace in front of the Ark (fortress) dozens of specialized bazaars and caravansarais (Inns for caravans) and more than 10,000 students in over one hundred madrassahs plus an equal number of mosques. Under the Ashtarkhanid dynasty however, the Silk Road slowly declined and, with it, Bukhara. Another turn of fortunes came when the local representative of a Persian ruler made himself Emir in 1753 founding a dynasty that ruled, sometimes brutally and tyrannically, until the Bolsheviks took over. Today, most of the center of the city remains as it was two centuries ago and it is trying valiantly, if sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep the 21st century at bay. The area is dotted with restored former mosques, madrassahs and caravansarais, the massive, partially restored Ark fortress and the remains of a vast market. In nooks and crannies throughout the city, master craftsmen work to revive or perpetuate the ancient traditional crafts while others hawk crafts from the countryside which eventually make their way to all corners of the world. While looking at individual monuments in Bukhara, try to get a sense of the whole of this remarkable town.
Day 14. Bukhara.
Today you will experience a tour beginning from the remarkable architectural masterpiece, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, dating from the early 10th century. This Mausoleum is located in the North-Western part of Bukhara, just outside its historic center. The mausoleum is considered one of the iconic examples of early Islamic architecture and is known as the oldest funerary building of Central Asia. This mausoleum is in extraordinarily good condition as it was protected for centuries having been hidden by the cemetery tombs which encroached upon it tightly. It was built as the resting place of the powerful and influential Islamic Samani family dynasty which ruled from approximately 900 to 1000 AD. The Samanids established their de facto independence from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and ruled over some areas covered by the modern day countries of Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.
Perfectly symmetrical, compact in its size, yet monumental in its structure, the Mausoleum not only combined multi-cultural building and decorative traditions, such as Sogdian, Sassanian, Persian and even Classical, but also introduced the squinch, an innovative dome support solution. It also incorporated features customary for medieval Islamic buildings – circular domes and mini domes, pointed arches, elaborate portals, columns and intricate geometric designs.
The Bolo-Khauz Mosque built by order of the Emir of Bukhara in the 17th century will be the next stop on your Bukhara tour. This historical mosque was built on the opposite side of the citadel of the Ark in the Registan district. It served as a Friday mosque during the time when the emir of Bukhara was being subjugated under the Bolshevik Russian rule in 1920s. Thin columns made of painted wood were added to the frontal part of the iwan (terrace) buit in 19th century, additionally supporting the roof of summer prayer room. The columns are decorated with colorful muqarnas (stalactites).
Your tour will include a visit to the 2000 year-old massive Ark (Fortress) where the Bukhara Emirs once lived. In addition to being a military structure, the Ark encompassed what was essentially a town that, during much of the fortress’ history, was inhabited by the various royal courts that held sway over the region surrounding Bukhara. The Ark was used in this manner until it fell to Russia in 1920. During the Great Game, two British emissaries were held captive here and beheaded, ostensibly because they defied etiquette. Currently, the Ark is an attraction for visitors and houses museums covering its history.
After lunch continue your sightseeing to visit Poi-Kalon, or “Pedestal of the Great”, the heart and focal point of all Bukhara. Built in the 12th century, the 154 foot high Poi Kalon minaret once also served as a beacon on the Silk Road, guiding traders to this important market between Asia and the West. It so impressed Genghis Khan that he ordered it spared. You will also visit the madrassahs of Ulugbek and Abdul-Aziz Khan and the Magoki-Attori mosque, dating from 12th century. Your visit will include the Lyabi-Khaus (otherwise known as the Shore of the Pool), an architectural complex consisting of a 16th century madrassah and a mosque and the nearby dome covered markets. On the east side is a statue of the “wise fool” Khoja Nasreddin from Sufi teaching tales and a favorite of children.
Over its history, over 300 mosques (large and small) have been built in Bukhara, many of which still remain.
In the evening enjoy a concert program at the Nodir-Divan Begi Madrassah. The program includes Uzbek national music and dance combined with a fashion show of contemporary garments made of traditional textiles. Dinner and overnight in Bukhara. (2nd of 3 nights).
Day 15. Bukhara.
Today you will be driven 12 km. into the countryside to begin a sightseeing visit at the Memorial Complex of Bakhouddin Naqshbandi, one of the most important Muslim shrines. Every self-respecting Muslim knows and reveres the name of this great theologian of the 14th century, and founder of the Sufi Order “Naqshbandia”.
Bakhouddin Naqshbandi appealed to people to be modest and reject luxury. His philosophy was based on the principle: “Dil ba joru, dast ba kor” (“The heart should be with the God, and hands at work”). The main building of the complex is the khanqah (dormitory for dervishes). In front of the mosque there is a minaret and small madrassah. In a separate courtyard there is a large necropolis, where Naqshbandi is buried. The Mausoleum of Bakhouddin Naqshbandi is considered to be the Central Asian Mecca. Believers from different Islamic countries come here to ask for the fulfillment of wishes and healing.
Continue to the Sitorai Mohi Hosa (Palace of Moon-like Stars), the former summer residence of the last khan, which is now the Museum of Decorative Applied Arts. The palace was built in the beginning of 20th century by Russian architects and local artisans. You will observe interesting examples of 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 paranjas (black horse hair facial veils) and heavy outer garments decreed to preserve the modesty of women, as well as a fine collection of Ming china and lovely silver.
You will complete the program in the early afternoon to provide you time to explore Bukhara yourselves. Dinner and overnight in Bukhara. (3rd of 3 nights).
Day 16. Bukhara – Khiva.
After breakfast embark on a 500 km. drive to Khiva (a 7-8 hour drive). Khiva is a remote desert city and the last great oasis on the old caravan route that runs through the Kizil-Kum (Red Sands) desert. Lunch en route. Arrival in Khiva in late afternoon for dinner and overnight. (1st of 2 nights).
KHIVA. Human settlement has existed in the area for at least 4,000 years. Khiva itself has been settled since the 8th century starting as a small fort and trading post on the Silk Road which it remained until the 14th century, even as the surrounding area prospered. After Tamerlane destroyed the capital of Konye Urgench, Khiva finally came into its own. Then, in the 16th century, the Shaybanids took over and thereafter the town’s destiny was considerably influenced by its busy slave market for which the town became known. Khiva, in exchange for protection, had in the meantime offered to bow to Peter the Great. By the tine Russian sent 4,000 troops in 1717 the Khivans had changed their minds and killed off most of those Russians. However, the Persians invaded and wrecked the town in 1740 and the area then became the northern outpost of the Persian Empire. By the end of the 18th century it was usurping some of the trade of the neighboring Khanates while its slave market remained the largest in Central Asia adding unlucky Russians who were infringing on the borders. Twice the Russians attempted to free their countrymen but then a lone British officer managed to broker a deal for the release of the hostages in exchange for an end to Russian military incursions against Khiva and freedom for the Khivan hostages held by Russia. About a half century later the Russians captured the town, massacred the Turkmen tribesmen, made the khan a vassal of the Tsar and took his silver throne back to Russia. In 1920 the Russians set up a theoretically independent Peoples’ Republic which became part of the Uzbek SSR in 1924.
Day 17. Khiva.
Today you will explore the UNESCO protected “open-air museum” thick clay walled city of Khiva, called the Ichan-Qala (Inner City). This fortress city housed thousands of people for centuries and has an astounding number of sights per square meter; the most homogenous collection of architecture in the Islamic world.
As you wander on a walking sightseeing tour of Khiva through this ancient maze of winding alleys and clay buildings that has been ideally preserved and hardly changed over the course of the centuries, you will feel the atmosphere of the old city. Khiva has retained its medieval feel, though there are people living inside its walls to this day. It will be easy to imagine the ways that merchants and residents must have walked through the same streets as you yourself.
You will visit a number of outstanding buildings including the Kalta-Minor Minaret, a stubby, unfinished minaret decorated with intricate blue tiles, and the unique Juma Mosque, whose ceiling is supported by 213 wooden columns, each carved uniquely with different designs.
You will also be taken to visit other of the most interesting historical sites of the city such as: the Kunya-Ark Citadel, the Tash-Khovli Palace, the Mukhammad-Aminkhan Madrassah, the Mukhammad Rahimkhan Madrassah, the Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum, the Minaret of Islam-Khodja, the Museum of Applied Arts, and different workshops of artists.
In the late afternoon you will have free time to enjoy strolling around the town, trying on the preposterously long haired but warm fur hats, and visiting other monuments and vendors stalls. Dinner and overnight in Khiva. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 18 Khiva – Dashouguz – Ashgabad (Turkmenistan).
This morning after breakfast you will drive to the Uzbek-Turkmen border (Shavat check-point). After the border crossing and passport formalities you will continue driving to Kunya Urgench, the original capital of the Khorezm Kingdom. Kunya Urgench was sacked by Genghis Khan and five times by Tamerlane, leaving the town was in ruins. It was finally abandoned when the Amu-Darya river changed course leaving its inhabitants without water and the town little more than a mud brick ghost town.
In the southern part of the area you will have the opportunity to see the 220 feet high Kutlug Timur minaret, the tallest in Central Asia, erected in the 1320s. Across the road you 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. Your next stop will be to visit the 12th century tomb of Sultan Tekesh and the huge portal of the Dash Kalas Caravansaray. The continuation of the drive will include a picnic before arriving in Dashouguz for a late afternoon flight to Ashgabad very close to the Persian border. There you will have dinner and an overnight. (1st of 2 nights).
ASHGABAD. Ashgabad dates back to about the 2nd century BC as a small town 10 km outside Nisa, the capital of the Parthian Empire. It was demolished by an earthquake in the 1st century BC but because of its location on the silk route it was soon rebuilt and prospering – until the Mongols again destroyed it and it became the haunt of the Turkmen tribes who had no use for cities. Thus, in 1881, the Russians found only a small town that they chose to develop as a regional center that soon became quite a metropolis but populated primarily by Russians.
Day 19. Ashgabad.
Today you will spend the day seeing and visiting the many interesting sights in Ashgabad. 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.
Prosperity from oil and gas permitted Turkmenistan’s first and current presidents to build a glistening white marble and gold ultra-contemporary city of unusual architecture. Lunch will be in a local craftsman’s family home followed by a visit to The Textile and Carpet Museum with guides dressed in lovely embroidered traditional costumes pointing out a stunning collection of hand-made carpets. In the museum you will see the world’s second largest handwoven rug — the largest being in one of the presidential palaces.
At the History Museum you will feast our eyes on a superb collection of carved ivory drinking horns from the 1st and 2nd century BC Nissa, and then, at the Fine Arts Museum, you will be treated to some Soviet-Turkmen paintings of 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 Ashkabat. (2nd of 2 nights).
Day 20. Ashgabad.
After breakfast you will enjoy a drive out to the site of ancient Nisa, from the time of the Parthians in the third century B.C. Parthians repulsed Alexander the Great and built 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 several temples. The 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 a stud farm of glorious, glistening Akhal Tekke horses, known for their metallic coats and magnificent strength and beauty. Tonight enjoy a special farewell dinner before your last night in Ashkhabad. (3rd of 3 nights).
Day 21. Ashgabad – Departure.
Departure to the airport for the flight to your next destination.
This itinerary is written as an outline of what we plan to offer you on your tour throughout Central Asia. Naturally, changes in plans will occur because such is life and particularly in Central Asia. There may be possible road closures, monuments being closed for holidays or reconstruction or families being unable to host us because of unexpected personal events. We will attempt to our utmost to fulfill this itinerary, and when changes need to be made, we will seek to replace any missed events with other similar or equal experiences.
Traveling with a relaxed attitude, open mind and tendency for ‘smelling the roses’ makes the experience far more enjoyable for all concerned!