Pride of place on our exploration of this crucible of cultural and ethnic diversity goes to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, neighboring independent republics and former Khanate states whose lavish palaces and mosques were built with wealth derived from control of the treasures flowing through these lands. Today theirs is a timeless backdrop of snow-capped mountains, empty deserts, colorful markets, grazing camels and traditionally-garbed local people – in places fascinatingly juxtaposed with a 21st century veneer.
Our journey visiting no less than five UNESCO World Heritage Sites offers many inspirational rewards in the fields of archaeology and ethnography. Edged by the Caspian Sea and dominated by the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan is best-known for its extensive archaeological ruins at Merv and Zoroastrian Gonur Tepe. Uzbekistan boasts a plethora of striking mosques, mausoleums and madrassas, the most magnificent at the Registan, a landmark of Islamic architecture in historic Samarkand – while perhaps Central Asia’s most complete example of a medieval city awaits at Bukara, long a center for Islamic theology and scholarship.
- Discover no fewer than 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including ancient Shahr-i Sabz (site of Tamerlaine’s 14th century palace) and the stunning historic center of Samarkand
- Visit the impressively excavated and restored ancient fortress town of Gonur Tepe
- Enjoy memorable Turkmenistan shopping in Ashkabad’s colorful open-air bazaar where the locals sell handicrafts, vegetables, Bukhara-style rugs, traditional costumes – in fact almost anything!
- Wander among the architectural treasures of Uzbekistan’s atmospheric and wonderfully restored walled city of Khiva
WHAT TO EXPECT
Wednesday, April 17: ARRIVE IN ASHGABAT
We arrive in Turkmenistan and transfer to our hotel, where we take the morning to rest, in preparation for the long and rewarding journey ahead of us. Following an opening lecture, we embark upon an afternoon tour of Ashgabat. The capital is situated in the center of the Akhal-Teke Oasis, surrounded on one side by the Kara-Kum Desert and on the other by the Kopet-Dag Mountains. It is home to a strikingly modern capital of lavish marble palaces, gleaming gold domes and vast expanses of beautifully manicured parkland.
Thursday, April 18: ASHGABAT
Our day begins with a visit to the Kipchak Mosque, the largest mosque in Central Asia. We then proceed to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Parthian Fortresses of Nisa, the capital of the Parthian Empire, located at important trade routes in a strategic position.
After lunch, we return to Ashgabat to visit the captivating National Archaeological Museum, which houses among its treasures a fabulous collection of rhytons (ancient drinking vessels).
Friday, April 19: ASHGABAT/MARY
We spend our morning at Ashgabat’s oriental bazaar, Altyn Asyr, which is known for being one of the largest markets in Central Asia. There is a tall clock tower at its heart and the extensive market sells an impressive range of goods, from Turkmen carpets to local handicrafts. We continue to Anau, where traces of habitation date back to the 4th millennium BC.
We fly to Mary this afternoon where we check into our hotel before settling down for dinner.
Saturday, April 20: MARY
This morning, we we visit the archaeological site of Gonur Tepe. Dated to 3000 BCE, Gonur-Depe is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Zoroastrian (fire-worshipping) civilization. The largest ruins in the Morghab delta region can be found here; with over 150 settlements dating to the early Bronze Age.
After an extensive visit of the site, we return to Mary for lunch and to visit the National History and Ethnology Museum, beautifully installed in a caravanserai. It houses a particularly well designed ethnological display as well as a collection of archaeological artifacts from the ruins of ancient Merv.
Sunday, April 21: MARY/ASHGABAT
This morning we will visit the site of ancient Merv, an amazing historical treasure-house and capital of the Parthian province of Margiana. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most important cities along the Silk Road. Among its ruins are the tomb of Sultan Sanjar and the Erk-Kala (fortress), perhaps rebuilt by Roman prisoners taken by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.
After lunch we have time at leisure before flying to Ashgabat later in the evening.
Monday, April 22: ASHGABAT/NUKUS
We catch a morning flight to Daşoguz and make our way to the monument-rich town of Kunya-Urgench (ancient Gurganj), capital of Khorezm and a major city on the northern caravan route until 1388, when Tamerlane’s fifth campaign against the city left it in rubble. After visiting the remaining monuments, including Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum; Najmuddin Kubra Mausoleum, the resting place of the holiest man in the history of Gurganj; and Kutluk Timur Minaret, which, at 62 meters, is the tallest in central Asia, we continue to Nukus and cross the border into Uzbekistan.
Tuesday, April 23: NUKUS/KHIVA
This morning, we discover one of the best collections of Soviet art in the world at in the Nukus Museum of Art.
After our visit, we drive along the Amu Darya river to Khiva, stopping along the way to visit Chilpik Dakhma. This Zoroastrian tower of silence is thought to be the earliest example of the traditional funerary ritual, constructed somewhere between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE.
Wednesday, April 24: KHIVA
We spend our morning exploring Old Khiva, the capital of the Khivan khanate from the 16th century until its incorporation into the Soviet Union. Old Khiva was the first site in Uzbekistan to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tash Khovli Palace, with its 18th-century harem and open courtyard, and the 9th-century Djuma Mosque, with its unusual wooden ceiling and 115 carved wooden columns, are among the many architectural treasures we will see. This afternoon will allow us well deserved free time at leisure.
Thursday, April 25: BUKHARA
We journey to Ayaz Kala this morning. The towering mud-brick walls of the three fortresses found here are truly a sight to behold, rising dramatically from the surrounding plains.
After dinner, we drive to the airport for a late flight to Bukhara.
Friday, April 26: BUKHARA
This morning we tour the historic center of Bukhara, including the museums and mosques of the Ark Citadel (ancient city fortress) and the Samanid Mausoleum, built in striking brick designs by the founder of the Samanid dynasty. Our visits continue at the Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum; Kalyan Minaret and Mosque; Bala-Hauz Mosque, renowned for its wooden pillars; and the Lab-i Hauz Fountain, surrounded by madrassas.
We end the day by browsing through Bukhara’s famous array of bazaars, which sell handmade tablecloths decorated with intricate embroidery and a variety of amazing handicrafts.
Saturday, April 27: BUKHARA
We spend the morning at the ruined town of Paykent. In its heyday, it was home to a citadel with a Zoroastrian fire temple and several residential quarters.
On our return to Bukhara, we stop at the memorial complex of Chor-Bakr, a 16th-century necropolis. We will also visit the tomb of Baha-ud-Din Naqshband, the 14th-century founder of the Naqshbandis, a very ancient and important Sufi order. This is a highly revered place of pilgrimage and has two lovely restored mosques as well as a simple tomb and small museum.
Sunday, April 28: BUKHARA
Our first stop today is the ancient city of Varaksha, one of the major towns of the Hephthalite civilization, and the final retreat for local kings when the Arab armies advanced.
Enjoy an afternoon at leisure to take in more of Bukhara and explore the local markets. This evening we will take in a show of ancient costumes at Nodir Devon Begi before enjoying dinner.
Monday, April 29: SAMARKAND
We travel to Samarkand, stopping at Shahrisabz, known as one of the most ancient cities along the trade routes of Central Asia. Here Tamerlane, who was born in a nearby village, built the famous Ak-Sarai (White Palace) to celebrate his victory against Khorezm.
At last, we arrive in Samarkand, an historic town founded in the 7th century BCE and revered for its mosques and monuments. We heartily agree with Alexander the Great, who, after capturing Samarkand (Maracanda) in 329 BCE, wrote, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Maracanda is true, except it is more beautiful than I could imagine.” The historic center of Samarkand is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tuesday, April 30: SAMARKAND
We begin the first of three days in Samarkand, at the crossroads of many world cultures. Touring of the city’s glorious monuments begins with an introductory lecture followed by a visit to the Afrasiab Museum. This museum houses material from the adjacent ancient site of Afrasiab, including a copy of the Afrasiab frieze. It was the oldest part of Samarkand that was the center of the Sogdian culture from the 7th to 6th centuries BCE. We complete the morning at the Ulugh-Beg Observatory, one of the earliest Islamic astronomical observatories.
After lunch, our touring continues at the small Regional Studies Museum, which is housed in an old merchant’s house. Our day ends at Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, Tamerlane’s tomb.
Wednesday, May 1: SAMARKAND
We continue our exploration of Samarkand at the Bibi-Khanum Mosque and and the gorgeous lane of mosques and mausoleums known as Sha-i-Zhinda.
The remainder of the day will be at leisure to visit the market and revisit this wonderful town on our own.
Thursday, May 2: TASHKENT
We enjoy a final morning in Samarkand and visit its main attraction: Registan Square, surrounded by Ulugbek, Sher-Dor and Tilla-Kori madrasahs. We continue by train to Tashkent.
Friday, May 3: TASHKENT
Enjoy a full day at your leisure to relax at the hotel and unwind before tomorrow’s touring. There will be a final lecture just before lunch to recap our tour.
Saturday, May 4: TASHKENT
We spend the whole day in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. Our touring begins with a walking tour in the Old Town, including Barak Khana Madrassa, Kukeldash Madrassa, and Chorsu bazaar.
We end the day visiting Tashkent’s fine State Museum of History of Uzbekistan, with its outstanding collection of archaeological material, and later enjoy a farewell dinner all together.
Sunday, May 5: DEPART TASHKENT
We transfer to the airport for our individual flights home or onward travel.