This is a definitive Central Asia itinerary, melding iconic
sights with a few hidden jewels. For information on dates, view our
Group Trip to Central Asia.
Days 1-2 Depart US/En Route
Fly U.S. to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
Day 3 Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Arrive Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Head out to
explore the Tolkuchka Sunday Bazaar. This is one of the great
markets of Central Asia. If you're in need of a camel, some sheep,
or a traditional Turkmen hat you've come to the right place.
Surprising scenes abound: watch an unhappy camel lifted by crane
onto a truck, and see sheep placed into a motorcycle sidecar. There
are also wonderful embroideries, jewelry and a dazzling array of
the deep red Tekke carpets. Even if nothing catches your eye, you
are sure to enjoy the theatrics of shopkeeper and patron haggling
for the best bargain-indeed it's a quintessential part of travel to
Day 4 Ashgabat
Today explore Ashgabat. You won't fail to notice the Big
Brotheresque presence of President Niyazov, self-titled
Turkmenbashi, the "Leader of the Turkmen." His ubiquitous portrait
is evidence of a cult of personality that is astonishing in scope.
Widely regarded among foreign critics as an extremely oppressive
dictator in the mold of 20th-century totalitarian leaders such as
Stalin, he died in December 2006. The results of the subsequent
election are perhaps best taken with a grain of salt-there is only
one legal party in Turkmenistan, the ironically named Democratic
The city of Ashgabat was almost completely destroyed by an
earthquake in 1948. It was rebuilt by the Soviets and then greatly
redesigned by Turkmenbashi. During your Turkmenistan tour, visit
Turkmenbashi Square, the Arch of Neutrality and the monuments of
Independence Park. Dinner will be on your own tonight, offering
opportunities to explore or relax.
Day 5 Ashgabat/Nissa
Today explore the historical site of Nissa, a UNESCO World
Heritage site and an essential Turkmenistan travel destination.
Located on a natural high platform at the foothills of the Kopetdag
Mountains, this was an important Parthian fortified city protected
by 43 defense towers. It tells the tale of the ancient Persians in
this area, yet Hellenistic influences are clearly visible in the
building architecture, sculptures and interior decorations.
Furthermore, a circular temple-hall indicates the remains of a
stone altar thought to be the site of Zoroastrian worship. Thus,
while primarily an Iranian site, it evinces a fascinating
Return to Ashgabat. The city has several outstanding museums
that we will explore, including the National Museum, which has
truly exceptional displays covering the history of Turkmenistan
from the Bronze Age to modern times. The Turkmen Carpet Museum
exhibits the best of Turkmen carpets from all areas of the country.
The world's largest handwoven carpet is also on display.
Day 6 Ashgabat/Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Drive to Geok Depe for a visit to a private horse farm. On the
way we'll stop to visit the Spiritual Mosque and Mausoleum of
Turkmenbashi in Kipchak village, and the Saparmurat Haji Mosque in
Geok Depe. Arriving at the horse farm, watch a show of the famous
Akhal-Teke horses. Known as the "heavenly horse" to the Turkmen,
the breed is the national emblem of Turkmenistan. They have a
unique golden coat that possesses a brilliant metallic sheen, and
are famed for their speed, ability to withstand cold, and endurance
on long marches. They have played an influential role in the
military history of the Turkmen, as well as in the creation of
other famous breeds. Due to its natural athleticism, the Akhal-Teke
makes a great sport horse, good at dressage, jumping and racing.
One such great horse was a stallion named Absent in the 1960s, who
won medals including gold in three different summer Olympics held
in Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City. This afternoon transfer to the
airport and fly to Tashkent to begin your Uzbekistan travels.
Day 7 Tashkent/Khiva, Uzbekistan
Explore Tashkent, focusing on sites of historic importance such
as the Barak Khan Madrasa with its gorgeous turquoise domes and
intricate tile work - one of the country's most iconic sights and a
must see on any Uzbekistan tour. Next is the impressive Jami Mosque
(Friday Mosque) and the Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum-the poet and
scholar Shashi was an important thinker and is the patron saint of
Tashkent. Next is the library of the Institute Al Bukhari, which
houses a sacred Koran dating from the seventh century, and the
functioning Kukaldosh Madrasa (Islamic school) which combines
religious and secular education. Then wander through the beautiful
opera and ballet theater named after Alisher Navoi, a 14th-century
politician, mystic, linguist, painter, and poet of Uyghur origin.
This evening fly to Urgench and transfer to the walled city of
Day 8 Khiva
Civilization has existed in this oasis area for at least four
millennia, and possibly for six. The historic center of Khiva has
been preserved in its entirety, and for that reason it is a UNESCO
World Heritage site and a must see for the history buff traveling
Uzbekistan. To enter Khiva is to traverse into medieval times. This
walled city dates from the 10th century and is in essence an
outdoor historical, architectural and cultural museum. This was the
capital for the khans of Khiva, and the major monuments from the
10th to the 19th centuries are intact. These include the Ichon-Qala
gates and wall, as well as the Khuna Ark.
It is worth noting that the great 9th-century mathematician
al-Khwarizmi (Latinized as Algoritmi) was born in Khiva. He is as
famous in the Middle East as Euclid is in the West. It is to
Algoritmi that we owe algorithms (the mathematical foundation of
internet search) and to some degree algebra, from his book
Day 9 Khiva/Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Today we'll drive from Khiva across the Kyzyl Kum desert to the
great city of Bukhara. Kyzyl Kum, meaning "Red Sand," is the
eleventh largest desert in the world. Our drive will follow along
the banks of the Amu Darya.
Day 10 Bukhara
Today we will explore the fabulous caravan city of Bukhara.
UNESCO, in naming Bukhara a World Heritage site, states: "It is the
most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an
urban fabric that has remained largely intact." In a bit of
one-upmanship locals like to say, "Samarkand is the beauty of the
earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit." It exudes a
beguiling, old-world atmosphere and is an Uzbekistan travel
destination that simply must be experienced.
At the heart of Bukhara is the great walled fortress, the Ark
Citadel, home of the rulers of Bukhara and now a museum. The Ark is
as old as Bukhara itself, and the medieval town developed around
this fortress. Visit the covered bazaars, then walk to the majestic
Kalon Minaret, built in 1127. This minaret is so beautiful even
Genghis Khan was moved to spare its destruction, a rare occurrence
indeed. It is the minaret of the Kalon Mosque, which holds 12,000
worshippers and served as a lighthouse at night to guide caravans
through the desert to the safety of the city. We'll also pay a
visit to Naqshbandi Mosque during our Uzbekistan tour, a site of
worship for many locals. Continue to the Ismail Samani Mausoleum.
Completed in 905 AD, it is the oldest and most well preserved
building in Bukhara, displaying breathtaking architecture. Nearby
is the "Spring of Job," where legend has Job striking the ground
and water flowing out. The remains of the old city walls can be
seen from here. The day will end at a teahouse alongside
Lyabikhauz, one of the famous pools of the city.
Day 11 Bukhara
During your trip to Uzbekistan, take a short drive outside
Bukhara to the Sitorai Makhi Khosa, popularly known as the Emir's
Summer Palace. Explore the grounds, living quarters, and three
separate museums within the grounds: the Museum of Applied Arts,
Museum of National Costume, and Museum of Needlework. Then drive to
the village of Gijduvan, famous for traditional pottery. We will
see a demonstration of the making of traditional bowls and dishes
followed by lunch at the potter's home. Return to Bukhara, and
stroll through the local market and the back alleys of the
Day 12 Bukhara/Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Embark on a drive to Samarkand. Enjoy lunch en route in the
small town of Shakhrisabz, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is
the hometown of Tamerlane, and during his lifetime it rivaled
Samarkand for phenomenal architecture. Now many of the gigantic
constructions are in ruins, but even so, Shakhrisabz evokes the
grandeur of Tamerlane's empire. During your Uzbekistan tour, visit
the Ak Serai, which means "White Palace," to symbolize Tamerlane's
noble descent. Ulughbeg the astronomer also contributed to the
architecture of Shakhrisabz by building several mosques that are
still functioning. We continue on to Samarkand.
Day 13 Samarkand
Head out to explore this remarkable city, one of the most
romantic in the world and a must-see destination on any tour of
Uzbekistan. This was the center of Tamerlane's empire, immortalized
in the words of Edgar Allen Poe: "Look 'round thee now on
Samarkand! Is not she queen of Earth?" Tamerlane (Timur, 1336-1405)
was a descendent of Genghis Khan, but Turkic-speaking and steeped
in Persian and Islamic culture. He is credited with dismantling the
Mongolian Empire and establishing the great Mughal Empire that
stretched all the way to India, where it would last for centuries.
Samarkand exhibits in its art, architecture and urban design the
most significant stages of Central Asian cultural and political
history; for these reasons it has been declared a UNESCO World
Heritage site. Though destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th
century, it was resurrected and restored beyond its former glory by
Tamerlane in the 14th century. Incidentally, Tamerlane is
considered a brutal conqueror in his own right, and his wrath took
its toll from Delhi to Baghdad.
Our full day in Samarkand, known as the "Mirror of the World,"
begins with the Afrosiab Site and Museum. Afrosiab is the ancient
name of the city, dating back to the 6th century. The museum takes
us through no less than eleven layers of civilization. Continue to
the Shakhi Zinda Necropolis where it is believed that the cousin of
the Prophet Mohammed, Qusam ibn Abbas, is entombed. Many notables
built magnificent tombs to be next to his, and it has long been a
place of pilgrimage.
Head to the centerpiece of the city and perhaps the
architectural pièce de résistance of this journey, Registan Square.
The square is a striking ensemble of three madrasahs
(Arabic for "schools") and mosques, one of which was built in the
15th century, and the other two completed in the 17th century. On
seeing this square in 1899 the British diplomat Lord Curzon wrote,
"I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity
and grandeur." For a quintessential Central Asia travel experience,
visit the lively Silk Road Bazaar adjacent to the square -its
colorful offerings are a visual feast.
Finally, visit the Gur Amir Mausoleum, the beautifully tiled
resting place of Tamerlane and his sons. The arresting inscription
on his tomb reads, "Were I alive, the world would tremble." The
tomb was opened in June, 1941 by a Soviet archeologist, and
persistent legend holds that a dreaded curse was unleashed-Hitler's
invasion of Russia is regarded by many locals as its synchronized
fulfillment. Dinner tonight is in an Uzbek home.
Day 14 Samarkand/Tashkent
Today visit the Bibi Khanum Mosque, once the biggest in Central
Asia, which was erected by Tamerlane after his victorious Indian
campaign in 1399. Next, explore the Ulughbeg Observatory, named for
one of the world's greatest astronomers. In the 1420s, Ulughbeg,
Tamerlane's grandson, created a 30-meter-long astrolabe to chart
the stars. He famously noted that, "religions dissipate like fog,
kingdoms vanish, but the work of scientists remains for eternity."
Discover the remains of this instrument and a fascinating museum
dedicated to his work. This afternoon drive to Tashkent to round
out your Uzbekistan travel experience.
Day 15 Tashkent/Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Visit the Museum of Applied Arts before flying to Bishkek to
begin your tour of Kyrgyzstan. This evening enjoy a dinner with
Day 16 Bishkek
Explore Bishkek, including Victory Square, the Ballet Theater,
Ala Too Square, the State Museum and Art Gallery. We'll have lunch
in a Turkish restaurant, then visit the amazing Osh Bazaar, one of
the largest markets in Central Asia. This evening enjoy a
traditional Kyrgyz dish called laghman, a delicious
concoction of thick noodles topped with a sauce of spicy lamb,
eggplant, tomatoes, beans and garlic, for an authentic Central Asia
Day 17 Bishkek/Lake Issyk-Kol
This morning we drive to Lake Issyk-Kol. En route we'll stop at
the Burana historical complex to view the remains of a 10th-century
city of the Kharahinds. Climb to the top of Burana Tower which
served as a minaret. After lunch we'll enjoy a show of local
traditions including a horsemanship exhibition. We'll then make our
way out to a rural Kyrgyz village consisting of yurts,
which are the traditional, collapsible felt and wood tents of the
semi-nomadic people of the steppe. Continue on to Lake Issyk-Kol,
the second largest high alpine lake in the world and a fantastic
stop on any Central Asia tour. Issyk-Kol means "warm lake"-a
combination of mild salinity, thermal activity and extreme depth
keeps the lake from freezing. All the great rulers of Central Asia
through the centuries have stopped by its shore. Here we'll see a
demonstration of traditional Kyrgyz hunting techniques with golden
eagles. Continue on to Bulan Sogotu village where we'll stop to
relax. If so inclined you can take a dip in the waters of Lake
Day 18 Lake Issyk-Kol/Bishkek
This morning enjoy a one hour boat ride on the Issyk-Kol Lake.
Glide across the glassy waters to Semenovskoe Gorge, named after a
Russian scientist and geographer who explored this area in the 19th
century. While exploring this area there is a chance you will
encounter nomadic Kyrgyz peoples and perhaps even visit them in
their yurts. The interior walls of most yurts are decorated with
shyrdak (felt carpet). Felt is composed of pressed fibers,
and predates both weaving and knitting; archaeological evidence
demonstrates that felt has existed since at least 6,500 BC. Upon
arrival in to Bishkek we will have enough time for short city tour
and shopping. This evening enjoy a farewell dinner with traditional
Kyrgyz music to cap off your Central Asia tour.
Day 19 Home or Extend
Early this morning depart for home, or perhaps extend your
Central Asia trip on a private, custom journey in incredible