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Central Asia


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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 Turkmenistan.

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 Party.

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 historical syncretism.

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 Khiva.

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 Al-Jebr.

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 city.

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 folk music.

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 travel experience.

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 Issyk-Kol.

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 Istanbul.