CA3 The Five Stans


Tashkent's Old City tour; Khiva: World Heritage Site; Exotic Shakhrisabz, birthplace of Tamerlane; Ashgabat: City Tour; Visiting all '5 Stans'; Scenic Lake Issyk-Kul

Full Itinerary

Day 1 Arrival in Tashkent
Today we arrive in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

Overnight in Tashkent.
Meal plan: dinner

Day 2 Tashkent: City Tour - Urgench - Khiva
Today we tour Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, the third largest of the former Soviet Republics.

Uzbekistan is prospering under independence and this shows in the modern capitol building at the centre of town. We visit the Old City, which has mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) housing craft workshops and dating from the 14th century. Chorsu Bazaar, a huge open market beside Kukeldash, draws crowds of people from the countryside, many in traditional dress.

We also include Kafelsashi Mausoleum, Barak Khana Medressah, Tila Shaikh Mosque and archives. Later we drive to Independence Square and, time permitting, we will make a stop for a visit of the Applied Arts Museum.

This evening we fly to Urgench and transfer by road to nearby Khiva, once the most remote of the Silk Road's oasis cities.

Overnight in Khiva.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 3 Khiva: City Tour
Legend has it that Khiva was founded when Shem, son of Noah, discovered a well here. The town certainly existed by the 8th century, as a minor fort and trading post on a Silk Road branch to the Caspian Sea and the Volga. In the early 16th century, Khiva was made capital of the Timurid Empire, becoming a busy slave market and pivot of the khanate for the next three centuries.

Khiva is an ancient walled city and looks much like it did in centuries past. It is one of the few sites in Central Asia where one can easily imagine life during the time of the emirates. We will spend the morning wandering its maze of ruins and great mosques. Our tour includes Ichan Kala (walled city), Kalta Minor Minaret, Kunya Ark (inner citadel), and Madrassa Rakhimkhon. Later we walk to see Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Makhmud, Islam Khodja Minaret and Museum, the medieval Friday Mosque, and Tashauli Palace and Harem. Your afternoon is free to further explore the walled city.

Overnight in Khiva.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 4 Khiva, Uzbekistan - Dashauz (Dashoguz), Turkmenistan - Ashgabat
Today we travel by road to the Turkmenistan border. We complete immigration and customs formalities and then proceed to the nearby Turkmen city of Dashauz (Dashoguz), where we will have the opportunity to have some lunch and visit the local bazaar, brimming with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and much, much more. Great photo opportunities abound here.

Later in the afternoon we will transfer to the airport and fly from Dashauz (Dashoguz) to Ashgabat (Ashkhabad).

Overnight in Ashgabat.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 5 Ashgabat: City Tour
Ashgabat is located in a spectacular natural setting, between the Kara-Kum Desert and the Kopet-Dag mountain range. A settlement on the site of the city was successively occupied by the Parthians, Seljuk Turks, and the Mongols. Under Russian control, it became the administrative capital of the Trans-Caspian oblast, and was the centre of trade between the Russian empire and Persia; the Trans-Caspian railway reached here in 1885. The transliteration of the town's name was changed in 1992 to more accurately reflect the Turkmen original.

Today we have a full day tour of Ashgabat, including a visit to the Russian Bazaar, a guided tour of the incredible collection at the Carpet Museum, the massive Spiritual Mosque of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan's first president, and an orientation tour of the capital's incredible architecture. We will also explore the ancient Parthian capital of Nissa, a short drive away from the city.

Overnight in Ashgabat.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 6 Ashgabat - Merv (Mary) - Turkmenabat
Early this morning we fly to the Silk Road city of Merv. Several cities have existed on this site, which is significant for the interchange of culture and politics at a site of major strategic value. It is claimed that Merv was briefly the largest city in the world in the 12th century. The site of ancient Merv has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Upon arrival at the airport, we will transfer to Mary to visit the Museum and then drive to the vast site of ancient Merv, visiting the ancient Hellenistic fortress of Gaiyur Kala, and the sites of Erk Kala and Sultan Kala. We shall also see the impressive mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, one of the most powerful Khorezmian rulers.

After our visit we continue by road to Turkmenabat for overnight.

Overnight in Turkmenabat.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 7 Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan - Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Today we travel by road and cross the border back into Uzbekistan and Bukhara,* former capital of the once powerful Emirate of Bukhara. En route we stop at the Chor Bakr necropolis.

With buildings spanning 1,000 years of history and a thoroughly lived-in city centre that hasn't changed much in two centuries, Bukhara is one of the best places in Central Asia to catch a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan. Most of the city centre is an architectural preserve and includes a massive royal fortress, plenty of former madrassas, a number of ancient public baths and the remnants of a once-vast market complex. You will have some free time this afternoon to wander and enjoy this atmospheric town.

* Please note: This tends to be a rather slow border crossing, and there is an awkwardly long stretch across "no-mans-land" between border posts. Sometimes we are able to arrange baggage handlers, or to send our Uzbek transport across to meet the group, but this permission is at the whim of the border guards and we cannot guarantee this.

Overnight in Bukhara.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 8 Bukhara: City Tour
We spend today exploring the old quarter of Bukhara on foot. The region around Bukhara has been inhabited for at least five millennia and the city itself has existed for half that time. Located on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. The historic center of Bukhara has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The highlights of today tour include Labi-hauz, a 17th century plaza built around a pool; three domed bazaars; the 12th century Kalan Minaret, once the tallest building in Asia; and the Mausoleum of Ismail Samani, the town's oldest structure (completed around AD 905) and surely one of the most elegant in Central Asia.

Overnight in Bukhara.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 9 Bukhara - Shakhrisabz - Samarkand
This morning we depart Bukhara and travel via Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa, the summer residence of the last Emir of Bukhara. The first structures in this picturesque area were built in the mid-19th century during the rule of Emir Nasrullakhan. In the 1880s, his successor Muzaffarkhan built a palace for his beloved wife Sitora-bonu. The most skillful Bukhara craftsmen were sent to Russia to learn the best practices of country residence construction. Soon after that they constructed a sumptuous set of rooms, including throne room, which had a peculiar mixture of European and Asian architectural styles.

We continue by bus to Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane. At Shakhrisabz, we visit where we tour Ak-Saray Palace, Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, House of Meditation and the Crypt of Timur, a man who changed the course of history and made so much of a difference to Central Asia.

This small town seems nothing special until you start seeing the ruins dotted around its backstreets. This is Timur's hometown, and once upon a time it probably eclipsed Samarkand. There's little left of Timur's Ak-Saray Palace except bits of the gigantic, 40 m (98 foot) high entrance covered with gorgeous filigree-like blue, white and gold mosaics, but it's staggering to try and imagine what the rest of this glorious summer palace must have looked like. We continue on our way to Samarkand. Our route is scenic and matches that taken by Tamerlane. Due to the nature of the road, we will accomplish this journey in smaller vehicles and meet our coach in Samarkand. Our route takes us over the Takhtakurcha Pass where we stop from impressive views over the stark terrain.

Our destination is Samarkand. No name is as evocative of the romance of the Silk Road as Samarkand. For most people it's as mythical as Atlantis or as remote and legendary as Timbuktu. Most of Samarkand's high-profile attractions are the work of Timur, his grandson Ulughbek and the Uzbek Shaybanids, who between them made the city Central Asia's economic, cultural and intellectual epicentre in the 14th and 15th centuries. Almost everything of interest is in old town, whose layout has remained unchanged since this period.

Overnight in Samarkand.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 10 Samarkand: City Tour
Samarkand, sometimes called the 'Rome of the Orient', was already flourishing when Rome and Babylon were founded. During the course of our full day tour we visit the Bibi Khanum Mosque, Mausoleum of Tamerlane, Observatory of Ulughbek, the site where Uleg Bek, grandson of Tamerlane, made some of the greatest achievements of the pre-telescope era of astronomy in the 15th century. We also visit the regal mausoleums of Shah-i Zinda, site of Central Asia's most sacred Islamic shrine; the massive mosque of Bibi Khanym, and the adjacent colourful market where you can purchase Samarkand's famous bread which Alexander the Great unsuccessfully tried to have duplicated back home in Greece, or try some of the region's local produce.

We also visit the museum on the site of the ancient Afrosiab archaeological site. The ancient core of Samarkand is located on the Afrasiab hill, named after the legendary Turanian king. The settlement arose in the 8th-early 7th centuries BC and occupied more than 200 hectares. River bluffs on the north and east and deep ravines in the south and west protected it. During the Achaemenids period, the city was encircled with a massive wall having an internal corridor and towers. Scholars identify Afrasiab with ancient Sogdian capital Marakanda, destroyed in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great.

Overnight in Samarkand.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 11 Samarkand: Registan Square & Free Time
We keep our sightseeing program to a relaxing visit to the Registan Square this morning. The impressive Registan ("Sandy Place" in the Tajik language) has been compared favourably to the Wonders of the World. Here three Madrassahs stand solemnly: the Ulug Bek Madrassah (built 1417 - 1420) to the west, the Tilya-Kori Madrassah (built 1646 - 1660), and the Sher-Dor Madrassah (built 1619 - 1636). Our sightseeing will take us through a careful exploration of the Madrassahs, now filled with various arts and crafts demonstrations, old photos of the monuments taken before the reconstruction by the Soviets and many varied handicrafts for sale. After our formal sightseeing visit, you are free for the rest of the day to further explore the Registan and other lane ways and alleys of Samarkand, the second largest city in Uzbekistan.

Overnight in Samarkand.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 12 Samarkand, Uzbekistan - Khujand, Tajikistan
We depart Samarkand by coach and transfer to the northern Uzbek-Tajik border connecting Tashkent with Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city and formerly known as Leninabad during the Soviet period. The famous Syr-Darya river runs through the centre of the city. After undergoing border formalities, we say goodbye to Uzbekistan and meet our small vehicles on the Tajik side to take us to the city, a scenic journey that takes in some of the foothills of the Pamir mountains.

Upon arrival in Khujand, we will visit the city's small but fascinating museum, stop at the bustling bazaar in the centre of town, and see Khujand's mosque.

Overnight in Khujand.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 13 Khujand - Dushanbe
After breakfast we drive to Dushanbe via the Shahriston Pass. Enroute we will briefly visit the historical site of Istravshan, one of the oldest cities in Tajikistan, having existed for more than 2500 years. This small town has one of the best-preserved old towns in Tajikistan, punctuated with some lovely traditional architecture. The settlement was conquered by Alexander the Great; we visit Mug Teppe, the site of an ancient fort that Alexander stormed. The gate was reconstructed in 2002 and not much of the original site is visible, but the views of the city and the surrounding mountains are fantastic
Today's journey is taken by small vehicles and is a spectacular drive through a section of the Pamirs Mountains. Snow-capped peaks, deep valleys and vast vistas greet us as we circumnavigate the road connecting the two largest cities in the country. We will make frequent photo stops to take in this inspiring journey.

Toward the end of the day we will arrive in Dushanbe. With a cool backdrop of mountains, lazy tree-lined avenues and pastel-hued neoclassical buildings, Dushanbe is Central Asia's best-looking capital. Although the name of the city is rather new, its historical past dated back as far as 3 thousand years. Archeologists have dug out the remains of Greek-Bactrian settlements, the site of ancient settlement from Kushan period (7th - 8th centuries), site of ancient Shishi Khon village and other medieval settlements. Since 1991 Dushanbe has been the capital of independent Tajikistan.

Overnight in Dushanbe.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 14 Dushanbe: City Tour
Today we include a tour of the Museum of Antiquities in Dushanbe. The huge reclining Buddha, the burial place of the Sarazm princess, Tajikistan antiques, ancient wall paintings from Penjikent, can all be found here. Later we visit the Museum of Applied Arts and the local bazaar. Dushanbe means "Monday" in Tajik, and the name reflects the fact that the city grew on the site of a village that originally was a popular Monday marketplace.

Our tour will also include visits to the Friday Mosque, the city's beautiful Botanical Gardens, and a walk through the Bag-i-Rudaki (Rudaki Gardens), featuring the towering statue to Tajik hero, Ismail Somoni.

Overnight in Dushanbe.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 15 Dushanbe, Tajikistan - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Today we fly to Almaty. Depending on our flight time, we may accomplish some Dushanbe sightseeing from yesterday, or add some additional content.

Overnight in Almaty.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 16 Almaty: City Tour
Today we have a full day tour of Almaty.

Compared to other cities in Central Asia, Almaty is quite young. It was founded in 1854 by Russians in the valley of Almaty and was just a fort at first. Its name was Zailisky, then it was named Verny. In 1921 it became Alma-Ata and in 1929 it became the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1993 it became Almaty.

We visit Zhenkov's Cathedral, built in 1904, and an extraordinary example of a Russian Orthodox church built in wood. Later we visit the Central State Museum with its excellent displays of Scythian art and some rock drawings depicting the ancient Nestorian pilgrim movement on the Great Silk Routes. A hall dedicated to the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan is the highlight of the ethnic section of the museum. We also drive up to the ice skating rink of Medeo, in the mountains to the south of Almaty for dramatic views.

Today lunch is included so you have the opportunity to have a free night to explore theatre options, treat yourself to some of the fine international restaurant options, or to simply take a breather from our busy itinerary.

Overnight in Almaty.
Meal plan: breakfast,lunch

Day 17 Almaty, Kazakhstan - Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
Today we travel by road across the border to Bishkek in the Kyrgyz Republic and embark on a city tour on arrival.

Originally, Bishkek was called Pishpek. In 1926 Pishpek became the capital of the Kyrghiz Autonomous Republic. In 1936, as the capital of the Kyrghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, Pishpek was renamed Frunze in honour of a major political organizer of the Civil War who was born in Pishpek to a Moldavian family. Today Bishkek is a modern city with vast squares, crowded bazaars, impressive administrative centers, and educational institutions.

Our tour includes Oak Park, Central Square, Statue of Manas, and Victory Square. We will also visit the National Historical Museum. At the northern end of Bishkek's central square, this enormous example of socialist realist architecture was once the Lenin Museum, entirely devoted to the man himself. After independence, two of its three floors were cleared to make way for exhibits that reflected Kyrgyzstan's new status as an independent state. Luckily for visitors one floor has been preserved, along with a huge centrepiece statue of Lenin leading the revolutionary masses.

Overnight in Bishkek.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 18 Bishkek - Lake Issyk-Kul
Today's scenic drive takes us along the shores of scenic Lake Issyk-Kul (1607 meters / 5,272 ft), the tenth largest lake in the world by volume and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Although it is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it never freezes; hence its name, which means "warm lake" in the Kyrgyz language. At some point during our stay in the are we will enjoy a (weather-permitting) boat trip on the lake.

In and around the town of Cholpon-Ata, on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, we will have the opportunity to view the Petroglyphs located above the town. Most of these etchings are from the time of the Saka-Usun peoples who lived in the area before the arrival of the Kyrgyz. These carvings are between 2800 and 1900 years old. Many of the carvings depict animals such as wolves and deer, and include the hunters that pursued them. We will also visit a small regional museum that feature many artifacts from the region and ethnological displays.

Overnight at Lake Issyk-Kul.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 19 Lake Issyk-Kul - Bishkek
We depart for our drive back to Bishkek along the same road that we took to get to the lake. On the way back to Bishkek, we will stop and visit the Burana Tower, located at the mouth of the Shamsy Valley. An eleventh century monument, restored by the Soviets in the 1950's, you may choose to climb the minaret to get a view over the old city walls of Balasagun, a fortification built by the Sogdians.

We will complete any sightseeing still to do in Bishkek before enjoying our farewell dinner.

Overnight in Bishkek.
Meal plan: breakfast,dinner

Day 20 Departure
Departure from Bishkek.

Meal plan: breakfast