The Silk Road: Empires of Central Asia
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - Depart Home
Depart home on international flights to Ashkabad, Turkmenistan.
Thursday, September 12 - Ashkabad, Turkmenistan
Arrive in Ashkabad. Most flights arrive late tonight or very early tomorrow morning. Transfer to a five-star hotel in the city center. Overnight at Sofitel Ashkabad for two nights.
Friday, September 13 - Ashkabad
Take a morning city tour of Ashkabad. In spite of its location on a trade route, Ashkabad never achieved the status and influence of other Silk Road cities like Khiva or Bukhara. Originally known as Konjikala, the city was destroyed by Mongols in the 13th century, the Russians built a fortress on the site in the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century Ashkabad was a prosperous, flourishing city. The city was leveled by a massive earthquake in 1948, but recently it has seen a boom in new construction.
Visit the National Museum of History and Ethnography, with its superb collection of carved ivory drinking horns from Nisa; and the Museum of Carpets and Textiles, with its priceless handmade Turkmen carpets. After lunch at a local restaurant, visit the Lenin Monument, new mosque, and Turkmen-Turkish Cultural and Spiritual Center. Gather this evening for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant with a musical performance. (B,L,D)
Saturday, September 14 - Ashkabad | Mary | Merv | Mary
Spend the morning at the Altyn Asyr Oriental Market, one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia, located about an hour’s drive from Ashkabad’s city center. After lunch at a local restaurant, transfer to the airport for a short flight to Mary and an excursion to the fertile oasis of Merv. Formed from the rich silt at the mouth of the Murghab River where it soaks into the Kara Kum Desert, the oasis was an early Bronze Age center and the earliest of the five ancient cities at Merv is attributed to Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. Merv was the center of several succeeding civilizations, and became an important way station on the Great Silk Road between the 2nd and 13th centuries, when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols. The ruins of Merv were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 because of the wealth of ongoing information they offer regarding the evolution of urban centers. We will have dinner and overnight in Mary. Overnight at Hotel Margush for two nights. (B,L,D)
Sunday, September 15 - Mary | Gonur-Depe | Mary
Set out this morning in 4x4 vehicles for a day trip to Gonur-Depe, capital of the ancient Margush state. Get acquainted with the palace, the Zoroastrian temple, temenos, and necropolis, and learn about the 5,000-year history of the Margush civilization. Return to Mary this evening, in time for dinner. (B,L,D)
Monday, September 16 - Mary | Ashkabad | Nisa | Ashkabad
After an early breakfast at the hotel, take a morning flight back to Ashkabad. This afternoon, visit the archaeological site of ancient Nisa. The beautiful Kopet-Dag Mountains rise up around Nisa, a site 15 miles outside of Ashkabad that was once a major center of the ancient Parthian Kingdom. Though Nisa was ruled by a succession of dynasties, it remained an important center in the ancient world until the 13th century, when the Mongols sacked it. Today, archaeological work continues at Nisa, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. Return to Ashkabad for an early dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight at Sofitel Ashkabad. (B,L,D)
Tuesday, September 17 - Ashkabad | Tashauz | Kunya Urgench | Izmukshir | Khiva, Uzbekistan
This morning we fly to Tashauz, in the northern part of Turkmenistan, and then drive to Kunya Urgench to visit the site of the ancient capital of Khorezm, which was razed by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. About half a mile south of the town lie the remains of the UNESCO-listed old city, including the 11th-century Kutlug-Timur Minaret, which was for many years the tallest in Central Asia. Also admire the domed hall of the Turabek Khanym Mausoleum, built for the daughter of one of the leaders of the Golden Horde. En route to Khiva, stop to explore the site of Izmukshir. The wall of the 3rd century Izmukshir Fortress was originally 5,000 feet long and fronted by a moat. Transfer to the Turkmen-Uzbek border and continue on to Khiva for dinner. Overnight at the Hotel Asia Khiva for three nights. (B,L,D)
Wednesday, September 18 - Khiva
Legend says that the ancient Silk Road oasis of Khiva was founded at the place where Shem, son of Noah, discovered water in the desert, and that the city got its name from Shem’s joyful shout, “Hey va!” at the discovery. Today the living city is part museum town, part re-creation of life hundreds of years ago. We spend the day exploring Khiva on foot. Highlights include the Tash Hauli Palace, once the home of the khan and his four legal wives; and the 9th century Dzhuma Mosque, with an unusual wood ceiling and 115 carved wood columns. The Khans had several residences, but the Kunya Ark (Old Fortress) dates back to the 5th century as the original residence. The view from its watchtower encompasses a variety of architectural masterpieces. Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant on the edge of the old town. The afternoon is at leisure, and we will have dinner together at the hotel. (B,L,D)
Thursday, September 19 - Khiva | Nukus | Khiva
Set out this morning for a day trip to the small city of Nukus, in western Uzbekistan, the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. It is home to the Karakalpaks, a Turkic people more closely related to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks. A modern city, Nukus is at the center of an area crisscrossed by old caravan routes and dotted with ancient ruins. Explore the wonderful Savitsky Art Museum. This remote desert museum houses the incredible life’s work of its founder, Igor Savitsky, who was able to amass a collection of thousands of banned avant-garde Russian art pieces without interference from Moscow and keep it hidden from the watchful eyes of the KGB. The story of this collection has been told in the award-winning documentary, “Desert of Forbidden Art.” The collection is the second-largest gathering of Russian avant-garde art after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. An exclusive private tour includes an opportunity to go inside the archives to view paintings not on public display and learn about the restoration efforts of this unique collection. Included in the museum are exhibits about the culture of the Karakalpaks as expressed in clothing, jewelry and decorative arts. (B,L)
Friday, September 20 - Khiva | Bukhara
Today’s drive to Bukhara traverses long stretches of the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sands) Desert, the same route taken by Silk Road camel caravans and once plagued by brigands who plundered their riches. Today, observe dunes, saxaul bushes, and the distant mountains. Stop en route to view the Amu Darya River, which loosely parallels the Uzbek-Turkmen border. Arrive in Bukhara in time for dinner and overnight. Overnight at Sasha & Son B&B for three nights. (B,L,D)
Saturday, September 21 - Bukhara
Spend the day exploring the old town of Bukhara, Central Asia’s most ancient living city, an excellent place to explore on foot. Begin at Lyabi-Hauz Plaza, at the center of the old town, and visit the nearby 16th century Kukeldash Madrassah, the largest Koranic school in Central Asia. Stroll through the capmaker and spice bazaars and past street-level mosques and madrassahs before moving on to the Kalon Mosque and Minaret. This 12th century Kalon assembly and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah surround an open plaza teeming with merchants and local vendors. Near the Kalon Mosque is the Ark Citadel, the original fortress of Bukhara, likely dating back two thousand years or more. The current structure has been built and rebuilt on the same site throughout its history. Like the medieval castle complexes of Europe, the Bukhara Ark served the Emirs of Bukhara as a residence, audience hall, trade center, police station, and protection from neighboring enemies. Also visit the Ismael Samani Mausoleum, the 10th century resting place of the founder of the Persian Samanid Dynasty, which was buried under shifting desert sands and not re-discovered until the 20th century. During today’s tour, we will also meet with a local Bukharan architect who will provide us with an interesting look into the current state of historical architecture renovation in Bukhara. Dinner and overnight at our hotel. (B,L,D)
Sunday, September 22 - Bukhara | Paikent | Bukhara
This morning we visit the Summer Palace of the last Emir and its Museum of National Crafts. Called “the Palace of Moon and Stars,” the Summer Palace is something of a showpiece, as it was designed to keep the emir in luxury but removed from the city, in isolation and political impotence. In the afternoon, continue to the Bukhara Oasis and the dig site of the ancient city of Paikent, whose 15-foot-thick fortress walls date back to the 9th century B.C. Conquering Arabs destroyed Paikent in 706 B.C. Tour the small site museum with one of the archaeologists working at the site. This evening, attend a costume show in the teahouse of a local madrassah with a traditional dinner afterward. (B,L,D)
Monday, September 23 - Bukhara | Shakrisabze | Samarkand
Depart this morning for Shakrisabze, the birthplace of Tamerlane, where we see the ruins of the 14th century Ak Saray (White Palace), one of Tamerlane’s most expansive undertakings. While much of the city is undergoing restoration, we get a taste of the local flavor and perhaps visit the traditional market. Continue on to Samarkand, where we have dinner at a local family’s private home. Overnight at the Registan Plaza Hotel for two nights. (B,L,D)
Tuesday, September 24 - Samarkand
Set out this morning to explore perhaps the most well known of Silk Road towns: Samarkand, a fabled oasis on the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, which has been settled since the 6th century B.C. Tamerlane made it his capital city and gathered the finest architects, builders, and artisans of the time to enhance its beauty. Modern Samarkand is built on the ruins of ancient Afrosiab. We visit the Registan, Samarkand’s centerpiece and most recognizable landmark, where three emblematic madrassahs (Ulug Bek, Tillya-Kori, and Shir Dor) frame the square. In its reconstruction, the square maintains the majesty that it radiated through the ages. Not far away is the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, the final resting place of Tamerlane. It was originally built for his grandson, after the latter’s death at the turn of the 15th century. This evening we attend a performance by a local dance troupe. (B,L,D)
Wednesday, September 25 - Samarkand | Tashkent
Continue exploring Samarkand this morning, beginning with a visit to the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built by Tamerlane to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world and dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife. Architects from India and Persia were brought in to build the mosque, and 95 elephants were used to transport the marble and other building materials from India. Wander the row of tombs and mausoleums collectively called Shah-I-Zinda, or “place of a living king,” stretching from modern Samarkand to the dusty slopes at the edge of ancient Afrosiab. Pay a visit to the remains of Ulug Bek’s Observatory, constructed by Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulug Bek. The astronomer-king was fascinated by the stars and the cosmos and built one of the most advanced observatories of the ancient world. Other highlights of our day include visits to a local bazaar and the Afrosiab History Museum, whose collection includes pottery and tile found among the excavated walls of Afrosiab. In the mid-afternoon we drive to Tashkent, arriving in time for dinner. Overnight at the International Hotel for two nights. (B,L,D)
Thursday, September 26 - Tashkent
Spend the day exploring Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city. In the 2nd century B.C. the town was known as Ming Uryuk. A major caravan crossroads, it was taken by the Arabs in 751 and by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Russian Empire arrived in 1865, and Uzbekistan was not an autonomous country again until 1991. Much of the city’s architectural history was lost in a huge earthquake in 1966, and the city today is a jumble of wide, tree-lined boulevards, 20th century Soviet buildings, and reconstructed traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques, and madrassahs.
Today’s tour begins with the Square of Independence and continues on to the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theater, which was built in 1947 by Japanese prisoners of war and typically offers Uzbek music/dance performances and international operas and ballets. Next, visit the 16th century Kukeldash Madrassah, located on a hill above Chorsu Plaza, part of an ensemble that marked the center of the old town. Visit the private art studio of a sixth-generation Uzbek ceramicist, whose family has been making pottery since the 1790s. Conclude our city tour with visits to the Palace of People’s Friendship, the Kaffal-Shashi Mausoleum and, time permitting, the Tashkent Museum of Applied Arts. This evening, toast the end of our journey with a festive farewell dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)
Friday, September 27 - Tashkent | Home OR Tashkent | Tehran, Iran
Take an early morning transfer to the airport for flights homeward, or (for those who are continuing on the Iran post-tour extension) transfer to the airport for our flight to Tehran.
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