AIA Tours: land

The Silk Road: Empires of Central Asia

Tour Dates: May 21-June 6, 2021 (17 days)

Tour Leader(s): Aleksandr Naymark ,

Retrace the fabled Silk Road through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with archaeologist Aleksandr Naymark, following in the footsteps of silk traders who left China as early as 200 B.C. in great camel caravans for the 5,000-mile trek to the Mediterranean. This was also the road of Alexander the Great and Marco Polo, extending across vast deserts, mountains, and plains. Visit eight UNESCO World Heritage sites: Turkmenistan’s Merv, Nisa, and Kunya Urgench; and Uzbekistan’s old Khiva (Itchan Kala), Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm (Ellik Kala), Bukhara, Shahrisabz, and Samarkand. Explore the archaeological sites of Anau, inhabited from the Neolithic through medieval periods; the ancient Zoroastrian center of Gonur-Depe; and Paikent, whose fortress walls date back to the 9th century B.C. Discover fascinating museum collections, stroll through old town shops and bazaars, enjoy performances of traditional music and dance, and admire stunning religious monuments and artifacts, such as the partially-preserved Uthman Koran (written on deerskin in the 7th century), considered by Sunni Muslims to be the world’s oldest Koran. Minimum of just 12 guests.

Double Occupancy (10-12 participants) $7,945
Double Occupancy (7-9 participants) $8,445
Single Supplement (limited availability) $945

Single room supplement will be charged when requested or required. With fewer than 7 participants, a small group surcharge may be added.

Gonur-Depe, Turkmenistan © Vilhelm Rothe

Kaftar Khana (Pigeon House) at Merv. © Peretz Partensky

Kipchak Mosque © Jered Gorman

Ulug Bek’s Observatory, Samarkand, Uzbekistan © Igor Pingin

The city walls of Bukhara. © Operator

Samarkand © Jered Gorman

The remains of the fortress at Nisa © Bjorn Christian Torrissen


Friday, May 21, 2021: Depart Home
Saturday, May 22: Ashgabat, TURKMENISTAN
Sunday, May 23:Ashgabat: AM at leisure | PM city tour | Welcome dinner
Monday, May 24: Nisa | Anau | Fly to Mary
Tuesday, May 25: Gonur-Depe | Mary
Wednesday, May 26: Merv | Mary | Fly to Ashgabat
Thursday, May 27: – Fly to Tashauz | Kunya Urgench | Khiva, UZBEKISTAN
Friday, May 28: Khiva walking tour
Saturday, May 29: Ellik Kala | Khiva
Sunday, May 30: Drive to Bukhara
Monday, May 31: Bukhara walking tour
Tuesday, June 1: Paikent | Bukhara
Wednesday, June 2: Shahrisabz | Samarkand
Thursday, June 3: Samarkand walking tour​​​​​​​
Friday, June 4: Samarkand: Institute of Archaeology & Afrosiab History Musuem | Drive to Tashkent
Saturday, June 5: Tashkent city tour | PM at leisure | Farewell dinner​​​
Sunday, June 6: Tashkent | Fly home

View Detailed Itinerary

B= Breakfast • L= Lunch • D= Dinner

Friday, May 21, 2021 – Depart home
Depart home on independent flights to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

Saturday, May 22 – Ashgabat, TURKMENISTAN
Arrive at Ashgabat International Airport (ASB) late this evening where you will be met and transferred to our elegant hotel in the heart of the city. Overnight at the Oguzkent Hotel (or similar) for two nights.

Sunday, May 23 – Ashgabat: AM at leisure, PM city tour | Welcome dinner
Enjoy a leisurely morning to rest and adjust to the time difference. Gather in the early afternoon for an introductory lecture followed by a city tour of Ashgabat. In spite of its location on a trade route, Ashgabat 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 Ashgabat was a prosperous, flourishing city. The city was leveled by an earthquake in 1948, but recently has seen a boom in new construction. Our exploration of the city includes a visit to the National Museum of History and Ethnography, featuring exhibits of ancient artifacts, weapons, carpets, jewelry, and the country’s flora and fauna. This evening gather for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant, featuring a musical performance. (B,D)

Monday, May 24 – Nisa | Anau | Fly to Mary
This morning, visit the site of the ancient Parthian Kingdom of Nisa, 15 miles outside of Ashgabat. Though Nisa was ruled by a succession of dynasties in the past two thousand years, 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. On the way back to Ashgabat, see the Kipchak Mosque, a $100-million-dollar mosque that accommodates 10,000 people and is capped by a golden dome. Continue to the ruins of Anau, a site that was occupied from the Neolithic (ca. 4500 B.C.) to the medieval period (marked by the ruins of a 15th-century mosque), and where a Bronze Age town (2300 B.C.) was recently discovered. Catch a short evening flight from Ashgabat to Mary. Check-in to our hotel in Mary’s center and gather for dinner this evening. Overnight at the Mary Hotel for two nights. (B,L,D)

Tuesday, May 25 – Gonur-Depe | Mary
Today, make a full-day trip in 4×4 vehicles to the ancient town of Gonur-Depe, which was uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the mid-20th century and is still undergoing excavation. Bronze Age ruins include strong fortress walls, and later occupation by Zoroastrians left behind a palace, a fire temple, and a necropolis. Return to Mary and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)

Wednesday, May 26 – Merv | Mary | Fly to Ashgabat
After an early breakfast at the hotel, take a morning 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 (Black Sands) Desert, the oasis was an early Bronze Age center. 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. Afterwards, visit the Museum of History and Ethnography, housed in a 19th-century merchant’s house, with displays of artifacts from Merv and Gonur-Depe as well as from other Turkmen archaeological sites. Take an afternoon flight back to Ashgabat and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant. Overnight at the Oguzkent Hotel (or similar). (B,L,D)

Thursday, May 27 – Fly to Tashauz | Kunya Urgench | Khiva, UZBEKISTAN
Transfer to the airport for a morning flight to Tashauz, in northern Turkmenistan. 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. Continue on to the ancient Silk Road oasis of Khiva, crossing en route the Turkmen-Uzbek border, where we will change motor coach and driver. (Be prepared for lengthy administrative procedures at the border.) Arriving in Khiva, we check-in to our hotel and have dinner. Overnight at the Hotel Asia Khiva for three nights. (B,L,D)

Friday, May 28 – Khiva walking tour
Spend the day exploring Khiva on foot. Today the living city is part museum town, part re-creation of life hundreds of years ago. Khiva’s Old Town (Itchan Kala), a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been extensively preserved and restored, and highlights of our walking tour include Tash Hauli Palace, once the home of the khan and his four legal wives; the 9th-century Juma (Friday) Mosque, with an unusual wooden ceiling and 115 carved wood columns; and the Kunya Ark (Old Fortress), originally built in the 12th century as the khan’s fortress and residence. The evening is at leisure, and our local guide will offer suggestions for dinner. (B,L)

Saturday, May 29 –  Ellik Kala | Khiva
Set out today on a survey of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm. Drive into the desert surrounding Khiva to visit some of these ancient citadels in the region called Ellik Kala (Fifty Citadels). This chain of adobe fortresses guarded palaces, homes, warehouses, and sanctuaries dating from 2,000 years ago through medieval times. Return to Khiva where the balance of the day is at leisure. (B,L)

Sunday, May 30 – Drive to Bukhara
Depart this morning for Bukhara, driving (approximately six hours) across long stretches of the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sands) Desert, once crossed by Silk Road camel caravans and comprised of dunes and saxaul bushes. Stop en route to view the Amu Darya River, which loosely parallels the Uzbek-Turkmen border, and have a boxed lunch. Arrive in Bukhara and check-in to our hotel, located in the old town. This evening we gather and walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Overnight at the Devon Hotel for three nights. (B,L,D)

Monday, May 31 – Bukhara walking tour
Spend the day exploring the old town of Bukhara: a UNESCO World Heritage site, Central Asia’s most ancient living city, and an excellent place to explore on foot. Begin at Labi-Hauz Plaza, at the center of the old town, and visit the nearby 16th-century Kukeldash Madrassah, the largest Koranic school in Central Asia. Continue on to Poi Kalon, also known as the Bukhara Forum, whose 12th-century assembly includes the Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah, surrounding 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. Also visit the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, the 10th-century resting place of the founder of the Samanid Dynasty, which was buried under shifting desert sands and not re-discovered until the 20th century. Dinner tonight will be at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)

Tuesday, June 1 – Paikent | Bukhara
This morning we visit the Bukhara Oasis and site of the ancient city of Paikent (Poykent), 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 museum with one of the archaeologists working at the site (schedule permitting). Afterwards, drive a short distance outside of the city to visit the Summer Palace of the last Emir of Bukhara. Called “the Palace of Moon and Stars,” the Summer Palace is something of a showpiece, as it was a refuge for emirs from the city. Explore its Museum of National Crafts and admire the vivid suzani, or embroidered coverlets, for which Uzbekistan is known. Return to central Bukhara for lunch at a local restaurant and some time at leisure. This evening, attend a costume show in the teahouse of a local madrassah, with a traditional dinner afterward. (B,L,D)

Wednesday, June 2 –  Shahrisabz | Samarkand
Depart Bukhara this morning and drive to Samarkand, stopping along the way in Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane. In Shahrisabz we have lunch and see the ruins of the 14th-century Aq Saray (White Palace), one of Tamerlane’s most ambitious projects and today a UNESCO World Heritage site; Dorut Siadat (“Seat of Might and Power”), built by Ulug Bek as a mausoleum for his favorite son; and Kok Gumbaz (“Blue Dome”), a 15th-century mosque that was recently restored for the city’s 2,700th anniversary. Continue on to Samarkand and visit the Afghan-Uzbek Silk Carpet Factory, where we learn about the process of dying and weaving the carpets. This evening, check-in to our hotel and get settled before gathering for dinner. Overnight at the Hotel DiliMah Premium Luxury for two nights. (B,L,D)

Thursday, June 3 – Samarkand walking tour
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 Registan Square, 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. Wander the row of tombs and mausoleums collectively called Shah-i-Zinda (“place of a living king”) stretching from modern Samarkand to the dusty slopes at the edge of what was ancient Afrosiab. Pay a visit to the remains of Ulug Bek’s Observatory, one of the most advanced observatories of the ancient world; and stop at the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world. This evening we attend a performance by a local dance troupe before dining at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)

Friday, June 4 – Samarkand: Institute of Archaeology & Afrosiab History Museum | Drive to Tashkent
Check out of our hotel this morning and pay a visit to the Institute of Archaeology to meet with a local archaeologist (schedule permitting). Afterwards, drive just outside of the city to the Afrosiab History Museum, located on the site of ancient Afrosiab where excavations began under Russian rule in the 19th century (and still take place today). The Museum’s collection includes pottery and tile found among the excavated walls of the ancient city. Drive to Tashkent, arriving in time for dinner. Overnight at the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace for two nights. (B,L,D)

Saturday, June 5 – Tashkent: City tour | Farewell dinner
Spend the morning exploring highlights of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city. A major caravan crossroads, it was taken by the Arabs in A.D. 751 and by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Today, it is a mixture of wide, tree-lined boulevards, 20th-century Soviet buildings, and traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques, and madrassahs. Start at the Museum of the History of the People of Uzbekistan, founded in 1876, which features an archaeological exhibit containing fragments of mural paintings from the Afrosiab settlement and stone sculptures from the Fergana Valley. Drive past Independence Square on the way to Old Town Tashkent. Stroll through a labyrinth of 19th-century mud-walled houses to Hast Imam Square, where can be found some of the city’s oldest monuments, including the 16th-century Qaffal Shashi Mausoleum and Baraq-Khan Madrassah, plus the early 20th-century Tilla Sheikh Mosque, which houses the Uthman Koran, considered by Sunni Muslims to be the world’s oldest Koran. Continue on to the 16th-century Kukeldash Madrassah, part of an ensemble that marked the center of the old town. After lunch enjoy some time at leisure before gathering for a festive farewell dinner at a local restaurant. (B,L,D)

Sunday, June 6 – Tashkent | Fly home
Take an early morning transfer to Tashkent International Airport (TAS) for flights homeward. (B)


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