Silk Road Explorer

Some of the most evocative countries on the planet are found along the Silk Road. Redolent of the romance of traders from the east, lost cities and forgotten empires these countries meet at a crossroads in the heart of Asia. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are home to a fascinating mix of influences from the various cultures that have flourished here. As well as some stunning architecture, still largely ignored by western visitors, you won’t find crowds of other people here.

From the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, we visit the ancient fort of Gissar and then head into the stunning but little visited Fann Mountains, staying overnight at Lake Iskander Kul. Heading north from here we stop in the cities of Khojand and Istaravshan, before crossing the border into Uzbekistan.

After exploring Tashkent we head to the fabled city of Samarkand, one of the most important cities of the Silk Road. Here we take in the stunning Registan Square as well as other impressive sites. We then continue to Bukhara, perhaps the most elegant city in Central Asia and with a well-preserved historic centre that amazes at every turn.

Moving westwards we stay in a desert camp. From here we explore ruined fortresses before reaching the walled desert city of Khiva, an open-air museum that seems to have changed little since the time it was a feared regional power hundreds of years ago.

Bidding farewell to Uzbekistan we head into the little known country of Turkmenistan. Here we explore the ancient ruins of Merv, the strikingly unusual capital Ashgabat, and the mausoleums of Konye-Urgench, as well as staying overnight at one of Central Asia’s most bizarre sights – the flaming gas crater of Darwaza. The splendours of the Silk Road await.

Silk Road Explorer itinerary image

Highlights

  • The Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan
  • Camp at the burning Darwaza crater
  • Stay in Tajikistan’s Fann Mountains
  • Explore local bazaars
  • See the bizarre monuments of Ashgabat

Day 1 - Dushanbe

Arrive in Dushanbe. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore the city. Overnight Hotel Lotus or similar.


Day 2 - Gissar – Dushanbe

Exploration of Dushanbe. Visit the Museum of Antiquities, a great introduction to the diverse and complex cultures which once held sway in the region. Later we visit the town of Gissar, known for its fortress and interesting madrassahs dating back to the 16th century. Overnight Hotel Lotus or similar. (BL)

Gissar

West of Dushanbe lies the small town of Gissar, known mainly for its fortress. Although only a rather imposing gate remains, and this much restored, it gives a good impression of what this region must have been like several centuries ago. Due to its strategic location, the town was much fought over and the fortress was destroyed by the Red Army when it was a base for the Basmachi resistance. Today its steps are a popular place for local newlyweds to come for photos. Opposite lie two madrassahs dating back to the 16th century, one of which houses a small museum.

Dushanbe

The relatively modern town of Dushanbe only became important during the Soviet era, when it was made the capital of the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and given the unfortunate name of Stalinabad – something that was quickly changed after Stalin’s death. Its name means ‘Monday’ in the Tajik language, arising from the fact that this was the day that the market was held when Dushanbe was still a small village.

The ousted Emir of Bukhara, fleeing from the Bolsheviks, stayed in Dushanbe and cooperated with Enver Pasha’s Basmachis in resistance against the Russians; from Dushanbe, he fled to Afghanistan in 1921, the year the town was freed from the Basmachis as well. Dushanbe is characterised by wide boulevards and Soviet style architecture, although in recent years much construction has taken place and the city is starting to modernise. Not to be missed is the excellent Museum of National Antiquities, which holds a wide array of archaeological finds from the region, the most impressive of which is the 13-metre-long sleeping Buddha which was excavated in 1966.

Day 3 - Iskander Kul

Drive into the Fann Mountains and the picturesque lake of Iskander Kul, surrounded by imposing peaks and a bright turquoise in colour. We explore the lake and its surrounds, walking to an impressive waterfall. Overnight tourist cottages. (BLD)

Please note that the accommodation here is simple, as this is a remote area with few options.

Day 4 - Istaravshan – Khojand

Drive over the Shakhristan Pass to the town of Istaravshan. We visit the craftsmens’ quarter with the blacksmiths’ workshops, then visit the fortress and blue domed Kok Gumbaz mosque, more reminiscent of Uzbekistan. From here continue to Khodjand, founded by Alexander the Great, where we visit the madrassah complex of Sheikh Muslihiddin and the Panjshanbe bazaar. Overnight Hotel Sugd or similar. (BLD)

Istaravshan

Close to the border with Uzbekistan, Istaravshan seems to belong more to its neighbour in a cultural sense than it does to Tajikistan. Its old town, hidden well behind the main street, is a maze of alleys that lead you to pretty mosques and mausoleums, the best being the Kok Gumbaz, somewhat reminiscent of Bukhara. Overlooking the town are the remains of an old fortress – the reconstructed gateway gives you an idea of how the town once was.

Khojand

Khojand’s main sites are clustered around the centre with the mausoleum and madrassah of Sheikh Muslihiddin on one side of a square, facing the large covered Panjshanbe bazaar on the other. The bazaar is well worth exploring with friendly stallholders sitting behind vast piles of watermelons, nuts or dried apricots, happy to let you try before you buy. Not far away is Khojand Fort, originally built in the 13th century but now renovated to house a museum dedicated to the diverse history of the region.

Day 5 - Tashkent

Drive to the border and cross into Uzbekistan, continuing to the capital Tashkent. This afternoon explore the historic sites of the city including the Kukeldash madrassah, Khast Imam square – the heart of old Tashkent – and the Chorsu Bazaar. Overnight Shodlik Palace Hotel or similar. (B)

Tashkent

Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia, and was the fourth largest in the Soviet Union when it existed. The city has always been an important trading centre in the region, having established links with Russia centuries ago and being a key point on the Silk Road of old. It still retains its Silk Road Heritage in places, most noticeably in the old quarter, dominated by the striking Khast Imam complex, a collection of madrassahs, mosques and mausoleums, which date back to the fifteenth century.

Tashkent never quite attained the legendary status of other cities such as Khiva or Samarkand and was very much seen as a vassal of the Emirs of either Bukhara or Khokand, until it was seized by Russian forces in the 19th century and used as a springboard for their continuing conquest of the region. Tashkent became the capital of Russian Turkestan and this legacy means that it is perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the former Soviet Union, with large Russian and Korean communities there today.

Tashkent changed forever in the 1960s when it was struck by an enormous earthquake which flattened most of the city and killed 300,000, and today it is a mixture of the ancient and modern, with civic monuments and large public squares jostling for space with winding streets and centuries old mosques.

Day 6 - Samarkand

Drive to the spectacular city of Samarkand, arriving in the afternoon. Upon arrival visit the museum to gain an understanding of the history of the region. Overnight Malika Hotel or similar. (B)


Day 7 - Samarkand

A full day exploring the marvellous sites of Samarkand, one of the most incredible Silk Road cities and with a wealth of monuments to explore. We visit the enormous Bibi Khanum Mosque, built by the wife of the Mongol ruler Timur, as well as the stunning Registan Square, one of Central Asia’s most iconic sites.

We also visit the Shah-i Zinda complex of mausoleums, a stunning collection of buildings dating back to the 14th century that rivals the Registan for splendour, and also the observatory of Ulug Beg. Overnight Malika Hotel or similar. (B)

Samarkand

Immortalised in poetry, the city of Samarkand was founded in the 8th century BC by the Persians and stands with Khiva and Bukhara as one of the most glorious of all the Silk Road cities. Samarkand has had a turbulent history, which has left its mark and has been controlled at various times by Arabs, Sogdians and the armies of Alexander the Great. But it was the notorious Mongol leader who left his greatest mark.

Blessed with a wealth of ancient monuments, its most impressive is the collection of mosques and madrassahs around the Registan Square, surely the best example of Islamic architecture to be found anywhere. Elsewhere in the city, the observatory of the astronomer and ruler Ulug Beg is well worth a visit, and the wealth of buildings offer superb opportunities to marvel at the intricacies of Islamic art. Samarkand leaves a lasting impression on all who visit.

Days 8-9 - Bukhara

Drive to Bukhara. Bukhara is awash with breathtaking monuments and its historic centre is exceptionally well preserved, making a visit here is like stepping back in time to the days when the Silk Road trade was at its height.

We spend our time exploring this enchanting city and visiting its most important sites, including the Kalon Minaret, the Lyabi Hauz ensemble, the bazaars, the Ismail Somoni Mausoleum and one of our personal favourites, the Chor Minor mosque with its four blue domed minarets. And of course, no visit to Bukhara would be complete without visiting the Ark, the vast fortress that was home to the Emirs for over a millennium. Bukhara is a spectacular city and we have enough time to enjoy its many delights without feeling rushed. Overnight Caravan Hotel or similar. (B)

Bukhara

Bukhara is one of the true gems of Central Asia, with a superbly preserved old city which transports you back at least a couple of centuries. Bukhara was one of the most powerful of the Central Asian khanates and is considered to be the holiest city in Central Asia, with origins stretching back as far as the time when Alexander the Great and his armies passed through the region.

Bukhara’s sights are varied but one of the most interesting is the citadel known as the Ark – the residence of the emir, this sturdy construction towers high above the Registan square below, the site of execution for criminals including two unfortunate British officers who were sent here in the 19th century in an effort to bring Bukhara under the British, rather than Russian, sphere of influence. Wherever you walk through old Bukhara, you are continually confronted with grandiose mausoleums, towering minarets and charming old merchants’ houses – the city is a living museum and one cannot fail to fall in love with its charms.

Day 10 - Desert Castles – Desert camp

Visit Toprak Kala and Ayaz Kala, the remains of two desert citadels that date back more than two thousand years. We then head to our yurt camp in the desert, with the opportunity of riding camels. (B)

Please note that the accommodation here is simple, as this is a remote area with few options.

Day 11 - Khiva

Drive to Khiva. Enclosed by mud brick walls, the old part of Khiva, known as the Ichon Qala, has been virtually unchanged for centuries and is an open-air museum packed full of intricately decorated minarets, mosques and madrassahs.

We spend the day walking its narrow alleys and uncovering the best of its highlights including the Kalta Minor minaret, the Islam Khodja madrassah and the ark, where the khans of Khiva once lived. Overnight Malika Khiva or similar. (B)

Khiva

Khiva is a fairytale city springing out of the desert, with a multitude of well-preserved monuments stretching back centuries that have you gasping in wonder at every turn. Once an independent khanate its power was built on the slave trade, and for centuries raiders would set out from here to capture the inhabitants of towns on the very edges of imperial Russia.

Its historic centre, the Ichon Kala, is bounded by robust mud walls giving it the effect of a fortress, while inside it contains some of the very best of Uzbekistan’s sights. Graceful minarets stretch into the sky while mosques and mausoleums capped with turquoise domes and intricate tilework give the visitor a sense of the past glories of a once great city.

One of its most stunning monuments is the Kalta minaret, intended to be the highest in the Islamic world but left unfinished when its patron died. For a great view over the city, climb the winding staircase to the top of the Islam Khodja minaret to look down on a city that has changed little in centuries. It is hard to oversell the visual impact of Khiva, and no-one comes away disappointed.

Day 12 - Konye-Urgench – Dashoguz

Cross into Turkmenistan and drive to Konye-Urgench, the ancient capital of the land of Khorezm with a collection of impressive mausoleums. Continue to Dashoguz for the night. Overnight Dashoguz Hotel or similar. (B)

Konye-Urgench

The ancient capital of the kingdom of Khorezm and dating to the 10th century, Konye-Urgench has seen a number of different Silk Road civilisations lay claim to it, with Seljuks and the Khorezmshahs conquering the city and establishing it as the centre of Islam in Central Asia, building numerous stunning mosques and madrassahs.

It was attacked by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, who besieged the city for six months before destroying it, leaving little but the charred remains of its monuments and the corpses of its inhabitants. ‘Konye-Urgench became the abode of the jackal and the haunt of the owl and the kite’, wrote one local historian.

Having rebuilt itself it was then sacked by Timur (Tamerlane), adding to its woes. Fortunately, a few architectural monuments survived this tragedy, including the impressive mausoleums of former sultans as well as arched gates and fortresses which stand as testament to the former glories of this remote corner of Asia. Nearby is a local cemetery where people come to pray, pay homage to their ancestors and perform rites and rituals that bear more than an element of the pagan traditions that existed here before Islam.

Day 13 - Darwaza

From here continue to one of Turkmenistan’s most amazing sites, the flaming gas crater at Darwaza. We camp near the crater to enjoy spectacular views of the subterranean fires once the sun sets. Overnight camping. (BD)

Darwaza

The 60 metre crater of Darwaza is one of the most unusual sites in Central Asia, a vast opening in the earth where natural gas has been set alight and has been burning for more than forty years. This was originally a site where Soviet geologists drilled for gas – not knowing what to do when the drilling rig collapsed, they set it alight for fear that poisonous gas would seep into the atmosphere and contaminate a nearby settlement, expecting that it would burn itself out in a matter of days. Dozens of fires burn inside the crater, some of them with flames up to fifteen metres high. Its otherworldly appearance has led local people to name it the ‘Door to Hell’, and spending the night here will be a real highlight of your trip.

Day 14 - Ashgabat

Drive to the capital Ashgabat, a fascinating city but very different from what you have already seen. We spend the rest of the day exploring the city with its striking and often bizarre collection of monuments, including Neutrality Arch, the Earthquake Monument and others. Overnight Ak Altyn Hotel or similar. (B)

Ashgabat

Ashgabat can’t claim to be one of the oldest Silk Road cities – prior to Russian involvement in the region it was little more than a village, but this changed following the Battle of Geok Tepe, when the Russians finally subdued the Turkmen tribes in 1881. Growing to become an important administrative centre first in the Tsarist Empire and then the Soviet Union, the city was devastated during an earthquake in 1948, which flattened most of the city.

Rebuilt with classic Soviet architecture it remained fairly unremarkable until independence arrived in 1991. The first president of independent Turkmenistan, the self-styled ‘Turkmenbashi’, embarked upon a massive programme of reconstruction as part of his nation-building efforts, setting in motion a process which led to Ashgabat becoming one of the most unusual and striking cities in Central Asia – albeit very different from anywhere else.

Today wide highways are flanked by tall apartment blocks, most covered with white marble tiles which almost glimmer in the sunlight, modern and brash and giving Ashgabat an air of the surreal – almost like a space-age city of the future. Monuments abound, linked to the common history of the Turkmen people and an effort to impress unity on a people that were once in constant conflict with each other. The centre of the city is a showpiece, with enormous statues gracing squares and fountains, and while the golden statue of Turkmenbashi, rotating to face the sun, has disappeared with his demise, the new president builds an equal cult of personality with giant billboards of him in various poses.

Ashgabat is sure to be one of the most unusual cities that you will visit, and it certainly has its critics, but is a truly fascinating and utterly bizarre place that won’t fail to leave an impression.

Day 15 - Merv

Fly to Mary and visit the ancient site of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a diverse collection of attractions that span the history of the region. Return to Ashgabat for the night. Overnight Ak Altyn Hotel or similar. (B)

Merv

The archaeological site of Merv sprawls over one hundred square kilometres, holding the history of centuries of civilisation, making it one of the most important sites in Central Asia. It was once an important oasis for those making the hard journey across the deserts of the Silk Road, and at various times has been under the rule of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Seljuks and Achaemenians, then viciously sacked by the Mongols in the 13th century on their brutal path through the region.

The wonderful collection of monuments to explore here include the mausoleums of former sultans and Sufi scholars, Buddhist stupas, walled citadels and traditional ‘ice houses’ used for the storage of ice in the fierce climate. With so many different influences Merv is of immense importance in understanding the varied and complex history of the region.

Day 16 - Ashgabat

Transfer to the airport for departure. (B)


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What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.

    Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

  • Guides

    In most cases, you will be accompanied by one guide from start to finish. However, there may be occasions when this is not practical, for example, if your trip covers a number of different countries. In these cases it often makes more sense to include different guides for each place, to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the destination.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively, a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • Airport taxes

    If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included within the cost of your ticket, you’ll need to pay these yourself.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however, you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

Almost everyone will require visas to enter some of the Central Asian ‘stans’. The requirements for these vary according to each different country, but many will require an invitation letter, which we can provide for you.

Kyrgyzstan takes the lead in becoming more tourist-friendly, in that many nationalities, including UK citizens, do not need a visa for entry. Kazakhstan has also recently relaxed its rules, and UK and US travellers do not need a visa for stays of less than 15 days (although this is currently set to expire on 15 July 2015).

Turkmenistan allows most travellers to obtain visas upon arrival, but should you wish to do this it is essential that you notify us at least one month beforehand in order that the necessary preparations can be made.

In theory, Tajikistan also grants visas upon arrival at Dushanbe airport, but in practice this depends on whether there is anyone at the airport to man the visa desk, so we recommend that you obtain this before travel. If you are travelling into the Pamir Mountains you will also require the GBAO permit, which you should also request when applying for your visa.

Uzbekistan has introduced visa-free travel for stays of up to 30 days from 1 February 2019, for many nationalities including UK, Australian, New Zealand, Canada and many EU nationalities. US citizens will need to apply for an e-visa in advance, which can be done via the following website: https://e-visa.gov.uz/main

Visa regulations in Central Asia are particularly fluid and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy, or us, for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations, you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Arrival and departure taxes

There are no arrival or departure taxes applicable for most countries, but Turkmenistan will charge a $14 ‘immigration tax’, plus $2 bank fees, payable separately in US dollars when you enter.

In addition to this, Turkmenistan has recently introduced a ‘tourist tax’ of $2 per person per night. This must be paid directly to the hotel when you check out.

Money

The local currency in each country varies and is as follows:

Uzbekistan – som
Turkmenistan – manat
Tajikistan – somoni
Kyrgyzstan – som
Kazakhstan – tenge

It’s not difficult to change money in the region – usually the most convenient place will be a hotel but your guide will be able to point you in the right direction.  There are also an increasing number of ATMs in larger towns. However, these are not always reliable and so it is best to think of them as a back up rather than a main means of obtaining money. The best currency to bring for exchange purposes is US dollars, and these should have issue dates of 2006 or later, otherwise they can be difficult to exchange.

Credit cards are accepted in larger hotels and better restaurants (usually in major cities only) but are not commonly accepted elsewhere.

Uzbekistan requires that you fill in currency declaration forms when you enter, which you should keep – they will be checked again upon departure.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

Please note that the Turkmen authorities have recently introduced a new regulation, banning smoking in all public places. It is also prohibited to bring more than 40 cigarettes into the country.

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO does not advise against travel to any of the parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that we visit on our tours.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Update May 2019

Chor Minot Mosque, Bukhara - Uzbekistan holidays
Mosque interior in Uzbekistan - Silk Road tour
City walls of Khiva - Silk Road tour
Yurt camp in Uzbekistan - Silk Road tour
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