Our sales consultant, Megan has just returned from our 16 day Silk Road Explorer trip. Here is her pictorial guide to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, taking us from the bustling markets of Dushanbe to the rural yurt camps in Ayaz Kala and the flaming gas crater in Darwaza.
Dushanbe, Tajiksitan’s capital lies in the heart of the Gissar Valley. Its name meaning ‘Monday’ in Tajik language, derives from the weekly market that once took place in the city and its former name, ‘Stalinabad’ reminds us of its links to the USSR. Today the city has a bustling bazaar where you can find every spice, nut and dried fruit you could wish for. Other notable sites include the unlucky town of Gissar (so far destroyed no fewer than 21 times) where you can visit its restored fortress to witness what this region must have been like several centuries ago, and Victory Park for the best views over the city.
Heading out of the city and into the Fann Mountains takes us to the picturesque lake of Iskander Kul. Rumour has it that if you stare into the lake at midnight, you’ll see Alexander the Great in golden armour riding his horse, Bucephalus. The lake is the main attraction here and staying in tourist cottages on the lake (pictured) gives us the chance to marvel at the picture postcard turquoise waters and take a short hike to an impressive waterfall.
Driving through the Shakhristan Pass on long winding roads gives us a chance to experience the more rural side of Tajikistan. Expect to pass huge flocks of sheep being herded by a shepherd and if you are lucky, you may pass a livestock market on the cliffs where you will be able to witness a key part of the livelihood of rural households.
Often just passed through for travellers on their way to the silk road cities, Tashkent has much more to offer than at first glance. A trip to the metro stations alone is well worth the visit – each station having its own unique decoration showing an important part of Uzbekistan’s story through its architecture and mosaics. Pictured above is Kosmonavtlar station, featuring some of the greatest pioneers of the Soviet space program. Chorsu Bazaar, located in a vast mosaic dome, offers us a chance to view some of the ‘real’ Tashkent with cow tongues being a delicacy at this market.
The silk road city of Samarkand boasts a wealth of mosques and mausoleums and some of the best examples of Islamic architecture to be found anywhere in the world. Pictured here is one of Central Asias’s most iconic sites, Registan Square. The picture postcard scene with its three madrassahs and central square is Samarkands biggest draw. Other notable sites include the Ulug Beg observatory, one of the largest astronomical observatories of the period, Bibi Khanym Mosque and Shag-i-zinda, a stunning collection of mausoleums with tilework to rival Registan.
Considered one of the holiest cities in Central Asia, Bukhara has served as a major centre of Islamic culture for centuries. Our hotel, located in the photogenic Lyabi-Hauz was the perfect location to explore the city and mooch around the various souvenir stalls and tea houses that were on offer. A visit to the historical Ark fortress, home to the Emirs for over a millennium is a must, as well as the Kalon Minaret and the Chor Minor mosque.
A favourite day of the trip for the group, we spent the night at a traditional yurt camp, located near the ruins of the Ayaz-Kala fortress. The fortress, built in the 4th century BC gives us an impressive view of the Kyzylkum Desert. The evening was spent stargazing, dancing to traditional folklore music from the neighbouring village and getting a taste of the local life of people that have been wandering this desert for centuries.
Often known as an open air museum, Khiva has been virtually unchanged for centuries. We spent the day walking its narrow alleys and discovering its intricately decorated mosques and mosaic adorned maddrassahs. A visit to the Kuhna Ark at sunset for the best views over Itchan Kala is an experience not to miss.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Konye Urgench is one of Turkmenistan’s most important sites. Although only a few surviving architectural monuments remain from the Mongol attack in the 13th century, the site still holds impressive mausoleums and a striking minaret. A step away from tourists, the site is full of local woman who come to pray and pay homage to their ancestors and perform traditional pagan rituals.
Otherwise known as the ‘door to hell’, the flaming gas crater at Darwaza is one of Turkmenistan’s most unusual sites and a real highlight on this tour. Created by Soviet geologists in the 1950’s, the crater was set alight for fear that poisonous gas would seep into the atmosphere and the flames have just never burnt out. We enjoyed visits to the crater at daylight and darkness to enjoy the spectacular views of the fires. Pictured here are the group enjoying an al fresco dinner at our campsite.
Ashgabat, known as the ‘white city’ and holding several Guinness Book of World Records, including the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel and the highest concentration of white marble buildings, the starkly empty city is a fascinating place to visit. Bizarre and striking monuments such as The Arch of Neutrality, the Earthquake Monument and Turkmenbashy Square are all must see sites. Until not too long ago, the presidential statue used to slowly revolve so that it always faced the sun.
Want to know more about Central Asia? Take a look at our ‘The best things to see on our Central Asia tours‘ blog as well as our Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan tours. The trip taken by Native Eye’s Megan was our Silk Road Explorer tour, a fantastic introduction to the three of the stans. For a longer introduction to Central Asia, our 26-day Central Asia Encompassed tour visits the 5 Stans of the Silk Road.
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