Along the Great Silk road

Kyrgyzstan has been called the Switzerland of Central Asia but there's one major difference most of the snow-capped peaks in Kyrgyzstan's Tien Shan range dwarf the Swiss Alps. In fact, in terms of the height of its mountains, it might be more apt to call Kyrgyzstan the Tibet of Central Asia. For the first five days of this16-day tour starting in Bishkek, the capital, we'll explore this famously scenic and still-unspoiled country. On day six, we'll fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, where the next leg of our tour will focus on architectural rather than natural wonders. Over centuries of history, the rulers who held power in this region competed with each other to create the grandest buildings. In sheer scale, what Tamerlane achieved in his imperial capital, Samarkand, in the 14th century could never have been matched by the khans of Khiva or the emirs of Bukhara, who had not, after all, conquered much of the known world. But as you'll see, many of the mosques, madrassahs, minarets and mausoleums in those cities are just as impressive as any in Samarkand. Your tour will also include visits to two more cities, both important for other reasons: Nurata and Gijduvan.

Day 1: Arrival in Bishkek
We'll pick you up at the airport and take you to your hotel to rest up after your long journey.

Day 2: Bishkek
After breakfast city tour: with visit to Historical Museum, Art Gallery, national bazaar, small walk through the parks. Dinner. Overnight in Bishkek.

Day 3: Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata
In the morning we will have an excursion to Ala-Archa National Park with its unique flora and fauna and beautiful views of the Tienshan Mountains. In the afternoon we will travel to Lake Issyk Kul, the second highest glacial lake in the world, stopping on the way at Burana, the ruins of an old trading center on the Silk Road. Lunch is planned with a Kyrgyz family in Tokmok. Dinner and overnight at Cholpon-Ata on Lake Issyk Kul. Ala Archa National Park. Dinner and overnight in Bishkek.

Day 4: Issyk-Kul
Today we travel up the Grigorievka Gorge in the Tienshan Mountains where we will, with luck, see encounter Kyrgyz horse-breeding nomads. Later we visit the petroglyphs around Cholpon Ata. We will also visit the Museum and then have time to enjoy the lake itself.
For exploring the surroundings on the northside of the Issyk Kul Lake we reserve one full day in your programme: the canyon of Grigorievka, with higher up beautiful views over the Issyk Kul Lake, of the petroglyphs around Cholpon Ata, visit Issyk-Kul-Museum, stroll along the beach, in summer swimming possible.Dinner and overnight at Cholpon-Ata.

Day 5: Cholpon-Ata to Karakol
We travel to Karakol, formerly called Przewalsk which was named for the explorer who discovered the pre-modern przewalsk horses in this area. Here we visit Przewalsk memorial complex and museum. After lunch, at the home of a Dungan (Muslim Chinese) family we will have a city tour which includes a Dungan Mosque and a 19th century wooden Russian orthodox cathedral. Later drive to Karakol National Park (15 km).
The gorge is flanked by tall, snow-covered, peaks with steep-sided, forested, mountain slopes. Dinner at the uygur family with national cuisine and a musical show.Overnight in Karakol.

Day 6: Karakol to Bishkek
Our trip will follow the route along the south shore of Lake Issyk Kul on our way back to Bishkek.Along the way we will visit Jety Oguz (translated as 'Seven Bulls'), the famous valley with red sandstone wall formations and visit of canyon "Skazka" (Fairy tale). The canyon was named due to its bizarre rocky landscape, which for many years has been transformed by wind into fabulous sculptures and formations. Some formations in "Skazka" have been named for their similarity to well-known objects. For example, one set of ridges in the canyon is named "The Chinese Wall" due to its similarity to the Great Wall of China. You can also find what appear to be statues of a hippopotamus, snake, dragon, sleeping giant and even whole castles. Because the different rocks have amazing colours, the rocky statues not only have unusual shapes, but also magical colours. At Bokonbaevo Village we will see demonstrated the process of making felt carpets in the Kyrgyz "Shyrdak" style. We will also have the opportunity to create our own felt carpets. We will learn about the history of shyrdaks, a variety of the patterns and their meaning, and how to recognize high quality shyrdak. Lunch will be with a Kyrgyz family in Bokonbaevo Village.Dinner and overnight in Bishkek.

Day 7: Bishkek to Tashkent
After your flight lands in our nation's capital, you'll be picked up at the airport and driven to your hotel to rest up after your flight.
Today, we will visit the Museum of Applied Art of Uzbekistan, housed in a restored pre-revolution mansion once owned by the wealthy St. Petersburg aristocrat and statesman Alexander Polovtsov. Among the collections in this museum are silk embroidery, called suzani; musical instruments; ceramics and porcelain; decorative wood carving and of course, silks, carpets and other textiles. All of these traditional arts are still alive and well in Uzbekistan so what you see and learn about in the museum today, you will also see and recognize in other forms as you travel through our country.
We will also escort you on a sightseeing tour of the historic old part of our nation's capital. Even though the areas of our city that you saw on your drive from the airport yesterday look modern, Tashkent's history goes back about 2,500 years. But this is an earthquake-prone region and unfortunately for many of our ancient landmarks, in 1966, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the city, with terrible loss of life. It took decades to restore some of our masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture to their former glory but we think you'll agree that the results have been worth the effort.
We'll visit two of the Old City's most magnificent 16th century showpieces, the Kukeldash Madrassah and the Hasti-Imam complex, a square constructed around the tomb of the great 10th century Islamic scholar, scientist and poet Abu-Bakr Muhammad Kaffal Shashi. This complex includes the Friday mosque of Hasti (meaning "sainted") Imam, the 16th century Barak-Khan Madrassah and the mausoleum housing the remains of Kaffal Shashi. Though the library here holds about 20,000 books and 3,000 manuscripts, its most famous possession is the world's oldest Holy Koran, transcribed by Caliph Othman in Medina in the year 651, only 19 years after the Prophet Muhammad's death.
Tashkent is one of very few cities in the world that can boast of having a mass transit system so resplendent that it qualifies as a major tourist attraction. After the 1966 earthquake, workers came from all over the Soviet Union to help rebuild Tashkent, not as the ancient Silk Road city it had been before the natural disaster but as a model of the ideal contemporary Soviet urban centre. The creation of the city's famed subway system, inspired by Moscow's, is one proud legacy of that initiative. Though the opulent design of each station of the four-line Metro is unique, all symbolically celebrate some aspect of our nation's history and culture.
In the evening, you'll dine in the home of the Rahimovs,a family of renowned ceramic artists.

Day 8: Tashkent – Urgench – Khiva
After breakfast take a morning flight to Urgench. Meeting at the airport and drive to Khiva, accommodation at the Hotel. Unlike Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva's old city is almost uninhabited. With 54 perfectly-preserved or restored historical buildings and monuments, including mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, minarets and palace complexes in so compact an area, it's almost like experiencing Samarkand in miniature. Highlights of the city include an underground mosque, the courtyard of the royal harem – and the unique symbol of the city, called Kalta Minor, meaning “short minaret,” which looks like an elaborately-decorated industrial chimney.
If this minaret had ever been finished, it might have been taller than Bukhara's Kalyan minaret and, according to one of several tales associated with it, this might even be the reason why it wasn't finished. Historically, the khans of Khiva and the emirs of Bukhara were both rivals for influence in the region and mortal enemies whose armies habitually waged war on each other. Allegedly, Khiva's Muhammad Amin Khan, who had ordered the construction of this minaret, intended for it to tower over Bukhara's minaret but when Bukhara's then-emir Nasrullah – the same emir, nicknamed “the Butcher,” who had ordered a man to be thrown to his death from the the Kalyan minaret -- got wind of this, he vowed it would never happen.
As the story goes, Nasrullah offered the minaret's architect more money if he'd abandon that project and build his mighty minaret in Bukhara – and the architect agreed. But when the Khivan khan found out about this double-cross, he put a contract out on the architect's life, who fled to save his own skin. Since there was no one else who could complete the job, work on the minaret ceased after the death of the Khivan khan in 1860, so what you see today is exactly what it looked like then.

Day 9: Khiva – Bukhara
The drive through the Kyzyl-Kum desert from Khiva to Bukhara takes six to seven hours so we'll leave right after breakfast but stop by the Amu-Darya River, called the Oxus in ancient times, for a picnic lunch. After you check into your Bukhara hotel, you'll have dinner and the rest of the evening will be yours. Hotel Emir.

Day 10: Bukhara Sharif
Since Emir Travel and Hotel Emir are both in Bukhara, we freely admit to a bias in favour of our ancient city, once one of the most renowned centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world. One of the greatest charms of our Old City is that almost everything worth seeing and experiencing, including shops, restaurants, covered bazaars and of course, our monumental buildings, is within easy walking distance.
Sharif meaning 'noble' in Arabic, is a designation bestowed only on a handful of cities, Mecca and Medina among them, with special religious importance in Islam. Bukhara earned its sharif status as the 9th century birthplace of Imam al-Bukhari, one of the greatest collectors of written hadith -- sayings or anecdotes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. For generations before al-Bukhari`s lifelong work, these stories had only been passed down orally.
Today, you'll see the majestic Kalyan minaret, the symbol of our city, the prototype for the smaller, slimmer Vabkent minaret you saw the previous day. Although it was built in 1121, after Bukhara was sacked by Genghis Khan and his army in a century later, legend has it that the Mongol emperor was so impressed that he ordered it spared while everything else around it was destroyed, including the original mosque. The mosque and the madrassah now facing each other across the square both date from the 16th century.
Some time in the 1800s, one of Bukhara's cruelest emirs, Nasrullah Khan, ordered a man charged with defacing the minaret to be thrown from the top of it. However, our historians say that there's no truth to the widely-believed “Tower of Death” story that executions such as this took place regularly. After all, five times every day, a muezzin had to climb up and down the 104 steps of the interior spiral staircase to summon the faithful to prayer.
In Soviet times, Bukhara downplayed the most poignant historical aspect of a residence that used to be known only as “a rich merchant's house.” In fact, the merchant who once owned it, a dealer in the pelts of karakul sheep (called Persian lamb in the West), was the father of Faizullah Khojaev, who was a controversial figure to Bukharans. Khojaev, the leader of a dissident group that helped the Red Army overthrow the last emir of Bukhara in 1920, became the first president of what was then called the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic.
But like many other people of his day, Khojaev ran afoul of Joseph Stalin and, after a show trial in Moscow, was executed by firing squad on March 13, 1938, his 42nd birthday. His mother, sister, wife and daughter were all exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, although his mother died enroute. Khojaev was rehabilitated in 1966 and today, the house where he once lived now contains much of his personal and family memorabilia.
While there, you'll also see displays of the traditional clothing worn by Uzbek people before the 1920 revolution, including paranjas, the all-obscuring veil that Bukharan women were required to wear in public.

Day 11: More to admire about Bukhara
Today, we begin our tour with a visit to the Ark Fortress Museum. This massive structure, known to have existed in some form for more than 2,000 years, has suffered a great deal of damage over the years, most recently after a buildup of ice and snow caused part of the roof over the entrance to collapse. But before the revolution, the Ark was the centre of government for the entire emirate of Bukhara and also housed the main palace of the last emir of Bukhara, Said Alim Khan. Today, the rooms open to the public house historical displays.
Some of the area of Registan Square in front of the Ark had to be sacrificed when roads were widened, so it used to be much larger. Here, Bukharans used to gather to watch entertainments such as wrestling, jugglers, trapeze artists – as well as public floggings and executions.
Sites of interest near the fortress include the remains of the walls that used to encircle the city, with doors that were closed, locked and barred to all non-residents after dark; the Bolo-Khauz complex, consisting of a reservoir, mosque and minaret; and the intriguing Chashma-Ayub (Job's Well) shrine and mausoleum.
According to legend, long ago, the prophet Job, whose tale of terrible suffering is told both in the Old Testament and the Qur'an, once visited what is now Bukhara during a drought. Distressed to learn that the people here didn't have enough drinking water, Job drove his staff into the ground, causing a stream of clean, clear water burst forth. Tamerlane ordered the construction of this building in the 14th century and local people still come here to collect the spring water, which is believed to have healing properties.
One of the oldest of Bukhara's monuments is the Samanid mausoleum, built between 892 and 943, to house the remains of Ismail Samani, an emir who ruled in Central Asia, and a few of his relatives.
The goodies on offer in our main bazaar, also in this immediate area, are likely to whet your appetite for lunch (if you haven't already ruined it by overindulgence in samples of the merchandise). In the afternoon, we'll visit the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara, not far outside the city. Although this site had been used as a country estate by many previous emirs, this palace was completed in 1918, which allowed Alim Khan only two short years to enjoy it. There, you'll also see an exhibition of hand-made suzani.
In late afternoon, in the courtyard of the Divan Begi madrassah, an Uzbek Folklore ensemble will perform for you, followed by dinner.

Day 12: Bukhara to Nurata via Vabkent and Gijduvan
After breakfast, we'll set out on the three-hour drive to Nurata, pausing in Vabkent, not far from Bukhara, to see a 12th century minaret, a slimmer, shorter version of the Kalyan minaret. We'll also stop in Gijduvan, the centre of Uzbekistan's ceramic arts, so you can see how our country's unique pottery is created.
Highlights of Nurata, which was founded by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, include the ruins of his fortress and a sacred shrine complex, constructed around a spring (called a chashma) teeming with trout, whose water is believed to have healing properties. After sightseeing, we’ll have lunch with a local family, where you’ll how our intricate suzani embroidery art is created.
From there, we'll proceed to a Kazakh yurt camp in the desert, where you'll ride camels to the shores of Aydarkul Lake. We'll have dinner back at the camp, then gather around a bonfire under the stars, and after breakfast the next morning, set out for Samarkand.

Day 13: Nurata – SamarkandAfter breakfast, we'll set out for Samarkand, a three-hour drive from Nurata, and check into our hotel there. After lunch, prepare to be dazzled by the splendour of a city which is often called one of architectural wonders of the world. In 1370, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand his imperial capital. To that end, he brought in the greatest artisans and craftsmen from all over his vast empire to turn his dream into reality.
Today's Samarkand is believed to be very close to Tamerlane's vision but photographs taken in the early 20th century show these monumental buildings in an advanced state of disrepair, the elaborate tilework all but gone in many places. In recent years, massive restoration projects have transformed the interiors and exteriors of mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums and this work is still in progress.
A number of colourful legends surround the story of the creation of the Mosque of Bibi-Khanum, one of Samarkand's architectural highlights, but the most credible is that Tamerlane ordered it built and named it after his favourite wife, a Mongolian princess.
Today, you'll also get the chance to pay your respects to Tamerlane himself, where he rests, along with various relatives, under the golden dome of the fabulous Gur-i Amir mausoleum.
Our tour allows time to explore another of Samarkand's claims to fame -- the city's excellent main bazaar.

Day 14: Samarkand
Today, we turn our attention to some of Tamerlane's relatives. The most famous of them, Ulugh Beg, was a grandson who ruled over the lands known as Transoxiana from 1409 to 1449. Today, though, he is remembered mainly as an astronomer and a great patron of the sciences. He established theUlugh Beg Observatory, a three-storey, cylinder-shaped building constructed around three huge astronomical instruments. The largest of these, a curving stone arch called the Fakhri sextant, was used to measure the angle of elevation of celestial bodies, allowing astronomers to calculate the length of a year to within 25 seconds – almost 200 years before telescopes were invented! After Ulugh Beg's death, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics but rediscovered in 1908 by Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin. This discovery meant so much to Vyatkin that he asked to be - and is - buried on the site.
We will also visit the Shakh-i-Zinda necropolis, a complex consisting of mosques and eleven mausoleums constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries to house the remains of members of the royal family and other nobles.
More ancient tombs, including one believed to hold the remains of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, are located in the nearby town of Afrasiab.

Day 15: More Samarkand - Tashkent
After breakfast, we'll visit a workshop specializing in hand-woven silk carpets. Then, we'll leave for the five-hour drive to Tashkent, after checking into the Hotel Uzbekistan there, you'll have time to spend any sums you still have left at Chorsu Bazaar in the Old City. The main difference between this bazaar and many other markets and vendors you’ve seen in Uzbekistan is that the merchants of Chorsu Bazaar don’t cater mainly to tourists but rather a demanding local clientele, which often translates to higher quality and lower prices than merchandise intended for the tourist trade.

Day 16: Farewell to Uzbekistan
We hope that you've enjoyed your time with us as much as we've enjoyed our time with you. Remember that international protocol requests your presence at the airport for registration at least three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.

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