Join a local family for a cooking class on the classic Central Asian rice dish – plov. Stop in the famed ceramics town of Gijduvan and join a ceramics maker for a demonstration of their artform. Enjoy a full day of guided exploration in Tashkent including the outstanding Chorsu Bazaar – one of Asia’s oldest markets and a testament to the friendly spirit of the locals. Steeped in Silk Road history and immortalised in many a great tale, the UNESCO-protected town of Khiva is as photogenic as it is legendary
Discover a mystical side of Central Asia that rarely features in the minds of travellers. Journey back to the days of the Great Silk Road with the medieval cities, stunning architecture and colourful history of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Begin in modern, cosmopolitan Tashkent and voyage out into the deserts to uncover 2000-year-old fortress cities lost in the sands of time. Stand awestruck, as Genghis Khan once did, in front of Bukhara’s Kalyan Minaret, gaze upon Samarkand’s mighty Registan Ensemble, and camp at desert oases as Silk Road travellers have done for centuries. Contrast the older, slower Turkmenistan – one of medieval ruins, black-sand deserts, prehistoric towns, old Silk Road haunts, nomadic remnants and humble, hospitable locals – with the marbled metropolis of Ashgabat in destinations of immense spiritual and historical depth.
Xush kelibsiz! Welcome to Uzbekistan. The largest city in Central Asia with a population of over 2 million, Tashkent is a mix of Russian and Uzbek style, an indication of the fact that for many years it was a key city of the USSR. Extravagant mosques, both ancient and new, sit alongside modern highways and Soviet monuments. On arrival at Tashkent Airport, meet your Peregrine representative and transfer to your hotel. Your adventure begins with an important welcome meeting at 6pm today. If you have time beforehand, take a walk to see some of the contemporary architecture that sets this city apart from many other Silk Road destinations.
Enjoy a buffet breakfast at the hotel, then spend a full day exploring Tashkent on a city tour. A highlight is the Chorsu Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest markets in Central Asia. Wandering through this giant marketplace is a fantastic way to see locals going about their daily lives. Uzbeks are some of the friendliest people in the world and you will find yourself chatting to many locals who are keen to get to know you. Be sure to try some of the fresh produce on offer. After wandering through the bazaar, explore some of the rich cultural history of Uzbekistan, including the 16th-century Kulkedash Medressa – an Islamic school that sits beside the 15th-century Juma (Friday) Mosque. The History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan provides an introduction to the country and the region in general, from the Silk Road era to Soviet times. A brief tour of Tashkent’s metro system will reveal some beautiful stations (note that photography is not allowed in the subway). Also visited will be Amir Temur Square (the central park with the statue of Amir Temur on the horseback just outside the Hotel Uzbekistan), the Khast Imom Complex including the Barak Khan Madrasa (a college for Islamic instruction), Kaffal Shashi mausoleum, Quran Library and Mosque, and the Roman Catholic Church of Tashkent. After a full day of sightseeing, perhaps go to the ballet or opera at the stunning National Theatre in the evening if there is a performance tonight. Your leader can assist you with what's on and buying tickets.
Transfer to the station this morning and take the 8am high speed “Afrosiab” train to Samarkand (approximately 2 hours). This is a city that evokes the romance of the Silk Road perhaps more than any other. From its foundation in the 5th century BC, Samarkand has been a centre of artisans and traders as well as the prize for many a conquering army. From Alexander the Great who stormed its walls in 329 BC, to the Soviet occupiers who declared it the original capital of the Uzbek SSR in 1924, Samarkand’s history is as rich as it is complex. Keep your camera at the ready, as this destination is a photographer's dream, with colourful domes and minarets gracing the skyline. Begin your tour of the city’s sights on arrival. Make a visit to the Gur Amir Mausoleum – the final resting place of the mighty Timur and his sons and grandsons. The city flourished under his rule in the 14th century. For a man of his stature, it is quite a simple tomb. Continue to the Shah-i-Zinda complex, the so-called ‘Town of the Dead’ necropolis, with more than 20 beautifully decorated unique buildings. It’s a holy site for local Muslims and is where the Prophet Mohammed's cousin is buried. Nearby is the Ulugbek Observatory, built in the 1420s by the Timurid astronomer of the same name. It is considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world, and the largest in Central Asia, before it was destroyed in 1449. Finish the day’s tour with a stop in the Afrosiab Museum, which houses a 7th century fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman.
A highlight of this trip is standing on the iconic Registan Square with the three medressas (Ulugbek, Sher Dor and Tilla-Kari) towering over you. The Registan is probably the most recognisable of all Central Asia's monuments. The facades of the two medressas facing the central square are decorated in elaborate mosaic, tiles and intricate geometric brickwork, flanked by towering minarets and topped by azure-hued domes. The interiors of some of the buildings are just as impressive and there's so much to explore, including the many handicraft and souvenir stalls in the courtyards and rooms. While here you will visit the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built by Timur. It is often compared to the Taj Mahal as it was built as a grand and timeless symbol of a man's love for his wife. This mosque overlooks the busy and colourful Siob Bazaar, where photographers will delight in taking photos of the many bustling stalls and the huge array of produce, as well as encountering friendly greetings from the local traders. Next up is a classic Uzbek experience – join a local family for a cooking class on the traditional meal known as plov. Uzbek men pride themselves on their ability to prepare the most unique and scrumptious plov. This dish is cooked over an open flame in a traditional cauldron and is made up of fried and boiled meat, onions, carrots, rice, raisins, berries and chickpeas. Enjoy what you have cooked for dinner together.
Enjoy some free time this morning to relax or have a leisurely walk around and take in the skyline one last time. Then, in the afternoon, drive west to Bukhara (approximately 4 hours). En route you will stop in Gijduvan city, which is famous for its ceramic pottery. There are potteries here that date back six generations. Here you will have the unique and memorable experience of visiting a ceramic pottery workshop. Witness the full pottery process from throwing to firing to decoration, and visit a small museum to find out some history of ceramics in this area. Continue to Bukhara, a favourite Silk Road city for many travellers. Arrive in the holy city of Bukhara and enjoy a free afternoon to absorb its magical ambiance. Trading domes near here still offer an intriguing and colourful array of goods including embroideries, jewellery, spices, handicrafts and all manner of Silk Road treasures. This is the place to test your haggling skills and share a joke or two with local merchants.
A UNESCO-listed site, Bukhara is widely regarded as Central Asia’s holiest city. With more than 100 officially preserved monuments, there is a lot to see. Your extensive sightseeing program here is spread over two days to make the most of your time. With many monuments dating from the 8th to the 18th century AD, there is a vast span of history and architecture to discover. The meticulous restoration of many of the mosaic and majolica decorations give you a true sense of how these buildings looked in their original glory. Start by visiting the ruins of the 5h-century Ark Fortress. This is the ancient heart of the city and the scene of several gruesome events. You'll also see the Bolo-Khauz Mosque, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum, the imposing Poikalon complex (comprising the Kalon Minaret, Kalon Mosque and Mir-i-Arab Medressa), and Ulugbek and Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa. The twilight hours lend themselves to wandering around the central Lyabi-Hauz and its surrounding areas. Enjoy dinner with a folklore & music performance.
Start the second full day of sightseeing in Bukhara on a different note, visiting the city’s trading domes. In the 16th century, under the Shaybanides dynasty, Bukhara was a major trade, craft, and administration centre on the Great Silk Road. The city was famous for its bazaars, places of trade, meeting and entertainment. The dynasty built great covered bazaars, or trading domes, on major thoroughfares – a great dome over the main crossroads and smaller domes over the side streets. At its peak as one of the richest cities along the route, there are estimate to have been 50 bazaars and 75 caravanserais. Now there are only three of these domes left, but they still buzz with activity and give a glimpse of how commerce influenced urban development at the time of the Silk Road. All manner of things can be found on sale, and you will wander through in search of bargains. Experience the spirit of trade that has driven this region since the halcyon days of the Silk Road era. In the midst of these bazaars is the Maghoki-Attar, reputed to be the oldest mosque in Central Asia. Stop by the Lyabi Hauz – a pool of water surrounded by ancient mulberry trees in the Old Town's centre – see the Nadir Devan-Begi, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful medieval madrasas, and visit the unusual four minareted Chor Minor. Lastly, visit the Sitorai Mohi Hosa (‘Star and garnet garden), which was the summer palace of the last emir. Its opulence is also reflected in the combination of local and European influences in its designs and furnishings. The halls are richly decorated with carpets and paintings. This evening is again free to explore Bukhara by night.
Set off early today and drive 450 kilometres to Khiva (approximately 10 hours including photo stops and lunch). Along the way you’ll travel through the Kyzyl-Kum (Red Sands Desert), the largest desert area in Central Asia. It’s long been inhabited by various nomadic people and on the way you might pass cowboys on their camels. You will also encounter the Amu Darya River, which was once known as the Oxus. This river bubbles up far to the south-east in the Pamirs, then runs west through the area now bordering modern Afghanistan (once famous throughout the ancient world for its lapis-lazuli mines). With the impressive oasis of Khiva ahead of you, this long journey is an ideal opportunity to catch up on some reading, or simply sit back and imagine you are a trader – relieved to have made it safely through the desert! On the way, you will stop for lunch at a roadside cafe to break up the journey. Arrive in the fabled city of Khiva in the evening and check into the hotel. The town's colourful procession over the years (conquering khans, Silk Road traders, Great Game spies and Russian invaders) has long captured the imagination of writers and poets. The city is also a photographer's delight, particularly in the evenings when the sun begins to set.
Take a full day to explore the city. Khiva is enchanting at dawn, with its empty streets and the palpable weight of thousands of years of history. Perhaps get up early before the day’s sightseeing begins, and enjoy the sunrise. Khiva is beautifully preserved and perfect for exploring on foot, with impressive walls that mark the boundaries of the old city. Upon entering its gates you will see towering minarets and numerous medressas. Your guide will take you through many of these monuments, including the turquiouse Kalta Minor Minaret, the Khan museum in the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa, the 17th-century Juma Mosque, the Islom-Hoja Minaret and Medressa (built in 1908 and the highest structure in Khiva), and the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum complex (the Persian-style resting place of Khiva’s patron saint). Visit the Kuhna Ark, which was the main fortress, and look over the city from the hill of the Ak-Sheikh Baba observation platform, once used as a patrol tower of the citadel. Finish with the 19th century summer palace of Mohammed Rakhim Khan II, the Toza Bog Palace, set in orchards and surrounded by walled gardens, fountains and aywans.
After breakfast this morning continue north along the border to remote Nukus (approximately 4 hours). Drive through farmland, desert, past Zoroastrian towers of silence, and follow along the Amu Darya River to the capital of Karakalpakstan. Nukus sits in the Karakalpak desert of western Uzbekistan and is the gateway to the famous shrinking Aral Sea and a graveyard of ships stranded in the sand. Arrive in the early afternoon, check into the hotel and refuel with some lunch. Then you will visit the Savitsky Art Museum, the unlikely home of the second most valuable, and the most significant, collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world. The collection is named after I.V. Savitsky, an artist and passionate collector. For many years socialist realism was the only style tolerated in the USSR, and works in other styles could not be displayed. Savitsky collected works by forgotten or forbidden artists from cities throughout the USSR, and kept them safe in this faraway region. The collection grew to more than 90,000 works, which form the spectacular basis of this museum. Later, stop by the Karakalpak State Museum, which houses models of the archaeological site of Toprak Kala, displays on the history of the region, and a section dedicated to the Aral Sea. This was once the fourth largest lake in the world but due to diversions for agriculture, it has been drying up at an alarming rate, with serious consequences for the environment and people who depended on it.
Kunya Urgench - Dashogus
Today you will leave Uzbekistan and cross the border into Turkmenistan at Khodjeyli (Xo‘jayli) (approximately 30 minutes). Farewell your Uzbekistan guide and meet your Turkmenistan guide, who will be your leader for the rest of your journey. Continue the short distance to another World Heritage site with Kunya Urgench, once a centre of the Islamic world with its mosques, libraries and medressas. It suffered destruction at the hands of Genghis Kham and the Timurids, and after losing its position as capital of the region, fell into decay until the 20th century. It still boasts many monuments from the 11th-16th centuries however, many of which were outstanding architectural achievements for this period. When you arrive in the city you will enjoy lunch, before an afternoon of sightseeing. You will visit the mausoleum of famed Muslim theologian and philosopher Fakhr At-Din, and the Sultan Tekesh Mausoleum – built for a ruthless ruler, it’s one of the last examples of pre-Mongol architecture and, at nearly 100 feet tall, once acted as a beacon in the desert. Also today there’s the astounding 14th century Turebek Khanum Mausoleum, richly-decorated and steeped in myths and legends. Nearby, the Torebeg Khanum mausoleum has a wealth of beautiful mosaics. Continue on to one of the most sacred buildings in the city – the resting place of the famous religious teacher Najamuddin Kubra. The walled compound creates a peaceful courtyard shaded by trees, and also contains the tomb of Sultan Ali. Finally there’s the Kutlug Timur Minaret – built over three centuries, the tower is the oldest of its kind remaining in the world and, at nearly 200 feet in height, the tallest in Central Asia. After a full day of sightseeing, drive to Dashogus city for the night (approximately 2 hours).
This morning is yours to spend relaxing after the tiring last few days. Later, in the early afternoon, you will drive north in a 4x4 to the Darvaza Crater, aka the 'Door to Hell' (approximately 4 hours). Darvaza is an astounding 70-metre-wide hole in the Karakum Desert that is permanently aflame. Geologists created it by accidentally tapping into a cavern filled with natural gas, which they decided to try and burn off. The flames within have been burning ever since. On the way to Darvaza, you will stop at other bubbling craters of interest, be they mud or water. Your accommodation tonight is a basic camp near the Darvaza crater. Dinner will be a simple but delicious camp meal of a Turkmenistan style barbeque. With a glass of wine or beer, enjoy a unique Peregrine moment as the strange, surreal glow of the crater is mirrored by the setting sun.