Oxiana, Tartary, Turkestan, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand: names to produce a frisson. They evoke alluring images of shimmering turquoise domes and exquisite glazed wall tiles, of lost libraries and renowned scholars, of the delicious decadence of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, of gardens, poetry and wine, of the fabulous riches of the Silk Road between China and Christendom.
Less agreeable images are also induced: of Ghengis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), the most far-reaching conquerors in history; of the tyranny and cruelty of the khans, perpetuating the last redoubts of mediaeval misrule; of the Great Game, the nineteenth-century Cold War between Britain and Russia; of terrain as hostile as the tribesmen and petty tyrants who inhabited its desert and mountain fastnesses; and of a post-Soviet penumbra of Stans of suspect politics and allegiances.
The four cities of the subtitle lie now in Uzbekistan, independent since 1991 but an entity which has its origins in late nineteenth-century Russian imperialism, which agglomerated a number of independent khanates, and whose borders were settled in the 1920s. It lies at the very centre of Central Asia. One of only two double land-locked nations in the world, it has a capital which is a thousand miles north of the Indian Ocean (Afghanistan and Pakistan intervene), 1,400 miles east of the Black Sea and 400 miles from Xinjiang, China’s largely Islamic western province. This is as the crow flies; extremes of topography and climate as well as banditry slowed or terminated the progress of many travellers.
A slave-trading oasis khanate, Khiva was, and remains, the smallest of the three cities. It is perhaps the most intact and homogenous urban ensemble in the Islamic world, with biscuit-coloured brick and blue and turquoise maiolica. In Bukhara, gorgeously adorned architecture spanning a thousand years still rises above a streetscape of indeterminate age. Samarkand has the largest and most resplendently caparisoned historic buildings of all. There are also visits to Shakhrisabz, which has breathtaking remains of Timur’s palace, and to Tashkent, the spacious modern capital with good museums and galleries.
Space is not at a premium in this part of the world. Broad tree-lined boulevards encircle the historic town centres and no expanding girdle of high-rise apartments disfigures the approach. The spacious modern capital Tashkent has good museums and galleries; Shakhrisabz is famed for the breathtaking remains of Timur’s palace. A slave-trading oasis khanate, Khiva, the smallest of these cities, is perhaps the most intact and homogenous urban ensemble in the Islamic world, with biscuit-coloured brick and blue and turquoise maiolica. In Bukhara, gorgeously adorned architecture spanning a thousand years still rises above a streetscape of indeterminate age, while Samarkand has the largest, most resplendently caparisoned historic buildings of all.
Modernity has made relatively unobtrusive inroads: in one of the few nations on earth which has escaped the countryside scourge of ferroconcrete and breeze block, the whitewashed villages and farmsteads with their awnings of vines would hold few surprises for Tolstoy. Nearly all the women are to some extent in traditional dress, brightly coloured ankle-length dresses, and so are some of the older men. In the wake of economic liberalisation since independence, streets and courtyards are draped with the dazzling hues of carpets and textiles; the glories of the Silk Road in its heyday are not hard to imagine.
Fly at c. 9.30pm (Uzbekistan Airways) from London Heathrow for the seven-hour flight to Tashkent (currently the only direct flight from London).
Tashkent. Touch-down c. 8.30am. Hotel rooms in the centre of Tashkent are at your disposal for the morning. Afternoon drive around the city centre. See the Hazret Imam complex, a group of mosques and madrassas (seminaries) dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries and Independence Square, home to government buildings and the Monument of Independence. First of two nights in Tashkent.
Tashkent. The morning is spent at the Fine Arts Museum with collections from pre-Islamic sculpture to 20th-century painting. Afternoon visits include Chorsu Bazaar and Kukeldash Madrassa, introducing the theme of Soviet reconstruction of Islamic heritage.
Tashkent to Samarkand. High-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand at 8.00am (duration: 2 hours; luggage transferred separately). Begin with the Registan, ‘the noblest public square in the world’ (Lord Curzon, 1889), bounded on three sides by magnificent madrassas of the 15th and 17th centuries. Also seen are the Gur Emir Mausoleum, burial place of Timur, and the Bibi Khanum Mosque, commissioned by Timur in honour of his wife, an impressive exercise in gigantism despite partial destruction and over-zealous restoration. First of three nights in Samarkand.
Shakhrisabz. Cross the Hisor Mountains (by car; coaches are not permitted), a dramatic drive with long views down the sun-baked valley the other side. Shakhrisabz was transformed by Timur (1336–1405) whose home town it was. An astounding survival is the most imposing palace portal in the history of architecture, an arch 22 metres wide with a wondrous range of tiled decoration. Further Timurid remnants include a mosque complex with three turquoise domes.
Samarkand. Visit Shah-i-Zinda, an ensemble of mausolea gorgeously apparelled in many types of dazzling glazed tiles, the Afrosiab History Museum, which documents pre-Islamic Samarkand, and the remains of the extraordinary observatory built by Ulug Bek in the 15th century.
From Samarkand to Bukhara. A 5-hour drive, reaching Bukhara in time for lunch. The afternoon walk begins in the social heart of the city, the Lyab-i Hauz square built around a 15th-century pool and flanked by the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa and Khanaga. Time for tea under the mulberry trees. Continue to Central Asia’s oldest surviving mosque, Magok-i-Attari. First of three nights in Bukhara.
Bukhara. Genghis Khan ensured in 1220 that – with notable exceptions, including the Kalon Minaret at 48 metres then the tallest in the world – little of Bukhara’s first golden age remains, but of the second, the 15th and 16th centuries, there survives much magnificent architecture, lavishly embellished. Today’s walks take in the vast Kalon Mosque (finished 1514) with a capacity of 10,000, several grand madrassas, the formidable citadel of the khans and the Zindan, their infamous prison.
Bukhara. The perfectly preserved 10th-century Samani Mausoleum displays exquisite brickwork. From here walk through the park to the Bolo Hauz Mosque with its elegant patio of timber columns. The Emir’s summer palace, 1911, is a riotous mix of Russian and traditional Bukharan decoration with rose garden, aviary and swimming pool. Free afternoon with the option to visit Chor Bakr, a memorial complex built over the burial place of Abu-Bakr, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed.
From Bukhara to Khiva. The 280-mile journey starts and finishes in an unspoilt landscape of green fields, plentiful trees and adobe farmsteads, while the central section is undulating desert, specked with tufty shrubs that are briefly green in the spring. There are periodic sightings of the meandering Oxus, the mighty river crossed by Alexander the Great in 329 bc. Reach Khiva in time for a walk before dinner. First of one or two nights in Khiva.
Khiva. No modern intrusions spoil the timeless fabric within a rectangle of crenellated and turreted ramparts. Most of the buildings are 19th-century, but such was Khiva’s isolation and conservatism that to the inexpert eye they could date to any time from the 16th century. The Friday Mosque, a forest of carved wooden columns some dating to the 10th century, the Tash Hauli Palace, whose harem quarters constitute the loveliest secular spaces in Central Asia, and the Paklavan Mahmoud Mausoleum where tiled interiors reach a peak of opulence. Depending on domestic flight schedules, second of two nights in Khiva OR internal flight and overnight Tashkent.
From Khiva (or Tashkent) to London. Either drive a short distance from Khiva to Urgench for a morning internal flight to Tashkent, or free time in Tashkent. The 4.00pm flight from Tashkent arrives at Heathrow c.8.00pm.
Dr Peter Webb
Arabist and historian, specialising in early and mediaeval Islam. He has travelled extensively in the Middle East and Central Asia and has taught at SOAS and the American University of Paris. He is now a Lecturer in Arabic at Leiden University.
Professor James Allan
Expert in Islamic art and architecture and Middle-Eastern archaeology. He read Arabic at Oxford, where he also completed his doctorate, and spent most of his career in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where he also lectured for the Faculty of Oriental Studies. He has worked as a field archaeologist in Jerusalem and at Siraf and was President of the British Institute of Persian Studies, 2002–6.
View excerpt from Professor James Allan's lecture, 'Uzebekistan: Seen & Unseen' (London Lecture Afternoon, October 2017).
Price – per person
May & September: Two sharing: £3,640 or £3,090 without international flights. Single occupancy: £3,910 or £3,360 without international flights.
April (exclusively for solo travellers): £3,750 or £3,200 without international flights.
Flights (economy class) with Uzbekistan Airways: London to Tashkent return (aircraft: Boeing 757) and Urgench to Tashkent (Airbus 320); travel by private air-conditioned coach, cars (in convoy, for one excursion) and high-speed train between Tashkent and Samarkand; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 11 lunches and 10 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and national guide.
The internal flight is included in the tour price.
Please note that the flight schedule between Urgench and Tashkent can vary and is not confirmed until c. 6 months before the tour departs. The hotel stay on day 11 will either be in Khiva or Tashkent depending on this schedule.
British citizens and most other foreign nationals require a tourist visa. This is not included in the price of the tour. Visa applications can only begin three months before the tour departs. UK residents will need to submit passports to the Consular section of the Uzbekistan Embassy in London prior to departure. Processing times are approx. 10 working days. Citizens of Australia and New Zealand have their visas issued at Tashkent airport but will need to apply for a letter of invitation within three months of the departure date via Martin Randall Travel. Other nationalities should check their entry requirements with the relevant authorities.
Hotels on this tour can be subject to change. We always use the best available but once out of Tashkent choice is limited:
Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace: spacious, opulent and comfortable. Madrassa Mukhammad Hotel, Khiva: converted madrassa, impressively restored, each room a former student’s cell opening onto the courtyard. Omar Khayyam Hotel, Bukhara: excellent location in the centre of the old city, adequately comfortable, or Hotel Asia, Bukhara: also located in the old part of the city with attractive gardens. City Hotel, Samarkand: a small (27 rooms), friendly hotel, refurbished in 2016 or Hotel Sultan, Samarkand: also small and recently refurbished, with rooftop terrace.
This is a long and demanding tour which begins with an overnight flight. You will be on your feet a lot, walking and standing around. The tour would not be suitable for anyone with difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. There are very long coach journeys on three of the days but seven (or eight, in 2019) days with minimal driving. The average distance by coach per day is 78 miles (in 2018) or51 miles (in 2019).
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'I have always wanted to visit Samarkand and Bukhara and I am pleased to have done so. The buildings are absolutely fantastic. This trip will be long remembered.'
'This was a fantastic holiday which we found fascinating in all respects. Well done MRT.'
'Beautifully planned. I appreciated the balance between the landscapes.'
‘The lecturer is superb, young and so enthusiastic about his subject. Approachable, unflappable and diplomatic. Excellent lecturers were given and equally excellent impromptu lecturers and information were also provided.’
'What a happy time we had. I met some very nice people, saw some amazing things that I never thought I would see, and can only thank Martin Randall Travel for a very well planned trip.'