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Samarkand & Silk Road Cities - With Khiva, Bukhara, Tashkent & Shakhrisabz

The best of Uzbekistan, and some of the most glorious sights in the Islamic world.

Led by experts in Central Asian archaeology and history.

Magnificent mosques and madrassas, acres of wonderful wall tiles, intact streetscape, memorable landscapes.

Remote, difficult to access and remarkably unspoilt.

2–12 October 2018 (MF202) departure is exclusively for solo travellers.

 

15 - 25 May 2018 £2,870 Fully booked



  • Khiva, the Grand Minaret, wood engraving c. 1880.
    Khiva, the Grand Minaret, wood engraving c. 1880.
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Overview

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. 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.

2017

Day 1

Fly at c. 9.35pm (Uzbekistan Airways) from London Heathrow for the seven-hour flight to Tashkent (currently the only direct flight).

Days 2 & 3

Tashkent. Touch-down c. 8.30am. Hotel rooms in the centre of Tashkent are at your disposal for the morning. The History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan is within walking distance if you want to venture out before lunch. Afternoon drive around the city centre, a modern city with wide avenues, spacious parks, glistening new government buildings. Among the places seen during the two days are the Hazret Imam complex, a group of mosques and madrassas (seminaries) from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries; the Timur Museum and park, a homage to the newly elevated national hero with 13th to 16th-century artefacts and models of some of the buildings seen on the tour; the Fine Arts Museum with collections from pre-Islamic sculpture to twentieth-century painting; free time for the Museum of Applied Arts or the Chorsu Bazaar. Fly at c. 15.30pm on Day 3 to Urgench and drive the 30 miles to Khiva. First of two nights in Khiva.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

Khiva to Bukhara. 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 which 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 Bukhara in time for a walk before dinner. First of three nights in Bukhara.

Day 6

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. Take tea in the shade of mulberry trees around a 15th-century pool.

Day 7

Bukhara. The perfectly preserved 10th-century Samani Mausoleum and the remains of the 12th-century Namaz Goh Mosque display fine terracotta decoration. 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.

Day 8

Shakhrisabz. A 4-hour drive across a fertile plain where wheat and cotton flourish. 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. Cross a mountain range (broadleaf woods, fissured granite, pasturage) and drop down to the plain of the Zarifsan river, and to Samarkand. First of three nights in Samarkand.

Day 9

Samarkand. 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. The Museum of History, Culture and Art has collections from pre-Islamic as well as Islamic periods. Other places seen are the Gur Emir Mausoleum, burial place of Tamerlane, the adjacent Ak Serai Mausoleum and the Shah-i-Zinda, an ensemble of mausolea gorgeously apparelled in many types of glazed tiles.

Day 10

Samarkand. Commissioned by Timur, the Bibi Khanum Mosque is an exercise in gigantism and impresses despite partial destruction and over-zealous restoration. The adjacent Bazaar is a traditional produce market. Optional visits to the Afrasiab History Museum which documents pre-Islamic Samarkand and to the remains of the extraordinary observatory built by Ulug Bek in the 15th-century. Some free time.

Day 11

Tashkent. Drive to Tashkent. The flight arrives at Heathrow at c. 8.00pm.

 

2018

 

Day 1

Fly at c. 9.30pm (Uzbekistan Airways) from London Heathrow for the seven-hour flight to Tashkent (currently the only direct flight from London).

Day 2

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, a modern city with wide avenues, spacious parks and glistening new government buildings. Among the places seen are the Hazret Imam complex, a group of mosques and madrassas (seminaries) from the 16th to the 20th centuries and Independence Square, home to government buildings and the Monument of Independence. Overnight Tashkent.

Day 3

Tashkent to Samarkand. High-speed train at 8.00am from Tashkent to Samarkand (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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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. Optional excursions to a silk weaving workshop and a tour of Samarkand’s Russian architecture.

Day 6

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.

Day 7

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.

Day 8

Bukhara. The perfectly preserved 10th-century Samani Mausoleum displays exquisite brickwork. From here walk through the park to the Bolo Hauz Mosque with a particularly 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.

Day 9

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 two nights in Khiva.

Day 10

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. Second of two nights in Khiva/overnight in Tashkent (this is dependent on domestic flight schedules).

Day 11

From Khiva to London. Drive a short distance to Urgench before a morning internal flight to Tashkent. Morning visits include the Fine Arts Museum with collections from pre-Islamic sculpture to 20th-century painting and the Chorsu Bazaar. The 4.00pm flight from Tashkent arrives at Heathrow c. 8.00pm.

Image of Peter Webb

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.

Image of James Allan

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.

Image of Charles Melville

Professor Charles Melville

Professor of Persian History at Cambridge. He studied Arabic and Persian at Cambridge and an MA in Islamic History at SOAS. His main area of expertise is the history of Iran in the Mongol and Safavid periods. He is also Director of the Cambridge Shahnama Project, creating an online database of manuscripts and illustrations of the Persian ‘Book of Kings’, and has travelled extensively in Iran.

Price – per person

May & September. Two sharing: £3,490 or £2,870 without all flights. Single occupancy: £3,760 or £3,140 without all flights. Price in October (exclusively for solo travellers): £3,570 or £2,950 without all flights.

 

Included

2018: flights (economy class) with Uzbekistan Airways (aircraft: Boeing 757 & British Aerospace RJ85); travel by private air-conditioned coach, cars (in convoy, for 1 excursion) and high-speed train between Tashkent and Samarkand; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 10 lunches and 9 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager, national guide and local guides.

 

Internal flight

The flight between Urgench and Tashkent is not included in our ‘without flights’ price. We can book this on your behalf quoting the price at the time, or you can choose to book this independently. If the latter, we recommend you book as soon as possible as if this flight is sold out, it will not be possible for you to join the group. Please also 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 10 will either be in Khiva or Tashkent depending on this schedule.

 

Visas

British citizens and most other foreign nationals require a tourist visa. This is not included in the price of the tour because you have to obtain it yourself. Please wait for our instructions before completing your visa application. Further instructions will be issued three months before the tour departs, as you are unable to apply before this date. UK citizens will need to submit your passport to the Consular section of the Uzbekistan Embassy in London prior to departure. Processing times vary but UK residents should expect to be without their passport for up to 10 days. Citizens of Australia and New Zealand have their visa 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.

 

Accommodation

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.

 

How strenuous?

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 days with minimal driving. The average distance by coach per day is 78 miles.

 

Group size

Between 10 and 22 participants.

 

Suggested travel for combining with Essential China, 2–14 May 2018

14 May: Fly with China Southern Airlines from Shangahi Hongqiao Airport to Tashkent (via Beijing) at 11.50-19.10 (please note the group transfer will go to Pudong airport instead). Stay in Tashkent on the night of 14th & 15th May. The group arrives at 8.30am on 16th May. You would need to book your flight.

MRT can book an extra night on 14 May in Tashkent. Prices on enquiry. Accommodation in Tashkent is included from 2pm on 15th May.

 

Travel advice

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.

 

 

 

Map for Samarkand and Silk Road Cities.

'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.'