Welcome to Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital and Central Asia's main hub. Your adventure starts with a welcome meeting this evening.
Travel from Tashkent to Bukhara by train this morning (approx 4 hours). Located on the ancient Silk Road, Bukhara was an important regional and world hub for many, many years and has a long, fascinating history featuring invasions by both Genghis Khan and the Soviet Red Army. The majority of the town centre is filled with beautiful old buildings and, after checking into the hotel on arrival, you'll explore these on a guided tour. Visit the spectacular Ark buliding, a fortress that was occupied from the 5th century right up until its bombing in 1920, the Bolo - Hauz Mosque with its most elegant wooden carvings, and thousand - year old Ismail Samani Mausoleum. This shrine, built around the 10th century, was spared destruction during Genghis Khan's invasion as it's thought to have been buried as a result of flooding. It was discovered and excavated in the 20th century, and became a popular spot for pilgrims and local residents who considered it sacred. In the evening, enjoy a traditional, home-cooked dinner in a beautiful private residence with local friends.
With over 100 architectural monuments scattered throughout the city, there's plenty to be seeing in the well-preserved ancient town. Today, enjoy a full day city tour through sites and places that are steeped in history. Visit the iconic Kalon Mosque and Minerat, one of the most impressive with a view of the city. Stop at the Lyabi - Hauz Plaza, built about 400 years ago around a pool, still full of the old world feel with its picturesque backdrop. Chor Minor, the 4 cornered Minerats stand right behind it too. Don't miss Maghoki - Attar Mosque, which is the oldest mosque in Central Asia built in the 12th century, but was once a Buddhist and a Zoroastrian temple before that. And Ulugbek Madrasah, the first in the city.
If you are still energetic after a full day's exploration, perhaps take an optional visit to Hammam Bozori Kord, the oldest Turkish-style bathhouse in Bukhara, before a free evening in town. Your leader can help with suggestions on where to find some authentic Uzbek fare for dinner tonight.
Depart Bukhara and drive to Gijduvan. Here you'll visit a ceramic workshop, where sixth-generation ceramicists Abdulla and Alisher Narzullaev make some truly beautiful pieces. Spend an hour or so at the workshop then continue to Nurata, a drive of approximately 2.5 hours. The city proper was founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, though archaelogical remains date the first inhabitants of the area many thousands of years earlier, and the ruins of his fortress can still be seen today. From Nurata, the group will head into the Kyzylkum desert to spend the night sleeping in yurts. Perhaps choose to take an optional camel ride in the desert, and enjoy an evening campfire and local music with tonight's dinner underneath the desert stars.
Drive into the Nuratau Mountains for our stay in a Tajik village (2-3 hours). These villages are serene, hidden away in the hills with paths shaded by greenery and buildings made of stone. The region is a desert oasis, with irrigation channels watering crops and giving life to trees. Spend the day hiking to waterfalls or petroglyph sites, possibly seeing the endemic mountain sheep called argali. Learn to bake traditional tandir bread and spend the night in a homestay, learning about the local traditions and culture.
Marco Polo described Samarkand as a 'very large and splendid city,' and after a four hour drive you'll find out for yourself. This is a truly breathtaking place that conjures up images of ancient splendour, and there's perhaps no more well-known sight in Central Asia than the magnificent Registan in the heart of the city. This public square was once a gathering place for locals, where they would hear royal announcements and watch public executions among other things. Also visit the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, the resting place of Timur who was the first ruler of the Timurid Dynasty. His crypt was opened in 1941 by a Soviet anthropologist, who found an inscription on Timur's gravestone essentially saying that 'He who opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I'. On the following day, the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler. After a day of sightseeing, overnight in a hotel in town and enjoy a free evening.
Spend a full day in Samarkand continuing to take in the ancient sights and modern sounds. Don't miss Shah-i-Zinda, a stunning avenue of mausoleums decorated with beautiful blue tiles. Its holiest, most loved shrine is built around what's thought to be the grave of Quasam ibn-Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and the man who brought Islam to the region many centuries ago. The Bibi-Khanym Mosque is an incredible example of Islamic architecture, built for Timur by Bibi Khanym, his Chinese wife, while he was away. As the story goes, the architect of the mosque fell deeply in love with her and his kiss left a trace on her cheek. Timur saw the kiss on his return and this, of course, led to the architect's execution. Another highlight is a visit to the workshop of Zarif Mukhtarov, one of the few people producing handmade paper in Central Asia as per a 1000-year-old process, the result of which should, he believes, last for 2000 years. Overnight in the hotel.
Depart early this morning return to Tashkent by high-speed train, taking a packed breakfast for us to enjoy on board (approx 2 hours). Enjoy a city tour after arrival. Visit the Amir Timur Square in the center of the city, spend time wandering Chorsu Bazaar. The main building is topped by an impressive dome, and the market sells pretty much everything you could imagine, and plenty of things you couldn't.There maybe the option to catch a performance at the Navoi Ballet & Opera Theatre tonight.This theatre is just one of three that were given the status of 'Grand' within the Soviet Union, the other two being located in Moscow and Minsk. It's housed in a beautiful 20th-century building with a fountain at its entrace, and has played host to classic productions like Swan Lake and some incredible artists. Perhaps get your group together for a final dinner tonight before saying your farewells tomorrow morning.
Enjoy a free day in Tashkent until 6pm. There will be a group meeting in the hotel and your leader will talk about the next part of the adventure and you'll meet your new travel mates.
Take morning flight to Urgench (90 mins) and transfer to colourful Khiva (45 mins). Many global powers have laid claim to this city over the centuries, from khans to Silk Road traders and the Soviet Union. Get acquainted with Khiva on a tour of this walled-city. See the incredible blue-tiled Kalta Minor Minaret and the Mohammed Amin Khan Madressa. Explore the Kuhna Ark, the "citadel within a citadel" which once housed the Khan and his family in the 17th century, then get a good look at this attractive city from the Ak-sheikh Baba Observatory. Finally, visit the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, a complex constructed in honour of the famous 13th-century poet, craftsman and fighter. A popular pilgrimage site, the mint-coloured dome that tops the main mausoleum is stunning. Spend the rest of the day as you wish. Maybe ask your leader where to grab the best plov (rice, meat, and carrots). The city is a photographer's delight, particularly in the evenings when the sun begins to set and fading light glints off turquoise tiles, so make sure you have your phone or camera ready to snap some pictures.
Khiva is particularly magic at dawn when the streets are empty. Later, you leader will guide you through some of the city’s other impressive monuments and buildings. Visit the towering Islom Hoja Minaret, the tallest building in Khiva. Explore Juma Mosque, the roof of which is propped up by 212 wooden columns and designed to let in sunlight. If you want a peek at Uzbek luxury, look no further than the Tosh-Hovli Palace, which was built in the first half of the 19th century. Wander through elaborately decorated courtyards connected by labyrinthian corridors. The rest of the afternoon is yours to relax.
Say goodbye to Uzbekistan and cross the border into Turkmenistan at Khodjeyli (Xo‘jayli). Meet the new leader who will be your key to local secrets, food and highlights for the rest of your journey. From the border, make a 1.5-hour drive to the World Heritage-listed Konye-Urgench. Once a centre of the Islamic world, it suffered destruction at the hands of Genghis Khan and the Timurid dynasty and fell into decay until the 20th century. But it still has tonnes of monuments from the 11th to 16th centuries, including a mosque, mausoleum and the 60-metre-high Gutlug Timur Minaret. Continue your journey with a 4-hour drive by 4WD to Darvaza Crater. This astounding 70-metre-wide hole in the Karakum Desert is permanently aflame. Soviet oil prospectors started drilling in 1971 expecting to find oil, and the ground collapsed to form the crater. Worried about the gas released into the air, they deliberately set the crater on fire to burn off the excess, expecting it to last a few weeks. As you’ll see today, they were wrong, and the crater has been burning ever since. Watch the sunset over the 'Door to Hell' from your nearby camp, and enjoy a Turkmenistan-style barbecue for dinner.
Hit the sand again in the 4WD, making the 4-hour drive to Ashgabat with a stop along the way at the tiny settlement of Yerbent. The community here live primarily in yurts that are tucked between the sand dunes. Check out the local monument that pays tribute to the group of socialists that died in the Basmachi Revolt in 1931, then continue to Ashgabat. Little is left of the original Russian Imperial city as most of it was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1948, and today the city centre is a bizarre mix of futuristic and outrageous public buildings. Get a sense of Ashgabat old and new with a tour that takes in both the ancient settlement of Nisa and the National Museum of Turkmenistan. Enjoy a free afternoon in this mind-bending city. Look out for the ornate, golden telephone booths, screens broadcasting official ceremonies on a loop and imposing statues of the president.
Take a full day to wrap your head around this desert city on an immersive guided tour taking in the four pointed minarets atop the Ertugrul Gazi Mosque and the the extravagant Independence Monument. This sculpted park is filled with statues of Turkmen heroes (and controversial politicians) that line paths that lead to a golden dome and a (surprise!) massive minaret. From this lavish ode to Turkmen identity, continue to the Neutrality Arch, which despite its name has a provocative history. Then travel outside of the city to the Turkmenbashy Ruhi Mosque, the mausoleum of former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, before heading further out of town to the ruins of Anau. The crumbling remains of the medieval mosque still attract the devout, who come to pray and make offerings. After a day full of sightseeing, maybe spend the evening relaxing at your hotel.
Rise and shine for the 5-hour drive to Mary (pronounced ‘Mah-rih’). The somewhat ostentatious displays of wealth in the city can be traced to the long-running gas and cotton industries. Stop en route for lunch and to roam through the ruins of Abiverd. This fascinating archaeological site was an important trading town from 652 AD until the 12th century, and you can still see ancient shards of pottery scattered on the ground. Arrive in Mary in the afternoon and settle into your hotel.
Take a 40-minute drive to Merv, also known as Margiana or Margush, and enjoy some time to explore Turkmenistan's most recognised site. This sprawling World Heritage site is home to numerous walled structures from various periods spread across a 1200-hectare area. See impressive columns smoothed by wind and time at the Greater Kizkala and walk hills that were once the fortress walls of Erk Kala. While not the most impressive visually, Gyaur Kala dates to 400 BC and has a fascinating history. Spend some time exploring these relics of grand empires and then return to Mary for a free afternoon. Maybe visit the Mary Regional Museum. Housed in a palace of white marble, the museum features archaeological displays and exhibitions on traditional Turkmen life and culture.
Glittering Ashgabat awaits your return today, so make the 5-hour return drive to the City of White Marble. Enjoy a free afternoon to spend as you wish before an optional final night dinner with your group.
There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart the hotel at any time.