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The Golden Road to Samarkand: Art and Architecture of Central Asia

Tales of the Silk Road have enticed and beguiled the west for centuries, and images of the ‘mysterious east’, numinous, exotic and dangerously seductive, lingered on in the western imagination long after the overland trade route had disintegrated. Even today, the six central Asian ‘-stans’ are a poorly-understood region well off the European radar, and Uzbekistan is the ‘-stan’ nonpareil, being bordered by the other five. But Uzbekistan’s geographical and political isolation, for better or worse, has slowed the inroads of modernity, and here the glories of the Silk Road have withstood the sands of time. After flying to Tashkent, the tour begins in the walled city of Khiva, a figurative and literal oasis of majolica and glazed brick that owed its wealth (and notoriety) to the vast slave market at its spectacular East Gate. From Khiva, we continue to ‘the Dome of Islam’, Bukhara, to wonder at its 150-foot high Kalyan minaret, the magnificent Balyand mosque, and the Lyab-i Hauz architectural complex of Sufi boarding-houses and madrassahs. Our third major stop is Samarkand, Tamerlane’s capital, which he endowed with many spectacular buildings including the vast Bibi-Khanym mosque and his own solemn mausoleum, where visitors may find themselves recalling the words of the English poet James Elroy Flecker: "Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells / When shadows pass gigantic on the sand / And softly through the silence beat the bells / Along the Golden Road to Samarkand."

Your Tour Includes

  • Return flights from London to Tashkent
  • Domestic flight from Tashkent to Urgench
  • 10 nights' bed and breakfast accommodation in locally rated four-star hotels
  • All dinners and lunches
  • Transfers and excursions in Uzbekistan by private coach
  • Guided visits to monuments and museums listed in the programme
  • Detailed programme and study notes
  • Services of a lecturer and Tour Manager
  • All entrance fees, taxes and gratuities for coach drivers and waiters
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Itinerary

We take a morning flight from London Gatwick to Tashkent via Istanbul.

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Tashkent

We arrive in Tashkent in the early hours of the morning and transfer to our hotel for some rest. After an early lunch and a short orientation tour of Tashkent, we take an early evening flight to Urgench. From Urgench, it is a short drive to Khiva for the first of two nights at the Orient Star Hotel, a historic building within the old walls which was once the largest theological college in the city.

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Khiva

We spend today exploring the old walled city of Khiva, capital of Khorezm from the 16th to 20th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and open air museum. As one of the most remote Silk Road cities, Khiva enjoyed an artistic renaissance in the 19th century – its buildings glisten with glazed brick and its carved woodwork is second to none. Our morning visits include the Kunya Ark (old fortress), original residence of the Khiva Khans, the magnificent Friday Mosque and its prayer hall a forest of carved wooden pillars, the mausoleum of popular local saint Pahlavan Mahmoud, and several madrassahs (theological colleges) which now house museum collections.

In the afternoon we focus on the eastern district of town, where we find the old slave market, domed bazaar and huge caravanserai, and the beautifully decorated Tash Hauli (stone palace) with public reception area and private harem quarters for the khan’s four wives.

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Tash Hauli

After breakfast, we leave Khiva on a day of travel and drive across the Kizil Kum (red sand) desert to Bukhara for the first of three nights. A picnic lunch will be shared en route, and the journey will offer us a sight of the great Amu Darya or Oxus River. On arrival in Bukhara in the late afternoon, we check in to our hotel, the Asia Bukhara.

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Amu Darya

Today we begin our exploration of Bukhara, the foremost centre of Islamic art and scholarship in Transoxiana until the time of Tamerlaine. Although the conqueror razed it to the ground, the city experienced a renaissance under the Uzbeks in the 16th century. Our morning visits include an exquisite brick mausoleum of the Persian Samanid dynasty (10th century), the idiosyncratic Chasma Ayub shrine built over a spring connected with the Prophet Job, and the imposing Ark (fortress) of the Bukhara emirs, with its neighbouring Zindan (prison) containing the notorious ‘Bug Pit’ from which few escaped alive.

In the afternoon, we stroll through the city streets and see the Kalon (great) mosque and its adjacent minaret, left standing by Genghis Khan, and several madrassahs, traditional Bukharan bazaars housed in characteristic trading domes. Another site of interest is the lovely architectural ensemble around the Lyab i-Hauz pool, fed by the waters of the ‘Royal Canal’ which still runs through the city.

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Kalon Mosque and Minaret Bukhara Zindan

In the morning, we continue our tour of Bukhara with a trip to the Chor Minar, a curious gatehouse with four towers on the outskirts of the old city. This is followed by a visit to the traditional Bukharan mansion of Faizullah Khodjaev, first president of the Uzbek SSR, the Balyand neighbourhood mosque, a jewel of 16th century architecture, and the Emir’s Summer palace, built in 1911. The afternoon is free for shopping, further exploration or some relaxation.

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Chor Minar

After breakfast we drive to Shahr-i-Sabz, birthplace of Tamerlaine, where the conqueror built an enormous palace of which only part of the imposing and beautifully decorated audience chamber remains. Here also is the family burial ground, where two of Tamerlaine’s sons and other kinsmen are buried and where his grandson, Ulug Beg, built the Kok Gumbaz mosque with its sparkling blue dome. After our visits, we drive alongside the Zerafshan mountains towards Samarkand where we will spend the next three nights.

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Kok Gumbaz Mosque

A full day exploring Samarkand, capital of Tamerlaine, who used the vast resources of his far-flung empire to endow the city with splendid monuments. In the morning we visit the huge Bibi Khanum mosque, built by Tamerlaine for his favourite wife, and the famous Registan, the city’s main square. Redesigned by Ulug Beg, Tamerlaine’s scholar and astronomer grandson, and framed by three brilliantly ornamented madrassahs, it is one of the loveliest architectural ensembles anywhere.

In the afternoon, we drive to the outskirts of the city where Ulug Beg built an observatory without equal in east or west. It was destroyed by religious fanatics in the 15th century, but in 1908 Russian archaeologists rediscovered part of the enormous sextant. Close to our hotel is the magnificent Gur Emir mausoleum, commissioned by Tamerlaine for his favourite grandson Mohammad Sultan, who died young, and where the conqueror himself and his immediate descendants are also buried beneath the loveliest of all Timurid bulbous blue domes.

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Gur Emir Mausoleum Entrance Bibi Khanum Mosque

Our first visit this morning is to the ancient deserted site of Afrosiab, on the outskirts of Samarkand. This was the location of the city until 1220AD when it was destroyed by Tamerlaine and never resettled. Finds from excavation of the vast site are housed in the excellent Afrosiab History Museum and include fascinating 7th-century murals depicting a royal procession and the ruler receiving foreign envoys. On the southern slope of the ancient site is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, an extraordinary collection of mausolea mainly of Timurid princesses, which boast exquisitely decorated majolica facades. Within the cemetery is the holy shrine of Qussum ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammad, who came to Transoxiana to convert the people to Islam but was beheaded by fanatical Zoroastrians while at prayer. Local worshippers still come to pay their respects. The afternoon is free for further exploration and shopping.

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Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis

This morning we drive from Samarkand back to Tashkent for our final night, crossing en route the Syr Darya or Jaxartes River. After lunch in Tashkent, we visit the State Fine Arts Museum, take a short walk through the old town, and see the Osman Koran, claimed to be the world’s oldest, housed in a new annexe to the rebuilt Tellya Sheikh mosque. In the evening, we enjoy a farewell dinner together in a local restaurant.

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Tellya Sheikh Mosque

An early transfer by private coach to Tashkent airport for a flight back to London Gatwick via Istanbul.

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Please note that it is necessary to have a good level of fitness as there will be at times extensive walking and inevitably some long periods of standing.

Accommodation

You will be staying for one night at the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent, two nights at the Orient Star Khiva, three nights at the Hotel Asia Bukhara, three nights at the Movenpick Samarkand and one night at the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace.