Heart of the Silk Route: a Saga Tour of Uzbekistan

STE’s Holiday Editor, Tony Taylor, reports on his experiences on an extended version of the Heart of the Silk Route, a Saga Holidays tour of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan: Registan Square Samarkand
Registan Square, Samarkand

My wife has long been interested in the Silk Road and after watching Joanna Lumley’s fascinating television programme on the subject, we booked the Saga Holidays tour called Uzbekistan: Heart of the Silk Route. We added a four day extension at the end in order to see some additional areas of Uzbekistan.

We flew overnight from Heathrow with Uzbekistan Airways. On arrival at Tashkent we were taken to a very exotic restaurant for breakfast and then to the domestic terminal for the further one and half hour flight to Urgench.

A further two hour drive took us to our first city and hotel stop at Khiva. The Asia Hotel was comfortable with lovely grounds and an outside bar by the swimming pool.

The following day was our first proper day of exploring Uzbekistan and the Silk Route. We walked across the road from the hotel to the inner fortress of Khiva, surrounded by tall mud walls, to the next gate and into the fortress.

The knowledgeable tour guide led us through the Ichan Kala, Inner Town, passed market traders, and interesting buildings. He pointed out and gave the history of many mosques, minarets and madrasahs (Muslim religious universities). Although the walking tour lasted five hours (including a coffee break) it was fairly easy walking.

Uzbekistan: Ichan Kala, Inner Town of Khiva
Ichan Kala, Inner Town of Khiva

The next day we left at 8:00 am for a 300 mile drive to Bukhara. The countryside was quite flat and passed through the Red Desert, which has shrubs planted to help reduce sand movements. We had four stops including a long one for a picnic lunch, and arrived at the Hotel Asia Bukhara at about 6:30 pm for a three night stay.

The following day included a half day walking tour of the city. We first had a short coach drive out to a 7th Century mosque with an ornate interior. From there we had a guided walk back to the hotel via a museum and the city walls, which provided some very good views over the city.

The guided informative tour included the famous Bukhara Square with its tall minarets, madrasah and large mosque with pleasant grounds. A visit to a carpet warehouse/factory showed beautiful but expensive carpets – no sales were made to our group!

Bolo Hauz Mosque, Khiva
Bolo Hauz Mosque, Khiva

There was free time that afternoon. The hotel was well situated in front of the Main Square. We walked a short way and had a lunch by a pool/fountain, before relaxing for a couple hours in the hotel gardens by the not very clean swimming pool. That evening we had a pleasant meal in a house in the Jewish quarter.

On our second day in Bukhara we were driven around the surrounding areas, getting off the coach to see various places of interest. The first was a Water Museum containing a well and providing information concerning water and irrigation. The second was the possible tomb of Job. The third was the Summer Palace of the Emir containing some lovely furniture in ornate rooms, but the gardens and buildings needed some attention.

The tour ended at the impressive mosque and cemetery of the Bahuddin Naqshbandi Mausoleum. We then had a couple of hours’ free time for lunch, before meeting at 5:00 pm for a short walking tour. This took us to a puppet-maker (interesting – with me being selected to demonstrate a puppet!) and a synagogue. After a cultural and fashion show, we enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant close to the hotel.

Mountains from Samarkand to Shakrisabz
Mountains between Samarkand and Shakrisabz

The next day was another day spent travelling, in this case the 180 miles to Samarkand. We first stopped in Bukhara to see one more building and a pottery, which included a demonstration, talk and tea break. The next stop was for lunch at an inexpensive café (a pint of beer and samosa for less than £1!), with a further short stop before arriving at the Grand Hotel Samarkand in the early evening.

A full day was spent exploring Samarkand. After touring the grand Amir Temur Mausoleum (with its fabulous interior and mosaics) we spent time at the renowned Registan Square, with yet more magnificent buildings on three sides.

The final visit was the Bibi Khanymn Mosque and the market (with time for lunch) before returning to the hotel for a break. At 5:00 pm we travelled by bus again to see an observatory and a mausoleum/cemetery before the evening meal.

The Bullet Train
The Bullet Train

The following day was quite different. We took a scenic car drive through the Tahta-Karachaq mountain pass to Shakhrisahz, stopping at a large market and a viewing point on the way.

We walked around the centre with gardens and the remains of an enormous gateway. before having lunch and returning to Samarkand station for a two hour train journey on the famous bullet train to Tashkent. After dinner we finally arrived at our hotel, the Ramada, at 10:30 pm!

The following morning after a late start, we had a city tour. This included the Khast Imam Complex (with mosque madrasah and a seventh century Koran), several markets and a trip on the Metro. We then had four hours free time before meeting for the evening meal.

Most of our tour group completed their tour at this stage, but we had opted for a four day extension.

Tashkent Market
Tashkent Market

The next day started with a leisurely breakfast and a stroll around the local park. However our day was ruined when we returned to the hotel at 11:20 am and were told we had to move hotels with only 20 minutes to pack. We informed the tour guide this was not possible at such short notice.

We were finally collected by a guide at 3:00 pm and moved to a new hotel, the Aster Hotel, which was okay, but in a terrible location with a 20 minute walk to the Metro.

On the first full of day the extension we were driven through the Kamchik mountain pass – scenic and spectacular – to Fergana. This took from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm with stops for lunch and the Palace of Khudáyár Khán at Kokand. The Hotel Asia at Fergana was excellent, with large rooms, and lovely gardens and restaurants. We had a pleasant evening meal eating outdoors.

The next we relaxed in Fergana. After another leisurely breakfast, we were taken to the enormous local bazaar at Margilan – which sold almost everything including furniture, clothes, fruit and meat. After a kebab lunch in an attractive restaurant we visited an equestrian centre and then on to a lovely vineyard for a delightful wine tasting session

Gardens in Kokand
Gardens in Kokand

The last full day of our holiday was spent travelling by minibus back to Tashkent. This was another long drive, stopping at a silk factory, a pottery and a mountain viewing point en route. We arrived at the Wyndham Hotel in Tashkent at 6:30 pm. The following afternoon we flew home.

Overall it was a very different, interesting holiday. However, it did include much travelling and walking. Uzbekistan is changing rapidly. When we read about it a year ago, a visa was required for UK citizens, there were few ATMs and there were requirements for visitors to declare medicines and money. All these have changed this year making it much easier for tourists.

However, if you wish to visit Uzbekistan, we would recommend that you check the monthly weather to help you decide when you should visit as temperatures vary widely throughout the year.

See our other Saga Holiday reports