Highlights of Uzbekistan

On this 12-day tour, we escort you through our country's four most famous cities: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. But we'll also take you to lesser-known places of historical importance such as Nurata, founded by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, where you can explore the remains of the great military fortress he built there.  After that, just to get a taste of what caravan travel must have been like back in Silk Road days, you'll ride a camel in the Kyzyl Kum desert, then spend a night in a yurt camp. On this tour, we also showcase Uzbekistan's unique cultural and artistic heritage in music, dance, carpet-weaving, suzani and ceramics.

Day 1: Arrival in Tashkent
After your flight lands in our nation's capital, you'll be picked up at the airport and driven to your hotel to rest up after your long journey.

Day 2: Tour of Tashkent
Today  you’ll see Tashkent's thoroughly modern side but after breakfast today, you'll get another perspective on a city whose history goes back about 2,500 years. In 1966, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Tashkent, including many ancient landmarks. Restoring those masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture to their former glory took decades but we think you'll agree that the spectacular results speak for themselves. Two of the Old City's most magnificent 16th century showpieces include the  Kukeldash and Barak-Khan Madrassahs. Other stops on our tour include the State Art Museum; the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts; and Chorsu Bazaar. In the evening, you'll take in a performance at the Navoi Opera Ballet Theatre.

Day 3: From Tashkent to Samarkand
After breakfast, we'll set out for Samarkand, a four-hour drive from Tashkent, and check into our hotel there. After lunch, prepare to be dazzled by the splendour of a city which is often called one of architectural wonders of the world. In 1370, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand his imperial capital. To that end, he brought in the greatest artisans and craftsmen from all over his vast empire to turn his dream into reality.

Today's Samarkand is believed to be very close to Tamerlane's vision but photographs taken in the early 20th century show these monumental buildings in an advanced state of disrepair, the elaborate tilework all but gone in many places. In recent years, massive restoration projects have transformed the interiors and exteriors of mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums and this work is still in progress.

A number of colourful legends surround the story of the creation of the Mosque of Bibi-Khanum, one of Samarkand's architectural highlights, but the most credible is that Tamerlane ordered it built and named it after his favourite wife, a Mongolian princess.

Today, you'll also get the chance to pay your respects to Tamerlane himself, where he rests, along with various relatives, under the golden dome of the fabulous Gur-i Amir mausoleum.
Our tour allows time to explore another of Samarkand's claims to fame -- the city's excellent main bazaar.

Day 4: More Samarkand
Today, we turn our attention to some of Tamerlane's relatives. The most famous of them, Ulugh Beg, was a grandson who ruled over the lands known as Transoxiana from 1409 to 1449. Today, though, he is remembered mainly as an astronomer and a great patron of the sciences. He established the Ulugh Beg Observatory, a three-storey, cylinder-shaped building constructed around three huge astronomical instruments. The largest of these, a curving stone arch called the Fakhri sextant, was used to measure the  angle of elevation of celestial bodies, allowing astronomers to calculate the length of a year to within 25 seconds – almost 200 years before telescopes were invented! After Ulugh Beg's death, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics but rediscovered in 1908 by Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin. This discovery meant so much to Vyatkin that he asked to be buried on the site.

We will also visit the Shakh-i-Zinda necropolis, a complex consisting of mosques and eleven mausoleums constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries to house the remains of members of the royal family and other nobles. More ancient tombs, including one believed to hold the remains of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, exist in the nearby town of Afrasiab. In the afternoon, we'll visit a workshop and see hand-weaving of silk carpets.

Day 5: Samarkand to Nurata
After breakfast, we'll set out for our three-hour drive to the city of Nurata. In addition to Alexander the Great's fortress there, our sightseeing tour will include a sacred shrine complex constructed around a spring (called a chashma), teeming with trout, whose water is believed to have healing properties.

After lunch with an Uzbek family, we'll proceed to a Kazakh yurt camp deep in the desert. There, you'll mount camels for a ride to the shores of Aydarkul Lake. We'll have dinner back at the camp and after breakfast the next morning, set out for the next leg of our tour – Bukhara.

Did you know? While Uzbekistan is known for our fabled oasis cities, 80 percent of our country's territory consists of open desert.

Day 6: Bukhara via Gijduvan and Vabkent
From the yurt camp to Bukhara is a three-hour drive but along the way, we'll stop in Gijduvan, the centre of Uzbekistan's ceramic arts, to have lunch with the family of a ceramicist and watch how our country's unique pottery is created.
We'll also pause in the town of Vabkent, a short distance outside Bukhara, to view a 12th century minaret. Like most of our country's ancient monuments, this little-known minaret has been also designated a UNESCO world heritage site. When monuments are given this designation, it means that they are protected in perpetuity by international law.

Day 7: Bukhara Sharif
Since Emir Travel and Hotel Emir are both in Bukhara, we freely admit to a bias in favour of our ancient city, once one of the most renowned centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world. One of the greatest charms of our Old City is that almost everything worth seeing and experiencing, including shops, restaurants, covered bazaars and of course, our monumental buildings, is within easy walking distance.

Sharif meaning 'noble' in Arabic, is a designation bestowed only on a handful of cities, Mecca and Medina among them, with special religious importance in Islam. Bukhara earned its sharif status as the 9th century birthplace of Imam al-Bukhari, one of the greatest collectors of written hadith -- sayings or anecdotes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. For generations before al-Bukhari`s lifelong work, these stories had only been passed down orally.

Today, you'll see the majestic Kalyan minaret, the symbol of our city, the prototype for the smaller, slimmer Vabkent minaret you saw the previous day. Although it was built in 1121, after Bukhara was sacked by Genghis Khan and his army in a century later, legend has it that the Mongol emperor was so impressed that he ordered it spared while everything else around it was destroyed, including the original mosque. The mosque and the madrassah now facing each other across the square both date from the 16th century.

Some time in the 1800s, one of Bukhara's cruelest emirs, Nasrullah Khan, ordered a man charged with defacing the minaret to be thrown from the top of it. However, our historians say that there's no truth to the widely-believed “Tower of Death” story that executions such as this took place regularly. After all, five times every day, a muezzin had to climb up and down the 104 steps of the interior spiral staircase to summon the faithful to prayer.


In Soviet times, Bukhara downplayed the most poignant historical aspect of a residence that used to be known only as “a rich merchant's house.” In fact, the merchant who once owned it, a dealer in the pelts of karakul sheep (called Persian lamb in the West), was the father of Faizullah Khojaev, who was a controversial figure to Bukharans. Khojaev, the leader of a dissident group that helped the Red Army overthrow the last emir of Bukhara in 1920, became the first president of what was then called the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic.

But like many other people of his day, Khojaev ran afoul of  Joseph Stalin and, after a show trial in  Moscow, was executed by firing squad on March 13, 1938, his 42nd birthday. His mother, sister, wife and daughter were all exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, although his mother died enroute. Khojaev was rehabilitated in 1966 and today, the house where he once lived now contains much of his personal and family memorabilia.

While there, you'll also see displays of the traditional clothing worn by Uzbek people before the 1920 revolution, including paranjas, the all-obscuring veil that Bukharan women were required to wear in public.

Day 8: More to admire about Bukhara

Today, we begin our tour with a visit to the Ark Fortress Museum. This massive structure, known to have existed in some form for more than 2,000 years, has suffered a great deal of damage over the years, most recently after a buildup of ice and snow caused part of the roof over the entrance to collapse. But before the revolution, the Ark was the centre of government for the entire emirate of Bukhara and also housed the main palace of the last emir of Bukhara, Said Alim Khan. Today, the rooms open to the public house historical displays.

Some of the area of Registan Square in front of the Ark had to be sacrificed when roads were widened, so it used to be much larger. Here, Bukharans used to gather to watch entertainments such as wrestling, jugglers, trapeze artists – as well as public floggings and executions.

Sites of interest near the fortress include the remains of the walls that used to encircle the city, with doors that were closed, locked and barred to all non-residents after dark; the Bolo-Khauz complex, consisting of a reservoir, mosque and minaret; and the intriguing Chashma-Ayub (Job's Well) shrine and mausoleum.

According to legend, long ago, the prophet Job, whose tale of terrible suffering is told both in the Old Testament and the Qur'an, once visited what is now Bukhara during a drought. Distressed to learn that the people here didn't have enough drinking water, Job drove his staff into the ground, causing a stream of clean, clear water burst forth. Tamerlane ordered the construction of this building in the 14th century and local people still come here to collect the spring water, which is believed to have healing properties.

One of the oldest of Bukhara's monuments is the Samanid mausoleum, built between 892 and 943, to house the remains of Ismail Samani, an emir who ruled in Central Asia, and a few of his relatives.

The goodies on offer in our main bazaar, also in this immediate area, are likely to whet your appetite for lunch (if you haven't already ruined it by overindulgence in samples of the merchandise). In the afternoon, we'll visit the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara, not far outside the city. Although this site had been used as a country estate by many previous emirs, this palace was completed in 1918, which allowed Alim Khan only two short years to enjoy it. There, you'll also see an exhibition of hand-made suzani.

In late afternoon, in the courtyard of the Divan Begi madrassah, an Uzbek Folklore emsemble will perform for you, followed by dinner.

Day 9: From Bukhara to Khiva
The drive through the Kyzyl-Kum desert from Bukhara to Khiva takes six to seven hours so we'll leave right after breakfast but stop by the Amu-Darya River, called the Oxus in ancient times, for a picnic lunch. After you check into your Khiva hotel, you'll have dinner and the rest of the evening will be yours.

Day 10: A walking tour of Khiva
Unlike Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva's old city is almost uninhabited. With 54 perfectly-preserved or restored historical buildings and monuments, including mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, minarets and palace complexes in so compact an area, it's almost like experiencing Samarkand in miniature. Highlights of the city include an underground mosque, the courtyard of the royal harem – and the unique symbol of the city, called Kalta Minor, meaning “short minaret,” which looks like an elaborately-decorated industrial chimney.

If this minaret had ever been finished, it might have been taller than Bukhara's Kalyan minaret and, according to one of several tales associated with it, this might even be the reason why it wasn't finished. Historically, the khans of Khiva and the emirs of Bukhara were both rivals for influence in the region and mortal enemies whose armies habitually waged war on each other. Allegedly, Khiva's Muhammad Amin Khan, who had ordered the construction of this minaret, intended for it to tower over Bukhara's minaret but when Bukhara's then-emir Nasrullah – the same emir, nicknamed “the Butcher,” who had ordered a man to be thrown to his death from the the Kalyan minaret -- got wind of this, he vowed it would never happen.

As the story goes, Nasrullah offered the minaret's architect more money if he'd abandon that project and build his mighty minaret in Bukhara – and the architect agreed. But when the Khivan khan found out about this double-cross, he put a contract out on the architect's life, who fled to save his own skin. Since there was no one else who could complete the job, work on the minaret ceased after the death of the Khivan khan in 1860, so what you see today is exactly what it looked like then.

Did you know? It's a long story with no short version but much of the decorative work in Khiva's summer palace complex was done by a colony of Mennonite artisans who lived in a nearby village called Ak Metchet and whose direct descendants now live in North America. Look for the exquisite parquet floor, carved doors and the huge bed that they constructed for the Khan of Khiva's Nurullabai Palace.

Day 11: Khiva to Urgench, then Tashkent
After breakfast, we depart Khiva for the short drive to the city of Urgench, and from the airport there, fly to Tashkent, where you'll have the rest of the day free.

Day 12: Farewell to Uzbekistan
We hope that you've enjoyed your time with us as much as we've enjoyed our time with you. Remember that international protocol requests your presence at the airport for registration at least three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.