Follow in the footsteps of merchants, Mongols, and princes as we travel to five Central Asian countries, discovering the towns and cities of the legendary Silk Road. From elegant Almaty to eclectic Tashkent and timeless Khiva, wander beneath exquisite, tile-covered mosques, venture to age-old bazaars that evoke the camel caravans of the past, and experience unique nomadic traditions that endure in the mountain valleys. Enjoy folkloric performances and intimate conversations with locals as you immerse yourself in the heritage of the region—a melting pot of cultures for over 2,000 years.
Arrive in Almaty, the cultural capital of Kazakhstan, and transfer to your hotel. Explore this ancient, sophisticated city—once a thriving center along the fabled Silk Road—at leisure this evening.
After breakfast, meet with representatives of National Geographic Kazakhstan for an interactive presentation on Kazakhstan’s ancient cities. Then set out on a daylong tour of Almaty. Visit Panfilovets’ Park, dedicated to a local infantry unit that attempted to defend Moscow against Nazi forces during World War II; and admire the eye-catching domes of Ascension Cathedral, one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world. Head to bustling Zelyony Bazaar to get a glimpse of daily life in the city, and continue to the Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan to learn about the country’s long and layered history. Tonight, clap along to a Kazakh folk performance during our welcome dinner.
Begin the day with a visit to a contemporary art gallery that showcases the work of established and emerging artists from Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries; and get a chance to chat with some of the artists. After lunch, enjoy some free time before heading to the airport to catch a flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city.
This morning, meet with wildlife conservationist and National Geographic grantee Tatjana Rosen to learn about her Society-funded efforts to protect snow leopards—Central Asia's iconic feline species. Then set out to discover Bishkek, visiting the city’s Stalinist-style presidential palace and the expansive Ala-Too Square. Later, head to the National History Museum of Kyrgyzstan for a tour with its curator, enjoying exclusive access to a dazzling exhibit of Scythian gold. Spend the evening at the Supara Ethno-Complex, a restaurant and event space designed to reflect traditional nomadic lifestyles. Enjoy a private fashion show, and cap off the day with a folkloric song and dance performance in the intimacy of a private yurt.
Drive into the lush hills surrounding Bishkek to the 11th-century Burana Tower, the only structure that remains of the Silk Road city of Balasagun. Savor a hearty lunch in the home of a local family, then continue to a local village. Here, in the pristine heart of Kyrgyz nomad country, we experience unique nomadic traditions that date back thousands of years—including demonstrations of horseback archery, falconry, and felt making. Later, sit down for a moving performance of verses from the “Epic of Manas,” Kyrgyzstan’s cherished national poem, listed by UNESCO as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Return to Bishkek for an evening flight to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
One of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan, Tashkent was once a major trading post on the Silk Road. Tour this eclectic Uzbek capital, strolling past the blue-domed mosques and mausoleums of Khast Imam Square; and take a look at the aged pages of the Quran of Uthman, believed to be one of the oldest extant copies of the holy book. Wander through piles of colorful spices, dried fruit, and fragrant rice at Chorsu Bazaar; and pay a visit to the Museum of Applied Arts—a collection of Uzbek handicrafts housed in the lavish former mansion of a Russian imperial diplomat. Later, we enjoy a visit to the private studio of a family that has been creating traditional ceramics for six generations.
Board a fast train to Samarqand, dubbed a “crossroad of cultures” by UNESCO. Set on the edge of the Kyzylkum Desert, this legendary city flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries under the rule of Timur and his successors. Explore Registan Square, home to some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world, and see the glittering turquoise dome of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, dedicated to Timur’s favorite wife. Stroll through the historic Siab Bazaar, and visit the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, adorned in a stunning spectrum of blue tiles. Alternatively, take a private tour of the Afrasiab Museum with an archaeologist. Marvel at the weapons, ceramics, and frescoes excavated from the ancient city of Afrasiab—the historic core of Samarqand—destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Embark on a day trip to the city of Panjakent in Tajikistan, a former settlement of the pre-Islamic Sogdiana civilization located on the banks of the Zeravshan River. Delve into the Iranian heritage of this ancient city with visits to the ruins of Zoroastrian temples, a necropolis, and a residential area. Discover Sogdian artifacts at the Rudaki Museum, named after the 9th-century Persian poet Rudaki; and meet with a spokesperson from a local NGO to hear about development efforts in modern Panjakent. Back in Samarqand, enjoy a delightful performance of traditional Uzbek dances by a local dance troupe.
This morning, we venture into the countryside surrounding Samarqand to glimpse rural Uzbek life. Hike along feathery grasslands and over windswept hills and weathered canyons, en route to a local village. Here, we’ll have a chance to chat with the residents about the changes their lives have seen over the years; and we might witness certain customs that have remained unchanged for centuries. Return to the city for lunch, and while away the afternoon as you wish.
Depart by train to Bukhara, once an intellectual and cultural center of the Islamic world and a flourishing Silk Road town. Stroll Bukhara’s historic center, which has changed little since the days when caravans passed through, and pay a visit to the unusual Chor-Minor madrassa, featuring four differently shaped minarets. Discover the Po-i-Kalyan religious complex, whose bright blue domes can be seen from a distance; and admire the stunning mosaics of the Nadir Divan-Begi madrassa.
Continue your exploration of Bukhara on foot. Pause at the vividly colored Bolo-Hauz Mosque, and visit the fifth-century Ark, the massive fortified residence of the emirs of Bukhara, and join an archaeologist for a tour of its private exhibitions. This afternoon, make your way to the old Jewish quarter, home to a community of Bukharan Jews who speak their own dialect of Tajik-Persian mixed with Hebrew. Meet with a local rabbi and visit the Synagogue of Bukhara and the Jewish cemetery. Alternatively, head outside the city center to the opulent summer palace of the Bukharan emirs and venture to the serene mausoleum of Bahauddin Naqshband, the founder of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis and one of the most revered figures in the Muslim world. Round off the day with a master class in the art of making plov, Central Asia’s national dish, consisting of rice, vegetables, and meat cooked in a spice-infused broth. Enjoy this aromatic feast for dinner at a local home.
Bid goodbye to Bukhara and travel by train to Khiva. The capital of an independent khanate for almost a millennium, Khiva was a vital stop on the Silk Road and harbors one of the best-preserved old towns in Central Asia. A tightly knit maze of streets forms the city’s core, and its mud-colored buildings are accented with arresting shades of blue. Upon arrival, head to the Allakuli Khan madrassa for a concert of traditional music, performed by a local folklore group.
Following breakfast, set out on a tour of magical Khiva—a trip into its historic center, the World Heritage site of Itchan Kala, is a journey back in time. Explore the corridors and courtyards of Tash Hauli Palace, former home of the Khivan ruler Allah Kuli Khan; look up at the turquoise dome of the mausoleum of the famed pahlavan, or warrior, Mahmud; and weave between a forest of wooden columns at the Juma Mosque. Later, visit the Artisan Development Center, where you can watch artisans busy at work creating exquisite tapestries, chess sets, and other handicrafts.
Cross the border into Turkmenistan, driving past the ruins of Kunya-Urgench, another important stop on the Silk Road. After lunch, continue to the Daşoguz airport to fly to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s largest city. This gleaming metropolis holds the Guinness World Record for the highest density of buildings adorned with white marble. Head to a traditional Turkmen restaurant for dinner this evening, followed by a fashion show, where we’ll have a chance to meet and speak with a local fashion designer.
Brimming with golden domes, soaring minarets, and futuristic skyscrapers, modern Ashgabat is largely the creation of Turkmenistan’s charismatic leader, the late Saparmurat Niyazov. On a city tour, visit the nearby ruins of Nisa, the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire which rivaled Rome. Stop by the towering Monument of Neutrality; wander through the manicured paths of stately Independence Park; and admire the Presidential Palace’s golden-domed exterior. Toast to your Silk Road journey at a festive farewell dinner tonight.
Transfer to the airport and depart for home.