On arrival in Tashkent, you will be met by our representative who will transfer you to your centrally located hotel. Tashkent is a modern city of three million people and is the arts centre of the region. Museums and the opera house are perhaps its best known attractions. It has a relaxed pace and charming street side cafes. Trams amble beside green parks and the wide tree-lined roads give a sense of space. We will have an important tour briefing later today, so please check with reception for the time and location.
This morning at 09:00 we will have a tour briefing before visiting the Tashkent underground, where each station displays a specific architectural and artistic decoration. In the afternoon we follow the Silk Road past old caravanserai to the ancient city of Samarkand. Over the centuries this road has been travelled by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane as they travelled the route to extend their knowledge and influence. We overnight in Samarkand.
Samarkand is a wondrous city showcasing the legacies of the great ruler.Tamerlane was the most influential military leader of the middle ages. He set about making it the richest city on earth by pillaging and destroying all other cities and removing their wealth and skills to Samarkand. Covering the tomb where he lies in the city today is a large single slab of green jade, said to be the largest such stone in the world and symbolic of the extravagance of the ruler and the city he built as his capital. A visit to the tomb reveals an impressive piece of work, but his legacy, the Registan, the market place of ancient Samarkand, is his greatest achievement. It is enclosed by spectacular medressas (Islamic centres of learning) on three sides. These huge buildings with domes and minarets covered in a mosaic of azure tiles were built from the 1400s. The Registan is deserving of its title as one of the wonders of the ancient world. We will also visit the huge mosque, bazaar and observatory during our two days of exploration in and around Samarkand.
Our Silk Road journey continues as we travel between Samarkand and Bukhara in our private vehicle, passing through the desert along the ancient trade route. The road trip takes about four hours which allows the afternoon to be free for exploring Bukhara or to relax at the hotel.
Bukhara boasts 2500 years of vibrant history. Capital of the Samanid state in the 9th and 10th Century's, Bukhara became the centre of an intellectual, religious and commercial renaissance of Central Asia until the city succumbed in 1220 to Genghis Khan and then to Tamerlane in 1370, after which Samarkand became the regions most important city. Bukhara had a second lease of life in the 16th century when it became the capital of what we now know as Bukhara Khanate during which time it had more than 300 mosques, 100 medrasses with over 10,000 students.
In 1868 it became the protectorate of the Tsar and later became incorporated into the Russian and then Soviet Empires. Over two days we'll immerse ourselves in the tapestry of this uncomplicated city with its rich history, taking in sights such as The Ark, the former royal city and fortress that was the focus of the city for 2000 years, the Summer Palace of the last emir, mausoleums and mosques and of course the exotic bazaars and markets that make Bukhara famous amongst shoppers. It is in these enclaves where bold rugs and intricate carpets, gold and an assortment of jewelry, tapestries, musical instruments, carved boxes, hats from provinces all over Central Asia and embroidered garments provide endless interest.
The road journey from Bukhara to Mary takes around 8-9 hours, depending on the border crossing times. We will have to cross the border on foot, the walk is about 2kms and is without vehicle support so please ensure you are able to carry or wheel your luggage along a dusty road. Once border formalities are complete, we will pass through the industrial city of Turkmenabat and continue on to Mary.
We commence the day with a short distance drive out of Mary to Merv, an ancient Silk Road staging post. Its origins date back more than 8000 years; the city was at its height during the 11th and 12th centuries when it was considered to be the second most important city in the Islamic world (after Baghdad), being the capital of the Seljuk Turks. Under their domination of the region stretching from Afghanistan to Egypt, the Seljuk's created a city full of treasures and palaces, irrigation channels and fertile gardens. The Mongols all but destroyed the city under the rule of Genghis Khan in the 13th century and it lay dormant for a century. Whilst parts of the city were resettled over the next few centuries it was not until the 18th century that the dam and some of the former riches were restored. Again, this did not last long, as the Emir of Bukhara opened the dam and his army reduced the city to rubble in 1795. The remains of the city are spread over an area of 100 square kilometres, and the site contains five walled cities from different periods. We spend a few hours exploring the remains of these cities, before returning to Mary for our evening flight to Ashgabat;Turkmenistan's modest capital.
Today we visit the main city sights of Ashgabat including the Palace of Turkmenbashi, the National Museum which houses a rich collection of ancient artifacts from Turkmenistan, and the Archaeological site of Nissa including the remains of Old and New Nissa. The city was an important centre of the Parthian State, which existed from the 3rd century BC up to the 3rd century AD. As the archaeological research shows, the township of New Nissa was the centre of the Parthian City. It was inhabited up to the 16th - 17th centuries. Old Nissa was a royal residence of the Parthian kings with the palace and temple, the depositories and the treasury. During the archaeological excavations about 2700 texts inscribed with black paint on the clay vessels fragments were discovered. The written language used in Nissa was of the Aramaic origin, which dates back to the 2nd century BC. We also take in the sights of the Presidential Palace, Lenin Square, Ertogrul Ghazy, and Turkmenbashynyn Ruhy Metjidi which is largest mosque in Central Asia.
Following a leisurely breakfast in Isfahan, we will drive from Isfahan to Tehran in our private vehicle. The journey, whilst long (approximately 6 to 7 hours), provides a great insight in to the changing landscapes of Iran and includes a stop at the Kashan, an oasis along Qom-Kerman road which runs along the edge of the central deserts. Whilst in Kashan we will visit the Fin Garden, or Bagh-e Fin, completed in 1590; it is the oldest garden in Iran still in existence.
On day 17, We visit Naghshe Jahan to see the Imam Mosque, Isfahan Bazar, Ali Ghapou palace and Lotfolah Mosque. On day 18, So much more to see in this incredible city. We will head to Vank church, Armenians quarter, Friday Mosque and the Chehel Sotoun museum.
Morning drive to Isfahan (300km), considered to be one of the finest cities in the Islamic world. Our sightseeing will include visits to the Shaking Minarets and the ancient bridges over the Zayande River, some dating back to the 12th century. Many of the bridges have teahouses beneath them and tend to be the Iranian equivalent of the local pub (strictly tea of course). A visit to Isfahan would not be complete without going to Imam Khomeini Square. It is surrounded by two mosques, a palace and the entrance to the Bazaar. In the middle of the square is a lake with a fountain and still in place are polo goal posts at either end. The Masjed-e Imam (or Imam Khomeini Mosque) is the most exquisite example of Mosaic tile work and the most stunning building in Iran. It is completely covered inside and out with the pale blue tiles for which Isfahan is famous. Other sights we plan to visit include Chehel Sotun Museum & Park this was built in the 17th Century as a reception hall, and has lovely columns made of plane tree with a 110m pool in the front. The Vank Cathedral built in the 17th century, has an interesting museum attached, and shows the history of the Armenians in the area. Finally, our evenings may be spent at the Abbassi Hotel - a great place to sip on a Farsi Cola and watch the world go by. Alternatively, we may stroll along the banks of the Zayande River, stopping at the many tea houses along the way.
Yazd is situated at an oasis where the Dasht-e Kavir Desert and the Dasht-e Lut Deserts meet, and is circled by a mountain range, the tallest being 4075m. During its long history, Yazd adapted to the desert surrounds gracing the city with great Islamic architecture and culture, despite it being a full Zoroastrian society. When exploring the city one gains a sense that time has stopped as there are plenty of old traditions and buildings that retain the character of the bygone era. The chimney like structures on the roofs of Yazdies' houses is just one example; in fact they are not chimneys but the ancient ventilation systems. They gather even the faintest breezes of the desert and channel them into the building below. Yazd is famous for its handicrafts and in the markets there will be plenty of opportunity to shop for rugs, small but intricate carpets, Kilim, Termeh (a lovely hand-made silk tapestry) pottery and ceramics. Yazd is the holiest city for Zoroastrians who travel from all over the world to see the sacred fire in Yazd that has been burning without interruption for 1500 years. In the outlying southern suburbs of town are the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, where the bodies of believers were once left to the vultures after death.
Iran, winding our way through the Kopet Dag Mountains to the border. The scenery en route is dramatic and changes frequently providing scenic splendours for the entire journey. Following potentially lengthy border formalities (border crossing is the Bajgiran check point) we will meet with our Iranian guide and change buses. All females in our group will now be required to wear a headscarf and loose clothing that covers all parts of the body in public places for the remainder of the trip, and a chador will be provided at any mosques or shrines where necessary. We continue on to Quchan which meets with National Highway 22 to Mashad. The city, whose name translates to 'place of martyrdom', is extremely sacred to Shiite Muslims as it was here that the descendent of Mohamed, Emam Reza, died nearly 1200 years ago.
This morning we visit Persepolis where a comprehensive tour is provided bringing to life the history of this magnificent ruin. Ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen, Darius I started constructing the great metropolis to serve as a summer capital in around 512BC. Subsequent Achaemenian kings, including Xerxes I, added their own palaces over the next 150 years. Sited on a vast platform above the plains, Persepolis is not a subtle monument. The Great Porch of Xerxes, flanked by winged bulls of stone, leads you into a massive ruined complex of royal palaces, halls, courts and apartments covered with inscriptions and carvings. A stunning wall of detailed bas-reliefs represents thousands of envoys from as far away as Ethiopia and Armenia, India and Cappadocia, bearing gifts to their almighty ruler. A good three hours is needed to explore Persepolis. A short drive away is the four impressive burial tombs of Darius and his successors, Naghsh-e Rostam, which have been hewn from the rock. There is also a fire temple at the site (or so they believe) that dates back to Achaemenian times. After lunch we return to Shiraz. In the afternoon you can choose to spend time at leisure or continue with the guide to visit some other sites of interest within the city.
This is the homeland of Orthodox Iranians. The Holy Shrine of Emam Reza is highly revered. For women travellers, a chador is required to visit the Holy Shrine. The chador is the all encompassing black robe, covering you from head to foot. It is possible to rent one and your guide will advise. Non-Muslims are able to visit most of the site with the exception of the actual shrine. Each year thousands of pilgrims visit to touch or kiss the cage which houses the tomb box. Before midday we transfer for our short flight to Shiraz. Upon arrival, you'll be met by your guide and transferred to the hotel for check-in. After time to relax and refresh, we venture out to see the sights of Shiraz. Known as the ptic capital of Persia, because two of the greatest pts of the world, Hafez (1324-1391) and Sa'di (1209-1291), originated from this city. Simple mausoleums were constructed for them after their deaths but later became celebrated pilgrimage destinations in the 14th century when the pious and art-loving Queen Tashi Khatun erected a mosque and theological school by the tombs. They are now remarkable monuments, one dedicated to Hafez, the master of Persian lyrical ptry. The other is dedicated to Sa'di , the author of the famous Golestan and a book of sonnets called the Garden of Roses. There are many other striking Islamic buildings in Shiraz, namely the Safavid mosque but more notably the shrine of Syed Amir Ahmed, also referred to locally as the Shah Cheragh or the 'King of Light'. This exquisite shrine boasts a dazzling interior of mirror tiles, display of fine china and glassware and exquisitely inscribed old and modern Korans. The Eram Gardens, famous for its rose garden and avenues of cypress trees is also on our schedule, time permitting.
We overnight in Shiraz.
There are many great museums in Tehran. This morning we plan to head to the Carpet Museum, which will illustrate the history of Iran, its pts and its myths and the National Museum (or Archaeological Museum) which begins with exhibits dating back to the 5th and 4th Millennium BC and provides a fascinating insight into Persian History. We will spend time visiting the National Jewels Museum which will shock you with its ostentatious display of precious jewels, many of which are the largest of their kind, namely the Darya-ye-Nur which at 182 carats is the largest uncut diamond in the world. We will also view the jewelled globe which is covered in 51,363 precious stones. Later in the afternoon, we plan to visit Darband, a delightful mountain area in North Tehran. Darband is accessed by chairlift, by foot or by donkey and time permitting you can climb further up to the flanks of Mount Tochal (3933m). The view, whilst often quite hazy, will nevertheless show the vastness of the Tehran sprawl and the culinary delights waiting at the many cafes will make the hike up well worth it.
*Please note; that our itinerary in Tehran will depend on current opening times (and days) of the museums and therefore the order of sights and the sights visited may vary accordingly.
Overnight in Tehran
We embark on the 425km drive from Shiraz to Yazd, where we cross over the mountains and descend into the vast desert expanse. En route Pasargadae reveals the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty in 500 AD. We continue on to Abarku to witness traditional cisterns, ice-stories and a 4500 year old cypress tree. This is one of several trees in Iran that is sacred, and a popular pilgrimage spot where devotees fasten pieces to its branches. We continue on to Yazd to our overnight accommodation.
The trip concludes today in Tehran. Depending on your flight out today, there may be more time for further optional sightseeing. Please discuss this with your guide. A group airport transfer is provided.