I’m not sure how many of you have given any thought to the Silk Road. I had long fantasized about journeying along this legendary route from China to the Mediterranean where goods were traded and cultures interacted. This is a large area to cover and I didn’t have the amount of time necessary to do the entire Silk Road. When I found a tour that covered 5 “stan” countries and the Caucasus in a month, I nearly salivated because it was exactly what I was looking for. I’m hoping this summary of my Silk Road tour will pique your interest for visiting this fascinating region.
I prefer solo travel and only do group travel when there’s no other option. I realized that I’d need a solid 2 months of planning and at least 2 months to do the trip using public transport. The luxury of having somebody else work out the details was too tempting to pass up and Advantour did this expertly and smoothly.
Table of Contents
This fabled route gets its name from the lucrative silk trade starting from the Han dynasty in China. The central Asia portion of the trade route was expanded in 114 BC and opened long-distance political and economic relations between many civilizations. Although silk was the major export from China, many other goods were traded as well as religions, philosophies, and technologies. Concomitant to this was a maritime spice route from southeast Asia to India and the Arabian peninsula. Unfortunately, slavery and diseases such as the plague were spread along this route.
Seeing the progression and blending of cultures including the way people look and the food was especially intriguing. It’s easy to see the influences of China, Mongolia, Persia, and Russia on the people, the society and the food.
This post would take 10 hours to read if I explained every day of the trip so I will show you some highlights. I need multiple posts to do this region justice. Stay tuned for future posts! (hint hint: subscribe)
The tour kicks off in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty is a cosmopolitan city with wide tree-lined streets and sidewalks, cafes, wine shops and gorgeous views from the mountain.
The markets are amazing, with tons of fruit and nuts to sample. Apples are kind of a big deal here since Almaty actually means “grandfather of apples” and apples originated here!
After flying into the capital of Bishkek we drove to the small village of Kemin and witnessed the ancient sport of “Uluk Tartysh” aka goat polo which is played in the World Nomad Games. The animal activist in me didn’t love this but I appreciate that the goat was not killed in front of us and it is eaten that evening by the villagers. Instead of showing that macabre footage, here is an adorable young horseman.
We also visited the UNESCO heritage site, the Burana Tower. A remnant of one of the earliest Chinese Islamic settlements in Central Asia.
We had lunch at a village lady’s home which was fantastic. I loved the vegetable manti, a regional dumpling. She told us her stories about being kidnapped as a young girl. Yes, kidnapping was a “tradition” where men would “find” a wife from a neighboring village. Thankfully for her, it worked out and also thankfully, this is no longer practiced. We also saw a demonstration about how a Yurt is erected. A yurt is a traditional nomadic dwelling. All the materials for a yurt could be carried by camel and the yurt can be erected in under an hour.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the countries I want to return to specifically for trekking. The lakes and mountains look stunning.
This was another brief but interesting visit to another beautiful mountainous country. We visited the 2nd largest city in Tajikistan, Khujand City, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia at over 2500 years old! Highlights were the Historical Museum of Sughd inside the former Khujand Fortress with gorgeous stone mosaics of the life of Alexander the Great, who conquered the city. I also loved the main square with the vibrant Panjshanbe Market and the Sheikh Muslihiddin mausoleum.
This is one of the oddest places I’ve ever visited. Turkmenistan is what you call a “private” country with a repressive regime wealthy from natural gas and oil. Social media is blocked here and talking about politics discouraged.
We kicked off the trip with a night in a yurt at the Darvaza Gas Crater, a huge crater (70 meters/ 230 feet wide) of naturally occurring methane that’s been burning continuously since 1971. Exactly as insane as it sounds. Nicknamed the “Door to Hell”. This place was crazy cool!
We randomly ran into 500 camels and now I can die happy.
We also visited the strange and beautiful marble covered capital Ashgabat which happens to be the “whitest city in the world” and seems to have more monuments than people.
This is one of the most magnificent mosques I’ve ever seen. It cost over 1 billion to construct!
Uzbekistan is sort of the “star” of the Central Asian portion of the trip since we spent the most time here and visited 4 different cities.
The capital is modern with the most beautiful subway stations I have ever seen. It is worth riding simply to see the different stations. I also enjoyed a night at the opera here. There is an old city with a stunning mosque and a museum with the world’s oldest Koran!
Each station is like an art gallery. The “Cosmonaut” station is dedicated to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
This ancient walled city is yet another UNESCO world heritage site in Uzbekistan. It has likely been inhabited since the 6th century. The inner city, called Ichan-Kala, is essentially an open air museum with over 50 historic monuments. The most striking site is “Khiva Tower”, Kalta Minor, the large blue tower in the central city square. This was supposed to be a minaret, but the Khan died and the succeeding Khan did not complete it.
Our first glimpse into this ancient kingdom was the Kalyan Minaret by night, a sight I will never forget. This minaret is one of the few structures that Genghis Khan did not destroy. Apparently, he was awed by its greatness. It is also known as the Tower of Death because for centuries criminals were executed by being thrown from the top. Like how I feed you a fun fact before a terrible one?
The Kalyan Mosque, dating back to the 15th century. It was rebuilt after destruction by Mongols, a common theme in these parts.
This is the Bakhautdin Naqsband Mausoleum, a pilgrimage site and resting place of the founder of Sufism.
Just when I think the buildings and tilework cannot be more fabulous…there is Samarkand. The jewel of the Timurid empire.
Registan Square is the central square of the old city and contains three madrassahs (schools), built by different rulers and having different designs. This is another UNESCO heritage site.
Below is the Shah-i-Zinda complex, the burial site of a cousin the prophet Mohammed and other royal people. It is a street of sparkling turquoise tombs, decorated in ornate Persian style tiles. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Are you dazzled and dizzy from the tile work yet?? If not, here is Registan Square at night.
I’ll definitely write a more detailed post about Uzbekistan because it should be on everyone’s bucket lists and has SO much to see! You will want to learn about the food, trust me!
This ended the Central Asia portion of the Silk Road tour which was roughly 2 weeks and the next 2 weeks were spent in the Caucuses!
Take a little break from reading to see a little movie about this amazing journey!
Azerbaijan is a place I really knew nothing about and was so happy to visit and learn about. Baku is the capital located on the Caspian Sea. It is a fun mix of ancient and modern.
Azerbaijan has an abundance of natural gas and oil and in some places, there was an eternal flame that attracted fire worshipers from India. The exploitation of natural gas eventually led to the burning out of the flame and now it’s lit artificially but still impressive to see.
This was a unique sight to visit. Another by-product of the natural gas is these mud volcanoes. They don’t get as big as regular volcanoes and their eruptions don’t usually harm anybody. I loved watching them bubble up and gently spill over.
This town is nestled in the Greater Caucasus mountain with cobblestone streets, cafes, beautiful houses and grand stone buildings. This is a great stopping point halfway between Baku and Tbilisi. We also visited the Sheki Shah Palace here. Sheki was another trading stop along the Silk Road.
From Azerbaijan, we crossed the border into Georgia. From this point on we would be seeing monasteries instead of mosques. We joked on the tour that we saw all the Ms: Mosques, Madrassahs, Mausoleums, Monuments, Minarets, Museums, Mountains and Monasteries. I was personally very excited to see mountains and Georgia’s are stunning.
I was thrilled that soon after crossing the border into Georgia we visited a winery. Welcome to Georgia indeed!
This was one of my favorite stops in Georgia, a charming mountain village in the Kakheti region surrounded by a wall. It is also in the heart of Georgia’s wine growing region and known as the City of Love because of its popularity as a wedding destination. It is close enough to Tbilisi to visit on a day trip.
This is a castle complex on the Aragvi River. It was home to the Aragvi feudal dynasty and it’s amazing it is still standing after the numerous battles it witnessed. It also demonstrates a sort of side effect Georgia’s position on the Silk Road…an eclectic architectural blend.
The capital of Tbilisi has tons to see and showcases many architectural styles reflecting the many cultures and influences that left their mark in Georgia. We got a nice taste of it with a walking city tour and then a free day to explore on our own. I loved the streets full of scenic cafes and wine bars in Old Tbilisi.
Tbilisi is famous for sulfur baths. These are the iconic tops of the bathhouses.
To access this church we had to take 4-wheel drive vehicles up a dodgy road to reach an altitude of 2170 meters. The Kazbeghi mountain views were spectacular.
I will be posting in more detail about Georgia since I’ve shown you just a sampling of all the places we visited. There was so much more! I could do a whole post just about Georgian cuisine. Spoiler alert…it’s fantastic.
This final country on the tour was very special. Armenia became the first officially Christian country in 300 AD when St. Gregory the Illuminator convinced Tiridates III, the king of Armenia, to convert to Christianity. The monasteries here are very old with some dating back to the 4th-6th centuries. They are marvelous in their modest yet grand simplicity often with breathtaking mountain backdrops. I think monks must have been in excellent shape because you typically have to climb steep hills and many steps to reach these places!
This 10th-century monastery was built for privacy and protection, halfway up a hillside overlooking the Debed river. It suffered numerous attacks by armed forces from two major earthquakes. Despite this, much of the complex is still intact and unaltered.
Perched on a peninsula formed by Lake Sevan this is another stunning monastery. Lake Sevan is the largest body of water in the Caucasus and is one of the largest freshwater high altitude lakes in Eurasia at 1900 meters above sea level (6200 ft).
The bustling capital has a thriving cafe scene, world-class restaurants and lots of artistic talent with cute gift shops and outdoor markets.
The statue is of Alexander Tamanyan, the city architect of Yerevan who came up with the idea of the Cascade and city plan of parks, squares and wide avenues. He died in 1936 but his plans received attention in the ’70s by Yerevan’s Chief Architect, Jim Torosyan. He incorporated new ideas that included an exterior stairway, an indoor series of escalators, and outdoor gardens decorated with sculptures. There are 576 steps and the views from the top look out onto all of Yerevan and Mt. Ararat.
The Government House, National Gallery and History Museum are some of the buildings in this square and roundabout, also conceived by Tamanyan. There is also a pool with musical fountains.
Ararat (named for the iconic mountain range) is often called “Armenian cognac” and has a long and fabled history. The tour of the factory is really fun and even more fun is the tasting. I especially liked the brandy made for Winston Churchill but that one was slightly out of my budget!
This is a must see place for anyone visiting Armenia. The genocide of 1914-1923 in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turks is an integral part of Armenian history and identity. It is a sobering visit but I am glad to have received this education and now feel a deeper connection with the country and the people because of it.
This monastery has absolutely gorgeous views of Mount Ararat. The name means “deep pit” and refers to the time when Gregory the Illuminator was held prisoner in the dungeon for 13 years by King Tiridates III. Eventually, he became the King’s mentor and they both led Armenia into becoming the first Christian nation in 301. The details of how he went from prisoner to mentor are rather long and somewhat unpleasant so I will refer you to Wikipedia if you must know more.
Noravank is in the Amaghu river gorge, known for its tall red brick cliffs. This photograph shows a few Khachkars, Armenian cross-stones which we saw at many monasteries. These carved slabs of stone are ancient monuments erected for the salvation of the soul of either a living or a deceased person.
Tatev is one of the most famous and popular sites in Armenia. This massive 9th-century marvel is perched on a basalt plateau in the Syunik province. To access this remote gem, we took the “Wings of Tatev”, the longest tramway (cable car) in the world which is 5750 meters long (3.5 miles)!
Again, this is just a few places we visited in Armenia. I promise to do a dedicated Armenia post soon.
These are mainly related to group tours in general. The major cons are the lack of freedom and being stuck around others you may not care to be stuck with. It is also is more expensive to do this type of tour rather than go on your own.
This tour exceeded my expectations. The itinerary was chosen thoughtfully and has taken into account feedback of previous tourists. I was impressed with the hotel and restaurant selection.
A pro for me can also be a con: other people. This type of tour attracts an older audience but an adventurous and fit older audience that I had fun with. There were plenty of opportunities to go off and have alone time. I appreciate that free time is worked into the plan. Aside from one or two problematic people, I liked everyone and found a fellow photographer friend who was kind enough to take photos of me the entire trip. What a luxury! I left my
husband tripod at home.
Advantour has 3 offices in Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They focus on local experiences and sustainable travel. They hire local guides in each country visited and encourage interactions with locals. We had several meals in private homes which was really special. Our guide would often purchase local snacks from street vendors for us to sample.
This company takes tourist feedback seriously. For example, the group previous to us complained about one of the restaurants and this was amended for our group. Visits to some countries were too brief and the itinerary is already being revised for the future. My other feedback was to implement some more environmentally friendly policies but this is something the entire region needs. There was a personal feel to dealing with Advantour. The directors of the Central Asia and Caucuses office both came along for portions of the tour and I enjoyed their company. The organization and professionalism was impeccable.
If you want to see this region of the world but don’t feel comfortable doing it on your own, you will definitely be in good hands with this tour!
Tell me about your group tour experiences! Also, which of these countries would you like to visit?