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Everything you need to know about traveling the Great Silk Road

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics – Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Central Asia remains shrouded in mystery and all but absent from most travelers’ bucket lists. But where else can you interact with venerable nomadic peoples, travel through stunning 3,000 year old mountain framed roadways; visit spectacular UNESCO World Heritage sites, and shop to your heart’s content at bazaars overflowing with rich silks, native crafts and jewelry – all while getting to know the uniquely warm and gentle people of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan? We asked Conde Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist for Central Asia, Zulya Rajabova, president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, to give us a glimpse of the Great Silk Road less traveled.

Why is Central Asia overlooked by international travelers? 

This is an important question. Central Asia has thousands of years of fascinating history and civilization. The fact that most of Central Asia was part of the USSR for seven decades erased any knowledge that we might have had about these places, putting them into the category of “behind the Iron Curtain” and therefore, inaccessible. Central Asian countries were not on the world map and Western people did not have enough knowledge about these ancient Silk Road Centers. Since we gained independence in 1991, the history of the Silk Road and the importance of Central Asia to world history is gradually returning to light.

Visa and border crossing procedures are becoming very smooth and tourism infrastructure is developing. In the past, travelers did not have a big choice of hotel options, but now, so many international luxury brands and exotic boutique hotels have opened. Also, the road conditions in the ancient Silk Road destinations are now being well maintained, making travel easy and enjoyable. Our job is to create an exciting campaign to promote our destinations by giving multimedia presentations that inspire travelers to visit these new and emerging lands in Central Asia. To ensure the best possible experience, travelers should work with tour operators who thoroughly understand their needs and travel style in order to make their journey of a lifetime a rewarding one.

Talk about the countries and climate that comprise Central Asia and the historically significant Silk Road. What are some brief highlights and important attractions from each of these destinations?

Tajikistan

Lake in Tajikistan

Central Asia consists of five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are the destinations of imaginations, where the ancient trade route — the Silk Road — developed through the centuries. The ancient Silk Road connected the people of the East with the people of the West, but beyond that there were unique and stunning landscapes and scenery. This beckons travelers even today. You are invited to swim in Kyrgystan’s warm alpine Lake Issyk-Kul, trek the Tien Shan mountains, stay overnight in a yurt (round tent covered with skins used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia), take a camel ride over Kazakhstan’s singing dunes or the Kara Kum in Turkmenistan, and hike the foothills of the Pamirs in Tajikistan. A mix of the ancient world with a modern flair, and a dash of the Soviet era thrown in, it is home to the warmest people in the world.  Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, Merv and Khiva are the fabled cities of Marco Polo, Tamerlane and Alexander the Great. A Central Asian tour is not complete without visiting them.

Many of these cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Bukhara, which is like a museum city and Uzbekistan, which is home to thousands of historic landmarks, including Varakhsha Palace, the Ark Citadel or Sarmish-say, and the Bronze Age Art Gallery – Petroglyphs.

For a 2-week visit, what are the most significant sights and not-to-be-missed experiences in Central Asia? 

The Kalyan minaret  Bukhara

Kalyan minaret Bukhara

This region has literally 3000 years or more of history to explore!

You can visit amazing sites from various periods in history. Examples include medieval architecture at Registan Square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and archaeological ruins and prehistoric petro glyphs in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. You have to experience the Sunday bazaars in Turkmenistan or Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. Some have been in the same place since the Silk Road caravan routes passed through. Then sip tea in my home city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

What is this region most known for, and are there unique shopping opportunities?  Where will visitors find the best value?

Uzbekistan carpets

Uzbekistan carpets

Central Asia is a Shopper’s Paradise, especially Samarkand and Bukhara.

The Silk Road traded in silk – and that’s one of the main specialties here, but also bold IKAT cottons and incredible embroidery and embellishments on handicraft items. Hats are incredibly diverse throughout the region and many people collect them when they go! Carpets are also on the list, Turkmen wool and Kyrgyzs shyrdak felt and Bukhara silk.  You can find many native crafts, such as wooden miniature inlay lacquerware (plates, bowls); intricately carved wood boxes, door frames, picture frames, as well as hammered gold, silver and copper jewelry, tea sets and platters. Every single traveler can have an unbelievable value for carpets, embroidery and true art work!

Is this a family-friendly vacation experience? Are there significant language or cultural barriers that may prove difficult for US citizens?

Family adventure on Camelback in Uzbekistan

Family adventure on Camelback in Uzbekistan

Hospitality is a sacred trust in Central Asia. Every visitor becomes an honored guest; so you shouldn’t be surprised when you suddenly find yourself at a wedding, christening or party. You can come in and sit down to dinner any time! The region is very family friendly. In Central Asia, our travelers visit with their own families and enjoy interaction with Uzbek families, where several generations still live together.

Visas and border crossings can be tricky, but that’s why you need to travel with an experienced and reputable tour company and professionals who can help you to have an extraordinary travel experience. Be sure the tour company you select offers services, including assistance with obtaining visas, arranging and recommending airfare, insurance and border crossing.

There are mounting fears among travelers associated with safety and security, particularly when traveling to destinations bordering unstable countries.  Is it safe to travel to the “Stans” – are there precautions or exceptions, such as women traveling alone?

After our travel clients return from Central Asia, they inform us that they have never felt unsafe.  Some people mistakenly mix Central Asia with unstable countries. Central Asia is not the Middle East. We have many single women or women group travelers who are visiting and enjoying their trips.

What is your advice for planning a trip to Central Asia?  What questions should travelers ask before making a unique trip like this? 

The list of questions can be very long, but I would start with, what piques your curiosity about Central Asia?

  • What kind of food (vegetarian), cultural events or activities can I experience?
  • Will all the border crossing procedures be explained in detail and how can I be assured access will run smoothly?
  • Where and how do I go shopping? Will I be able to go to bustling Silk Road Sunday Bazaars in Central Asian villages to meet craftsmen?
  • How much will a trip like this cost?
  • How do I go about getting visas?
  • Where should I stay and for how long?

When is the best time to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan?  Are there any events or special holidays that may add flavor to the experience?   

The best time to travel to Central Asia is March through November. However, we have many travelers who are visiting Central Asia in December to experience the New Year celebration in legendary Bukhara or Samarkand or for skiing in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.  We have different fascinating cultural festivals, like the Navruz-Spring Holiday New Year, which is celebrated in all the countries of Central Asia on March 21st; the Silk and Spice Festival in Uzbekistan in May; Horse races in Kyrgyzstan in July and Turkmenistan in September and October; Music festivals and weddings take place all summer long across the region.

In addition to exploring the ancient cities and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and learning the fascinating history, travelers have the opportunity to participate in the above mentioned events for in-depth immersion into thousands of years of rich culture and tradition.

Is there anything else our readers should know about this region and what it offers to tourists?

This is a trip of a lifetime – a chance to learn what isn’t taught in schools about places which figured largely before Soviet rule, and where much of Western civilization and culture developed. The Silk Road was a place where the people and culture of the West and East met and mixed — not just the traders and merchants, but the language, religion, music, customs, and cuisine. It’s a fascinating blend of the modern and traditional, and this blending has been going on for centuries.

As specialists of this region, Silk Road Treasure Tours offers a rich variety of tours: family, academic, honeymoon, culinary, craft and shopping, and culture with adventure. Our tours are escorted by the top guides of the region, who have degrees (or majored in) history and art.

I previously mentioned, Central Asia visa procedures have been simplified.  Travelers do not need visas to visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and they can get their visa for Turkmenistan at the airport or at the border, but before traveling there they have to have an invitation from a travel company. For Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, travelers can get their visas within 5 to 10 days.

zulya rajabovaZulya Rajabova is the founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, a US-based tour operator specializing in the ancient cities and remote lands of Central Asia. Originally from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, she is a former university lecturer, Uzbek Ministry of Tourism executive, and multilingual tour guide to dignitaries and intrepid travelers. Since 2012, she has been a Conde Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist and now also a Wendy Perrin “Wow” List Trusted Travel Expert. She is a frequent guest speaker about the Silk Road at museums, non-profit institutions, and travel industry conferences. 

Who owns the armrest between two people sitting in a plane?

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Graphic is man stuck in the middle seat

Graphic: Christoph Hitz

Just because you’re a road warrior, doesn’t mean you have to go to war over the little things. Let’s take one point of contention out of the cabin: Armrest ownership.  Is there an unwritten code of ethics for determining dibs on the armrest?  There’s a reason why we make it our business to help travelers get out of the middleseat — it’s a bummer being squashed in between two strangers for hours. Since a “middleseater” is already at a comfort disadvantage, it seems only fair that armrest rights should be all theirs.

We did some digging on Quora to see if this conundrum had been discussed with any resolution.  Here are some interesting thoughts:

Wirawan Winarto offers a rule of thumb…”Window Seat gets the view; Aisle Seat gets the access; Middle Seat gets the armrest.”

Jeff Chou says, “For two seats: Whoever gets there first. If you both arrive at the same time, rock it off. Leaving your seat forfeits rights to the armrest (lifting your arm momentarily to lift the tray table or otherwise, does not count).

For three seats:
Middle gets both armrests. Aisle gets one armrest and a little bit of legroom, window gets one armrest and a window.”

What do you say? Read more of the Quora thread here.

Frequent Business Traveler Trends for 2015

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

The ups and downs of business travelers carry important weight and vast economic impact in the US.  According to a research report published in 2013 by the U.S. Travel Association with research conducted by Oxford Economics, business travel spending by U.S. companies in 2012 generated an estimated $524 billion in business sales, supporting 3.7 million jobs with an annual payroll of $152 billion.

We recently interviewed Jonathan Spira, editorial director at Frequent Business Traveler Magazine and senior managing director at research firm, Accura Media Group, regarding his firm’s 2015  Frequent Business Traveler research report.

Among the key highlights of the report, almost half of business travelers surveyed said they plan on taking more trips in 2015 as compared to 2014, while a similar number said they anticipate taking more trips in 2015 than they did two years ago in 2013.

This translates into a rather significant increase given a business traveler population in the United States that takes over 450 million domestic trips a year.

Spira’s report concludes that loyalty to both airlines and hotels remains largely unchanged over the past three years. In the most recent survey, 75.3% of travelers say they prefer to stay at a particular brand of hotel, an increase of 2.7 percentage points over last year. The number of travelers who prefer to fly with a particular airline or alliance, 92%, remains statistically unchanged over the course of the survey.

Frequent travelers are avid users of technology. Nine out of ten report doing all of the following over a twelve-month period:

  • Researched information about flights
  • Researched information about hotels
  • Made a flight reservation
  • Made a hotel reservation
  • Checked a flight’s status

Working with popular online travel community, FlyerTalk, more than 1,700 business travelers participated in the study. The outcomes suggest  a significant turning point for business travelers, as well as the travel industry. Change is prevalent, from airline mergers to significant changes in airline and hotel loyalty programs, to new imperatives for amenities and services that the business traveler demands.

A complete copy of the 40-page report, 2015 Frequent Business Traveler Business Travel Outlook Report, is available online here.

 

Green tourism: How to be a “gentle” traveler

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

ExpertFlyer interviewed Marilyn Waite, founder of SustainableVisit.com, a resource for the growing number of sustainable travel enthusiasts who want to support environmentally and socially responsible  businesses in the places they visit.

“There’s been a lack of consolidated, practical and worldwide information on sustainable travel,” says Waite.  “Travelers with the best intentions do not know where to eat, where to stay, how to commute and what activities to take part in that contribute to sustainable development.  Responsible tourists, eco-tourists and tourists who simply do not want to do harm to the local population do not have useful information when they need it, where they need it.”

Watch our interview with Marilyn and read her checklist for getting started as a gentle traveler:

5 types of sustainable travelersThe Gentle Traveler’s Checklist

Before you travel you should…

  • Do your Research
    • Learn about the destinations unique cultural aspects (history, language, government, arts)
    • Get smart about the practical things, like currency, infrastructure, emergency safety
  • Learn (some of) the Local Language
    • Start with Hello, Goodbye, and Thank You. These three little phrases go a long way toward ingratiating you in the eyes of the locals
    • Learn how to say “Excuse me, Can you speak English?” in the local language
  • Know the Tourist Climate
    • How do locals feel about tourists and why?
    • How important is tourism to the local economy?
    • How can you visit sustainably?

During your stay you should…

  • Report signs of human trafficking and abuse
  • Use less water and electricity
  • Respect the environment and people
  • Use low carbon transportation, in order:
    • Walking > Cycling > Mass Transportation
  • Buy local
    • Fair trade, seasonal, organic
  • Participate in the community

When you return home you should…

  • Share your experience with friends and family
    • If you use social media, share your experience and photos
    • Write a guest blog on travel websites (We welcome new bloggers on SustainableVisit.com)
    • Comment on travel suggestions that you greatly appreciated on forums
    • Submit a new suggestion for a sustainable restaurant, activity, attraction, hotel, and more on SustainableVisit.com
    • Plan your next destination!

Top Destinations for 2015

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

In our last installment, we featured travel trends presented at the New York Times Travel Show by travel gurus, Arthur and Pauline Frommer.  This post will list the Frommers’ top destination picks for 2015, as presented at the show in January.

top destinations 2015

  1. Belize – This tropical oasis has all of the trappings of Costa Rica plus family friendly cultural attractions, including Mayan Temples and underwater caves lined with ancient skulls
  2. Belgium – With the US dollar gaining strength, it’s an opportune time to visit Europe and Belgium, in particular.  There are many celebrations and anniversaries happening this year, including the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, as well as the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo
  3. South Dakota – While the 100th anniversary of the building of Mount Rushmore isn’t until 2016, if you’re thinking of taking a trip to the home of the Badlands, you’ll beat crazy crowds if you visit in 2015
  4. Tanzania –  Africa’s tourism market has seen a rapid decline since the Ebola crisis has created mass hysteria among Westerners.  The virus is contained in only a small region in West Africa – far from Tanzania.  The African government is offering super low travel packages to offset the slump.  Some travel companies are offering all-inclusive safari vacations with airfare for as little as $1,200
  5. Asheville, NC – This is a hip and trendy destination that has gone from gritty to great after being revitalized.  Accent on the Smoky Mountains and charming B+Bs
  6. Chaco National Historic Park – Located in New Mexico, the Frommers urge folks to visit ruins of the ancient Pueblo people in this park before fracking destabilizes the archaelogy
  7. Pompidou Center – Located in Malaga, Spain, this area has also been transformed from an industrial district to a thing of beauty and culture
  8. Argentina – If you’re looking for a cheap unforgettable vacation, visit Patagonia this year.  The currency has been cut in half for US travelers
  9. Austria – The hills are alive with the sound of music! And there will be plenty to see, do and celebrate around the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music
  10. Yellowstone Park – Lots of geothermal activity expected this year, along with the usual breathtaking vistas, flora and fauna
  11. Washington D.C. – 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
  12. Cruise with Cunard – Cunard, a top luxury cruise liner, celebrates its 175th anniversary with special onboard lectures and performances
  13. London – Long live the Queen! Queen Elizabeth reigns supreme this year as the longest reigning monarch in history — and there will be plenty of special events and promotions to celebrate.  Oh and the Tube expands operation to 24/7, so you can get around underground with no traffic.
  14. Vietnam – Dong Van Karst Plateau geo-park for unforgettably spectacular mountain scenery.

Happy Travels!