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?
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?
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?
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?
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 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.