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Trip Report The Not-All-Golden Road to Samarkand

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I just finished a two week tour of Uzbekistan. I'll be posting place-by-place reports on the trip on this thread after I finish my UK TR on the Europe board, which still has me in Wales, but I wanted to post an overview before I got too caught up in the rest of the trip (I'm currently in South Korea).

September 9 - 23, 2016: MIR's "Silk Route Odyssey: Caravan Across Uzbekistan"

(Link to the tour for 2017 - the overview looks the same: http://www.mircorp.com/trip/silk-route-odyssey-caravan-across-uzbekistan/ )

I have wanted to travel the Silk Road since I first heard it was possible on a Smithsonian tour of China in 1997. I traveled the eastern end, Xi'an to Islamabad, in 2001, and some of the western branches in the Caucasus and the Middle East in 2009, but somehow I never made it to Central Asia. This year I decided to stop trying to visit the whole area at once, and pick the most important sight. Samarkand just beat out the mountains of Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan, helped by my lack of energy early in the year. The same lack of energy, plus the fact that it was my first visit to the area, led me to take a tour instead of traveling on my own. Since I wanted a small group tour that included the Fergana Valley, three nights in Samarkand, and Khiva, and left in the fall, choices were limited. MIR's itinerary wasn't ideal, but included my priorities, and they did have 30 year's experience in the area.

This is my summary of the highs and lows, for the country and for the tour.

The Good

Samarkand's Registan by day: exceeded my high expectations. Behind the facades you see in all the photos, there is a lot more, equally beautiful.

Samarkand's Registan by night, illuminated. Even better: mesmerizing and magical. Unfortunately, only four of the eleven of us saw it.

Bukhara: most Uzbek cities seem to have plenty of trees and green space, but Bukhara also has an ancient pool in the middle of the historic city, not to mention plenty of attractive old buildings.

Khiva: the quintessential ancient oasis town. Well worth the very long drive.

The mountains on the way to the Fergana Valley.

The tour guide: very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the sights and about modern-day Uzbekistan (and the late president). Flexible.

The other tour members: this was a very compatible group, all very well traveled and including some who had lived abroad, and all extremely punctual.

The food: one reason I booked a tour was that, as I have borderline hypoglycemia, I was worried about getting enough to eat. Aside from the packed lunch on one long drive, if anything I got too much to eat.

Uzbekistan Airlines: MIR seemed to prefer Turkish Airlines, but if I wanted to arrive at a reasonable time of day it needed to be Uzbekistan Airlines (having spent a month in the UK and two nights in Istanbul on the way, I didn't expect jet lag). I seemed to be the only non-Central Asian on the flight, but I had a pleasant seat mate, and the food was very much better than on my Turkish Airlines flight from London to Istanbul. I did check that it was not on the EU's too dangerous to fly list.

The Bad

Shakhrisabze: this was a place I had wanted to see, but there really wasn't much there, and until the new trees grow there is no shade. Worse, there is a new regulation that prohibits passenger vehicles with more than four occupants from using the mountain passes, so our mini-bus had to go round. This meant a total of seven hours driving. The regulation makes no sense, as heavier commercial vehicles are not prohibited. Going to and from the Fergana Valley we were put in cars (which cooked the front seat passenger going east), and it would have been nice to go at least one way by car for this day.

Scheduling, Part One: the tour was too early in the year. I had wondered about that when I booked, but MIR's brochure seemed to indicate temperatures in the 80s. Wrong. Highs were in the 90s the whole time. Maybe an early September departure made sense 30 years ago, but not today. Samarkand reached 100 in mid-September a couple of years back. My bad for insufficient research, but that's what I was paying MIR for.

Scheduling, Part Two: the Eid al-Adha holiday fell towards the beginning of the tour. The silk factory we visited in the Fergana Valley was deserted except for one guy who gave a brief explanation of the process. The Applied Arts Museum, one of my top sights for Tashkent, was also closed, although Abdu took those of us spending extra time in Tashkent there after the tour officially ended. Eid is a moveable feast, but it's not THAT moveable. It was entirely predictable that it would occur around that weekend. (Next year's tour won't have the same problem.)

Scheduling, Part Three: the sightseeing schedule, especially given the heat, was crazy. Instead of using a siesta system, we were expected to tour right through the hottest part of the day and then go back to the hotel when it started cooling off. Or just keep touring all day. The first day in Bukhara we started at 8:30 am, and didn't finish until 7:30 pm, aside from lunch, and an hour's coffee break which was the result of pleas by the caffeine-deprived and seemed not part of the usual schedule. No one has an attention span that long.

Scheduling, Part Four: shopping on tour time. It has been well over a decade since I traveled with a US tour company, other than Rick Steves, whose tours do not include shopping ops. If you want to shop on his tours, you do it in your free time, which is scheduled in reasonably large blocks. Some days on this tour seemed nothing but shopping ops. Saying, as Abdu did, that he was giving free time for shopping was disingenuous, as it was 15 minutes before moving on to the next sight, useless for anything else. This was understandable in the Fergana Valley, but not in other places. It leads me to wonder whether the guide is actually paid a salary (see Rick Steves again), or is "paid" by tips and commissions on shopping. We were certainly told to tip - $8-15/day.

Hotels and restaurants: when I pay for a small group tour, listed, moreover, as "explorer series", I do not expect to find myself staying in the same hotels, or eating in the same restaurants, as big bus groups. If I had wanted to do that I could have traveled in greater comfort on a big bus. We ran into one couple traveling by car and driver on a trip arranged by MIR, and they were staying at the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants we were, which would be even more annoying.

The yurt camp: I figured this was the price of three nights in Samarkand, but it was a high price, requiring two long days driving through boring country, a night with inadequate facilities, and hours hanging around a not very interesting lake. A high point of the two days was watching a determined dung beetle at work. Need I say more?

Tashkent airport: it is total chaos. I made it out in an hour, having researched the situation and being willing to fight for my space in the mob at passport control, and despite having to climb over the temporarily stopped conveyor belt to disinter my bag from a pile in a corner. Some people took three.

Summary

Am I glad I finally made it to Uzbekistan? Absolutely! Would I travel with MIR again? Well, I suppose I might, although I would scrutinize the itinerary more carefully. I might ask for a quote for an independent trip, but the mark up on the group tours is already shocking.

Of course, the road to Samarkand was never golden, outside of the poet's imagination, unless he was referring to the sands it traversed, or the goods it carried. It was always long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous, whether for the merchants traveling back and forth between the oases, or for the Russian and British adventurers engaged in the "Great Game" for control of the approaches to India. I certainly found this tour a bit arduous, although nothing in comparison the caravans, of course. However, travel in Uzbekistan is about to get much smoother, when the high speed rail line from Tashkent to Khiva opens, and when Uzbekistan's section of the new road from Istanbul to Beijing is finished. (Consider the geopolitical implications of that.) I heard 2018 for the rail line, but check. If you are thinking of flying into Tashkent, wait for the new international airport to open. Flying out was bad, but not as bad.

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