If you visit one of the so-called 'Stans', the countries of Central Asia, make it Uzbekistan, and this in-depth two-week trip takes in the stunning Islamic architecture of the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva as well as going off-piste to explore the Karalkapakstan Desert.
This evening board your overnight international flight from London to the Uzbekistan capital, Tashkent. This direct flight will take approximately seven hours so make sure you have plenty of reading material at hand.
The flight arrives in Tashkent in the early morning where you will be met by our local guide and driver before being privately transferred to your hotel in the capital. The drive will take you along wide open boulevards in a city that is one part leafy Soviet town and another a sleepy Uzbek city.
After relaxing at your hotel your private guide and driver will meet you and whisk you off to a good local restaurant for lunch to sample the local favourite plov - a tasty rice dish. You will then enjoy a gentle sightseeing tour of the city to include the Kukaldosh Madrasa, Khast Imam Complex (home to several ancient korans, including one dating from the 7th century), Chorsu handicraft market and Alayskiy market, famous for its gold jewellery. In the early evening you will transfer to the domestic air terminal to take an hour-and-a-half flight to Nukus with your local guide. Upon arrival it's a short transfer to your hotel for one night in the heart of the desert region of Karalkakpakstan.
This morning, head to the Savitsky Museum which houses the world's second largest collection of Russian Avant Garde art (after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg). Spend as long as you want wandering through the galleries before lunch and a private transfer to Khiva, a three-and-a-half-hour drive.
Arriving into the city in the late afternoon you will have time to settle into your hotel before wandering the interior of this historic old walled Silk Road city. There are plenty of good local restaurants with a lively atmosphere to choose from for your evening meal, and we will recommend our favourites.
Take a full day to appreciate the fascinating city of Khiva with the help of your expert local guide. Everything is on foot and your guide will accompany you throughout, making sure you get to see the city perhaps starting first with the local market - a lively throng of people and produce with a fantastic atmosphere.
There is a lot to see in Khiva but there are plenty of coffee and cake cafes for pitstops en route. And what a route - within easy walking distance within Khiva's walls are some of Uzbekistan's most exceptional buildings. The highest of highlights include the impressive Kunya-Ark citadel; the intricate wooden pavilions in the Tosh-Khovli Palace; the vast but unfinished Kalta Minor minaret; the 200-plus carved pillars - some dating from the 10th century - in the Juma Mosque and the Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum celebrating a famous poet son of Khiva, and instantly recognisable by its iconic (and unusually green) dome. Enjoy a well-earned lunch in a local restaurant and then put your haggling skills to the test in the many streetside stalls. Khiva is famed for its camel hair mittens and slippers and, of course, suzani embroidery and silk carpets.
This morning you will be met by your private driver and guide to head deep into the desert of Karalkakpakstan - a starkly beautiful area dotted with ruined fortresses. The road is bumpy and the journey a good two-and-a-half-hours each way but the effort worth it. The castles of ancient Khoresm were built without stone, and in the absence of limestone the Khoresmians evidently had advanced building techniques for carving out huge structures from mudbrick and clay. You can walk around the ruins of two citadels - Toprak Kala and Ayazkala - both of which are located on hill tops with stunning views of the surrounding plains below.
Lunch will be taken with a group of local nomadic tribespeople who have a nearby encampment in the warmer months and who provide food and drink for weary travellers. Then return to Khiva for your last night in the desert city.
You may want to rise early for a last morning in the old city, taking in a sunrise view from the ramparts of the city walls before meeting your private guide and driver and starting the long day drive north east to Bukhara.
The promised rail link is operable soon, but until then driving is the only way to go. It will take approximately eight hours to drive to Bukhara through part of the Kyzl Kum desert and you will stop for a roadside meal of shashlik - traditional meaty Uzbek fare - at a remote but surprisingly good restaurant. Arrive into Bukhara in the early evening and check into your boutique hotel in the old city before getting your bearings and stretching your legs with a wander around the lively streets surrounding the Lyab-I Hauz pond.
You will have the full day to explore this wonderful city - most of it on foot and accompanied by your expert local guide. Visits will be to the many mausoleums, mosques, minarets and khans. Bukhara is a lovely town and everything is easily accessible. Take time to enjoy scaling the ramparts of the Ark Fortress complex and step across to the exquisite Bolo Hauz - the Emir's personal mosque - the façade of which is perfectly reflected in the adjoining pond.
Local entrepreneurs have started to open up lovely home restaurants in little courtyards under fruit trees and you will be taken to one of these for lunch before starting the tour again later in the afternoon. There will be time for you to wander the bazaars, people watching and shopping at your leisure.
Today you will be able to see more of the city driving to the outskirts to visit the famous Bahhaudin Naqshband Mausoleum and the Chor-Bakr Necropolis, the 'city of the dead' with streets, courtyards, gates and family tombs where small groups of people peacefully pray. Next, the Sitoria Mokhi Khosa was the summer palace for Bukhara's rulers. A new palace was finished in 1913 and boasts exceptional artistic value; the hall is decorated with exquisite ornamental paintings and the walls are covered with mirrors.
You will also visit the pretty Chor Minor, a four-arch dome structure and finally the city's unforgettable masterpiece - the Samanid Mausoleum, dating from the 9th and 10th centuries and built from individually made and intricate baked bricks. The story goes that the townsfolk of Bukhara buried the mausoleum in a vast mound of sand on hearing of the impending arrival of Genghis Khan, who laid waste to every other monument in the city. The burial resulted in the mausoleum's almost perfect preservation until it's rediscovery in 1934. Then there's more time for shopping and wandering the bazaars before an evening of fashion and folklore - a fantastic show put on at the Nadir Divanbegi Madrasah, back beside the Lyab-I Hauz pond.
Depart Bukhara this morning to head to The Kyzyl Kum (red sand) desert - the 11th largest desert in the world.
Many of the nomads who live here use this area for grazing their sheep and goats and the nearby Lake Aydarkul is a great place to fish, bird watch and swim. You will be change vehicles to a 4x4 once you reach the edge of the desert in the afternoon and then bump across the dunes to your yurt camp for one night under the stars.
Settle into your yurt before going for a walk in the dunes or a camel ride before your evening meal under the stars with the local nomads around a camp fire.
Wake in the morning and enjoy the desert light and breakfast in the sunshine. You may want to go for a dune walk or perhaps a refreshing dip in Lake Aydakal before setting off in your 4x4 to leave the desert and hit the road south to Samarkand.
You will reach Samarkand in the early afternoon and check into your hotel for two nights. In the afternoon your local guide will take you to see some of the finest sites in the city, including the incomparable Timurid-era Registan Square; the elegant Gur-e Amir Mausoleum, the last resting place of Tamerlane, and the vast Bibikhanum Mosque, where you can still see cracks caused by earthquakes across the centuries. In the evening you will have an opportunity to visit a winery for some Uzbek wine tasting. There are plenty of restaurants in the city to choose from, and we will recommend our favourites.
Samarkand is notable for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study and still bears the hallmarks of the legacy left by Tamerlane. It is the second largest city in the country and after the slower pace of life in the south, you will notice it.
An early start to beat the crowds to see the rest of the sites in Samarkand with your local guide. These will include the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis (possibly our favourite of all sites in the country thanks to the intricate tilework on show); the Ulugbeg Observatory and the Afrosiyab Museum, which documents the pre-Mongol invasion Sogdian civilisation who made Burkhara their capital. There is also an excellent bazaar to stock up on dried fruit, sweets and snacks for your journey to Tashkent later in the day.
Late this afternoon you will transfer to the train station to catch the fast train to Tashkent. It is a two-and-a-half-hour journey and the train is pretty comfortable, so it's time to relax and read up more on the fascinating history of Samarkand while a landscape of cotton fields and little villages flashes by. On arrival, you will be taken to your hotel in Tashkent for one night.
Today you will be transferred from Tashkent to the Ferghana Valley by car with visits en route in Kokand, the capital of the Kokand Khanate in the 18th and 19th centuries. The journey takes you into the central heartland of the country. The route is long and some of the road sections are rough and unsurfaced but the wonderful views more than make up for it.
First stop will be the Khan's Palace Museum and then Rishtan, one of the most important ceramic centres in Central Asia and the place to buy elegant patterned pottery. Continue on to Fergana, arriving in the late afternoon. This is the centre of Central Asia's silk production, and with its beautiful scenery is a worthwhile stop on the Silk Road, not only for landscape but distinctive local architecture and traditional crafts.
Margilan is one of the major cities in the Ferghana Valley and the traditional centre of silk production in both large factories and smaller family-run workshops.
This morning you will drive to Margilan to visit the silk ikat weaving centre and the Margilan craft centre, supported by UNESCO and housed in a historic madrasa. Lunch will be in a local restaurant before you are transferred to the train station to take the six-hour train back to Tashkent. On arrival you will be met and transferred to your hotel for your last night in the capital.
This morning is yours to do as you wish. Your driver and guide are on hand to whisk you off to stock up on last minute souvenirs, or alternatively you can take a ride for a stop or two on the metro, home to some wonderful Russian era architecture. After lunch you will be privately transferred to the airport for your afternoon flight direct back to the UK arriving in the evening.