Gail & Andy Madsen joined Mandala Adventures for our exhilarating tour of Central Asia, traveling through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan along the fabled Great Silk Road. We spoke to them about their journey and what made their experience so special.
Why did you chose this trip and what were your expectations of the Great Silk Road before you went?
We had been fascinated by the history of the great cities of Samarkand and Bukhara since learning about their history as children, but weren’t sure how easy it would be to arrange travel in Central Asia. With Mandala taking care of logistics, the trip was surprisingly easy.
How did MTS help your dream trip come to life?
In Central Asia you really need to have guides and Mandala works with excellent country guides, who in turn hire the best local guides, which makes a huge difference. Bava (Babageldi Charyyev), our country guide in Turkmenistan, was one of the most remarkable people we’ve met anywhere in the world. In fact, guides were such a big part of this trip for us that we really would love to go back just to see them again.
What was your top trip highlight?
The beauty of this tour is that each place has its unique attractions. Turkmenistan offers great archeology (and certainly interesting if totally garish and bizarre modern Ashgabat), Uzbekistan’s three main historical sites are all great in their own ways. Walking through Khiva, sunset over the ruins of Merv, first look inside Samarkand’s grand mosques—it’s hard to pick one thing.
What was your most unexpected moment?
Visiting the silk carpet factory in Samarkand was a delightful extra that we arranged with the local guide. We were given a very memorable tour by the manager—an amazing person who is also a doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres. The silk carpets take one to two years to weave, so you need to spend time choosing the right one!
Where was your favorite place to stay?
Bukhara and Khiva are a tie. They both retain a lot of local color, and are very pleasant but in different ways. Bukhara has traces of really old, deep culture, while Khiva still looks like the wild, desert, slave-trading fortress that it was for centuries. They could film a Game of Thrones episode there! Samarkand is also beautiful, but larger and more touristy.
Did you buy anything interesting?
Uzbekistan has many really great artisans, and both Samarkand’s Registan and Bukhara’s old city have excellent specialty shops where you can buy ceramics, embroidered fabrics, cutlery, etc. One of the highlights was stopping at the Gijduvan “museum of ceramics” on the way to Bukhara. We got a lot of things and needed to buy an extra bag on the last day in Tashkent to pack it all! Local guides are delighted to take you to great local shops, beyond the main bazaars, where pieces are hand-made and prices are unbelievable.
What do you tell your friends about your trip through Central Asia?
We tell our friends that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are surprisingly comfortable, generally welcoming places that are safe and relatively easy to visit (except for border crossings, but these are manageable, especially with experienced guides). They have some of the greatest historical sites in the world, and very beautiful and unique cities. The guides go out of their way to make you feel at home!