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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

The Silk Road
Uzbekistan - Central Asia

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and other Places to Stay along this Itinerary

The term Silk Road tantalizes the imagination with a treasure chest of romantic images: Marco Polo with his caravan of camels, the mighty Genghis Khan, traders laden with precious cargo trudging through the desert, the scent of spices, mystery and intrigue, precious silks, veiled maidens, vibrant costumes, walled villages, wondrous archeological sites, haunting music, desert oases, exotic bazaars, mosques with colorful tiled domes, and slender minarets with their plaintive song calling the faithful to prayer. The name "Silk Road" was first used in 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who was the uncle of Germany's most celebrated World War I aviator, Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron.

This itinerary is based on our own research in planning a personal trip.  We have long wanted to travel The Silk Road and so share this itinerary based on our own experiences and travels.

The Silk Road refers to a meandering trade route dating back to the 1st century B.C. It extended for thousands of miles from Xian in Eastern China all the way to Central Europe‑crossing deserts, weaving through narrow canyons, and over desolate mountains. The journey began in China and wound through Persia, Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Italy with side roads branching north into Russia and south into India. There were many towns along the way where wearied travelers would stop to rest and trade. Many of these towns exist today, such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Bagdad, Alexandria, Istanbul, Venice, and Rome. Although silk was one of the most precious items traded, a huge side result of the many caravans was that they traded not only merchandise but also exchanged various cultures of the ancient world.

To travel the whole route of the Silk Road would take months, so we researched what sounded most intriguing part of the Silk Road.

One popular option for exploring the Silk Road is to travel by train. Several companies promote Silk Road train tours. But our preference was to leisurely experience the ancient towns so we chose a land itinerary that included many of the most fascinating ancient, well-preserved towns along the Silk Road. After talking to friends, studying guidebooks and searching websites, we decided to concentrate on Uzbekistan , an especially alluring country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is rich in unforgettable UNESCO sites such as Samarkand, Bukhara , Shakhrisabz , and Khiva.

Instead of making our own arrangements, we chose MIR, a tour company in Seattle, Washington, specializing in Central Asia (800-424-7289). They provided exceptional service, good prices, and top notch guides and drivers. Since the price seemed very reasonable, we opted on using a private car and driver. We were very glad we did since it made the journey very personal. We would recommend doing this trip on your own or joined by a couple of friends using a car and driver.

The best time to visit Central Asia is in the spring or fall. Summer can be extremely hot. Winter can be bitterly cold. May to June or September to November are ideal times to visit. We chose October. The weather was perfect: very little rain and mild, sunny days.

Most tours to Central Asia begin or end in either Toshkent (Uzbekistan) or Ashkabad (Turkmenistan). These cities are convenient since both have an international airport. However, if your time is limited, we suggest flying both into and out of Toshkent and concentrating all of your time in Uzbekistan, which offers a wealth of well-preserved, picturesque, UNESCO towns with dazzling old world ambiance. Turkmenistan is also interesting, but is not as fascinating as Uzbekistan. For your information, we will also talk about the option of including Turkmenistan.


PACING: Our recommendation would be to spend 10 days (9 nights) in Uzbekistan. Fly into Toshkent and spend 2 nights. Then drive to Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (spending 2 nights in each). From Khiva drive to Urgench and take Uzbekistan Airways back to Toshkent. Spend another night there before flying home. The itinerary we suggest follows the format of a MIR tour called "Essential Silk Road."

The map gives a visual idea of your itinerary. The map includes both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The dotted line shows ground travel. The solid line indicates air travel.

DAYS 1 & 2          TOSHKENT

Most flights arrive into Toshkent in the wee hours of dawn, so you might want to reserve your hotel from the previous night so that you can rest and freshen up before you begin your sightseeing. This is especially important if you have been traveling for many hours. Consider the option of breaking your journey somewhere en route. A suggestion would be to spend a few days in the enchanting city of Prague, which makes a convenient choice since there are flights from Prague to Toshkent.

WHERE TO STAY: It isn't important as to which hotel you choose to stay in Toshkent since the sights are spread out and a car is needed to explore the city. We stayed at the Poytaht Hotel , a rather large, well-located hotel, which, like most of the other places to stay in Toshkent, was very adequate but not memorable.

Toshkent is the largest city in Uzbekistan and its capital. Although most of the architecture is of fairly recent construction, at its roots this is a very old city whose origins date to the 2nd century B.C. It is a pleasant place to visit with shaded streets and a quiet, laid back charm. Although the sightseeing isn't as remarkable as what you will see later, Toshkent makes a great introduction to the country and its culture.

Due to its strategic location along the Silk Route and its benign climate, Toshkent was one of the favorite stopping places for the caravans along the Silk Road. Over the years Toshkent prospered and became a wealthy city of merchants and tradesmen. You will see many places that still reflect its heritage and will give you an enticing taste of what is awaiting you along the rest of your trip.


THE ABDULKASYM MADRASSA: This historic Madrassa was built in 1850 as a monument to a renowned intellectual, Abduklasym, who is said to have memorized the Koran and could recite the entire book by heart.

KUKELDASH MEDRASSA: The Kukeldash Madrassa dates back to the 15th century and is much older than the Abdulkasym Madrassa. Over the years, the building has been a school (Madrassa), a fortress, and a caravan stopping place (Caravanserai). The core of the building is constructed of adobe brick which is enhanced in traditional style with a façade of tiles.

MUSTAKILLIK SQUARE (INDEPENDENCE SQUARE): This is a beautiful, modern park highlighted with broad walkways, ponds, and fountains. A colonnade of white marble arches leads into the park where you will see many families strolling along the wide walkways. There are various statues and monuments, including a lovely stature of a mother holding her baby-a favorite theme for artists throughout the ages from around the world.

DAYS 3 & 4:        SAMARKAND (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Toshkent to Samarkand takes about 3 ˝ to 4 ˝ hours by car (approximately 180 miles).

WHERE TO STAY: It is not especially important as to the location of your accommodations in Samarkand since you really need a car to get about. We stayed at the Maiika Samarkand Hotel , which was nice but not special.

Samarkand, located in the Zarafshan Valley, is the second largest city in Uzbekistan. Even though it is large, it doesn't have high-rise, modern buildings to detract from its old world ambiance. It is a beautiful city that is rich in culture and has many fascinating places to visit. It dates back 2,500 years. Due to its strategic position along the Silk Road, it has always been a favorite target for conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Genghis-Khan.

TAMERLANE: In the 14th century Samarkand was conquered yet again; this time by Tamerlane (also called Timur). Although his name is not well known to Westerners, you will constantly hear Tamerlane's name as you travel through Uzbekistan. During his reign he and his army of 100,000 men spread the empire from China all the way to Egypt. When he was a young man, he was wounded in battle and as a result was left lame for the rest of his life. His nickname became Timur the Lame‑ which later translated into Tamerlane. But in spite of his handicap Timur conquered more lands than anyone else in history except for Alexander the Great. He was a great warrior and obviously a brilliant man who (although he did not know how to read or write) spoke several languages and loved art.

Tamerlane transformed Samarkand into one of the most beautiful, sophisticated cities along the Silk Road, making it the jewel of Central Asia. Tamerlane had built many buildings whose beauty was unsurpassed in the ancient world. After his death, his talented grandson, Ulugbed, continued on with Tamerlane's dreams. Ulugbed was a genius in astronomy and mathematics. He is best remembered for his masterpiece, an observatory which was the most accurate one of its time.


REGISTAN SQUARE: Registan Square is the "heart" of Samarkand and one of its star attractions. The name Registan means "sandy place." Some scholars think the name of the square was derived because of its proximity to a sandy river bed. Others have a more awesome theory that the name was derived because sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from public executions, which were common event up until the 20th century.

Registan Square is an expansive complex comprised by many beautiful architectural gems. Three of these are madrassas or schools: the 15th-century Ulugbed Madrassa (where Tamerlane's grandson Ulugbed taught mathematics and astronomy up until the time of his death), the 17th-century Ser-Dor Madrassa, and the 17th-century Tilla-Kai Madrassa which is particularly outstanding with its gorgeous gold dome. You can readily recognize a Madrassa by its design which usually has two stories that consist of a row of student "dormitories or cells" with individual arched doorways leading into each student's quarters. The doorways were low since to bow upon entrance was a sign of respect. It is obvious that education was highly prized since you see so many ancient madrassas throughout Uzbekistan, most of which are beautifully adorned with tiles. The schools were religious in nature and the teaching of the Koran was the primary purpose. Boys were the only students and these were primarily from wealthy families. In addition to the Koran, other subjects were also taught and these students came away with an excellent education.  The three madrassas, beautifully embellished with colorful tiles, face each other, forming an expansive courtyard between them.

ULGBEK'S OBSERVATORY: Although not much is left of Ulgbek's Observatory (built in 1498 by the grandson of Tamerlane), you can imagine its size and grandeur from partial ruins and the footprint of the original buildings. The observatory was large and sophisticated in design with a dome embellished in tiles. There is also an interesting museum with paintings various scientific instruments and a very interesting mural showing Ulgbek and his colleagues at work on their calculations, which they meticulously recorded. Scientists today are still amazed at the accuracy of their research in tracking the stars. In fact, he and his group of scholars, came up with a calculation of a 365-day year in which was off by only one minute from that arrived at by modern scientists.

DAYS 5 & 6: SHAKHRISABZ AND BUKHARA (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites)

SHAKHRISABZ (a stop en route from Samarkand to Bukhara)

On your way from Samarkand to Bukhara plan to stop in Shakhrisabz (located about 55 miles south of Samarkand). Shakhrisabz is nestled in a fertile agricultural area and is surrounded by vineyards and orchards. The equitable climate, lush vegetation, and strategic location made this a favorite stopping point for many travelers since ancient times. Even Alexander the Great spent the winter here in 328 B.C. (although at the time the name of the town was Kesh).

What makes Shakhrisabz famous today is that it was the birthplace of Tamerlane who built many architectural monuments here, including a grand palace called Ak-Saray. It took over 20 years to finish and was at the time was considered an architectural masterpiece. It had a grand entrance highlighted by a huge arch with a span of more than 66 feet. Legend says that elephants were brought from India to lift the awesome slabs of granite. Above the portal Tamerlane had an artist write an inscription that reads: "If you challenge our power‑ look at our buildings" -a subtle warning to his enemies.

Today most of the palace is in ruins although the entrance portals still stand and form a dramatic backdrop for a scenic park that stretches in front. This park is especially pretty with well-kept flower gardens and paths that meander amongst them. Highlighting the park is a huge statue of Tamerlane. When we visited on a Sunday, we saw at least six wedding parties with all the family dressed in finest garb. Obviously the park is a favorite destination of newly-married couples. All seemed to stop before the statue of Tamerlane to ask for his blessing on their marriage.

Also in Shakhrisabz you will see the mausoleum of Tamerlane's favorite son, Jehangir, who died when he was just 22 years old. Tamerlane also planned to be buried here but when he died, the road to Shakhrisabz was closed by snow so he was buried in Samarkand instead.

If you want to do some shopping, Shakhrisabz is well-known for its crafts and you will see many stalls selling embroidered items such as shawls, hats, and jackets.

From Shakhrisabz it takes about 4 hours to drive on to Bukhara, your next destination.

BUKHARA : If you delight in the ambiance of towns untouched by the modern world you will be captivated by Bukhara. Centuries drop away as you walk through the gates into this exceptionally picturesque, pedestrian-only walled town.

WHERE TO STAY: While staying in Bukhara it is important to choose a hotel within the town walls so that you can walk everywhere. We stayed at Sasha & Son B&B . The location is perfect, however as you approach the entrance via a bedraggled alley, it looks a bit questionable. But, once inside, you will be pleasantly surprised since the accommodations are very nice and the ornately frescoed walls mimic the interiors of palaces.

As you stroll through the small town you will be enchanted by the charm of the narrow cobbled streets, the bountiful little stalls selling local crafts, women in brilliantly-colored dresses, and children happily romping in the streets. Along the narrow streets are mosques, madrassas, and caravanserai, shops, and houses. The scene is enhanced by domes peeking out above the rooftops and minarets jutting into the sky. Browse the market for brilliant silks, carpets, ceramics, jewelry, woodwork, fur hats, shawls, purses, puppets, and jackets. The silk scarves make a wonderful purchase since not only are they beautiful and low-priced, but also tuck easily in your suitcase.


LYABI-HAUZ: At the heart of the town is a large square, called Lyabi-Hauz (which means "round the pond." And, indeed it is. In the center of the square is a large pool that dates back hundreds of years. In olden times there many such pools in Bukhara where women gathered to wash their clothes, old men to relax and gossip, children to play, and everyone to secure their drinking water. Most have been covered now for health concerns, but the one in Lyabi-Hauz survives. The pool is quite picturesque with centuries-old mulberry trees gracefully reflecting in the water. This is a perfect place for people watching since everyone in town seems to congregate here for a meal or just to linger over a cup of green tea at one of the many tables and chairs set around the water's edge. There is lots of action here with people selling their wares-my favorite was a man on bicycle selling the delicious rounds of freshly oven-baked bread served at every meal.

There are two dramatic madrassas in Bukhara that face each other across the Labai-Hauz Square: one of these is the NADIR DIVANBEGI MADRASSA and the other is the KUKELDASH MADRASSA:

The NADIR DIVANBEGI MADRASSA now houses a crafts center. In the cells, or dormitory rooms, you now find artisans who have set up shops where you can see them carving intricate woodwork, making jewelry, doing embroidery, weaving carpets, making musical instruments, and selling every conceivable type of handicraft-most at excellent prices. You can of course bargain, which is expected.

The KUKELDASH MADRASSA, which was built in1578, is a one of the largest madrassas in Uzbekistan. It was designed with 160 cells (or dormitories) and also had lectures halls and a mosque for prayer.

ARK CITADEL: Be sure to visit the Ark Citadel, which for many years was the fortified residence of the rulers. The citadel is built within the western walls of the town and is approached by a long sloping ramp. All visiting dignitaries were first to pay a visit to the Emir for permission to enter into the city. Two famous British officers were sent here by Queen Victoria to try talk to the Emir about an invasion of Afghanistan. Colonel Charles Stoddart was the first to arrive. One tale says he annoyed the Emir by entering through a gate reserved for royalty. Another theory was he failed to bring appropriate gifts. But, whatever the reason, the Emir was annoyed and imprisoned him. The queen then sent Colonel Arthur Conolly to secure Stoddart's release. Unfortunately he too was arrested and both were accused of being British spies (which they probably were) and imprisoned in appalling conditions (you can visit their cells). Ultimately they were forced to dig their own graves before being beheaded in the square in front of the Citadel in 1842. The Ark was not only the residence of the ruler, but housed his army, stabled his horses, had an arsenal, minted money, included a school, had a mosque, and as Conolly and Stoddart unfortunately discovered a prison. The Citadel is open now as a museum.

KALON MINERET: The Kalon Minaret, built in 1127, is an exquisitely fashioned, 155-feet tall minaret, with bricks creating intricate, non- repeating designs that form 14 bands around the tower. Not only was the minaret used to call to call men to prayer, but also was designed as a watchtower to guide the caravans along the ‘Silk Road to Bukhara. It is also sometimes referred to as the "Tower of Death" since enemies of the Emir were hurled from the top of the tower to their death. For a small fee, you can climb to the top where you have an awesome view of the town, but it is a long way up!

KALON MOSQUE: Adjoining the Kalon Minaret is the Kalon Mosque. This is a huge mosque with a beautiful, typical tiled arched entryway. It is said that 10,000 people can worship here at one time. There are 288 domes in the roof.

CHAR-MINAR MOSQUE: One of the most beautiful mosques in Bukhara is the Char-Minar Mosque.  What makes it truly special is not the interior, but rather the four towers that form a square. Each of towers has its own original design, but all are topped by stunning, harmonizing blue tiled domes. When we visited, it was hard to stop snapping photos. .

ISMAIL SAMANI MAUSOLEUM: Of all the monuments in Bukhara, in our opinion, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum is the most special. It truly is a jewel. The mausoleum is not an imposing, monument, but rather an intimate square building with a dome roof. The mausoleum sits in a park outside of the city walls. The walls of the mausoleum are made of terra cotta brick in an intricate, beautiful design. It is in perfect condition so it is difficult to believe that it was built in the 10th century. A large arched doorway leads into the interior where you see the 6-foot thick walls displaying an intricate design fashioned from brick. Even the interior of the dome is a masterpiece of construction. Be sure to take time to admire this amazing craftsmanship and to study the designs.  The mausoleum make a good photo op as it is reflects into an adjacent pond.

PUPPETS: Bukhara is famous for its puppets and you will see them for sale at stalls throughout town. They are colorful and cute and make fun gifts to bring home. In the Lyabi-Hauz square, there is a puppet show each evening depicting an Uzbek wedding.

DAYS 7 & 8               KHIVA (UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Your last destination in Uzbekistan is Khiva . This is your longest day on the road as it is takes about 6 hours by car (approximately 300 miles). The day we drove between the two towns, there were long delays since it was cotton harvest time. We had to wait for buses to pick up workers from the fields. The drive is interesting because not only do you pass miles of cotton fields, but you also get a taste of the hardships the camel caravans must have endured as you travel through never-ending expanses of arid, desert.

WHERE TO STAY: It is very important where you stay in Khiva. You want a hotel within the town walls so you can savor each moment of you stay. And, also like Bukhara, this is a pedestrian-only town. We stayed in the Malika Hotel Khiva , a simple, but very pleasant hotel in an unbeatable location. Not only was it in the center of town, but had the added benefit of being located between two towering minarets which easily marked your way "home".

You will see many fascinating towns and during your time in Uzbekistan, but in my estimation Khiva is the icing on the cake. Some might prefer Bukhara where there are more imposing sites, but Khiva is quite irresistible. The town is tiny, but oozes old world charm. Thick crenellated, mud-covered walls enclose the town which dates back a remarkable 2500 years. Today the village is like a living museum. As you wander the cobbled narrow alleys lined with simple clay brick houses it feels like magically stepping back in history. Although this is a tourist destination, it is also a real town with small groups of women in beautiful brilliant-colored garments stroll the streets to do their shopping. And, little boys dart about playing and laughing just as little boys do all over the world.

Khiva looks too perfect to be real. It is really like a stage set. We thought perhaps it had been contrived for tourism, but our guide, who was born in Khiva, told us that it looks just like it did when he was a child.


WANDERING: Just strolling along the narrow, cobbled streets is a highlight of Khiva. There are boundless street stalls and small shops selling all kinds of irresistible hand-made items. Again, woodwork, jewelry, metal craft, carpets, silk items, embroidery, scarves, fur hats, and souvenirs are ubiquitous. And, the prices are very low. Don't structure your sightseeing, but rather stop along the streets as you come across mosques, caravanserai, and Madrassas that catch your fancy.

KALTA-MINOR MINARET: Khiva is rumored to have the most minarets in Asia. I can believe it. They are everywhere. The Kalta-Minor (the short minaret) was my favorite. This has a huge base that is wrapped by bands of dazzling blue, green beige, and turquoise tiles fashioned in a variety of intricate geometric designs. Supposedly this was designed to be one of the largest minarets in Uzbekistan, but construction was stopped before it was ever finished. The diameter is over 40 feet, so you can only guess how high it would have been if every completed.

JUMA MOSQUE: The Juma Mosque is fascinating. The interior is like a forest of tall carved wooden pillars which are ancient, yet in amazing condition. There are 213 of these columns-which date back to the 10th century. Although columns were carved over several centuries, they all harmonize and are quite breathtaking. All the columns are made of black elm, except for one column which was carried all the way from India on the back of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, an unbelievably powerful wrestler and poet who later became a patron saint of Khiva.

TOWN GATES: There are four ancient city gates that guarded the entrance into town. The Ota-Darvoza (Father's Gate) is the western gate; Polvon-Darvoza (Stronman's Gate) is the eastern gate; Buhoro-Darvoza (Bukhara Gate) is the northern gate, and Tosh-Darvoza (Stone Gate) is the southern gate.

TASH-HAULI (Stone House): The Tash-Hauli was constructed by Alloquli Khan in the mid-1800. It is an imposing 150-room structure with towers, buttresses, and high walls. There are many paintings, carved columns, long corridors, colorful tiles, and ornamental ceilings. There are many parts of the castle, each enhanced by spacious courtyards. One quarter was for the Khan's four wives, another for his harem.

KUMYA-ARK CTTADEL: At the western gate to the city, the Arang-Khan built in 1686 a fortified palace that housed not only his family and harem, but served as a self-sufficient town within the town with quarters for his army, warehouses, stables, a mosque, reception halls, parade grounds, and guardhouses.

DAY 9                        TOSHKENT

When it is time to return to Toshkent, the most efficient way is by air since it would take about 14 hours to go by car (distance about 670 miles). So, we recommend driving from Khiva to Urgench which is just a short drive, and taking a plane. When you arrive at Toshkent, you will probably need to spend one night before the flight to your next destination.


VISAS: Before planning your trip, be aware that you cannot decide on the spur of the moment to go to Central Asia. The visas take months to secure, and the process is long and tedious. Happily, there is an excellent company called Passport Visas Express that knows all of the inns and outs of how to go through the process. They even helped us secure a duplicate two-year passport since we had plans to travel out of the country during the time our "original passports were being processed. The person who helped us, Sapto Pradonggo, gave us outstanding service. Passport Visas Express: 888-596-6028.

SPELLING: Don't be dismayed to see towns and names of places and people spelled in different ways. They are usually very similar and all correct.

THE PEOPLE: Without exception we found the people in Central Asia to be welcoming and gracious. Only a few speak English, and those who did were usually involved in some form of tourism or international business. It delightful to see how many young people tried to experiment with their English. They must have all had the same textbook since we were often stopped by young women who all asked the same memorized phrases, such as "How old are you?", "Where do you come from" and "Do you have children". Although often shy, they were always lots of smiles and giggles. Children whispered amongst themselves and then one would be chosen to come up and practice English with "Hello" and "Goodbye" being the common greeting. Although it is customary throughout the world to smile and ask permission before taking a photo, we found most of the people we met eager to pose. In fact, on several occasion they wanted us to continue taking pictures and even called their friends to join in the picture. For some reason, many also wanted us in the picture and would hug us and we would all smile and pose together.

TO READ: Before you leave home, be sure to read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. This really is an incredible story that you just mustn't miss. It lays the groundwork for places along the way that you will visit and will make your trip come alive. The tale is about the exploits of the British and Russians as they struggled during the 19th century to secure the "prize" of Central Asia, which was the strategic key to the riches of India. The book includes true stories of the perils, intrigues and adventures of various British spies who frequently traveled in disguise. The tales of their exploits exceed anything you would read in fiction.


MADRASSAHS: Madrassas are schools. The emphasis is on religious studies, but other courses are also taught there. Usually the boys board there and sleep in rows of small cubicles that usually face onto a courtyard (these reminded me of monk's cell in monasteries). Madrassas have been newsworthy in recent years since some of the radical ones have been hotbeds of terrorist philosophy. However, in Central Asia they seem to be authentic schools of traditional religious education. Many people we met made a point to explain that they abhor terrorism in every form.

CARANVANSERAI: Caravanserai are inns where weary travelers stopped to rest as they made their way along the Silk Road. The architecture was usually similar: a huge square building enclosing a large central courtyard faced by rows of sleeping rooms. These were full service hotels of their day: meals were served, camels boarded, drinks available, and probably lots of business transacted. It is fun to imagine what staying in such a "hotel" would have been like with tradesmen speaking many different languages, and a blend of traditions and cultures blending from across the huge expanse of Asia.

MOSQUES: Mosques are holy places of worship for the Muslim religion. Although they can be simple, many are large and crowned by a dome.  There is usually an expansive central room where men come to pray. Many bring their beautiful prayer rugs to for comfort as they kneel.

MINARETS: Minarets are tall, slender towers with an open area at the top from which a sing-song call goes out at regular intervals of the day calling the faithful to prayer.  The minarets are usually part of a Mosque. Some are truly exquisite works of art.

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