This is the report of 2019 Schleppers club trip to Central Asia – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Some of the group members had traveled with me previously and enjoyed our intimate, like-minded group and in-depth experience-focused travel.

They encouraged me to form a kind of “Facebook-based travel club,” so they could easily find out about future trips and share their experiences together online. So Schleppers Club was born. Today we have over 100+ members online.

For anyone interested, here is Schleppers Club where request can be sent to join. This was the 6th official Schleppers Club trip.

Why Uzbekistan?

We were asked this question at home when we mentioned our next adventure.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are part of Silk Road, the world's oldest, and most historically important overland trade route. As the centuries passed, many traders set out from China and ventured westward over the Pamir Mountains to Central Asia and finally to Rome.The name evokes images of caravans wading through desert sand, and smell of exotic spices, and continues to fascinate travelers. We already visited Georgia and Armenia and that was logical continuation of exploration of Silk Road.

The cities we visited in Uzbekistan, provided a unique flavor to the eastern cities of their area, caravanserai and medieval monuments of Islamic architecture, causing the worldwide fame of the cities of Uzbekistan. We found everywhere kind and welcoming people, architectural masterpieces, delicious cuisine, colorful traditions and customs, beautiful landscape.

Itinerary day by day

May 21, We arrived Tashkent, the Capital of Uzbekistan, on Turkish Airline connecting in Istanbul. Istanbul has spectacular new airport and we enjoyed their excellent business lounge. Our flight arrived Tashkent at 2am, our guide Mashhura and driver met us and transferred to our hotel Lotte Palace which is located in the center of town, about 10 minutes drive from airport.

We met next morning for late breakfast and took a short intro tour. Tashkent was the first city we have seen and it felt modern, not like Silk Road kind of city. It was rebuilt completely by Soviets after 1966 earthquake so buildings reflect Soviet Architecture and later on.

We walked to the Opera theater which was across our hotel and bought tickets for Swan Lake for next evening. Opera theater is a beautiful building. The architect of the opera was Alexey Shchusev, who also designed Lenin’s Mausoleum. Construction was stopped during the war and resumed in 1947, using Japanese POW. We got best tickets in the orchestra for $10 per person.

We went to two synagogues – Bucharan Jewish community and Bet Menahem synagogue established in 1973 by Ashkenazi Jews. Second one was one of the few typical synagogues allowed by Soviets.They had interesting Jewish museum with various artifacts.

May 22

We continued our exploration of Tashkent. It is very green, clean city. We were amazed how friendly local people are. We visited Earthquake Memorial. It shows date and time, 5:20am, April 26, 1966. We visited the Old City: Hast Imam Complex which consists of Medreseh Barakkhan, Friday Mosque Tello Shayh and the Mausoleum of Kaffal Shashi. We went to the colorful exotic old bazaar ”Chorsu”where we sampled delicious food and made a lunch out of it.

In the evening we had dinner in a restaurant Afsona. It is a modern restaurant and serving traditional Uzbek Cuisine with open kitchen. They had tandoori oven and baked their own bread and pastries (somsa), it had great food, ambiance and service.

May 23

We flew on early morning 1 hour flight to Urgentch, on Uzbekistan airline, with good friendly service. From Urgentch, it took about 30 minutes to get to Khiva.

We checked into our hotel Asia just outside Old City Walls and went to explore it.

Khiva was mentioned in 10c as a major trading center on the Silk Road. All the caravans stopped here on their way to China and back. Now it is a capital of Khorezm Region which in Khorezm State and home for Uzbek nomadic tribes, who founded Khive Khanate. In the 19th century Russia annexed part of Khiva Khanate. One century later, in 1919, the last Khan was liquidated of the ruling dynasty. So Khiva became the capital of the new Khorezm Soviet People's Republic. In 1924 territories of Khorezm oasis became a part of modern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Today Khiva is a unique city with an authentic atmosphere of the ancient era. Most of the city of Khiva is similar to the open-air museum. And the center of it is the museum - castle Itchan-Kala. Inside of this fortress concentrated all the architectural masterpieces. Once you enter ancient gates, you see the marvelous minarets, alleys, ancient walls. In 1990 the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Juma Mosque was stunning with intricately and beautifully carved pillars, 218 of them in total, actually supporting the roof of this mosque.

In the evening we sat in the restaurant in old city with panoramic views of the town. No wonder that Khiva attracts movie makers and there was filming of some movie. We ate our dinner and walked through some Russian movie filming set.

May 24

In the morning we went to the train station and took 6 hour train from Khiva to Bukhara. Our wonderful guide Mashhura did shopping for us to have a food on the train. The train was brand new, and contrary to my apprehension, very clean bathrooms. The carriage was half empty and we’ve met and talked to friendly locals on the train. The scenery was mostly desert, very exotic for me at least. It was very nice train ride and in 6 hours, we arrived Bukhara.

We checked into Komil Boutique hotel in Jewish quarter, the building was former house of rich merchant from 18C.

Bukhara, is one of the most ancient and incredible cities in the world and also UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked through Jewish Quarter to the Old Town and visited folklore and fashion show for about an hour. Afterwards, we went for dinner at local characteristic restaurant.

We went back to hotel, to rest and prepare for big day tomorrow – Silk and Spice Festival.

May 25

We’ve met other travelers at breakfast with whom my group happily socialized. Komil, the owner of Komil’s boutique hotel is hands on, doing everything with his wonderful staff, helping with breakfast food, and exchanging money. Staff is nice, and hotel has ambiance but the common areas are a bit tired. They had affordable laundry prices and we all refreshed our traveling clothes.

In the morning we met Mashhura and walked to the town square to participate in Silk and Spice Festival. We arrived just on time and when parade was passing by, we were invited to march in the first row. We also took lots of photos with locals, many dressed up in a characteristic national clothes and even gave an interview to the local press. We enjoyed attention, the one you usually will not get in another country. In Uzbekistan, you are not a traveler or tourist, but a guest.

After parade, we went to numerous sellers of spice, rug, clothes and enjoyed shopping.There were beautiful rugs, jewelry, spices and lot’s of people bargaining, eating and just enjoying the event. The sellers were from other "Stans" including even Afghanistan.

We had lunch in a nice restaurant in the historic center and went to hotel to refresh (continuing shopping on the way).

We had few hours to rest and we were on the way to our tour operator Zulya to meet her family and dinner party at her home. On arrival, we were met with musicians greeting us with music playing local instruments. We’ve met the whole large family including many children, there was dancing, music, songs and delicious meal.

Returning back to Old City, we saw many people walking and driving there and enjoying evening festivities. Our small area near Komil boutique had some chaos or vehicles arriving, departing, moving portable tandoori oven, and people arguing but somehow everything was conducted good naturedly.

May 26

We continued touring Bukhara. In the morning, we visited synagogue and Jewish school across the street. It is the only one Jewish school in

the country where secular studies are combined with Judaism. We visited local Jewish cemetery which dates to 4c. It is very well maintained with ancient and contemporary graves. Local Uzbek, Russian people peacefully coexist with Jewish community for many centuries. We visited main Bukhara sites: Summer residence of last Bukhara Emir’s palace Sitorai Mohi-Khossa translated as The Palace of Moon and Stars. In the Royal reception court, we had an opportunity to dress up as kings and queens so it made for great photos! Locals joined us too. In afternoon, we did a little of more shopping and then we had dinner at Italian Restaurant Bella Italia.

May 27

We left for the long drive to Samarkand. On the way, we visited nice pottery factory owned by the same family for 7 generations. The great-grandfather managed to hide designs and work during Soviet times when everything was nationalized and owned by Soviets “Kolhoz’s”. There is also a little museum of the family’s history. We saw pottery demonstration and bought some dishes at reasonable prices.

We stopped at the site of ancient Caravan Serai and felt like we were reliving the history of traveling on Silk Road.

We stopped for lunch where we had yet another delicious inexpensive meal. The plov was the best we ever tasted since the rice was special red rice from Fergana which we were told, is good for blood pressure and has other health benefits.

In the late afternoon we arrived Samarkand and checked into hotel Grand Samarkand Superior. Hotel was beautiful, former mansion, with two buildings across the street. We had dinner in restaurant Platan in Samarkand with local specialties. Food was good, but service was a bit slow and lack of attention. We sat outside. In the end we discover dancing and music inside so we participated. Electric slide was enjoyed by all!

Before going to hotel, we stopped at Registan Square. The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty, now in Uzbekistan. The name Rēgistan means "Sandy place" or "desert" in Persian.

The Square is must see and the heart of this ancient city. It became famous worldwide due to the great architectural ensemble that has become a monument of the oriental architecture. Because of Registan Square, Samarkand was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The influence of Registan and other building of Amir Timur, inspired and shaped other important monuments including the Taj Mahal at Agra. The square was magnificent in night light.

May 28

We left for a long drive to Shakrizabz where Ancient Ruler and national hero Amir Temur was born. On the way, we stopped at the village of a family or rug weavers, tasted fresh bread from tandoori oven, had tea, talked to the owners and shopped again.

We continued to Shakhrisabz, the road did not have any signs, so no wonder, our driver missed a turn and we ended up in beautiful mountains somewhere around Alpine Pass Takhta-Karacha but there was not a road in the view ahead. Eventually with asking around, the driver got on the right road. Our drive extended to extra hour but it was an interesting adventure.

When we finally entered Shakhrisabz, 2700 years old, it was just wow! One of the most beautiful and colorful Uzbekistan cities, has played a significant role in the history of Central Asian region. It was the famous center of culture, trade and handicrafts. In 329 BC Alexander the Great conquered the city and soon Hellenistic culture and cult of the Greek gods appeared there.

Today this wonderful city is more famous thanks to Amir Temur known in the West as Tamerlan, who was born in the neighboring village of Hodja-Ilgar. Becoming the ruler, he turned Shakhrisabz into his residence and ordered to build the palace, known as Ak-Saray (White palace).

Today the city has a lot of architectural sights; historical center of the city is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We visited ruins of the palace Ak-Saray, the memorial complex Dorut Tilovat, the mosque Kok-Gumbaz, Amur Temur Mausoleum, Shamsad-Dina Kulyala, Gumbazi-Seyidan.

We got back to Samarkand late afternoon.

May 29

After breakfast, we continued exploration in ancient Samarkand.

We visited Jewish Quarter and Samarkand synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1891 by local Rabbi Kalantarov Rafael Moiseevich by his own expense for Bukharan Jewish community. It was very beautiful synagogue.

Afterwards we went to Ulugbek’s Observatory. Built by Amir Timur’s grandson, also well known mathematician and astronomer Ulugbek, in 1417-1420.

Glazed bricks created beautiful ornaments on the yellowish laying of the walls. The madrassah portal had of ten-pointed stars symbolizing the sky, and astronomy. It was the largest scientific-educational establishment in Samarkand. The students studied philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, theology.

We continued with Shah-I-Zinda ancient necropolis with stunning mausoleums, established about 1000 years ago. We saw beautiful Bibi Khanum Mosque and Guri Emir Mausoleum. Subsequently, Gur Emir was a prototype for famous samples of architecture of the Great Mughal: Humayun Mausoleum in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, built by Timur descendants, who ruled northern India.

We visited local Siab Bazaar and also visited Hebrew Prophet Daniel’s Tomb.

We had lunch at local bakery café Monet where for a change, we enjoyed club chicken sandwiches and cakes.

We went to the train station where we boarded a train for Tashkent 2 hour ride around 6pm for 2 hour ride.

May 30

Our last day in Tashkent we took easy. We visited one more market, which was more upscale, with beautiful products, where wealthy people shop. We did not even see rich people, only their shoppers. Something like Uber Eats or shopping food service. In this market, it is not allowed to touch produce. We took some photos and went to Amir Temur museum. It was a logical conclusion to visit his museum since we already saw the rest of the cities where he was born and ruled and learned about him.

In the museum it is inscribed words of former president Karimov “If somebody wants to understand who the Uzbeks are if somebody wants to comprehend all the power, might, justice and unlimited abilities of the Uzbek people, their contribution to the global development, their belief in the future, he should recall the image of Amir Temur."

After museum we saw (outside) a small Palace of the Duke Romanov built in 1899. We explored Tashkent Metro which, similar to other former Soviet cities, had beautiful decorations and murals. Metro was very clean, while not air-conditioned but very airy and cool, and people were nice. Young people gave us their seats.

We saw government buildings and on the main square, with nice park and mountains. On the same square there is a monument to Shaakhmed Shamakhmudov and his wife Bahri. During the WWII in 1941-45 they adopted 15 children of different nationalities, who lost their parents and were evacuated to Tashkent.

May 31st

Morning was at leisure and in the afternoon we took a flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan. We said goodbye to our guide Mashhura who we became very fond of. Next adventure awaited!

In 1 hour comfortable flight on Air Astana, we arrived Kazakhstan.

We were met by our Kazakhstan guide, Nazira. We went to our hotel Kazzhol, 4* hotel. Kazakhstan is more expensive than Uzbekistan and were looking between very expensive Ritz Carlton, Intercontinental and Rixos 5*. Eventually we decided on 4* to stretch our $.

First dinner at hotel was included and it were some local appetizers, something like curd cheese (salty), some pastries but they did not hit the spot. We had beshbarmak – national beef dish, with boiled beef, onions and homemade noodles cooked in broth. We also had soup which was beef broth. By that time, I already had too much meat, which I am not used to eating at home and my stomach was a bit uncomfortable. I decided next day will take it easy. Enough plovs and beef.

June 1st

We’ve met with Nazira and toured Almaty sites. We had very interesting presentation by her of local history and geography in Almaty National museum. Like in Uzbekistan, people were very friendly and wanted to talk to us and take photos. It was a Children’s day and there were a lots of children in national costumes.

We went to Republic Square which is an important place in the short history of independent Kazakhstan, as it was in this Square that the riots took place against Soviet rule, which eventually led to the Soviets granting Kazakhstan independence.

The central monument in the square is the golden man standing atop the snow leopard. This is perched atop a huge column, and overlooking the old Presidential Palace.

The column is surrounded by statues of local origin, and there are reliefs on the surrounding walls that relate the history of Kazakhstan's struggle for Independence. These reliefs trace history from ancient times to modern times. There are fountains and many neatly manicured flower beds, which make for great photos.

It was typical Soviet Architecture, with benches and shade nearby, and Nazira did a good job keeping our attention and explaining murals and monuments. But comparing with majestic Uzbekistan ancient architecture, the Almaty paled. I know we must have not been fair. While Uzbek people had populated this part of Asia and build medieval Islamic architecture monuments, Kazakhs were nomadic people and they did not have cities. After Soviets came in, they forced Kazakhs to settle and it was very bloody history. Therefore, you see mostly 19C and 20C architecture.

The scenery was beautiful with mountains in the background. We went to a park where was beautiful Zenkov Russian Cathedral of 19C. We visited museum of musical instruments where we learned about local Kazakh music instruments, like Dombra. We saw Panfilov Park where is WWII monument to Panfilov, it was a division of Almaty Infantry division of 28 men fought in WWII defending Soviet Union, very similar architecture, you can find in many former Soviet Cities, with eternal flame.

For lunch we asked Nazira to take us somewhere with lighter cuisine and we went to local shopping mall with very nice Western stores and self-service cafeteria style restaurant called “Mandarinovi Goose” (Mandarin Goose). I was happy to have a fish and others had variety of choices, easy to point and buy and it was delicious food. After that, we browsed some stores in the mall and left for a falcon show which started at 5pm in a falcon farm, supposedly 30 mins out of Almaty but with construction road it took more. We decided to come earlier and get better seats in the open air area.

The chief performer called Paul, in addition to his knack with the birds, had a great sense of humor. His associate had some angry-Mongol-invader look. Paul started with a tiny owl, moves on to the largest owl, then a falcon, a golden eagle, a fish eagle and finally a vulture. They all did different things. It was great!

Dinner was on our own, and we tried Kohavle Georgian restaurant near our hotel. It turned out a good find, since all of us love Georgian food. We sampled family style Chachapuri (Georgian pizza like pie), Phali (vegetables with nuts), a mixed grill of meat and chicken, dumplings (Chinkhali) and shared desert.

June 2

We took a day trip to Charyn Canyon. It took about 3.5 hours to get there. It is not a miss attraction and it is Kazakhstan’s answer to USA Grand Canyon, it lies 3.5 hours East of Almaty near Chinese border.

On the way we stopped at the small market in Uygur village.

The road was kind of monotonous going through steppes and after 2 hours, the mountains appeared – it was The Valley of Castles. The red sandstone rocks varied in shape and size and colors. It is a photographer’s and hiker’s paradise.

We got to the entrance and after paying a fee, started our track. The weather was perfect for that – a bit cloudy and not hot. We had a pleasant 2 hour walk flat and downhill at canyon’s bottom, with stops and photos. The trail ended at the eco-center by the river. At the eco center we rested, saw some accommodations in yurts (outhouse bathrooms) and we decided to take an open air shuttle back. We were back to the parking lot in 15 minutes and we had a picnic there. After lunch, it took another 3.5 hours back to get to Almaty.

Long day but worth it.

In the lobby we’ve met 3 teenage boys. They came with a group of dancing ensemble. They came for a dance competition. There were 38 kids. The Ensemble is called "Happy Childhood" from small town of Prokopievsk, Kemerovo Region, Russia.

These 13 year olds were very social and they showed us their dances. Here is a video, such talented kids!

I’ve made reservations for dinner in Russian restaurant “Gosti” (Guests). Everyone enjoyed Russian specialties – blintzes (crepes), varenikes and pelmeni. We even had Apple blintzes for desert.

June 3

Last day in Almaty, we went to the mountains to see famous high altitude skating rink Medeo. After Medeo, we had an appointment in Chabad synagogue. Rabbi was from Israel and spoke fluent English. The Chabad house is situated on a small gated compound, with a large building with a synagogue and store offering kosher food. Rabbi lives nearby.

Rabbi Cohen told us that’s it is a special place for pilgrimage for Jews.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered rebbe of the Lubavitch movement, was exiled to Kazakhstan during Stalin’s times for practicing Judaism. Every year, on anniversary of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson’s burial, Jews from around the world come to visit the grave and pay their respect. We were told by Rabbi Cohen that miracles happen when people pray here and at his Ohel (mausoleum at the cemetery nearby).

So we did not miss opportunity to pray with Rabbi. After that, Rabbi gave directions to our driver and we went to Ohel few mins away. It is located in a small building with security key access. We were buzzed in remotely and wrote some wishes, prayed, meditated. That was really emotional day for everyone.

In the afternoon we visited Kok-Tebe Hill for panoramic view of Almaty. We took a cable car there and we admired the view. However, there are lot’s of souvenirs and attractions as it is also a Theme Park. Great for kids, but somewhat commercial for us. We took photos, saw Beatles monument and went back by car.

Back in hotel, we coincided with return of 38 Russian kids from Dancing Ensemble, excitedly informed us that they won gold medals. We congratulated them and their parents/chaperones. Festive mood prevailed. The parents sent us their performance. I was happy we did not book Ritz Carlton, the real experience meeting other interesting travelers we would not find at Ritz. There were also tennis competition in the city so tennis players were staying at hotel as well.

In the evening, we decided to go back to Georgian restaurant where we were met as a family.

June 4

That’s was the last day of our trip and we went to airport for our flight home.

Final Thoughts

It was an amazing trip and destination. Uzbekistan is a jewel of Silk Road. Caravans that for centuries moved people, goods, and ideas from East to West and fearless nomadic warriors who defeated the most powerful armies of their times, feature largely in local legends and epic stories. Past glories and achievements in Science and the Arts are reflected in thousands of architectural monuments and archaeological sites.

Jewish Heritage

It was amazing to meet local Jewish community in both countries.

Being in Muslim countries, we encountered no antisemitism which sadly exists in Europe and North America. Not just Jews, but other nationalities live and co-exist peacefully.

The most Ancient Community of Jews in the world, Sephardi Bukharan Jews, trace their ancestry to the sixth century B.C. While there were some tensions in 18C from suppression of Emir of Bukhara, in other times the community thrived.
Bukhara’s Jews spread out to other towns in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, and from there to countries around the world. Today, many Jews who emigrated to Israel and USA, always call themselves “Bukharan Jews.”

Ashkenazi Jews arrived during Soviet times, some by exile of Stalin, some to work. Many Jews came during the WWII as part of evacuation and stayed. Nowadays Ashkenazi Jews are represented by Chabad. Instead of Yiddish, they have their own version of language – Bukhori, also known as Bukharan and Judeo-Tajik, it is somewhat a mix of Persian and Hebrew and some Russian.

The community is very small now since after independence, many emigrated to USA and Israel. But they live comfortably with their neighbors and practice religion peacefully. Kazakhstan is known for its 130 ethnic groups living harmoniously, as well as the 46 religions practiced within the country. The President of Kazakhstan commissioned a religious center – Palace of Peace and Accord – to build in the country’s capital, for religious leaders across the world to meet and discuss tolerance and harmony amongst the world’s religions, and promotion of human equality.

Hotels

Infrastructure is still developing in both countries. In Tashkent, we stayed in best hotel Lotte – South Korean Chain, it is about 4*+. It was very comfortable, with good service and breakfast.

Khiva hotel Asia was brand new, somewhat small boutique feel. Bathrooms in different rooms are hit and miss. Breakfast was fine. Hotel did not have a elevator.

Bukhara Komil boutique hotel has some tired look, small rooms, and breakfast has small spread. In my room, phone and hair dryer did not work. They do compensate for it though with good service, family management and friendliness and desire to service guests. If they would upgrade breakfast choices and will do some repairs/renovations it would be a great choice. Location is in Old Jewish quarter. No elevator.

Samarkand Grand Hotel was a very nice hotel, with beautiful furnishings, nice large rooms and good breakfast. Also no elevator.

Almaty Kazzhol hotel was 4* business hotel, with comfortable rooms – we upgraded to deluxe (standard rooms are not recommended) and we had great experience meeting other travelers. Service was good but they were very inefficient in the restaurant with breakfast service. Hotel business is many groups and with groups having breakfast at the same time, they could not handle the crowd. They apologized and tried to fix the situation however, this can be easily fixed with advance planning.

All hotels have excellent staff, eager to please. Lack of elevators was not important for us since the luggage was delivered, however, for other clients, we will have to discuss mobility issues.

Kazakhstan has many 5* hotel choice, but in Tashkent I believe only one hotel Hyatt and location did not look convenient.

Food

Was highlight of the trip. Uzbekistan food has plov (their version of pilaf), both countries had excellent fruit and vegetables and tomatoes were out of this world! Uzbek pastries – sweet and savory, and bread baked in tandoori oven were delicious. Kazakh food was a bit heavy with lots of beef, but we found many other choices to eat. Shashlik (shish kebab) either from meat or chicken, barbecued over charcoal, with raw onion was great,

They are both landlocked countries, so only fresh river fish is available, otherwise, frozen and salted.

Other

Shopping was excellent and reasonable.

Infrastructure is still developing. But country is very clean. Most toilets we encountered were clean but many were Eastern type. We managed. In Kazakhstan, on the way and in Charyn Canyon, the toilets would benefit from improvement (mildly speaking!). In general, bring your sense of humor, extra napkins, toilet wipes, be prepared.

As I said above, people are the major asset of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They are welcoming, kind and generous people. With current overpopulation of tourist in other parts of the world, to feel like you are a special guest, it is unforgettable experience.

I want to say thanks again to our tour Operator, Silk Road Treasure tours and their owner Zulya Rajabova, for arranging this trip. I want to say thanks to our excellent guides Mashhura in Uzbekistan and Nazira in Kazakhstan. They were knowledgeable, caring, and wonderful! Thank you to our drivers who drove us safely in the treacherous roads.

Also special thanks to my faithful Schleppers travelers who trusted me to organize it, thank you for your company, humor and great conversations!

Photo Tributes to Reid and Linda Goodman and Dennis Turner.

See our slideshow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50UATqNFfno

Copyrights Sophia's Travel/Jewish Travel Agency, EMCO Travel LLC 2019