Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

Follow Us

Asia travel and leisure guides for hotels, food and drink, shopping, nightlife, and spas | Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

An Epic Road Trip through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan


New boutique hotels and cross-border car rentals have transformed the rugged Silk Road trails in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan into an accessible self-driving adventure. By MARCO FERRARESE. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Nov 4, 2016

 

MARCO POLO AND I have a lot in common. We share a name, country of birth and route, but he never experienced cruising along the Silk Road in a comfy Renault 4x4. Thanks to American-owned Iron Horse Nomads (car rental from US$45 per day), the first company to allow multicountry self-driving tours in the region, I crossed a dream trip off my bucket list in style. From the rigid boulevards of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Republic's Soviet-smart capital, my girlfriend and I drove south following the westward route of Genghis Khan's marauding Mongols along a stretch of the Pamir Highway, weaving through Uzbekistan's fruit basin Fergana Valley to visit Samarkand and Bukhara, two names that still evoke mystical images of camel caravans and turban-topped traders.

Pamir Highway
A windy section of the Pamir Highway between Osh and the Tajik border.

Today, sealed roads of varying quality have substituted the barren paths and mountain passes that defined the Silk Road's trade trails traversing 6,400 kilometers from Xi'an to Istanbul, as one of the world's longest and most arduous journeys. Yes, I realize driving a 1,600-kilometer section of the route in a 4x4 and in five days is a far cry from spending months trawling these badlands on horseback like Marco Polo and other explorers did centuries ago, but trust me: despite the asphalt and the arrival of modernity, a trip on any part of the Silk Road remains one of the world's grandest overland journeys.

 

BISHKEK TO OSH
DAY 1
l Drive Time: 8 hours

It's an early rise at Supara (doubles from KGS6,900), a delightful, ethnic Kyrgyz resort 40 kilometers south of Bishkek, where we trade Soviet ghosts for boutique yurts set in an alpine valley. A dearth of comforts along the way forces us to cruise a 600-kilometer section of the Pamir Highway in a single day to reach Osh, Kyrgyzstan's oldest city. This famous stop along the Silk Road was prized for its silk production and giant outdoor market, which is still drawing travelers from across the world. The slog turns out to be a boon in disguise, for the slow ascent to ashgray, jagged peaks is the country's most scenic and diverse drive. Indeed, after crossing the tunnel underneath the 3,130-meter-high Töö Ashuu pass, the windy road descends through grassy hills all the way to Toktogul Reservoir. This turquoise mirror dotted by white yurts is the best spot for a pit stop. A bottle of kumis, Kyrgyz fermented mare's milk, frothy and sour, sold fresh by nomadic herders on the lakeside, gives us an authentic taste of life in the grasslands before we drive off to reach Osh before sunset.

Boys selling kumis.
Boys selling kumis.

 

EXPLORING OSH
DAY 2

The large, spotless rooms of Osh's boutique hotel Silk Way (doubles from US$47) reenergize us before we set out to explore this charming, reputedly 3,000-year-old town. The ancient bazaar remains Osh's vibrant heart: cobbled streets snake through arched gateways filled with street vendors and chaikhanas, the Central Asian version of alfresco bistros. Grapefruit vines hang from the ceiling, while men in traditional felt hats sip their cups of dark tea around colorful arabesque tablecloths covered with plates of buuz, the Silk Road's quintessential meat-filled steamed buns. From an open kitchen, industrious women dish up bowls of succulent lagman, the region's staple noodle and mutton soup. Simple but garnished with freshly diced tomatoes and herbs, the brew is a delicious must.

A walk to the Sulaiman-Too, one of Central Asia's most sacred mountains and the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Kyrgyzstan, is also a must. Towering above the city, this boulder marked the midpoint on the Silk Road between Europe and Asia, and hides dozens of hollows and rock formations that date back one and a half millennia and are still used today as sites of worship. A five-minute walk brings us to a three-story yurt (entry KGS50), filled with colorful folksy memorabilia.

Meat buns
Meat buns at Osh bazaar.

 

OSH, KYRGYZSTAN TO KOKAND, UZBEKISTAN
DAY 3
l Drive Time: 2 hours

It's a short drive to Kokand, gateway to Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, the nation's grape and melon-producing basin. Its cities date back about 2,100 years, when the valley was an intersection for the Chinese, Greek, Bactrian and Parthian civilizations.

We cross the border in high spirits, undaunted by the unsmiling, rigid Uzbek officers, and keep rolling along scenery that looks imported from the 1960s; think box-like Lada Niva cars zooming past one-story houses inhabited by people dressed in retro, quasi-socialist clothes. Khan Hotel (doubles from US$56) mixes traditional Silk Road-décor with modern fittings, and is close by the town's most impressive sights, like the Khan's Palace, built in 1873, with its seven courtyards and 114 rooms, and the Jami Mosque, built in 1812 by Umar Khan, with its 22-meter-high minaret and a relaxing park for close-up views of its elaborately ornamented walls. For lunch head to Capriz (1 Imom Ismoil Bukhori; meal for two from UZS20,000) for a mix of Russian, Uzbek and Western fare.

Kyrgyz huts
Traditional Kyrgyz huts dot the grasslands along the highway.

 

HOKAND TO SAMARKAND
DAY 4
l Drive Time: 6 hours and 30 minutes

It's another early morning call as mystical Samarkand beckons. We pass the dusty towns of Almalyk, Gulistan and Jizzakh, and wearily pull into the Silk Road's most evocative namesake celebrated by historians, poet John Keats and popular imagination as an oasis of civilization in the midst of barren deserts. The Hotel Bibikhanum (doubles from US$65) warms these weary spirits: intimate, cozy, set on Samarkand's ancient central boulevard Tashkent Street, next door to the iconic Registan, the heart of ancient Timurid's Samarkand. Though the many historic sites beckon, and there are three magnificent madrassas to visit, we leave the sightseeing for the next day, because right from the dining area on the hotel's rooftop we have the most stunning view of the Bibia-Khanym Mosque's dome… a perfect spell to freeze us exactly where we are.

Samarkand's Shakh-I-Zinda
Samarkand's Shakh-I-Zinda burial complex.

 

SAMARKAND TO BUKHARA
DAY 5
l Drive Time: 4 hours

After spending the morning traipsing around Samarkand's beautiful and compact historical center, we drive across arid Uzbek plains to Bukhara, the finishing line of our Silk Road jaunt. Kavsar Boutique Hotel (112 B. Nakshband St.; doubles from US$54), a renovated traditional Uzbek home in the Old Town, welcomes us before sundown. The inner courtyard and rooms are decorated with curled arabesque motifs and bas reliefs that give the place a timeless feel of Silk Road's caravanserai, and it is set beside the ancient pool and open-air restaurants of Lyabi-Hauz main square. This is the last remaining ancient pool in Bukhara: it was spared for its beauty by Russian invaders who destroyed most of the city's ponds to avoid the spread of waterborne diseases. Kavsar's lavish breakfast, superior to most we tried on the drive, makes us forget about our next and slightly discouraging task: driving for three days back to Bishkek to return the vehicle and catch our flight home.

Kalyan Mosque
An afternoon view of t he Kalyan Mosque, Bukhara.

Luckily, much like my old buddy Marco Polo, I'm in no rush to get off this route. It may be a different century but the people here are still hospitable, the architecture remains mysterious and the landscapes are ever soul-stirring.

 


Map

Essentials

Kyrgyzstan offers 30- and 60-day visa-free entry to citizens of 44 countries including Singapore and Brunei, while other nationals can apply for visas on arrival. Travelers to Uzbekistan may require invitation letters issued by a tour operator, depending on nationality. Caravanistan.com is the most reliable travel source for Central Asia and can help with visa support.

 

 

See All Articles...

Traditional Kyrgyz huts dot the grasslands along the highway.
  • Toktogul Reservoir.
  • The Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara, Central Asia's tallest.
  • Hats for sale in Bukhara.
Related Articles