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The Silk Road from train window

The Silk Road from train windowTourism industry offers travels for every taste: culture and history tours, ecotours, bird watching and horseback riding trips, hang gliding, extreme rafting and mountaineering, downhill skiing, biking or motoring vacation, diving in exotic seas, yacht cruise holidays and many others. In the past decade the railway tours have begun to enjoy wide popularity. This is not surprising, as compared to air and motor transport, railway mode is a safer way to travel, and modern locomotives can run at 300 km per hour. Moreover, the comfort that a VIP sleeping car provides is not inferior to the most luxurious hotels.

Train travel does not depend on weather freaks - rain, sleet, fog; the train departure is delayed only in exceptional cases. The rail routes link many towns which no planes fly to. Panoramic train windows ensure perfect viewing and while aboard a train the passengers can enjoy the spectacular nature vistas of the country.

Train is not just a transportation means; rail travel is one of the world's oldest types of tourism. Few probably know that the first ever rail excursion took place in 1841. Thomas Cook, an Englishman, organized 20-mile train journey for 570 passengers, an event which then was rather exotic in itself. On board of train the passengers were offered a cup of tea and a bun, and a brass band performance accompanied this miniature journey. The idea of Thomas Cook, the forerunner of tourism industry, had become effective and in the short run there appeared many travel agencies which published catalogues and offered their clients train journeys.

Alongside with century-old train journey itineraries still in operation in the world tourism industry there are many which have been introduced in recent years. The oldest rail travel is the legendary Orient Express. Thanks to books by Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway it embodies the romance of adventures associated with rail travel. Orient Express made its maiden run from Paris to Istanbul via Romania in 1883, and shortly after that the 'luxury hotel on wheels' became much more than just a comfortable transport means: it has become the epitome of opulent style and glamour. After the World War II the express train recommenced the regular journeys, but in respect of comfort its standard carriages were inferior to pre-war ones. In 1982 there was organized the first travel of the rehabilitated Orient Express train.

Another European rail travel - Stendhal sleeper train starts in Paris and speeds for Venice via Turin and Milan. Rather popular in the whole world are tours by Rovos Rail train which runs from Capetown through scenic landscapes of Kruger National Park to the Namib desert and Victoria Falls, rail journey on board of Palace on Wheels train from Delhi across India's state of Rajastan with stopovers in Agra and Jaipur, two-day sightseeing train journey down the Krugo-Baikalskaya railway (Trans Siberian main line). In 1993 there was launched Eastern & Oriental Express train reconstructed in 'colonial' style. It runs through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. There are many train journeys in the USA, Great Britain, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, China and other countries of the world. Surely, rail travel is not the cheapest type of tourism. But on the other hand, it allows blending the advantages of a luxury hotel, a restaurant, a club and a romantic traveling, when during the stopovers passengers can do sightseeing at the most interesting tourist attractions.

The rail travel in Uzbekistan is of special interest. For thousands of years the territory of the republic was an important crossroad of the ancient transcontinental arterial road which is known in history as the Great Silk Road. Its trails linked countries and peoples on vast territories from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Uzbekistan's Silk Road legacy numbers about 4000 historical and architectural monuments many of which were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Afrosiab TrainPractically every travel itinerary in Uzbekistan, be it a tour for holidaymakers or a business trip, includes visits to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – the legendary ancient oriental cities. Travelling by train can offer as much comfort as possible. Since 2011 there has been operating between Tashkent and Samarkand а high-speed AV-E25  train Afrosiab introduced by Uzbekistan Railways. The train departs from Tashkent at 7.00 and comes back in the evening. Afrosiab develops a speed up to 250 km/h thus covering the distance between the two cities in 1.5 hours.  From the platform of Tashkent railway station the train starts off gently and almost noiselessly. Passengers settle into their comfortable VIP or business-class seats, while attendants assist with storing the luggage in special luggage spaces. The carriages feature convenient compartment tables, computers and video systems with monitors, air conditioning which maintains the temperature in the passenger car at 22 degrees Centigrade all the year round. Wide panoramic windows  enable passengers fully enjoy Central Asian landscapes unfolding past the windows.

On arrival to Samarkand tourists are met by the guide whereas comfortable tourist coach or car parked on the railway station square is ready to take tourists to sightseeing tour round the ancient capital of Sogdiana.

Sharq trainSince 2005 one more legendary city, Holy Bukhara has been linked with the country's capital city by a fast train Sharq, which covers the distance in 8 hours. In terms of comfort business-class and economy class passenger cars of Sharq train are not inferior to Afrosiab express train.

Due to increasing popularity of Silk Road tourism of special importance is so called Central Asian transport corridor, which links by railroads such countries as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. This main line has been used for cargo railway transportation from 1996. At present the agreement has been made between the participating countries on creation of international passenger route Almaty-Tashkent-Serahs-Mashhad-Teheran. A considerable part of this route runs through the territory of Uzbekistan – "The golden section of the Great Silk Road"

Today the rail travels along the Great Silk Road arouse high interest. Among such travels are Russian tourist train Golden Eagle which runs from Moscow via Volgograd, Urgench, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Almaty to Druzba railroad station on the border between Kazakhstan and China. Another train tour with a romantic name "The Silk Road Gems" follows the circular route from Almaty via the cities of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The train makes stopovers for the tourist to do sightseeing in such historical centres as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva as well as to visit the high-altitude "Medeo" skating rink in Zaaliyskiy Alatau in the outskirts of Almaty and Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan.

Sharq trainToday the guests of Uzbekistan can avail themselves of a new offer – the train tour "The Silk Road from the train window". As is generally known, the Great Silk Road started in the capital of ancient city of Xian in China, reached Dunhuang and then split into two main branches running across the Tarim Basin. The northern branch crossed Xinjiang, passed over the Tien Shan mountains, ran across Semirechye (south-eastern part of modern Kazakhstan) and reached Chach - Tashkent. From here it traversed the Syr Darya river at Chinaz settlement and then across the Jizzak steppe it head for Samarkand and further on towards Bukhara. From Bukhara the road branched into two principal trails. One of them led to the north towards Khorezm, Caspian coast steppes and Russia. Another branch ran southwest across Margiana and Khorasan to Persia, and further to Asia Minor and the Levant. The route of the new rail travel virtually follows the footsteps of the ancient caravans. It starts from Druzba railway station on the border between China and Kazakhstan.

To make traveling on board most enjoyable the train offers the passengers comfort, civility, and quality service. Each compartment features two wide sleeping births, an armchair, a wardrobe, bathrobes and slippers, air conditioner, radio, TV, compact disk stereo cassette receiver, DVD, internet access, conductor call button, a small table, luggage racks. Adjacent to each compartment there is a bathroom with a sink, shower and toilet. Tourist train also comprises two dining cars, kitchen car, saloon car, medical post, service and maintenance cars, sometimes a shower car. The tourists are escorted by multilingual guides and qualified train staff.

The rail route to Tashkent runs across the Kazakh steppes, where in olden days nomadic herdsmen used to graze cattle and camel caravans loaded with bales of Chinese silk and other goods used to traverse the land.

TashkentTashkent welcomes tourists with the radiance of its lights and never-ceasing noise of its traffic. The capital of Uzbekistan, which has recently celebrated its 2200th anniversary, is a modern megapolis whose population reaches 3 million. The city combines European and Asian aspects. Side by side with modern buildings shining with its mirror-like glass windows, one can see domes and portals of medieval monuments. In Khasret Imam square there stands a complex of monuments built within several centuries. Scientists believe that in early Middle Ages this was the centre of the city known as Shash. The complex of historical buildings started to develop around the mazar of the first imam and preacher of Islam - Kaffal-ash-Shashi, who died in 976. Traditionally, the burial place of an imam is a shrine venerated by followers of Islam. Another monument that fits well into modern site development is Kukeldash madrassah built in the 16th century. Close to the madrassah lies the region's biggest and most ancient bazaar named Chorsu. More than two thousand years ago on this territory which was located on the junction of nomadic and settled tribes habitation, there developed a peculiar market place where local farmers exchanged their products for the goods delivered by nomads and visiting merchants. A number of trade trails of the Great Silk Road crossed this place. Thus it was not accidentally that the market got the name 'Chorsu' which means 'crossroad'.

All along the railway from Tashkent to Samarkand the fruit gardens alternate with cotton plantations and wheat fields; here and there the water surface of irrigation canals comes into view. The train runs fast over the bridge across the great Central Asian river Syr Darya. It is hard to believe that these lands used to be inhospitable terrain called "Hunger steppe". On reaching the territory of Samarkand Province the train runs between the steep slopes of the Nurata mountains and then along the canyon of the Sanzar river through so called Amir Temur Gates. The popular legend says that Amir Temur, the ruler of Movarounnahr, with his sword cut through the mountains opening the passage for his army. On the rocks towering the railway one can see two Arabic inscriptions made in the 15th and 16th centuries. The inscriptions tell about the victorious military campaigns of Amir Temur descendants.

But Amir Temur Gates served not only military purposes. The passage was also part of one of the major trails of the Great Silk Road that connected Samarkand with Tashkent oasis and the Ferghana Valley which actually opened the way to Xinjiang and China. For centuries the caravans of traders, migrants, travelers and pilgrims used to tread along the canyon.

Samarkand - RegistanSamarkand was rightfully given the title 'The heart of the Great Silk Road'.
The city which boasts a history spanning over 2500 years, witnessed the warriors of Alexander the Great, Arabic horsemen of Ibn Kuteiba; it was ruined by the hordes of Genghiz khan and was restored and became the brilliant capital of empire built by Amir Temur called 'The Lord of the world'. Here the unique constructions of medieval architects come into tourists' view in all their imperishable splendour. The burial vaults of ancient Shakhi-Zinda necropolis, the ribbed turquoise dome of Gur-Emir mausoleum – the tomb of Amir Temur, the legendary Bibi-khanum mosque and colossal quadrant of Ulugbek's observatory, the world-known Registan square - all there constructions of the Temurids arouse in visitors an unforgettable impression.

The biggest part of the rail route from Samarkand to Bukhara lies through the sands of the Kyzyl Kum desert. In ancient times the wells were the desert landmarks for the caravans. Today the train speeds through the desert in several hours.

Bukhara - ArkOne of the world's most ancient cities, Bukhara, attracts tourists from all over the world with its unique architectural monuments. The oldest of them is Samanids' mausoleum, which was constructed at the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries, and Kalyan minaret built in early 12th century. These and numerous 16th-century buildings that have remained intact up to the present day, among them Mir-Arab and Kukeldash madrassahs, Kalyan mosque, trade domes, shape the cityscape of the old part of Bukhara. The city, which in the past got the honourable title of 'The Dome of Faith", in the Middle Ages was the holy city for all the Moslems of Central Asia.

The foothills of the Nurata and Zerafshan mountain ridges flank on either side of the railroad laid along the Zerafshan riverbed. Soon the train runs far into the Kyzyl Kum desert. The orderly chain of meridianally oriented, reddish sand dunes resembles a sea surface with strictly parallel wave crests. The Kyzyl Kum desert depths hide a real natural wealth - gas gold, uranium ore.

Having left behind a small town Uchkuduk, the train heads for the Amu Darya valley, where in prehistoric times there appeared the civilization called Ancient Khorezm. Archeologists found here cities and settlements, Zoroaster temples and fortresses buried under the sand dunes. Khorezm oasis is the cradle of Zoroastrianism – the world's most ancient monotheistic religion. It was here that Zoroaster preached his doctrines and "Avesta" first hymns were written.

In the vicinity of Miskin railway station the train crosses the Amu Darya over the new Central Asian biggest bridge, and soon arrives to the railway station of Urgench – the centre of Khorezm Province. Khiva, a city-museum, is located within 30 kilometres from Urgench and tourists are taken there by bus.

KhivaThough the age of Khiva, 'the city on the edge of the desert', exceeds 25 centuries, its modern image developed from the 18th through mid – 20th centuries. The core of the inner city – Ichan-kala was enclosed by outer fortification walls. Being located on one of the major crossroads of the Great Silk Road trails, Khiva had four monumental gates oriented to four parts of the world. From the top of fortification wall there opens up a fantastic panorama of Khiva – the city from an oriental fairy tale. The first thin that arrests your attention is a line of minarets rising up into the sky, and among them Islam-Hojja minaret - the tallest tower in Uzbekistan. The domes of mausoleums and mosques glittering in the sun with their blue tiles tower above the flat roofs of residential dwelling houses. In Khiva several palaces remained intact to the present day. Among them is Tash-Hauli palace – a huge complex comprising ceremonial palace halls, khan's private chambers, residential premises for khan's wives and concubines. The façade and the walls of the palace are decorated with majolica and mosaics representing splendid carpet patterns.

Train journey "The Silk Road from the train window", with its unusual spectacular landscapes unfolding past the windows, will be forever etched in travellers' hearts and minds; it gives a unique opportunity to immerse in fascinating history and culture of Uzbekistan's most alluring ancient cities and to explore their glorious monuments. And binding travel adventure and relaxing comfort of train carriages tourists can judge for themselves that railroad is the pivot of the great Silk Road revival.

Related links: Rail Journey along the Great Silk Road | Uzbekistan Railways