Featured image by Teo Romera via Flickr
When the end of a year approaches, wanderlusters everywhere await with bated breath the annual avalanche of top travel destinations that are sure to trend in the coming year. Lonely Planet’s entry, their Best in Travel list, is a highly anticipated roundup of unique experiences with wow factor and is decided upon by some of the travel authority’s top experts. Clocking in at number one on their list of must-visit regions is the Central Asian Silk Road, and we couldn’t agree more. In fact, we are thrilled to announce we will be exploring in 2020 on one of our newest expert-led, small group adventures, A Gastronomic Tour Through Central Asia with Anissa Helou. For any travelers with a passion for sumptuous foods, rich cultures, breathtaking architecture, and a sense of adventure, this journey spanning from the far western reaches of China to the alpine pastures of Kyrgyzstan and bustling bazaars of Uzbekistan could be just what your senses have been craving.
Introducing The Expert: Anissa Helou
Anissa Helou is a renowned chef, cookbook author, and teacher specializing in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. Born in Beirut to a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, she left her home at the age of 21 to study interior design in London and to escape her homeland’s rigid social norms. After honing her artistic eye, she nabbed a role as Sotheby’s Middle Eastern representative, then by turns owning and curating her own antique shop in Paris and advising the Kuwaiti ruling family on their burgeoning collection of Islamic art. Her influence has even landed her on Arabian Business magazine’s lists of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women and 500 Most Influential Arabs. Throughout it all, one of Anissa’s passions has been food, using the fusion of both Eastern and Western flavors and cultures to inspire her cooking. Over the course of her life, she has published nine acclaimed cookbooks on everything from Mediterranean Street Food to Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East. Her most recent work, Feast: Food of the Islamic World, was named one of the most anticipated cookbooks of 2018 by Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and Epicurious and was crowned as a James Beard Foundation International Cookbook Award winner. A culinary, cultural, and architectural expert when it comes to this fascinating corner of the world, Anissa is the ideal guide for your gastronomic odyssey into the kitchens and markets of Xinjiang and Central Asia.
Anissa Helou | Image by The National
RELATED READING: ‘The vast World of Islam, in 300 Recipes‘ on Feast: Food of the Islamic World by The New York Times
What You’ll Savor: Journey Rundown
Your Central Asian Silk Road adventure begins in Kashgar, a bustling market city nestled in China’s far western province of Xinjiang. With a rich, illustrious heritage that stretches back to the days of the Silk Road, Kashgar is closer to Tehran and Damascus than Beijing, both geographically and culturally speaking. There, with spices wafting on the breeze, you’ll explore the cacophony of sounds and colors that is the city’s Grand Bazaar and wander past the glazed tiles and pointed archways of the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum and Id Kah Mosque before turning in for the night.
The next day, you’ll rise with the sun and make way for Kyrgyzstan. After crossing the border, you’ll stop for the night in Tash Rabat. Set against a backdrop of rocky outcrops, this caravanserai, or roadside inn, once played a role along the ancient Silk Road. After hiking through the nearby mountains and mingling with some local nomads, you’ll spend the night under the stars in a traditional yurt. Following your nomadic experience, you’ll continue on in your journey toward the shores of the cerulean blue Song Kul Lake, passing rolling hills and lush valleys along the way as you follow the serpentine Moldo-Ashuu Pass. Upon your arrival, you’ll see how the locals prepare their noodles before trying your hand at making traditional Kyrgyz kebab. Filled to the brim with local favorites, you’ll rest your head for the evening in an area homestay.
Yurt camp in Kyrgyzstan | Image by Mei Zhang
After greeting the day, you’ll hop in the car for a morning drive to Chong Kemin National Park. Along the way, you’ll stop for a cooking demonstration and lunch with a Kyrgyz family, perhaps dining on regional delicacies like oromo or besh barmak. Before turning in for the night, you’ll enjoy the Kyrgyz version of dinner and a show as you dine with an area family and are serenaded with a performance of traditional music. In the morning, your journey west continues as you make tracks for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and your final stop in the country before heading toward Uzbekistan. Before catching your evening flight to Tashkent, you’ll stop to admire the ancient minaret of the Burana Tower – backdropped by distant mountains – and try your hand at making dymdama, a traditional Kyrgyz stew, with a local family.
Day seven brings a new country just waiting to be discovered. Tashkent is a city of contradictions, one part modern metropolis and one part traditional town where farmers still ferry their bazaar wares by cart. After fueling up for the day on a smattering of breads in a local market, you’ll set out to explore the cities landmarks. From stopping to marvel at jeweled mosques and observing craftsmen at work to bargaining for souvenirs in the market and watching a local host make delicious plov (or rice pilaf), it’s an adventure-filled day overflowing with glimpses into daily Uzbek life.
Making bread in Kashgar | Image by Mei Zhang
After a scenic drive through the Uzbekistan countryside along the route of the ancient Silk Road, you’ll arrive in Samarkand. With its soaring porticoes, glittering mosaics, and storied history, its a Central Asian jewel. Rich in Islamic architecture, you’ll spend the day gazing in awe at its collection of mausoleums and monuments (and likely scheming about when you can return to explore even more in the future). Before calling it a night, you’ll roll up your sleeves during a cooking class with a local chef in their own home, learning how to craft the perfect qozon kabob.
In the morning, you’ll jump on a train to the final city in your journey: Bukhara. These last few days will likely be a beautiful, delicious blur – filled with traditional tea ceremonies and cooking demonstrations with local families, playing dress-up at the National Costume Exhibit in the former home of an influential merchant, and wandering past towering minarets that sparkle in the sun. Filled with food, fun, and plenty of memories, you’ll head for home, daydreaming of spices, bazaars, and the warm people you met along the way.
Mausoleum Amir Timur at night in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Image by j via Flickr
As the itinerary has been carefully curated by Anissa herself, we couldn’t help but ask her what makes the region – and journey – so extraordinary. For her, there’s nothing greater than participating in the local traditions and way of life, especially since “we’ll be visiting as insiders before things become too modernized and developed.” More specifically, Uzbekistan is always a highlight, particularly “cooking noodles and bread with the local people.” After traversing this still largely untouched corner of the globe, mingling with the locals, and seeing through the eyes of an expert like Anissa, you are sure to return home having fallen in love, daydreaming of your next plate of kebab.
A Gastronomic Tour Through Central Asia with Anissa Helou departs Saturday, June 6, 2020. If this you’re ready to immerse yourself in the rich, colorful cuisines, cultures, customs, and architecture of the Central Asian Silk Road, please reach out to learn how you can join this exciting, new expert-led small group tour. We can’t wait to see you along the far western reaches of the Silk Road.
Download the brochure to share with your friends here.