Severtzov’s Tit Warbler is a prize on the Central Asia tour Photo: Steve Rooke
The Silk Road, Samarkand, and Bukhara are names that conjure up images of fierce Mongol hordes storming out of the east and of dusty camel trains and crowded bazaars where exotic jewels and oriental spices were traded by travelers from far-off lands. Stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Tien Shan Mountains, the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are indeed richly endowed with history and culture, which we’ll sample as we go.
The varied traditions and customs of this fascinating region are matched by a wide variety of habitats. We’ll follow the Silk Road, an ancient route that leads to the drifting sand dunes of the Kyzyl-Kum Desert, where we’ll look for Pander’s Ground Jay, one of the region’s really special birds, before taking the “Golden Road to Samarkand.” As we travel this time-worn trading route, we’ll find ourselves surrounded by the enormous skies and wormwood-scented breezes of the northern Kazak steppes, alive with White-winged and Black Larks, and we’ll seek out primeval woodlands where Yellow-eyed Stock Doves and Saxaul Sparrows still breed. Then, turning south, we’ll reach the dramatic splendor of the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains, awash with wildflowers and home to Himalayan Snowcock and Güldenstadt’s Redstart.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, arriving in the early morning of Day 2.
Day 2: After arrival we’ll drive into the nearby mountains. The lower slopes are drenched in juniper trees that are home to Hume’s Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow-breasted and Rufous-naped Tits, and White-capped and Rock Buntings. Red-rumped Swallows nest under the balconies of the local buildings while overhead we can expect Eurasian and possibly Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagle, Oriental and European Honey Buzzards, and Hobby. The songs of Nightingales and Blyth’s Reed Warblers are everywhere, and this can be a good place for migrants, with anything from Waxwing to Hawfinch possible. Later we’ll drop down to lower altitudes, pausing at a stream to look for Blue Whistling Thrush before returning to Tashkent to catch an evening flight to Bukhara. Night in Bukhara.
Day 3: This morning we’ll visit the wetlands that surround this old oasis town. Here we’ll explore reedbeds that are home to Clamorous and Moustached Warblers as well as the Caspian race of Reed Warbler, Bearded Tit, and the local “Thick-billed” race of Reed Bunting. Smart Citrine and Black-headed Wagtails and Bluethroats add splashes of color while White-tailed Plovers in breeding plumage and Kentish Plovers are common. Marbled Duck and Caspian Gulls can usually be found, and we’ll look out for flights of Glossy Ibis or Pygmy Cormorants. We’ll see the first of many Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Pied Bushchats, and there is always the chance of a Purple Heron, Collared Pratincole, or Oriental Skylark. We’ll return to Bukhara to spend the remainder of the afternoon immersing ourselves in the splendor of the historic old town. We’ll visit the Ark, where Stoddart and Connolly met their famous demise in 1842; the Kalen Minaret, one of the few buildings left standing after the visit of Genghis Khan; the trading domes where ancient caravanserai would ply their trade; and many other sights. There will be time to haggle over the price of a Bukharan rug, buy spices, or pause for a cold drink at Labi Hauz, the social heart of the old town, surrounded by stunning buildings and mulberry trees that were planted in the 15th century. Night in Bukhara.
Day 4: In contrast to yesterday’s rich wetlands, we’ll venture deep into the dry Kyzyl-Kum Desert to search for the handsome Pander’s Ground Jay, one of Central Asia’s exceptional birds. These striking gray, black, and white birds spend much of their time running over sand dunes dotted with saxaul bushes, occasionally flying up to perch in a prominent position. We can also expect the local desert race of Little Owl, Stone Curlew, lots more Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Steppe Grey Shrike, Isabelline Wheatear, and Streaked Scrub Warbler, while any small stand of trees can hold migrants, from flocks of Rose-colored Starlings and Golden Orioles to Thrush Nightingales and Ortolan Buntings. Our guest house is located right in the heart of the old town, and there will be time for more sightseeing after we return. Night in Bukhara.
Day 5: We’ll explore a mix of dry scrub, reed-fringed pools, and open desert steppe where we’ll be looking for Sykes’s Warbler, Rufous Bush Robin, and a few pairs of the shy Ménétries’s Warbler. The roadside wires are a good place to see Oriental and European Turtle Doves and Long-tailed Shrikes, while any pool can hold flocks of Red-crested Pochards or migrant Red-necked Phalaropes. We’ll return to Bukhara for lunch and then begin our journey along the Silk Road to the fabled city of Samarkand. Night in Samarkand.
Day 6: South of Samarkand lies a range of low hills where we’ll stroll along a delightful valley alive with Red-headed Buntings. White-throated Robins and Eastern Orphean and Upcher’s Warblers breed among the bushes, and Hume’s Short-toed Larks feed among the rocky outcrops. Isabelline and Lesser Grey Shrikes and Eastern Rock Nuthatch also breed, along with a few pairs of European Bee-eaters, and we hope to encounter a striking Asian Paradise Flycatcher or a Finsch’s Wheatear.
Those interested in plants or butterflies will find much to occupy them, as this sun-drenched spot is alive with insects and flowers, while in the distance we can see the snow-capped Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. We’ll return to town in the late afternoon in time to visit the stunning Registan, a beautiful assembly of turquoise-blue domes and towering minarets and one of the most famous sites in Central Asia. Night in Samarkand.
Day 7: We’ll begin with a stop at some pools to see Shikra, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Turkestan Tit, and White-crowned Penduline Tit, among others. We’ll then spend time visiting more of Samarkand’s treasures, including the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Tamerlane, whose vast empire had its center in Samarkand; the massive Bibi Khanum mosque (once the largest in Central Asia); and the amazing Shahr-i-Zindar, the street of tombs that is a riot of colored tiles. After lunch we’ll begin the drive to Tashkent, stopping along the way to look at Pied and Variable Wheatears, a bizarre colony of White Storks nesting on power pylons, and a wetland with breeding Pygmy Cormorants. Night in Tashkent.
Day 8: We’ll fly straight to Astana, the bustling and vibrant new capital of Kazakhstan, located in the heart of the vast Asian steppe, the sea of grass that once stretched all the way to eastern Europe. Leaving the airport, we’ll visit a small river to look for singing Pine Buntings, Bluethroats, and Barred and monotone Booted Warblers. Night in Astana.
Days 9–10: We’ll have two days to explore the rich steppe habitat and all that it has to offer. The extensive grassland is peppered with wetlands alive with clouds of Black and White-winged Black Terns and displaying Marsh Sandpipers, while Great Bitterns creep around the reedbeds. We’ll visit a lake that holds Slavonian, Black-necked, and Red-necked Grebes and endangered White-headed Ducks as well as a good selection of passage waders, and we’ll stop at a small orchard that can be an amazing place for migrant passerines.
Farther out we’ll enter the ancient steppe with its vast grasslands and lakes of fresh and salt water where birdsong will fill the air and the sense of space will be exhilarating. We’ll search the grasslands for Dalmatian Pelican, Pallid Harrier, Red-footed Falcon, Demoiselle Crane, Great Black-headed, “Steppe,” and Slender-billed Gulls, a range of waders including breeding Black-winged Pratincoles, the rare Sociable Plover, hordes of migrant Red-necked Phalaropes, and handsome Ruffs in full breeding plumage. Passerines should include Citrine Wagtail and two splendid larks—White-winged and Black—steppe birds par excellence. After a last full day in the steppe we’ll fly back to Almaty. Night of Day 9 in Astana; night of Day 10 in Almaty.
Day 11: Leaving early, we’ll drive north into the wild heart of Kazakhstan to spend two nights camping in the Taukum Desert, a vast area of undulating hills and wormwood-scented grasslands. On the way we’ll stop at a large lake where we’ll witness the bustle of a huge Rose-colored Starling colony and look for more White-headed Ducks as well as any unusual migrant waders such as Terek Sandpiper or Lesser Sandplover. Night in desert camp, where each single or couple will have their own good-sized tent.
Day 12: Our camp is located near an artesian well that acts as a magnet for local breeding birds as well as numerous migrants. There is a constant stream of larks coming to drink—Calandra and Bimaculated are the most obvious, but Greater and Lesser Short-toed are also frequent visitors. Other birds we can expect include flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse and, if it’s a “good year,” a few Pallas’s Sandgrouse or some of the scarce resident Greater Sand Plovers or handsome Caspian Plovers in full breeding plumage. This open desert is also home to Macqueen’s Bustard, and we stand a good chance of finding a displaying male.
Farther north lies the delta of the Ili River, a strange area of sand dunes interspersed with marshy pools and stands of turanga trees. Some of the region’s special birds are found here: Yellow-eyed Stock Dove, White-winged Woodpecker, Azure and Turkestan Tits, and the beautiful Saxaul Sparrow are all easy to see, and careful searching may reveal a roosting Striated Scops Owl. The reedbeds are home to Little Bittern, Paddyfield Warbler, and some interesting races of Penduline Tit, while the wetlands can hold anything from massive Dalmatian and even Great White Pelicans to dapper Ferruginous Ducks. Later we’ll return to the camp and visit a small farm whose trees and pools attract dazzling arrays of migrants that can include anything from Oriental Turtle Dove and Barred and Blyth’s Reed Warblers to Black-throated Thrush or perhaps a Little Crake or European Nightjar. Night in our desert camp.
Day 13: After a final morning around the camp we’ll return to Almaty, stopping along the way at the same lake we visited two days ago to see if there are any newly arrived migrant waders. As we drive, Long-legged Buzzards will be a common roadside sight, and if the rains have been good, there will be vast expanses of poppies stretching to the horizon. When we reach Almaty, we’ll check in to our hotel and take some time to freshen up after our two nights under canvas. Night in Almaty.
Day 14: The snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to the city of Almaty. Today we’ll travel east, following the line of these mountains toward China, watching for Rollers and Lesser Grey Shrikes lining the roadside wires as we go. We’ll start early and go directly to an area that is traditionally the best place to see that most elusive of Central Asian birds, Pallas’s Sandgrouse. We’ll wait by a small drinking pool in the hope of catching sight of this nomadic species. We are bound to see its more common cousin, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but Pallas’s cannot be relied on to appear because their numbers vary from year to year. This is good Saker country, and we’ll be alert for it as well as Desert Wheatear, the smart Desert Finch, Spanish Sparrow, and Pale Martin. We’ll eat our picnic lunch alongside a vast reedbed where the reeling calls of Savi’s Warblers emanate from the reed tops. Later we’ll check in to a comfortable lodge near the tiny town of Konshengel, and after dinner we’ll search the grounds for the Scops Owl that should be calling constantly. Night at the lodge.
Day 15: The scenery in this part of Kazakhstan is truly inspiring: seemingly endless desert plains backed by low hills, dramatic gorges, and distant snow-capped mountains. The open plains are home to Demoiselle Cranes, Lesser Kestrels, Shore Larks, and Desert Warblers, while among the low hills and gorges we’ll search for Rock Sparrow and Meadow Bunting, and any small spring could be visited by Mongolian and Asian Crimson-winged Finches and Grey-necked Bunting. Raptors could include the mighty Golden, Imperial, and Steppe Eagles, and on a high pass we hope to see Himalayan Griffon Vultures gliding overhead, along with Black Vultures and perhaps a Lammergeier. Night at the lodge.
Days 16–17: We’ll retrace our steps toward Almaty, once again following the line of the Zailiysky Alatau range of the Tien Shan Mountains. Passing through the city, we’ll climb steadily through pristine spruce forests. We’ll pause at a lake located in a scenic deep valley and scan the stony shoreline for Ibisbills, which regularly nest here, although our attention will undoubtedly be drawn to the tinkling song and striking plumage of numerous Red-fronted Serins.
Once we rise above the tree line, we’ll find ourselves in a crystal-clear landscape of dense juniper bushes, flower-strewn alpine meadows, and snow-capped peaks. We’ll be staying in the Almaty Astronomical Observatory, and after lunch we’ll spend the rest of the day exploring the nearby habitats. The juniper will be alive with the song of Himalayan Rubythroat, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Black-throated Accentor, Red-mantled and Common Rosefinches, and White-winged Grosbeak. The beautifully marked Severtzov’s Tit-Warbler can also be found in this habitat, along with the skulking Sulphur-bellied Warbler. If we have a clear night, the observatory staff will open up one of the large telescopes to allow us to view the stars.
On our second day we’ll leave early to drive higher to a mountain pass where handsome Güldenstadt’s Redstarts nest and both Red-billed and Alpine Choughs wheel overhead. We’ll also be looking for the Altai and Brown Accentors that inhabit this mountain wilderness, along with Plain Mountain Finch and Water Pipit. We’ll have heard the eerie calls of Himalayan Snowcock echoing around the lofty peaks, and at this altitude we should be able to look down on some calling males. Nights in the observatory.
Day 18: We’ll return to Almaty, taking most of the day to wander down through the dense spruce forest, where we should find Nutcracker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Songar Tit, and Eversmann’s and Blue-capped Redstarts, while the numerous mountain streams are home to Blue Whistling Thrush and both Brown and White-bellied Dippers. Night in Almaty.
Day 19: We take an early morning flight from Almaty back to London, arriving later the same day.
Updated: 13 June 2013
- 2014 Tour Price Not Yet Available
- (2013 Tour Price $6,800)
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
* This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Please review the explanation of our Sunbird pricing here.
This tour is limited to 14 participants with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the tour regardless of group size.
Participants who prefer to meet the group in Uzbekistan should contact the WINGS office. Note that is also possible to join and leave the group in Istanbul as the Turkish Airlines flights used by Sunbird from London to Tashkent and from Almaty back to London stop there.