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Uzbekistan: Aral Sea / Karakalpakstan Tour Companies

Friends and I will be traveling to Uzbekistan as a group of 4 in April of 2020. We are planning to do an Aral Sea / Karakalpakstan tour. Ayimtour seems like a great company, but there are some constraints that concern me. I am wondering if they are unfounded and/or if there are other companies without those constraints.

The issues are the size of the off-road vehicle and the fact that the drivers are not guides. If you want a guide along, 2 seats are occupied by them, apparently only leaving room for 3 passengers. So, they are telling us that we either need to hire another car ($500 for a 3-day/2-night tour) and split the group, with one car having the guide and 2 passengers and the other car 2 passengers without a guide. If we go without a guide, they offered to have us meet with a guide either before or after the trip. Since I told them that we can't afford another $500 for a second car, they offered to try to find 2-3 people to share the guide/car expenses, which is a nice offer. But, this would still mean that one car has no guide, and we would be traveling with strangers (which could be great or not).

From my experience, the difference between having a guide and not is a huge factor in the enjoyment and appreciation of exploring, especially since much of what we will see is desert wasteland, ruins, etc, which will not be self-explanatory. Another concern (and this is probably considered by many to be overly picky, but I'll say it anyway) is having 3 people sharing the back seat. I always prefer to hire a vehicle that has enough seats so nobody is in a middle seat. I am surprised that Ayimtour doesn't have larger SUVs, with 3 rows of seats, which would accommodate driver, guide, and 4 passengers, all without anybody in a center seat.

We are also going to do the Five Khorezm Fortresses tour (on the way from Nukus to Khiva) with them, and they suggested a minivan for that ride, which will accomplish everything. But, a minivan won't work in the Aral Sea terrain.

With all that said, does anyone know of an excellent tour company with larger vehicles and/or where the drivers are also guides. (I get that not all drivers can be guides, but I don't understand why at least some guides can't also drive.)

Any comments or input? Thanks!

Posted by
6542 posts

I never thought of Uzbekistan as being a tourist destination.
My best friend spent a couple of years there working as comptroller at a factory jointly owned with a large European industrial company. His experiences there were not very positive, especially from the hoops they had to jump through to get along with a totalitarian government. My buddy's gladly back living in Lugano now.

Posted by
3175 posts

For what this is worth, we had kind-of the opposite situation in Iceland 4 years ago. It was April, not their busiest time of year, and the company we hired usually guides groups of at least 4 to 6 to 8, in a larger vehicle. There were just 2 of us, and the guide was also the driver, so the company arranged to get a smaller VW just for our tour, probably to save them on fuel as much as anything. With just 3 in our whole touring party, that worked great.

Maybe the Uzbekistani company doesn’t have the resources to provide or procure a big, 3-row SUV, or even a van. And it sounds like their drivers don’t guide, and their guides don’t drive. Is language a part of that, I wonder? But if there aren’t bigger vehicle options, and IF they can find other willing customers to make it a 2-vehicle caravan and split the costs, then at least you can keep the tour affordable. The other people might not be your best-friends-for-life, but if they’re like-minded travelers you’ll at least have that in common, and it shouldn’t make for too much of a conflict. And if sharing a guide between 2 vehicles, maybe people can switch back and forth throughout the tour, so sometimes you’re in the truck with the guide, and sometimes others are in the guide’s truck. Hope you can find other folks to join you in your excursion to share the costs, or can find a guiding company that will better meet your desires.

Posted by
187 posts

David - I took a tour through Uzbekistan, sponsored by my college alumni association, and it was a truly amazing experience. I'm sure that things would be different for someone like your friend who was working/living under their authoritarian government. But as a tourist I found every day's sights to be more spectacular than the next. The country was a crossroads for many cultures traveling the Silk Road. You see influences from all over the world - India, Persia, Russia, eastern and western Europe, even Korea. The architecture, the history, the music, the art, the friendly people - wonderful.

Leslie - Our tour did not go to the Aral Sea so I can't comment directly about that trip. However, our tour was arranged through a company that is very experienced in this area of the world and the tour leader was excellent. That company is Mir Corporation. They are based out of Seattle in the US and their website is https://www.mircorp.com/ I don't know if they do short trips like you are planning, but, if not, they might be able to give you some ideas about guides and organizations that do.

I can see the attraction of going to the Aral Sea, as it is an example of a real, man-made environmental disaster. But I have heard mixed things about whether it is worth the time, money and effort to get near what is left of it. You will see plenty of "desert wasteland and ruins" as you travel overland in Uzbekistan elsewhere. Although we didn't visit it directly, our various tour guides often talked about it, what caused it drying out, what the current government is doing to try to reverse its demise and so on. I remember also seeing a museum exhibit about it - not sure where (Khiva? Bukhara?) It is a big part of the story of modern Uzbekistan and its challenges. But I didn't feel that I missed out by not getting closer (we did go as far as Nukus and the Savitsky Museum). There was so much else to see in the country.

Whatever you decide, you will have an amazing time in Uzbekistan. This was a trip that really stuck with me when I returned. I found myself thinking about it on a daily basis for months after I returned.

Posted by
636 posts

David – “I never thought of Uzbekistan as being a tourist destination.” This has huge appeal for us. And I think that this is going to change. So, we are excited to go before it is overrun by tourists.

Cyn – Thanks for the information. We have decided to go with the guide. Otherwise, we will be in situations for 3 days, always regretting not spending the extra money for a guide to actually explain what we are seeing. Apparently, they don’t have the larger off-road vehicles, and vans are not suitable for the off-road terrain. From my understanding, part of the issue is that both drivers and guides have to be licensed, and drivers don’t speak English. We have also decided against taking on extra passengers, as we will enjoy not having 3 crammed in the back seat, especially when we will all want to be getting great views of the scenery.

Renee – Thank you so much for your impressions of your trip to Uzbekistan and also for your pointer to Mir Corporation. I will check them out, just in case they can provide something different. The Aral Sea tour sounds spectacular to all of us, so we are going to do it. 3 days of exploring Karakalpakstan, including the Aral Sea, 2 nights in a yurt, etc. We are excited. We have 17 nights/16 full days in the country, so we have the time.

Thank you to all of you for your thoughtful responses!

Leslie

Posted by
3175 posts

Glad you found a suitable solution Leslie H. So your group of 4 will have 2 vehicles, each with its own driver and guide, plus extra elbow room in the 4x4?

Your guides are an investment in everyone’s full enjoyment, and as you said, will mean you won’t regret, thinking somebody’s missing out. Enjoy your trip “ahead of the curve,” and hope it’s an awesome trip!

Posted by
636 posts

Cyn - We will just have 1 guide to share between the 2 cars, which should be fine. We will need the guide the most when we are at the various stops, at which point we will all be together.

Thanks again for the input.

Leslie

Posted by
187 posts

Sounds like it will be quite the adventure! The extra $500 will be well worth it. Not that much when you consider how expensive the whole trip is.

Posted by
636 posts

Renee - We are really excited about it. Thanks for help coming to terms with the extra charge. As you said, the extra $125/person is peanuts in the larger context.

Thanks again.

Leslie

Posted by
3175 posts

Have a great trip! Dividing the cost among all of you makes the cost per person not a whole lot ... but I wonder if it’s probably a big payday for the guide, whose life will be made a bit better from guiding your group (and getting paid)?

Posted by
636 posts

Cyn - Yes, I agree. It will definitely be helpful to the guide, which is great.

Posted by
24 posts

Just to add my 2 cents to recommend Uzbekistan - it is drop-dead gorgeous and the people are friendly and eager to try their English. We were there in 2014 travelling from Islamabad through the Skardu valley and Gilgit, Pakistan through Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan - the old Silk Road. The whole trip was amazing, but Khiva, Samarkand, Bhukara really stand out as historically fascinating and culturally rich. Check out Wendy Perrin's recent trip there with her family - she runs a travel website and arranges trips through various travel experts. You're in for a treat.