Kazakhstan & Uzbekistan: Apr 24—May 16, 2019
Birding the Silk Road of Central Asia
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An exciting and special journey into the heart of Central Asia’s vast and unspoilt landscapes of steppe, desert, and mountains. Encounter a whole suite of birds found nowhere else, and combine it with the most exquisitely ornate and exotic historical sites of the Silk Road—a winning and spectacular combination.
We start our exploration of Central Asia with a visit to a major player in the Silk Road history, Uzbekistan, a rich region of ancient cities and cultures based along the Great Silk Route to China, the crossroads between east and west. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Attila the Hun all passed through, fought, or lived here. We visit the historically important cities of Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarqand, the latter being the capital of the great Timurud empire. This Persianate Turco-Mongol empire had its ruling origins in modern day Uzbekistan and was a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. We will admire the many madrasas, mosques, and large minarets for most of our stay in the country. The fact that the entire city center of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site proves the importance of these special places. Along with the impressive cultural sites, we do our best to bring you all the special birds of the country including the Pander’s Ground-Jay, Finsch’s Wheatear, Rufous-naped Tit, and the gorgeous Yellow-breasted Tit.
After Uzbekistan we fly to Kazakhstan, a huge country with a tiny population in the heart of Central Asia—a mix of Siberia, Mongolia, the Middle East, and China. Such a remote, pivotal location has an array of birds never previously offered on a VENT tour, and difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. We drive across vast expanses of steppe grasslands merging into semi-desert, dotted with saline and freshwater lakes—unending, subtly changing, inspiring vistas. This is the stronghold to globally-threatened Sociable Lapwings in landscapes peppered with Pallid Harriers, Long-legged Buzzards, Saker Falcons, flocks of Lesser Kestrels and Red-footed Falcons, nesting Demoiselle Cranes, and bizarre aerial displays from uncountable Bimaculated, Black, and White-winged larks.
On pristine marshlands are unbelievable numbers of dapper White-winged Terns, Black-winged Pratincoles, and Citrine Wagtails, and breeding colonies of Great Black-headed, Slender-billed, and Steppe gulls. Nesting Whooper Swans mix with Ruddy Shelducks, Pygmy Cormorants, Dalmatian Pelicans, and White-headed Ducks. Wonderful sunrises at semi-desert oases can produce Pallas’s Sandgrouse; displaying Macqueen’s Bustards; singing Pied, Desert, and Isabelline wheatears; and brilliant Red-headed Buntings. Unique, scrubby Saxaul forest in the stony steppe produces further specialties: Saxaul Sparrow; Pale-backed Pigeon; White-winged Woodpecker; Rufous-tailed Shrikes on every bush, and maybe Pallid Scops-Owl; Turkestan Tit; Asian Desert, Sykes’s, and Booted warblers; and gorgeous pink and gray Desert and Mongolian finches. Deep ravines of red, umber, and yellow are home to Oriental Turtle-Doves; Gray-hooded, Pine, and Chestnut-breasted buntings; Himalayan Griffons; Cinereous Vultures; Steppe Eagles; and nest sites to myriads of nomadic, gaudy pink, and shiny black Rosy Starlings.
In sharp contrast, the Tien Shan Mountains, edging onto China, rise above 20,000 feet and beckon us. Luxuriant mixed forest supports Songar Tit, singing Greenish and Hume’s warblers, and occasional raucous Eurasian Nutcrackers on the treetops. Brown Dippers and Blue Whistling-Thrushes splash in untamed rivers, with White-winged Redstarts flashing brilliant color in adjacent scrub. The mythical Ibisbill breeds in open, braided river valleys. The snow-capped peaks are a dramatic backdrop to flower-rich alpine meadows and juniper scrub. Here, Black-throated and Brown accentors, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Rufous-backed and Blue-capped redstarts, Fire-fronted Serins, Plain Mountain-Finches, Red-mantled Rosefinch, White-winged Grosbeak, and the incomparable White-tailed Rubythroat are all easily found as they proclaim their territories, and the remarkable lilac, purple, and blue White-browed Tit-Warbler lurks. Lammergeiers soar over upper mountain slopes where Himalayan Snowcock strut, making eerie, echoing, wailing calls.
Mostly good hotels; a few nights of well-organized comfortable desert camping and simpler shared accommodation in one location; excellent local guides; some long distances by coach; walking mostly very easy; warm to hot, 2–3 days at altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet.